“Mommy, I’ll be okay,” I said, for what seemed like the fiftieth time in the last half hour. Did all twenty-four-year-olds have to endure a crazy-as-shit sendoff from an over-the-top family? Geez.
“Sweetheart, I don’t understand why you can’t continue as you have. Live here in Chicago and commute to New York as needed.”
“Does that sound sensible, Mother?” Aiden asked. “That’s one hell of a commute for work, don’t you think?”
“Aiden, you’re not helping,” Mommy chided, shooting my brother a look of disapproval.
“Good, because I’m not here to further your cause.”
“Actually, this is one of those times when I wish you weren’t here at all,” she snapped.
Aiden shook his head at our mother and reached for Harper, who’d been pulling at his pant leg and demanding his attention for the better part of the afternoon.
“One of the many privileges of being a member of this family is that a private jet awaits your every whim, so problem solved,” Mommy continued.
“But I don’t want it solved,” I explained. “And it’s not a problem. I need to strike out on my own… become my own person.”
“That sounds more like your brother talking than you,” she replied, frowning at Aiden.
Daddy stepped closer to Mommy, his palm settling at the small of her back. “Sienna, she’ll be fine. It’s time for our baby bird to leave the nest.”
“Of course, you’d agree to this insidious plan because it brings you that much closer to what you’ve always wanted.”
“Oh,” he smirked. “And what is that?”
“My little girl joining you all at Raine Industries. That’s not what I wanted for her,” she said, her eyes sad as she looked at me.
“Argh! Why can’t you guys understand that this is not about what you want for me?”
“Allie, calm down,” Aiden said, looking at me in reproof. “You’re going to New York, so this conversation is futile at best. I’m not sure why you’re patronizing Mother.”
“Because, unlike my other children, she actually cares about my feelings, Aiden.”
“I’d wondered when you would get around to making this about you,” he shot back.
“Can you guys not do this today, of all days? Please,” I begged. “With all of these never-ending power struggles, is there any wonder I want out of here?”
Daddy chuckled. “It’s true. We can be a bit much at times, but hopefully, you won’t be gone for too long,” he added, a knowing expression on his face.
To get Daddy on board—financially at least—I’d had to fudge the truth, telling him I wanted one full year to pursue my dream. If things didn’t work as I hoped, I’d go to business school and then join Raine Industries. Of course, there was no way in hell I’d ever do either of those, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Allison has been doing this New York thing for a few years now. She’ll be fine,” Sloan said.
Although appreciated, my sister’s words provided little to no comfort to a very obstinate Sienna Raine.
“Yes, and I’ll visit every chance I get,” I added.
“That’s what Aiden promised, and we all know how that turned out,” she retorted, her elegantly beautiful features contorted in disappointment.
When my youngest big brother joined the ranks of the family business, he dove in headfirst, barely having time for anything but sleep and work. We’d rarely seen him at all, even during the holidays. Mommy had been a wreck—constantly in tears and always at odds with Daddy about the unrealistic expectations he’d placed on Aiden.
“My kid brother was the exception,” Nicholas replied. “We all know Aiden had to bear the brunt of responsibilities that shouldn’t have been his to handle. The same principle doesn’t apply to our baby sister.”
I smiled at my brother, thankful that he was trying to make Mommy see reason. They were all trying to help, and although it did very little to sway our mother’s stance, I was grateful for their support. It hadn’t always been there.
“Enna,” Daddy started. “I wouldn’t have signed off on this if I didn’t have the highest of confidence in our daughter. I would never send our little Allison out into this world unprepared.”
“Think of it this way,” Aria said, floating into the room with Fife and Lyric in tow. “Allison gives us a good reason to jet off to New York anytime the mood strikes.”
When Mommy waved that off, my sister-in-law tried a different approach. “Sienna, trust me, she’s more than ready for this. Aiden filled me in on the terms of their ‘trade-off’”, she air-quoted. “They covered everything you can think of and then some.”
Aria was the perfect addition to our family. Although I hadn’t seen her as much as I would have liked since she and Aiden moved to Boston, I was sure I’d miss her most. She’d become closer than my siblings—except for Aiden. He was, and would always be, my favorite. I smiled at him as he observed his wife. His expression radiated pure and absolute love for the mother of his three boys.
And Aria was right—Aiden and Daddy had gone slightly overboard in their preparation for my move. With my father—it was just Daddy being Daddy. He displayed that totalitarian way of governing all of his kids. Sure, he’d calmed a little over the years, but at the root, he was still the same. But Aiden, he was different. He was my protector. He’d been the ever-present supporter who’d demanded I forge my own path.
Safety, appropriate friendships, time management, healthy habits, and financial responsibility were all standard topics when parents sent a child off into the world. But, of course, those subjects were on slightly different levels of intensity with my family, so initially, those discussions hadn’t gone very well. A simple, but necessary, talk had evolved into a two-week back and forth arbitration. I doubted it would have worked out in my favor at all if I hadn’t brought Aiden in to negotiate my terms. Yes, that’s how issues are often resolved in this family—through closed-door meetings and cut-throat deals. And as I’d sat back and observed my father and brother iron out the details of my move as though it were a business transaction, I was reminded of the many reasons to run as far and as fast as I could from Raine Industries. I mean, who would willingly sign up for that shit? But in the Raine household, we hadn’t always had the option of choices. We were often manipulated and threatened by our parents. Although quite formidable, Mommy couldn’t hold a candle to Daddy in those regards. It quite often took an act of God to get Connor Raine to back down and accept that his children’s lives were theirs to lead.
Thankfully, my siblings and I had a heavy-hitter on our side, and he was the only one who could knock Daddy on his ass. Aiden’s take-no-prisoners mentality worked in our favor when we needed something like this done. On the flip side of the coin, his iron-fist worked against us when he was the one standing in opposition. Unfortunately for me, I would soon face that opposition when he realized I hadn’t been completely honest about my move to New York. But I’d cross that bridge when I got there. My first priority was to escape Chicago with my parents’ blessing. And by blessing, I meant open access to my trust fund. I’d handle the rest as it came.
Tomorrow. Allison will be here with me and away from her jackass of a brother. If nothing else, she and I would have that. I propped my hand against the molding that encased the floor-to-ceiling windows of my loft and skimmed the utterly mesmerizing Manhattan skyline. Allison will love living here. I’ll make sure of it. Grabbing my phone, I sent a text to my assistant Claire, telling her to clear my schedule for the week. The next seven days would be all about Allison. My girl deserved undivided attention, and she would have it. She deserved all of me. She deserved everything I had to give.
Before clicking the button that locked my phone, I noticed Erin’s number on the list of missed calls. There was no point in stirring up unnecessary trouble, so I quickly deleted her contact information. We’d ended things over a year ago. And as I saw it, there was no reason for her to ever call me… for anything. Knowing her tendency to stir up trouble, I went a step further and added her to the list of blocked callers. Erin’s ill-advised call prompted me to review each of my contacts and remove anyone who could be problematic, so I spent the next several minutes erasing names and memories that no longer mattered.
A social media notification pinged just as I pressed Delete on one of the last names. I swiped a finger over the icon and checked the latest must-see news, and noticed my sister had updated her status to In a Relationship. I chuckled to myself. That status would revert to Single again in about a month. Savannah sifted through relationships as often as I did. The only difference was she went the full course. I never wanted to. Not until now. Not until Allison.
Wondering if I should follow suit with a status change, I realized Allison would appreciate the gesture, so I did the same. It also wouldn’t hurt that it would send the message that suggestive comments and direct messages from other women were unwelcomed.
Feeling pretty confident in the turn our relationship had taken, I headed to the master bedroom and emptied a few dresser drawers, then moved to the closet and cleared out one side. Stepping back and surveying the space, I decided she’d need more room, so I emptied one of the guest bedroom closets as well.
Most of the clothing I’d gathered would be going to charity, and since I was late with my annual donation, the last-minute purge allowed me to remedy that. Giving back to the community that afforded me a pretty posh lifestyle had become an altruistic ritual in which I’d taken great pride. Truth be told, I wish I had more time to devote to helping those who were less fortunate, but my career aspirations allowed very little time for that.
In the end, I was able to fill four large boxes. As I settled downstairs, I was about to call and check in on Allison when my phone rang, the Crazy Train ringtone alerting me to the identity of the caller.
I exhaled a sigh and answered. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hi, sweetheart. How are you?” she asked, her good-natured tone catching me off-guard.
“I’m good. Everything okay with you and Justin?”
“Yes. We’re actually sitting here wondering the same about you.”
“And why is that?” Had I forgotten to deposit money into her account?
“I just hung up from a call with your sister.”
“She says you’re in a relationship. Since when do we learn important things about your life through social media statuses?”
“Does Savannah live on Facebook?” I asked, irritated that she’d already run to Mom and my step-dad with news that should have come from me.
“So who is she?” Mom probed.
“You already know. I told you about her a few months ago.”
“The trust-fund baby from Chicago?”
“Don’t call her that.”
“Defensive? Hmm. You must really like this one. But what’s not to like about a girlfriend with deep pockets and daddy issues? And trust me, those types always have daddy issues. ”
“Maybe comments like that are why you found out about her on social media,” I spit out, already vexed with the person who I allowed to get under my skin more than she should.
“Calm down, William. I was only stating the truth,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
I didn’t respond to her truth for fear of saying something I’d have to apologize for later.
“I’m sure she’s a lovely girl,” Mom continued. “And I can’t wait to meet her. I’m dying to see who’s gotten you all riled up.”
“I don’t want you within a hundred miles of her.”
“And why is that? Are you afraid I’ll embarrass you?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I suppose I could go online and get a head start on my research,” she replied, ignoring my last statement. “I’ll bet she’s a regular in all the tabloids. Those spoiled, super-rich kids usually are.”
“You never know when to stop, do you? You’re not meeting her.”
“Wow. I’m somewhat shocked by how protective you are of this girl. I didn’t mean to offend your new flavor of the month,” she taunted.
“Do you even hear yourself? You should be happy for me. Instead, you’re trying to find ways to undermine my relationship before it even gets off the ground. There’s no way you will meet her… ever.”
“I take offense to that, William. I am your mother, after all. And I’m starting to think I was wrong. Your plan to keep her away from me isn’t about the possibility of embarrassment. It’s about your other interests. Isn’t it? You’re afraid some of your skeletons will be exposed.”
“As usual, you’re way off base, Mom.”
“A word to the wise, my sweet boy, secrets are no way to start a relationship. They have a way of popping up and biting you on the butt. When Justin and I met, we didn’t see the point in hiding things from each other. We laid it all on the table.”
“That both of you were married and had families you were about to destroy?” I asked, my tone bitter.
“Now, William, we agreed that was all water under the bridge. We’ve gotten beyond that, so let’s not open old wounds.”
She had this way of tying up her messes in dysfunctional little bows and then expecting her kids to sit back and admire her handiwork. It pissed me off. I didn’t say anything about her warped way of thinking. I just let her ramble out her excuses until she’d said enough to make herself feel better.
“I can’t believe you brought that up,” she continued. “And I hope you haven’t discussed such private matters with your new girlfriend. You wouldn’t want me airing your dirty laundry like that—now would you?” she asked, a subtle warning in her tone.
“Are you really doing this?” I asked, incredulous. “Threatening me?”
“Of course not. What kind of mother would I be if I did something like that? Don’t worry. Your past is your business.” She paused for a moment. “All of that stuff is still in the past, isn’t it?”
“Mom, I have to go,” I said, knowing if I continued the call, things would get real ugly real fast. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Er… well, okay. Is there anything you’d like for me to tell your stepfather?”
“Yeah, tell him I said hi… and that he needs to work a little harder to keep you occupied.”
“What’s that supposed—”
Her name wasn’t actually Linda, but I called her that when she was driving me crazy, which was quite often. I pressed End before she could start back-peddling—something she tended to do when she thought her monthly allowance was in jeopardy.
If Allison got one whiff of the garbage Linda was spewing, she would break things off with me on the spot. I wouldn’t let Mom ruin this for me. Knowing I needed to buy some time, I accessed my online banking account, located the name Anita Fisher and entered an amount that would keep her out of the city for a while. Sooner or later, Mom would meet Allison. And for my sake, it had to be later.
I didn’t leave my country for a future of waiting tables in the States. Sure, the tips from the wealthy patrons did much to pay the bills, but working this ridiculous job needed to be a thing of the past. And fast. Then again, as detestable as the job could sometimes be, it was better than going back to France to fall in line with the family business—something I’d run from most of my life. No way would I return home with my tail tucked between my legs. I’d rather starve to death on the streets of New York.
“Ready for another day of serving the high and mighty?” my coworker Zander asked as he muted his phone.
He had no idea that I was one of those “high and mighty” myself, and I didn’t see any reason to tell him. I secured the white apron at my waist and tucked a pen and pad in the front pocket. “But of course. Aren’t you?”
“It’s what I live for,” he replied, a sarcastic grin upturning his lips.
We started out of the kitchen just as Chef Daniel yelled at the cooks, who he claimed weren’t doing justice to his creations.
“Never seen anyone get so uptight about cuttlefish and squid,” I said with a grimace.
“They’re all like that. Unfortunately, this ain’t my first rodeo,” Zander said.
I shook my head, confused by the cowboy reference. “First rodeo? I don’t think I get that one.”
He chuckled. “I forget you’re still catching on to these American idioms. It basically means this is not the first time I’ve worked with a pretentious celebrity chef.”
“Ahh. And you enjoyed it so much that you’re up for bat again, eh?”
Zander nodded with a grin. “Hey, you got that one right.”
“I’ve been catching on pretty quickly,” I said, referring to my street education on the colloquialisms I’d picked up since becoming a New Yorker.
“Hopefully, this is my last run with this type of gig, though,” Zander continued. “Once I graduate next semester, I have an internship lined up at Burberry. If I do well, I’ll make design assistant six months after. What about you? How are things working out with the dancing?”
“I have an audition tomorrow morning with the only company I’m interested in. I’m not too worried about it,” I said with a casual lift of my shoulder.
“You’re that good, huh?” Zander asked.
“One of the best,” I said, my confidence coming off as arrogance. But it wasn’t that. I wasn’t bragging—I simply spoke the truth. The only obstacle to my career trajectory was securing the audition. Once I got in front of the people who called the shots, the rest would be a walk in the park. Hmm. Walk in the park? Is that the correct phrase? That sounded right.
“Well, let’s get this day behind us. We have dreams to conquer.”
I missed Zander’s next words as a peel of laughter trilled in the air, a light sound, a honeyed melody that tickled my ears. I turned toward the source, and my eyes fell upon the most angelic of creatures—a vision as beautiful and delicate as her laugh. An irresistible urge pulled me in the direction of her table to get a better view, to study her up close. She didn’t notice me watching her, but her lunch companion had. But it wasn’t her lunch companion I couldn’t stop staring at. It wasn’t her lunch companion that held me in that spot.
I tipped my head as I studied the dark-haired angel. I didn’t recognize her as a regular, but I wanted her to be. I had to know I’d see her again. The angel’s friend gestured for her to look up at the gawking stranger standing a few feet away. And when the brunette beauty finally lifted her head, she literally took my breath.
A long river of midnight waves cascaded over her shoulders and framed the exquisite contours of her face. Her almond-shaped eyes were a distinct shade of green that flickered like glitter as they took me in. And although her chin was poised with the same sophistication I’d come to expect from the clientele of this establishment, she was a striking contrast to those I couldn’t wait to get away from. She was one of them, but she was nothing like them. An iridescent glow emanated from the center of her being. Sparkling like a thousand diamonds, she outshined everything within her proximity. She was an absolute vision, and I wanted to bathe in her presence.
My lips curved upward when she dropped her head to hide the light blush spreading over her cheeks. It was an adorable gesture. She was adorable. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and I couldn’t move. Not until Zander tugged on my arm did I snap out of the trance under which I’d fallen.
“Dude, what are you doing?” he whispered, and then followed my gaze. He slapped a hand on my shoulder and shook his head. “Man, people like her won’t give guys like us a second glance, so don’t waste your time. Besides, fraternization with the customers is a violation of company policy. You’d be out on your ass in no time flat.”
Sucking in a breath, I forced myself to move, giving the beautiful angel a wink as I strolled past her. I was in total disagreement with my workmate. She was definitely not a waste of time. And if this were the end of my shift instead of the start of it, I’d say fuck company policy and prove it.