The Billionaire's Promise
(Sample)

CHAPTER ONE

 

Eleven years ago…

“Shut the hell up!” My algebra teacher’s voice reverberated throughout the room of two dozen sophomores. All eyes and attention swung to the front of the class, and next to Mr. Hill was a tall, gorgeous guy. He stood about six feet like my adoptive brothers, Jason and Chris. He had chiseled jaws, dark blond hair, and light green eyes so enthralling you could get lost in them. Yet, he was also so familiar.

Mr. Hill cleared his throat. “This is Drake Mallory, and he will join us in class today.”

The murmurings echoed within the classroom were becoming a vibrant noise. I heard my classmate, Phil, sitting at my back, whispering, “Mallory? Mayor Mallory’s son?”

“Is that him?” another voice said.

“Why is he in our school?”

“Oh my gosh. He is freaking hot.”

“But isn’t he supposed to be a senior?”

I covered my mouth in shock as I remembered. I saw Drake when Dad visited the mayor’s office a long time ago. That was how I knew him! We had only met once, but I still couldn’t help wondering if he remembered me.

I glanced in Arianna’s direction, her attention already toward me. She shrugged, knowing we were probably thinking the same thing.

“Okay, students. Listen up,” the teacher called. “Mr. Mallory was supposed to be a senior, but he stopped going to school two years ago because he was out of the states getting treatment from…” He whispered in Drake’s ears, and he nodded.

“Thank you, Mr. Hill.” Drake stepped in front and flashed a friendly grin. “I suffered from an eye illness, but I can see clearly now. Don’t worry. I hope to get along with everyone.” He grinned after the brief speech, showing everyone a charming smile that would make every girl swoon. He was just too gorgeous! From the growing heat in my cheeks, I was now blushing like the rest of the girls.

“Thank you, Mr. Mallory. You can take a seat next to Mr. Peters.”

“Thanks, Mr. Hill.” He shifted his backpack from left to right and walked towards the back of the class. Every single student followed his movement, including me. My eyes lingered on his delicate features.

I liked his hair. I wanted to run my fingers through its silky waves.

“Now, eyes on the board.” Mr. Hill called once more, but I was utterly mesmerized. After looking interested in Mr. Hill’s class for a few minutes, I glanced at the back of the classroom. Drake Mallory was scribbling down on his notes, never minding his surroundings.

Lunchtime flew by fast. Before I knew it, I’d spent every class period daydreaming about Drake. He seemed to even get along with the tenth graders too, and since he was older than the rest of us by two years, he was practically like everyone’s big brother.

“Laynie!” Two fingers snapped in front of my face, bringing me back to reality. “Are you even listening?”

“Oh, A, I’m sorry. What is it?” I looked down at my almost empty tray, thinking about how I had already eaten everything.

“I said, I’m trying to get into the judo club.”

I frowned, grabbing my cup of juice. “Is that even your thing? Isn’t that hard? What’s wrong with the tennis club?”

“I just found it interesting. I passed by their club the other day, watched a little, and was amazed.”

I chuckled. “Whatever you like, A, I’m sure Mom and Dad will support you. But is that the only reason? Tell me the truth. I know there’s something more to it.” I popped a meatball in my mouth, sighing as I enjoyed today’s shockingly delicious cafeteria food.

She sighed hard. “Okay, maybe I watched them a little more than normal. I wanted to try something different this school year.”

“No, no. That can’t be the only reason. Was it Melanie?” Melanie was in our class, and she wasn’t in any important sports club, but she was the current leader of the cheerleading squad and a huge bully. The last time, she stole Arianna’s tennis shoes and threw them in the girl’s restroom, knowing there was an important game that day. We found one pair of shoes soaked in the toilet bowl and couldn’t find the other one.

There was one time Melanie and her bitch friends locked me up in the janitor’s closet. I couldn’t get out until nine in the evening because the janitor was still working the halls.

We didn’t tell Jason, of course. He aimed for the top student of the year spot last year, and we didn’t want his name to be involved in any mess. There were other little things, like Arianna’s backpack ending up in the trash, but he only knew about the shoe incident, and that’s the way we wanted it.

Arianna paused for a moment, and I could already see the sadness in her eyes. “Jason’s graduating this year, Laynie. I can’t always rely on him. The only reason they’re leaving me alone is because of Jason. When he graduates, we’ll be on our own.”

“Then why not apply next year? J will be here until the end of this year.”

“It’ll be too late. We’ll already be juniors by then.”

“And do you think she’ll leave us alone if you become a martial artist?” It wasn’t exactly a bad idea. I knew she could do it.

“Maybe, but I won’t be using that on her, but if her friends try to hustle me, I probably will.”

“I’d love to watch a good show. Who cares about detention, right?”

She laughed. “No, seriously. It’s because I’m amazed at their techniques, too. I can also use that for self-defense, don’t you think?”

“You’d be a badass, for sure.”

“Hey!” Jason suddenly appeared, holding a tray of his lunch, and slumped next to A. “Have you seen him?” He looked around. “I can’t find him anywhere.”

Arianna frowned. “Who are you looking for?”

“Drake. He’s in your class, isn’t he?”

My heartbeat sped up at the sound of his name. “Do you know each other?”

“Ah, of course. You probably didn’t know. Drake’s mother was super close to mom. J and Drake used to play together until his dad took him to Europe. Years later, he returned, but he went to a different school, and then he left again for his eye surgery.”

Ah, that was before the adoption. “I saw him once, actually. He wore these thick eyeglasses. That’s probably why I didn’t immediately recognize him,” I say.

“That’s him, yes,” Jason added. He picked up his club sandwich and took a huge bite.

I noticed Melanie from across the cafeteria, looking in our direction, glaring at me. Like, what the hell was wrong with her? I ignored her, shaking my head, and finished my lunch.

Just as the lunch break ended, Arianna and Jason walked to their classrooms while I fetched my biology textbook from my locker. Before I had a chance to react, someone grabbed a large clump of my hair and shoved me aside.

“Ouch! Hey!” I shouted, trying to catch myself against the lockers. By the time I turned to look, I found Melanie and Leticia glaring in front of me.

“Nice book you got there, Hart. I didn’t bring mine, so do you mind handing yours?” Melanie held out her palm.

Crap. This textbook had my personal notes for the teacher’s discussion today and no-textbook-no-entry in the classroom today.

“Um, Melanie. It’s not my problem if you didn’t bring yours.” I stated as confidently as I could, tightening my hold on the book in my arms.

“You don’t get to say anything, Hart. Hand it over before this gets ugly, mm?”

I stepped back and hid the book behind me, but they only matched my every step. “Leave me alone, Melanie.”

“I said, give it to me!” She pulled my hair again, but a tall figure appeared behind her and caught her hand. I looked up and found Jason’s face. I touched my chest and sighed in relief.

“Hey, girls. Are you bullying my sister again?”

Melanie grunted and pulled her hand away. “Jason Hart.”

“Yes, and do you know what will happen if I still see your face in the next minute? Should I count? One, two, three…”

She squealed in annoyance. “I’m telling my brother about this, Hart!” she warned, then stomped away with her friend.

“Yeah, go ahead. I don’t give a fuck,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Her brother? Tanner is a pipsqueak anyway. She’s still bothering you?”

“She’s probably bored with her life.” I exhaled. “Thanks, by the way. Why are you here? Didn’t you have to leave?”

“Yes, but I forgot to tell you something. I’ll invite him to come over for dinner. Dad would probably want to see him. Come on, take me to your classroom.”

“What?” I felt my face go numb. “Now?”

He frowned. “Of course, now. You’re in the same class as Drake.” He checked the time on his phone. “We still have a couple of minutes. Come on!” He flung his arm on my shoulder, squeezing me to his side, then dragged me with him.

“Ouch!” I shoved him away. “Fine, fine! I’ll walk you there.”

He burst out a laugh, then pulled me back against him. “Man, when did you get so sensitive?”

I blushed. “I’m not a child!”

He sniggered. “Oh, you still are.”

I rolled my eyes and marched towards the classroom.

“Hey! Wait for me.” He ran after me until we reached the biology lab, and as usual, the students scattered in the classroom, still without the teacher. Then I spotted Arianna looking over at us and waved her hand. Drake Mallory was sitting serenely by the window with his chin resting on his palm. It must be annoying catching up with his supposed-to-be underclassman. He was supposed to be in Jason’s class.

“Wait here, J.” I walked into the classroom and moved toward Arianna.

“What is J doing here?”

“He wants to talk to his friend.”

“Drake?”

“Yeah.”

She shrugged. “What for?”

“He’s inviting him over to the house.” I casually strolled to the back and stood in front of Drake, thinking he would notice my approach, but he was staring into space. I cleared my throat. “Um, hello?”

Finally, he looked up. And God, he was even more handsome up close. He smelled of mild soap and spicy cologne too. “Oh, hi, yes?”

“My brother… He’s looking for you outside.”

He slightly assessed me with his gaze, then his eyebrows knit together. “Who?” He glanced over at the door, and his eyes gleamed in recognition. He then looked back at me. “You’re Jason’s sister? You’re Arianna?” he asked, confused.

“Oh, it’s actually Alayna.”

“Ah.” His expression brightened, nodding. “I know. It’s Hart, right?”

“Right,” was all I could say. I was too nervous. I’d never approach him in a million years if it wasn’t for Jason. I wouldn’t have a reason then.

He sprang up attentively and held out a hand at me. “I’m Drake Mallory. Nice to meet you, Alayna.”

“Yes, I know.” I chuckled. “Nice to meet you, too.”

“Okay, um. I guess I’ll excuse myself then.”

“Sure.” I stepped aside enough for him to pass me, but he still brushed my arm, sending a shiver through my body.

 

***

 

Mom prepared a feast for dinner, which was something she rarely did. Drake Mallory was the mayor’s son, and Dad worked for the mayor, so naturally, she wanted to make a good impression. Currently, it was Dad who was managing—The Mallory Foundation. Dad’s first profession was as a pediatrician and then found his way to helping Mayor Mallory’s vision of assisting foster children in finding a new home and providing them with free medications.

Drake wiped his mouth with a napkin delicately and properly placed it back on the table. “Thank you for the delicious dinner, Mr. Hart,” he said politely.

“It’s not every day Donovan’s son visits our house,” Dad said, “the first time, actually.”

“Yes, sir. I would have come sooner if I knew Mrs. Hart cooks the most excellent food. Better than what our chef cooks, actually.” He smiled, and we caught each other’s eyes. I instantly blushed.

“Mommy, I want more cake! I want more cake!” Rosy, my four-year-old sibling, suddenly kicked her feet as she demanded dessert.

“You’ll get a toothache if you eat too many sweets,” Elman, my five-year-old brother, scolded. “Eat this.” He put a piece of carrot on his sister’s plate.

“But I don’t like that!” she screamed.

“Rosy! What did I tell you about too much cake? Your brother is right,” Mom reprimanded.

“Shh… Kids! We have a visitor. Just let her eat cake if she wants it,” Dad hissed, then looked at Drake. “I’m sorry about that.”

 “It’s alright, Mr. Hart.” Drake smiled kindly.

“When did you arrive? You should’ve called,” Jason went on with the conversation.

“Oh, it was sudden,” Drake replies, shrugging. “I didn’t know I was coming too until four days ago. I just landed on Monday.”

“That’s exhausting.” Jason continued nibbling on his paccheri.

“Is Chris already in college?” Drake asked again.

“He’s attending Columbia,” Arianna answered.

“Great. An Ivy League school,” he praised.

“Is school going well?” Dad queried. “I heard you have to start over again.”

“Yes, it’s fine. Dad actually wanted me to skip two years and go to senior year, but my grandfather said it’d be unfair to the other students just because I’m the mayor’s son,” he spoke so slowly, as though he wasn’t convinced by his own statement. “My grandfather’s right, though. I’m perfectly fine with it.”

“Yes.” Dad nodded, agreeing. “High school experience is a very important part of life. You wouldn’t want to skip it either.”

He grinned. “Right.”

“We’re in the same class with Laynie, so he won’t be alone,” Arianna inserted.

“That’s great. I can count on you to look after the girls, then.” Mom finished the last portion of her food.

“You certainly can count on me, Mrs. Hart.” Drake looked my way again and smiled.

“Laynie, could you get the dessert in the kitchen, please? It’s mango pie.” Mom asked.

“I love mango pies! Sure.” I stood up, and Drake curiously stood up, too.

“I’ll help you,” he volunteered.

“Really?” I almost caught my breath.

His eyes gleamed. “Sure.”

I walked into the kitchen first, and he followed. I tried to reach the pie from the highest shelf in the refrigerator, but it was so high I could barely reach it. Without missing a beat, Drake nuzzled me aside and grabbed the pie.

“Thanks.” I grinned, but it faltered when I noticed the pie still hadn’t been cut.

“I’ll do it,” he offered as I took the knife out to cut into the delicious dessert.

“No, it’s fine. You’re a guest.”

“It’s fine, really,” he said, chuckling and taking the utensil from my hand. “I’d like to talk to you, anyway.”

“Oh.” I bit my lip. “Why?”

“I didn’t introduce myself properly earlier.” He began slicing the pie into triangular shapes.

“You introduced yourself to the class.”

“But I didn’t introduce myself to you personally.”

“You still introduced yourself, though.”

He grinned, amused. “Right, but that was, yes, for the class.”

“And?”

His hand paused, then he stared at me as his lips curled into a very charming smile. I almost melted, but he didn’t answer right away. I blushed, though, and I wasn’t sure how many times I already had today.

He spoke after a long silence as he continued slicing the pie. “I’m glad you’re Jason’s sister.”

“Why?”

He chuckled again. “Because this makes it easier to approach you.”

“Are you typically… this smooth?”

He pinched my chin. “I was actually serious. Let’s get back then, Alayna.” He carried the tray and winked at me. “Come on.”

I held my breath, holding onto the sink so I wouldn’t fall. I let Drake walk first, and when he was out of sight, I couldn’t contain my excitement and almost squealed. That was the day I knew I had a crush on someone for the first time.

 

CHAPTER TWO
 

Jason told me Drake’s place was nowhere near our house, but ever since that day in the kitchen, Drake had walked me home every day from school.

“Thanks for walking me home again today,” I said as we strolled into our neighborhood, looking at our shadows on the pavement. The sun was setting with a dramatic filter of orange hitting our faces.

He smiled. “No problem.”

Drake Mallory was a gentleman. He would carry my books when we walked, and he listened diligently to anything I would say. He also smiled a lot and could laugh easily at simple things. We didn’t talk about anything very personal and only discussed important school activities… until the day he showed me his art.

“Alayna. I’m going to show you something.” He opened his backpack, drew out a black, thick sketchpad, and then flipped some pages before presenting it to me.

He showed me an etched drawing of a beautiful girl with her long fingers brushed on her hair and as though her charcoal eyes were looking straight at me.

“You can draw? Drake, this is amazing!” I gasped.

He scratched his hair. “It’s not much. I’m still practicing.”

“It looks beautiful to me.” I stared at the drawing. “She looks so real. Who is she?” Probably his crush? Please, let it not be his crush.

“No one. Just in my imagination. I haven’t tried realism yet.”

“You’re already academically inclined, and you’re talented. Your parents must be so proud!”

“I’m not sure about that.”

I blinked. “Why?”

“Only a few people know I can draw,” he confessed.

“You didn’t tell the mayor?”

He shook his head.

“Then he’s missing a lot. But I’m sure he knows.”

“Probably not. Mine isn’t very—” A beat passed “—Dad’s always busy, unlike your parents. But you seem very close to yours?”

 “Very,” I said proudly. “Mom and Dad spoiled their children with everything. We don’t have much, but we never went without. Chris was sent to college at the university he chose, and Jason already has a prospect after graduating from high school. Dad supported his decision too.”

“Taking the Valentine siblings in is already a huge responsibility for your parents. They’re generous, and you’re fortunate to have them. Maybe they could adopt me too.” He grinned sweetly.

I laughed. “I’m sure you’ve got nice parents, too. You’re Mayor Mallory’s son. He is this town’s champion.”

Drake’s handsome features turned serious. “The only things I remembered from childhood are toys I didn’t need and Minnie—my nanny—raising me. My parents… They’re almost… nonexistent.”

I blushed. “Oh. I’m sorry.” I shifted my eyes down the road. “That was insensitive of me.”

“That’s alright.” He sighed. “I’m used to it. It doesn’t affect me much anymore.”

I could tell it affected him for sure. His beautiful green eyes seemed so dejected. I couldn’t help but feel bad. I wondered what his childhood was like. Mayor Donovan Mallory seemed like a noble father. He supported children’s homes with Dad, but was it just for a public presence?

I shook the thought away. I knew I shouldn’t be judging people like that.

Also, I still knew very little about Drake.

We continued to the street towards my house, and while we were still a few more steps away, I spotted a gleaming luxury car parked outside.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Drake muttered.

“What is it?”

“Come on.”

Drake sprinted toward our house, and I followed his pace. I also noticed two men in black suits standing by the door, but he disregarded them and proceeded. As soon as we entered, a familiar guest was standing in the living room with my parents. I caught my mouth as I recognized him. It was Mayor Donovan Mallory.

Mayor Mallory furiously advanced at his son and slammed a fist into Drake’s face. Drake tripped and covered his nose.

Oh my God!

My eyes widened, and my legs stiffened. Before I could even move, Mom grabbed my hand and yanked me aside.

“You ungrateful, worthless child!” Mayor Donovan slapped Drake’s face again. “I only asked one thing, Drake. One fucking thing! Why do you never do what you’re told?”

I squealed, but thankfully, my palms were sealed in my mouth. I looked at Drake and waited for him to react, but he was frozen. Dark red blood is now running down his face.

“Donovan,” Dad called. “He probably has a reason.”

“The only reason I can see is his laziness, Richard. He is a disgrace. A fucking failure!” Donovan roared, and the behavior was the opposite of what I knew. Donovan Mallory was supposed to be a children’s hero.

Drake didn’t respond.

Whatever they were talking about, I didn’t think it was right to be treated like that in front of other people.

Mayor Mallory looked back at Dad. “I’m sorry for the trouble. I’m taking him home.” He darted his eyes in my direction and slightly grimaced, but Drake didn’t bother looking back and left with his dad.

“Dad? What’s going on?”

Disappointment was marked in my father’s eyes. “Donovan still hasn’t changed.”

“What do you mean? Is the mayor like this all the time?”

“Sweetheart.” Dad held my shoulder. “Is Drake your boyfriend?”

“No, but we’re friends, I guess.” I shrugged. “He usually hangs out with Jason in school.”

“Then you better keep that friendship at school for now. His dad… Let’s just say that he’s a little difficult.”

“I can see that.” I sighed in frustration. I was still in utter shock. “He assaulted his son! Not that I would tell anyone about that, of course.”

“Laynie.” Mom touched my face. “Drake’s a good kid, but be careful. His family… they’re from a different world we won’t understand.”

 “I see nothing but a guy with excellent grades and liked by many people.”

 “We know,” Dad said, “but you understand what we’re saying, right?”

“I understand.” Of course, I realized that. His dad didn’t seem to like me. Mayor Donovan didn’t seem to care for his son’s feelings. The version he’s showing to other people must be false, then.

Donovan Mallory was a sham. I thought as I stared at Drake’s sketchpad in my hands.

 

 

NOW

“What do you think I should wear? This—” I lift the rose-gold Dior sequined evening dress “—or this?” I show Brandon the black Burberry embellished satin dress.

Both dresses were brought by John today and various other glittery versions since Brandon wanted to be sure I was wearing the best. He even had the store owner pick out everything personally and deliver it to the penthouse.

He deliberately didn’t tell me because he knew I would oppose. I typically would, but there was no point debating with him now. I have nothing decent to wear, and I won’t go to the art exhibit in Brandon’s arms unmatched by his designer looks.

The love of my life looks away from his phone, slipping it back into his pocket, then gazes up at the dresses. He is already immaculately and deliciously dressed in a crisp designer tux.

 “They’ll both look good on you, I’m sure.” He studies me with the visible desire in his eyes. I have been walking around in dresses in his penthouse all morning.

My shoulders fall. “I need you to be more specific than that. Which one do you prefer?”

“Black seems classic for tonight’s event. Besides, it matches your panties.” His mouth curls playfully. He then walks to his drawer and picks up a watch.

I face the mirror again, flushed. “Black it is.”

I hang the rose-gold dress back in the closet and slip into the black dress. I return to Brandon to have him zip the dress for me. Brandon’s finger brushes the bare of my back and carefully zips up my dress. He then spins me around and plants a firm kiss on my lips.

“I’m going to have a hard time keeping my hands away.” He slides his arms around my waist, sniffing my neck. “Go ahead. I’m going to make a call, and we’re leaving, okay?”

“Okay.” I give him a peck on his cheek. Brandon marches to the door and closes it behind him as he exits.

I complete my look for tonight with glam makeup, finishing the touch with a swipe of red lipstick. I let my dark, wavy hair down and then slip on a pair of strappy black Louboutin heels. I then pick up my purse and head to the stairs.

Brandon is still on the phone, but his eyes are glued to me, assessing my appearance with gleaming eyes. “I’ll see you tonight then,” he says and hangs up.

“I look expensive,” I tease.

He chuckles deliciously. “You look beautiful. Shall we? By the way, Oliver’s coming tonight,” he whispers before releasing my hand.

“Ollie,” I breathe. “Wow. That’s so sudden. Was it him on the phone just now?”

“Yes.” He grunts. “It’s a last-minute decision, actually.”

“Then why don’t you sound pleased? I’ve missed him.”

“He’s coming here with his fiancée. He’s invited to the art exhibit as well, but we both know what he thinks about arranged marriage.”

“Oh.” I grimace. “For public attention.”

“Yep.”

I curl my arms around his neck and stare into my man’s mesmerizing gray eyes. “Why does it have to be this way, then? Ollie deserves more.”

He kisses my lips. “He’s stronger than the rest of us. I believe he’ll get through this.”

“But this arrangement isn’t his choice, so that’s not reassuring. How long is he staying?”

Brandon pulls me into his body and sandwiches me in his arms. “That’s what I need to find out. He’ll probably fly to Manhattan with me.” He entwines his fingers with mine and heads towards the elevator. “Come on. We’re going to be late.”

As we walk into the function hall, I feel at ease and excited. It is the first time Brandon and I are attending an event together—not that I often go to this kind of occasion, but I’m thrilled to see the art exhibit since I haven’t been to one before. People are wandering around the partitions, and everything is shimmering before my eyes.

I’m suddenly thankful I chose the black dress for its elegance. The guests’ outfits are extra grand tonight, as though we are attending a luxury brand fashion show. There are massive portraits, abstracts, paintings, and photographs hanging on the walls, people ogling their beauty, which reminded me of how much Brandon loves the arts since he has filled his mansion’s wall with many of those.

Tonight, we first approached a young man and the owner of the art exhibit herself. Matteo and Emilia Ricci.

I saw Matteo a few times whenever he stopped by La Mia Cucina, and Emilia was with her brother at the restaurant’s opening. Emilia is stunning tonight in her royal blue designer dress and her ink-black hair tied up in a beautiful bun. Matteo looks regal in his black suit and royal blue matching ties.

“Matteo.” Brandon greets the man whom I know as Oliver’s friend. “How are you?”

“Hey, man! Good to see you.” He grins, and both men exchange a brief shoulder pat. “I’m good, I’m good.”

“Emilia, congratulations.” Brandon shakes her hand.

“Thank you. I’m so glad you made it!” Emilia nods in her slightly raspy alto voice and grins sweetly at us. “Alayna, you came.” She embraces me with light brushes of our lips to each other’s cheeks.

I’m surprised she remembers me. “Of course. Congratulations.” I hand her the bouquet of white roses I’m holding. “This is for you.”

“Thank you.” She sniffs the flowers and smiles. “These are pretty.”

“Alayna? Good to see you again.” Matteo greets me with another kiss on the cheek. “Come stai?”

“Molto bene, e tu?”

“Bene, bene. Non vedo l’ora di cenare di nuovo nel tuo ristorante.”

“Oh, si. Sei il benvenuto a venire di nuovo.” Speaking Italian comes naturally with my tongue. The perk of working in Venice for a couple of years.

He chuckles. “Grazie.”

“Thank you for coming, Brandon, Alayna,” Emilia says. “But aren’t you with Oliver? Isn’t he coming tonight too?”

“Oh, he is. We’re waiting for him as well,” Brandon answers.

“I see.” She smiles. “Please tell me if there’s anything here that interests you, Brandon. The artworks here aren’t just mine. There are wonderful paintings here by various artists. Oliver mentioned you like arts.”

“I do. Thank you, Emilia,” Brandon says.

“Very well then. Please enjoy the rest of the night. We’ll be greeting the other guests,” Matteo excuses, and his eyes land on me.

“Oh, please do,” I say.

“Brandon.”

Brandon nods at him, and then the siblings approach the newly arrived guests.

“I haven’t heard you speak Italian before,” he comments. “Except for the dishes’ names.”

“Because there was no reason to.”

He looks at me, raising an eyebrow. “But Matteo seems smitten.”

I snort. “He probably speaks the language every day, so there’s no way he is smitten. And no need to be jealous.”

He possessively squeezes my waist. “I’m not. I’m only stating what I saw.”

“Then you saw it wrong.” I glide my hands on his chest up to the back of his neck. I play with the hair on his nape with my fingertips.

He catches my wrist and kisses it. “Don’t start something you can’t finish,” he says gruffly.

“Mm. Maybe you’re the one who’s smitten. I should probably scream in Italian the next time we… you know.”

A groan vibrates in his chest. “Oh, Alayna Hart. What am I going to do with you?”

I giggle. “Let’s take a tour. I want to see the artworks.”

I take his hand and lead him further inside the exhibit. I first stop in front of a vast painting of a teenage girl in a gorgeous pink dress with pastel florals around her. The beautiful scenery isn’t the only thing that amazes me, but the hyperrealism! It looks so real.

“Glorious,” I whisper. “Look at her hands,” I say, referring to the little girl. Her fingers are twisting her brown hair. “She looks—”

 “She looks like you.”

I gaze at the painting. The girl has the same hair color, her eyes look round, and her mouth’s shape’s similar. “A little, maybe, but she’s so ladylike.”

“Uncanny.” He slightly cocks his head, staring at the painting a bit more.

“Is it really—”

Brandon’s ringtone echoes abruptly. He then slips his hands into his pocket and frowns at his phone screen. “It’s Oliver. Hold on.” He presses the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

My heart somehow feels elated at the idea of seeing Oliver again. I haven’t heard of him since he left, and I have many questions to ask him.

I follow Brandon’s gesture as he watches each person coming through the door, but there’s still no sight of Oliver.

“Is he already here, or what?” I inquire.

“He’s probably still outside. I heard him arguing with someone on the other line.”

“Arguing?” That doesn’t sound like Ollie at all. “Is he okay?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Then look for him,” I suggest sternly. “I can’t go after him on these new heels. I’m barely able to stand upright.”

He cups my face. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, you’ll find me right here. I’m not moving an inch.”

“Good. Wait for me, okay?”

“Sure,” I say as Brandon kisses my forehead then marches towards the door. When he’s out of sight, I turn to admire the paintings in their delicate lighting.

“Do you like it?” A deep, soothing voice abruptly echoes in my ears a few seconds after Brandon leaves. I make myself as comfortable as I can in the stiff heels on my feet.

I gasp. The voice sounds calm, but my insides are revolting. I gulp hard. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but don’t be scared,” he whispers as his long-fingered hand travels to my waist. “I just wanted to say hello.”

My body stiffens. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Open your eyes,” he orders, “and look at me.”

Slowly, I pivot, obeying him like I always did.

Drake’s features are more defined now. Age and wealth had undoubtedly been good to him. It’s just too bad that his pleasing outside appearance doesn’t mirror his inner attributes.

“Don’t, please.”

“Shh… I’m not going to hurt you.” He brushes his thumb across my cheek. I shiver in disgust, and my blood pressure continues to rise.

I shake my head. I want to step back, but my heels seem to be glued to the floor. “Please, leave me alone.”

His eyes suddenly darken. “What did you just say?”

I swallow again. “I said, stop. Just leave.”

“Why? Didn’t you like the flowers I sent you?”

I don’t answer, pressing my lips together firmly.

“Answer me,” he demands, but his voice remains calm and low. “Roses, right?”

“Please, no,” I sob.

He thrusts his finger into my hair. “I said. Answer. Me.”

“Yes.” I feel my tears rush down my cheek, but he gently wipes it away.

“Good.” He looks at me with admiration, but I hate myself for acknowledging his advance. I don’t know what’s going on with me anymore. My body still responds to his touch in every way it shouldn’t. “Your new boyfriend. Does he know who you were to me? Does he know how we were?”

“No.”

 “I didn’t think so. What we have is irreplaceable. Don’t you think so?”

I shove his hand away with all my might. “Stay away from me.”

He chuckles. “Jason was right. You’ve changed.”

Jason. Is he still in contact with my brother?

“But not so much,” he goes on. “I can see that you’re still mine in all the ways that count.”

“No.” I shake my head firmly. “There is no way I’m still yours! You’ve hurt me.”

“You think you’re not, but you are. Especially now that you’re within my grasp.” He steps closer until there’s barely any space between us. “It’s been a long time, Laynie.”