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The Tycoon's Triplet Baby Surprise

THE TYCOON’S TRIPLET BABY SURPRISE

 

 

 

By Holly Rayner

 

Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.

 

All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table Of Contents:

 

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[ONE
**
Prologue]

 

 

Eighteen-year-old Charlotte stood in her mother’s coat on the chilly Yale campus, her blond hair whizzing around her. It was an early fall day, late September, and her mother and father had dropped her at the campus with nonchalant kisses, telling her she’d “be just fine on her own.”

 

And she was. She always was.

 

She brought her coat closer around her, her eyes tracing the backs of her fellow seniors, each of whom was preparing to apply to go to Yale the following year. They were hopeful, working toward success with bright eyes and a constant air of panic and urgency. It was the way of the elitist academic. Charlotte knew this.

 

A girl she’d befriended earlier in the day leaned toward her. “I think we have just one more speaker,” she said, her voice coming harshly through the fall wind. “And then we should go grab a hot chocolate somewhere. I’m freezing! Can you imagine living here? So far north? It’s not anything like my home in Texas.” She gave a grimace.

 

“I think I can withstand the cold,” Charlotte said, laughing. “I just want to get accepted.”

 

“Oh, you will. You have that look about you,” the girl said, giving her a once-over.

 

Charlotte shivered, oddly nervous. She knew she was rather pretty, with long blond hair and a slender build, but she so often forgot this about herself—transplanting this image with one of her in the future, parading through the many entrapments of pre-law and then law school, on the road to success.

 

The crowd around her began to break out in applause, and Charlotte lifted herself on her toes, aching to see the final speaker. She could just barely catch the top of a dark head, tilted down as he marched across the stage and toward the podium. Surprised at herself, Charlotte snuck her elbow, then her shoulder, then her entire upper body between the snuggled high school seniors in front of her, finally catching full view of the dark-headed, confident, and alarmingly handsome man at the podium. He pushed his finger up the bridge of his nose, forcing his sunglasses back to his eyes.

 

He cleared his throat into the microphone, clearly unaccustomed to addressing large groups of people. As she looked at him, something within Charlotte sparked. Her ears strained at attention, her feet wobbled as she remained on her tiptoes, keeping her tall to maintain her view.

 

“Good afternoon,” the man began. He searched over the sea of heads, as if he were looking for something. It almost seemed that he made intimate, highlighted eye contact with Charlotte, but as he swiftly moved on, she sensed she was only daydreaming.

 

“Let me introduce myself, for those of you who don’t already know my name. Don’t be alarmed; most people at Yale don’t know my name, either… Anyway. Yes. Introduction.” He fluffed his hands through his dark, curly hair. “I’m Sean Lawson, and I’m from a small town in the Midwest. Growing up, I had almost nothing, just a skateboard and an affinity for computers. Which, naturally, led me to the tech world. Like many of you, I saw my future at Yale. And when I got my dream… well. I knew I wanted to do anything in my power to succeed.

 

“I’ve been chosen to speak to you this afternoon because I have a plan for a startup company, called InvestMe.”

 

Sean allowed the words to hang in the air. InvestMe. Some of the students began to pass the word around, eyeing each other. Was this a part of the Yale rhetoric? Should they be taking notes? Was someone going to send them a PowerPoint?

 

“InvestMe is something I’ve been working on for nearly two and a half years, first out of my dorm room, then the tiny college apartment I rented with my now ex-girlfriend and our cat. It’s just me and the cat, now.”

 

The audience began to laugh again. Charlotte found it curious the way he spoke about his life—so self-deprecating, despite how handsome he was. She wondered if he’d looked into a mirror recently; perhaps his mind was spinning too fast to get a true sense for how others perceived him. If this was the case, she could certainly relate. She’d lost herself in textbooks for days at a time, only coming up for air when her stomach ached.

 

“Anyway. InvestMe is a venture that necessarily involves you—or your potential, that is. It is a venture capital site that allows young entrepreneurs to receive backing from investors. I know that sounds complicated and perhaps you’re asking yourself ‘Who in the world would want to invest in me?’ But I’m telling you. Fresh ideas are what make this world spin. And investors want your ideas. They want fresh blood. They want you.”

 

Several of the high school seniors began to roar with approval at his words. Charlotte’s eyes grew large. Sean’s passion for his work was radiating from him, giving him an incredibly alluring aura. She felt lust grasp her heart—she’d never been truly attracted to anyone before, and yet this man, who’d given up the typical college experience in order to fight for success, really captivated her. She had to close her mouth, noting that it was hanging open, her mind absorbing and memorizing his every syllable.

 

Sean continued, speaking about the mechanics of the program, about the long hours he’d put into it, and about how it was to be completed before his graduation in the spring. At that time, the moneymaking would probably begin.

 

He snapped his fingers, his face falling into faux-panic. “I mean, that’s the plan. Wish me luck. And if not, invite me to your parties, okay? Because I’m going to need something to do if it’s not this.” He laughed with ease, his eyes darting out across the crowd.

 

He finished the speech, and the presentation for the potential students ended. Charlotte’s temporary companion reached forward and grasped her shoulder, yanking it back lightly. “Hey! Are you ready for that hot chocolate?”

 

But Charlotte pushed forward in the crowd, giving the girl a quick goodbye. “Sorry!” she cried out, her heart jolting in her chest. An invisible force was leading her far from the crowd of high school students and toward the stage, where Sean Lawson stood chatting with several professors and other Yale hopefuls. She strung her fingers through her hair, noting the chilly wind had caused it to fluff out—she probably looked like a mess.

 

As she crept closer, Charlotte realized that several of the Yale hopefuls were gushing about Sean, just as she’d been, privately.

 

“Your speech was just incredible,” one boy said, sniffing, his glasses dwarfing his face. “I couldn’t get enough of it. You truly demonstrate your passion for technology. It’s inspiring for those of us who’ve never thrown a football.”

 

Sean laughed, clutching his stomach and leaning back. But as he took another step from the professors and youthful students, he was suddenly bombarded. A massive group of reporters and what seemed to be potential investors, all of them in smart suits, their noses high, swept toward him.

 

Microphones were lifted into Sean’s face. He looked like a deer caught in headlights—his face went pale and he stuttered, hearing 20 different questions thrown at him all at once. The tiny high-school senior who’d made the ‘nerds stick together’ joke looked dejected and began to walk away, his hope of becoming friends with Sean drowned out by reality.

 

Charlotte realized it, all at once: this man was going to be famous. He was going to be something special—a very important, very rich man. She swallowed at the prospect of it, thinking that she was viewing the sun on its trajectory through the sky. This was just the beginning of morning’s first light.

 

And she’d been foolish to think, even for a second, that he would speak with her. She remembered, her eyes darting around the scene, that she’d even wanted to ask him to grab a coffee. She’d imagined them seated in a cozy, Yale café, eyeing each other. He would be nervous, because she was pretty and young and vibrant; she would be nervous, because he was everything she yearned to be, on the precipice of something great.

 

Perhaps they would ease themselves into conversation. Perhaps they wouldn’t feel so lost in each other’s presence, as Charlotte so often did with her peers.

 

But naturally, her daydreams were fading as more and more cameramen pushed lenses close to Sean’s attractive face, and more and more suits surrounded him, pushing business cards. Sean looked taken aback—celebrity status was clearly not his aim. As he peered to the right, outside of the sea of ravenous men and women, his eyes stumbled upon Charlotte, who was unabashedly staring at him.

 

Their eyes connected, and Sean gave her a sudden, self-conscious smile. Charlotte returned it, lost in the moment, unsure if it was truly happening or not. It was almost as if the world had stopped for them—no longer could she hear the scrambling newscasters, waving their microphones. No longer could she sense that she was surrounded by hundreds of her high school senior peers, each of them humming and hawing about what to major in.

 

Soon, the growling press pack grew even more ravenous, even hungrier. One of the journalists reached forth and grasped Sean’s sleeve, causing his and Charlotte’s smiles to falter. Sean’s eyes were then focused solely on this journalist. He was angry, yelling “What do you think you’re doing?”

 

Sean reclaimed his sleeve, and Charlotte watched as one gleaming cufflink, once attached, popped off and dropped to the ground, bouncing toward her. In the hubbub, nobody else noticed.

 

She paused, gazing at it, without breath. And then, as she looked upwards once more, she noted that one of the speaker handlers had dived into the chaos and grabbed Sean, scurrying him away from the questions, from hungry people willing to grab and yell until he gave them what they wanted.

 

“I’m sorry,” Sean said curtly, sneaking through a side door. “I’m sure I’ll be able to answer your questions shortly, but it seems I must go now.”

 

Charlotte grinned inwardly at his apology, his awareness that he needed to be nice to everyone to keep his opportunities open, even the most wretched of the press.

 

As the sea of journalists began to disperse, Charlotte knelt to the sidewalk, removing her glove. She grasped the freezing cold cufflink, sitting naked on the pavement, and she brought it to her heart, remembering the warmth of Sean’s smile and the impossible energy with which he’d spoken to the Yale hopefuls.

 

If I can retain even an ounce of that kind of hope and drive for my future, Charlotte thought, I’ll be fine.

 

She whirled herself back toward the exit, marching through the historic campus, keeping her head down in the rushing wind. Her parents were waiting in their humming vehicle at the end of an old driveway, near a sorority house. Her father had his face buried in a newspaper, and her mother was sleeping, her eyelids twitching. Charlotte had half a mind to move them to the backseat, so she could drive them home, like children. But she simply grinned, tapping the window.

 

“Hello, darling,” her father said as she jumped into the back, swiping her gloves from her hands. “How was your first day at Yale?”

 

“Not my first day, Dad,” Charlotte said, her voice sarcastic. She felt playful, energetic. “But, to answer your question, my first day on Yale’s campus—and maybe my last, to be fair—was absolutely a dream. It’s so gorgeous. It’s filled with impossibly brilliant minds.”

 

“None as brilliant as yours, my dear,” her father said, cranking up the heat. “Anything good to report?”

 

Charlotte eased her head back on the backseat headrest, her mind dancing. She reached into her pocket and found the cufflink, certain she’d keep it with her as a token, a memento of the day and the brilliant, rousing speech. “You should have seen this speaker,” she said, her voice whimsical. “He had this remarkable idea. An online platform, to help people invest in entrepreneurs. And the way he talked about it—”

 

“Online platform?” her father said, his voice gruff. He was an insurance salesman from the suburbs of Hartford, and he thought even the prospect of college was quite silly. But he had driven to Yale for his daughter; he loved her more than the world. “Sounds kind of dumb to me. People don’t actually want to invest in entrepreneurs, do they?”

 

“I think they do,” Charlotte countered.

 

“Well. I guess that’s something you’ll learn about at Yale,” her father said, teasing her. “But until you prove me wrong, agree to disagree.”

 

In the backseat, Charlotte rolled her eyes, her mind centered on another life, another world. Her mother snored on.

 

“Do you want to stop halfway home to get some dinner?” she finally asked, feeling her stomach rumble now that the excitement and adrenaline had died down a little. It was only a 40-minute drive home, but she felt like a celebratory slice of apple pie from her favorite diner was in order to top off the amazing day she’d had.

 

“Sure, pumpkin,” her dad said.

 

And with that, the vehicle zoomed out onto the streets outside of Yale University, a place Charlotte had now set her heart on attending.

 

She would be the precise kind of nerd Sean Lawson had spoken about in his speech, keeping her head down and maintaining her focus at all costs. And she would be proud of this fact, even as her eyes grew to need glasses, even as she watched other peers pair up and have hope for safe and beautiful—if not cookie-cutter—futures.

 

Throughout many years of university at her dream school, Charlotte would keep that cufflink safe in her grandmother’s jewelry box, stowed away, waiting. She would read about Sean Lawson as he propelled into stardom, almost immediately after that fateful day when she’d seen him speak. He would eventually be listed as one of the richest men in his 20s for five years running—until he hit his 30s. And all the while, Charlotte would feel she had a kind of link to this man, felt that they’d shared a moment in time, immediately before he’d been thrust into becoming a household name. There, in that Yale courtyard, they’d had the same, frightened smiles.

 

Throughout her college career, Charlotte never spoke of her infatuation with Sean Lawson. She never showed anyone the cufflink; rather, she maintained the memory, calling to it when she felt lonely or unsure of herself.

 

When she ultimately accepted a job all the way across the country in Seattle, she knew she hadn’t taken the position simply because Sean was a tech scene mover and shaker in the great Pacific city. No, she’d always had an inkling she would end up out west.

 

And Sean had nothing to do with it.

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

Ten Years Later

 

 

Ellis and Associates was a downtown law firm, surrounded by modern glass office buildings and flooded with tech gurus, who were constantly bouncing in and out of its doors. Of course, that’s exactly what Charlotte had wanted when she’d started her tech law career, all those years before.

 

She jumped off her bicycle at the entrance, locking it up with the others that piled too high after many forgotten months. Despite Seattle’s love for the environment, it seemed most people in the tech world were a bit too much talk, and not enough action. But Charlotte was dutiful, as she was with everything.

 

Charlotte entered the top floor of the law firm, running her fingers through her blond hair, knowing it always looked a bit fluffed, a bit too curly after her bike ride in. She sauntered to the coffee machine, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She’d been up until three a.m. the night before, reading through a recent lawsuit between two startups—neither of which, she knew, would ultimately “make it” in the end.

She watched as the coffee crept begrudgingly into the black mug, her still slightly hazy mind trying to assess the events of the upcoming work day. She had a morning meeting with her boss, Katrina, and her head boss, Lyle, in the next hour, and she often went overly prepared, if only because Katrina didn’t have to be. In addition to being Charlotte’s boss, Katrina was the only daughter of Charles Ellis, the owner of Ellis and Associates. He’d practically bought her acceptance into Harvard Law school, and she’d scraped through the bar exam, just barely passing on her third attempt (at least, this was the rumor around the office. Charlotte didn’t like to gossip).

 

Charlotte heard the light tapping of high heels, and she spun around to find herself face-to-face with Katrina herself. Katrina’s pretty, dark brown hair wound in coils around her face, and her front tooth had a fleck of bright red lipstick on it.

 

“Your weekend?” Katrina began with a false brightness. “Did you get up to much?”

 

Charlotte knew Katrina asked this only to hear her dismal answer. “I worked on that Murphy case,” Charlotte said, her eyebrows high. “And caught up on—”

 

“Oh, okay. You already want to talk about work,” Katrina said, wagging her finger. “We’ll never loosen you up, will we?”

 

As Katrina bounded toward the coffee machine, smacking the icon that would deliver a perfect, black brew, Charlotte rolled her eyes. She’d been a consistent ladder climber for the previous two years, since her arrival at Ellis and Associates, and yet, she’d been passed by. She’d been stomped on. And now, she was being made fun of.

 

Without another word, Charlotte strode toward her office, shoving the door closed and taking quick sips of her latte, gazing out over the water on perfect, gleaming display outside her window.

 

She sighed. It was all worth it, really, for this early morning Pacific view. Back at Yale, she knew the students were sitting in steaming hot classrooms, memories of terrible northeastern winters forgotten for now. But in Seattle, things were different. The sun seemed further away; the sky was a perfect blue, if only for this time of the year. The rest of it—well. She had enough umbrellas to keep everything under control.

 

On her desk, Charlotte had positioned a small pewter jewelry box. Not her grandmother’s, but a smaller one she’d found in an antique store near New Haven. She’d placed the cufflink there as a reminder of the past, and a future she could have, so long as she kept her nose to the grindstone.

 

She tapped her password into her computer, humming a quiet tune, and soon found herself browsing the InvestMe website. The company’s list of previous investors was a sight to behold: Bill Gates, Larry Page, and, before his death, Steve Jobs. Charlotte liked to imagine Sean Lawson meeting with these men, exchanging laughter, kind words between fellow entrepreneurs. She liked to imagine where they would go for such meetings. Where do some of the brightest minds of the earth congregate, and where do they have their “aha” moments?

 

Charlotte clicked to the page labeled “Founder” and felt immediately breathless at the image of Sean himself, seated casually in his immaculate suit. He had broad shoulders, a perfectly cut jawline dusted with a permanent five-o-clock shadow, and that rough and wild haircut which nearly destroyed her. And that look in his eyes—that look that assured you he had even more ideas up his sleeves—made her shake her head.

 

“If only I could really know you,” she whispered to the screen. “If only that one moment, out of a hundred billion, could have meant something to you as well.”

 

Suddenly, Charlotte realized she was nearly tardy to her meeting. She scanned through her emails, jotting notes, feeling anxious. Despite having been at the company for over two years, she was continually stressed, determined to maintain utmost professionalism.

 

She burst from her office, pacing to the next hallway, joining Katrina and Lyle at the small table in the conference room. They lifted their heads in greeting and held their fingers around the warmth of their coffee cups. Charlotte could have kicked herself for forgetting hers—she would need all the caffeine she could get today.

 

“Morning!” she said brightly.

 

“A minute late, I see, Charlotte,” Katrina said, her bright white teeth now devoid of that red lipstick. “You know how it works here; we’re on a minute-to-minute schedule.”

 

“I’ll just talk extra fast to make up for it,” Charlotte joked, sitting down and crossing her ankles.

 

“I’m sorry, how would that work?” Katrina said, blinking her great, owl eyes.

 

Charlotte didn’t answer. Instead, she turned toward their leader, Lyle. He worked closely with Katrina’s father, the owner of Ellis and Associates, and acted almost like an uncle to Charlotte. He scratched at his greying beard.

 

“Ladies,” he said. “Forget all your other projects for now. I have some incredible news for you.”

 

Charlotte’s throat tightened. She steadied her pen against her notebook, ready to begin taking notes any second. To her right, Katrina looked on, bored, chewing a nail.

 

“Over the weekend, we were approached by a big-name tech guru who is currently embroiled in a lawsuit,” Lyle announced.

 

“Typical,” Katrina said. “Why can’t these nerd boys play nice, eh?”

 

“Anyway,” Lyle continued, ignoring her. “The client in question is none other than the billionaire CEO of Lawson Technologies, Sean Lawson, who is being sued by a college friend, Evan Greene.”

 

“A friend from Yale?” Charlotte asked, her eyebrows raised. She thought back to that first speech, all those years ago. “I remember when he first started InvestMe. He was doing it all on his own—”

 

But Lyle cut her off. “I’m not sure what is true and what isn’t, but Evan Greene is alleging that part of Sean Lawson’s enormous fortune somehow belongs to him. And because Lawson is having some sort of disagreement with his personal lawyer, he’s decided to come to us. Now. If that isn’t a huge payday waiting to happen, I don’t know what is.”

 

But Charlotte didn’t care about the money. Her heart was beating too fast, bumping toward her ribcage.

 

She cleared her throat. “Evan Greene. That name sounds familiar, actually.”

 

Beside her, Katrina scoffed. “Of course, dummy. Evan might not be a billionaire, but he’s a success in his own right.” Her eyes flashed. “He created that app where you can find potential… ‘dates’ based on your location. Brilliant, I’d say.”

 

But Charlotte wasn’t listening. She was tracing through the history she knew about Sean. “Actually, wasn’t Evan Sean’s roommate at Yale?” she asked, “They were formerly best friends. I’m sure he was at that speech he gave. I think he was up near the front, when the journalists chased Sean away…”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Katrina laughed, “But it seems like you have some sort of weird robot memory. Which won’t prove anything in this case. Sorry love.”

 

Charlotte leaned back, her brain buzzing and a grin spreading over her face. She’d followed Sean Lawson’s career closely since the beginning. She recalled that, in one interview not long after his graduation from Yale, Sean had stated he was living with his old college roommate in a flat in Seattle. Several years later, all mention of Evan had disappeared from Sean’s interviews.

 

Meaning, of course, that the friendship had gone rotten. Why, exactly, Charlotte couldn’t say. Perhaps it was jealousy. Perhaps it involved a woman. What she did know, beyond anything, was that Evan had never displayed the passion and zeal that Sean had. The fact that Sean was willing to fight Evan on this—that he was biting back at his former best friend—meant this was serious.

 

Because Sean wasn’t obsessed with celebrity. He wasn’t obsessed with legacy. He was simply concerned with pursuing his dream.

 

Charlotte’s heart slowed down and she blinked several times, trying to bring herself back to reality. Katrina hadn’t asked a single question, and Lyle was diving into the facts and next steps, all of which had already been compiled in Charlotte’s mind. She imagined calling her father when she returned to her office, announcing that she’d finally taken on a high-profile case, that they hadn’t overlooked her this time. She’d be on top in just a few months. By the age of 29, she’d be a sought-after tech lawyer in one of the most respected firms in the United States.

 

Inwardly, behind her thoughts of grandeur and success and fulfillment, Charlotte knew she had one more reason she wanted to represent Sean Lawson. Her admiration for him had only solidified and grown since she’d first seen him speak, ten years previously. And that cufflink had traveled with her all the way across the continent, awaiting their first formal meeting.

 

Once she gave him the cufflink, she didn’t know exactly how he would react, but if she had as good of a sense of him as she thought she did, she knew he’d take it as the ultimate compliment. He’d see the beauty in it, just as he understood why staying in on a Friday night in college was perfectly all right. Because it meant something. It furthered you to something better.

 

Charlotte lifted her hand, then, interrupting the facts about Lawson Technologies that were pouring from Lyle’s mouth.

 

“I have something to say,” she began, her voice almost hesitant. Beside her, Katrina scoffed once more, then turned her eyes toward her phone, scrolling through her Facebook feed. Because she was Charles Ellis’ daughter and she could get away with anything, her brain went dead by nine in the morning.

 

“I’ve been following Sean’s career since I was eighteen years old,” Charlotte continued. “I saw him speak at Yale, like I said, and he seemed so…confident. So special. I just knew he was going to do great things. He became an inspiration for me. I would put my heart and soul into this case, should it be given to me. I would make it my top priority. This case would change the future of Ellis and Associates; it is the kind of case we’ve been waiting for.” Charlotte looked toward Lyle, allowing her words to resonate, maintaining eye contact. Surely, she sounded confident. Surely, her tone matched that of the young Sean Lawson, sure of propelling himself into brightness.

 

But Lyle looked at her bleakly, already beginning to shake his head. He opened his mouth then closed it again, drumming his fingers on the table.

 

Beside Charlotte, Katrina made a quiet snorting noise. “He can’t speak because he doesn’t want to tell you no,” she said, setting her phone back on the table. She turned to face Charlotte, assessing her with dark brown eyes. “You know I was recently given the position above you, correct?”

 

Charlotte didn’t move. She sensed that she’d just been thrown off the cliff, even after climbing for years. She could feel the metaphorical wind rushing past her ears.

 

“Isn’t that right, Lyle?” Katrina asked, her tone smug.

 

Lyle tugged at his shirt collar, looking down at the table once more. The moments ticked on, leaving Charlotte in their wake.

 

“It’s true, what she’s saying,” Lyle finally said, his voice weak, quivering as it slunk from him.

 

“But Katrina has only just been promoted,” Charlotte argued, feeling passion rile up within her. “She’s been my senior for just two weeks, and she’s arguably less prepared than I am. In nearly every aspect.” Charlotte blinked back tears, her face turning red. Suddenly, she felt like a child in a playground who’d been knocked to the pavement, bleeding from a knee.

 

Lyle turned his gaze back toward Katrina. His posture was rigid, strained. It was clear his mind was whirring. He didn’t want to upset Charles—his boss, and Katrina’s father. Not in a million years. It was the reason he’d supported her promotion; it was the reason he gave her the better cases. Charlotte had often seen him staying after-hours, typing on Katrina’s computer to help her with her work, as she sat slumped over in the side chair.

 

It appalled Charlotte. It made her stomach flip over. As a young, bright-eyed eighteen-year-old, she hadn’t thought the world could be so unfair. But she was ten years older, now.

 

Lyle glimpsed the sadness in Charlotte’s eyes. He looked away from her, clearly trying to come up with a solution. “Tell you what, ladies. Let’s try a compromise, shall we?” He scratched at his neck, uneasy. “It’s clear that Charlotte has some base-level knowledge regarding the client which may be advantageous as we develop the case. I don’t think we can refute that, can we, Katrina?”

 

“Hmm?” Katrina murmured, peering down at her nails.

 

“That’s right,” Lyle continued, as if nothing had happened. “In light of this, I am assigning Katrina the position of lead attorney on the Lawson case, while you, Charlotte, will work closely with Katrina, offering your support. In addition, you’ll take on a few of Katrina’s smaller cases, in order to assist with her workload. How does that sound?”

 

Lyle seemed pleased with himself. He sat back in his chair and smiled awkwardly, waiting for their assured excitement. But the words were still running through Charlotte’s head, and Katrina was already halfway down her Instagram feed, quietly awaiting the end of the meeting.

 

It was Charlotte’s turn to speak. Frustration brimmed within her, but she felt her mouth give in to deference. “Yes. Absolutely. That’s fine.”

 

“Great,” Lyle said, leaping on the affirmation far too quickly. He clicked the mouse on his laptop, assessing his calendar. “How does a first meeting sound for…tomorrow? Nine thirty?”

 

“No can do, boss,” Katrina said. “I have a hair appointment tomorrow morning.”

 

“Right,” Lyle deadpanned. “Perhaps Wednesday, then?”

 

But Katrina just shook her head. “See if he can do Thursday at ten. That work for you, Charlotte?” she asked, her voice playful, false. “I’ll throw some of my more basic cases your way in the meantime, and I’ll get started on prep work for your dear old friend Sean. Sound good?”

 

Charlotte gritted her teeth and bowed her head, agreeing without words. She listened half-heartedly as Lyle closed the meeting, sending them both off to their separate offices. When she reached hers, she tasted her now-cold coffee and nearly spit it out again. She marched to the kitchen sink and emptied the mug out before returning to the coffee maker. She stabbed the start button, tapping an angry foot against the tile floor. Around her, printers whirred and interns marched.

 

One particular intern, belonging to Katrina, was leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen, cackling with her peer; the two looked like a scene out of Mean Girls. They looked young—no older than 22, Charlotte thought—and full of unwarranted arrogance. Charlotte had encountered and dealt with plenty of big egos in the law world, but she wasn’t in the mood to feed any this morning.

 

Katrina snapped her fingers toward her intern. “I need some coffee. Not this hell water. Go to the nearest Starbucks. And grab me…a scone, as well. The orange flavor. You know the one.”

 

Making no effort to conceal the rolling of her eyes, the girl swept lazy legs out of the kitchen and toward the elevator, her friend looking at her with longing. Anyone who was allowed to leave the building outside of lunchbreak had a coveted position. And generally speaking, Katrina’s intern was always off on runs to nab her new lotions or purses, her groceries, her gluten free snacks, and anything else that sprang to mind.

 

“Well,” Katrina said, tossing her brown curls. “That was pretty rough in there. You begging for my job.” She squinted her eyes toward Charlotte, her gaze almost threatening. “Really, it’s pathetic. And I’m not going to call it anything else.”

 

“Then don’t,” Charlotte said, her eyes narrowing, too.

 

“What was that?” Katrina whispered.

 

Charlotte shook her head, dropping the topic. She was firm in her belief that if she followed her anger down the rabbit hole, she would eventually come up without a job at Ellis and Associates. She had to keep herself in line.

 

“I’m going to get a head start on those other projects you sent me,” Charlotte said, starting toward her office, her mug shaking in her angrily trembling hands. “Let me know if you need anything for the Lawson case. Like I said, I have that one cracked.”

 

Katrina let out a brief, ominous cackle before Charlotte closed the door, shutting herself in her haven of silence, of her work—which she usually loved, except for times like these. Outside, the July sun had grown higher in the sky, signaling the beginning of a perfect summer’s day. She longed to be out in it, stretching in the bright light.

 

Charlotte collapsed in her chair, putting the terrible meeting out of her mind, and focusing instead on the fact that she’d be meeting Sean Lawson himself in just a few days’ time. His image still grinned at her from her computer screen, where daydreams of this upcoming reality had flitted through her mind just that morning.

 

Beside her, her cellphone lit up, buzzing slightly on the wood of the desk. She lifted it, noting the message from her best friend, which she read in her head in Chelsea’s bubbly voice:

 

So, what has Katrina done today?

 

Charlotte stifled a giggle, brimming with relief that somebody out there was thinking about her. Chelsea had been her roommate for her first few years in Seattle, and the girl knew everything about her: about her relationship with her parents (sometimes complicated), her obsession with Sean Lawson (generally fantastical), and her love of her job (with the exception of Katrina Ellis).

 

Despite having recently moved to separate apartments in Capitol Hill, Charlotte and Chelsea still spent long nights at each other’s homes, wistful for the times when they’d been broke, drowning in student debt, and blissfully happy.

 

Charlotte hummed, her fingers tapping excitedly on the screen.

 

You’ll never guess who I’m meeting on Thursday…

 

Britney Spears. Beyoncé. The Queen??? Chelsea replied, using a plethora of emoticons.

 

Charlotte chortled, covering her mouth. Somehow, she sensed that Katrina could tell when she was goofing off in her office, as if she had spies lurking.

 

[_ Close. *pause for dramatic effect* SEAN. LAWSON, _] she replied.

 

Chelsea’s immediate responses were dominated by exclamation and question marks, sizzling with expectation. Girl. You have to look gooooood, were the closing words before they agreed to meet for lunch in several hours to dig into the details—and the great new burrito bowls from the place on the corner. Chelsea worked downtown as an architect, and the pair often found themselves at lunch in tall heels and power-women business suits, flipping their styled hair, all the while knowing they’d seen the other through heartbreak in old pajamas, holding a tub of ice cream in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other.

 

Charlotte sat back in her chair, skimming through an email from Katrina that delivered each individual detail about her “lesser” accounts. She could barely focus on these other cases. It seemed the cufflink that she’d carried across the country would finally make it home, and she could hardly wait.

 

 

 

THREE

 

 

Charlotte woke early on Thursday morning, stretching her toes to the edge of the bed and popping them out from under the covers into the cool morning air. She swung her legs over the bed, her heart pounding in her chest. She knew, somewhere in the city, Sean Lawson was waking, brushing his teeth, sipping his coffee. Little did he know, he was about to meet his biggest fan.

 

Having dressed quickly, Charlotte shoved her feet into her tennis shoes and rushed out the door for her usual three-mile run. Her muscles sizzled with strength and her arms swung quickly, propelling her forward. She’d grown into a fine runner during college, when she’d discovered that studying gave her a kind of anxiety she couldn’t shake without a bit of sweat. With endorphins revving in her blood stream, she’d been able to ace her exams, pass the bar in Washington state, and maintain her slim figure into year 28.

 

She gasped over her knees upon her return, searching for regular breath—no more from the run than the nerves. She took a cool shower, scrubbing at her scalp and reciting the milestones of Sean Lawson’s career in her mind. She chose her favorite business suit, a matching black pinstripe blazer and skirt that was perfectly tailored to her curves, paired with a crisp, sky-blue blouse to bring out her eyes. She donned a bit of extra makeup, smoothing that pesky eyebrow hair that never grew in the right direction, and grinned at her reflection. She felt great. She was ready to meet her hero.

 

Of course, true to herself and her morals, Charlotte booked it to the office on her bike, finding herself hitting every green light, and her hair staying mostly tame. She clicked the lock into place and darted up to the top floor. Life, during these moments, seemed blissful, like a dream.

 

But the moment she entered the office, panic smacked her in the face.

 

“Charlotte. Can I speak with you my office?” Lyle said, his voice stern. He gestured toward his door, and Charlotte followed him, frowning, still carrying her bicycle helmet.

 

Entering Lyle’s office, she sat in the cushy leather armchair and leaned slightly forward. Lyle was clearly panicking—sweat was gathering on his brow, and he swiped a Kleenex over his rosy cheekbones, staring wide-eyed at his computer. “Listen, Charlotte. This Sean Lawson case, as you know, is our most important. One of the most important we’ve ever taken on, actually. And this morning—well.” He gulped. “Katrina called in sick.”

 

Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “She’s sick? How can she be sick at a time like this?” Her mind began to race. “I mean, she knows how important this is. Doesn’t she?”

 

Lyle shrugged helplessly. “She has food poisoning, apparently. She went to that new Indian place in Capitol Hill and—bam.” He shook his head, as if discussing a death. “Anyway. I need you to take the meeting by yourself.”

 

Charlotte’s heart leaped. She felt vibrant, electric, for all of a moment before the true weight of this problem smacked her: she was woefully underprepared for this kind of meeting.

 

“I was given all those other cases…” she began, shaking her head. She felt herself slump in her chair. “I can’t lead a meeting like this. Did Katrina send her notes, maybe?”

 

But Lyle just shook his head. “She said she hadn’t prepared anything, that she was planning on doing it last night.”

 

“But we got this assignment days ago,” Charlotte whispered, her voice strained. She watched as Lyle shook his head, as they dove into slimy, stinking reality. Charlotte would go into this meeting without ready preparation, sure to embarrass herself in front of the man she’d admired since she was eighteen.

 

“Whatever,” Charlotte said, brushing it off. She fished her notepad out of her purse, beginning to write furious notes. “I’m assuming we can’t postpone this meeting, due to his schedule.”

 

“That’s correct,” Lyle said, trying to peer at the notes she was writing. “And I have a meeting with one of our stalwart clients, across town, so I cannot join you. I’m truly sorry, Charlotte. I’m sorry to put so much of the future of the company on your shoulders.”

 

Charlotte shook her head, giving him a bright smile. She forced the clouds to part in her mind. This was just another glass ceiling, another wall she’d have to break through on her path to success. One time, in college, she’d studied the wrong chapter for a test, and only learned about it five hours prior. She’d hustled through every single chapter, reading the words out loud to herself. And she’d nailed it.

 

“Don’t worry, Lyle. You hired me for a reason,” she said, casually addressing that Katrina had been hired for no reason other than her father’s name.

 

With that, Charlotte hurried from Lyle’s office to her own. She perched on her chair, her eyes boring into the computer screen, and began to type furiously, zipping through the facts of the case and watching as the minutes ticked to an hour. She was due to meet with Sean Lawson at 10 a.m. in the Lawson Technologies building, which was thankfully just a ten-minute walk away. Through her office window, she saw one of the secretaries preparing a coffee and cookie tray for the staff, for the morning mini-break; for her part, Charlotte couldn’t imagine that she’d ever be hungry again.

 

Just before she left, she opened the antique pewter box, lifting the cufflink out and putting it in her pocket. Maybe it would bring her good luck. And maybe, if she had enough confidence, she would return it to its rightful owner, thus admitting the strength of her memory of him.

 

Charlotte marched toward the Lawson Technologies building on Jell-O legs, trying to clear her head. She entered the office building, feeling like she was on display, with the floor-to-ceiling windows lining each of the walls, forcing sunlight into her face. The air felt warm, covering her like a blanket.

 

She reached the front desk and gave the secretary a warm smile. “Charlotte Waters,” she said. “With Ellis and Associates. I have a meeting with Sean Lawson at 10 a.m.”

 

The secretary seemed to look Charlotte up and down with a bit of humor, peering at her beneath cat-eye glasses. Charlotte knew this woman had delivered the likes of Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, to Sean Lawson’s offices, and this nervous-looking blonde lawyer from out East didn’t exactly fit the bill.

 

Finally, the secretary spoke. “Yes. I’ll show you to the boardroom. If you’ll just follow me.”

 

She lifted herself from her spinning chair, her wide hips swaying as she sauntered towards the elevator. She cleared her throat and pressed the button, and the pair of them stood, side-by-side, without speaking. Charlotte longed to find something—anything—to say, to make her memorable to this woman who interacted with Sean each and every day.

 

The secretary showed Charlotte to the boardroom and abandoned her quickly, dropping her off like a scared kid at their first summer camp. Charlotte stood in the bright, natural light and gazed around her, taking a seat first at the head of the table, then at the side. The secretary had told her that Sean would be with her shortly, and not to be concerned if he was tardy. “He has important work to do,” she had said, meaning, “more important than meeting with you.”

 

The door handle began to spin, and Charlotte leaned forward as time gave way to a beautiful image.

 

There, in the crack of the door, emerged Sean Lawson. He was carrying a briefcase and wearing a beautiful suit, something that had clearly been picked out by someone who knew more about fashion than Sean Lawson himself. His jawline was cut perfectly, his hair was rugged, rough, as if he’d just been hiking in the woods (and Charlotte knew this was something he enjoyed; she’d read it in a magazine).

 

And then, he flashed her that familiar, secretive smile—the same one she’d enjoyed all those years before, at Yale. She felt her stomach drop, like she was on the descent of the highest rollercoaster in the world.

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 

 

 

Charlotte soon recovered from her shock, walking forward and grasping his hand. “Sean. I’m Charlotte Waters from Ellis and Associates. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

 

Sean smiled warmly, confidently, and squeezed her hand. “Charlotte. It’s wonderful to have you here.”

 

This was office speak, Charlotte knew, but because she’d been daydreaming about meeting this man for years, she couldn’t help but feel that each word was loaded with meaning. She gestured toward the table, inviting him to sit—as if this wasn’t an office in which he sat every single day. She felt her heart humming.

 

“How was your journey?” he asked her.

 

“Oh, just fine. I wanted to take my bike over, but I didn’t want to mess up my hair for such an important meeting.”

 

Charlotte balked. Had she actually said that? God, she was a dignified, Yale-educated lawyer—what was coming over her?

 

“I’m a biker too, actually” Sean said, his eyes bright. “I love the energy it gives me. It seems that several of my advisors think I’m a bit too ‘important’ to the company to be biking around. But the view of the city on your way in? You can’t beat it,” he said. “After spending so much time on the East Coast, I really appreciate this kind of environment.”

 

Charlotte nodded, wanting to tell him that she’d gone to Yale as well, that she’d seen him speak. But she yanked herself back, conscious of maintaining her professional distance. “Well. I suppose we should get started, yeah?”

 

“Absolutely,” Sean said, tapping a pen against his cheek. It still held that classic five o’clock shadow. He still spoke with the air of a man who didn’t quite know how attractive he was.

 

“All right. Well, let me see. I’d like to get a bit of background regarding your friendship with Evan Greene.”

 

“Sure.”

 

Charlotte attempted to make her voice articulate; she worked to seem presentable and confident. She rolled her pen over her notepad, jotting down notes. “When did you first meet Evan?”

 

“It was junior year,” Sean said. “Not long after I broke up with my girlfriend. Evan was smart, if a bit cocky, and we spent a lot of evenings and late nights talking. Not really about work or money; more about girls. About our personal philosophies. Things like that. When my ex moved out of our apartment, he moved in.”

 

Charlotte already knew much of this, but she treasured learning about it directly from him. She longed for his voice to weave into her ears long into the afternoon, perhaps into the night.

 

She looked at him intently. “And at any of these times, did you talk to him about InvestMe or your plans to launch Lawson Technologies?”

 

Sean shrugged. “Of course I did. I was speaking about it all the time. I stayed up late just fantasizing about what it could become. Not in the ‘I want to be famous’ way. No, I longed to be an innovator, to make a lasting impact on the tech world and to help fellow entrepreneurs. Evan was into that scene, sure, but his ideas were lackluster. I would toy around with them, telling him that he had good concepts, but only because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” He smiled slightly, shaking his head. “He had this girlfriend—the woman who eventually became his wife. He spent a lot more time making out with her than coding with me.”

 

“And you worked a great deal on InvestMe in that apartment?” she asked.

 

“Pretty much exclusively, yeah.”

 

“Did Evan ever lean over your computer, pointing things out, suggesting changes—things of that nature?”

 

At this moment, Sean’s expression changed. He frowned, his dark eyebrows making slight creases in his otherwise flawless skin. “No. And—I have to ask, Charlotte. Did you happen to read over the rather detailed document I sent last week, regarding all of these questions?”

 

Charlotte’s face turned bright red. She felt like she’d driven directly into a nightmare of her own creation, that every moment of expectation she’d ever had throughout her life had led her here—to this timely death. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, her brain racing to find an answer.

 

Finally, she fumbled into her explanation. “I’m—I’m so sorry, Mr. Lawson. To be honest, I wasn’t meant to be here alone. I’m essentially the intern on this project, while my colleague—er—boss, Katrina Ellis, is meant to be in charge of your case. She’s read the documents.” Charlotte knew this was a lie, that Katrina was even less prepared than she. But still she yearned to make Ellis and Associates look as good as possible; if she went down, they all did.

 

Sean nodded, still looking at her with confused interest. “I see.”

 

“Anyway. Katrina called in with food poisoning this morning. I guess the new Indian place in Capitol Hill is a no-go.” She was breathless now, scrambling. “And so, my boss told me I was to do this alone. Unprepared. And wholly wasting your time. My sincerest apologies.”

 

The silence that followed this confession nearly destroyed her. She looked down at her hands, realizing that everything she’d ever worked for, everything she’d ever dreamed of, was crashing down around her. She’d been given the chance to meet the man she’d lusted after; she’d made a fool of herself, and there was a chance she would lose her job over it. Charlotte was mortified, biting at her tongue, watching the ticking clock on the wall. Outside, a siren wailed through the city center, and she had the fleeting wish of it being an ambulance, come to pick her up before she had a heart attack.

 

Sean finally spoke, breaking the silence. “Well. I suppose this meeting can’t go on a moment longer, then. I wanted to have an early lunch, anyway.” He began to gather his supplies, stacking his papers. “I hope Katrina gets well soon. And I’m sorry that you were put in this position, Charlotte. Truly, you know more about this case than most people, without educating yourself.”

 

Charlotte exhaled, realizing she’d been holding her breath, unsure if she was about to laugh or cry. “All right. Thank you for your time.”

 

She began to lift herself from her seat, ready to make the walk of shame out of his office, then something in her pocket shifted, and she remembered—with a mixture of hope and fear—that she still held the single link between them. The cufflink.

 

She slipped her slim fingers into the pocket, feeling the smooth chill of the metal.

 

“Before I go,” she began, her voice barely louder than a whisper, “I wanted to give you something. It’s something that belongs to you, and I’m sorry it took me so long to return it.” She lifted the cufflink into the air and watched as the sun glinted off of it. In the back of her mind, she said goodbye to it, this treasured token from her past.

 

Sean’s face changed instantly. He opened his palm and allowed her to drop the cufflink onto it. Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to lift her head to catch what his expression was.

 

She snagged her papers and her briefcase and swept herself into the hallway, feeling tears roll down her face, ruining her so carefully and hopefully applied makeup.

 

The secretary saw her when she exited the elevator, and Charlotte could have sworn she saw a small smirk creep across her face. The tears and the red cheeks had given Charlotte away, betraying her as someone who couldn’t handle the intensity of this industry, somebody who should probably just get into a different law field. Something easy, like divorce.

 

Charlotte found herself on the sidewalk in front of the Lawson Technologies building. She peered up toward the highest room, where she’d met with the CEO himself. She shoved her hand into her purse and called her best friend, already feeling tearful words bubbling to the surface.

 

“How did it go?” Chelsea asked. She’d answered after only a half ring.

 

“Can you meet me outside your office?” Charlotte asked, feeling choked. “I shouldn’t go back to the office right away; that meeting was meant to go for two hours.”

 

Chelsea’s tone changed immediately. “Okay. It’s okay. Let’s meet at that bagel place. You haven’t eaten, have you?”

 

“This is why I love you,” Charlotte said.

 

She raced down the street, grateful she’d found a lifeline. Her entire career might be over. She’d ruined her chances of working with the most important tech mogul of her generation. And, worst of all, she’d given him a token that revealed how much he meant to her, and how much she’d actually messed up.

 

***

 

Chelsea was already waiting for her outside of the bagel place. Her face broke into a sympathetic smile, and she wrapped her arms around her friend, holding Charlotte close. Charlotte allowed a single sob to escape from her mouth.

 

The girls ordered bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, voiding their minds of the worries of carbohydrates and diving into a nearby booth, bringing their faces close together and whispering.

 

“Okay so. What happened? Did he remember you?” Chelsea asked, her eyes large.

 

“Of course not,” Charlotte scoffed, swallowing a bite of her bagel. She blotted under her eyes with a napkin, trying to remedy the mascara streaks. “Remember how I told you I had to take on all those other projects to help Katrina? Meaning, I couldn’t read over all the paperwork he’d sent over?”

 

Chelsea nodded. “Sure. Not that Katrina would ever prepare for anything.”

 

“Right. Exactly. And then, she calls in sick. And just like that, I’m forced into this meeting that I’m not prepared for, with the man of my dreams.” Charlotte sighed, and realized she’d lost her appetite. She shoved her bagel to the side, placing her cheeks in her hands. “And worst of all, I gave him the cufflink, and I bailed before I got to see his reaction.”

 

Chelsea tilted her head. “You brought it all the way there?”

 

“I’d already brought it with me across the States, Chelsea. I might as well have brought it along today. And now he knows how weirdly fascinated with him I am. Obsessed with someone who doesn’t even know I exist.”

 

Chelsea bit her lip. “I think it’s sweet. And if you explained the reason for being unprepared, I’m sure he understands. He’s probably been unprepared before, too; you have to remember he’s only human.”

 

“But I’ve never been unprepared,” Charlotte said. “I passed the bar with flying colors. I know he and I are so alike, but I didn’t prove myself or show him that. And now it’s over.”

 

The two friends sat like that for a while, Chelsea playing the role of therapist, helping to guide her friend from the depths of her sadness and self-doubt. She knew not to ask questions. She knew to keep her head above water. And she knew to box up Charlotte’s bagel for her, because she was definitely going to want it at 3 p.m.

 

“Listen. Don’t destroy yourself over this,” Chelsea told her as she walked her back to Ellis and Associates. “Things happen for a reason. And I wouldn’t drop all hope on this. Not yet.”

 

Charlotte kissed her friend on the cheek and snuck back into her office building, highly conscious of the people who passed her on their way out for lunch. She slipped into the elevator, thankful she hadn’t yet had to speak to anyone, and hoped she could get through the day without a single conversation, without a single explanation. Perhaps Sean had already called Ellis and Associates, explaining that he was going to go with a different firm. Perhaps it was already over, and she would return to her normal, ladder-climbing life.

 

Perhaps it didn’t matter any longer.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

 

Charlotte locked herself in her office for the afternoon, her mind spinning. Outside, she sensed that the usual schedule continued without her. She watched interns scan documents and play on their phones; she watched Lyle come back into the building and waddle into his personal office, holding a bag of fast food. She’d told him countless times to cut back on the sodium and saturated fat, but his continuous stress led him to drive-thru lunches, eaten on the hoof, and she understood his motives in that moment—carbs equaled comfort.

 

Her attention outside of her room didn’t last long. Today, Charlotte was hiding, diving into her massive workload and feeling her eyes dry out as she stared at the screen. She didn’t dare peek into the Sean Lawson file labelled “priority” in her email, even knowing that the casework she’d been given was important and wasn’t to be ignored. Her mind was a million miles away.

 

Of course, she knew she’d have to tell Lyle about what had occurred with Sean at some point. Throughout the afternoon, people came to her door, knocking and waiting for her to unlock it, peering through the one small gap in her blinds. Each time, Charlotte swept her phone to her ear, pretending to be on an important call, while mouthing “sorry” and shrugging apologetically. And each time, the intern, or whoever yearned to inquire about her meeting, nodded in understanding and mouthed that they’d come back later.

 

She couldn’t keep this up forever, she knew. But it would work until she cultivated some kind of plan of attack.

 

Around three-thirty, Charlotte was typing notes for one of her other cases, nibbling on the leftovers of her bagel. She turned her eyes to her office window and noted that Lyle was coming toward her, his walk determined. She lurched, shoving her phone to her ear in yet another fake phone call.

 

As Lyle reached her door, he peeked in through the gap in the blinds and gave her a steady, even wave.

 

“On the phone?” he mouthed.

 

She nodded, her eyes wide. “Sorry,” she mouthed. She felt moments away from vomiting.

 

As Lyle began to turn away from her, she leaned back in her chair, aching for the end of the day. Maybe she could leave, say she was sick. Maybe she could pull the food poisoning card, à la Katrina.

 

But as she leaned back, the phone actually began to ring, blaring in her ear. She jumped, and almost dropped it, nervous. Perhaps this was Lyle, catching her mid-lie. She took a sharp, fast inhale, pushed her shoulders back, and answered the call, her voice shaky. She couldn’t handle this lack of confidence.

 

“Hello. This is Charlotte Waters.”

 

“Charlotte. Hi. It’s Sean.”

 

Charlotte’s face snapped toward the window, where she caught a glimpse of Sean’s building, several blocks away. The afternoon sun was glinting upon it, emitting a warm orange across the glass panels.

 

“Sean—Sean Lawson?” she said. She felt she was imagining this. Perhaps this was a prank phone call, set up by Katrina.

 

“Yes. Sean Lawson, the salesman. Were you still interested in purchasing one of those prime-time television packages for your apartment? You have three days remaining with this sale. And let me tell you, an offer like this won’t come around for another fifty years.”

 

Charlotte paused, allowing the words to fall over her ears. And then, the man on the other line started to chuckle.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You sounded so surprised to hear my name. I couldn’t help myself.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes were bulging out of their sockets, bug-like. She tilted her head, her heart beating quickly at the sound of his voice. “You’re calling me? Why?” she asked. She didn’t respond to his joke; she felt too emotional, too shaken up. Sean didn’t sound angry; he didn’t sound as if he’d called to fire her. Rather—he sounded like a companion. Like a friend.

 

“Charlotte, I understand you were under a great deal of strain today. But you did what anyone of your caliber would have done—you tried to work with what you had. And I’m afraid I didn’t respond well to that; I get ‘hangry’ a little too easily. I jumped all over you for not being fully prepared—despite the circumstances, which were out of your control. And I wanted to apologize.”

 

“That’s quite all right,” Charlotte said, her voice just above a whisper. “Truly, it was unprofessional of me. I should have been upfront with you immediately. It won’t happen again.”

 

That’s right, she thought. Because you’re not his attorney. Katrina is.

 

“After all,” Charlotte went on, “Katrina will be well in a few days, and she’s far more prepared for your case. No further time will be wasted. I can guarantee that.” She spoke with certainty, attempting to take on her lawyer mentality. Inwardly, she was panicking. She’d assumed she wouldn’t hear his voice again in her life. And he’d actively searched out her number.

 

“I actually called about that, Charlotte,” he said then. “I wondered if you’d like to take on my case, yourself. Without Katrina.”

 

Charlotte stood up from her seat, lightning fast, onto quaking legs. She paused for long enough to cause Sean to laugh once more, a guttural, friendly laugh that made her smile.

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go quiet like that,” Charlotte said, blushing. “I was just shocked. I mean. This morning—I was horrible. I had nothing to offer you.”

 

“I looked you up,” Sean said. “For obvious reasons. And I saw you graduated from Yale Law. You know that’s my alma mater, don’t you?”

 

She pondered this, wondering if he’d recognized the cufflink. It had been a strange gift, indeed. One cufflink, out of a set of two. Yet, why was he calling her, if he thought she was that kind of loon?”

 

“Sure,” she said, pacing around her office. “I loved Yale. It was home.”

 

“I felt the same way,” he said, his voice going soft. “I also saw you graduated fifth in your class. Quite a feat, considering you specialized in tech law. Only the biggest nerds do that, don’t they?”

 

Charlotte grinned. “Biggest nerds? You’re one to talk, Mr. Lawson,” she said. She felt herself growing flirtatious, but she couldn’t allow these feelings to escalate through her—she needed to keep a clear head.

 

“Good point,” Sean affirmed. “But. I learned you’ve been clambering up the ranks at your firm, until you were passed over for promotion by none other than the owner’s daughter, and the very woman who was meant to represent me. Now, is that just a coincidence, I wonder?”

 

“Of course not,” Charlotte laughed. Her heart flipped.

 

“I’ve seen this kind of thing countless times over the years. The management believes they need to promote the daughter, the son, or whatever of the owner of the company. And people with real talent, that have put in real hard work, suffer because of it. Don’t you agree?”

 

“I don’t think I want to say anything,” Charlotte said, giggling. “I could get fired.”

 

“Well. Anyway. What do you think about my proposal, hmm?” He was obviously smiling on the other end of the line; she could feel it in his voice. “Won’t you represent me? Won’t you take this shot to propel your career to the top? Just imagine it.”

 

Charlotte centered her eyes on the horizon, far out over the water. The Seattle fog had begun to rise up, swallowing the buildings. Her brain was buzzing, her heart was about to burst from her chest.

 

“Well. I suppose I have to accept,” she said joyously. She felt like leaping into the air. She felt like screaming. But she stayed steady on her heels, gazing out to sea, like a sailor ready for the storm. She knew that somewhere, Katrina was lying in wait, certain to pounce on this news when she heard it.

 

But in that moment, she couldn’t care less. She felt jubilant. She felt immune to Katrina’s wrath. She was a rising star.

 

“That’s great,” Sean exclaimed. “Really great. I can’t wait to get started.”

 

“Me neither. You said the premium package on the television subscription, correct?” she said, falling into the joke.

 

“Absolutely, Miss Waters. We’ll have that package for you shortly, so you can get started on season three of Keeping up with the Kardashians.”

 

Charlotte laughed, her stomach clenching. Already, they were playing with each other. “All right. Really, though. Let’s arrange a proper meeting, so we can go through these documents. How does tomorrow sound to you? I can rearrange my schedule to make anything work.”

 

“Amazing, Charlotte. Thank you so much. Let’s say tomorrow, around lunchtime. Half-past noon? I can have something ready for us, so I don’t become the hangry monster you saw earlier today.”

 

“Sounds wonderful, Mr. Lawson,” she said, jotting the time on her notepad, as if she’d ever forget it. “I’ll see you then. I just hope your secretary doesn’t actually kill me with that death glare.”

 

“She’s a tough one, that Denise,” he said, laughing. “All right. I’ll see you then. And call me Sean, okay?”

 

The line went dead, leaving Charlotte in stunned silence, zoning out to the buzzing noise coming from the phone for a second before hanging up the receiver and walking over to her window. She placed her fingertips against the pane, gazing down to the streets below. Cars zoomed past; people dipped between them, rushing headlong through traffic. It was a frenzied mess, while also a well-coordinated dance. It mirrored the movement in her brain, as the various pieces of her life seemed to come together.

 

She was going to be the sole attorney for Sean Lawson. She was going to spend alone time with him, constantly. And, best of all, her memory of him wasn’t wrong. He really was a hilarious, upbeat person, with an appreciation for the hard work she’d done at Yale. She grinned, feeling like she couldn’t have imagined this working out any better.

 

She turned her eyes toward the sad, half-eaten bagel on her desk, and swept it into the trash can, shaking her head. She had no reason to empathize with Lyle’s stress eating now. Rather, she needed a long night, bent over her paperwork, creating a tough, hard-hitting strategy.

 

Opening her office door, she was immediately sucked into the sea of interns and other attorneys. She flung her laptop bag over her shoulder and glided out of the building into the late afternoon air. She had a job to do. And she would do it from her balcony in Capitol Hill, diligently reading every single line of his report, with a cold mimosa in her hand.

 

As she left the office, she texted Chelsea the good news.

 

“Emergency bagel wasn’t needed after all! Will tell you everything tomorrow.”

 

Chelsea’s reply was instantaneous. “Told you so.”

 

 

 

SIX

 

 

Charlotte worked deep into the night, staying out on her balcony until it got too dark to read, then moving to her dining table, poring over the paperwork, assessing Sean’s once close relationship with Evan. After several hours, when the clock had ticked to two in the morning, her notepad was nearly filled, and her brain was brimming with thoughts of Sean, of his incredibly successful company, and of his past life.

 

She finally collapsed onto her queen-sized bed, her sensible side telling her that if she wasn’t alert in the morning, she’d never make it to her lunch meeting with bright eyes and a clear mind. Still, she struggled with falling into sleep as her mind danced from one prospect to another. She imagined winning the case against Evan and tossing her arms around Sean, feeling the muscles along his arms and shoulders. She imagined what he smelled like close up, and it stirred her, causing her to toss back and forth. Growing up, she’d never been the romantic type. Now, she was like a girl in elementary school with a massive, soul-crushing admiration for the boy in the front row.

 

The following morning, Charlotte awoke at her usual time and donned her tennis shoes. She was already a mile into her run before she realized she’d left, her mind was so preoccupied with the case and the impending wrath of Katrina. She smiled to herself, just as a truck whizzed past her, nearly hitting her as she crossed the street. Charlotte cringed; she needed to focus, get it together and take one thing at a time.

 

She biked to work, her blond hair streaming behind her, and opted for a coffee from the corner café, rather than the sloppy black filth in the machine. She felt she deserved better, now. She straightened her posture as she exited the elevator, and nearly walked immediately into Katrina herself, who was gabbing with her intern, her red lips going a mile a minute.

 

“Katrina,” Charlotte said, breaking into a surprised smile. “How wonderful to see you’re doing better. I’m sorry about the food poisoning. What terrible timing.”

 

Katrina tilted her head, surprised to see Charlotte acting so cheerily. “Yes,” she said coolly. “It was touch and go for a moment there, but I’m perfectly fine now.”

 

“How rough for you,” Charlotte said, eyeing the door to her office, hoping to make a run for it. “Well. We have a morning meeting to discuss the Lawson case. I’ll see you there.”

 

“Sure,” Katrina said, her gaze following Charlotte as she sauntered toward her office. “I’ll see you there.”

 

Charlotte could sense that Katrina knew she was up to something, but there wasn’t anything in the world this woman could do to stop the track Charlotte was on. She felt the strength of mind she’d had as a college senior, about to ace her finals.

 

After a solid half hour of organizing her notes, Charlotte struck out toward Lyle’s office, where she would break the news like a firecracker.

 

Lyle and Katrina were already there, each gazing at a report together. Lyle was making notes, while Katrina twirled her curls. Neither of them spoke when Charlotte entered.

 

Charlotte cleared her throat, taking a seat before both of them and fanning her meticulously prepared notes out on the table in front of her. She waited.

 

Finally, Lyle looked up. He eyed her unhappily. “So, Charlotte. We never got a chance to chat about your meeting yesterday. I got the feeling you were avoiding the subject, and then you left the office hours before everyone else. What happened?” His voice was somber, chilled.

 

“Did you lose the case?” Katrina asked harshly. Her eyes danced with the pleasure of the prospect.

 

But Charlotte kept her cool. She crossed her legs and placed both hands in her lap, addressing them with confidence. “Actually, it went quite differently than you’d expect. Naturally, I wasn’t as prepared as I might have been, given the chance to take on the case first-hand. But after a successful first meeting, Sean has asked me to be the lead attorney on the case. And I’ve accepted.”

 

Charlotte wished she’d been able to take a picture of the reactions on her colleagues’ faces, to look back on and chuckle at for years to come. To the right, Katrina looked as if she’d been hit by a bus. Her face was frozen, petrified. Her eyebrows were lifted high on her forehead, and her tongue laid limp in her slightly open mouth. “I’m sorry? What happened?” she finally gasped, unable to comprehend the words.

 

Lyle looked at Charlotte in proud shock. He clapped his hands together, his face brightening. The applause echoed off the walls of the office, and his eyes danced. “That’s my girl!” he cried out. “Charlotte, that’s remarkable! And to think, yesterday I thought I was sending you to the wolves. When, in reality, regardless of your level of preparation, you knew precisely what to say to a client to bring him to our firm. I always knew there was something about you, Charlotte. I knew you would do great things.”

 

“Um, I’m sorry,” Katrina said, slicing her hand through the air. “But I had already been assigned this case. That’s kind of how things work. I’m her boss. I’m meant to handle high-profile cases. And I think that’s final.” She crossed her arms and looked at them haughtily. From her demeanor, Charlotte found it hard to imagine that she’d been so dastardly ill the previous day.

 

But Lyle shook his head. “Katrina, in any other circumstance, I would of course reconsider.” His voice was hesitant. Charlotte sensed that he was reminding himself, over and over again, that Katrina was the boss’ daughter. He had to be tentative. “You deserve this case, but it seems that the client has decided he’d like to work with Charlotte. And we can’t refute his wants or needs.”

 

“He doesn’t know what he wants,” Katrina said, frowning. She sounded like a child.

 

“That may be. But you know how these millionaire types can be,” Lyle said, trying to find humor in all of this, but Katrina remained as cold as ice, like a statue.

 

“He’s actually a billionaire,” Katrina said. “Like my father. Which means, I can handle this type of person.”

 

“He’s self-made,” Charlotte interrupted, her voice quiet. She hated this kind of conflict, and yearned to be back in her office, looking through the casefiles in preparation for her lunch meeting with Sean. “He’s not like the others. I think he appreciated how much we have in common.” She shrugged her shoulders, knowing the words she said were truthful.

 

Katrina tossed her head back, and looked like she was about to roll her eyes before thinking better of it. “Whatever.”

 

Lyle adjusted himself in his chair, shifting his gaze between them. “Ladies. I think we can come to a kind of agreement about all of this. Don’t you?”

 

Katrina exhaled sharply through her nose in what could almost be described as a snort, but Lyle carried on like he hadn’t heard.

 

“What if we give the client what he wants—which is Charlotte as his attorney. And then bring you, Katrina, onto the team, as well? We know your expertise will really drive this case home.” He gave her his best winning smile.

 

Charlotte’s heart sank. She had yearned to work on this case without Katrina; when the pair of them worked together on a case, Charlotte was often left with the brunt of the work.

 

But alas, the politics of the company would ruin her yet again.

 

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Katrina said, her eyes darting toward Charlotte, knowing this was a knife in the heart. “I guess I can work under you. For just one project. What could it hurt?” She winked at her, making Charlotte feel nauseous with dread. She felt the morning’s coffee churning in her stomach.

 

But Charlotte knew she needed to remain professional. She gave Katrina a politician’s smile and leaned forward in her chair, placing her hands over her extensive notes. “Then let’s arrange a meeting as soon as possible after my return from Lawson Technologies this afternoon. I can update you on all the intricate details of the case. Since you’ve already read the documents he’s sent over, you’ll be caught up in no time. And you can give me some insight on that ‘billionaire’ mentality you were talking about.”

 

Katrina’s face turned beet red. Lyle smacked his hands together once more, happy it was all settled. “All right, then. Charlotte, it seems you have some work to do. Katrina and I will remain here and handpick the rest of the team. If we put our heads together, we can win this case. Evan Greene doesn’t stand a chance.”

 

As Charlotte lifted herself from her seat, she caught a slight twitch in Katrina’s face at the mention of Evan Greene’s name. If possible, she’d grown even sourer. She bit her lip, looking at her hands.

 

“All right, team,” Charlotte said, her voice warm. “Good luck.”

 

She strutted from the office, head high, her mind reeling. She couldn’t believe she’d bested Katrina—at least, until Lyle had pulled the stopper out and allowed Katrina on her team. But she couldn’t be bothered. Rather, she needed to stay focused and keep her eyes on the prize that was Sean Lawson, the key to her career’s success, and her major crush.

 

She gazed at her reflection in the office window, the glittering ocean in the distance. She needed to halt the romantic feelings she had for Sean. She knew they were fantastical, that they were rooted in some eighteen-year-old dreamscape she’d carried with her across the country and into adulthood. But, just like many women she knew, she clung to her emotions, even while presenting a strong, calm and collected individual on the outside. It was how she survived law school. It was how she’d clambered to the top at Ellis and Associates, despite watching many men fall behind.

 

She grabbed her paperwork, her many folders, and stuffed them into her briefcase, remembering, suddenly, and with a little guilt, that this day was her father’s birthday. She walked toward the door, bringing her phone to her ear, and halted thoughts of Sean Lawson for a moment.

 

As she stepped into the blissful, summer day, she heard her father’s voice answer on the other end.

 

“Hey, Dad. I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. What is it, now? Sixty-one?”

 

“I can’t believe it either,” her dad said, all the way across the country. “How’s your day, pumpkin? You working hard?”

 

“Sure am, Dad,” she said, smiling as she crossed the crosswalk, scurrying to the other side. “I just picked up a pretty big client. I’m moving up in the ranks.”

 

“That’s great, honey. Your mother and I are so proud. Do you think you’ll ever find time to come home?”

 

This question always punched Charlotte directly in the gut. She remembered her mad dash to Seattle after graduation, during which she’d told herself, over and over again, that she wasn’t chasing after Sean Lawson.

 

With the possibility of a raise and time for vacation waiting just beyond the horizon, she toyed with the thought. “I’ll probably make it home soonish,” she said, shrugging. “I think I can make it work after this case.”

 

“Good, honey. Well. I hear traffic all around you. I’ll let you be on your way.”

 

“Happy birthday, Pop, I love you” she whispered, feeling a sudden wave of sadness wash over her. “I’ll call soon.”

 

 

***

 

 

Charlotte reached the Lawson Technologies building only minutes after leaving her office, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the window. The pencil skirt accentuated her toned glutes and calves, and her smile was dark, with maroon lipstick. She entered the office building and tapped confidently toward the secretary’s desk, with more spring in her step than the previous day.

 

Denise, the secretary, looked at her with disdain, as if to say: “Why would you bother coming back here?” Still, she stretched a fake smile over her lips and asked Charlotte to sign in.

 

“I have a meeting with Sean at twelve-thirty,” Charlotte said. “Could you show me to the meeting room?”

 

“Absolutely,” Denise said, her voice sugary and false. “I hope your journey here was pleasant.”

 

“Thank you, it was wonderful,” Charlotte said, perplexed that this woman had changed her tune so quickly in the previous 24 hours. Perhaps news of Charlotte’s new status in the case had spread. If Evan Greene were successful in suing Sean Lawson, perhaps some of these people would lose their jobs.

 

The elevator halted at the top floor, and Denise showed Charlotte toward the door at the far end of the hallway, then knocked her fist against the mahogany wood.

 

The pair of them heard the words, “Come in!” and Denise gestured for Charlotte to enter. “I’ll have your food delivered to you in a half hour or so,” she said, and quickly left the way they came.

 

Charlotte spun the door handle and entered, blinking into the bright room, her voice catching as she said: “Hello.”

 

In the center, toward the window, stood a large wooden desk. Sean was leaning against it, the afternoon sunlight glazing his cheeks. Another perfect suit graced his body, highlighting his strength, the build he’d accrued from countless pushups between coding (at least, this was what Charlotte had read in a magazine interview).

 

Sean sat at the desk, then, turning toward her. He was gazing at something in his palm. It glinted in the sunlight, causing Charlotte’s heart to leap. “Is that…” she whispered, walking toward him.

 

He gestured toward the seat on the opposite side, and Charlotte nearly collapsed into it, realizing she was living her dream. She swallowed, her eyes large as she looked toward him, worried about what he might say.

 

“You know, I remember the day I lost this thing perfectly,” Sean said, his voice far away. “So much time has passed, and I’ve given a million speeches, and met many people all over the world. And yet, I remember this day so well, because it was the day when everything started.”

 

Charlotte tilted her head, aching with curiosity. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well, it was my first speech, I suppose,” he said, scratching at his black, tousled hair. “I prepared day and night for it, because I knew several important journalists were going to be there, just to hear me. I wasn’t so worried about the high school seniors, of course. They would maybe listen for a moment before flirting with whomever they stood next to. But I knew that if I put my idea in the right investor or journalist’s ear, then it might have the chance of getting picked up.” He shrugged, lost in thought. “And it did. After that, I did interview after interview. I was featured in magazines I had read obsessively as a child. It was this great cascade of events that I never could have foreseen.” He looked up at her, having an intense revelation. “And you know, before all of it happened, I had this very special moment that I never, ever forgot.”

 

The air between them was tense. Charlotte could hardly breathe; she was losing oxygen, waiting for him to continue his story.

 

“Right as the reporters first leaped on to me—at that moment when I saw the first glimpse into my future—I turned away from it all and saw a beautiful, shy blond girl staring at me. She blinked at me with these huge, blue eyes, and she seemed like she was ready to say something important. But we just grinned at each other like children, and then I was swept up into the mob.” He turned his face toward her once more. The sun lowered in the western sky, over the ocean. July was nearly over, and the feeling of lost time flashed through Charlotte’s mind.

 

“I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you yesterday,” Sean finally said, his voice quiet. “You were the girl that I made a connection with. I saw you for a moment, probably the most important moment of my life so far, and then you were gone.”

 

Charlotte didn’t move. She hoped this moment would go on forever. Her fantasy was coming true.

 

And then, they were forced on.

 

“Anyway,” Sean continued, shaking his head. “I knew, after you gave me this cufflink, that you were the lawyer I needed to represent me. You’ve been keeping this memento all these years, since the very moment when everything came together for me. This kind of dedication is exactly what I need on my team if I’m going to beat Evan Greene. Do you understand?”

 

Charlotte said she did. She nodded absently, bringing her notebook to the table without looking away, hoping they’d begin the meeting before she said something ridiculously unprofessional like “Let’s go for a drink sometime.” Because the glare of his passionate, soulful eyes wooed her. And she felt she would fall to her knees at any moment.

 

“But there’s one thing I can’t get out of my mind,” Sean continued, bringing his finger into the air, addressing his point. “Why did you keep this cufflink all these years? I mean. That was all the way across the country, at Yale, and we’re both in Seattle now, and it’s been like…a decade. And you didn’t even know I would come to Ellis and Associates for a case. I have my own in-house attorneys, after all.”

 

Charlotte felt the words hit her like a bomb. But she chose to answer with honesty. “I was a kid, Sean,” she said, almost brushing it off. “I was eighteen years old, and all I wanted in the world was to go to Yale. When I saw you deliver that speech, it felt like everything I had ever wanted could be possible. It felt like college wouldn’t be a waste, even after growing up in such a small town, with parents who didn’t really believe that there was a need to pursue education past high school.” She swallowed, her brain swimming. “And afterwards, I just wanted to go up and speak to you. I wanted to see you for who you really were.”

 

“And what would you have asked me, I wonder?” Sean asked her, his eyes twinkling with intrigue.

 

Again, Charlotte turned bright red. “I wanted to ask you out,” she said, shrugging. “I know. I was such a teenager. It sounds insane now. But maybe that’s the reason I kept the cufflink. You were a boy I crushed on and respected, and I wanted to remember that moment for eternity.”

 

Sean gazed at her for a long time. Charlotte couldn’t quite keep the eye contact and kept sweeping her glance away, out the window. Such intensity formed between them in those moments, her heart was about to leap out of her chest.

 

And then, Sean said the unthinkable: “I don’t suppose you want to go out now, if ten years isn’t too long to wait?” He gave her that sly grin, so similar to the one he’d given her a decade before.

 

Charlotte opened her mouth, a thousand things coming to her mind. Number one, she needed to explain that she hadn’t actually asked him out—she was just explaining to him the musings of her eighteen-year-old self. And number two, she needed to explain that she absolutely couldn’t date him, not now that she was going to represent him in court.

 

She paused far too long between breaths, trying to articulate the right words. All the while, Sean gazed at her with the kind of attraction and genuine absorption she’d always hoped for from someone. Nobody had ever looked at her like that.

 

But suddenly, someone was rapping loudly at the door, disturbing the moment. A panicked voice called out to them. “Sean?”

 

“Yeah? Come in!” Sean responded, standing. He left his cufflink on the desk.

 

Denise, the secretary, appeared at the entrance, breathless. She huffed and stuttered for a few seconds, her eyes nervous. “Mr. Lawson. There’s a situation in the lab downstairs. They need your assistance immediately.” She coughed, shaking her head. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”

 

Charlotte frowned, noting that Sean had unplugged his office phone, allowing them complete privacy. But Sean didn’t respond. Instead, he leaped from behind his desk and followed Denise from the room, giving a final, meaningful look to Charlotte. The look seemed to say so much—it seemed to tell her he would remember their conversation, and that he was glad she was back in his life.

 

She was that shy, beautiful blond girl who’d been there just before the world had exploded open for him. And he had remembered her, after all those years.

 

Charlotte felt like she was floating. She stood from the chair, realizing that the meeting was, most assuredly, over. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it, walking in a trance toward the door. She couldn’t date him, she reminded herself sternly; she would tell him as much the next time she saw him.

 

Even so, as the elevator rushed down toward the first floor and she walked back into the sunshine of a near-perfect Seattle summer day, Charlotte couldn’t help but feel as if she were walking on clouds. She couldn’t help but feel like every decision she’d made, every opportunity she had taken in her life, had brought her to this stunning moment.

 

Sean Lawson considered her a beautiful, tenacious woman from his past, and the perfect lawyer to ensure his successful future. As she marched back to her office, her head high, her back straight, she chose to memorize this feeling and store it in her heart, to keep it close. Life is a series of fleeting moments, she reminded herself. So many had escaped her. But this one wouldn’t. This singular afternoon, when everything she’d ever wanted had come together.

 

 

 

 

SEVEN

 

 

It was a Friday, a day that generally stretched on forever, causing Charlotte to lose herself in all the work she needed to finish before she was free for the weekend. But because she’d seen Sean Lawson that morning, because he’d told her his straight-from-the-heart confessions, she felt as if she could live in that headspace forever. She hunched over her desk, hardly noticing as Katrina, Lyle and the interns all left the office in hurried strides, eager to enjoy their Friday nights.

 

And then, suddenly, it was seven o’clock. Charlotte stretched her hands high over her head, feeling her back pop. Chelsea had called off their plans to go out for the evening due to a sudden headache, and while she was sad that she wouldn’t get to catch up with her friend, Charlotte was secretly looking forward to heading home, taking a relaxing bath, and getting into her pajamas. She closed her computer and swept her papers into her briefcase, allowing her brain some much-needed rest after a day of whirring, ravenous thoughts and innovative ideas.

 

Charlotte switched off her office light and walked into the empty, unusually quiet hallway. A janitor stood vacuuming over by Lyle’s door, and she gave the man a small, friendly wave before heading into the elevator. She contemplated what she might do that evening. She considered watching a documentary, but as her stomach growled with hunger, she knew she’d end up ordering Thai food and watching a chick flick. She thought she deserved some pampering after the chaotic, tumultuous week she’d had.

 

The elevator halted at the first floor, and Charlotte took her time walking toward the front, gazing through the glass doors, admiring the scene before her. Beautiful Seattleites meandered through the downtown streets; some dressed up to go clubbing, while hipsters headed to local breweries, ready for a good beer and burger. She loved the dichotomy of the city. It was much more her style than anywhere on the East Coast. For a moment, she felt a tinge of pain at the thought of her father, all the way across the country, celebrating his birthday without her. But if life had taught her anything, it was that she was meant to follow her heart, and she knew this would make him proud and happy.

 

She opened the door of the office building and was surprised to find a long, red carpet stretched out before the entrance, leading straight toward a limousine which was parked against the curb. Her mouth opened in shock. Charlotte’s heart began its reckless beating again, as she understood the conversation she’d had with Sean earlier that day hadn’t been lost to his other commitments. No, it had stuck with him. And now, he was making grand gestures. He was pursuing her.

 

She stepped onto the carpet, smiling widely. She righted her posture, suddenly self-conscious. All thoughts of pajamas, takeout, and chick flicks immediately rushed from her mind.

 

And of course, beyond anything, she felt a thrill about doing something she knew was completely out of bounds. She wasn’t meant to be fraternizing with a client—she could be taken off the case, and her career could be over, more or less, if word got around.

 

These thoughts forced her head down. She stared at her shoes as she walked toward the limo, forcing herself to calm down. She had to tell Sean this couldn’t happen. She had to tell him to take the limousine back to his mansion—or wherever it was that he lived. They didn’t have to speak about this again. They didn’t have to talk about the cufflink or what they might feel for each other. Rather, they could continue on as friends and colleagues. And that would be the end of it.

 

Just before leaping into the car, Charlotte turned her head left, then right, ensuring that not a single colleague was there to see her. Even getting into the limousine was reckless, she knew. She gave a final, longing look toward her bicycle, which seemed to beg: “Don’t go. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

 

But she pulled open the door and nestled into the back of the limousine, directly next to Sean. The moment she saw that grin, his five o’clock shadow, and his dark, beautiful eyes, she lost all hope of listening to her educated, rational self. Rather, she leaned her head back, flashing her own, gorgeous smile, and she said a single word that would propel her into an incredible adventure—and maybe a huge mistake.

 

“Hello.”

 

Sean laughed at this. He reached toward the limousine bar in front of him and lifted out a champagne bottle, pouring the bubbling liquid into one crystal flute, then another. He handed one to Charlotte, and she brought her fingers around the stem, trying to steady her quaking hands. “Thank you,” she whispered, her voice cracking.

 

“I had it shipped in from Paris a while back,” Sean admitted. “Two years or so. I’ve been meaning to try it. I thought that, perhaps, this would be an opportune time. After all, it seems you’ve been waiting much, much longer than that to meet me.”

 

The limo crept from its position next to the office building and Charlotte clinked her glass with his, gazing into his eyes. She cleared her throat. “So. What is this all about?” she asked finally.

 

“What do you mean?” Sean replied, his smile devilish. “I just wanted to take my attorney out for a drink. Is that against the rules?”

 

Charlotte shrugged, not wanting to say what she really felt. She unbuttoned her coat and shrugged it off, her delicate collarbones visible through her lace blouse. She could tell he noticed, as he staggered into his next words.

 

“Anyway. I’m terribly happy you’re free this evening. You never know, on a Friday night. And such a pretty girl like you.”

 

“I’m in love with my work,” she said, shrugging. “You know the Yale persona in me. This is who I am. I’ll never change.” She felt her cheeks turn bright red as she told him this honest truth.

 

Sean sipped his champagne, pensive. “I’m similar to you in that way,” he said. “I’m addicted to it. I spent my 20s slaving away at the office. I don’t think I had a single night off without thinking: man, I should be doing something.”

 

Charlotte nodded. “I went out for my friend Chelsea’s birthday last week, and I couldn’t stop checking my email. Somebody actually had to come and take the phone out of my hand. But I love the thrill of it. I love feeling like I’m making a difference in the world. It’s almost enough—but I do miss a great deal.” She thought once more of her parents, back home. When was the last time she’d visited, anyway?

 

“Real friends can be hard to come by when you’re…successful,” Sean said, not in a bragging way, but more as if he were truly bothered by the lack of genuine people in his life. “During all of the birthday parties I’ve had since I made a name for myself, I remember looking around, wondering how many of those people were genuinely there because they liked me. I think most of them were there because of what I’d built. Or because of the money I have.” He shrugged. “But you knew me before that.”

 

“I didn’t. Not really,” Charlotte breathed. But his words were already working on her; she felt warmth flow through her entire body. She turned her eyes toward the window, noting they were leaving the city, heading north. To their left, the ocean swept on. “You don’t get sick of the ocean, do you?”

 

“Never,” Sean said, joining her as they watched the sun set over it, burning oranges and pinks and reds into the water. “It opens my soul in ways technology cannot.”

 

This resonated with Charlotte. She remembered her long walks along the Atlantic with her father, during which he’d told her that he’d always longed to work outside, to work with his hands. Becoming a salesman had never been his dream, it was just steady and convenient. When she’d explained to him her love of the law, disappointment had ripped through his face. He hadn’t imagined an office life for her. He’d wanted her to be out in the world.

 

The limousine continued to whisk them from the city out into the countryside. Charlotte couldn’t get enough of the scenery as she finished her champagne far too quickly. She watched without words as Sean poured her another, and then added to his own. Clearly, he could sense her anxiety was high. They weren’t doing the right thing. Or maybe they were.

 

 

 

EIGHT

 

 

The limousine crept onto a dusty, dirt road and then parked beside an old restaurant, which had been converted from a train station nearly fifty years before, Sean said. The train station sat directly beside a lake, which offered a pier that held countless sailboats, all of them tilting in the slight evening breeze. Charlotte felt breathless, looking at the view.

 

“This is gorgeous,” she whispered.

 

“I got us a table on the pier,” Sean said, smiling and finishing his glass of champagne. “I hope you’re hungry.”

 

“Starving,” Charlotte said truthfully. She waited as Sean rushed around to her side of the limo, helping her from her seat. “Such a gentleman. I don’t think I sensed that in you during your speech.”

 

“I should have known it was a pre-date interview, rather than just a speech at Yale,” Sean breathed, laughing. “You look gorgeous, by the way.”

 

“I’d have worn something more fitting, if only I’d known,” she said, gesturing to her office attire. She knew she looked good regardless, her lean, fit body on display, her outfit revealing just enough but not too much.

 

“I can’t imagine what I would think if you’d actually tried, then,” Sean said. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and led her toward the old train station. A maître d’ greeted them at the entrance and led them down the hill, towards the pier, where a table had been set up along the water. The pier faced west, allowing them to see the grand painting of oranges and pinks and reds once more as the sun dipped lower in the sky.

 

“No clouds tonight,” Sean said, gesturing. “I can’t believe our luck.”

 

He ordered them the most expensive wine on the menu, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and Charlotte wondered if he actually knew anything about wine, in his tech-filled brain, or if he usually just ordered the most expensive, knowing he had money to burn. She didn’t dare ask. Rather, she busied herself with her menu, worried she had already seemed too eager, too into him. She wanted to play coy—at least for now.

 

The waiter took their order moments later, and in a state of minor panic, Charlotte chose the pasta—the cheaper option—and noted that Sean ordered the steak. She folded her hands over her lap, watching as Sean poured her a glass of wine and filled his own. His dark eyes sparkled with the light over the lake.

 

“This might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

 

“In all your years, this sunset over this lake is it for you?” she asked, laughing.

 

He shrugged, laughing slightly. “Do you want to make a toast?”

 

“Sure,” she said, straightening herself. “I think we should toast to our upcoming work. To beating Evan Greene at his own game. And to telling the world that you, Sean Lawson, haven’t taken anything from anyone. You’ve reached out and grasped the world for yourself. And I respect that, more than anything.” She gave him an intimate look before clinking his glass and lifting her own to her lips.

 

They eased into the date, dancing around each other with their words. They were both playful with each other, and Charlotte hadn’t expected this—she hadn’t expected such ease of conversation with a billionaire.

 

Charlotte chewed her meal slowly when it came, allowing the flavor to glide over her tongue. It was truly the best pasta she’d ever had, with a perfect pesto sauce and a delicious, fresh salad. She didn’t want to rave about it; she wanted to seem a bit higher class. But she assumed Sean knew how special this was to her.

 

“This lake,” Sean suddenly spoke, placing his fork and knife onto his half-finished plate. “I can’t get enough of it. I should come camping out here some time.”

 

“Do you camp by yourself?” she asked him, surprised.

 

“I do. I like to go in the early fall, when the leaves are changing and when the weather’s about to turn. I feel closest to the earth, then. Calmer.”

 

“I wouldn’t have expected such a techie to be enamored with nature,” she said. “I mean, appreciating a sunset is one thing. But going out into the wild, building a fire, picking berries and such? I wouldn’t have pegged you for it.”

 

“Sure. I used to do it when college got to be too much for me. I’d go out into the northeastern woods and pray I wouldn’t find a bear.” He laughed. “But honestly, my entire life, I’ve preferred things that don’t cost anything. I know money is a huge issue. It’s the reason I started InvestMe.”

 

“I saw the speech,” Charlotte teased. “I have a pretty good sense for why you started it.”

 

“Good point,” Sean laughed. “But beyond InvestMe, beyond this really lovely dinner, beyond that limousine, I mostly appreciate the simple things. And in so many ways, the little things—like just talking here with you, or remembering bits of the past, like that cufflink—are all free. And they have real meaning. I think that’s my favorite part of being alive. Living for the little things.”

 

Charlotte leaned back, smiling widely. His words spoke to her. She felt all reservations about being on a date with her client fall away, and she felt her heart begin to beat with lust and passion for this man. In so many ways, she was still that eighteen-year-old girl, enamored with Sean in every way.

 

“That was beautifully put,” she whispered. She leaned toward him. “I think my father is like that. He hates money. Complains about it constantly. Can’t imagine why I wanted to be involved with the tech law scene over here, if only because it reeks of money. Of course, he’s an insurance salesman. So it doesn’t quite make sense, does it?”

 

Sean raised his eyebrows. “I suppose we all have to do what we have to do. And you, my dear, had to become a lawyer. It’s in your blood. I can smell it on you.”

 

“I’m not one of those stinking, New York lawyers that smell perpetually of hot dogs and whiskey, am I?” she laughed.

 

“No,” Sean said, shaking his head. “You just have a fire about you. You have something extra. I can’t put my finger on it.” He brought his hand toward hers on the table, and Charlotte looked down, assessing the tiny space between them. She swallowed, feeling suddenly anxious.

 

After dinner, Sean suggested they take a stroll by the lake, and Charlotte readily agreed, feeling that she was already nose-deep—she might as well put her hair under.

 

“Have you ever gone skinny dipping?” Charlotte asked him, gazing out across the water. The light illuminated his face, giving a glow to all his features, and she felt silly for how much she loved looking at him.

 

“Skinny dipping? Let me see,” he said, stroking his perfect jaw. “I have gone by myself, but never with anyone else.”

 

“That’s funny,” Charlotte laughed, feeling sheepish, now. “Most people do it at parties. With people. To show off.”

 

“I went when I was camping,” Sean said. “I just longed to feel my legs and arms in the water without obstruction. It was glorious, really. And I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing or judging my body.”

 

Charlotte wanted to interject, to tell him how wonderful she was sure he looked beneath his clothes. But she pushed it back. “I’ve never done it, I admit. My friends went once at a party at Yale, and I decided to go home and study. I didn’t want to get my hair wet.” She laughed at herself, hopeful that her truthfulness wasn’t putting him off.

 

“I would have done the same thing,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s almost like we had the same college experience.”

 

“Well I didn’t come out of it featured in a magazine,” Charlotte countered. “But…I suppose you’re right. I wish you would have been there for the lonely nights.” Had she really just said that to him? Had those words really come out of her mouth?

 

Sean looked at her, clearing his throat. He gestured toward the limousine, which they’d absent-mindedly walked back to. Beside them, the restaurant was closing for the night; people were sipping the last of their wines and going home, and servers were cleaning up.

 

“Are you ready to go home?” he asked her. His eyes were searching her face, trying to evaluate her feelings.

 

But Charlotte peered up at him with confidence. Bold words came cascading out of her mouth, then. “Why don’t we have a nightcap at your place?” she said, smiling.

 

And so, they hopped into the limousine, and Charlotte found herself grasping Sean’s hand. Her heart leaped into her throat, her every limb was tense, and her smile seemed glued to her face. The limousine drove them back to Seattle, where, she knew, what she’d formerly known of the world would come crashing down around her.

 

 

 

NINE

 

 

 

Sean’s penthouse was in the heart of downtown Seattle, near Pike’s Place Market, with an incredible view of the water. Stars dotted overhead, making the atmosphere even more romantic. Charlotte felt outside of her body as the limousine pulled to a stop outside the apartment block—the night, thus far, had been surreal, magical.

 

Sean turned toward her, oddly nervous—but he hadn’t asked her again, hadn’t inquired if this was the right thing, or not. They’d only held hands. They’d only implied their feelings for one another. Whatever happened in the penthouse apartment didn’t need to be sexual; it could be a conversation, followed by coffee—but in truth, that wasn’t what Charlotte was hoping for.

 

Sean helped her from the backseat of the limo, lacing his fingers through hers. Their hearts seemed to beat together, their pulses aligned. “We’ll take the elevator up,” he told her, his voice warm. “If you’re ready.”

 

The elevator was glass, floor to ceiling, and they soared up to the tenth floor, where Sean used a small silver key that brought the door open directly into the foyer of his penthouse.

 

Immediately, Charlotte felt a gasp escape her. She hadn’t meant to reveal her amazement at his wealth—especially given she’d told him, in no uncertain terms, that she was interested in him for him. But his penthouse suite was surely the height of luxury: the floors were marble, gleaming, almost as if they’d never been walked upon, and the foyer swept down a small staircase, into a cozy living room lined with leather couches. Up from the living room, a spiral staircase crept up to a kind of heavenly bedroom loft, where a king-sized bed splayed out, surrounded by crowded bookshelves.

 

“How many books do you have?” Charlotte asked, her voice full of wonder.

 

“You’re the first woman who’s ever asked me that,” Sean laughed. He gestured her toward the kitchen, where he found a bottle of fine whiskey in his liquor cabinet and poured them both generous splashes of the amber liquid. “Do you mind yours straight?” he asked.

 

Charlotte hadn’t drunk much whiskey straight—she hadn’t drunk much of it at all. But she had come too far to say no; this was a night for going out of her comfort zone. “I’ll have it straight, sure,” she said, her voice echoing in the vast kitchen.

 

Sean led her out into the living room and they sat on one of the plush leather sofas. He pressed a button on a remote, and soft indie music began to fold into her ears from the surrounding speakers. She felt she was in heaven on earth.

 

“I can’t believe you live like this,” Charlotte thought out loud. “And yet you still go camping.”

 

Sean laughed again. He placed his glass on the table before him, gazing into her eyes. “I’ve had a really wonderful time tonight.”

 

“Is this the part where you say you want to see me again?” Charlotte teased. “And I blink at you like a doll, telling you I really hope to see you again, too?”

 

“If we’re playing the roles of a ‘90s sitcom, I think you’re correct,” Sean said. “If only I’d met you for real in 2006. You were probably wearing…a jean skirt? Something from Abercrombie and Fitch.”

 

“They were the glory days of fashion,” Charlotte smiled. “I still remember what you wore; a suit that didn’t quite fit. Who helped you pick that out?”

 

Sean sighed, his eyebrows rising. “Actually, Evan did,” he shrugged. “He was always the stylish one. He had a knack for knowing what to wear to get girls to notice him, and what to wear around professors so they would take you seriously. But yeah—that suit. It was a bit too big. To be honest, I was so nervous before that speech, I lost about ten pounds in a month.” He snickered, shaking his head. “I ate way too much pizza before that, though.”

 

“Oh, yes. Freshman weight gain. I know it well,” Charlotte laughed. She felt such a familiarity with him, such warmth.

 

She leaned in towards him, sensing his lips so close to hers. And then, suddenly, as if in a dream, their lips locked together. She felt her body stir with pleasure as he wrapped his arms around her, as their kiss turned toward neediness, and lust.

 

But after a moment, Charlotte broke it, and looked away from him. She swept her fingers to her temples, shaking her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “This is probably a terrible idea. I’m your lawyer. I have to respect the relationship we’ve set up between us, legally.”

 

Sean didn’t say anything. He brought his hand to her blond hair and swept his fingers through it, eyeing the way it caught in the light. The tension between them was at breaking point, even though they were hardly touching. Charlotte felt her chest rise high as she breathed jaggedly. She felt she would nearly explode with passion for him.

 

“I think we should give in to this,” he said then. The words weren’t obtrusive or pushy; they seemed natural, truthful. “This could be the one night we spend together. The one time we can truly fulfill this destiny.”

 

“The cufflink destiny,” she breathed.

 

“Exactly.”

 

They sealed his words with another kiss, and Charlotte wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her breasts against his firm chest, feeling his muscles wrap around her. They melted into one another, then, lost in each other’s embrace.

 

Charlotte felt her fingers begin to unbutton his shirt; she felt herself stretch her arms forward, pushing his jacket from his shoulders to the floor. She played lightly with the black hair on his chest and felt the smoothness of his nipples. He ripped her blouse from her shoulders, bringing it up, over her head, and gazing at her lace bra, at the way her skin glowed beneath the soft lights.

 

“You are the woman from my dreams,” he said then.

 

They pressed their naked bodies together, teasing each other, before retiring to the bed upstairs. They made love deep into the night, entrapped in the other’s body, relishing in the feel of their skin touching, their unity. Then, they fell asleep in each other’s arms, completely content and utterly spent.

 

***

 

The following morning, Charlotte awoke in Sean’s arms, her cheek against his shoulder. She gazed at his nakedness before her, noting that they fit perfectly together, that their bodies seemed made for each other—they were two pieces of a stunning puzzle. And she longed for him not to wake up, so that this moment, this image, could last forever. She breathed easily, daydreaming, remembering herself as a eighteen-year-old girl once more. She wished she could go back and inform that girl of the beauty of the future.

 

“You’ll have a wonderful law career,” she would tell the girl, her voice warm. “And you’ll meet a man who will change everything, even though you can’t keep him. He cannot be yours. But the brevity of your time together doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Treasure your feelings. Listen to your heart. And fight for what you believe in, always.”

 

As Charlotte daydreamed, Sean stretched awake, turning his dark eyes toward her. He gave her that mischievous grin before reaching toward the floor and grasping the comforter. He swung it over them, so that they could no longer see their nakedness, so that they could drift apart on the mattress.

 

Charlotte felt oddly sad as they became two separate entities, but she didn’t allow it to show on her face. She gave him a friendly grin and felt a question bubble to her lips. “Do you want to eat breakfast? I’m starving.”

 

Sean laughed. He reached for his watch on the nightstand and checked it, noting the time. “I actually can’t, even though it’s Saturday; I have a meeting at noon. And it’s already 10:30? Oh, man.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I wish I could, though.” He kissed her lips lightly, without the tension of the evening before.

 

Charlotte lifted herself to a seated position, calculating how far away her home was. She needed to find her way back to the office, grab her bicycle, and ride hard and fast back to her place so that she could start to forget her feelings. “Well. This was fun, thank you,” she said. Her voice had the formality of a seasoned lawyer once again. She’d practiced this voice. And now, she kind of hated using it.

 

“Yes. Don’t think I’m not glad we did this, because I am. It was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time,” Sean said. He turned away, grabbing a towel and moving towards the bathroom. He would no longer smell like her, soon.

 

“For the sake of your career and mine, we should definitely make this a one-time thing,” Charlotte said, hating how cold the words sounded after everything they’d shared the previous night.

 

She couldn’t read Sean’s reaction as he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.

 

In that moment, Charlotte leaped from the bed and down the steps, toward the couch, where she found her pencil skirt and her lace shirt. She donned them quickly, pulling her fingers through her hair to try to look presentable again, not pausing to say goodbye before stabbing the elevator button.

 

She tipped her weight on first one heel, then the other, hoping Sean wouldn’t leave the bathroom before her escape. He was still in there when the elevator doors closed.

 

Outside, Charlotte marched toward her office building, still smelling of the billionaire. She could still taste his tongue in her mouth. Finding her trusty bike, she stabbed her feet over her pedals and bound herself toward home. In many ways, she wished she had just gone home the previous evening. Now, she’d have to live with this memory, just as she’d carried the memory of Sean throughout the previous ten years. Now, she had to know that, in another world, in another life, they might have been meant for each other. They could have been together.

 

But because she’d been able to meet him, because she’d been hired as his attorney, she was forced to remain alone.

 

Her apartment welcomed her without judgement. She fell into the arms of her couch and flicked around on the television, not bothering with the news or any of her normal channels of interest. She felt like a kid who’d been stood up at the dance, but she didn’t know why.

 

She was a grown adult, and she needed to refute her feelings for Sean. She would throw herself voraciously back into her work. Maybe, she thought, she’d make an online dating profile, to figure out if anyone in this world could ever compare to Sean.

 

She highly doubted it.

 

 

 

 

TEN

 

Two Months Later

 

 

Charlotte sat in her office, wrapped in a gray sweater, gazing out at the rain that had begun to patter across Seattle. Long gone were the gorgeous, sundrenched days of summer, and autumn was revving toward them all like a semi-truck. She couldn’t do anything to stop it.

 

She pushed her phone to her ear, listening to it ring and ring. Finally, she heard the familiar voicemail recording.

 

“Hello, this is Sean of Lawson Technologies. I am unable to receive your call at this time. Go ahead and leave a message and I’ll get back to you soon.”

 

Charlotte groaned inwardly as it beeped. But when she spoke, her voice was smooth, cordial.

 

“Hi, Sean,” she began. “It’s Charlotte Waters. Again. I know I keep calling you, but we need to go over the details of this case. Things are ramping up on our end, and Evan Greene is growing rowdy. His attorneys are all over us.”

 

She swallowed, hating that she longed to end the message with something like “I think about you often.”

 

She hung up after a quick goodbye, and went back to staring out the window, thinking about the passage of time and how it always seemed to stomp on her heart, no matter how hard she worked to escape it.

 

Out of nowhere, there came a knock at her door, breaking Charlotte’s reverie. Thinking it was probably Katrina, who’d been a constant annoyance in her life recently, she spewed a disgruntled: “Come in.”

 

Charlotte didn’t spin around as she heard the clacking of heels. But the moment the familiar, playful voice said her name, her muscles lost their tension, and her smile stretched from ear to ear.

 

“Chelsea,” she whispered, turning round. She ran toward her friend, wrapping her arms around her and smooching her on the cheek like a cartoon character. Chelsea had been in Europe for the previous two weeks, on business, and she’d hardly been able to call—the nine-hour time difference was killer. “Oh my God, I hate to say how much I’ve missed you. But it nearly killed me not to see you for so long.”

 

Chelsea giggled. “Girl, you should have gone with me! Called in sick to this place. How many hours have you been putting in recently?”

 

Charlotte thought for a moment, adding the numbers in her head; once she got to 60, she quit counting. “You know, I don’t want to think about it,” she smiled. “Too many, or not enough. It’s one or the other.”

 

Chelsea sat at the seat across from her, slipping her fingers into her bag and grasping what looked to be a chocolate bar. She handed it to Charlotte, grinning. “Look. I got you some Swiss chocolate to take your troubles away.”

 

“From Zurich?” Charlotte squealed, taking it. She yearned to eat the entire thing in one bite. “Thank you so much. I’m going to make it last. Well. At least, till the end of the day.” She winked at her friend.

 

“Eat it however you please,” Chelsea laughed. “Seriously. I gained like five pounds in Europe.”

 

“But you look better than ever. You’ve got the travel glow,” Charlotte affirmed. She paused for a moment, trying to think of a single update on her life.

 

“You haven’t heard from him lately, have you?” Chelsea guessed, tilting her head. “You seem down, honey, your face has sadness in it.”

 

“Sadness ages you,” Charlotte said sternly, rubbing her eyes. “And so does Katrina. Ugh.”

 

Chelsea laughed. “Well, I think you deserve a night out with me. Drinks next week? I have loads of work to get caught up on, but we both need to cut loose. What do you say?”

 

“I say absolutely,” Charlotte agreed. “And you need to help me get over this dumb Sean thing. I need to meet people. I need to put myself out there. It’s finally time.”

 

“I’m glad you’re feeling up to it, really,” Chelsea said, eyeing her. “But I can tell you’re not really over that guy. You fell for him hard, didn’t you?”

 

Charlotte opened her mouth, feeling her breath come in staggers, just from the mention of Sean. She began to tell Chelsea that she really didn’t want to talk about it—that she’d really rather leave it alone, when someone rapped at the door. The knock was impatient, angry.

 

“That’ll be Katrina,” Charlotte sighed, rising to her feet. “She’s been in and out of here all morning. She has a million ideas about the Sean Lawson case—none of which align with what I actually practice, with regards to law.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course, Lyle’s humming and hawing, wanting to side with her because of her father.” She paused for a moment, sighing. “Anyway. Maybe we can catch up properly soon? I’m sorry you came all the way over here.”

 

“I’m just playing hooky, love,” Chelsea said, kissing her friend on the cheek. “Good luck with the monster.”

 

Chelsea whirled past Katrina as Charlotte opened the door, giving her a once-over.

 

Katrina eyed her icily before passing her gaze to Charlotte. “Do you have a moment?” she asked, trotting in on her Louboutins without waiting for a response.

 

Charlotte sat in her chair, her hands in her lap. She waited as Katrina fluffed her hair, gazing around the room. The door was closed behind them, and Charlotte had half a mind to run and retrieve Lyle, if only to keep things friendly, but she didn’t move toward the door.

 

“Have you heard from Sean recently?” Katrina asked her, her eyes dark. “Because he called me just now. Said he wouldn’t be back from New York for another two weeks.”

 

Charlotte frowned, feeling her insides fold into themselves. He’d called Katrina? Why hadn’t he returned her phone call? She worked hard to push down her hurt feelings.

 

“A great guy, really,” Katrina said, her eyes flashing. “You can tell he truly cares about his business. That he wouldn’t do anything to run its name through the muck.”

 

“Sure,” Charlotte said. She didn’t know where this was going. She sensed something menacing in Katrina’s words, but reminded herself that nobody knew about her night with Sean. Nobody in the world, apart from the two of them.

 

“Which is why I really think we should follow my strategy for the case,” Katrina said. “Your plan—no offence, but it’s too risky. If we lose, it would tell the world that Sean is a liar, that he uses people. But with my plan, they won’t think poorly of him. They’ll only think highly of Evan Greene—which is a chance we’ll have to take. It’s better this way.”

 

Charlotte scoffed. She longed to ask Katrina if she’d ever spent a single day in law school. The route she’d planned didn’t even take the massive selection of documents that Sean had sent them into account. But Charlotte had to play cool.

 

She leaned back, nodding. “I’ll have to talk to Lyle a bit more. But it definitely could work.”

 

Nope, she said in the back of her mind. She most certainly would not do that. Her career was on the line, and if she lost this, she’d be mortified.

 

“Well,” Charlotte said, tapping her hands on her legs. “I think I’m going to head to lunch, if you think we’re done here. I really don’t see anything else we can cover.”

 

“Lunch?” Katrina scoffed, looking Charlotte’s body up and down. “Be careful, Charlotte. We don’t want to be seen as sloppy here.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes grew wide as the insult smacked her in the face. She stared at Katrina, deadpan, wishing her to leave.

 

“I’m just saying. Try to lay off the bagels, if you can,” Katrina smirked. She tapped from the office, her small, perfect butt swaying behind her.

 

As soon as the door closed, Charlotte burst from her seat, staring down at her stomach. Sure, she’d felt a little bloated recently—but fat?

 

She touched at the slight bulge in her pencil skirt, aware that it had been a great deal easier to zip up a few weeks before. But she had hardly changed her diet. Sure, the stress fallout from her night with Sean had caused her to order takeout a few more times than normal, but that didn’t warrant this much weight gain. She still went running every morning. She still worked hard, and ensured she didn’t overdo it on carbohydrates.

 

What was it, then? She studied her hands, conscious that she was now approaching 30. Perhaps the rules had changed for her. Perhaps she couldn’t even look at a piece of pizza without the weight stockpiling on her stomach, on her thighs. She forced herself to create a plan, then and there, writing out the words on her notepad: ‘zucchini, chicken, NO BREAD, buy a scale!’ hating herself for listening to Katrina.

 

But she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t immune to that wretched woman. And now that Sean had been ignoring her—and was, apparently, contacting Katrina for information about the case—her self-esteem was at an all-time low.

 

Charlotte skipped lunch and worked deep into the night; her tongue sandy from lack of eating, her body seeming to creak with fatigue. As long as she was building a solid strategy for the Lawson vs. Greene case, she felt she didn’t need sustenance.

 

When she arrived back at her Capitol Hill apartment that night and curled up on her couch, she was exhausted. She didn’t even look in the refrigerator. She longed to waste away. How would she meet the man of her dreams—the one somewhere out there that wasn’t the billionaire heartthrob she was working with—if she wasn’t a stick-thin, beautiful blonde anymore?

 

 

 

 

ELEVEN

 

Over the next week, Charlotte monitored her eating habits and ramped up her morning runs. Between her decreased carbohydrate count, intense exercise regime, and her long hours at the office, she felt wiped out all the time. And yet, it seemed, that little bulge wouldn’t go away. One morning, at the coffee machine, Katrina leaned toward her and rubbed her stomach, asking her when she was due. Charlotte felt panicked and angry, but lent her a smile. “Gotta lay off the donuts,” she said, all the while knowing she hadn’t eaten a donut in months. God, this was getting old.

 

Charlotte sighed as she splayed out in her office chair, her legs outstretched. A knock at the door was followed by Lyle, who still had the crumbs of morning breakfast in his beard.

 

She jolted upward, not wanting to be caught in this dull and dead state. “Morning, Lyle!” she said perkily, yearning to rub her eyes. “How are you?”

 

“Just fine, Charlotte,” he said. He rested his hand on the empty chair. “Mind if I sit?”

 

“Of course not,” she said, tilting her head, curious. “What’s going on?”

 

Lyle shut the door and sat with his chin pressed against his right palm. “I’m not sure how to say this. But we need to incorporate some of Katrina’s ideas into the case plan.”

 

Charlotte’s heart sank in her chest, but the expression on Lyle’s face told her that there was no point arguing—Katrina would always win, no matter what.

 

“And why is that?” she finally asked.

 

“Well. I know some of her ideas are…not tactful,” he said quietly.

 

“That’s one way to put it,” Charlotte scoffed. “It’s almost like she never went to law school. There’s no reason she should have this position in the firm, Lyle. And you know that.” She felt the harshness in her voice, and she brought her hand over her mouth, suddenly anxious; despite her frustration, she didn’t want to be rude. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s quite all right,” Lyle said, nodding. “She’s a good lawyer, Katrina, even though she doesn’t understand the craft quite like you do. But because of her father’s position—”

 

“Say no more,” Charlotte sighed, dipping her head into her hands. “I know. I’ll pick and choose from her suggestions and fit them into the strategy.”

 

“Thank you, Charlotte,” Lyle said. He looked embarrassed, his cheeks flushing red beneath his beard. “I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

 

Charlotte looked beyond him, to the door, as he continued to speak. Something within her had changed. She felt a sudden pang of nausea rip through her, and her stomach flipped over. She stretched her fingers over her belly, shooting up to stand vertical.

 

“Is there something wrong? You’re green, Charlotte—”

 

But Charlotte couldn’t answer him; she burst past Lyle and toward the ladies’ room, her heart pounding. She ran into the first stall, leaned over, and began to vomit the black coffee from her stomach.

 

Something about the nausea seemed ominous. She stood, swiping a Kleenex over her lips, her stomach still rolling. She hadn’t been sick like this in years—not since a brutal hangover on her 26th birthday, and even that hadn’t been as bad as this. As she turned back toward the door, ready to explain herself to Lyle, the attack seized her once more, and she found herself diving toward the toilet, shuddering.

 

When she returned to her office, Charlotte was shaking. Lyle had left a note on her desk, telling her to get well soon, and to head home if she felt the need. She lifted her purse and coat from the coat rack, and ducked out from the office building, stricken.

 

She felt her legs lead her not to the first drug store, but to the second one—the one a bit further away from work. The aisle of pregnancy tests glinted beneath the false light. She felt so alone in front of them, and couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone she passed by was staring at her, at the bump.

 

She chose the most expensive pregnancy test, so she could be sure about the result, and paid with cash, ensuring she didn’t have to spend an extra moment longer at the checkout counter. And then, Charlotte got onto the first bus that passed by, taking her all the way back to Capitol Hill. She’d abandoned her bike, not wanting to rush through traffic, through the rain and the chill. Not when she was going home to take a pregnancy test.

 

She arrived back at her apartment and tossed her coat on her couch, pulling the test out of her purse with a look of dread. Hoping it would give her some semblance of luck, she flipped a Fleetwood Mac album onto her record player and bobbed her head in time, willing the music to lift her spirits and give her strength.

 

As she opened the packaging, Charlotte thought back to the previous few weeks; how she’d been so incalculably tired; how she’d barely been eating, yet she’d still gained weight. And now, with the nausea, it seemed to add up to just one possible cause. She couldn’t believe it had taken her this long to work it out.

 

She peed on the stick dutifully, and then she watched the clock tick two precise minutes. She lifted the stick from its position on the bathroom table, and she nodded without fanfare. She bowed her head, wondering if tears would come.

 

She was pregnant. She was pregnant with Sean’s baby.

 

She collapsed atop the toilet cover, dropping the pregnancy test into the trashcan. Her brain hummed. Sean was all the way across the country, probably bouncing from one business meeting to the next without much else on his mind. He almost certainly hadn’t thought about her since their time together; if she was being realistic, she had to remember he was one of the richest, most important men in the world. She was just a blip.

 

But she had to tell him. It was her duty, as the mother of his child, to inform him. If she raised this child without him, that was fine. She would hate to explain to her child that billionaire Sean Lawson was his or her father, and that he didn’t want to be in their lives. But if that was the reality, she would be forced to accept it.

 

She knew it would be difficult on her own, but in that moment, Charlotte knew she would be the child’s mother. She’d created another human life with the most wonderful, brilliant man, and she wouldn’t refute that gift.

 

Charlotte lifted her phone and dialed Sean, but the cell went immediately to voicemail, and Charlotte didn’t bother to leave a message. What would it be, anyway? “Surprise! I’m pregnant! How about that!” No. She had to be delicate. She had to treat this with respect.

 

Because it wasn’t yet late in the day, Charlotte called Sean’s secretary, who she hadn’t seen in several weeks, not since her last meeting with Sean. “Hello, Denise,” she said. “Charlotte Waters here. I was hoping to get a sense for when Sean would be back in Seattle.”

 

Denise coughed into the phone. “Well, let’s see,” she said, and Charlotte heard paper rustling. “I don’t have an exact date yet. He just keeps saying ‘soon’—and to have his fridge stocked. The secretary’s life, right?” Denise laughed.

 

But Charlotte couldn’t be bothered to fake laughter. She cleared her throat. “Well, could you please leave him a message that I need to speak with him?”

 

“I’ve already left him three,” Denise said, her voice raspy. “Do you really think he needs another?”

 

“Yes,” Charlotte said, her voice insistent. “Please tell him to call me this time, not Katrina. Okay?”

 

“All right, Charlotte,” Denise said, obviously rolling her eyes. “I’ll deliver the message to him. And I guarantee he’ll get to you when he has the time. He truly cares about this case.”

 

“Sure,” Charlotte said, suddenly realizing she’d forgotten all about the case for a moment. “Thanks. I’ll see you soon.”

 

Denise hung up the phone, leaving Charlotte at a loss. She stared at her cell for a long, solemn moment, before texting Chelsea and asking: How about that drink right about now?

 

***

 

Chelsea escaped her office a little early in order to meet Charlotte out in Capitol Hill, at a bar between their two apartments. Still in denial about the truth of her pregnancy, Charlotte ordered a glass of wine, but didn’t drink it. She just stared at the light glinting in it as Chelsea told her about the current drama at her workplace. After about ten minutes, Chelsea sensed something was dramatically wrong.

 

“What’s up, honey?” she asked, her voice far away. “You’ve hardly said a word. And you haven’t even sipped your drink.” Her face looked stern. “I know when you hide things. I remember when you were angry with me for eating your food that time, back when we lived together. You wouldn’t speak to me for three days, until I confronted you.” Chelsea laughed. “And then you lawyered me about it.”

 

Charlotte grinned, tracing the memory back as well. It was comforting, thinking of this forgotten time. But she cleared her throat, feeling the weight of the news destroying her.

 

“I’m pregnant,” she finally spoke. Her voice was weak.

 

Chelsea’s jaw dropped. “Didn’t you use protection?” she asked in a harsh whisper. “You know—the one thing we’re universally taught to do in college?”

 

Charlotte shook her head, gazing down at her fingers. “I think we did,” she whispered. “Actually, I’m sure we did. But if it’s only effective 99% of the time, I guess I’m the 1%.”

 

Chelsea sighed. “This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

 

Charlotte nodded. “Now, I’m grappling with all these thoughts about being a single mother and a lawyer. God, it doesn’t make sense, does it? Maybe I should just return to the East Coast. Maybe I could get my parents to help me, to watch the baby—”

 

“You can’t give up your career. That’s final,” Chelsea said firmly. “You worked your butt off to get where you are, at one of the most prestigious law firms in the United States. You can’t leave. I won’t hear of it.”

 

“Then what should I do?” Charlotte asked. She was lost. She felt tears stinging her eyes.

 

Chelsea brought her hand across the table and nestled it beside Charlotte’s. She gave her a steady smile. “We’re going to work this out together, I promise you. This baby is going to have the best life, with the best mother—and the best aunt—in the world.” She poked herself in the chest with her thumb, affirming she was by Charlotte’s side. “Who said we need men, anyway?”

 

Charlotte laughed, tilting her head. “I got so lucky with you, didn’t I?”

 

“You sure did,” Chelsea winked. “Now, let me get you something else to drink. A sparkling water? A hot chocolate? I’ll drink that wine. I’m stressed.”

 

Charlotte laughed again, agreeing to the hot chocolate and leaning back in her chair as Chelsea retrieved her drink. For the moment, the world was easy. She had a partner in crime, no matter what Sean Lawson said when he heard the news.

 

“Now,” Chelsea said, as she returned to the table. “I just have one question to ask you.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

“Do you want to finish up here and go back to your place for some Chinese? I heard a rumor you might be starving yourself. And that baby has probably had enough by now.”

 

Charlotte gratefully agreed, and after finishing their drinks, the girls walked arm in arm back to her place, where they tucked themselves into the couch, pretending they were twenty-five years old again, on the brink of something great.

 

 

 

 

TWELVE

 

 

Charlotte called in sick the following days, before finally forcing herself into the office on Friday morning, her morning sickness a little more under control. Chelsea dropped her at work, having stayed with her for several nights in a row, making her tea and monitoring her eating.

 

“He’ll call back,” she affirmed over and over again. “If he’s half the man you think he is.”

 

But Charlotte was tentative. She hadn’t heard from Sean, and had half a mind that he’d abandoned her because they’d slept together. She felt used. She felt tired. She felt resigned.

 

She’d been blankly staring at her computer screen when a notification popped up, alerting her of a meeting with Katrina at 10:30 a.m. A meeting regarding the Lawson case.

 

Charlotte sighed; this would be the meeting in which she was meant to include Katrina’s “enlightened” assumptions about the law into the case strategy. This would tip her overboard for the day.

 

At 10:28, she lifted herself from her seat, grabbed her notes, and shuffled toward the boardroom. Her eyelids were half closed. She could already hear the insults coming from Katrina. “What happened to you?”

 

But as she entered the boardroom, all thoughts of her appearance rushed from her brain. She felt riddled with panic. She yearned to rush out the door, run down the steps, and never see Seattle again.

Because there, seated beside Katrina in the boardroom—laughing and joking with her—was Sean Lawson, himself. Seeing him felt like a knife in her gut.

 

He peered up at Charlotte with recognition, and then patted the chair beside him.

 

“Sit down,” Katrina told her, her voice catty. “What’s taking so long?”

 

“She’s worried we’re talking about her,” Sean teased. “Katrina and I can be quite gossipy. Isn’t that right?”

 

Katrina laughed in that false way, her voice ringing. Charlotte knew, then, that Katrina was trying to impress Sean—that she was pulling out all the stops to make him look at her with desire. That way, she’d be on top; she’d be the real leader of the case, despite Charlotte having the title.

 

Charlotte sat down, eyeing both of them with disdain. She felt the pangs of morning sickness rally within her, but she forced them down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” she said. She leafed through her folders, trying to remember just what this meeting was about, anyway. Inside her, she felt as though the baby was kicking her, urging her to tell Sean the news. She knew this wasn’t possible—he or she was still only about the size of an olive.

 

“I was explaining a few of my ideas,” Katrina began, her eyebrows rising high. “And then Sean explained to me that he’s only here because you won’t stop calling his secretary.”

 

“As soon as I arrived in my office, Denise chased me down and told me you’d called ten times in the last couple of weeks,” Sean laughed, looking at her with incredulity. “She said it was of the utmost importance to get over here. So I called the office, and Katrina’s intern set it up. I hope it’s not a bad time…”

 

Charlotte’s eyes were wide with horror. She’d called the office so many times to set up a private meeting—one without Katrina present—and yet, here they were. Three’s company. She felt like she was about to faint.

 

She flipped through her papers with shaking fingers, wondering desperately how to navigate the precarious situation. Finally, she landed upon a statement. It seemed made-up and strange, even to herself.

 

“Well, Sean, while you were gone, Katrina and I got to work on your case. And it seems that we both have very different ideas about how we should proceed; almost as if we went to very different law schools.” She blinked, her face turning red. It was very apparent that she’d just pulled this little speech out of nowhere.

 

Sean waited for a moment before choosing his words. “So. This was the very important, very urgent matter that you called my office ten times about?” he asked. His eyes were filled with humor, but his face only made a half-smile. “You know, I really appreciate all you’re doing over here in Seattle, but I have business meetings all over the world. I have to trust you both to make reasoned, professional decisions for me. It’s what I’m paying you for.”

 

Sean’s harsh words were unlike the stunning portrait of the man she’d daydreamed about for ten years. Charlotte felt slapped. She gazed at her hands, vaguely nauseous, as Sean and Katrina broke out into laughter.

 

“Can you imagine?” Katrina said. “Dragging you all the way across the country for a conversation like this?” She laughed. “If I’d known what she was up to, I’d have told you to remain in your office.” She winked at him with not-so-casual flirtation.

 

And Sean wasn’t immune to it. He shook his head, still looking at Charlotte, his expression a mixture of confusion and affection.

 

That night had happened, right? Charlotte wondered. She felt an aching sense of loneliness; of loss.

 

“I’m sorry,” Charlotte said, stuttering. “I suppose, now that I say it out loud, it wasn’t as pressing as I initially thought. I’m sorry, Sean. I didn’t mean to interrupt your schedule. I can assure you that Katrina and I will put our heads together to figure this out.” She swallowed, her eyes large.

 

“Okay… Let’s have a meeting when you’re finished, then,” Sean said, giving her an earnest nod. “And please, don’t worry about this. It happens. I get it. I’ve had a lot of other meetings that were a lot less fun than this one.” He gave Katrina a warm, friendly look, and Charlotte tried to convince herself that there wasn’t a sexual nature to it. That would have broken her heart.

 

Sean lifted himself from his seat, then. He donned his jacket, and Charlotte knew her chance was slipping away.

 

Scrambling for a pencil, for her folder of reminders and notes, Charlotte she sent a final word after him. “Excuse me! Sean? Can you come here for a moment? I wanted to check with you if these numbers are correct. In this document…” She gestured at the papers, hopeful, and Sean eyed her curiously,

 

Quickly, she scribbled the words: “NINE MONTHSNOTICE,” onto a folder, and pointed to it—giving him this final, coded suggestion of her pregnancy.

 

Sean glanced at the papers, and Charlotte was almost certain he caught the note. How could he not?

 

As if on cue, Lyle appeared at the door, reaching forward to shake Sean’s hand. Sean accepted it gratefully, with a joke, leaving Charlotte’s side. “I’ll see you ladies tomorrow,” Sean said, then. He took confident strides from the boardroom, trading pleasantries with Lyle, and marched toward the elevator.

 

“You can’t imagine what kind of trip that was,” Charlotte heard Sean tell Lyle before their voices became muffled. His voice hadn’t changed. It wasn’t clear if he’d seen the note or not. If he knew about the pregnancy, he wasn’t giving any reaction away. If he hadn’t—then he’d live out the rest of his day like normal.

 

Either way, Charlotte felt doomed.

 

Charlotte groaned, just as Katrina stood up. She planted her hands on her hips, pointing her angular elbows outward, staring at her colleague. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “I’ve seen you do some really weird stuff, but this might take the cake.”

 

Charlotte didn’t budge. She waited until Katrina turned toward the door and clacked on her heels from the room, finding solace in yelling at an intern to get her a hot cup of coffee.

 

Her brain had begun to take a horrible course, which allowed her to believe that Sean had, indeed, seen the note. That he did know that she was pregnant. And that he’d left anyway. He’d left because he didn’t want to be involved. He didn’t want to deal with the responsibilities of being a father. He didn’t want to step up to the plate. He would refuse her, and probably tell her to remove herself from the case.

 

Charlotte traipsed back to her office, hardly able to feel her feet. Her legs were quaking. She collapsed into her chair and dialed her father’s number, remembering that she’d been meaning to call him.

 

“Hey, pumpkin,” he answered after two rings. “I was hoping you’d call soon. We miss you.”

 

“Hi, Dad,” Charlotte said. Her eyes filled with tears, thinking that, despite everything that had happened—despite her running to Yale and then retreating across the country—her father had remained supportive. She had no reason in the world not to trust him to understand her decisions.

 

“I have some news,” she said. “It’s kind of big.”

 

“What is it, pumpkin?” her dad said. “Did you get promoted, finally? You deserve it.”

 

Charlotte breathed shallowly, trying to find the right words. She hadn’t planned on telling her parents—not until after she’d gone to the doctor; not until after she was certain Sean didn’t want a single ounce of involvement.

 

“I’m having a baby,” she said. “I know it might come as a shock. I don’t have a boyfriend, or a husband—” She felt herself begin to calm as the words propelled from her mouth. “But here we are.”

 

Her father didn’t pause for even a moment. “You’re going to be a mother!” he exclaimed. Pure happiness seemed to exude from his voice. “I can’t believe this. This is remarkable, Charlotte. Really. I know it’ll be tough, you being on your own. But your mother and I will help as much as we can. Maybe we could move out West, finally. We want to help you, as much as we can. Because we know you don’t go into this lightly. You haven’t gone into anything lightly your entire life.”

 

Charlotte began to weep openly, then. Just the fact that her father supported her, in this terrible, yet wonderful moment, filled her with such happiness. “Thank you, Pop,” she forced out. “I can’t explain how much this means to me.”

 

“And I can’t explain how excited I am to be a grandfather,” her father joked. “I won’t ask any more questions, either. Not until you’re ready to talk.”

 

“And if that’s never?” Charlotte asked, her voice sheepish.

 

“Then I won’t care,” her father said. “I love you, sweetheart. Keep yourself well, and keep us updated.”

 

Charlotte hung up the phone a moment later, staring out the window once more. Despite feeling as if she were in a tumultuous sea, about to drown, she now had glorious pillars on which to cling. She had her parents. She had Chelsea. She had this job, which would still be there for her after her pregnancy, if she played her cards right and bested this Lawson case.

 

She was so much stronger than she gave herself credit. And she would instill that strength and power of will in her child, whether or not that child had a father.

 

As for the memory of Sean—the one she’d held on to for a decade—she would have to let that go. She didn’t have room in her heart for the man who’d abandoned his child.

 

 

 

 

THIRTEEN

 

 

 

Charlotte slept fitfully that night, despite the warmth she still felt from her conversation with her father, and despite the soup Chelsea had made her that eased her stomach. She tossed around on her growing stomach, certain she’d already gained ten pounds.

 

At around four in the morning, she leaned over her bed, with half a mind to call Sean in the dark of the night—demanding that he tell her why he was ignoring her, why he wouldn’t say a single word about their baby. Perhaps the note hadn’t been obvious enough? Perhaps ‘NINE MONTHSNOTICE’ was too… abstract?

 

No, surely not.

 

Charlotte dressed herself in her running clothes at around five and found herself tracing her old route, alternating between a run and a walk. She could keep her body trim throughout the pregnancy, she knew; she’d already begun to read the literature. In her mind, she’d already begun to think of herself as a mother.

 

She dressed quickly and rubbed coconut oil over her stomach, knowing stretch marks were coming, and then she grabbed her bicycle and rode slowly to work. Other cyclists whizzed past, but with her helmet over her head, she maintained her pace, conscious of the precious cargo she now carried.

 

She entered her office, feeling a little brighter than the day before, and immediately dove into work. She knew Katrina wouldn’t arrive for another hour, and that Lyle wouldn’t be in for a while yet. She was setting an example. If she was going to take pregnancy leave, she needed to affirm her stance at the office.

 

A few moments later, she heard an angry rap at her door. Alarmed, she jerked her head up, dropping her pen. “Who is it?” she called.

 

It was Lyle who appeared on the other side. He bolted into the office, slamming the door behind him. His face was red, blotched. He was sweating.

 

“Lyle—are you all right?” she asked him, standing. The tension in the room was staggering.

 

“How dare you,” he said. His voice shook. He reached into his pocket and brought out a ripped piece of paper, swaying it through the air like a flag. “How dare you do this to our firm? You, of all people, Charlotte?”

 

Charlotte frowned, panicking. She scurried around her desk and grabbed the paper, staring at her own handwriting.

 

“NINE MONTHSNOTICE.”

 

“Oh my God,” Charlotte said, her voice quivering. “How did you get this?”

 

“It doesn’t matter how I got it,” Lyle said. He seemed akin to a bear, growling at her. “What matters is how unprofessionally you acted with the most important client we’ve ever had. Literally, Charlotte. And you don’t even bother protecting yourself!”

 

Charlotte felt tears sting her eyes, then. She leaned heavily against her desk, feeling defeated. Outside, the gorgeous Seattle skyline seemed to wink goodbye. She knew she would be forced to bid a somber adieu to the office she’d loved and worked so hard at; she knew that the ladder she’d climbed would come tumbling down.

 

“What do you suggest we do?” Charlotte whispered. She couldn’t look at him.

 

“As a result of this truly unprofessional turn, Charlotte, I’ve decided to put you on leave, effective immediately. I’ve also had to inform Charles Ellis of your behavior, and he is none too pleased, believe me.”

 

Charlotte suddenly felt that Lyle was going too far. She stared at him, wanting to say so.

 

Lyle seemed to sense it in himself, as well. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak like this. It’s just—Charlotte. I had such hopes for your future. I had such belief that you could do whatever it was you wanted. You were going to take over this company, once Katrina grew bored of it. And then, I assumed you were going to take on the world.” He shrugged. “Not just get pregnant because of some one-night stand.”

 

In that moment, Charlotte understood. She’d let Lyle down. Her boss cared deeply for her, and had been essential in her rise from the bottom to near the top of the chain. And now, she’d been discovered as being careless, reckless, and willing to destroy the firm’s reputation, to boot.

 

“I’m so, so sorry, Lyle,” Charlotte said, her voice catching. “I’ll pack up my things now.” She turned toward the window and walked toward it, feeling the weight of her stomach pulling her down. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

 

Lyle didn’t leave, not right away. He seemed to pace in the back of her office, by the door, before finally moving himself into the hallway. He hadn’t found another word to say. Not a word of congratulations, and certainly not an ounce of assurance that she could have her job back.

 

Charlotte broke down the moment Lyle closed the door behind him. She felt the tears coming quickly, much like the rain in the gloomy Seattle sky. Her life was over. All she’d worked for throughout Yale, throughout her career, had been for nothing.

 

And it was all because she’d seen Sean Lawson, all those years ago, at that Yale speech. Despite knowing he had been a driving force behind her success, she yearned to take it all back. She yearned to nuzzle into her childhood bed, in the second floor of her old house, and sleep until she felt nothing at all.

 

Maybe, when she ran out of money, she’d have to do that anyway.

 

 

 

 

FOURTEEN

 

 

 

Charlotte found her composure nearly a half hour later. She scrubbed her face with a Kleenex, enjoying the roughness of the paper against her skin—it reminded her that she was still alive. Despite losing her job. Despite becoming pregnant.

 

Her eyes shifted down to her desk, where the paper she’d scribbled on previously still sat, with its cryptic message. She shook her head at her ludicrous idea, conceived in a moment of panic. If only she’d waited a few more days to speak to him in private. If only she hadn’t allowed her scattered mind to get ahead of itself.

 

As she crumpled into her seat, ready to begin packing her desk up, a question hit her like a figurative smack on her forehead. She paused, her fingers around a folder.

 

How in the world had Lyle gotten the note she’d written out for Sean? She’d written it and then dipped it into her folder, which she’d then taken to her office. She’d left that folder in her office overnight. And then—voila—Lyle had delivered the note back to her. Someone else must have retrieved it in the interim.

 

Something was definitely amiss.

 

As the realization dawned on Charlotte, she began to pace her office, her brain whirring. Obviously, Katrina had noticed Charlotte when she’d scribbled the note and gestured for Sean to see it. Obviously, she’d sensed something was off—and she’d gone into her office to investigate. Charlotte didn’t lock her office door, and hadn’t ever seen a reason to, since the office was generally locked from people who didn’t work there. She hadn’t assumed any of her coworkers would want to betray her. She’d known Katrina disliked her. But why did she want to ruin her—and like this?

 

Of course, Katrina had been gunning for the Sean Lawson case from the beginning. And when Charlotte hadn’t opted wholly for Katrina’s strategy, she’d wanted to interfere somehow. It had been up to Charlotte not to make any mistakes. It had been up to Charlotte to keep herself safe, out of harm’s way.

 

Charlotte spent several hours brooding at her desk, watching as the rest of the interns, the attorneys, and Lyle’s tech-guru associates busied themselves like bees in the hive of the office. She felt like a spy, watching over them, wanting to alert them of the germ in their system: Katrina. Each time Katrina marched past, her eyes flashed toward Charlotte’s window, and Charlotte backed away, feeling that her gaze was a bullet.

 

It was around five o’clock by the time Charlotte had packed up her things, finally ready to flee the building. She’d halted her continuous crying; she’d found purpose in organizing her files in order to hand them over to Lyle. She’d made a certain level of peace with it all, if only because she knew she had to take care of herself. She had to keep her stress levels low. She had a baby on the way.

 

But as she stacked her final files, her eyes drifted toward her office window. She caught sight of Katrina, draping her purse over her shoulder, over her jacket. She was leaving—and nearly an hour before she usually did. This wasn’t the rarest of occurrences for Katrina, but she normally looked nonchalant when doing so; today, however, she had an air of nervousness, shiftiness, almost.

 

Charlotte frowned, her stomach flipping. This was sour. Something was off.

 

As Katrina bolted toward the elevator, Charlotte snuck from her office as well, slipping her arms into her jacket and casting furtive glances around, hoping to avoid Lyle. She knew he’d tell her she should have been out of the office hours ago, and she didn’t have the patience or energy to go through that again.

 

As she bounded toward the elevator, determined to follow Katrina, a quiet intern—one who’d generally offered to fetch her coffee when none of the others had—reached out her hand and patted her shoulder.

 

Charlotte lurched back, surprised. “What is it?” she asked harriedly. Her need to follow Katrina to the bitter end was bumping in her heart.

 

The girl looked stricken. “I’m sorry, Charlotte,” she said weakly. “I wanted to tell you I’m so sorry for what they’re doing to you. With your baby on the way and everything.” She shook her head, tears brimming in her eyes. “I’m sorry. My friends all say I’m too emotional.”

 

Charlotte didn’t have time for this, but she swept a warm smile over her face, and gave the girl a quick, one-armed hug. “Thanks for all you’ve done for me,” Charlotte said, hoping the girl didn’t sense how far away she was. And then, she swung back toward the elevator, her heels clacking wildly on the floor. She knew that everyone still in the office was watching her go. They all knew her secret.

 

She stabbed the elevator button, and it opened immediately, streaming her down to the ground floor. She caught a glimpse of Katrina in the parking lot behind the building, at her car door. She was chatting on the phone, and her flirtatious voice swirled into Charlotte’s ears, making her cringe.

 

Charlotte knew she needed to follow Katrina. But how? She’d ridden her bicycle to the office that morning, hopeful the endorphins would rally her brain, but that would be no match for Katrina’s car.

 

She ducked behind a pillar in the foyer, keeping Katrina in sight. She dialed Chelsea quickly, feeling the moments tick away. She hoped Katrina would continue her flirtatious conversation just a little bit longer.

 

“Chels?” she whispered. “Is your car parked at your office?”

 

“Sure is,” Chelsea said, her voice coy. “Why are you asking?”

 

“Listen. I don’t have time to explain. But I need to borrow it as soon as possible. Do you understand?”

 

“All right—”

 

“Actually, if you could just hop into your car and drive it to me right now—”

 

“Say no more,” Chelsea said. She clicked the phone off, and Charlotte sat in stunned silence, her heart racing. She prayed for Katrina to remain as long as possible, and luckily Chelsea’s office was only three blocks away.

 

A moment later, Charlotte watched as Katrina tossed her phone into the passenger seat, clearly finished with her conversation. She flipped her hair, twirling the curls, and then popped into the driver’s seat, opening the windows. She revved the engine, taking her time, and propelled the volume of her stereo up. The noise was obtrusive, loud during an otherwise foggy and dreary day.

 

“Come on, Chelsea,” Charlotte thought, growing nervous as Katrina began to back from her spot.

 

But then, Chelsea’s little white car pulled up on the outside of the parking lot, out of sight of Katrina, who was parked all the way on the other side. Chelsea gave Charlotte a slight wave and popped from the front seat.

 

Charlotte ran and caught the keys as they were thrown in an arc through the air. “Thanks, babe,” she said, her eyes wide. “You can walk back?”

 

“It’s three blocks,” Chelsea said with a wink. “You’ll update me on what this is all about soon, won’t you?”

 

“If I live through this,” Charlotte said cryptically, as she bounced into the front seat, just as she saw Katrina’s vehicle zoom from the parking lot and onto the main road.

 

“All right, James Bond,” Chelsea called out, but Charlotte had already revved from her position in the ‘No Parking’ zone.

 

She skated out onto the main road. Katrina’s car was just three vehicles ahead of her, stopped at the red light. Charlotte wanted to fist bump the air, confident in the smoothness of her chase, but she held back, her fingers tense around the steering wheel.

 

“Calm down,” Charlotte whispered to herself. “You’re not there yet.”

 

Charlotte tailed Katrina from downtown and out east, past Capitol Hill and to the outskirts of the city, where she didn’t recognize the street names any more. She ensured she stayed several cars behind her, out of sight, and was grateful that Katrina wouldn’t recognize Chelsea’s car if she saw it.

 

Beyond anything, Katrina’s personality was the greatest aid to the chase. She was bouncing her head to the music, thrusting her hand into the chill, foggy air, and generally driving without notice of others. Several drivers honked at her as she weaved between lanes.

 

Charlotte had no sense for where they were driving. For all she knew, they were driving all the way to Boise. Maybe Katrina had committed a crime and decided to skip town. Or maybe, maybe, this had something to do with the Lawson case, and everything to do with Charlotte being suspended that day.

 

Katrina’s car made a surprise left turn at a diner far out of town. Charlotte didn’t think they were in Seattle limits anymore. She watched Katrina park her vehicle, and then drove around the block once, to avoid any suspicion. She parked far from Katrina’s flashy red sports car, and donned a sweatshirt from Chelsea’s passenger seat, flipping the hood over her head. She ducked into the back of the car and found a pair of Chelsea’s old tennis shoes, and stuck them on, tossing her heels in the trunk. They made too much noise, and didn’t allow for running—if it came to that.

 

As Charlotte neared the entrance of the diner, she noted, with a sigh of relief, that the restaurant was completely filled. There were tables and tables of large groups from both the country and the city, and their Friday night chatter echoed against the ceiling. Charlotte entered easily, her hood pushed over her hair, and she nodded to the waitress, who told her dismissively that she could seat herself.

 

Charlotte slunk down, easing into the crowd, her eyes searching the diner. A band of high school football players were seated at a large table near the window, shoving chocolate pudding into their mouths as quickly as they could. Old people, regulars for maybe thirty years, sat quietly, eating hamburgers without even a bit of pink in the middle. The scene was classic suburban America. It was everything Charlotte had grown up with in her small town.

 

Finally, Charlotte spotted her. Katrina had exited the bathroom door with a slight look of disgust, and was making a beeline across the restaurant, toward a man with dark hair and an immaculate suit, who sat glaring at his smartphone. He looked as out of place as Katrina in the characterless diner. Spotting her, he stood up, standing tall against Katrina, and kissed her with a little too much enthusiasm for the setting. Katrina fell into the kiss, wrapping her arms around him, massaging his shoulders.

 

“You good, baby?” she cooed.

 

Shocked, Charlotte retreated into a booth directly behind them, forcing a menu over her eyes and slumping deeper into her sweatshirt. She realized, all at once, who that man was. It was Evan Greene—Sean Lawson’s old roommate from college, and the very one who was in the midst of suing him. Charlotte knew he had a wife; Sean had mentioned it previously. And yet, it appeared that Katrina knew him rather intimately indeed.

 

 

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

 

 

Charlotte’s ears craned in attempts to hear the adulterous couple, knowing that their conversation could change her fate entirely. She heard Katrina blathering about her feet aching, about the terrible menu, before Evan asked her, in no uncertain terms, what had happened that day.

 

“Do we have to get down to it immediately?” Katrina whined, before her voice turned sultry. “I wanted to spend a little bit of time with you first. Before we had to do business.”

 

“Darling, we can spend time together later. At the hotel,” Evan said, easily resuming his role as ‘boyfriend.’ But Charlotte sensed his impatience.

 

“All right,” Katrina sighed. “I guess you want to know what happened to that goody two-shoes, don’t you? Well, I straightened her out. I knew something was going on between her and Sean. She was acting too insane around him for there not to be. Maybe they knew each other at Yale—could that be possible?”

 

Evan shrugged. “I think she was a bit too young for our class.”

 

“Well, I don’t know,” Katrina went on, shrugging. “Are you going to get some fries?”

 

Evan didn’t answer. Charlotte tried to imagine the scene behind her, Evan’s eyes staring, angry, into Katrina’s vacant ones.

 

“All right. So yeah. I saw her scribble this note to him yesterday. I couldn’t read what it was—just that she looked completely broken when Sean didn’t react to it. So, I went into her office after she left. I searched her documents, her files—everything—and then I found this mysterious, funny little note.”

 

“You’re too clever for your own good,” Evan said. He was clearly grinning, leaning toward her. The anticipation of her story was building.

 

“Well. The note said something strange. ‘Nine months’ notice.’ I couldn’t figure out what that could mean, given that this lawsuit won’t go on that long. Until I remembered that she’s been running to the bathroom an awful lot. And she’s put on a ton of weight.”

 

Evan leaned back, aghast. “She’s pregnant.”

 

“That’s right!” Katrina exclaimed.

 

Charlotte balked. Why was Katrina telling Evan about her pregnancy? Why had she searched her office?

 

“I knew exactly what to do. I brought the note the Lyle and explained that Charlotte had obviously been sleeping with Sean, that this was the only explanation. And Lyle completely lost it. He loved that little try-hard,” Katrina said, her voice mean. “He loved all of her bright plans. And even though he knew he needed to incorporate some of my ideas into the strategy, he always liked Charlotte more. She was his favorite. Until now.”

 

Evan laughed. It came from deep within him, causing his body to quake. “Well, well, well. And now, she’s off the case?”

 

“She’s suspended, meaning I’m taking the lead,” Katrina said, her voice excited. “What do you think about that?”

 

“I think that makes our plan a lot easier,” Evan said. “And I think it means you get a little something extra tonight.”

 

“And what about something extra monetarily?” Katrina teased. “You know. For later.”

 

“You’re such a snake, girl,” Evan said, obviously pleased with her. “I’ve already promised you millions, on top of whatever your daddy throws your way. And now you want even more—just because you got lucky? You didn’t arrange for Sean to knock Charlotte up. You couldn’t have known.”

 

“Sure. But a good spy knows when to act. And I did,” Katrina retorted.

 

“Good point, my little lawyer, my princess. And now that I’ll finally beat Sean at his own game, with your help, there will be nothing to stop me. I’ll take billions in shares in Lawson Technologies, and I’ll go down in history as one of the biggest tech innovators ever. How about that?”

 

“Sounds pretty boring, if you ask me,” Katrina giggled. “Except for the money part, of course.”

 

Evan laughed. Charlotte longed to turn toward them, to witness this evil exchange with her own eyes. The warmth between them informed her, quite certainly, that they’d been planning this for months. Evan had probably been sleeping with Katrina since before it’d begun. The terrors of the plot were long and varied. Charlotte could hardly wrap her mind around them.

 

“What do you say you finish that milkshake, darling, and we get out of here? I want to celebrate,” Evan said. “And I think you know what that means.”

 

Katrina giggled. “But we’re still going to meet up on Sunday, right? At the Excelsior?”

 

“I’ve already had my secretary write it down, babe. Five o’clock, early drinks. And then we’ll see where the night takes us.”

 

“You’re so hot,” Katrina whispered. Something squeaked, perhaps the milkshake being shoved to the side, as Katrina began to kiss Evan, right there in the center of the diner. The football boys focused upon them, shouting “PDA!” over and over again.

 

Charlotte took this as her cue to leave—and quickly. Because the diner had been so busy, she hadn’t had the chance to order a single thing. She slinked from her seat and then out of the restaurant, before leaping into a run. She felt her heart jolting against her rib cage. She couldn’t find oxygen for a moment. “Just breathe,” she whispered to herself, leaning against the car. “For the baby.”

 

But her mind wouldn’t turn off. She leaped into Chelsea’s car, connecting her phone to the hands-free. She didn’t want to wait for Katrina and Evan to leave the diner and spot her, and she squealed her tires, jumping into intense, Friday night traffic.

 

She felt tears rolling down her cheeks, but she couldn’t focus on her hurt, on how she’d been wronged. Rather, she knew she needed to warn Sean immediately. His attorney, Katrina, was actively losing his case. And Sean needed to know as soon as possible.

 

“Call Sean Lawson,” Charlotte spoke into the hands-free, her fingers tense on the steering wheel. She listened as the lonely ringing echoed through the vehicle. She hoped, prayed he would pick up. But she knew it was a long shot.

 

“Hello?” Sean’s voice miraculously appeared in the air around her.

 

Charlotte smacked the steering wheel with triumph. She wasn’t sure if it was the success of reaching him, or just hearing his sultry, deep voice that pleased her so, but she forced herself back on track in an instant.

 

“Sean. So glad you picked up. This is urgent.”

 

“As urgent as yesterday?” Sean laughed. It was clear he hadn’t yet been told she’d been suspended. “I’m telling you. This can all be resolved in a short meeting.”

 

“You don’t understand,” Charlotte began. Her voice was aching with urgency. She was speaking too fast, her eyes dancing all over the road. She was passing people, suddenly certain she needed to get to Sean, to explain fully, as soon as she could. ”I’m heading to your office. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

 

“Can you explain a little?” Sean asked, perplexed. “I’m in the middle of something.”

 

“Forget it. Please. Just for now. I just saw Evan and Katrina together. They’re working together, Sean,” she cried. She felt passion rip through her, and she felt she might begin screaming the words at him. “They’re sleeping with each other, and they’re trying to take you down. They’re taking us all down.” Tears cascaded down her face.

 

“What are you talking about, Charlotte?” he asked her, his voice perplexed. “How could this be true?”

 

“I can’t explain over the phone,” Charlotte stuttered, knowing she sounded irrational. Her foot pressed harder on the pedal, and she revved into the intersection, her eyes staring through her windshield, towards the city. “I’ll be to you in ten minutes. Okay?”

 

In that moment, a black truck to the left of her ignored its red light and soared into the intersection, cutting into the side of the car. Charlotte began to scream as the car rotated not once, not twice, but three times, before crashing into a telephone pole, nose-first.

 

Charlotte was vaguely aware of the sound of glass smashing as her face and forehead crashed into the steering wheel, and blood came pouring from her ears. Her brain jostled in her skull, and everything turned to black.

 

Only ten minutes away, seated in his office, Sean heard the impact of the vehicle. He heard Charlotte scream, and the final smash into the telephone pole.

 

He stood from his chair, allowing it to spin behind him. He called out to the beautiful blonde, with whom he’d shared one glorious, fateful night:

 

“Charlotte? Are you there? Charlotte? Are you all right?”

 

And nobody answered.

 

 

 

 

SIXTEEN

 

 

 

Charlotte heard the beeping, but it seemed far away, like the chiming of a clock when you wake up in a European city. She pressed her lips together, choosing to fall back into sleep for just a little while longer. This wasn’t like her, she knew. She liked to wake up. She liked to run. She liked to see the world. But something within her kept her nestled in her bed, under the waves of slumber.

 

That is, until the beeping began more insistent. Until she smelled unfamiliar scents and sensed a hard, earnest grip on her left hand. She blinked awake, her eyes searching around her. She saw only white. Then the blurriness snapped into focus, and she felt a sudden, aching knowledge: she was in the hospital. And she didn’t know why.

 

Beside her, Sean sat, holding her hand. His face was so similar to the one she’d seen in her dreams for ten years that she assumed she must still be dreaming. She gave him that secret smile, the one from all those years ago.

 

“There’s my girl,” he told her, squeezing her hand. “The blonde I couldn’t quite get to.”

 

“You had some other stuff to do,” Charlotte said. She could hardly recognize her voice; it came out in a croak. “Like create a billion-dollar company. Or whatever.”

 

Sean laughed as she closed her eyes again, trying to build her strength. “What are you doing here?” she whispered. “What am I doing here?”

 

Sean continued to hold her hand, to gaze at her. She could sense it, even with her eyes closed.

 

“I heard the car accident over the phone,” he said then. “It terrified me. I was calling your name, waiting for you to respond. And then I heard the sirens.”

 

“That’s sounds pretty dramatic,” Charlotte whispered. “Do I look horrific?”

 

Sean sounded surprised. “Of course not, baby. You look beautiful. You bumped your head pretty hard, but the doctors said you’ll be just fine.”

 

Charlotte grinned, even as her head pounded with an angry headache. Did he just call her baby?

 

“And best of all—Charlotte,” Sean continued, his voice earnest. “The babies are doing absolutely fine.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes burst open, then. Her pupils turned toward him, like saucers. “What did you say?”

 

“I know about the babies, now, Charlotte,” he affirmed. “I understand why you wanted to speak to me alone. And I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. I promise, I won’t ever do that to you again.”

 

“But you said—babies,” Charlotte stuttered. “Plural babies.”

 

“Yes,” Sean said, searching her face, confused. “Isn’t that what you—”

 

“I knew I was pregnant,” Charlotte said, trying to lift herself from her reclined position. “But I hadn’t gone to the doctor yet. Holy—twins? I can hardly take care of myself, let alone two babies.”

 

“Actually, Charlotte, it’s triplets.” Sean’s face broke into a wide, uneven grin. His five o’clock shadow was now bordering on nine o’clock shadow. He looked gruff, weary, and—above all—deliriously happy.

 

“Wow,” Charlotte murmured. “I’m not sure how to take this.” She cleared her throat, her eyes dancing. “How am I going to manage three?”

 

Sean didn’t answer this. Instead, he squeezed her hand, stood beside her; it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Charlotte turned to him once more, feeling uncertain. “Why didn’t you react the other day, when I showed you that note?”

 

Sean frowned, tracing his memory. “When you scribbled something down, right before Lyle came in?” he asked.

 

“Yes. Exactly then,” Charlotte said. “What happened?”

 

Sean sighed. “I didn’t even catch what you’d written. Honestly, I just wanted to get out of there. I was fighting my feelings for you every time I saw you. I felt I needed to run to every other corner of the planet to get away from you. But you kept calling me back.”

 

“You didn’t see it,” Charlotte whispered. “So you’re not heartless after all.”

 

Sean chuckled. “I wouldn’t ignore a note like that.”

 

“I’ve been assuming you knew about it. That you’d decided to deny all responsibility to our baby—er, babies—and run away for good. I wanted to hide the pregnancy for as long as possible and continue to work on the case, but my employer eventually discovered it. Because of Katrina and Evan’s plan…” She trailed off, remembering, suddenly, why she’d been out in Chelsea’s car. Her eyes grew wide as the realization trickled back.

 

“I want to support you,” Sean said, clinging to her hand. “I wouldn’t leave you in a position like that. I hope you know that about me now. When I commit to things—like babies, or companies I start from my college dorm—I commit to them for life.”

 

Charlotte felt tears glide down her cheeks. She tried to mop them with a shaky finger, but nothing helped. She was a full-blown waterfall. She was lost in the sea of her emotions.

 

“And it’s not like we could have covered up a triplets pregnancy for very long, anyway,” Sean joked, winking at her. He leaned toward her and kissed her on the forehead before wrapping her in a warm embrace, one that made her feel tucked away, hidden from all the terrors of the world. One that caused her to forget all of her problems, for a moment. One that made her feel loved, cherished, and valued.

 

She sighed as they broke the hug, yearning for a kiss, but knowing that they were on uncertain ground. She tilted her back and yanked herself up higher, into a seated position, and felt her stomach growl with hunger. “Do they feed anyone around here?” she giggled. “They know I’m officially four people now, don’t they?”

 

“Let me see if I can grab you a snack,” Sean laughed. “Maybe something from the vending machine that hopefully isn’t too dusty.”

 

“Whatever they have, Sean. I’ll eat it. Seriously,” Charlotte laughed.

 

Sean chuckled. “I’ll be right back. I’ll buy the whole machine if I have to.”

 

Charlotte listened to Sean’s footfalls as he walked down the hallway. She felt her heart ease, her smile broaden with utter contentment. She’d never been taken care of by a man before, and the feeling of it was like coming home. For a moment, she considered calling her father from her hospital bed. But, after the news she’d given him about the pregnancy, she didn’t want to make him worry any more than he already was.

 

As Sean ambled back, he flung several snack options onto the bed. Charlotte giggled, noting the Chips Ahoy, the Twizzlers, the Snickers, and the three cracker options that piled around her chest and stomach.

 

“Oh, man. It’s just so hard to choose, isn’t it?” she smiled up at him.

 

“That’s how I feel. Whatever you don’t like, I’ll happily inhale. I’ve been at the office all day. I didn’t have a single second to grab food.”

 

“How terrible for you,” Charlotte said, making a faux-pitying expression. “It’s almost as terrible as getting in a car accident and learning you’re pregnant with triplets. And losing your job!” She tugged open the Chips Ahoy package, smirking toward him. “Can I tell you what I heard Evan and Katrina discussing today at the diner, now? I know I didn’t want to do it over the phone—but…” She crunched into a cookie, suddenly placing her hand over her mouth to collect the crumbs. She’d bitten too early, and she began to laugh.

 

“You didn’t cue that up quite right, did you?” Sean chuckled. He bit a piece off a Twizzler, assessing her. “No. Please don’t go on.” He began stroking her fine, blond hair, and a sense of ease passed through her once more. “I don’t want you to think about Evan or Katrina right now. Those people don’t deserve to be on your mind when you first learn about your triplets. Nor when you’re eating your second cookie.” He teased her, continuing to stroke her head.

 

“But—it’s serious,” Charlotte insisted. She dropped her snacks, looking up at him. They exchanged that smile once more.

 

“The most serious thing we can discuss is getting some vitamins into you and helping you get some rest,” Sean said softly. “And as the father of these three future people, I must insist. No talk about Evan and Katrina. For now, let’s focus on you and our babies, okay?”

 

Charlotte nodded, realizing the stress of even saying Katrina’s name was making her heartbeat go up, which was blatantly obvious with the machine’s beeping. “Okay,” she whispered. “I trust you.”

 

At that moment, the door burst open, revealing a balding doctor wearing glasses, fluffing his way through her chart. “Good evening, Miss Waters,” he said brightly. He looked at Sean sternly. “And I suppose you’re—Sean Lawson?”

 

“That’s me,” Sean said. His voice was confident, and he sent his hand out, ready to shake the doctor’s hand. “Good to meet you. How’s my girl?”

 

The doctor seemed mystified to meet this famous billionaire, and in such strange circumstances. But he soon refocused, turning his attention back to his patient. “Miss Waters, you sure did hit your head tonight, but you’re not in danger of a concussion, and your babies are absolutely fine. I would suggest you make a gynecologist appointment soon, just for another check-up; with three of them in there, you have to be careful.”

 

“I understand,” Charlotte said, her voice weak. “Thank you.”

 

“But other than that. I think you’re free to go. Mr. Lawson, if you can drive the poor girl home? Your car has been towed, Miss Waters. The owner of the vehicle has been informed.”

 

As if on cue, Chelsea burst into the room, arms flailing. Tears rushed down her cheeks as she burst past the doctor and wrapped her arms around her friend. “Oh my God. I told you to borrow my car, not to wreck it! I’m so glad you’re okay.” She held her friend close for several minutes, kissing her cheek before pulling away. Meanwhile, the doctor said a final goodbye to Sean and let himself out.

 

“What happened?” Chelsea stammered. “You went after that Katrina girl—and then—”

 

But Sean held up a hand, halting the discussion. “Actually, Chelsea, we think it might be best if Charlotte doesn’t speak about the events leading up to the crash until she’s fully recovered. For the sake of our babies.”

 

Chelsea’s eyebrows rose high on her forehead. She shifted her weight, looking Sean up and down. Finally, she extended her hand. “And you must be Sean,” she said. Her voice was territorial, singed with the knowledge that only a best friend can have. “You think you can just come in here, and boss us around?” But a smile had stretched across her face, and it was clear as they shook hands, that she was a fan of Sean’s.

 

How could you not be? Charlotte asked herself, her heart humming as her best friend and the father of her children met for the first time. Meeting both of them had changed her life forever. And now, it seemed they were a team with a single mission: to keep these three babies healthy and safe.

 

Of course, thoughts of Katrina and Evan still bubbled in the back of her brain. But she dove into happy chatter, explaining to Chelsea that she was having not one, but three babies—which ultimately made her cry harder. Sean laughed as the friends rejoiced, and kept his hand wrapped around Charlotte’s, a constant reminder of his loyalty and care.

 

***

 

 

 

Some time later, the trio realized it was nearly midnight. Charlotte tried to stifle a dramatic yawn, but Chelsea captured the moment, suggesting they all head home soon. Sean helped Charlotte navigate from the hospital bed to the supplied wheelchair, while Chelsea ensured she was comfortable, brushing her hair back so it didn’t tangle in the handles.

 

“Why are you still crying?” Charlotte asked Chelsea, laughing at her friend’s blubbering tears.

 

“I don’t know,” Chelsea admitted. “I’m just so glad you’re safe. You’ve had me worried for weeks. Can you please give me a break for a bit?”

 

Charlotte rolled her eyes playfully. “Sorry for being such a high-maintenance friend,” she said.

 

Sean interjected. “Actually, Chelsea, I’ve got it from here. You can go home and get some rest. And start planning your life as an aunt to three beautiful babies!” He winked at her, his dark eyes sparkling.

 

Chelsea wasn’t immune to the billionaire’s charm. She agreed and walked out with Sean and Charlotte, who leaned her head back in the wheelchair until they reached the parking lot. Sean hustled toward his car to drive it to the curbside for her easy entrance, and Chelsea kept Charlotte company at the doors, grinning widely.

 

“I can’t believe how lovely he is,” she whispered. “He’s going to be such a good dad.”

 

“I feel like I’m living a dream,” Charlotte admitted. “I didn’t mean to tell him in such a dramatic way. With the car accident and everything.”

 

“You never used to be the dramatic type,” Chelsea laughed. “Maybe now you’ll find a new hobby in theatrics.”

 

“I suppose I’ll have to have a better sense of humor,” Charlotte admitted.

 

In that moment, Sean pulled up in his black Tesla and strode toward the passenger side, opening the door. He helped Charlotte dip into the car, and they said goodbye to Chelsea, receiving kisses from her on both cheeks before Sean crept the Tesla from the parking lot and out onto the late-night city streets. Charlotte’s stomach grumbled with hunger, and she admitted it—saying she’d have to order some food when she arrived back to her place.

 

“Are you sure?” Sean asked, frowning. “I want to take care of you. I want to make sure you’re all right. I was going to take you to my place.”

 

Charlotte remembered the penthouse, with its gleaming view of the water and the sparkling downtown buildings, and that massive, king-sized bed. She wondered what would happen on it, if it would be a romantic affair, or if they would simply fall asleep beside each other, not touching. The question of it all turned her brain over.

 

They arrived at Sean’s penthouse, and Sean pulled out his cellphone, ordering them two large pizzas with all the toppings. Charlotte leaned back on the couch, waiting for him to come to her. She felt she was regaining her strength, that it would be soon time to explain to him the depths of Katrina Ellis’ mission to betray him. Every moment that she didn’t tell him, Katrina and Evan were further along in their plan.

 

The pizza arrived quickly, alerting Charlotte that Sean clearly had a finger on the pulse of the pizza delivery industry. “We all do,” he affirmed cryptically, alluding to the other tech moguls. “Steve Jobs received his pizzas in like five minutes. They had an algorithm that told when he’d want it, and what he’d want. He usually ordered mushrooms on Thursdays.”

 

“That’s just a rumor,” Charlotte laughed, placing the triangular end into her mouth. The warmth of it relaxed her, causing her to dip her head closer to his shoulder.

 

“I haven’t validated the claims myself. But it seems plausible,” Sean said, teasing her. “Anyway. If you feel up for it, I’d love to hear more about Evan.” He blinked toward her, expectant.

 

Charlotte’s expression hardened, growing serious. “Well. I followed Katrina to this diner on the outside of town, where I saw her kissing Evan.”

 

“But he’s married…”

 

“I know,” Charlotte said, her eyes dark. “Katrina mentioned to him that she’d had me suspended from the case, due to my pregnancy by Sean. And they celebrated this, given that she now had the complete ability to tank your case and allow Evan to win. He mentioned something about a payout of a couple million dollars.”

 

Sean placed his pizza back on his plate, rubbing his palms together. “This is quite a tale,” he said. “It’s actually quite fascinating, if I’m being honest. They want to drag my name through the mud and take something I’ve been building my entire life and claim it as their own. Impressive, really. The stuff of comic book evil.”

 

“You’re being quite calm about this,” Charlotte admitted. “What do you think we should do? I’ve lost my job. I’m not on the inside anymore.”

 

Sean thought for a moment, scratching at his growing beard. He looked gruff, but still unfairly sexy. “I think I’ll call a meeting. But we need to ensure that both Katrina and Evan are there. We need to blindside them.”

 

Charlotte thought for a moment, her mind still hazy from the terror of the car accident and the shock of her triplet pregnancy. As she did, a few choice words ran through her head. She snapped her fingers. “Right before I left the diner, I heard Katrina mention something about the Excelsior. They planned to meet there. On Sunday, at five. I’m sure of it.”

 

Sean clapped his hands just once, excitement brimming. “You’re a glorious spy, Miss Waters,” he said. He looked as if he might kiss her in that moment, but he held himself back. Tension brewed between them. “We have to arrange a meeting,” he said. “We’ll invite her father. And Lyle. And of course, you’ll have to attend.”

 

“They won’t take kindly to me being there,” Charlotte admitted. She still felt chills when she remembered what Lyle had said to her, spewing such parental disappointment and anger. She swallowed, shoving her pizza to the side. Exhaustion had taken hold.

 

Seeing this, Sean wrapped his arms around her and helped her to her feet, stroking lightly at the bandage wrapped around her head. “Let’s not talk about this any longer. Not tonight,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “This accessory you’re wearing these days is especially beautiful, by the way.”

 

“The bandage? I know. I only had to risk my life to get it,” Charlotte giggled.

 

“Well, I’m glad you can make light of it already,” Sean joked. He lifted her onto the bed and helped her remove her clothes. He glanced at her body but didn’t say anything, handing her one of his old T-shirts. “I, for one, am still riddled with anxiety about it. When I heard the impact and the screeching tires, I got this flashback to when I first saw you at Yale. How young and hopeful you were. I thought—perhaps—that I’d been the last person to ever speak to you. And that terrified me.” He looked at her sheepishly, clearly still in shock.

 

Charlotte reached her hands around his neck and hugged him, unable to find the right words. She was grateful for the past, and she was grateful for that day, when a series of unfortunate events had led her to sleep in his bed, to soak in the warmth of it.

 

“Warning,” Charlotte whispered, draping her head over the pillow. “I’m going to sleep till at least noon tomorrow. There’s four of me, now. And we’re all exhausted.”

 

Sean gave her a final laugh, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Have safe and sweet dreams, my Charlotte. I’ll stay up worrying about how we’re going to send all these kids to Yale. Three of them? What kind of tuition is that?”

 

“Good thing you’re a billionaire,” Charlotte murmured, moments before drifting off.

 

The pair of them slept long into the morning, preparing for the days ahead, during which they’d take on their enemies as a united force. This would be their first test as a team, before adjusting to a life together—romantic or not. Charlotte could hardly wait.

 

 

 

 

SEVENTEEN

 

 

 

Charlotte spent the following two days at Sean’s place, just living in Sean’s T-shirts, switching from television station to station, in full-on recovery mode. Of course, every time Sean went to the office for a meeting, she would pull out her notes on the Evan Greene case, looking for every extra bit of evidence to throw in Evan’s face. She knew that Sean wanted her to rest, but her mind never turned off. It was a curse.

 

Sean called Lyle that afternoon, suggesting a meeting at Excelsior with Lyle and Mr. Ellis himself.

 

“You want the old man there?” Lyle joked. Charles Ellis didn’t often come out to meetings, given that he hadn’t actually represented anyone in several years. “He won’t have any real insight on your case. And he gets cranky in the afternoons.”

 

“It’s just necessary that he be there,” Sean said, not giving away a single drop of information. “If you could arrange it, Lyle.”

 

Of course, Lyle could do nothing but follow orders.

 

After the phone call, Sean noted that Lyle still hadn’t come clean about Charlotte being taken from the case. “I wonder if he’s too nervous to tell me, because he doesn’t want to be the one to inform me about the pregnancy?” Sean laughed, sweeping his T-shirt from his back and preparing to jump into the shower.

 

Charlotte watched him stretch out, his muscles rippling. She longed to run her fingers over his body. But she sat, tucked into the couch, like an island. Time was of the essence, and she still hadn’t found the time—or the courage—to ask him what they were to each other.

 

Sean and Charlotte arrived early to Excelsior, requesting the staff to set a table for six people, rather than the initial three. The staff recognized Sean’s face, and they scrambled to complete his request, tossing plates to one another in a mad Frisbee game, unfolding new tablecloths with flourish.

 

Charlotte had to laugh, wrapping her arm around Sean’s. “They practically worship you.”

 

“They wouldn’t if they knew how normal I am,” Sean admitted, grinning. “With three babies on the way. And my party days behind me.”

 

“What party days?” Charlotte laughed.

 

“Good point.”

 

Moments before five, Charlotte walked toward the ladies’ room, hiding behind a marble pillar. She could see and hear what was going on at the table, but she wasn’t visible. Sean would greet Mr. Ellis and Lyle without her, and then she’d surprise the team.

 

Lyle and Mr. Ellis arrived, then. Charles Ellis’ squat legs were slow, his stout form taut against his suit. He propelled a sweating hand toward Sean, and Sean shook it, bringing his free arm to Lyle’s back.

 

“Good to see you both,” Sean said. “Thanks for meeting me at such short notice.”

 

Lyle gestured toward the table. “It seems the table’s been set for too many. There’s just three of us,” he said, his eyebrows forming a crinkle on his forehead. “Should we move?”

 

“That won’t be necessary,” Sean said, his voice firm.

 

At that moment, Charlotte emerged from her hiding place, walking confidently toward them. She swept her shoulders back and gave them a sure smile. “Hello, Lyle. Hello, Mr. Ellis,” she said, smooth as honey.

 

Lyle’s jaw dropped open. His eyes turned to Mr. Ellis, whose face burned bright red.

 

“My dear. I don’t know what you think you’re doing here—” Charles began. His lips were bumbling. He looked like a caricature of himself.

 

Charlotte turned her gaze toward Sean. “Actually, Sean’s requested I attend today.”

 

“All will be revealed in just a moment,” Sean affirmed. He could hardly stifle his grin, noting that the clock had just struck five. It was nearly time to watch his enemies’ scheme come tumbling down.

 

They heard them before they saw them. Katrina was cackling, clearly already washed with a bit of pre-afternoon alcohol, and Evan was speaking in that droll voice of his, out through his nose. “Babe. Don’t cause a scene quite yet. Wait until I have my way with you later.”

 

As they turned the corner, in view of Charles, Lyle, Sean, and Charlotte, Evan leaned toward Katrina and caught his lips and teeth on her neck for a brief moment, at the very second Katrina’s eyes met with her father’s. Her jaw dropped.

 

“Daddy?” she cried. “What are you doing here?” Her eyes danced from Mr. Ellis, to Lyle, Sean, and finally, to Charlotte. “What the hell is going on?”

 

“I should ask you the same question, darling,” Mr. Ellis said. His face was lobster red, and his eyeballs seemed bound to roll from their sockets. “Out with Evan Greene—the very man we’re meant to be fighting against in this case?”

 

“I can explain…” Katrina began, her voice becoming high-pitched and needy. She looked shocked, as if she’d just been slapped. “It isn’t what it looks like.”

 

Evan ripped his hands from Katrina’s shoulders, taking a massive step to his right, away from her. They were separate people, then. With an entire foot’s difference in height between them, they didn’t even appear to belong together.

 

Evan’s eyes cut toward Sean. “Hello, there, old bud,” he said. His voice was gruff.

 

“Evan Greene. Didn’t think I’d see you till the courtroom!” Sean said joyously. “But you were always one to make a grand appearance. I remember that much from college. I also remember just how little you were involved in InvestMe. And just how much time you were spending with your future wife, back then. I wonder if she’s ever met Mr. Ellis’ daughter, Katrina? Boy, I bet they’d get along.” His sarcasm was harsh. It caused Lyle to squirm.

 

Evan couldn’t find words. He cleared his throat, clearly searching for an exit. Mr. Ellis continued to sputter and finally turned toward Charlotte, his eyes looking for answers. “Charlotte. Can you explain what’s going on? It seems somebody should.”

 

Charlotte leaped into lawyer mode, then, explaining that she’d suspected something was amiss with the case, given that Katrina wanted to fight against her strategy, every step of the way.

 

“Sure. But you were the one sleeping with the client,” Katrina snickered angrily. She was backed into a corner, lashing out.

 

Charlotte continued, unabashed. “I followed Katrina to a tiny diner outside of the city and found her speaking with Evan about their ‘plan’ to take down Sean. It was obvious they’ve been having an affair, and that Evan had offered Katrina a massive, multi-million-dollar payout to help him win the case. She had complete control on our side, given that she’d gotten me fired. After that, nothing was going to stop them from asserting, legally, that Evan was owed a slice of Lawson Technologies.”

 

Mr. Ellis turned his round face back toward his daughter, outraged. “You were going to sabotage me. After all I’ve done for you,” he whispered. “I gave you everything. But I never should have trusted you.”

 

The words stung Katrina, causing her to take a step back.

 

Evan spun from the group, then. He shouted something about “dropping the lawsuit,” and then stomped from the restaurant, slipping his hand into his pocket and dialing somebody. “Evan Green here,” he began. “Can I get a plane to New York for tonight? It’s urgent.” He was running away.

 

But Charlotte couldn’t care less. She watched in horror as Katrina began to weep, as Ellis continued to barrage her with his anger. Lyle turned toward Charlotte and spewed apology after apology.

 

Charlotte could hardly concentrate on them. She took a step toward Sean, giving him a shy smile. He wrapped his arm around her waist and hugged her, giving her a light kiss on the cheek. Lyle’s eyes danced from Charlotte to Sean, then back again.

 

“So it’s really happening between you two?” he asked, his tone inquisitive, friendly.

 

Charlotte grinned. She was grateful to have a happier conversation.

 

“I’ve never known you to date. Not since you took this job,” Lyle went on.

 

“I’ve been married to that job since I started, admittedly,” Charlotte laughed. “As you can see. Even after I get pregnant, I’m still stalking my colleagues, certain they’re up to something. I can’t turn this brain off.” She tapped her forehead, chuckling.

 

“In no uncertain terms, you saved the firm today,” Lyle said. His gaze was intense. “All those terrible things I said to you the other day, I take them back. You are my greatest employee, our greatest gift. Of course, your job is yours, should you want it. And when the baby is born, take as much time as you need; you can come back whenever you want.”

 

Charlotte grinned, turning toward Sean. Their lips were mere inches away from each other. “Should we tell him?” she asked.

 

“Only if you feel up to it.”

 

“We’re actually having three babies,” Charlotte whispered, jolting three digits into the air. “Which probably means I’ll struggle walking into that office soon. But if I get a comfier chair, and you don’t mind me taking frequent naps throughout the day and eating like a horse, I’d be glad to stick around for a while.”

 

Lyle wrapped his arms around her in a comfortable hug, congratulating both her and Sean. “It will be a privilege to have you back,” he said. “I swear, I’ll never take you for granted again.”

 

Sean and Charlotte said their goodbyes quickly, noting that Mr. Ellis and Katrina weren’t anywhere near being finished with their conversation. They’d retired to the bar, both of them staring into their whiskey glasses. Every few moments, Katrina would spew a “but you don’t understand!”, much in the spirit of a teenager, and Charlotte felt relieved that this woman who’d made her life so miserable would no longer pollute her world.

 

Sean led them out to his Tesla and helped Charlotte into the front seat. He smiled up at her, bobbing low on bent knees. “What do you say we have a nice dinner on my rooftop terrace?” he asked her. “It’s a clear night, probably one of the last of the year. We can bundle up and look at the stars.”

 

“I’d love that,” Charlotte replied.

 

She grinned at him sheepishly, and he pushed the door closed, stepping to the driver’s side. Happy, excited energy buzzed from them both, with the realization that the next, beautiful step of their lives was about to begin, and they would soon be bringing three tiny lives into the world.

 

***

 

Sean had called ahead, asking his staff to set the table for them and begin a feast. When they entered the apartment, in the kitchen stood a chef, a pastry chef, and a stand-in server, who Sean had on call. “Just in case I need him.”

 

“In case you need to be served at your home?” Charlotte joked.

 

“He just knows the best wines. I have a massive collection, but I don’t know what goes with what.” He winked at her, leading her to the rooftop terrace.

 

The view from the terrace was absolutely extraordinary. Charlotte felt wrapped in it on all sides, seeing the twinkling lights of the Space Needle, both Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, and the water stretching out to the horizon. The sun had begun its descent, with a bit of it nudged beneath the water. The water glowed orange.

 

The table was set beautifully, leaving Charlotte to affirm that having staff on standby was “very worth it,” even if it felt bit silly. Sean pulled her seat out for her, and she sat primly, noting she’d been poured a glass of sparkling grape juice.

 

“I feel like a child again,” she laughed, clinking her glass with his wine.

 

“Not at all. Sparkling grape juice is delicious,” Sean replied. “I hope you like lasagna.”

 

Charlotte sipped her drink, then, eyeing him. “You know, that all went rather smoothly today. With Katrina. Did you feel anything when you saw Evan? I imagine it had been a while.”

 

“I hadn’t seen him since he sued me, actually,” Sean said. “It didn’t dredge up any feelings, though. I felt no sense of friendship with him. Perhaps we were never really friends, and he had this plan in the works the whole time.”

 

“You think he knew you’d be this successful?” Charlotte said.

 

“I’m sure nobody could have guessed.”

 

“I did. After your speech. It was like you were on a precipice, about to leap into the unknown. I knew you’d make it out alive. But I couldn’t have imagined I’d know you along the way.”

 

“It’s a remarkable thing. I’m so thankful for it.”

 

Their lasagna came, then. Charlotte stuck her fork into it with zeal, bringing the warmth into her stomach.

 

She shivered slightly, and Sean tossed her a blanket he’d stored beneath his seat. “Once the sun goes down fully, it’ll get chilly. But that’s when it’s most magical.”

 

“I trust you,” she answered. She placed her fork down and looked out across the water. She felt intensely grateful for each chilly breath, for the love for this man that grew within her, and for the future that stretched before them.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” Sean said then, interrupting her musing. “Perhaps you’d like to move in with me. I could support you better throughout your pregnancy. I can order you pizzas and buy you midnight ice cream and rub your feet. All that dad stuff.”

 

Charlotte laughed. “Wouldn’t that be getting ahead of ourselves?”

 

Sean shrugged. “Look. I really like you,” he began. “And I’d like to see where this goes. Perhaps we could do the whole dating thing in reverse.”

 

“First you get me pregnant with three children, then we move in together, and—”

 

“And then we finally get to know each other. Officially,” Sean smiled. He placed his hand over hers on the table, gazing into her eyes. When their skin met, she felt electricity—what people talked about with that one important word: chemistry.

 

“I think I’d like that,” Charlotte replied. She felt joy fill her. She leaned across the table and kissed Sean passionately, moving toward him and landing on his lap. His lips were warm, and his beard scratched her face. She wrapped her arms around his neck as she kissed him deeper, with more life. She felt a fierce loyalty to him. She tucked her tongue over his, closing her eyes, thanking her lucky stars that this world had opened up to her.

 

Around them, Seattle began to quiet down for the night. Far away, Charlotte knew that Katrina and her father were having a bitter fight; she wouldn’t be surprised if Katrina was disbarred. And Evan was surely bickering with his wife, who’d probably learned of the affair by now. Evan Greene would be ruined. But Ellis and Associates would continue to thrive.

 

As she continued to kiss Sean, forgetting about dinner, about the dessert that awaited her, Charlotte gave herself over to a final feeling: that Seattle was, ultimately, her home. She’d left the East Coast in a search for something better, and she’d found it. She would raise her children here. She would continue to build. She owed it to the young girl, hidden away in her Yale dorm room, who’d insisted on studying each and every Friday night. She’d been waiting for something better.

 

Sean carried Charlotte to bed around a half hour later, tucking her into the sheets and kissing her mouth, her neck, her forehead. She yearned for his body, but her eyes wouldn’t open, and he told her not to worry—that they had the morning, the afternoon. Eternity. And she smiled into their final kiss, falling into dreamland.

 

 

 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

Five Months Later

 

 

Charlotte felt like a blob. Her legs could hardly carry her, it seemed, and she knocked her stomach into everything when she tried to maneuver, unsure about where the babies began and she ended. “I don’t have spatial awareness anymore,” she whined, leaning her head back in Sean’s car. He drove her to work every morning, these days, given that she was now unable to ride a bicycle. It was winter, anyway, and the rain drizzled constantly.

 

“You’re complaining, but you haven’t noticed I’ve packed on about eight pounds since you moved in with me,” Sean laughed, turning his face toward hers at the traffic light. He stole a quick, sweet kiss from her before turning his gaze back to the road. “Every time you order takeout or indulge in your cravings for blocks of cheese, I don’t know what you expect me to do. I have to fight to look this good.”

 

Charlotte giggled. “We’ll go on a serious diet once the babies are born. Which is hopefully soon, because I feel like I’m going to explode any minute.”

 

“All right, honey. Have a good day at work,” Sean said playfully, using a sitcom voice.

 

Charlotte lifted herself with a grunt from the passenger seat, stepping onto the sidewalk directly next to Lyle.

 

“Good morning, Charlotte,” Lyle said, greeting her warmly. He whooshed his umbrella over her head, saving her perfect blond hair from the rain. The lack of bike rides and the pregnancy hormones had truly elevated her hair game. “How was your weekend?”

 

Charlotte could hardly remember it; she was so plagued by baby brain. But she grinned and pulled a few things from her mind, finally answering the question and asking the same.

 

“I finally heard from Evan’s attorney. The case has finally been dropped,” Lyle said, propping the door open for her. They stood in the foyer, drying off. “It took far longer than we expected. We had to write several different pleas, explaining the situation. But in the end, the issue of Katrina’s disbarment eventually helped them drop it. It alerted the judge to the severity of the situation.”

 

Charlotte nodded, walking to the elevator. “Do you miss her around here?” she asked.

 

“Not at all,” Lyle said quickly, stepping into the elevator beside her. “She made the environment quite tense, don’t you think?”

 

“I do,” Charlotte murmured, not wanting to dive into the details of it. Truly, Katrina had been reminiscent of some of the worst girls from Charlotte’s elementary school days.

 

“Did you see the paper this morning?” Lyle asked. “There was an announcement of Evan’s divorce. I can’t imagine what that woman is going through, learning of an affair like that. Such a tortured thing.” He shook his head with sadness, clucking his tongue.

 

“She should be happy she’s rid of him. I’m surprised she married him to begin with. From what Sean’s told me, he was a wretched boyfriend at Yale. He was always cheating on her then.”

 

“Maybe this was the last straw. Or it was too public, forcing her to take action.”

 

They reached the top floor and began to go their separate ways, before Lyle turned quickly, halting her. “Wait. Charlotte. I’d like to schedule a meeting with you today. You’re here for four hours today, correct?”

 

Charlotte placed her hand on her stomach, nodding. “I’ll be here till around one. But I can stay a bit later.”

 

“Great. Mr. Ellis and I would like to speak with you about something.”

 

Charlotte frowned, but agreed, waddling toward her office. She collapsed in her chair. A moment later, Katrina’s old intern entered, offering her tea and a cereal bar, and she accepted gratefully, feeling her hunger escalate with every passing moment.

 

She worked through the morning, diving into her various cases, happy to occupy herself with such a variety of clients. Although she missed having such high-caliber clients like Sean, she knew that hype generated after exposing Evan Greene for what he was would lead Ellis and Associates to even bigger cases. They were the most talked about tech law firm in the area. The thought of it thrilled her.

 

At around one, she headed to Lyle’s office. Her heart fluttered, nervous to appear before just Lyle and Mr. Ellis. She hadn’t spoken to them alone since Katrina had been fired, and the memory of it wasn’t a pleasant one for Mr. Ellis.

 

She entered and sat before them. Mr. Ellis’ cheeks were rosy, his lips moist. Beside him, Lyle sat with a broad smile on his face, assessing her—his favorite employee.

 

“So. Mr. Ellis and I have been discussing your recent performance,” Lyle began, his voice formal.

 

“It’s been a real pleasure working here throughout my pregnancy,” Charlotte began. “Thank you for allowing me to cut my hours down. I’ve been so exhausted after lunch. And I don’t want to turn my office into a nap room.”

 

“Perfectly understandable,” Lyle said, bowing his head. “But this meeting isn’t about that. Rather, we noted there’s a major hole at the office, without Katrina. Of course, she wasn’t doing the work necessary for her position and title. But we won’t go through that again.”

 

Charlotte’s left eyebrow rose with suspicion. A slight smile crept across her face. But she didn’t yet speak.

 

“We’d like to promote you, Charlotte,” Mr. Ellis said then. “We’d like to give you Katrina’s old position, along with a pay raise. This would be effective immediately, assuming you’d like to accept it.”

 

Charlotte kept her composure, but inside, she felt like she was flying, rocketing her way straight up to cloud nine. “I’d love to accept this position. Of course, you know I won’t be back at full speed until after the babies are born.”

 

“Of course,” Mr. Ellis said, his voice warm. “Take your time. And know that this position is waiting for you when you’re ready.”

 

Charlotte thanked them both with a warm handshake, then a hug. She felt like sobbing, but she held it in, tracing her eyes from one old gentleman to the other. “It’s been a true gift working for you both. It’s changed my life.” She placed her hands on her eight-month pregnant belly, and gave them a sheepish grin—one, she knew, was overzealous, that made her now slightly chubby cheeks more noticeable. Pregnancy had made her round, but beautiful.

 

She returned to her office, dialing Sean’s number quickly, feeling elated. He answered her call before the first ring had finished.

 

Her voice was joyous as she squealed, “Sean. You’ll never believe it.”

 

“Did they promote you?”

 

“Wait. How did you—”

 

“Honey. I’ve been waiting for this moment for months. If they weren’t going to do it soon, I was going to come in and give them a stern talking to.”

 

Charlotte giggled, staring out the window at the February drizzle. “Thank you.”

 

“I’m proud of you. You know that.”

 

“I’m proud of you, too. Always have been,” she replied wistfully.

 

“Thanks, Mom,” he quipped.

 

Charlotte sniffed. “You know. I’m going to be a real mom in just a few weeks. Can you believe it? I got promoted. But that isn’t even my biggest leap of the year. I have to step up to the plate. I have to learn how to breastfeed. Oh, God, I have to learn to do a lot.”

 

“You’re getting ahead of yourself. Just enjoy this moment. Look out the window.”

 

“I am,” Charlotte whispered, placing her fingers against the chilly glass. She shivered.

 

“Did you know I’m looking back at you? All the way over here, at Lawson Technologies.”

 

“You stalker,” she tittered. “Get back to work.”

 

“Not until I go pick my girlfriend up from her office, and take her for a celebratory lunch. No work for me.”

 

“I’ll see you in five?” she laughed.

 

“I love you,” he whispered.

 

She returned the deep, wonderful words, feeling them warm her heart. She swiped her fingers through her hair, letting her head fall back, feeling such unequivocal happiness. It felt as if she’d just breathed oxygen for the first time.

 

Charlotte eased into the Tesla about eight minutes later, her belly heavy, her body aching. She tipped a small kiss on Sean’s lips, and he drove them toward Capitol Hill, where he parked next to a Mexican restaurant they both loved. He helped her inside, where a surprise guest revealed herself, leaping from her chair and clapping her hands.

 

“They finally gave you the promotion!” Chelsea exclaimed, pulling her friend into a side hug, unable to wrap her small arms around Charlotte’s round belly. “You’re really shattering that glass ceiling.”

 

“I do have three other humans to help me now,” Charlotte joked. “That glass ceiling didn’t stand a chance.”

 

Chelsea giggled, kissing Sean on the cheek in greeting. They sat together, the three of them, and ordered many rounds of tacos, speaking overtop of each other, fueled by each other’s happiness. Sean announced that he wouldn’t be going back into the office that day, that he deserved a long afternoon watching movies with his girlfriend. There was a sense that this cozy Mexican restaurant was a refuge from the cold, rainy Seattle day.

 

The long afternoon carried on, allowing them to pop popcorn, to dive into one fantastical movie after another. When Charlotte had to go upstairs to take an early nap, Sean went with her, tucking her in and sleeping alongside her, telling her that he couldn’t get enough time with her, not ever. Nuzzled into his arm cocoon, she soon found sleep.

 

 

 

 

NINETEEN

 

 

 

The following Friday was Valentine’s Day, the very first Charlotte had celebrated with a boyfriend, in all her 28 years. Never had she been given a chocolate heart; never had she received a dozen roses, nor thrown them away after they dried up in their vase. And for this reason, perhaps, she felt a great deal of excitement for this day—knowing it held the promise of professions of love, of cuddles, of long hours in bed.

 

But more than that, Charlotte had listed this day, February 14, as her last day at Ellis and Associates before giving birth. She walked into the office with a heavy heart, focusing on the walk through the glass doors, the ride up the elevator. She wondered when she would possibly gain enough energy to come back, after giving birth to three children.

 

She’d long before given up on heels, and she walked slowly into the office for the final time on black flats, her stomach protruding before her.

 

“It’s not long now!” one of the interns called, waving to her.

 

“And hopefully, nobody will remember this look,” Charlotte laughed. “It’s not one I want remembered.”

 

“Don’t listen to her,” another intern interrupted. “You look gorgeous. Your skin is glowing. Your hair has never looked better. She’s just anxious today because she has a pimple.”

 

Charlotte worked diligently throughout her last morning, scribbling notes to her stand-in attorney, Barbara, and packing up her supplies. She couldn’t live a single moment without her highlighters and trusty notebook, even if she was going to spend her life in a constant state of breastfeeding and sleeping. My, how things changed, she thought.

 

Although it was Valentine’s Day, Charlotte knew not to expect much flashiness from the evening; despite his wealth, Sean was nothing if not low-key. He didn’t enjoy flaunting his money—his idea of a glorious date involved going out into the woods and inhaling fresh air. And she loved this about him, truly. She couldn’t imagine dating a male version of Katrina, who flaunted her money with each breath.

 

Because it was her last day, Charlotte found herself with a million last-minute projects and proposals. She was on a constant trek to Lyle’s office, reminding him of things only she knew about or took care of, passing him folder after folder of information. She knew the man was growing older. She wanted the process to be automatic for him, and Sean had insisted she take a break from all things work related until at least a few weeks after labor.

 

At around six that evening, she received a text message from Sean. She fumbled for her phone, feeling it piled beneath folders and reminders. It was her natural state, her familiar, loveable chaos.

 

“I’m outside. Take your time, and come out when you’re ready. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

 

Charlotte’s heart began to patter. She dropped her folders into a box, tossing everything into an unorganized pile. Her fingers shook with excitement. She wrote a note on the box, explaining that it was to be delivered to Sean’s penthouse, given that she couldn’t carry it. And she waddled into the main office, raising her arm and waving at the remaining workers.

 

The interns, the attorneys, and even Lyle quieted down, turning somber eyes toward her. Their respect was wholly hers.

 

“I just wanted to say. It’s been a unique pleasure working with you all,” she began. She felt a rock in her throat as she divulged this truth. “Every day, I’ve learned more about myself and about the law through you all. And I can’t wait to come back after I have these babies and really change some lives.” She rubbed her palms together, giving her colleagues an anxious, ecstatic grin.

 

And then, Lyle approached her, wrapping her in a mighty bear hug. The interns and other attorneys said goodbye with handshakes, with kisses. Charlotte felt overwhelmed with affection for them all, and she thanked them over and over again before dipping into the elevator and diving to the ground floor. She still felt their warmth on her arms. She still felt their smiles.

 

As the elevator doors opened, Sean appeared in the lobby, dressed in an immaculate suit that hugged his physique in all the right places. That familiar, 2006 grin swept across his face, and he brought his elbow forward.

 

Charlotte accepted it, taking stride beside him. “What’s gotten into you, Mister Romantic?” she grinned.

 

“Can’t a guy take his girlfriend out for Valentine’s?”

 

“I suppose you’re allowed,” she said. “If it’s really what you want.”

 

He looked at her steadily. “This is, without a doubt, one of the most important things I’ve wanted in my life. Trust me.”

 

Charlotte paused, unable to breathe. Something about his words caused her stomach to flip over. The moment was frozen in time, wholly formed in truth. He was her partner. He was her everything.

 

He tucked her into the passenger seat of the car, and began to drive through the city.

 

“So, where are we going, anyway?” Charlotte asked. “I suppose we can’t go to any of the usual romantic spots, since it won’t stop raining. No outdoor pier dinner. No drinks on the rooftop terrace.”

 

“I have something up my sleeve,” Sean said, squeezing her knee. “Don’t worry about it for a moment.”

 

The car revved through the rainy streets, splashing through puddles. Charlotte watched as Seattleites trudged down sidewalks, their heads lowered beneath umbrellas. One old man held an umbrella over his wife’s head, his left shoulder growing damper and damper with each passing moment. It was altruism; it was love.

 

Finally, Sean parked the Tesla just a few blocks from the Space Needle. Charlotte frowned, not used to being so close to the base. “What are we doing here—” she began, perplexed as they passed the various museums in the area.

 

But Sean placed his finger over his lips, shaking his head. “No questions,” he seemed to say. No commentary.

 

So Charlotte held her lips tight, clinging to his grasp as he led her toward the base of the Space Needle. The light was almost completely gone from the sky, and the Space Needle was a gleaming beacon above them—the Eiffel Tower of Seattle, the link the immense population all looked at before they went to sleep at night.

 

A maître d’ met them at the base of the landmark, greeting them both with a bow and a “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

 

Charlotte blinked toward Sean as it dawned on her that they would be eating at the exclusive restaurant at the top of the tower—SkyCity. Her stomach growled with hunger, and she kept her smile inward, feeling the brevity of the moment as they stepped into the elevator.

 

The maître d’ didn’t speak as the elevator propelled to the top. Charlotte leaned toward the window, placing her fingers on the speckled pane, gazing out over the city as they left it below them. She felt like a god, looking down from so far above the city that was her heart and soul.

 

“Six hundred and five feet above Seattle,” the maître d’ told them. He sniffed, proud, as if he’d built the place himself. “Have you ever been up before?”

 

“Never,” Charlotte said, breathless. The elevator had gone on too far, it seemed. They were tiny speck-humans in outer space.

 

Finally, the elevator doors opened at SkyCity. The restaurant was lit with countless candles, and lined entirely with windows that slanted toward the perfect view of the water and the city.

 

Charlotte’s breath caught in her throat. She brought her fingers to her mouth, trying not to gasp. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen,” she whispered. She turned her face toward Sean and kissed him deeply, feeling such pleasure within her. The view alone was perfect, and with the addition of the perfect man next to her, she was beside herself.

 

After a moment, Charlotte grew perplexed, realizing that the restaurant was completely empty. Only a single table was actually set, close to one of the windows.

 

Charlotte tilted her head in question. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Why are we the only ones here?” She assumed the place would be packed, brimming with tech gurus trying to please their girlfriends, lawyers trying to convince their wives they shouldn’t divorce them. But it was just the two of them, Charlotte and Sean, all the way up in the highest point of the city.

 

“I booked out the entire restaurant,” Sean said, shrugging. “It’s the least I could do.”

 

“The least?” Charlotte laughed, allowing the maître d’ to help her to her seat. “It’s one of the biggest gestures in the world.”

 

“I just didn’t want anything to distract us,” Sean said, eyeing her in a deeply loving way. Candlelight sparkled in his pupils. “You bring such happiness to my life, Charlotte.” He lifted his glass of wine, gesturing for her to lift her Italian soda. “In fact, I want to make a toast to you. To you and to the babies growing within you. And to our future together. Forever.”

 

Charlotte’s eyes caught on something in that moment, something that gave her pause. Sean had dressed in one of his fine suits, as he generally did for their dates. But this time, he wore a very special pair of cufflinks. They glinted in the soft light, causing her to set her drink back on the table.

 

She brought her hands to her soft cheeks, and felt tears pool in her eyes. “You’re wearing the very cufflinks you wore the day I first saw you,” she whispered. “I can’t believe it.”

 

Sean placed his wine back on the table, putting off finishing his toast for later. He gestured with his cufflinked arms, giving her that stunning grin. His five o’clock shadow highlighted his perfect, cut jawline, and his eyes were dark, eager. “I haven’t worn them since you brought the other one back to me.”

 

“I know. I assumed, perhaps, that you’d outgrown them,” Charlotte said. She hadn’t wanted to ask him about them, in case his response made her sad.

 

“That’s not it at all,” he replied. “I felt there was such a power to these cufflinks, I wanted to wear them on a special night, when everything finally came together for us. Call me superstitious, but I think they’re pretty lucky.”

 

Charlotte reminisced for a moment, surprised he hadn’t thought to wear them after they’d solved the Katrina and Evan problem, or when they had decided to move in together. But it had been many months since then. And special nights had bled into special nights, until, it seemed, their entire life was lit up. What made this one any different?

 

“You see, Charlotte,” Sean said. “I received these cufflinks from my father when I was eighteen years old, the day I was accepted into Yale. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he thought it would be better if I just went to work at his car manufacturing plant, like he had done when he was eighteen. But I was resistant. I had dreams and goals. And so, the fact that he’d gone out to purchase these cufflinks for me, even though he thought I was making a mistake, made them truly special to me. I grew to treasure them even more after he died.”

 

Charlotte had known Sean’s father had died, had cried for him when she’d learned. Her relationship with her father had only grown stronger in the years since her acceptance to Yale, and she hated that Sean hadn’t been able to experience the same joy.

 

“I wore those cufflinks that day of the speech because I assumed they’d bring me good luck. And, as it turns out, they did—in almost every single way.” He laughed. His cheeks shone in the candlelight as they lifted into a smile. “After the speech, I was approached by countless journalists, eager to talk to me about my idea. And when that cufflink popped off, someone who was bound to change my life in very different, very fulfilling ways, found it. And picked it up. And kept it.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I did to deserve that.”

 

Charlotte’s head was spinning. She remembered the countless nights she’d dreamed of this man, yearned for him to say her name. To be a part of her life. But she’d never understood just how.

 

“I think, since these cufflinks have been joined back together, everything in my life has felt exactly right. Maybe for the first time,” Sean continued. “It’s almost like you had to carry this cufflink with you, and I had to carry the other, until we were ready to meet one another. Until we had lived out the portions of our lives we were meant to on our own. Until we could unite for good.”

 

“That’s a really beautiful metaphor,” Charlotte whispered. “It’s almost too good to be true.”

 

“It really is,” Sean agreed. “It doesn’t make sense that we’re here. It doesn’t make sense that we saw each other and exchanged that single, life-changing smile. But we did. And now, we’ve created three babies together.” He eyed her stomach, and Charlotte swept her hand over it, as if alerting her babies to this special moment. Perhaps they could feel how fast her heart beat for their father. Perhaps they sensed the emotion this moment sizzled with.

 

Suddenly, Sean lifted himself from his seat. He bowed down and got on a single knee, looking up at her with hopeful, nervous eyes. He cleared his throat and dipped into his pocket, bringing out a single, black case.

 

“I know I can be difficult sometimes,” he told her. “I’m not perfect. And I’m certainly addicted to my work.”

 

“I am, too,” Charlotte whispered, feeling tears race down her cheek. She turned toward him, taking his hands into hers.

 

“That’s part of the reason I’m in love with you, Charlotte. You love to learn. You want to make the world a better place. And you think moments like that one you shared with me, almost eleven years ago now, are worth waiting for. I think that’s incredible.”

 

“Thank you,” she blubbered through tears that were coming faster and faster.

 

Sean opened the case, then. A gorgeous, vintage ring sat in the center, surrounded by satin, diamonds glinting in the candlelight.

 

Charlotte closed her eyes, unable to believe that this moment was really happening.

 

“Charlotte. Will you?” he asked her, his eyes centered upon her face.

 

Charlotte fought back tears, trying to memorize his expression through the water in her eyes. She lifted her left hand to him, and he slid the stunning ring over her finger. She brought it up to her eyes to gaze at it, studying the tiny jewels on the band.

 

“Where is this from?” she whispered.

 

“It was my grandmother’s,” Sean said. He reached toward her, then, kissing her wholly, bringing his arms around her neck. He massaged her sore back muscles before bringing his head back, looking at her like she was the only woman in the world. “She was a beautiful woman, smart as a whip. She ran away from home to go to college. And when her father came to drag her away from school, she just told him adamantly that she wasn’t going to go with him.”

 

“Just like that?” Charlotte asked, sniffling slightly.

 

“Her stories remind me of you,” Sean said. “A fighter. A woman who wouldn’t quit. I appreciate that emotion, that passion within you. I know that means you’ll fight for our marriage. I know you’ll fight for our children and whatever obstacles they come against, the same way I knew, all those months ago, that you were going to fight for me as my lawyer. I believe in you, Charlotte. And I believe in us.”

 

Joy swept through Charlotte. She felt her limbs begin to quake as Sean wrapped her in a hug and kiss once more. Every moment of her life had been leading to this one. She was at the highest point of the most beautiful city she’d ever seen, and she had Sean beside her—pledging to live out the remainder of his life with her.

 

But as she pulled back from his embrace, she suddenly felt something painful within her, deep in her uterus. Her eyes grew wide and she looked up at Sean with panic. “Something’s wrong,” she gasped.

 

Sean matched her fright. He leaned down, his hands on her round belly. “Do you think you’re in labor?” he asked her. “It wouldn’t be a surprise for you to go in early.”

 

Charlotte began to cry, then. They were different tears than the one she’d had for her marriage proposal. These tears were full of fear for the future. These tears told her to hold on tight—because her life was about to change forever.

 

Another contraction swept through her, then. “They’re one after another, it seems,” Charlotte said. She searched for the maître d’, but she hadn’t seen him in minutes. “I need to go to the hospital.”

 

“Didn’t the doctor say not to be alarmed—”

 

“It’s different,” she interrupted, her eyes like a wild animal’s. “Let’s get on that elevator and postpone this dinner for another time.”

 

Sean lurched for the kitchen door, where he found the maître d’. “Can you call an ambulance?” he said, his voice strained.

 

Deep within her mind, Charlotte thought his panic was rather adorable. While she was struggling with the concept of becoming a mother in the next few hours, he was equally grappling with being a father. These were huge, meaningful times. “Complicated” didn’t even begin to cover it.

 

Quickly, the maître d’ called the ambulance and scrambled toward them, helping Charlotte from her chair. Another contraction came, hitting her like a truck. She cried out, and then eased into a long, smooth groan.

 

She shook her head, fighting through it. “I’m still not sure about this.”

 

“I thought you were asking her to marry you…?” the maître d’ asked Sean, his eyes searching.

 

“I did! She said yes. And then I suppose the shock of it—”

 

“Don’t talk about me, boys. I’m right here,” Charlotte interjected, her eyes moving from one man to the other as they led her toward the elevator. Far down the shaft, she heard the wailing of an ambulance, coming to take her to the hospital.

 

“She seems bigger than one baby, no?” the maître d’ asked. “Two?”

 

“Three,” Sean mouthed, his eyes wide.

 

“Bless your heart,” the maître d’ said.

 

As Charlotte leaned against the elevator walls, her arms wrapped around her stomach, she gave them a hard eye roll. But as another contraction tore through her, she found she didn’t have the attention to feel annoyed. Her mind was filled solely with panic and pain.

 

The ambulance waited for them as they exited the Space Needle elevator. The EMT workers helped Charlotte onto the gurney with chiseled arms. They towered over her, asking her questions. “When did they start? Are you dizzy?”

 

Charlotte could hardly muster the energy to answer. She poked Sean in the lower arm from her position on the gurney. “You tell them.”

 

Sean looked aghast, far less put-together than he’d been on that Yale stage, but he squeezed her hand and jumped into the back of the ambulance with the EMTs and his fiancée, explaining her history, that she was having triplets, and that she was only eight months pregnant.

 

“Is that going to be a problem?” he asked them.

 

“It’s only slightly premature,” the EMTs told him.

 

Charlotte fell into another contraction and could no longer hear. She squeezed Sean’s hand as hard as she could, twisting his fingers.

 

And yet, no matter how rough she was with him, he didn’t flinch. He was the other half of her cufflink. He was her future, her rock.

 

 

 

 

TWENTY

 

 

 

The ambulance hurtled to the downtown hospital, zooming up to the emergency entrance and then slamming its breaks, causing Charlotte to yelp. The contraction pain made her feel like her insides were being scraped out. Sweat poured down her face. She felt embarrassed for a moment; this was probably the ugliest she’d ever appeared to him.

 

Sean followed the gurney to the delivery room, where Charlotte was positioned on a white bed. They asked her to change into a hospital gown, and she did it quickly, bobbing her head beneath her business dress and whipping her tights from her legs. She felt like a whale, washed from the sea and beached. She propped her legs up, spreading her legs, ready to allow a doctor to prod and poke her and reveal how quickly she could deliver.

 

“I hate this already,” she teased Sean, giving him a mad grin. “But you’re being a champion.”

 

“If I was giving birth, I’m sure you’d be right here. And in a whole lot less pain.”

 

“Don’t rub it in,” Charlotte breathed.

 

The doctor entered, then. His white coat gleamed beneath the florescent bulbs, and he was whistling an almost-familiar song as he donned his plastic gloves. “How are we feeling here?” he asked Charlotte.

 

“Like I’m going to die or explode. Or both,” she murmured.

 

He began to examine her, causing her to close her eyes with discomfort. After just a few moments, he stood up from his stool and looked at her with large eyes. Clearly, this wasn’t an ordinary delivery. Charlotte felt her heart jump.

 

“We’re going to need to deliver the babies via C-section,” he announced. “The babies will be fine if we do it soon.”

 

Charlotte’s breath caught in her throat as she tried to answer. But she nodded, straining for the correct answer, realizing she’d need to be moved to the surgery wing.

 

Beside her, Sean squeezed her hand, a constant reminder that they were in it together. She glanced at the ring glinting on her finger. She remembered, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she still hadn’t said a certain “yes” yet. She’d kissed him. She’d donned the ring. But she hadn’t given him that final gift. That certainty.

 

But the nurses were wheeling her from the room, then, and to surgery. She knew Sean wouldn’t be allowed in with her, and she closed her eyes as he leaned down and kissed her. “I’ll see you on the other side. When we’re finally a family.”

 

“Finally a family,” she repeated. She caught a final glimpse of his cufflink as they wheeled her into surgery and closed the door behind her. They knocked out the feeling on the lower half of her body. And, she knew, somewhere behind the curtain they’d drawn, they were slicing her open. They were showing the light to her children for the first time; she’d have to wait to hold them in her arms.

 

Of course, she’d waited ten years for Sean. She supposed she could wait a few moments more to meet their children. Life was just a series of beautiful moments. And sometimes, she knew, the waiting could be just as beautiful as the real thing.

 

***

 

The three babies were born safely, if slightly premature, at eleven-thirty at night on Valentine’s Day. Charlotte rolled her eyes at this, exclaiming what a cliché it was. But truthfully, her eyes were filled with happy tears; she couldn’t believe they were safe, that it was over. She was sitting contently, easily in the recovery room with Sean by her side.

 

Sean paced beside her bed, searching her face. “You saw them? They’re bringing them?”

 

“I could hardly see them. I was weeping so hard,” Charlotte said. She reached out and grasped Sean’s hand. “But they’re coming. They’ll be with us soon. And then, it’ll be forever.”

 

Sure enough, the nurses brought the triplets in just a few moments later, washed up and ready to meet their parents for the first time. Charlotte was amazed at their tiny features, at the size of their beet-red arms and legs, at the fine digits of their fingers.

 

“Two boys, and one girl,” Sean said, his voice full of wonder. He took the girl in his arms, and watched as the nurse gingerly placed the boys into Charlotte’s. “I can’t believe they’re real,” he whispered.

 

“It seems we have to name them,” Charlotte said, laughing. “I know we’ve discussed a few names, but…”

 

“Sure. We’ve tossed around calling them all Sean,” he teased her. “It could even work for our baby girl. Just a bit of a spelling change.”

 

Charlotte stuck her tongue out at him, smiling. “Don’t be a goon. We have to name them well. They’ll be written about in magazines for the rest of their lives.”

 

It was true, Charlotte knew, that her children would be famous, if only because of their father. They’d inherit his fortune. And she’d be their mother, a successful lawyer. She hoped they wouldn’t feel pressure under the weight of their parents’ success; she hoped it would challenge them, affirming that they could do anything that they set their minds to.

 

“Let’s start with my girl here,” Sean said, bringing his thumb to her forehead. “I think I like Evelyn. Evie for short.”

 

“Evie,” Charlotte said, nodding her head. “She looks like an Evie.”

 

“She certainly does,” Sean agreed. “Evie. Welcome to your family, Evie. Those are the boys who are going to love and torment you for the rest of your life.”

 

“And what about them?” Charlotte asked, mid-giggle. “What will we call our boys.”

 

“You choose. I chose Evie,” Sean said.

 

Despite her exhaustion, the names Oscar and Ethan struck Charlotte all at once, and she said them out loud. The boys stirred at the words, almost as if they were responding, and Charlotte felt herself crying once more. “Oscar and Ethan. I think it’s perfect.”

 

She nodded as she spoke, with a left nod for Oscar and a right nod for Ethan—the oldest, who would be named in honor of Sean’s late father.

 

“I agree” Sean replied, his eyes moist.

 

Charlotte lay with her baby boys, then, as Sean held Evie, cradling her. They spoke sparingly, hardly able to believe their family had formed before them, in the dark of that Valentine’s night. After a while, a nurse entered to help Charlotte begin to breast-feed. She felt thankful that the babies took to it immediately, latching to her breasts hungrily. She felt she fit the mother role, despite not having dreamed about it much as a child, or even as an adult. But with Sean, she knew, anything and everything was possible, and motherhood would be amazing.

 

“Can you imagine what lives these kids are going to have?” Charlotte whispered as Oscar breastfed. “Do you think they’ll take after you or me? A tech guru or a lawyer?”

 

Sean’s eyebrows rose high. He held both Ethan and Evie, and he shrugged slightly, not moving enough to wake them. “Maybe they’ll forge their own paths. Become artists or writers, or bankers or—”

 

“Or whatever makes them happy,” Charlotte grinned. She looked down at her breastfeeding baby and watched as the light gleamed off his perfect eyebrows and eyelashes. “They have such dark hair. Like yours.”

 

“You didn’t think your angelic blond could overrule this monstrosity on my head, did you?” he asked her. “But Evie’s hair is a bit lighter. Maybe it’ll lighten as she grows older. She could be a beautiful blonde like her mother.”

 

“I don’t mind what they look like. As long as they’re healthy, and happy.”

 

They sat in silence for a moment. Charlotte was distracted, trying to ensure that baby Oscar got enough milk. Soon, she turned toward Sean, that tiny crinkle forming between her eyebrows. “I just remembered something,” she whispered.

 

“What?” Sean asked, fake-alarmed. “Did you leave the stove on?”

 

Charlotte broke into a smile easily. She loved this man and his already dad-like humor. “No, darling. I remembered that I never told you, officially, that I want to marry you. And so I’m doing it now. Yes. I want to marry you and be with you for the rest of my life.”

 

Sean nodded, his eyes linking with hers. “Finally, I get the response I’m looking for, minus all those contractions.”

 

“I love you,” Charlotte spluttered. She was crying again. Why couldn’t she halt it? As she wept, a nurse brought them three baby bassinets, perfect for them to lay their babies in for their first, blissful night’s sleep. Charlotte allowed the nurse to take Oscar from her, leaving a hole in her arms. She already craved the warmth of his body against her.

 

But she was content when her three babies drifted off to sleep. And she was more than happy when Sean slipped into the bed, beside her, and wrapped his own, strong arms around her. They couldn’t sleep from the anticipation of their coming lives, and so they chatted about possibilities, about how terrible Disney World would be when they finally took the kids, and about who would be “good cop” versus the other’s “bad cop.” They flipped through the channels on the hospital’s television, and Sean marched toward the vending machine, centered on picking up a better haul than the previous time. “I know what you like now,” he said.

 

Charlotte checked her phone about an hour later, as Sean began to drift off to sleep on her pillow, and as her babies slept on, unaware of the fact that this was their very first day on planet Earth. They’d hear the story later, many times.

 

Her messages were from her mom and dad, from Chelsea, and from many of her colleagues, all of them wishing her a happy birth. She flipped through the photos Sean had taken of her holding the babies during the hours before, and she sent a few to her parents, remembering that already it was six in the morning on the East Coast—surely they would be awake.

 

The messages were received immediately. Tears rolled down Charlotte’s cheeks as her parents responded with rapid text messages.

 

They’re the most beautiful humans I’ve ever seen.

 

Wow. You DID it, Charlotte!

 

This is your greatest accomplishment yet. We love you, pumpkin.

 

The texts kept streaming in, assuring Charlotte that no matter the distance between them, her parents would always have her back. The final message, regarding the news of her engagement, warmed her heart the most.

 

“We can’t wait to be at the wedding. We can’t wait to hold your babies close. Love, Grandma and Grandpa.”

 

Charlotte put her head back on the pillow and kissed Sean’s cheek as he slept blissfully on. She breathed heavily, allowing herself to drift into slumber, rich with the knowledge that her life hadn’t turned out just as she’d planned—that it had gone the way of her wildest dreams.

 

And, miraculously, the babies slept a few hours more before crying, alerting their parents that, despite their cuteness, they weren’t going to be easy. And the couple braced themselves, for more love, and more trials and tribulations than they’d experienced ever before.

 

The End

 

 

Thank you for reading. Here’s my previously released Sheikh romance, Wifed By The Sheikh.

 

 

ONE

 

Zelda’s feet had been aching for five blocks, but still she kept walking, determined to put as much distance between herself and her parents as possible.

 

“I’ll show them who’s wasting their life,” she muttered, resentment tingling through her as her mind circled around to the argument that had prompted her seemingly endless walk.

 

The question of just how she would show her parents remained nebulous in her mind; Zelda hadn’t thought past the flash of fury and indignation that her parents’ comments had prompted. In point of fact, when she’d left the house, she hadn’t managed to take more than a backpack of clothes, her phone and wallet, and a few toiletries with her. It was certainly not the best thought-out exit of her life, but the thought of going back and retrieving any of her other possessions before she figured out a way to turn her defeat into a victory was more painful than the blisters she could feel forming on her toes.

 

She had left the house with little idea of where she wanted to end up, so when Zelda saw the signs for the Miami Beach Marina, she started to pick up her sluggish pace once more. Even if it wasn’t a very scenic destination, she might at least get some idea of what to with herself next if she wandered the area for long enough.

 

There aren’t any cruise ships around here—or at least there shouldn’t be, she thought as she slipped past a guard explaining something to a wealthy-looking couple in classic South Beach white linen resort wear. Most of them leave from Port of Miami, but there might be something, someone looking for a new employee. Maybe there was a dinner cruise moored and ready to leave; or perhaps she’d find one of the vendors on site advertising for staff.

 

Zelda had to admit to herself that a job as a barmaid at that marina was something of a comedown from the prospect she’d once had of becoming a chef-caterer, but it would be enough to live on—hopefully—while she planned her next move.

 

She looked around her, taking in the sight of luxury yachts and smaller, but still undeniably expensive, sport boats at anchor all over the marina. She forgot about the pain in her feet entirely as she dreamed vague fantasies of talking her way onto a small cruise liner, staying out to sea for a few days, safely out of her parents’ reach. She’d return to tell them that she’d made enough on her first outing at sea to be able to afford to move out, and that she was going to keep working that job, and they could take all their threats of refusing to support her financially and sit on them.

 

She replayed the argument in her mind once more as she wandered past the boats, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. The problem had started when she’d told her parents that she had dropped out of the program at Le Cordon Bleu.

 

They hadn’t been all that thrilled with her choosing that option to begin with; both her mother and her father had hoped that she would live up to their example and not only complete her B.A. in Literature, but go on to a master’s degree, and maybe even a Ph.D. But Zelda had come to the conclusion two years into the English Literature program at UCF that she didn’t have the intellectual stamina to spend the next four or six years working away on studies that weren’t likely to get her a job other than as a teacher or professor.

 

They’d been bitterly disappointed with her steadfast refusal to consider switching majors at UCF, or maybe simply taking a year off to “find herself” before returning to the university. Both of her parents had certainly instilled a love of learning in Zelda: her English professor mother had let her read F. Scott Fitzgerald at the youngest permissible age so that she could understand the inspiration for her name, and her Doctor of History father had spent her entire childhood encouraging her to question the common historical narrative, teaching her to think critically. They had thought that she would follow in their footsteps in some way, and continue the family tradition of erudition and prestige. Instead, Zelda had come home at the end of her fourth semester, after sitting her exams, and announced that she had no intention of ever going back.

 

Instead, she had opted to pursue catering; Zelda had always loved food, and her mother had always said that she had “a knack” for developing recipes and tweaking ones that already existed.

 

Zelda’s goal had been to open her own business as soon as she finished her studies at Le Cordon Bleu, but it had quickly become obvious to her that most of her classroom time would be spent in repetitive drills: chopping vegetables, making stocks that she’d made five times before, replicating existing recipes down to the last detail. She had learned how to make Lobster Thermidor, how to create five different types of stock, and how to make perfectly clear consommé. But the sheer boredom of so much repetition, so many drills, and the frustration of not being able to deviate even for a moment from the school-developed recipes had eventually gotten to her, and Zelda had decided that culinary school was not for her any more than university had been.

 

Her parents had started out understanding. “I can understand why so much of same-drill-different-day would put you off, sweetheart,” her mother had said. “But there is a reason for them putting you through all of this, you know.”

 

“They expect most of us to end up as line chefs,” Zelda had told her mother. “Do you really blame me for not wanting that for myself? How am I supposed to innovate if I’m not allowed?”

 

“Can’t you wait until you’ve finished the training and innovate then?”

 

When Zelda had insisted that she was every bit as dissatisfied with culinary school as she had been with UCF, the tone of her parents’ voices had started to sharpen. They had accused her of wasting her time, and of getting them involved in one money-wasting scheme after another.

 

“What are you going to do next? Decide that cosmetology school is the only thing you want to do?” Her mother had shaken her head. “Well I can tell you this, kiddo: if you want to take another whack at a totally different line of study, you’re going to have to find a way to fund it yourself.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“We sank our money into you going to UCF and you dropped out after two years,” her father had said. “Then you swore to us that you were going to be a star of the catering world and we sunk more money into culinary school, without the benefit of any discounts or waivers that we got with UCF because Le Cordon Bleu doesn’t care if we’re professors at another university in the state.” Both of her parents had begun shaking their heads at that point. “Your mother and I are not cash cows, Zelda, and we’re not going to fund every last whim you have on the off-chance that this time you’ll actually get serious.”

 

Then had come the comments about her lack of commitment, her inability to focus, her failures of strength, character, and academic interest, and Zelda had found herself becoming angrier and angrier. It had been the same litany she’d heard when she’d dropped out of UCF, and it hadn’t aged well in the months since her parents had last delivered it.

 

“We can’t keep funding you indefinitely, Zelda,” her mother had said, shaking her head.

 

“You’re the one who named me after a 1920s party girl,” Zelda had retorted. “What did you expect? That I’d grow up to become some stable, secure, wonderful contributing member of society?”

 

“We expected at least that you’d be smart enough to know when to keep at something long enough to accomplish at least one goal in it,” her father had said. “We expected that a young woman as bright and talented as you are could cobble together enough focus to do something with herself.”

 

“So after two tries—two measly tries—you’re cutting me off?” Zelda had been shaking with anger at that point, her voice cracking with it. While her parents weren’t exactly wealthy, they’d managed to get tenure, and had put away enough money over the years to manage a generous retirement fund, and speaking engagements and publishing contracts had given them wiggle room to fund her. The fact that they’d decided to cut her off, when Zelda knew as a certainty that there was still money in her college fund, enraged her.

 

“Two measly tries? Zelda, we’ve sunk thousands into your education, and you’re telling us after a few short weeks at culinary school that it’s not for you. It was supposed to be your practical goal, and something that you couldn’t possibly fail at,” her mother had told her.

 

“We’d almost be less upset if you’d genuinely failed, rather than giving up on it like you are now,” her father had added.

 

“Well I guess since I’m such a terrible disappointment to you both, I might as well just move out and try my luck being…I don’t know…an escort or something,” Zelda had told them. She’d gone into her room while her parents, too stunned to come up with something to say in response, had stared, and thus started the long walk that had brought her to the marina.

 

As Zelda looked around, she tried to think of a way to use her location to her advantage. She had no intention of becoming an escort; while she respected the women who could live that life, it wasn’t something that appealed to her. Maybe if I was a high-price escort, making five thousand dollars a week, they’d shut up about what a quitter I am, Zelda thought bitterly. Nope, not worth it. Find something else.

 

She could apply at one of the handful of restaurants on the marina; while she didn’t yet have her certification, she’d trained for eight weeks, and could easily use her skills as a sous chef at one of the smaller, less formal options. Or maybe I could get a retail job. Zelda frowned at the idea, dismissing it a moment later; even on Miami Beach, a retail position wouldn’t pay enough for her to afford rent right away.

 

Zelda paused as a couple of loaders crossed her path, headed for one of the larger yachts moored at the docks. She turned her head and took in the magnificent ship: it was the largest one in the marina, glittering in gleaming white, blue, and gray splendor. Probably some hedge fund manager, getting ready to take his trophy wife to Barbados or St. Lucia.

 

Zelda shook her head to herself, watching the workers loading more supplies onto the huge vessel. Other employees milled around, either far overhead on the boat itself, or around it on the docks, chattering away, obviously preparing to set sail. So many people were coming and going that Zelda wondered how it was possible for the people in charge to keep count.

 

That question set wheels into motion in her head. They probably aren’t keeping track at all, she thought, catching her bottom lip between her teeth and worrying it as the elusive shape of a plan began to form in her mind. At least, they’re probably not paying so much attention to who comes and goes that they’d notice just one little stowaway.

 

A tingle of excitement worked its way through Zelda’s body. She looked around herself more carefully; the crew of the ship were so involved in preparing to leave that none of them had so much as looked in her direction since she’d come to a stop next to the vessel.

 

Zelda shifted her backpack on her shoulders, smoothed her hair, and looked down at her clothes. They were less than completely professional, but she looked at least as put-together as any of the other yacht staff she saw coming and going, moving around on the slip. If she played her cards right, she could—she hoped—make it onto the vessel, and into a discreet hiding spot, before anyone thought to take a head count.

 

She fell in behind two stewards, chatting busily about their last-minute assignments, about “impossible demands” and “miracle workers.” She kept a few paces behind them, not wanting to do anything to attract attention, and followed them up the gangplank at a steady pace, carefully schooling her features into a model of all that was busy and focused.

 

Once on board, Zelda immediately turned left, cutting away from the stewards, and ducked into a hallway without knowing where she was going, or even where she should go. In theory at least, she should be able to find somewhere to tuck herself away in the lower levels. She looked around for a map, an elevator, or stairs to take her further away from the potential of being caught by one of the crew members wandering around.

 

She found her way downstairs, trying to look like she knew where she was going. Her heart pounded in her chest as she looked around, moving briskly through the corridors. She thought that she was either brilliant or incredibly foolish, and that there was a very good possibility that she was both.

 

“You!”

 

Zelda spun on her heel as a big, slightly heavy-looking woman appeared on the corridor. She was wearing chef’s whites, her face flushed and her sandy-colored hair pulled back under a cap.

 

“You’re looking for the galley, right?”

 

Zelda smiled tightly. “Yeah, sorry, just kind of lost.”

 

The chef nodded shortly. “Someone should have led you down here. I’ll get someone to show you to your quarters as soon as you’re done.” She gestured for Zelda to follow her.

 

With no other option, Zelda followed the woman through the end of the corridor and then to a door, leading into the yacht’s galley. A few others were at work, preparing what looked to be a luxurious feast.

 

“You’re going to have a chance to show off your skills right away,” the chef said, gesturing around the kitchen. “His Majesty wants a banquet prepared and served shortly after we set sail. Supplies are still coming in, of course, but you know how it is—he says jump.”

 

Zelda nodded. “I get it,” she said, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.

 

“I’ll put you on prep for now, and we can see where you go from there,” she said. “Name’s Babette; I’m the head chef here. You?”

 

“Zelda.”

 

“Throw your bag over there in the office, and talk to Petra here about what needs prepping. We’ll have more time to work out your spot on the line once we get through this crisis.” Babette turned away and faced the rest of the kitchen. “If you burn that rice again, Jeremy, so help me I will make white boy tagine out of you!”

 

The chef strode away and Zelda threw her bag into the office, walking towards the station that Babette had gestured to.

 

“You the newbie?” a shorter, rounder woman with dark hair asked.

 

Zelda nodded in answer Petra’s question.

 

“Thank God—we were starting to think you were going to no-show. All right, let’s show you which way is up.”

 

Zelda paid close attention as Petra pointed out all the different vegetables that needed prepping and ran through what she needed Zelda to do with each.

 

“Got all that?” she asked, and Zelda nodded. “All right, now once you get those done, let me know and we’ll move onto the next batch.”

 

“Can do,” Zelda said.

 

She grabbed one of the knives in the block and got to work. Thank God they thought I was some kitchen staffer, Zelda thought. Whoever it was that really was supposed to be in her position would probably be kicking him or herself when they missed the boat—assuming they didn’t show up in the next few minutes.

 

Zelda kept her head down and chopped, diced, and sliced, listening to the chatter around her without contributing. The crew were discussing the supplies they’d gotten in so far, and what they were still waiting on.

 

“Two weeks at sea, how does he expect us to keep all this stuff fresh?”

 

Zelda looked up at that, startled.

 

“You knew it was going to be two weeks at sea when you signed up,” one of the other kitchen crew said, catching her expression. “Besides, he put in industrial freezers and fridges for this—we’ll run out before anything will go bad.”

 

“You’d think he’d want to take a jet to Murindhi,” someone pointed out. “He’s got that deal he’s working on; why take the slow route?”

 

“He does things on his own time—and so do we. He’s happy to take the two weeks to get there, and personally I’m happy to have two weeks of actual work.”

 

Zelda looked down at her cutting board again, her mind reeling. Two weeks?

 

Her heart beat faster in her chest; this was not at all what she’d had in mind. She’d thought that the yacht might be going to Jamaica, or maybe Mexico—not halfway across the world. She bit her bottom lip and mowed through garlic cloves with her knife, thanking the few weeks of culinary training that she’d received for helping her not to blow her cover.

 

I need to get off this ship before it leaves the marina, she thought, trying to figure out a way to get out of the galley without attracting attention. Maybe if she had a sudden bathroom emergency, she’d be able to get away; but that would only attract attention, and more than a little resentment from the rest of the kitchen crew who were already working as fast as they could manage.

 

She moved on to chopping zucchini, her mind working quickly. She could ‘accidentally’ cut herself, but Zelda knew well enough that all that would get her was a quick bandage, a latex food service glove, and an instruction to keep going.

 

Just when she thought she might be able to slip away, Zelda heard a loud, whistling wail from a few floors above. Her stomach sank to her knees.

 

“We are now underway,” someone—Zelda assumed the captain—announced over the PA. “Kitchen staff, dinner call is set for eight o’clock.”

 

Zelda swallowed against the tight, dry feeling in her throat, realizing that there was no way for her to get off the ship; even if she could manage to get out of the galley unnoticed, she had nowhere to go. She was stuck on board for the next two weeks.

 

Well, she reasoned, calling Petra over to get her approval on the prep work she’d done, I can just disappear once we get to Murindhi. Wherever that is. She had managed to sneak onto the yacht; she would just have to employ the same tactics when sneaking off. The fact that she had no business being on the ship was a major issue, but Zelda told herself that she would find a way around it once they got there.

 

“Okay,” Petra said, nodding at the prepped ingredients. “We’re finally catching up to the timeline we’ve been given, so let me get you over on the salad station.”

 

Zelda smiled, following the sous chef, trying not to let anyone see how thoroughly anxious she felt at the fact that she was in well over her head. You can get through this. You have enough kitchen skill to cover yourself—it’s not like they expect you to be some kind of Michelin-starred chef.

 

She went to work on her next task, focusing on staying as calm as possible. She would figure it out. As more conversation and banter flowed and ebbed around her, she attempted to relax, to get into the groove just as she had in classes; but still her mind turned over and over.

 

“New girl! Zelda! Get over here on the grill,” Babette called out, and Zelda nearly dropped her knife. She put it down carefully and darted to the other station, forcing her worries about her long-term future out of her mind in favor of the short-term crisis.

 

 

 

TWO

 

Zelda sat back on the lounge chair she had taken, pulling her hat down over her eyes. The yacht had been at sea for almost two weeks, and would very soon be pulling into port at Murindhi. For the moment, Zelda forced herself not to think too much about what she would do when that moment arrived; her feet ached from working in the galley, and the cocktail she’d gotten from the bartender out on deck tasted too good to ruin it with worry.

 

She took a deep breath and reached out for the piña colada on the table next to her chair. She brought it up to her face as she looked around, taking in the different people scattered around the deck, in the pool, talking to each other. Some were crew, and some were guests of the owner, judging by their expensive clothes, their well-groomed hair, and the gleam of gold and platinum jewelry—nothing too gaudy, but worth more than Zelda would have made in a year had she gone ahead with her plan to become a caterer.

 

Zelda thought once again that it was a good thing she’d gotten those few weeks of training at Le Cordon Bleu. It was even luckier that she had run into Babette, and that the person whose job she’d taken on hadn’t shown up. She had impressed the kitchen staff early on, which had helped keep them from asking too many questions about what had brought her to the yacht. One part knife skills, one part introduction to stocks, one part personal experience.

 

Zelda sipped her cocktail and smiled to herself. She had left culinary school in no small part because she had found the drills stultifyingly boring, but she had picked up a few tricks of the trade in the few weeks before she’d given up; enough to be able to bluff her way through the kitchen tasks that had been assigned to her.

 

“His Highness”, as the kitchen crew called the man who owned the ship, liked to have food out for himself and his guests at nearly all times of the day and night, which explained why there was about double the number of crew to what would normally be on a ship with fewer than fifty guests on board.

 

In her near-fortnight on board the yacht, Zelda had worked no fewer than eight hours per day, and usually closer to ten: prepping fruits and vegetables, working the grill, sweating over the stoves. She knew she’d impressed the other members of the kitchen crew—including Babette—not just with her knife skills, speed and accuracy in following directions, but also in her instinct for cooking. Zelda’s inspiration for going into culinary school had come from comments her friends had made about the food she’d thrown together living in dorms, creating extravagant meals with no better equipment than an electric kettle, a toaster oven, a microwave, and a mini fridge.

 

One or two of Zelda’s personal creations had gone out of the kitchen; her “Three Cs” soup with carrot, caraway and cumin had gone over particularly well, as had her strawberry-basil granita. Nothing had been sent back so far, and Zelda had overheard one or two of the guests commenting favorably on dishes she had made. That, to her, was high praise indeed: comments made to her face could be disingenuous, but anonymous praise, between people who had no idea she could hear them, was more likely to be genuine.

 

“Attention all guests and crew,” a voice said over the ship’s intercom. “We will be docking in Murindhi in four hours’ time. Please remember to check your quarters and make sure that your documentation is in order.”

 

Zelda felt a flutter in her chest at the mention of documentation; she had her passport in her wallet, so that much at least would not be at issue—but she had no idea what visa requirements Murindhi had. Until two weeks ago you’d never even heard of Murindhi, she reminded herself.

 

She took a deep breath and finished off her cocktail, pushing the flurry of panic aside. Whatever happened would happen, she told herself. There was no sense in giving herself away before the end of her unexpected trip.

 

The cadre of guests around the top deck pool chattered amongst themselves, and Zelda watched them, fascinated as always. Of course, it’s easy for people who have money to look good, she thought, taking in the details.

 

Most of the men looked as if they had dedicated personal trainers, and probably dietitians as well; they were muscular and lean but not so built that they could be mistaken for athletes. There were a few women in the group, but to Zelda’s eye they all seemed attached to particular men; the women were almost impossibly beautiful, with makeup that didn’t budge in the water, elegant hats to shade their faces, and bathing suits that Zelda was certain cost more than her putative paycheck for the voyage.

 

As she watched, Zelda’s gaze paused on one of the guests: a tall, lean man, with dark hair and brilliant hazel eyes. She’d spotted him several times since they’d left Miami, and every time he had somehow managed to surprise her.

 

Living in Florida, Zelda was accustomed to male beauty, but the stranger in question seemed to become more good-looking every time she saw him. His olive-toned, deep bronze skin, hairless chest, and long legs caught her off-guard as much as his thick, groomed eyebrows, and surprisingly beautiful smile. So far out of your league it isn’t even funny, Zelda told herself, sitting up and retrieving her cocktail glass to get a refill.

 

The bartender was more than happy to make Zelda a refill, and she took her fresh cocktail to one of the railings to look out over the glittering ocean. Even with the back-breaking work, this actually isn’t a bad life, she thought, watching the wake behind the enormous yacht.

 

She took a slow breath and sipped her cocktail, deliberately not thinking about what the next four hours would bring. If she could get through with just her passport, then that would be okay—she would figure something out once she got off of the ship and collected her pay.

 

In the back of her mind, however, Zelda had a sensation like when she was on a rollercoaster, right as it climbed to the top of the first hill: the lurch in her stomach, the feeling that instead of a controlled descent, she was about to plunge headlong into chaos and disaster. Stop thinking about it. Enjoy your drink and go back to your cabin. You can’t change anything now.

 

“Careful, Sahar, or Ali will dunk you into the pool with your phone in hand,” Zelda heard someone saying.

 

She looked around and saw the handsome Middle-Eastern man she could never quite tear her eyes off, walking towards the bar and grinning at one of his friends.

 

Zelda finished her drink and made her way through the bowels of the ship towards her quarters. In theory, she should have at least two thousand dollars to her name—pay from the work she’d done the past two weeks—to figure out what she was going to do with herself once the yacht docked. That was assuming that she could get through with a minimum of fuss—something that she still wasn’t certain of, but had to hope.

 

She began packing up her things, making sure she didn’t forget any of the meager possessions she’d brought with her on the spur-of-the-moment trip, for she didn’t intend to be on the boat ever again.

 

As she prepared for the ship’s arrival, Zelda tried to think of how she could manage a quick, seamless departure without alerting anyone. She reasoned to herself that with so many guests and such a large crew all being processed at the same time, it shouldn’t be that difficult for her to slip past the guards; after all, she’d managed to get into the marina and onto the yacht two weeks before without arousing any suspicion.

 

Zelda smiled to herself, giving herself a mental pat on the back for the quick thinking that had turned her from a stowaway into a member of the crew, accepted and valued for her contributions.

 

“It really wasn’t that bad,” she mused out loud to herself, checking and rechecking the drawers in her room. She’d left culinary school because she’d thought that she’d end up working as a line cook in some kitchen, a grunt and a cog in the machinery of someone else’s plan, never actually achieving the goal she wanted. But the skills she’d drilled on so many times—the very work that had made her want to leave the culinary school—had come in handy when she’d least expected it.

 

The announcement came over the intercom that the ship was pulling into port, and Zelda made one final pass around her cabin, making sure she had everything. The alcohol from the cocktails had more or less worn off, and she tried to tell herself that she was fine, not anxious at all, and ready to go through with her plan. She had decided that she would find a particularly dense clump of people leaving the yacht and follow them, waiting until the security agent attending was distracted enough not to notice her slip past. It was a trick that had worked for her in the past, and Zelda thought—hoped—that it would work for her again.

 

 

 

THREE

 

 

Zelda went up to the main deck of the ship and milled around with the others as the captain made the last-minute adjustments. She looked around, trying to look calm and collected like always; the crew had self-segregated from the guests, and Zelda decided it would be safest to stick with the people who at least partially knew her.

 

She felt the slight tremble through the yacht as it made its mooring smoothly, and then watched as the guests began to debark the ship. The crew waited behind, and Zelda frowned slightly as she realized that she couldn’t see the gorgeous man who’d taken her fancy amongst the rest of the wealthy and glamorous guests leaving the boat. Ah, well. You’ll never see him again anyway.

 

She followed the kitchen crew down the ramp and immediately saw that there wasn’t going to be any easy way to slip past the security: roughly a dozen officials stood around, ready to check documentation; the crew all had not just their passports, but working permits, visas—more paperwork than Zelda could feign having misplaced. She pressed her lips together, looking for an exit, for a way to slip past the uniformed people smiling but looking serious all at the same time. Her heart began to pound in her chest as it became more and more obvious that she was trapped.

 

“Ma’am, your papers please?”

 

Zelda swallowed against the lump forming in her throat and extended her passport towards the man in the uniform.

 

“Where are your other papers? Visa, work permit, certificate of immunizations?” the official barked.

 

“I don’t have them,” Zelda said quietly.

 

Babette, apparently sensing something going wrong, came towards them. “What’s going on?”

 

“This woman has none of the documentation required for entering the country,” the official said, shaking his head.

 

Babette frowned more deeply and looked at Zelda. “You made sure that you got your paperwork before boarding the ship, didn’t you?”

 

Zelda opened her mouth and closed it without saying anything.

 

“Did you lose your visa or something? You should have told us.”

 

“Attempting to enter Murindhi without paperwork is a class three felony,” the official said, his face falling into stern lines. “Punishable by immediate deportation, as well as a lifelong ban from the country.”

 

“That’s impossible,” Babette insisted. “All of the crew have their paperwork. Why didn’t you say something if you’d lost your papers?”

 

Zelda felt her eyes stinging as the consequences of her spur-of-the-moment decision began to weigh on her with their full force.

 

“Please step aside, so we can process the rest of the crew,” the security official said. He raised a hand to flag one of the other guards, and Zelda’s heart leaped into her throat as the guard approached, obviously intent on arresting her.

 

“Excuse me,” someone said, and Zelda looked around, on the point of tears, only to see the gorgeous Middle-Eastern man who she had missed during the docking. “I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding. Babette, you can go on ahead.”

 

“A misunderstanding?” the security officials looked more respectful of the wealthy man as he approached, and Zelda felt her heart slow down just a little bit.

 

“Yes—you see, this beautiful lady and I met very recently,” the man told the officials. “I’m afraid I was not as careful with my preparations for the trip as I should have been.” The man moved closer to Zelda.

 

“What do you mean?” one of the officials asked.

 

“You know who I am, correct?” The man raised one well-groomed eyebrow and the security official hesitated only a moment before nodding.

 

“Yes, Your Highness,” the man said. He looked at the second officer. “You are Sheikh Zayed El-Sharabi, owner of this vessel.”

 

Zelda’s breath caught in her throat.

 

“In that case, if you could please process my paperwork,” the Sheikh said, handing a few items, including a Murindhi passport, to the second guard. “This beautiful creature is a guest of mine.”

 

“If she’s a guest of yours, why didn’t she come through with the guests?”

 

Sheikh Zayed smiled slightly. “She was waiting for me, but I’m afraid we got separated,” he said. “Last-minute matters to attend to on board, you understand.”

 

The second official was looking through the paperwork the man had supplied, and seemed satisfied.

 

“Getting back to the issue: my apologies for not notifying ahead, but I made the decision to invite this woman—my fiancée—with me at the last minute.” The Sheikh took her arm and Zelda let him.

 

“Is this true?” The official turned a stern look on her.

 

Zelda, not quite trusting her voice, nodded.

 

The official looked doubtful still, glancing from her passport to her face, to the Sheikh. “I’m not certain I can excuse this,” the man said.

 

“Please, I promise you that she will have her paperwork within the next fourteen days,” the Sheikh said, his hand slipping into a pocket on his tailored blazer. “You know from my reputation that I am an impulsive man, but also a generous man, yes?”

 

The two officials looked at each other; the rest of the uniformed guards were busy processing the last few members of crew, including the captain of the yacht.

 

“I understand your concern, but you know that there’s no reason for me to lie, right?”

 

Before Zelda’s shocked eyes, the man who’d claimed to be her fiancé performed some strange sleight of hand, tucking brightly colored bills into the two officials’ hands, all the while keeping the polite smile on his face.

 

“I’m not sure about this,” the first official said, glancing briefly at the bribe.

 

“Come on,” Zayed said, his smile increasing slightly. “You know how it is when you see a beautiful woman you just have to have. I apologize for my indiscretion in not waiting for her paperwork, but now that I am here I can have it expedited much more effectively. She will be completely legal before the month is even over, and until then…” he winked. “It’s not as though she’ll be running around the country on her own, you know.”

 

The officials didn’t seem exactly pleased, but nor did they look as though they were willing to give back the bribe on principle. One of the men—the second one—tucked the bills into a pocket. Zelda didn’t know the exchange rate, but she saw at least two zeros on the denomination mark.

 

“You can go ahead,” the first official said, handing Zelda back her passport. “But be aware that if you are not legally documented in the next fourteen days, you’re likely to be arrested and sent back to the United States.” The guard looked at Zayed. “And of course, money and status cannot always buy one’s way out of tight corners.”

 

“I appreciate your thoughtful concern,” Zayed said, inclining his head towards the men slightly. “We’ll be on our way. Come, my dear; we need to get you home.”

 

 

 

FOUR

 

The Sheikh guided Zelda by the hand, past the security checkpoint and through the gates at the harbor.

 

She let herself be led, still reeling from the shock of his timely rescue. She’d heard more than one crew member talking about the owner of the yacht, Sheikh Zayed El-Sharabi, but she never would have guessed that the man who had taken her fancy was the one in question; she’d never really considered the question of who the owner of the yacht even was.

 

Zayed didn’t say anything as he led her into the commercial area surrounding the harbor, and Zelda didn’t attempt to engage him. She was too busy taking in the sights and sounds: hawkers singing out in a variety of languages, trying to attract people to their stalls, brightly colored spices, flowers, fabrics, and people in unfamiliar garbs browsing and bustling around. It was so unlike Miami that for a moment Zelda wondered if she was in some bizarre kind of dream.

 

Zayed came to a stop in front of a cafe, glancing at Zelda. “Let’s stop here; we need to have a serious conversation.”

 

“I see,” Zelda said, coming out of her bemused shock into a cold kind of dread.

 

The Sheikh guided her into the little shop, and Zelda breathed in the scent of rich coffee, buttery pastries, savory cooking, and a bitter edge of tobacco smoke. She saw the probable owners of the cafe look up and acknowledge Zayed, smiling at him and gesturing for him to take any table he wanted. The Sheikh conducted her to one farther away from the rest, and Zelda’s sense of apprehension increased.

 

“Please, have a seat,” Zayed said in his lightly accented voice, gesturing to one of the low chairs at the table.

 

Zelda took a quick, deep breath and sat down, swallowing against the dry feeling in her throat. This is where he demands that I become his slave or something like that, she thought worriedly.

 

The Sheikh called out to the owners of the shop in a language that Zelda didn’t understand, and they nodded, getting to work on whatever it was he’d called for.

 

He sat down and for a moment just looked at her, his eyes not quite impertinent, but appraising. “You could have been in very serious trouble back there,” the Sheikh said finally.

 

“I know,” Zelda said.

 

The Sheikh smiled. “I rather thought it was interesting—seeing you amongst the crew.”

 

Zelda raised an eyebrow, confused at that comment. “Interesting?”

 

Zayed nodded, just as the owner of the cafe came to them, approaching the table with an ornate coffee carafe and a small platter of pastries. Zelda thought that both savory and sweet options were present, though she couldn’t be sure.

 

“Help yourself,” Zayed said, as the cafe owner set the pastries down and poured coffee into two small, beautiful cups, placing one in front of Zelda and the other in front of the Sheikh.

 

Zelda didn’t feel particularly hungry—her stomach felt as though it had twisted itself into an enormous knot—but she obediently plucked one of the pastries from the platter, choosing one folded around an orangey yellow filling that she thought might be citrus.

 

The owner left the table and once more Zayed was silent, watching her.

 

Zelda took a sip of her coffee—it was strong, thicker than she expected, and strangely sweet—and a bite of her pastry, under the Sheikh’s watchful gaze. She decided the filling was apricot, but it was also heavily spiced with something she couldn’t quite identify, but which thrilled her palate. “You said something about it being interesting to see me amongst the crew?”

 

“Interesting because I personally interview every member of the crew who works on my yacht,” Zayed told her, smiling slightly. He lifted his coffee cup with deft fingers and brought it to his lips, inhaling the steam for a moment before taking a sip. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I never interviewed you for the job. So it was interesting.”

 

“You mean…. You knew all along that I was…” Zelda swallowed another bite of pastry with difficulty; her throat was sandpapery once again.

 

“I knew that you had somehow managed to sneak aboard my ship,” the Sheikh finished with a shrug. “Wise of you to pretend to be a member of the crew rather than a guest.”

 

“That kind of just…happened,” Zelda admitted. “When I sneaked on, I didn’t know where the yacht was going, how far.”

 

“I gathered as much,” Zayed said, his bright eyes glinting with amusement. He set his coffee cup down and plucked a pastry off of the platter between them, eating it in a few quick, neat bites. “But it does present you with a very grave problem.”

 

“Grave problem?” Zelda chose another pastry: one she thought would be savory, based on the reddish-brown color of the filling and the simpler folding of the dough.

 

“Indeed,” the Sheikh said. “It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the government here is not exactly fond of illegal immigrants.”

 

“But I didn’t—don’t—intend to be an immigrant,” Zelda protested, and then looked around; she took a bite of the second pastry to cover for her discomposure. It was savory and sweet all at once, with meat, spices and some kind of fruit. She took another sip of coffee, trying to work her mind around the strangely appealing flavor. “I would be happy to leave anytime.”

 

“If you’re caught by the officials while you’re lining up a way to get back, you may find that you are not be able to leave,” Zayed said. “The best-case scenario would be that you leave immediately. The more common scenario would be that they imprison you for at least a year—up to five—for entering the country illegally, before sending you home and banning you from the country for the rest of your life.”

 

Zelda stared at him. “Five years in prison!? Just for not having my papers?”

 

Zayed nodded. “We are a wealthy country, and we take our status seriously,” he said with a smile. “As an American, you would likely be made an example of.”

 

“So what do I do?” Zelda finished the second pastry off in one bite, leaning closer toward him over the wooden table.

 

“You’re safe for a few days at least,” the Sheikh said. “They won’t think to look for you right away; the officials at the harbor will keep their mouths shut. But as soon as any hotel in the city sees that all you have is a passport, they will demand a huge fee for not reporting you. That would make it very difficult for you to get out—and of course, you won’t be able to work in the country to get money for a ticket.” He shook his head. “You’re in a very sticky situation.”

 

“That’s pretty abundantly clear to me now,” Zelda said flatly. “Is there anything I can do?”

 

Zayed licked his lips and took another sip of coffee. “There may be something,” he said finally. “Obviously, you recall that I told those officials at the port that we were engaged.”

 

“I figured that was just a story, something you came up with to justify…”

 

Zayed smiled again, half-shrugging. “It was,” he said. “And you will never know how grateful I am that neither of those two men asked me your name or any details about you.”

 

“Me too,” Zelda admitted.

 

“What is your name, by the way?” Zayed tilted his head to the side slightly, his eyes glinting with interest.

 

“Zelda Barnes-Scott,” she replied.

 

“A very beautiful name,” the Sheikh told her. “In any case, it occurs to me that we each have a problem that the other could help solve, and that me telling those officials you were my fiancée might be part of that solution.”

 

“What?” Zelda set her coffee cup down, scared to drop it.

 

Without missing a beat, the Sheikh picked up the carafe and poured her more of the thick, dark brew. “I have a proposition for you,” he said, gesturing for her to have more of the coffee.

 

Zelda felt as if she had somehow managed to plunge herself into waters so far out of her depth that they might as well have been the middle of the ocean. “Go ahead,” she said, dabbing at her lips with a cloth napkin.

 

“You could marry me,” Zayed said.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

 

Zelda was glad she’d managed to swallow both food and drink completely before the Sheikh had spoken, otherwise she almost certainly would have choked.

 

“It would solve your immigration problems—because as my wife you would of course be granted citizenship—and it would solve a certain problem that I’m having.”

 

“The problem of not having a wife?” Zelda stared at him, thinking that her dread of what he was about to tell her was not far off, no matter how politely he was phrasing his demand.

 

“Yes and no,” Zayed said, smiling again. “There’s a company based here in Murindhi that I want to buy. I am being prevented from doing so by an arcane law which states that single men—and single women for that matter—cannot buy companies. We can start them, and we can sell them, but we cannot buy them.” Zayed shook his head, looking exasperated. “You would not believe how much I’ve already paid my lawyers to try and find a way around it.”

 

“I can imagine,” Zelda said quietly.

 

“In any case, if I can get married to a willing party, I can circumvent the law. I’ve been considering finding someone to arrange a marriage for me, but here you conveniently are.” The Sheikh selected another pastry, with a green-tinged filling, and ate it with the same quick grace that he had with the previous one. “And it would keep you out of prison.”

 

Zelda looked down at her hands, trembling as she held her coffee cup. The idea of marrying someone she had only just met, without having feelings for him, was staggering. People do it every day, she thought wryly, thinking of Zayed’s comment about an arranged marriage. Even still, this had certainly been the last thing she had expected when she’d stowed away on his yacht. Oh God, are there laws about consummating marriages? Zelda’s anxiety intensified.

 

“I don’t think I can do it,” she said quickly, shaking her head even as her heart pounded. “I don’t know if I can make myself marry someone I don’t have feelings for, or act as a wife to a stranger. Even if it’s a sham marriage just to get my citizenship, I don’t think I can do it.”

 

Zelda worked up the courage to meet Zayed’s gaze, and steeled herself for a threat, or worse.

 

Instead, Zayed was smiling slightly, looking no different than he had the last moment she’d looked at him. “I promise you, there won’t be any need for you to act as my wife in private,” he said, inclining his head towards her. “This will strictly be a business transaction. You would appear with me in public, and for all anyone will know, we will be truly married. But you will have your own life, and you will be able to come and go just as you please.”

 

Zelda pressed her lips together again, thinking that the coffee was stronger than she’d thought.

 

“I’m not expecting you to fulfill any romantic role in my life,” the Sheikh said.

 

“You’re sure about that? You just mentioned looking into an arranged marriage before.”

 

Zayed shrugged. “It seemed at the time to be expedient,” he told her. “The arrangement would be largely the same with a wife I married by arrangement; she would not be romantically obligated to me in any way. I would, however, insist that she conduct any outside romances very, very discreetly, and she would have the same liberties that I’m promising you.”

 

“Are you sure that it wouldn’t be better worth your while to get the law changed?”

 

Zayed shook his head. “I looked into it, believe me,” he explained. “It’s just not possible. If I want to buy out my competitor, then I must first have a wife.” He held her gaze for a few moments. “I know you do not know me well enough to be sure that I mean what I say when I tell you this is strictly business, but I hope that you can trust me.”

 

Zelda smiled weakly at that. “You’re right about not knowing you well enough,” she said.

 

“Let me point something out to you, and forgive me if this sounds like bragging: if I wanted to simply buy a woman to be my wife, I wouldn’t have to look very hard to find volunteers,” the Sheikh said. “Plenty of women both here and in the US would be happy to marry me for my money. But I don’t want that.”

 

“How do you know I wouldn’t be marrying you for your money, too?” Zelda wasn’t sure why she felt so contrary, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking.

 

“A woman who stows away on a boat with nothing more than a backpack and goes to work in the kitchen is not the type of woman who marries a man for his money,” Zayed said. He smiled slowly. “You are an adventurer; it’s just that you’ve run into a snag on this occasion. Allow me to help you, and we can both profit from this.”

 

Zelda thought about it for a long moment, plucking one of the few remaining pastries from the tray and sipping contemplatively at her coffee.

 

She considered the impressions she’d gotten of the Sheikh while they’d been en route to Murindhi; she’d noticed him, of course, and he had always seemed to be surrounded by his guests on the boat, almost fawned on by them.

 

In some respect, Zelda thought, the Sheikh was a demanding man—almost every night, he had insisted on huge, exotic banquets for himself and his guests. In other ways, though, she thought that he was clearly a generous person; the guests had all been extremely well looked after, and despite the long hours, the crew all seemed very happy, and well-paid for their work.

 

Of course, Zelda thought, that was the way that he acted with people who he was already connected to; he had no real connection to her. He knew all along that you were an impostor, she thought. He could just as easily have let port authority handle you. He could have let them cart you off and throw you in jail to either end up in prison or get deported. He had to come to her rescue, and even if his motives were somewhat selfish—even if he’d done it mostly to indebt her to him—Zelda didn’t think it spoke poorly of a man to think quickly, and to be that up front.

 

“How would this work?” Zelda asked, finishing off her pastry and meeting Zayed’s gaze.

 

“You will be with me in public,” the Sheikh explained. “As soon as possible I will issue an announcement to the press about my recent engagement, and setting the date for our wedding. I think you’ll agree that two weeks from now is a good idea, since that’s what we told the authorities.” Zayed smiled. “Of course, as my wife, you’ll need to have an appropriate wardrobe and quarters, which we can see to quickly. We will have to plan a wedding; fortunately, I have enough staff at my home here to take care of that.”

 

“So we’re going to have a wedding? An actual wedding wedding?” Zelda stared at the Sheikh. “Not just like…go to the courthouse or something?”

 

Zayed shook his head. “I’m a very wealthy man, Zelda, and it would raise suspicion if my wedding weren’t a very public affair,” he explained, his voice gentle. “We have to be seen to be truly man and wife by the media, by the people, and by those who will determine whether or not I can buy the company I’m interested in.” He poured her another half-cup of coffee.

 

“So two weeks, and we get married, with a huge ceremony for everyone to see,” Zelda said. “And then what?”

 

“You make some appearances as my wife, and we hold out long enough for the purchase of the company—and the determination of your citizenship—to go through, after which you can do whatever you like.”

 

“And I could leave whenever I wanted?”

 

Zayed nodded. “I travel often, and of course everyone will know that you are an American woman,” he said. “So, you leaving the country once your immigration status is settled will be nothing. Boring news to everyone. In fact, I’m sure many people will catch onto the fact that it’s a marriage of convenience, but as long as we don’t give them proof, there’s no reason for them to say anything.” The Sheikh extended his hand across the table. “Do we have a deal, Zelda?” his lips twitched in the start of an amused smile. “The press will certainly enjoy the alliteration in our names.”

 

“We have a deal,” Zelda said calmly, reaching across the table to shake his hand. She was surprised at how soft his palms were, and reminded herself that he was a monied man, and that he’d probably grown up wealthy. He had probably never worked in a kitchen in his life; he probably didn’t even know the first thing about doing his own laundry.

 

“We will have to get you a wardrobe, and a suitable token of my esteem to mark our engagement,” Zayed said, thinking out loud.

 

Zelda watched as the Sheikh took out his phone and began sending messages, making arrangements. He was clearly a man who liked to strike while the iron was hot; he hadn’t planned on making the offer to her, but he wasn’t about to give her time to change her mind about it.

 

Just as she had more than a few times in the previous two weeks, Zelda wondered if she had overplayed her luck. She felt outside of her depth, in territory where the bottom was so far away that the water around her was dark, her feet impossible to see.

 

What could possibly go wrong? She didn’t doubt for an instant that if Zayed were dating someone, he would have just proposed to his girlfriend and be done with it. Now that they’d agreed on the plan, he was every bit as implicated in fraud as she was. Yeah, but he’s rich and you’re poor. They’ll throw you in jail and invite him to speak to a group of policy-makers.

 

It wasn’t bad; that much Zelda had to acknowledge to herself. If she could trust Zayed to keep his word, she would be able to stay in the country for as long as she wanted to, and once she wanted to go back to the States, it would be easy—or at least, she hoped it would. And once she was in the US once more, she could probably file for divorce without too much trouble.

 

Would a marriage in Murindhi even be acknowledged in the US? Zelda filed the question away in the back of her mind to research later; she thought it would, but that shouldn’t stop her from being able to get a divorce, particularly if she tried for it after Zayed had completed his plans.

 

“Okay,” she said, finally. “So how are we going to pull this off?”

 

The Sheikh, who had been just as busy thinking as she had, stirred and smiled slightly. “First we have to establish who you are, create an image for you. Of course, we’ll have to get you a new wardrobe—in fact, that should be one of our first priorities. We’ll sort out the engagement ring, and you will come and live in my home for the time being.”

 

Hearing this, Zelda shot Zayed a distrusting glance.

 

“In your own quarters,” he specified, just a hint of a smile touching his lips.

 

“So we create an identity for me, show ourselves to the public, and get married,” Zelda said. “And then what?”

 

Zayed shrugged. “And then I move forward with my plans to purchase the company I want, and our lives go forward. If and when you want to go back to the US, you can do so.” He looked her up and down slowly. “Of course, you’ll have input on the wedding itself: your dress, the flowers you want, and so on.”

 

Zelda chuckled, shaking her head at the absurdity of it all. “I’m pretty sure my sham wedding to you is going to be a bigger, grander affair than any actual wedding I could ever have,” she observed.

 

The Sheikh grinned. “Well, there is a certain standard to be upheld. In this country, even the most normal people go all out for their weddings. And so the more money you have, the more they expect you to put on a show.”

 

“Give it to me straight:” Zelda said, her voice dry with amusement, “just how many bridesmaids am I going to have to deal with?”

 

Zayed laughed. “For the sake of appearances, I think you can get away with four,” he told her. “I have some extended family I can call upon for this; fear not, you will be adequately attended to.”

 

“Appearance is everything,” Zelda said.

 

Zayed gave her a quick look—a mixture of amusement and something like sympathy—and nodded. “I have to convince the country of my great and abiding passion for you, Zelda,” he told her. “That being the case, the wedding will certainly be a very grand, very expensive affair.”

 

Zelda finished off her coffee and set the delicate porcelain down carefully. “No one just goes off and elopes here, do they?”

 

Zayed shrugged. “There are some that do,” he said. “But in the higher orders of society, it would cause more problems for us to do it that way than to stage a huge wedding with all the trappings.”

 

Zelda took a quick, deep breath, while she silently and mentally accepted the course the Sheikh had outlined.

 

“If you feel up to it, I think we should make a start right now,” Zayed suggested. “First things first, we will need to make sure that you’re adequately clothed.”

 

Zelda looked down at her simple outfit; while it certainly wasn’t pricey, she had thought it looked all right. But then, she’d been basing that opinion on her old identity. “It’s going to be a long day, isn’t it?”

 

The Sheikh half-smiled. “It shouldn’t be too grueling. The major retailers in the city all know me very well, and will be happy to provide us with some help. I’ll have to think of what to tell them to explain your current outfit.”

 

Zelda half-cringed at that. “Let’s just tell them that there was some kind of accident with my luggage,” she suggested. “I don’t want to have to remember too many lies at the same time.”

 

Zayed gave her a respectful look, and then reached into his jacket pocket once more, taking out his wallet and laying a few bills on the table to pay for their food and drink.

 

“Then let’s get started, shall we?”

 

 

 

SIX

 

The driver hadn’t so much as blinked at the piles of shopping bags Zayed had brought to the curb when they finished their shopping excursion. Zelda wondered if the man was someone on permanent retainer—a member of the Sheikh’s staff, paid to sit around and wait for him—or if he merely worked for Zayed so often that the sight of so many purchases didn’t faze him.

 

“He doesn’t speak English,” Zayed murmured to her as they settled in the backseat, waiting for the man to load the last of the packages into the trunk of the limo. “So we can discuss things without any worries.”

 

“I’m still not sure I needed that many handbags,” Zelda said, shaking her head slightly. She had never owned more than three bags at a time: a black one, a brown one, and one in a color that she could coordinate with other outfits. More to the point, her choices had always been strictly utilitarian, with an emphasis on low cost and durability. Zayed, however, had insisted on buying her five purses in different sizes, with matching wallets to tuck inside of them, to go with ten pairs of shoes and seven belts.

 

“I thought that most women enjoyed shopping,” Zayed said, looking at her with amusement.

 

“I’ve just never really had that kind of money to devote to it,” Zelda admitted. “I guess the allure of spending money for the sake of spending money just hasn’t occurred to me yet.”

 

The Sheikh chuckled. “It’s not just for the sake of spending money,” he told her. “It’s to establish who you are to the people you’re going to be meeting in the coming weeks. You’re a woman of fashion now, Zelda.”

 

Zelda couldn’t help but laugh at that idea, shaking her head at the bizarreness of it as the driver took his seat and started the car.

 

In spite of her lingering qualms, she had agreed that it made more sense for her to take up residence at the Sheikh’s house rather than to stay in a hotel. If they only had two weeks to establish their great love for each other, everything they could do to demonstrate it counted, and Zelda had to admit that living under the same roof would help to sell the idea of impulsive lovers. It was as if Zayed was intent on buying her an entire new life, and Zelda had carefully avoided looking at price tags, knowing that if she discovered the cost of everything he was buying her, she would lose her nerve entirely.

 

The drive from the mercantile section of the city out to the sprawling—palatial, even—home that Zayed owned was shorter than Zelda would have thought; within twenty minutes she caught sight of the grounds, tucked away behind impressive stucco walls, with lush plantings further obscuring the house itself.

 

The driver stopped at the gate, speaking a few words to a guard there, and Zelda thought to herself that she could never imagine living in such a way as to need a personal guard. A moment later they were inside the walls, following a winding driveway up to an immense house.

 

An older woman, dressed in a uniform of black, white and gray, her hair concealed under a scarf, greeted them at the top of the driveway, and Zayed stepped out of the car, speaking a few words to her in his native language.

 

“Hadya will get the staff started on putting away your things in the rooms I’m having set aside for you,” the Sheikh told Zelda, leaning into the backseat of the car. “While they’re working, if you’re not too tired, I’d like to show you around your new home.”

 

Zelda, still somewhat stunned at the contrast between the lush, verdant grounds around the house and the more arid climate outside of the property, took a deep breath and nodded, sliding across the seat to get out of the limo.

 

The Sheikh gave her his hand and helped her to her feet, carefully not letting go right away. He ducked his head in closer to hers, and Zelda thought for a panicked moment that he meant to kiss her. Instead, he whispered, “Hadya does speak some English, but she has worked for me for years now, and for my family for even longer; she will not give us away.”

 

As the Sheikh led Zelda up a walkway and to the front door, she tried not to look as if everything she saw was completely amazing to her; she tried to take it all in her stride, but everywhere she looked, the details added up to a staggering impression of wealth beyond anything that Zelda had ever imagined.

 

The entryway into the house bore two fountains, one on either side of the doorway, with crystalline water lapping at the marble in a soothing murmur and green plants tucked away around them. The floor was marble tile, laid out in an intricate pattern, cool despite the heat of the afternoon.

 

As the Sheikh led her through the house, Zelda tried to imagine what it would be like to have grown up in a home like the one she would be spending the next few weeks in; what it would mean to have the earliest memories of her life take place in marble-floored hallways, surrounded by priceless art, with a background of fountains and quiet. It was impossible to wrap her mind around.

 

“These will be your quarters,” Zayed said finally, leading her through a door off of one of the main hallways. “They are the second best in the house after my own, which seemed appropriate.” A brief look of something like upset flitted across Zayed’s features, but it was gone before Zelda could wonder what had made him sad. He gestured around the room they’d stepped into. “This is your sitting room, for when you need to meet with seamstresses, wedding planners, or friends and so on.”

 

Zelda neglected to point out that other than him—somewhat—she didn’t actually have any friends in the country.

 

The Sheikh stepped off to the right of the sitting room and opened another door, and Zelda obediently looked into what she saw was the bedroom, taking in the huge chest of drawers, the opened closet door—displaying many of her purchases already hanging inside it—and a bed that Zelda thought might be as large as her entire freshman year dorm room, flanked by low tables with lamps, perfect for reading into the night. It was a beautiful room, painted a soft, champagne gold that Zelda was sure would catch the light stunningly in the mornings.

 

“You have a balcony over here,” Zayed told her, walking over to a set of French doors off to the side of the room, the sheer valances pulled back to let light in. “And over there is your bathroom.” The Sheikh hesitated, then, and instead of letting him walk over to open the door for her, Zelda stepped in that direction, opening the brass doorknob and looking inside.

 

It was hard not to feel daunted by the sight of a bathtub carved out of marble and large enough to comfortably hold two people, as well as a separate shower cubicle with a stone bench built in, and a wood-paneled closet that Zelda recognized as a sauna. This is a desert country, right? Where is all the water coming from?

 

“My room is just down the hall,” Zayed said, interrupting her train of thought. “As you leave your quarters, all you need do is turn left, and walk for a bit, and you’ll be at my door.” He checked his watch and made a face. “Unfortunately I have to step away now, to start getting things in order, but this will give you a chance to relax a bit before we get started on the process of making this wedding happen.” Zayed smiled at Zelda slightly and moved towards the door. “If you need anything, there’s an intercom into the kitchen where Hadya should be; I’ll come and get you for dinner in about an hour.”

 

Zelda nodded her acceptance of the schedule and waited until Zayed had left the room before walking back to her sitting area. She sank down onto a low, damask couch and tried to wrap her mind around the fact that she had “quarters” that were, on their own, as large as any of the apartments she’d ever lived in. She turned on the TV and discovered that the Sheikh had probably the most enormous satellite package that a person possibly could—it even had American channels.

 

“All this wealth, all this space,” Zelda murmured to herself, pretending to watch a crime procedural show she had found. “But who lives here?”

 

She’d seen a handful of servants, including the maids who were preparing her room, loading her new wardrobe into the closet and drawers, but other than maybe ten employees, there was only Zayed.

 

Maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for him to go with an arranged marriage, Zelda thought absently. At least the house would have been less empty that way.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 

Wifed By The Sheikh is available now.

 

And here’s another teaser, the first few chapters of my previous release, The Sheikh’s Online Bride.

 

 

ONE

“Is that her?”

 

“Who? Where?”

 

“Don’t look! She’s just behind you, sitting at a table alone. It has to be her.”

 

Hallie tried to sink even deeper into her coffee house chair. It was a whispered conversation that followed her pretty much wherever she went, and it was horrible. Two girls were sitting at a table just ahead of her, and for all the insistence of the one pointing her out, she was blatantly staring.

 

One of the pair turned in her seat and glanced back at Hallie before turning back around. “Come on, that can’t be her. Why would she show her face in a place like this?”

 

Hallie’s blood boiled. For the millionth time, she cursed Joshua Theroux, the ex who’d taken it upon himself to turn the whole world against her.

 

She heard a throat clearing just above her. Looking up, Hallie saw the curious face of Girl #1.

 

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but are you Hallie Richards?”

 

Hallie self-consciously pushed a russet curl behind her ear. “No, you must have me confused with someone else.”

 

“Are you sure? You look exactly like her.”

 

“You really think I would be confused on what my name is?”

 

At first when people had come up to her asking her name, Hallie had been honest, but after a few less-than-pleasant encounters with the public, she’d finally stopped owning up to it.

 

The truth was, Hallie Richards was something of an F-list celebrity. A few years earlier, she’d taken part in The Perfect Couple—a reality dating show, similar to The Bachelor—in the misguided belief that she might be able to find love on national television. The previous season’s winning couple had been paraded around for all to see—still together, unlike so many of the others—and Hallie hadn’t been such a cynical person back then. Her phone had been taken, and with no contact with the outside world, she had been trapped in a house with a bunch of very skinny, very catty women who had made her life a living nightmare. She had stayed on only because the bachelor they were all fighting over had asked her to, and back then, Hallie had been young and naïve.

 

She had made it pretty far in the competition—enough to travel to romantic Italy, where they had enjoyed plenty of wine and dined in the finest locations, surrounded by candlelight. She had really thought that the guy, Michael, was into her. The producers had even told her that he had asked them to prepare a ring for her for the final “proposal episode,” and she had gushed about it in front of camera after camera.

 

Then he cut her.

 

The American public was brutal, calling her Heartbreak Hallie and agreeing in every Twitter hashtag that she was cursed never to find love.

 

Then Justin had arrived, just as she was holding her bleeding heart in her hands, only to crush it almost instantly.

 

Usually, when Hallie told people that she wasn’t who she was, they accepted it and walked away. This girl refused to do so.

 

“Look, I get it if you want to hide, but I was really rooting for you on the show,” the girl said earnestly.

 

Hallie actually made eye contact with her then, her expression hopeful. “Really?”

 

The girl’s expression was cold and victorious. “I knew it was you. Sure, I was rooting for you—until the papers came out telling us who you really are.”

 

Damnit. Hallie would never forgive Justin, ever.

 

She set down her half-finished coffee and stood, shrugging into a light jacket. It was autumn, but Hallie couldn’t wait for winter to arrive. There were so many more ways to hide in winter clothing.

 

“Don’t believe everything you read,” she said coolly, turning her back on the girl and walking out.

 

It was meant to be a nice, quiet lunch break, but apparently Hallie couldn’t get one of those anymore. Justin had ruined her life, in every possible way.

 

When she’d told him she didn’t want to get back together—that she thought he’d only shown up at her door again because she’d started getting famous—he’d flown into a rage. It was terrifying. Hallie had run out of the room, hoping never to see him again. She’d screamed at him as she did so, but she could hardly remember what was said.

 

She’d thought that was it. She would put together the tattered scraps of her once-wonderful life, and that would be that. But then people started sneering at her in the streets. At first, she’d figured it was New York, and that wasn’t terribly uncommon, but the hateful looks quickly became more and more pronounced, until one morning when a woman actually spit at Hallie’s feet.

 

“What did I do to you?” she’d cried.

 

The woman had glared back at her. “You tried to present yourself as the victim, but you’re really just a trashy little gold digger, aren’t you?”

 

“What?” Hallie had asked, truly confused.

 

The woman had tossed a tabloid in her face and kept walking. When Hallie had looked at the first page, she’d gone cold.

 

It was her image, with the headline: Hallie Richards Seeks Fame, Not Love: Hallie’s Ex Tells All!

 

Justin had gone to every tabloid in town and sold her out.

 

Hallie had blinked back tears as she read the article detailing how deceived Justin had felt after he’d realized just “who she really was.”

 

And the world had taken his side.

 

Hallie rubbed blurry eyes as she tried to force out the memories of her fall from grace. Before going on The Perfect Couple, she had been working for a respected publishing company in New York. Her boss had been nothing but supportive until the day she walked into work with that newspaper tucked tightly under her arm.

 

“Hallie, can you come into my office for a moment?”

 

Hallie had gulped at that. “Of course,” she said, taking a seat in a plush sofa across from the head editor’s desk. Sandy had cat-eye glasses and brown hair tied in a neat chignon. She laced her fingers together as she peered at Hallie over the rims. “You’ve had an interesting couple of months, to say the least,” she said slowly.

 

Hallie nodded. “I sure have, and I can’t tell you how grateful I’ve been for your support—”

 

Sandy put up a well-manicured hand. “Don’t thank me, Hallie. It will make this all the more difficult.”

 

Hallie’s stomach sank into the chair. “Make what difficult?”

 

Sally’s expression was tense. “Hallie, come on. We’re a publishing house. You think writers want to associate with us when this kind of garbage is published about you?” She tossed another tabloid on the desk. On the cover was a picture of Hallie in a bikini during her time on the show.

 

“Come on Sandy. You know those rags are full of lies! How can you base my employment off this crap?”

 

“I’m sorry, Hallie, but this is the hard reality. If you’re going to aim for the spotlight and it doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t agree with us either. I don’t want to lose any more clients because of our connection.”

 

Hallie stared at her hands, twisting her fingers. She was about to lose her job, and there was nothing she could do about it. Why had she been so stupid? Why hadn’t she just tried dating quietly, like a normal person? “You’ve already lost clients because of me?” she whispered.

 

Sandy nodded. “Two, as of this morning. They’ve said they will come back to us, under one condition.” She lifted an eyebrow, her silence loud as a foghorn.

 

“I’ll just go clean out my desk then,” Hallie mumbled. She stood to make her exit, feeling a reassuring pat on her shoulder.

 

“You’ll be just fine, Hallie,” Sandy said warmly. “You’re tough, and the public can be very, very fickle. They’ll forget about you soon enough, and when that day comes, I’ll reach back out, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Hallie said, not holding her breath.

 

She’d cleaned out her office and headed back to her apartment, crying the whole way home.

 

It hadn’t gotten much better from there. She’d applied at several other publishing houses, and though her credentials were stellar, no one would even look at her resume once they saw her name at the top. She was blackballed in New York, and there was nowhere else in the world she wanted to go.

 

As she’d sat crying on a bench in Central Park, an older woman approached her and sat down. “What could be so bad, that you’re crying here on a beautiful summer day?”

 

Between sniffles, Hallie had poured her heart out to a complete stranger. The woman was well dressed, in a nice suit, and Hallie found it strange that she would reach out to a reject such as herself. After Hallie finished her story, the woman sat quietly for some time.

 

“You say you’ve got experience working with computers?” she asked.

 

Hallie nodded. “Of course I do. I can type two thousand words in an hour!”

 

The woman reached into her purse and pulled out a card. Hallie took it without looking at it.

 

“My name is Mallory Jones, and I run the data entry branch at my agency. We just lost someone today and I’m beyond short. Would you like to start with us tomorrow?”

 

Hallie sniffed. “Data entry?”

 

It was far and away the last thing she could see herself doing—repetitive, mindless work usually performed in a gray cubicle.

 

“I know it’s not most glamorous job on earth, but it will keep you on your feet until the world forgets who you are. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, Hallie, and I also don’t believe tabloids. I know you’re a better person than they say you are.”

 

Unable to help herself, Hallie hugged Mallory tight as she cried tears of gratitude. She was the first person to look at Hallie like she was innocent—which she was. She had agreed to take the job.

 

That was a few months before. Much to Hallie’s chagrin, she was still getting stopped in coffee houses, on the street, anywhere she went, really. People had stopped spitting at her, though, so there was always that. With a new season of The Perfect Couple now airing, people had picked other women to hate, and Hallie was free to be only generally disliked by the population at large.

 

She pushed her way through heavy revolving doors as she made her way to the elevator and pressed the button for the seventieth floor. She swallowed as her ears popped before the elevator doors opened up to a gray, cube farm wonderland. Hallie was fortunate enough to have a cube along the edge, so when she needed a break she could simply look out the window and see the sprawling skyscrapers of New York City.

 

She plopped into her chair and clocked back in. Checking the queue for work, she found it was still empty.

 

Great.

 

As grateful as she was to have a job at all, Hallie had been bored out of her mind most of her time working for Mallory. The job was simple, but it was very “hurry up and wait.” There were times when the company got swamped with data, and then there would be entire days where there was no work whatsoever.

 

At a loss for anything else to do, Hallie opened up her phone and clicked on one of her dating apps. Another image of a man exposing himself popped across her screen, and she closed the app, sighing.

 

Dating had been hard enough before she became a reality TV villain. Now it was damn near impossible to find a nice guy. A few weeks after the tabloid scandal started by Justin, Hallie had worked up the courage to put herself out there again. She’d tried all the major dating sites, paying through the nose in her attempts to find love, but none of it had worked. She’d tried several dating apps, but had cancelled out of every one she had tried; once people recognized her picture, the hateful messages started without fail.

 

Still, the digital world was limitless, and new apps were being created every day.

 

Hallie rolled her shoulders and got to work googling more dating apps, to see if she could finally find one that worked for her. It was worth a shot. She’d been wallowing in self-pity for far too long, and she refused to give up on herself. There had to be a man who didn’t care what the tabloids said—a man who could love her for who she was.

 

She just had to find him.

 

Scrolling down, Hallie skimmed past app after app, but all of them seemingly targeted at different demographics. Unfortunately, she wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t into sister wives, and she wasn’t a farmer.

 

Finally, her eyes caught one that didn’t seem to specify a certain religion or profession. She clicked on it, reading the description:

 

LoveMatch is an app for people who truly want to find love. Warning: if you’re shallow or materialistic, this app isn’t for you. If what really matters to you is what’s on the inside, then download LoveMatch for free and give it a try today. You won’t see the person on the other end, so the only way to see if you’re a match is to talk.

 

Hallie was intrigued. An app where no pictures were allowed? She clicked on the Download button and pulled out her phone again, filling in some personal information about herself. As she was just about to scroll through potential suitors, her work phone rang, and she set her cell back on her desk.

 

“This is Hallie,” she said, using her most professional voice.

 

“Hallie, it’s Mallory. We just got dumped on. I’m going to need your fast fingers for the rest of the day. Keep an eye open for the package.”

 

Hallie repressed a sigh. This job barely paid the bills, and she had almost no money for things she enjoyed anymore. That all-expenses-paid trip to Italy seemed like a lifetime ago.

 

“I’ve got you covered, Mallory. Not to worry.”

 

“You’re the best,” Mallory said before ending the call.

 

Moments later, a mail cart arrived, bearing stacks and stacks of documents. The young man pushing the cart was thin and wiry, and his lip quirked as he piled the papers on Hallie’s desk.

 

“See you sometime next week, am I right?” he said, darting a glance to the enormous pile of work he’d just handed her.

 

“I guess so,” Hallie said, forcing a laugh as she picked up the first stack of paper.

 

She forgot all about the app as she went to work, toiling away at the only job she could get. At the back of her mind, one thought refused to be pushed away.

 

There had to be more to life than data entry.

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

 

 

Sadiq sat with his partner in their elaborate office, bouncing ideas off one another.

 

“There has to be more to life than looks.”

 

“You’re crazy.”

 

Sadiq frowned at his friend’s statement. “How is that crazy? It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say.”

 

Fakhir laughed heartily, his perfectly chiseled chin dimpling as he did so. Fakhir Al-Hazir had been a good friend of Sadiq’s for a long time. Well, at least since he had made his first hundred million; Sadiq had had plenty of friends after that.

 

Fakhir managed to sound charming even as he looked haughty. “Let’s not be unrealistic, Sadiq. Both men and women need to be attracted to their partner in order to make a romantic connection work. You know this.”

 

Sadiq shook his head. “I’m not looking to help people make a ‘romantic connection,’ Fakhir. I’m looking to help them fall in love.”

 

Fakhir scoffed. “We both know love isn’t real. It’s a chemical reaction caused by hormones. We should be playing on sexual chemistry—that’s what people really want!”

 

“How many romantic comedies have you watched? People want a connection, Fakhir—they want love!”

 

The debate went on like that for several minutes before Fakhir threw his hands up in the air in frustration. “You’re impossible, you know that? Fine! Launch your stupid app, and don’t come crying to me when it flops and you lose millions of dollars.”

 

“Why would I cry over a few million dollars? What am I, poor?”

 

Fakhir grinned. “You are many things, Sadiq, but poor is certainly not one of them. You coming out tonight?”

 

“Of course I’m coming out. I’ve got a new Ferrari and the world needs to see it.”

 

“They always do,” Fakhir agreed, grinning as he rose to leave.

 

Alone in his office, Sadiq browsed through the coding one more time before flipping the digital switch that set the app to go live. A wave of excitement coursed through his body, as it always did when he launched a new venture.

 

Sadiq bin Haled Al Halam was no stranger to opulence. As a cousin to the ruling family of his home country, Al Shayam, he had spent much of his youth running around palaces and causing trouble. Still, there were high expectations of him, and with no crown in sight he had grown up with the finest tutors, expected to go into business, if not politics.

 

He’d been twenty-five years old when he’d made his first billion.

 

It didn’t take long for the rich and beautiful to flock to him after that. Sadiq had generally stayed under the radar during his youth, but it was as though he had blossomed overnight. He was rich. He was successful. Everyone wanted to be his friend.

 

He loved it.

 

Life as a billionaire was outstanding; he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he wanted. No one ever told him no. If they did, he found out just how much they wanted and paid it without a second thought. He was friends with all the rich and famous of the country, and they spoiled themselves rotten.

 

Of course, many of them were complete morons, but they were beautiful, rich morons. The kind of people that for, some reason, Sadiq had wanted to get in with all his life. Only recently had he started questioning that choice.

 

It had started when he’d been on a yacht, off the coast, with three bikini-clad models.

 

“Sadiq, come rub lotion on my back!”

 

“No, rub it on me!”

 

“No, me!”

 

Sadiq was lounging in one of the deckchairs, his muscled chest oiled so as to soak up more rays, a pair of sunglasses reflecting the water, hiding his dark brown eyes.

 

He took a sip of his cocktail. “The first one to tell me how much sixty by one hundred equals gets a good lotioning.”

 

The girls stared at each other in bewilderment, giggling and flipping their hair.

 

“Oh Sadiq, you’re such a tease! Now come over here and rub me down.”

 

Normally Sadiq would have just smiled and enjoyed the beautiful women’s company—after all, he was living every man’s dream—but it was one too many deflections. As beautiful as the women were, they were vacant and shallow, and he realized he wanted someone with substance in his life.

 

That was the day he came up with the concept for his app, LoveMatch.

 

Checking the time, Sadiq shut down his computer before heading out of the office. He wore light shorts and a collared shirt; it was his company after all—he could wear whatever he wanted.

 

A car was already waiting for him at the curb, and he slid onto the backseat, directing his driver to take him home. When he got there, he took a quick shower, doused himself in aftershave and changed into an immaculate suit before hopping into the driver’s seat of his brand new Ferrari.

 

He revved the engine before peeling out of the long driveway and heading straight towards the glittering lights of Al Shayam City. He parked in front of the club and stepped out to a sea of sparkling smiles and short dresses.

 

“Hi Sadiq,” a chorus of breathy, feminine voices poured from painted lips.

 

Sadiq soaked it all in. There was a time when he had dreamed about this life every night: everyone woman wanted to be with him; every man wanted to be him.

 

He grinned as he strolled up a red carpet to the front door of the club, where he was granted instant access ahead of a very long line.

 

The club was full of dancing people, the air scented with rich liquors and heavy perfume. Fakhir caught his friend’s gaze and waved him over to a large table in the corner. He was already surrounded by a slew of half-naked women, who were vying for his attention. Compared to Fakhir, Sadiq thought he was dressed rather plainly, but that didn’t stop the women from fawning over him when he arrived.

 

“Have a drink my friend, for the cup is never empty and the company is always plentiful,” Fakhir said, his eyes twinkling.

 

Sadiq could tell his friend was already half drunk, and he sighed inwardly. The last thing he wanted to do was carry drunk, cocky Fakhir around town all night.

 

Fakhir frowned. “Why are you pouting, Sadiq? I hate it when you pout!”

 

“I’m not pouting,” Sadiq said. “I’m thinking.”

 

“Well stop it. Work ended. It’s time for play, and we have plenty of friends.”

 

Sadiq peeled a woman’s hands from his arm and looked challengingly at Fakhir. “I’m afraid I won’t be playing with these friends tonight.”

 

The girls at the table audibly protested this statement, but Sadiq silenced them with a stern glance.

 

Fakhir lifted one dark, perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “And why is that?”

 

“Because I’m going to prove you wrong, Fakhir. I’m going to use my app to find my wife.”

 

The people seated at the table stared at him in stunned silence, and it took everything in Sadiq not to laugh in their faces.

 

He took his opportunity to leave them, flashed a wide grin and immediately left the bar. There was no reason to stay, after all. They’d all seen his flashy new car, his top-of-the-line clothing, the fact that he could sit at the best table and choose to leave because it wasn’t good enough. He had made his point for the evening.

 

He sped home at a hundred miles per hour before slamming the brakes and pulling into his palatial home. The entire outside was painted white, which stood out starkly against the red desert and green palm trees. The inside was elaborately lavish, with every material made from the best money could buy. Sadiq ignored all of it as he threw open the front door and went straight to his massive bedroom, sitting down at a desk and turning on his computer.

 

He watched his screen flash on and realized with a laugh that he had launched his own app without even downloading it himself. Flipping out his phone, he made short work of downloading it and creating a brief profile for himself. It felt strange, even to him, to leave out a picture.

 

He scanned through the profiles of the surprisingly large number of women who had already downloaded the app. Without seeing them, all he had to go on was their wit and grammar. That ruled out a lot of them already. He continued to swipe until he came across a profile that caught his eye.

 

“Single woman looking for man who has a brain. All applicants apply within.”

 

Sadiq chuckled. Funny, he thought, glancing at the name on the profile. Hallie Richards…why did that name sound familiar?

 

He clicked into her profile and read the few short blurbs she had typed in about herself. She was clearly witty, and could write well. That much was obvious. Perhaps this could be the one he was looking for—the one who would help him prove that he was right.

 

Clicking into the notes section of her profile, Sadiq typed in a message and sat back, waiting for her to respond.

 

 

 

 

THREE

 

 

Hallie was nearly cross-eyed by the end of the day. Around five, she finally got to shut off her computer screen and look out the window, where the setting sun blinded her even further. Blinking against the black dots floating around in her eyes, Hallie waved goodbye to her coworkers as she descended the seventy flights down to earth and headed back to her apartment.

 

When she got home, she kicked off her shoes and stretched her long fingers into the air, shifting from side to side as she brought life into muscles weary from sitting in one position for so long. She microwaved a frozen dinner and poured a glass of cheap red wine before she sat on the couch and ate in the quiet space of her living room.

 

Hallie had gotten used to silence over the past year; in fact, she’d almost started calling silence her good friend. If there was no noise, it meant no one was judging her for what the tabloids had said.

 

Her phone made a foreign beeping noise, and she glanced at it to see a message sent through LoveMatch, the app she’d downloaded at work.

 

In spite of herself, her heart gave a hopeful little jump. Someone was interested! She reminded herself just how much crazy existed in the world of online dating, how much of it she had already come across, and her excitement died down a little. She opened the app and read the message.

 

Hi there. I believe you are looking for a man with a brain. While I don’t consider myself Stephen Hawking, I believe I might qualify for what you are looking for. Please write back if you would like to chat.

 

Hallie read the message three times, laughing. She’d been a little tongue-in-cheek when she’d written the header for her profile, but at that point, what did she really have to lose? Besides, his answer was funny, and Hallie was looking for funny.

 

She tapped into the message box to write her reply.

 

I know this app is meant to curb shallowness, but I think I might be okay if you’re not Stephen Hawking.

 

There was a pause before Hallie could see the man was writing back. His username was Sadiq.

 

Well, everyone has their standard, but I’m hopeful this app will help us get to know one another outside of all that. How come you’re using it?

 

Hallie thought for a moment. How could one reasonably answer that question? Taking a risk, she decided to tell him the truth. If he ran, that was just another internet breeze passing by, wasn’t it?

 

I got tired of dick pics and shallow jerks. Figured at the very least this app will spare my eyes of that.

 

Men can be really gross sometimes, I know, Sadiq replied.

 

“How would you know? You’re one of them!”

 

“That is precisely why. I know the stupid thoughts that go through a man’s head when he’s interested in a woman. It’s a shame that men flash their genitals, exposing their most intimate parts while simultaneously pushing women away. How does that even make sense?”

 

Hallie settled into her sofa, taking another sip from her wine glass, surprised to find that she was enjoying talking to this guy. He was straightforward and honest—something she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. She tapped out her answer.

 

Well it’s nice to know that there are men out there who wouldn’t do such a thing, anyway. Where are you from?

 

Al Shayam. Have you heard of it?

 

Hallie thought for a moment before tapping out her reply.

 

I can’t say that I have.

 

It’s quite lovely. You should come visit sometime.

 

Hallie laughed. You’re making the assumption that I have free time. I can’t remember the last time I went on a vacation.

 

Of course, Hallie could remember the last time she’d been out of the country, but she really didn’t count that as a vacation. After all, she’d been trapped in the hotel most of the time. When you didn’t get a one on one or a group date, you were mandated to stay out of sight, lest someone get a picture of you and spoil the outcome of the season for the public.

 

She watched the triple dots pulse as Sadiq typed out his response.

 

Is travel something that interests you?

 

Hallie sighed. Of course she’d wanted to see the world. Wasn’t that one of the big reasons she’d convinced herself that taking part in a reality TV show was a good idea?

 

I’d take the chance to go somewhere new in a heartbeat, she replied, taking a sip from her wine glass and staring into its empty depths. When did she finish a whole glass of wine? She’d been so distracted by her conversation with Sadiq that she hadn’t noticed.

 

What would you think about coming to the Middle East? he wrote.

 

Hallie froze, her thumbs dangling over the phone as she thought about the response.

 

I’m not sure, really. What’s your country like?

 

It’s beautiful, Sadiq wrote. I live just outside our capital city, which is on the water, but otherwise we’re entirely surrounded by desert. I know it doesn’t sound that appealing, but the desert has a way of sinking into your soul and carrying you away. It’s otherworldly, in a way.

 

That sounds very tempting, Hallie replied, and she meant it.

 

It was a very good thing they couldn’t see one another, because his talk of visiting so soon was a little disconcerting, and she was sure it showed on her face. Hallie had been majorly burned by two men within the past year, and to say that she was skittish was an egregious understatement. Still, she had to remind herself that pushing men away was no way to heal and move on. There were seven billion people on Earth—they couldn’t all be bad. She had enough married friends to know that much.

 

Look, Hallie, I’m going to be real with you. I’m on here to find a real match—someone I can marry. I can have an easy conversation with you and you seem like a kind, intelligent woman. I own a tech company here and I make more than enough to support a wife and keep her happy. The problem is distance. If you decide that you’d like to consider me as a match, I could fly you out to see how it would work between us.

Hallie stared at the screen. She’d started messaging with Sadiq maybe twenty minutes ago, tops? Now he was already asking her to come visit. Everything in her screamed to run away, that he was already full of red flags. There was another part of her though, that hesitated. If she ran away, she could be giving up a great connection, and out of what? Fear of the unknown? At this point Sadiq was proving himself to be straightforward and no-nonsense, which was exactly what she was looking for in her life. Hallie was tired of liars.

 

Can I think about it and get back to you? she typed, hesitating one more time before sending the message out.

 

Take all the time you need. I will be here if you have any questions about me or my background. You know my name now. You can google me if it will make you feel better. I have nothing to hide. I simply want to find the right connection with the right woman. It’s quite possible that is you, Hallie.

 

Possible, but I’ve been led astray before, Hallie said; if Sadiq was going to be blatantly honest, she might as well meet him there.

 

I understand completely. Trust, once lost, is hard to regain. Consider my offer. I can give you the vacation of a lifetime with no strings attached. If we’re a match, you can consider becoming my wife. If we aren’t, I will happily fly you home and we can part as friends. Do consider it, Hallie.

 

I will, she said.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

Thank you. Goodnight, she replied, before clicking out of the app.

 

Her wine glass dangled from her fingers as she thought about the prospect in front of her. Taking a risk like this before had gotten Hallie turned into a D-list villain. Would it really be worth taking another? What if people in Al Shayam watched The Perfect Couple and knew who she was? Would she find out she was despised there, as well?

 

Setting her glass down, Hallie pulled her laptop from under the coffee table and turned it on, looking up Al Shayam and a man named Sadiq bin Haled Al Halam. Boy, was that a mouthful!

 

She scrolled through page after page, seeing the vast number of tech industry articles Sadiq had been quoted in and written about. It was extremely impressive. If he really was who he said he was, it was obvious he was way richer than he led on.

 

The country itself did look beautiful, in an exotic, desert kind of way. Images of red sand sweeping off dunes were mixed with trendy images of a modern-looking city, and Hallie found her curiosity was piqued. Still, she knew this was not a decision she should make without some kind of outside input. She picked up her phone and called the one person who could help her make sense of all this.

 

“Hello?” her best friend, Gemma, said.

 

“Gem, its Hallie. Can you come over? I’m in the middle of a conundrum here.”

 

“A conundrum, huh? Be right there.”

 

Minutes later there was a playful knock at Hallie’s door, and she answered it for her friend and neighbor, who lived in an apartment down the hall. Hallie and Gemma had met as contestants on the show, and after the fallout from The Perfect Couple, when Hallie had lost her job, Gemma had recommended her building, knowing that the previous tenant was about to move out. It had worked out perfectly, saving Hallie from total bankruptcy. She missed her old apartment, but she had enough space to live.

 

Gemma headed straight toward the kitchen, pulling out a wine glass for herself and filling it with dark red liquid. She wiggled the bottle at Hallie in suggestion, but Hallie raised her hand.

 

“I’m good, I already had down a glass.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Gemma said, putting a cork stop in the bottle and plopping down on the couch. Gemma and Hallie had been roommates during the reality months, and they had become very close. She was the only woman on earth who knew just how badly Hallie had been played, and she had been there to console her through the horrible tabloid saga. She was the best friend Hallie could ever have asked for.

 

“So why am I here?” Gemma asked. Her brown hair was tossed back in a sloppy bun, her T-shirt had several holes in it, but she still looked absolutely stunning. After her elimination from The Perfect Couple, Hallie had been sure that Gemma was going to win Michael’s heart, but they both agreed that it was for the best they had been sent packing. His engagement to the eventual winner of the show had been short-lived, and there were already talks in the tabloids about him cheating on her. Not that Hallie believed tabloids, of course, but it was perversely satisfying to see his name covered in mud instead of hers.

 

Hallie took a breath, then dove in. “I joined another dating app,” she began, and Gemma rolled her eyes.

 

“When are you going to learn that those don’t work?” she demanded.

 

Hallie shrugged. “Look, we know I can’t find love in the conventional way. No one will even look at me if they saw the show, and the men who don’t know who I am learn pretty quickly from their female friends who did. I’m out of options here, Gem.”

 

“You are so not out of options. You’re being too hard on yourself. Plus, I’m pretty sure the world is forgetting who you are and that most of the dirty looks you think you’re getting are just because we live in New York.”

 

“Well anyway,” Hallie said, returning to the subject at hand. “The app is for people who want to find a connection regardless of looks or status. It’s chat only.”

 

“Sketchy. Go on.”

 

Hallie frowned. It was sketchy, wasn’t it? Maybe she was just desperate, or crazy, or both. Who knew anymore?

 

“I spoke to a guy who wants to meet me.”

 

“And that doesn’t sound suspect at all…”

 

“You’re not helping at all, Gemma!” Hallie cried, and Gemma laughed.

 

“Fine, fine. I’m sorry. So there’s a man who wants to meet you, even though he has no idea what you look like or who you really are. Do you have your full name?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So he can find you online anyway?”

 

“I suppose, but…”

 

“So there’s, like, no point to that app. Everyone can be looked up with the click of a button.”

 

“Do you have any idea how many Hallie Richards there are in the world?”

 

“Fine, okay. What’s his name, anyway?”

 

“Sadiq.”

 

“Hallie. Listen to yourself. Some Middle-Eastern guy messages you for a half hour and all of a sudden you’re totally on board with flying out to meet him? Are you nuts?”

 

“He seems really nice, Gemma. Just because someone has an unusual name doesn’t mean they’re a threat.”

 

“Well, where’s he from?”

 

“Al Shayam.”

 

“Is that even a real place?”

 

Hallie let out a frustrated sigh. This was not going at all as she’d hoped it would. Why was her friend being so annoying about this? Or was it Hallie who was being shortsighted?

 

“Of course it’s a real place, and yes, he’s a real person. I looked him up. It’s legit.”

 

“Uh-huh. So he’s asking you to come visit him in another country. What’s the catch?”

 

Hallie hesitated, and Gemma crossed her arms, waiting. Hallie glanced down at her lap. “He wants to marry me.”

 

“What? Hallie, don’t be stupid!”

 

“It’s not like that! Here, read,” Hallie said, opening the app and shoving her phone at her friend to inspect.

 

Gemma read the conversation carefully, the silence stretching long as Hallie waited for her to finish reading so they could figure out what she should do. When Gemma looked up, her perfectly sculpted brow was furrowed.

 

“Okay, so no strings attached, but let’s say you do marry the guy. Wouldn’t that make you, like, a mail order bride?”

 

Hallie swallowed. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way…”

 

“Well maybe you should, Hallie. You have to look out for yourself. Don’t do anything foolish.”

 

“And if I do decide to go?”

 

“Why would you decide to go?”

 

Hallie threw her hands up in the air and stomped into the kitchen, suddenly feeling the need to refill her wine glass. When it was full, she took a deep drink, allowing the liquid to slowly burn all the way down to her stomach.

 

She leaned against the kitchen counter as she looked back at her friend. “I can’t keep living like this, Gemma,” she whispered.

 

It was barely audible, but she could tell her friend had heard.

 

Gemma joined her in the kitchen, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to get better, Hallie. The world forgets so easily. Soon you’ll be back in your old job and able to get back to your old life.”

 

Hallie felt a tear streak down her cheek even as more burned beneath her eyelids. “What if it doesn’t? What if the world brands me as an airhead gold digger for the rest of my life? Maybe going to another country would be a nice break from all that. Maybe it would be a chance to walk down the street and really go unnoticed.”

 

Gemma frowned thoughtfully. “Just take some time to really think about it. You told him you needed time, right? Think it over, do some more research, and if this is something you think you really want to do, you’re going to have to let me put a tracker on your phone so I know you’re alive at all times.” She softened that last statement with a grin, but the underlying message was the same: be careful.

 

Hallie wiped the rest of her tears and thanked her friend for coming over. They watched trashy TV and finished the bottle of wine before Gemma headed back.

 

That night, lying in the darkness, Hallie once again found herself thinking about the mysterious man from the Middle East. She still hadn’t been able to find any pictures of Sadiq, which was surprising given that he seemed to be very successful. Perhaps it was because she was writing her searches in a language different from his, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep. She would have to look again in the morning.

 

Until then, wine lulled her into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 

 

The next day was like any other; Hallie woke, dressed, hid as best as she could on her commute to work, and spent hours quietly and quickly entering data, tucked away from the world. In between mountains of paperwork, she continued researching Sadiq and Al Shayam, finding both more and more tempting with each passing moment of monotonous computer work.

 

He was hardly a romantic man, she’d surmised, having read and reread their conversation over a dozen times. He was straight to the point, and Hallie liked that about him. If reality TV had taught her anything, it was that, most of the time, romance was a veil used to cover up lies. She wasn’t looking for candlelight and moonlit dinners. She’d had plenty of those, and they had gotten her nowhere.

 

At least, that was what she told herself, over and over again.

 

The next day passed in the same way, with Hallie realizing very quickly that unless she did something with her life, she would find herself in that same cube, thirty years on, wondering where the years had gone.

 

She was frowning over her screen, thinking about this, when her phone dinged. Picking it up, her heart gave a little flip when she saw that it was Sadiq, calling her through the app.

 

She answered, pressing the phone against her ear. “Hello?”

 

“Hallie?”

 

Sadiq’s voice was low and gravelly, with just a slight melodic accent. He had a sexy voice, she realized.

 

“This is me,” she said, trying to keep her voice level.

 

“Wonderful. I wanted to touch base and see if you’d considered my offer yet. Have you?”

 

Hallie paused, thinking. “I think I have, yes.”

 

“And?”

 

Hallie glanced around at the gray world she inhabited. There was nothing for her there. It might be a dangerous risk to take, but she was going to take it. Why not?

 

“And I would love to come out and meet you.”

 

“Fantastic. Can I have a driver pick you up in the morning and we’ll get you flown out?”

 

She had just told him that she planned to come out to consider marrying him, and already he was scheduling her flight like it was some kind of business deal. Hallie couldn’t tell how she felt about that, but the mention of a flight to somewhere new, somewhere undiscovered, sounded too good to refuse.

 

“Sure,” she breathed, hardly daring to believe she was actually doing this.

 

“Great. I’ll have him pick you up around seven a.m. The flight should get you here in time for breakfast the following day.”

 

“What! How long is the flight?” Hallie squeaked.

 

She could have sworn she heard him repress a laugh. “It’s a little lengthy, yes, but I can assure you that the accommodations will be most comfortable. You won’t even know you’re on a plane, save for the views. I’ll just need your address for the driver.”

 

Hallie gave him her address, ignoring the unsettled feeling in her stomach as she did so.

 

Afterward, she paused, one last time. This was it. This was the moment she could turn back, close the app, and try to continue existing with the terrible hand she’d been dealt.

 

“All right, then,” she said.

 

“All right, then. I’ll see you soon, Hallie. Looking forward to it.”

 

And just like that, Sadiq ended the call.

 

Hallie stared blankly at her computer screen, at rows upon rows of meaningless numbers. In just a few hours’ time, she would be getting on a plane to a country she’d never heard of, to meet a man she might marry, if they got along well enough. If she were honest with herself, it all sounded too good to be true. She’d already learned the hard way that there was no such thing as prince charming. No man was going to sweep in and rescue her from her shattered life.

 

But still, her dumb heart refused to give up hope.

 

From the research she’d done about Sadiq, it was clear the man was wealthy. Hallie wondered what his reasons were for choosing the app, LoveMatch. Maybe he was ugly, so no one in his country would date him, or maybe he was so rich he couldn’t find someone who would love him just for himself alone. The possibilities were endless.

 

The day wound down, and Hallie realized she wouldn’t be able to put off talking to Mallory any longer. Shutting down her computer, she strolled by her boss’ office door, which was open. Mallory was staring hard at her computer screen, but she looked up when Hallie approached.

 

“Heading home?” she asked brightly.

 

“Um, actually…” Hallie began, unsure as to how she would finish the statement.

 

Her hesitation caught Mallory’s attention, and the older woman pulled away from her desk to get a better look at her.

 

“Oh, Hallie. You’re not resigning on me, are you? You’d be my second this week! I know data entry isn’t all that glamourous, but it can be calming, in a repetitive kind of way. Like knitting…”

 

Yeah right, Hallie thought, but she smiled anyway.

 

“It’s not that. It’s just that…I have a relative that has fallen ill, and he has no one else to help him. He’s asked me to help take care of him.”

 

Mallory frowned, but her expression was sympathetic. “How terribly sad. Do you know when you’d be back?”

 

“I don’t,” Hallie said.

 

Mallory rose from her chair and stood in front of Hallie, placing a bracing hand on her shoulder. “Life can be so unfair sometimes, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Let me know when you can come back. I’m sure we’ll have a place for you here.”

 

Hallie nearly cried, then. Her boss was an amazing, kind woman. Why had she felt the need to lie to her? Was the truth really so terrible? The understanding in Mallory’s eyes was enough for Hallie to cast her lying gaze the floor.

 

“Thank you, Mallory. You’ve always been nothing but kind to me. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

 

Mallory waved a dismissive hand, heading back to her chair. “Nonsense. You’re a good worker and a nice person to be around, Hallie. Now go help your cousin or whatever, and keep us posted, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Hallie said softly.

 

She wouldn’t, of course. One accidental lie was enough to get her out of work for an indeterminate amount of time, but there was no way she would keep up the charade any longer than necessary.

 

Hallie headed straight home after that. She stared at her closet for some time, trying to figure out what one wore to a Middle-Eastern country they had never been to. After a quick bit of research, she decided that western clothing would be fine, and packed some light, summery clothes. It was a desert after all, and it would be much warmer than New York.

 

There was a telltale knock at her door, and Hallie opened the door to see Gemma there. Her friend took no time letting herself into the house, her expression harried.

 

“You’re not going to stop me, Gem. I’ve got to do this,” Hallie began.

 

“I’m not going to stop you. Just give me your phone.”

 

Hallie handed over her phone and watched Gemma set up a tracking app before opening her arms and hugging her friend tight.

 

“I just hope you find what you’re looking for,” Gemma whispered.

 

“Me too,” Hallie replied.

 

She waved a goodbye to her friend before placing her small suitcase by the door. Six in the morning was quite early to be up, and Hallie wanted to be ready to walk out the door when the time came. She brushed her teeth and crawled into bed, staring at the dark ceiling.

 

She almost opened up her phone, tapped the button, and told Sadiq she wouldn’t be able to make it. But then what would she do? Go into work and tell her boss she’d lied, that there was no one in the world who needed her and there never would be?

 

Hallie’s tears melted into the pillow, the same way they had a hundred times before, as she prayed, once again, that the next day would be better.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

A loud buzzing noise ripped into the air, waking her up abruptly, and Hallie sat up in bed, her curly brown hair flying in all directions. The noise sounded again, and when she looked at the clock she realized her ride was outside, calling for her—it was already six o’clock!

 

Hallie ran to the door and pressed the speaker for the buzzer. “I’ll be right down,” she said quickly.

 

“Take your time, miss,” the man said.

 

She made short business of slipping into a comfortable pair of yoga pants and a soft V-neck shirt before brushing her teeth and grabbing her suitcases. When she reached the front door, a driver in a black suit was waiting for her, standing in front of a gleaming black limousine.

 

“Hello, miss,” he said, identifying her as his passenger. He took her suitcase and stored it in the trunk before opening the back door and waiting for her to get in.

 

Hallie stared at him, dumbfounded. “That’s the car we’re taking to the airport?”

 

The driver looked confused. “Of course, miss. The boss insisted you be treated to the best possible service, so it would ease your worries about the trip.”

 

“Right,” Hallie said, dazed. She slid into the backseat of the fancy car, which was warm and cozy in the dark coolness of the early morning. Being New York City, the world outside was already wide awake, since, of course, it had never gone to sleep anyway.

 

“Are you comfortable, miss?” the driver asked.

 

“Yes, thank you,” Hallie replied, suppressing a yawn.

 

She found herself wondering just what kind of man Sadiq was. Was he trying to show off his wealth in the hope that she would overlook some other shortcoming later? Was he unattractive? Would she be able to see past that herself, and love him for who he was inside, the way the app intended? Not to mention the fact that they were from two very different worlds. Would he really want an American wife? A loud, opinionated American wife, who just happened to be hated—albeit unfairly—by many of her own people?

 

She pondered the many possible scenarios she might encounter as the car wound its way through nearly empty city streets. They didn’t seem to be headed toward any airport she was familiar with, but she had already decided to hold in her questions, lest she seem any more foolish than she had already.

 

Some time later, the limo pulled into what looked like a private airport, the tarmac covered with small private jets and even a few full-sized jet planes.

 

“Here we are, miss. If you check in just there, you’ll be all ready to fly.”

 

“Thank you very much,” Hallie said, taking her suitcase from the man, who tipped his hat to her and walked away, not lingering in anticipation of a tip.

 

Hallie headed to the terminal building, which was unlike any terminal she had ever seen before. The only way she could think to describe it would be like a clubhouse for the elite. The floors were covered with Italian marble tile, the furnishings beyond expensive, the walls decorated with fine art.

 

She approached a granite-topped desk and smiled at the attendant there. “My name is Hallie Richards—” she began, but the woman cut her off.

 

“Ah, Miss Richards! Wonderful to see you. Your plane will be ready for departure in just a moment, once I let them know you’re here. Please take a seat. Is there anything we can get you? Anything at all?”

 

Hallie guessed that they really could get her anything she wanted, whether it was a glass of water or a diamond necklace, but she politely declined the offer and headed towards a particularly comfortable-looking sofa. Glancing around, she noticed she was the only person there wearing casual clothing; the other passengers were dressed to the nines as they chattered amongst themselves. It was a side of the one percent Hallie had never seen. A whole different world.

 

“Miss Richards?”

 

A tall, well-built man in a pilot’s outfit approached, and Hallie stood, self-consciously running a hand through her messy brown curls. Compared to everyone else there, she looked like a complete wreck, but the pilot only smiled at her.

 

“Your plane is ready, miss, if you are.”

 

“Yes, thank you,” she said, following the pilot as he took her suitcases and led the way out onto the tarmac.

 

They passed plane after expensive plane until they finally reached one that looked to be a full-sized commercial jet. The stairs were down, ready, and an immaculately dressed flight attendant was waiting at the top, by the door.

 

“Here we are,” the pilot said. “The crew will help you get settled while I finish our final preparations for takeoff. We should be taking off in about fifteen minutes.”

 

Hallie stared with her mouth wide open, unable to find words. Had Sadiq sent an entire plane out just for her? She told herself that was a crazy assumption. Surely there would be other people taking the plane as well?

 

She shouldered her small purse and walked up the steps until the flight attendant greeted her.

 

“Hello, Miss Richards! Welcome on board the Haytham. I trust you will find our accommodations more than comfortable.”

 

“I’m sure I will, thank you. Can you tell me how many of us there will be on the flight today?”

 

The attendant let out a gentle laugh before stepping aside to let Hallie on board. “Just one, miss. You!”

 

Hallie felt woozy as she boarded the plane, nearly fainting as she took in her surroundings. The interior of the jet looked like a luxury apartment—there were actually rooms divided out along the length of the cabin. She saw a living room with a plush sofa and a TV, and beyond that she could see a decent sized bed in a dark bedroom.

 

“Are you hungry, Miss Richards?”

 

“You can call me Hallie,” Hallie said.

 

The woman nodded. “Are you hungry, Hallie? Anything we can make you?”

 

“You have a menu?”

 

“We don’t, no; anything you wish for, our chef can make, so there’s no need to have menus.”

 

“I see,” Hallie said quietly. Well, when in Rome, she thought. “How about Eggs Royale, maybe with a side of bacon and a fruit bowl?”

 

“Of course. We’ll get that out for you right away. Just so you’re aware, the plane has Wi-Fi available at all times except takeoff and landing, and the TV has Netflix and everything else. Please make yourself comfortable during the flight, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to press the button by your seat.”

 

Hallie thanked the woman before making her way to the plush sofa in the plane’s living room. It was a far cry from coach; that was for sure. Hallie thought about taking a picture for Gemma, to prove that she was doing fine—more than fine, even—but she decided against it. She would let her know after she’d met Sadiq, who was becoming more intriguing by the minute.

 

What purpose did he have in bringing her over in such a lavish way? It was clear that he was trying to show off, and while it was working—Hallie was flabbergasted by the elegance and comfort he was showering her with—she had to wonder what motivation was behind it. Was there more to the man than his wealth? There would be plenty of women who wanted that kind of lifestyle. Did he assume she was shallow enough to be wooed by just this, without even meeting him?

 

Her mind was so full of questions that she barely noticed when the attendant came in with her breakfast; the takeoff had been so smooth that she’d barely registered the fact that they were already in the air. The delicious smell of hollandaise sauce was enough to stir her from her reverie, however, and she watched a movie and tried not to inhale the delicious food too quickly as the plane gained altitude.

 

As she soared across the Atlantic Ocean, watching films and relaxing, Hallie felt as though she were simply staying at a nice hotel. Hours later, when night fell, she cleaned herself up in the full-sized bathroom and snuggled into her bed for the night, her pillows soft and fluffy as cotton candy.

 

For one more night, Hallie would keep her questions to herself. The next day she would meet the mysterious Sadiq, and get to the bottom of everything.

 

 

 

SIX

 

 

Hallie woke up when her ears popped. It was the only sign that she was, in fact, thousands of feet above the ground. When they popped again, she stretched, reluctant to leave the confines of the glorious, cozy bed, but curious to see where they were.

 

When she opened the door, her eyes were met with a blinding, bright light. She blinked a few times, allowing her eyes to adjust, before looking out one of the airplane windows.

 

A vast desert stretched as far as the eye could see. Wisps of sand flew off cresting dunes, twirling in the hot winds. Hallie hardly had time to sit down and strap on her seatbelt before the wheels delicately touched on the ground, indicating that they had arrived.

 

Hallie’s stomach clenched with nerves. She had done it. She had flown to another country, far, far away, to meet a man she didn’t know. Gemma’s words came back to haunt her. Was she to end up as some mail order bride? Was she crazy to think that something like this could actually work?

 

Then again, so far, she’d been treated like a princess. Could this be her everyday life, one day?

 

“Miss Richards, good morning.”

 

The flight attendant was back, looking fresh as ever. Her smile was welcoming, and Hallie couldn’t help but smile back just as warmly.

 

“Good morning,” she said.

 

“I trust you slept well.”

 

“I think I might have just had the best sleep of my life.”

 

The attendant’s smile deepened, like she was genuinely pleased to hear it. “We often find that when provided with comfortable conditions, sleeping in the air is quite soothing to many passengers.”

 

Many passengers, huh? Hallie thought. Maybe Sadiq wasn’t in the market for a wife, after all. At least, not the kind of wife Hallie wanted to be. She wasn’t a big sharer when it came to men. How many women had gotten the first-class treatment by her mysterious suitor?

 

Hallie put her walls back up, on the defense. She couldn’t afford to get hurt, but she could enjoy the adventure of it all. Someone who went on a reality show to find love tended to be a bit of a risk taker, and Hallie had to admit to herself that she loved the intrigue as much as the possibility for a stable life.

 

“Would you like to eat some breakfast before you depart?”

 

Hallie was jarred out of her reverie and focused back in on the woman’s face. Her stomach growled at the thought of food, and, thinking she could stand to delay her meeting with Sadiq for just a little while longer, she asked for another round of Eggs Royale, and enjoyed it one last time, savoring every bite.

 

When she was done she collected her small carry-on bag and followed the flight attendant out the door and down the steps. The air was hot and dry. She reached for a pair of sunglasses and slid them on, to defend against the hottest, brightest sun she had ever stood beneath. She wondered for a moment if they were actually closer to the sun in Al Shayam, and then dismissed the thought—it was the desert; it was simply hot.

 

The runway was completely empty except for the plane, a long black limousine, and a driver, who opened the back door as Hallie approached.

 

“Good morning, Miss Richards. Welcome to Al Shayam!” The driver was olive-skinned, his countenance cheerful as he gave a small, respectful bow. “My name is Jal, and I will be your driver while you enjoy your stay in our country. Please, hop in. It must feel very hot to you!”

 

Hallie figured he could see the sweat already dripping from her hairline and was grateful to dive into the cool limo. The inside was cream-colored leather, not at all what she’d expected. Hallie had been inside a fair few limos during her reality stint, but this one certainly took the cake. The minibar was stocked with fresh fruit that gave the interior a citrusy scent, and there was a bottle of champagne perched in an ice bucket that she eyed for a moment before thinking better of it.

 

Jal got into the driver’s seat, the whole length of the car away, and started the engine. Hallie scooted all the way up until she was sitting by the partition window separating them.

 

“Thanks, Jal. This is definitely a lot hotter than New York, and our summers can get pretty muggy!”

 

Jal glanced back at her in the rearview mirror, his brown eyes glinting with good humor. Hallie figured it was a good sign that the man was in good spirits; a happy employee was very telling about his employer. His accent was melodious, and a little thick. Hallie had to lean in closer so she could hear him properly.

 

“I’ve heard it gets very cold in New York in the winter, though I have never been. I don’t think I could take it, though I wouldn’t mind experiencing snow…maybe just once.”

 

Hallie laughed. “You’ve never seen snow? In your whole life?”

 

“Of course not, miss. Look around,” Jal said, gesturing to the vast desert surrounding them as the limo zoomed along a highway.

 

Hallie noticed that the cars around them were all top-of-the-line brands. Clearly, Al Shayam was a wealthy country. Perhaps everyone had a private plane, and her journey was nothing unusual. Could there be a populace that was universally rich?

 

After a brief silence, Jal spoke again. “Did you enjoy your flight, miss?”

 

“I did. It was pretty much the most expensive experience I’ve ever had.”

 

Jal nodded in approval. “The Sheikh will be pleased. He is quite the hedonist himself.”

 

Hallie paused. “Who are you talking about?” She saw Jal’s eyebrow quirk in the mirror.

 

“The Sheikh. The gentleman responsible for you being here. Did he not tell you he was titled?”

 

Hallie had to wrack her brain. Sheikh was a term she had heard before, maybe once or twice, but she didn’t really know what it meant. Apparently it was some kind of title… What wasn’t Sadiq telling her?

 

“He did not,” she replied coolly.

 

“Don’t let that make you nervous, miss. He’s a great man, the Sheikh, and he takes care of his staff very well. It’s a good man who treats his workers like His Highness does.”

 

His Highness?

 

Hallie could see a city glittering in the distance as the limo pulled away from the highway and up a private road. The road twisted past a particularly massive dune, revealing what could only be called a palace, glinting in the distance, and Hallie’s breath caught in her throat.

 

“What is that?” she gasped.

 

“It’s the Sheikh’s palace, of course. My goodness, he did not tell you very much about himself!”

 

“No he did not,” Hallie mumbled. She began tugging at her curls, wishing she had done more than simply brush her teeth before exiting the plane.

 

The limo pulled up, curling around a circular drive that led straight to two glistening, massive front doors. The palace itself was pure white, like the Taj Mahal. Rounded towers shot up from the roof of the enormous main building, which was propped up by pillars with gold pated ends. A marble staircase led up to the front doors, and, standing at the top of those stairs, was a man.

 

“Here we are, miss. The Winter Palace.”

 

“Sounds kind of funny, since you guys don’t really have a winter.”

 

“We do, miss. Just no snow,” Jal replied, smiling at her one more time before exiting the vehicle.

 

Hallie scooted back toward the limo door and reached it just as it was opened for her. Taking a breath, she stepped back out into the sun and shielded her eyes as she gazed up at the man who waited at the top of the steps.

 

He was stunning.

 

That had to be Sadiq. Somehow Hallie just knew it was. He was tall, muscular, and grinning at her, his dark olive skin creased by an alarmingly handsome dimple.

 

She blinked, registering two domestic staff that were taking her suitcases inside—she hadn’t even noticed them leaving the car—before she squared her shoulders and slowly took the steps up to meet Sadiq.

 

“Sheikh?!” she asked quizzically.

 

Sadiq laughed. “Are you so surprised, after the trip you’ve just taken?”

 

Hallie shrugged, totally overwhelmed. “Honestly I don’t know what to think, but I’m here, so that’s something.”

 

Sadiq’s gaze was warm as he stared down at her. “It certainly is. Please come in, you must be warm.”

 

Hallie wondered just how disheveled she must look for two men to have commented on her temperature. The truth was, it was extremely hot, and she gratefully followed Sadiq as he led her inside.

 

The main atrium was a circular room with patterned ebony tiles meticulously placed in elaborate designs along the floor. A fountain spouted trickling water in the center of the room, surrounded by a series of tables, chairs, and sofas. The walls were patterned with swirling red ink, and there were three massive arches with pointed tops that led to other areas of the palace. This, combined with Sadiq’s tiger-like confidence in his button-down shirt and comfortable slacks, had Hallie gaping like a complete idiot.

 

Coming back to herself, she forced her mouth closed and looked at Sadiq in wonder. “Why did you hide this?” she asked, waving her hand around the room.

 

Sadiq shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I hide it? The app was designed to generate love in spite of things like this, rather than because of them.”

 

“And yet you flew me out in a private jet that looked like a luxury apartment, and now we’re in your palace.”

 

“Technically, it’s my cousin’s palace. I’m a distant relation to the royal line, you see, and my family have more than a handful of palaces at their disposal. I seem to be the only one who enjoys the Winter Palace.”

 

“Why is it called that, anyway? Do you guys even experience winter here?”

 

Sadiq grinned, clearly thinking she was joking. That was probably a good thing, since Hallie didn’t want him to think she was a complete fool. She should have done more research on Al Shayam, she knew; all she’d really done was look for connections to Sadiq, when she should have been researching more culture- and climate-related facts.

 

“I think you’ll find the evenings to be quite chilly. The desert is a strange and fickle place—burning hot in one moment, freezing cold the next. Not unlike people, in my experience.”

 

“Not unlike you?” Hallie asked, fishing. She couldn’t help herself. She knew next to nothing about this man, and while her instincts told her she was safe around him, it wasn’t enough to go on. She needed to know more. Who was Sadiq, really? Why was he doing this, looking like he did, living like he did? He had no reason to seek out a woman, and yet he’d found her halfway across the world and taken a risk on bringing her here. What were his motives?

 

Sadiq chuckled. “I wouldn’t say that. I think I’m normally quite rational. Too rational, sometimes.” He gazed off into the distance as he spoke, but brought his attention back to her a moment later. “Would you like a tour?”

 

Hallie looked around. The palace was unlike anything she’d ever seen. She couldn’t even call it a castle, because castles were always gray and cold and square; Sadiq’s home was all curves and smooth edges, warm colors and patterns bringing life to an enormous infrastructure.

 

There was something not quite right about the place, though. It felt like a museum, or a hotel. It was too big to live in, or maybe it just felt that way because of the décor. Hallie realized she did want to see more, hoping for some insight into this man she hardly knew.

 

“Yes, that would be lovely.”

 

“Wonderful,” Sadiq said. He seemed pleased to have her there, but he continued with his direct and businesslike address. Sadiq was not a man who minced words or played games, and that was something Hallie instantly liked about him.

 

He held out his arm, elbow out. “If you’ll accompany me,” he said, jest in his eyes.

 

This was it. This was the moment where she could turn back, have a nice, comfortable flight back on that Dreamliner and leave the situation where it was. Gazing into Sadiq’s eyes, Hallie realized that that was the absolute last thing she wanted to do. She delicately wrapped her hand around his forearm, relishing the warmth of his skin as he faced her toward the three arches.

 

“Choose your destiny. What door shall we pick first?”

 

Hallie stared at each archway. All she could see was tiled wall, though she could tell that hallways led somewhere perpendicular to those dead ends. So which was the path she would choose?

 

“That one,” she said, pointing to the arch in the middle.

 

Sadiq grinned. “Excellent choice.”

 

He led her to the hallway, towards a destination she could hardly begin to imagine.

 

When they turned the corner, Hallie shrank back, holding tightly onto Sadiq’s arm.

 

There, in a massive enclosure, were a pair of tigers, their teeth bared.

 

“What in the…?” Hallie demanded, and Sadiq looked down at her with a quizzical expression.

 

“What’s the matter?”

 

“Um, you keep tigers in your home? You don’t see an issue with this?”

 

Sadiq shrugged. “All men of wealth house exotic animals. It is a show of status.”

 

“It’s horrid,” Hallie breathed, watching the animals as they turned back toward a hunk of meat and began fighting over it. She gripped Sadiq’s arm harder. “Make them stop!” she cried.

 

Sadiq looked over his shoulder and, as if by magic, a servant appeared. He said something to the man in Arabic—or Farsi, maybe—and he disappeared, only to return shortly with another large hunk of meat. The man made a strange noise with his mouth to get their attention, and one of the animals looked his way. Tossing the fresh meat into the cage, the man walked out as the second tiger left the first in peace, and the two enjoyed their meals separately.

 

“Why don’t we try another room?” Sadiq said, concern etched across his brow.

 

Hallie nodded, trying not to think about those poor tigers in captivity—reduced to status symbols. If she were to ever consider a future with Sadiq, that would immediately have to change. If status mattered to him more than love, she wouldn’t be the right fit for him anyway, no matter how many nice planes he owned.

 

Sadiq steered her out of the room toward another one of the archways. “This I think you will like,” he said with a satisfied look on his face.

 

When he opened a door, they were suddenly transported to another world—a nightclub. Sadiq waved a hand around the room, which was dark as night and pulsing with music and flashing lights. Hallie was shocked to see people dancing and drinking, and when Sadiq entered, everyone cheered and held up their glasses to him.

 

“What on earth?” Hallie said, gazing around in wonder. Why did Sadiq have a rave club in his house?

 

Sadiq frowned at her tone. “You don’t like this? But why? People are able to enjoy themselves at any time or day or night, and the lighting makes it so that the party never has to end.”

 

“Do you really enjoy partying that much?” Hallie asked, watching his expression carefully.

 

Sadiq frowned, thinking. His gaze traveled around the room before he looked back at her. “I don’t know. It’s something my friends enjoy, so I created it for them. I can see them any time I want, and they enjoy having a place to go where the atmosphere is exquisite and the party never stops.”

 

“But you don’t like it. So let them have their own club, and you can have a house you actually want to live in.”

 

Sadiq looked at Hallie like he’d never heard anyone talk to him like that before—with honesty. He took a breath. “Okay. I can see you’re not a clubbing kind of girl, but I think you’ll like what’s behind door number three.”

 

“Will I?” Hallie asked, unconvinced.

 

Sadiq’s grin was mischievous. “I believe so,” he said, holding out his hand for her to take.

 

She hadn’t realized that she’d dropped his arm after the tiger enclosure, and after a pause she took Sadiq’s hand. Her fingers tingled as he laced his through and pulled her out of the club, leaving behind the loud techno beat and the sound of a hundred cheers sending them off.

 

Even that small amount of exposure to the music had Hallie’s ears aching as Sadiq led her through a long hallway. When they got back to the main atrium, they faced the third archway, but instead of going through it, Sadiq stepped to the side and pressed a small, teal-colored tile.

 

A small door cracked open in what had, until that moment, looked like flat, tiled wall. Now that was cool.

 

“Wow!” Hallie gasped, and Sadiq smiled.

 

“Aha! I’ve found something that impresses you.”

 

Hallie crossed her arms. “The door impresses me. If you have an indoor ostrich racing ring on the other side, I am going to be less than thrilled.”

 

Sadiq chuckled at that. He hadn’t let go of her hand yet, and Hallie found herself glad of this. She held on tight as he looked back at her with an impish smile.

 

“This is something no one else appreciates. Maybe you will.”

 

Sadiq pushed the door open and led the way inside. When Hallie walked through, the door closed behind her, and she found herself tucked inside what appeared to be a very cozy personal library. The walls were filled with dark wooden bookshelves that were filled to the brim with antique-looking books. She released Sadiq’s hand, the better to see what his collection housed.

 

In spite of her reputation as a gold-digging airhead, Hallie had started her career in publishing because she knew books. She loved books. Books had been her whole life. She realized that Sadiq had been right in what he’d said a few minutes before; no one could appreciate that particular room like she could. She held her breath as she pulled out a copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. When she opened it, she released her breath when she saw it was a first edition.

 

“I can’t believe it,” she whispered, as though she were in a church. Unable to resist, she ran her fingers along each shelf as she perused every copy, nearly fainting at the amazing first editions he held in the collection. “This is amazing,” she said.

 

Sadiq was standing in a corner near a low, cushioned bench. He sat on it as he watched her, his expression filled with interest. “This is my favorite room in the entire house. You like it?”

 

Hallie cast a glance at him before her eyes darted back to his collection. “Like it? Books are my entire life! Well, they were, before…” She trailed off, not really wanting to get into her baggage so soon after arriving.

 

Taking the cue, Sadiq didn’t press for answers. “You can come back here any time you’d like. As for right now, I would love it if you could join me for lunch.”

 

After the extensive walking around the palace, Hallie found she was more than ready for lunch, and she gladly accepted his invitation.

 

There was another door leading out of the room, and when Hallie walked through it she found she was in a sitting room that looked completely natural—cozy, even.

 

“How fascinating,” she said, gazing around.

 

“What’s fascinating?”

 

“You,” she said, turning to look him over.

 

Sadiq looked momentarily uncomfortable at her comment, but he allowed her to stare at him as she worked to puzzle him out. Hallie loved puzzles, and Sadiq was no exception.

 

“You put on this blatant front of wealth and decadence, and yet that’s not who you really are at all, is it?”

 

“You’ve been here all of two hours, and you’ve already figured me out, haven’t you?” Sadiq said. There was no heat to his question. In fact, he seemed pleased.

 

Hallie opted for honesty, since it was all she really had left to give of herself. “I can’t pretend to know you, or why you’ve asked me to come here, but I can tell that you are more than you appear to be on the surface, and I’d like to get to know that man rather than the one who parades his tigers and nightclubs for everyone else to enjoy.”

 

“I see,” Sadiq replied softly. A moment of heavy silence passed between them before he gestured toward a terrace. “Our lunch will be served out here.”

 

“Won’t it be too hot?” Hallie asked.

 

Sadiq shook his head. “We have air conditioning and misters around the space so that we can enjoy the outdoors even in the heat of the day.”

 

“That sounds kind of wasteful.”

 

“You’re very forthcoming in your disapproval of my lifestyle, Miss Richards. Do you mean to tell me that if money were no object to you, you would not do as you pleased?”

 

“Do you mean to tell me that while you do have the world at your fingertips, you do as you please? Is any of that really what you want?”

 

Sadiq stared at her, his expression inquisitive. He was clearly not used to be challenged or questioned, and Hallie felt a sense of pride in the fact that she was able to knock him down a peg.

 

“You are much deeper than the papers make you out to be, Miss Richards.”

 

Hallie bristled. “So you do know who I am. Is that why you brought me here? Because you believe what they say? You think I’m here for the money, to be some trophy wife?”

 

Sadiq held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “I know better than anyone not to trust tabloid news. My interest in you was entirely genuine, and I promise that I only found out about your story after I asked you to come join me. So why don’t you come tell me who you really are, while we enjoy something delicious?”

 

Hallie’s gaze was guarded, but Sadiq had said the right thing; it was refreshing to hear someone say they didn’t believe everything they read in the newspapers.

 

She followed behind him as he led her to a terrace overlooking the sprawling desert landscape. A small table laden with half a dozen different dishes stood between two comfortable-looking cushioned chairs, and Hallie gratefully took a seat, sinking into the silky fabric. When Sadiq had said the air was conditioned, he had meant that there were several palm leaf fans cooling the air around them, and Hallie reluctantly enjoyed the breeze. Mist gently fell from concealed pipes in the ceiling around them, and the terrace made Hallie feel almost as if she were at an exclusive Disneyland.

 

“You don’t indulge much, do you?” Sadiq noticed.

 

Hallie shrugged. “I haven’t had the luxury to do so,” she said, breathing in the delicious scent wafting from the food on the table. Sadiq explained to her what everything was before they filled their plates and began to enjoy their meal together.

 

“You’ve asked me why I wanted to bring you here,” Sadiq said, as though they were at a business meeting.

 

Hallie nodded, savoring the chicken in spicy sauce—it was exquisite.

 

“The truth is, in my country a man is not considered respectable until he has a wife. Experience has led me to believe that there are many women out there who would marry me on the basis of my name alone, but I find that is not who I am. I want a woman who can match me intellectually, who cares about the man behind the wealth, and I believe, Miss Richards, that you might be that woman.”

 

“Why are you calling me Miss Richards?” Hallie asked, processing. He was talking about marriage. Was that something she could consider, truly?

 

Sadiq shrugged. “I thought it was more respectful.”

 

“But you could call me Hallie when you didn’t know who I was—a stranger on the internet.”

 

“I suppose so. At the time it seemed a little unreal.”

 

“But I am real. And I’m here. So tell me what your real motivation is for this.”

 

She stared hard at Sadiq, trying to catch a lie in his eyes. She couldn’t find one. He met her gaze head on, and she tried not to melt into those chocolate brown depths. Did he have to be this attractive?

 

“You are under no pressure to stay in Al Shayam, Hallie. But I would ask that you stay with me for a few days, at least, to see if we might have a connection worth exploring. If we do not, I will send you home in the same style that you came. If we do, I would hope that you’d consider becoming my wife.”

 

Hallie stared at him. He was completely serious.

 

“You realize this is nuts, right? People don’t just test their relationship for a few days and then decide on marriage. That’s not how it’s done.”

 

“Maybe not in America. Here, it’s actually quite common. I will tell you this, Hallie. In the hours I have known you, you have already shown me more character and wit than any woman I have spoken to in years. That alone qualifies you to be my wife—not to mention the fact that you are beyond beautiful.”

 

Hallie blushed at the compliment. The fact that he had placed her personality and intellect before her physical beauty spoke volumes. Perhaps there was more to this man than she originally thought, and she wanted to keep digging. If it didn’t work out, they could part as friends, and she would have gotten the vacation of a lifetime.

 

“All right,” she said, holding out her hand for him to shake. “I will stay and see if we might have the connection you’re looking for. I want you to be completely honest with me though, Sadiq. If you lie to me, even once, it’s over. My reputation was destroyed because of men’s lies, and I won’t have it happen again.”

 

Sadiq’s gaze was thoughtful as he started at her, measuring her words. He grasped her hand and held it firmly. “I promise you, I will be honest with you. My intention is not to hurt you. I plan on showing you just how wonderful life can be, and perhaps you can teach me a little something about it as well.”

 

“Perhaps I can,” she agreed, and released her hand.

 

There was a gaping emptiness as Sadiq pulled his hand back, and Hallie found that she wished she hadn’t let go. The palace around them was beautiful. Stunning, even. But none of it held a candle to the feeling that rushed down Hallie’s spine as Sadiq gazed at her.

 

When they’d finished eating, Sadiq rose. “Would you like to show me to your quarters now?”

 

Hallie grinned. “Only so long as there are no wild parties or wild animals in there. I do enjoy my sleep.”

 

Sadiq smiled back at her, gesturing a hand toward yet another door. Hallie realized then that it would take a lifetime to figure out how to navigate his palace…if she so chose to spend a lifetime there. In that moment, she tried to picture living in that place as its owner. In its current condition, it was an impossible thought.

 

The Sheikh led the way down several corridors before he opened up a large, heavy door and allowed her to walk in ahead of him.

 

Looking around, Hallie found herself in an enormous bedroom. The ceilings had to be at least twenty feet tall, and there were rounded princess windows all along the walls. She could see a massive four-poster bed with silky bedding, and avoided looking at it while Sadiq was standing right there. She didn’t want to think about what it would be like to have him in it, and utterly failed.

 

Sadiq seemed oblivious to the path her thoughts were taking. He stepped back towards the door. “You’ll find your suitcase by the bed. Feel free to unpack and get comfortable. I can have some dinner sent up, or, if you’d like we can dine together later in my rooms.”

 

“I’d like that,” Hallie said.

 

Sadiq’s mouth twitched. It was obvious he would like that, too. That alone made Hallie’s heart flutter.

 

She tried to press the sensation down; it was too soon to start developing feelings for this guy. Hadn’t she done that before, with disastrous consequences? Her heart refused to listen, especially as her eyes hungrily took in the handsome features of Sadiq. He was a billionaire, clearly, and yet that was the one thing about him she didn’t particularly like. Wouldn’t the tabloids have a field day with that? The gold digger who finally found her pot of gold?

 

“Until then,” he said, gently taking her hand and kissing her knuckles.

 

Hallie’s skin tingled where his lips had touched, and she fought the urge to tackle him and kiss him. After all, they were supposed to be being honest, right? And if they only had a few days to get to know one another, what would the harm be?

 

Take your time, a little voice inside her head chided, and, reluctantly, Hallie listened.

 

“Yes,” she breathed. “Until then.”

 

Sadiq closed the door quietly, and Hallie turned back to take in her surroundings once again. The room was certainly beautiful, but in a cold, unused kind of way. She imagined it would feel much the same if she were visiting Versailles. Everything was stunning, but looked untouchable.

 

Hallie gazed back at the door, wishing Sadiq would knock upon it once again. It was a strange sensation; she had blocked off her heart for so long, it had been impossible to think she could feel so intensely about someone so fast, and yet, here she was.

 

It was the beginning of a new chapter in her life, and she couldn’t wait to see just where Sadiq would take her next.

 

 

The Sheikh’s Online Bride is available now.

 


The Tycoon's Triplet Baby Surprise

Sean Lawson didn’t think he had time for a baby. Does he have time for three? It all starts with a stray cufflink, dropped by the irresistibly handsome tech billionaire Sean Lawson, and held in safekeeping by talented attorney Charlotte Waters. Now, with Sean under legal attack from an old rival, Charlotte finds the perfect opportunity to return the cufflink to him: by pulling some strings and inserting herself onto his legal team. Sparks fly as the gorgeous billionaire and his newly appointed attorney get reacquainted. Briefly abandoning herself to the desire she’s felt for ten years, Charlotte finds herself falling hard for her boss—and compromising her professional ethics in the process. As the legal case picks up steam, Charlotte receives some shocking news: she’s pregnant, with not one, not two, but three of Sean Lawson’s babies! With the court case in jeopardy, and their fledgling romance on the line, can they overcome the forces that seek to drive them apart, and become the united, loving parents they never expected to be? This is a standalone billionaire romance novel from best-selling author Holly Rayner. It contains a guaranteed HEA, and a tale of romance that will capture your heart. As an added gift, it also includes the first few chapters of Holly Rayner's prior novel Wifed By The Sheikh absolutely FREE!

  • Author: Forbidden Fruit Press
  • Published: 2017-08-07 16:50:28
  • Words: 68248
The Tycoon's Triplet Baby Surprise The Tycoon's Triplet Baby Surprise