She thinks it’s a fake relationship, he knows it’s forever, in Avery Maxwell’s new friends to lovers, small town romance, and I have the Prologue and the whole first chapter for you.
Twelve Years Ago
“There’s no way she does it.”
“What does he even see in her?”
“She had a panic attack in algebra last week. What’s wrong with her? I mean, it’s math class.” She laughs while anger and hurt well in my chest.
Strong hands wrap around my biceps and keep me planted on this platform high above the ground, but he can’t silence my mouth.
Turning my head, I glare at the mean girls who torment my days. “My grandfather died, you stupid twits. I know the concept of empathy is beyond your comprehension, but try. I don’t wish my pain on anyone.”
Dante presses himself tightly to my back, silencing me, and making us one.
“Don’t listen to them. Listen to me,” he whispers in my ear. I catch the scent of his minty toothpaste as he leans in, reminding me that he has me up way too freaking early in the morning for this crap.
The treetops sway with a strong breeze that has me regretting everything this guy has talked me into over the last two years. Why the hell did he think signing us up for a ropes course would be a good idea?
Dante tightens his arms around me while my heart slows to a steady rhythm that matches his, and the noisy chatter blurs to a dull roar.
This is why I go along with his stupid ideas. He’s the only one who can calm the chaos that swirls through me. I’m not sure when the darkness found me, but at sixteen, I’m painfully aware that I don’t see the world as my peers do.
“You can do this, Sayls. I believe in you,” he says so only I can hear, kissing the back of my head so softly I could have imagined it, but then he retreats and takes all his warmth and calmness with him.
My palms are sweaty, and it’s hard to swallow as the ropes course master checks my harness. He’s speaking in tongues as he goes over safety measures for the millionth time. If my entire body wasn’t shaking like it’s buried somewhere in the tundra, I might be able to listen to him, but I only catch his lips moving and an annoying buzzing in my ears.
Oh, God. I’m so dizzy. This was a terrible idea. I can picture the news article now—“Teenage Girl Falls to Her Death.” They probably wouldn’t even give me a name, and I’d be forever known as “teenage girl.” I’ll end up as one of those cheesy made-for-TV movies, with a B-list actress who cries all the time.
“She’s so weird.” The girl’s words pierce my wayward thoughts and break me out of my wild imagination.
Sometimes it’s easier to live in the make-believe.
“And what is she wearing?”
“It’s a trust fall, Saylor,” Dante yells from below. Geez! How the hell did he move so fast? “Let go, Sayls. I’ll catch you. I’ll always catch you.”
I make the mistake of looking down and almost throw up. But then, his eyes draw me in. I shouldn’t be able to pick out that endless blue color from this height, but it’s all I can focus on—he’s speaking the truth.
“Trust me,” he says with a cocky grin that even I’m not immune to.
I do. I trust him more than anyone else in my life. With him, I don’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not. With him, I don’t have to be anything other than me.
And with a painfully long exhale, I let go of my fear, fall back into nothingness, and trust that my best friend will catch me.
The rope snaps taut, jerking my body from its freefall, and suddenly I’m floating above the ground. Dante was right—I could do it—and while I want to find that annoying, I can’t quite reach that level of sass. Not when the clouds are perfect little marshmallows reminding me of campfires and picnics. The sounds of chatter and the wilderness sync to create a lullaby for my anxiety.
“You did it,” Dante yells, always my fixer. Begrudgingly, I allow happiness to settle over my expression.
I turn my head and find his gaze like we’ve been tied together with an invisible string that will always connect us. I’m as certain about that as I am that mean girls are the sharts of humanity.
I don’t know what force put him in my path when he moved here two years ago, but I hope he’ll always see me the way he does now—as someone worth loving.
The ropes master releases my line through the carabiner attached to his harness while Dante stands next to him. I honestly wasn’t sure those contraptions would hold me, but Dante promised it would, and he always keeps his promises.
His smile shows off perfectly white teeth that never needed braces. He’s not like any other seventeen-year-old I’ve ever met. My grandmother would have called him an old soul because he sees more than most and has an innate need to fix everything and everyone. It’s that annoying people-pleasing gene. Ainsley has it too.
Maybe that’s what drew him to me, my brokenness. He thinks he’ll fix me. He believes he can fix the whole freaking world, and part of me almost hopes he can.
He’s more handsome than any movie star and has a heart too good for my bitter one. Dante Thompson is Hollywood style meets Prince William. He’s the perfect hero, with a strong jawline and eyes that can charm even the most poisonous snakes.
And then he’s there, behind me, while I’m still picturing him as the lead in a romantic comedy. His hands hook under my armpits and stop the inevitable crash as he lowers me to the net with a hug that makes everything okay.
Leaning down, his lips hit just below my ear when he says, “I’ve always got you, Saylor.”
I open my mouth to fire back a snarky remark I haven’t thought of yet, but Dante quiets the snark I can’t seem to control. He cuts me off with a gentle kiss. I’ll never get used to the butterflies he creates.
My heart trembles in my chest. Somehow, my soulmate found me before I had a chance to feel lost.
Twelve years later
“I’m not selling, Trent. Not now, not next week, and definitely not to Playmore Inc. Do you have any idea how unethical the Playmore brothers are?”
His fist clenches on his thigh as he fidgets in his chair, but I turn my head to the wall of windows. The LA smog is as thick as ever. Leave it to my brother to bring that cloyingly suffocating air into my office with him.
“Marcus Playmore was the only one keeping that company from being truly bereft of morals, and now that he’s left, it’s gotten even shadier. I won’t do that to my company or my employees.”
Lena was right, and I’ve avoided acknowledging it for too long. Guilt, the dirty motherfucker, steals my breath as my mind springs into action. What facility can I get Trent into this time? What damage has he already done? What will Lena and Poppy need while he’s away?
My heart aches for Lena. She deserves so much more, and Trent has never treated her well. Poppy is the happy result of their union, and that kid stole my heart with her first breath.
Even as my thoughts run rampant with what I can do to stop this from happening to him again, one question plagues me. “Why are you pushing this?”
As I stare into a face that reminds me of my own, it’s clear—he’s using again, and I missed all the signs. Or you didn’t want to believe them, my traitorous conscience says bitterly.
Trent always had an excuse. He explained the bloodshot eyes and shaky hands as lack of sleep—the mood swings and erratic behavior, a change in meds.
And I was the idiot who believed him.
My gaze immediately falls to the photos on the corner of my desk.
Saylor and me.
Trent and me.
I allow myself one moment to linger on the photographs. Maybe I wasn’t meant to save either of them, but I can save his little girl. My gaze drifts to the photo of his daughter and back to Saylor—one is a smiling ray of sunshine who taught me to love again, and the other is the woman who taught me how much love can hurt.
Trent’s expression turns murderous when he notes me looking at the photos. Any time he comes into my office, he flips over the one of Saylor with a snarky remark about her being an idiot, but today, it’s the photo of his daughter that turns his eyes into black, unfeeling lumps of coal.
“You have to sell,” he seethes, and the vein in his neck bulges like a bodybuilder on steroids. “You’re going to sell because it’s a damn good offer. It’s plenty of money, Dante. It’s time to sell.” The sweat of desperation trickles down his forehead, and spittle collects in the corner of his lips.
“Ascendancy Inc. is not for sale. I’ve built this company from the ground up. It’s a legacy to leave our family.”
After losing Saylor, I was ecstatic to find out I have four half-siblings around the country—the family I’ve always craved but only ever had with her.
Shaking my head, I vanquish all thoughts of her. Those memories cause a longing I can’t deal with today. Right now, I need to focus on my brother.
Trent makes a disapproving sound in the back of his throat.
“Family,” he snorts. “You’re so desperate to find one, you put blinders on to everything and everyone else. Poor Dante,” he says in a mocking tone.
It takes all my effort to keep a neutral expression on my face. This isn’t him. This is the drugs talking.
“Poor little Dante.” Taunting me is one of his favorite pastimes. “Left home alone at five years old, so now you try to make everyone love you—to be so good that no one will ever leave you.”
I crack the knuckles on my right hand, and he pauses with a snarl on his face.
I was left home alone a lot, but I’m guessing five is just when I became aware of it.
“How’s that working out for you, Dante?” He says my name like a curse. “Did that piece of shit in Connecticut love you? Oh, that’s right. She sent you packing as soon as—”
“That’s enough,” I say through gritted teeth. I place my hands in my lap but keep my fists balled tightly under my desk. I won’t give him the satisfaction of a visual reaction. “Dad may have been stuck with me after my mother died, but make no mistake, he didn’t want me any more than he wanted the rest of you. Why do you think we moved every two years? He’s never been someone any of us could count on.”
I’m still not sure why he didn’t put me up for adoption, but Trent doesn’t need to know that. I’ve already told him too many secrets, and now, I fear that was a mistake.
“I’ll never regret putting family first.” I sigh and glance at Saylor’s picture for a split second before focusing on Trent again. “All of my family. Saylor showed me what family should look like, and for that, she’ll always be a part of mine.”
His sneer is full of contempt. “You’ll never regret putting family first? That’s stupidly idealistic.” His features take on a hard edge, but his expression is vacant—my brother is no longer in control of himself. “Regret is a funny thing, brother. Never say never.”
It’s a warning, but I can’t begin to fathom for what.
“Listen.” I rub my forehead with my thumb and pointer finger. I can’t seem to apply enough pressure to make the rising headache disappear, though. “I’ve worked too hard to hand this company over to some sleazy trust fund kids for a fraction of what it will be worth in five years.”
His knuckles turn white on his thigh. “A trust fund kid like me?”
How did I miss this? I haven’t seen Trent spiral like this since my first week in California.
After I got him out of that mess, he promised he’d stay clean. Will this always be the cycle for him?
“You’re not a trust fund kid. You started working on TV shows when you were still in diapers.”
“And not a day since. Is that what you mean?” He may be older than I am, but emotionally, he’s stunted at eleven years old.
“Damn it, Trent. Stop putting words in my mouth.”
“Sell the fucking company.” Sweat gathers on his forehead, plastering his stringy hair to his skin. The vehemence of his tone is what unsettles me most. It makes warning bells chime loudly in my mind. He’s grasping at straws, and he knows it.
His nostrils flare, and his face reddens, but this is about money. He hasn’t had a paying gig in three years, and if he’s using again, the only money he has left is probably tied up in the shares of Ascendancy Inc. that I stupidly gifted him.
I lift my hand to loosen the knot in my tie and lean back in my chair. “I’m not selling.” I release a heavy sigh. “How much do you need?”
“It’s not about the money.” His eye twitches, calling attention to the lie.
I yell, “Don’t lie to me, Trent. Not to me.” I take a calming breath before my employees start asking questions. “I’ll buy your shares.” My shoulders are as tight as my words. It’s the last thing I want to do. These shares are supposed to be his retirement plan. That’s why I’ve worked so hard.
How long do you have to take drugs for them to cause that vacant look and sallow skin? I’m not entirely sure how he’s able to function like this. It pisses me off and makes me incredibly sad. I’ve worked my ass off to rehab his image and his career. It’s a slap in the face after everything I’ve accomplished and a wrecking ball in his family’s life.
But he’s your family. You would help him if you cared. And you owe him this. It’s not his fault he had no real family who loved him, and Mike Thompson has never put anyone over himself—especially you. My inner voice is an honest asshole.
“Playmore is willing to pay double what they’re worth.” His tone fluctuates between pissed off and a whiny teenager. I hate witnessing this level of desperation, but it’s the proof I’ve been waiting for—he’s in way over his head. How much could he possibly owe?
If I’d been around when we were kids, maybe I could have…
It’s not even worth going down that path. Trent is one of two half-siblings who live in California, and where Trent is a match about to catch fire, Hunter is a self-made asshole, but at least he has his shit together. Would he help with Trent if I called him?
Not likely. Trent burned that bridge well before I knew I had brothers.
I doubt even having our father around would have kept him clean. Not with what I now understand about our childhoods.
We’ve always been on our own.
His knee bounces erratically, and his fingers tap a relentless rhythm on the arm of the chair.
“Double what they’re worth now,” I say, unable to keep the exasperation out of my voice.
A flash of bubblegum pink catches my attention through the glass wall. I glance quickly over Trent’s shoulder to where Lena and Poppy stand speaking with someone in the hallway. When Lena turns toward my office, I shake my head and hold up one finger. Trent’s too out of his mind to care, but she catches the gesture immediately, tightens her ponytail, then steps back.
She scans from me to the back of Trent’s head in a fraction of a second, before distracting Poppy and leading her away by the hand.
Only then do I return my focus to my brother. “The value of this company grows year after year. You’re looking at an instant payout instead of the long game.”
He stands so quickly that he knocks over the guest chair and glares at me like it’s my fault, then he kicks it to the side and paces behind it. He’s agitated and angry, his moods shifting faster than a tornado.
“Sell,” he hisses. It sounds like a threat, and I’m even more thankful I caught Lena before she entered my office.
I don’t think he’s heartless enough to endanger his daughter, but drugs change a person. I’m beginning to learn that the hard way. Would he do something to jeopardize her future?
“Is there anything else you need today?” There’s no point arguing with him. He can only hear what he wants to hear right now.
“You’re going to regret it.” His gaze jumps to the photos on my desk. When he stares at the one of Saylor, it’s all I can do not to clutch it protectively to my chest.
My blood simmers below the surface like an underground river rushing toward an exit. “Are you threatening me, brother?”
He shrugs, and all hope that the man I’ve gotten to know over the last six years is strong enough to fight his demons is gone. Trent’s losing this internal battle.
“I wouldn’t threaten my own brother,” he says condescendingly while glaring at my photos. “You didn’t grow up in Hollywood. You may be the golden boy now, but everyone falls. Everyone. Sell. The. Company.” Each word is a blow to my heart.
I regret every secret I’ve shared with him.
“Go home, Trent.” I pull at the tension in my neck and squeeze while he holds my gaze for a beat too long. I’m not even sure if rehab will work this time. The only emotion he can access is anger. How long has the life been seeping out of him? How long have I ignored the signs? I should have kept a closer eye on him.
“Fuck you,” he spits before storming out. He’s like a toddler having a tantrum, knocking over piles of paper and office supplies as he goes. I force a tight smile for the few heads brave enough to turn my way. This is what I get for having glass walls.
When our audience goes back to their tasks, I drop my head against the chair’s headrest with a dull thud and focus on my breathing. I only have minutes, maybe seconds, before my office is filled with sunshine and rainbows.
One. Two. Three and four. I repeat the mantra in my head until I hear the pitter-patter of little feet running down my hallway.
A grin takes over my entire face before I even open my eyes. And when I do, I’m hit by a love so profound it rattles my bones.
“Lollipop,” I say, then open my arms so a four-year-old ball of energy dressed in pink tulle can run straight into them. She smells like strawberry shampoo and sweetness. She’s the warmth I thought I’d never feel again.
Her mom walks in behind her. Lena is the big sister I never had and has spent countless hours listening to my broken heart, but she enters today wearing a careful mask, and I sit up straighter.
She and Trent started dating a year after I moved to California, and if it weren’t for Poppy, I would regret ever introducing her to Trent. Lena deserves better, and I know her Prince Charming is out there somewhere. She’ll find him as soon as she allows herself to move on, but regardless of what happens in their relationship, I’m thankful for her because, in some strange way, she reminds me of the only place that’s ever felt like home—Hope Hollow.
A town I haven’t set foot in in over six years. Maybe it’s because she saw me at my lowest and helped me up. Or because she listened without judgment and told me to get my head out of my ass when I needed it. She embodies everything I grew to love about that quirky small town in Connecticut.
“So, it’s true?” she asks carefully.
I should have listened months ago when she told me she thought Trent was using again.
I nod while Poppy traces every line on my face. I hope she holds on to this level of curiosity for a while longer.
“Well, crap.” Lena rights the chair Trent knocked over. “Then today’s probably not the day to drop another bomb on you.”
I lift one brow in her direction, but Poppy instantly pokes at it, trying to push it back into place.
“You’re hairy, Unca.”
This kid can pull a chuckle from me even while dread sits around my neck like a noose. “Yeah, Lollipop. It’s been a long day.” She curls into my side and rubs her face along the silk of my tie. Once she’s settled, I give Lena my full attention. “Lay it on me.”
Chewing on her lip, she tightens her high ponytail for the fourth time.
It’s not often that Lena gets nervous. Not when she found out she was pregnant and Trent flipped out. Not after Poppy was born and he took off for Ibiza the same day. Not even the time Poppy dislocated her elbow. But she wrings her wrist now, and it sets off every internal alarm I possess.
“Lena, this day can’t get much worse. Just spit it out,” I say as Poppy draws circles on my dress shirt with her little finger.
It’s true what the baby books say. I read them all while Lena was pregnant, and kids really do feed off the energy that surrounds them. I take a deep breath but still struggle to relax my shoulders.
Lena nods, then reaches into the bag she uses for the unbelievable amount of shit this child needs every time they leave the house. Who knew something so small would require enough supplies to care for a small army?
Poppy places both hands on my cheeks and plants a big, wet kiss on my lips. I love this little girl so damn much, and I’m in serious trouble because she already has me wrapped around her little finger.
A thunk draws my attention, and my throat burns like I’m trying to breathe through a room full of smoke. Bacon in a frying pan couldn’t sizzle more than the air trapped in my lungs. My world narrows to nothing but the book Lena dropped on my desk, and a low buzz fills my ears.
Seconds, or maybe decades, pass before Lena rounds the desk and removes Poppy from my lap.
My voice is hoarse when I finally find my words. “What the hell, Lena?”
“Hell, hell, hell,” Poppy sings. Apparently, her ability to pronounce sounds changes depending on the word.
“You have to read it.” Lena’s voice is pitched higher than usual, and the hairs on my arms stand at attention even as I shake my head no because I’ve lost the ability to speak.
April Rain by Sassy Thompson—known to me as Saylor Greer. The only woman I’ve ever loved, and the only woman who asked me to leave and never return.
Seeing her use my surname for her penname in person like this is a punch to the gut. Would she feel the same if she knew I’d chosen hers as well?
“Read it, Dante. And do not leave this office until you do.” Her tone is sharp and unyielding.
Lena has heard every detail of my relationship with Saylor. Every. Fucking. One. I don’t know how many hours she sat with me while I tried to process the messed-up situation that ended with me fleeing to California six years ago.
I was a train wreck when I arrived here. Heartbroken, disoriented—a shell of my former self. She was the friend I needed, the one to help pull me from the despair suffocating me, and the heartbreak still remains.
Saylor’s a pain that will never heal.
“Don’t you think living through the loneliness is enough, Lena?” I fight the urge to open social media and stalk Saylor’s online life. “Why in God’s name would I want to pick at a scab that won’t heal? I know how my story ended.”
She shakes her head sadly. “You know how the story ended for you.” Can she hear how loud the blood rushing in my ears is? My breaths become shallow, and I can’t seem to fill my lungs. She taps the book covered with raindrops and a silhouette of a woman who somehow emanates sadness. “But you don’t know how it ended for her.”
My mouth goes dry. I can’t look away from the book. “What are you saying?” My voice doesn’t sound like my own—it reflects a love lost well before its time.
“Read it. You might find that your story doesn’t have to have the tragic ending you’ve been living all these years.”
Heartbreak turns me to stone. Our love story was a tragedy. Am I really strong enough to find out how it broke Saylor too?