Taken In The Woods

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Chapter 15

Axel followed me up to my room in silence. He hadn’t spoken since I told him all about Rebecca King. The atmosphere was tense, but being up here away from my parents gave us the opportunity to decompress. Part of me wished that I’d kept my big mouth shut. Their friendship obviously meant a lot to him. I wanted to tell him from a woman's point of view that she acted out of anger and jealousy. And that now she’d had a chance to calm down, that maybe she would regret it.

I wanted to say anything that would bring comfort to him, but I didn’t want to bullshit him with an excuse if it wasn’t the truth. Because Axel deserved more than that. With anyone else, I’d tell them what I thought they wanted to hear. In my world, we wore masks just for show. We weren’t necessarily nice people; we were a bunch of selfish fakes who wore smiles on our faces while we stabbed our so-called friends in the back.

The difference between Rebecca King and myself was not only the money, fame, and power. Those were just the obvious things that separated us. The difference I’m talking about was the passion, the emotion, the feeling. She acted out of hurt, whereas we acted out of cold-hearted ambition. Who was better? Me? Her? Or neither of us?

If being with a man like Axel had taught me to see the error of my ways and feel things, then maybe I was changing. Hopefully for the better.

The faintest scent of my perfume still clung to the air from earlier. Axel glanced around as I turned on the lights, dimming them to a soft amber glow. His dull mood seemed forgotten as he gave a low whistle, absorbing the view that surrounded us.

“This place is insane,” he commented, shaking his head from side to side in disbelief.

My room was modern, decorated in a chic monochromatic design. Everything was either touch-activated or voice-controlled. There were no photos on the walls, only modern art. There were no trinkets scattered along the tops of the chest of drawers or dressing table. Instead, the black high gloss surfaces had white marble sculptures that were presumably worth thousands. Or they were at the time of purchase. Ugly, pointless lumps of stone that, now as I stood with my head cocked to the side in analysis, decided that I fucking hated every single one of them.

“Can I use your bathroom? Or is it just for show?” He joked, thumbing behind him. “Which way did you say it was? I forgot.”

“Oh, you can use the en-suite, just through there.” I pointed across my room to the door next to my walk-in closet. That was another Aladdin's cave I wasn’t sure Axel was ready for yet. The jewelry cabinet alone resembled that of a bank vault.

“A bathroom in your bedroom, huh?” He rolled his eyes. “I bet you have to work out how to use the three seashells in order to take a dump?” He muttered, sounding as crass as ever.

“It’s a toilet, Axel, not a space shuttle.” My hands rested on my hips, “Lots of people have en-suite bathrooms. Don’t make such a big deal over it.”

He fumbled around in the dark, looking for the light switch. “Bathroom light on,” I spoke aloud, illuminating the black tiled room that he was standing inside. Light bounced off all the chrome and mirrors, giving off a glittering effect.

He seemed awestruck, by my elaborately styled bathroom and did an about-turn in the doorway.

“You’ve got a fucking Jacuzzi bathtub as well as a shower cubicle. What the actual fuckery?” His face lit up with boyish glee. I was glad that something as trivial as this entertained his thoughts. It meant that I didn’t have to bring up our earlier conversation, thank God.

“Yeah...” I scrunched my nose. “I’ve never used the Jacuzzi though. The hot tub on the balcony is by far the better of the two.” I shrugged. “It has a minibar.” Axel’s jaw hung agape as I spoke.

“You’ve never what? Huh? There's another? Minibar?” Axel spluttered, flabbergasted. “You’re fucking kidding me right now?” He ran a hand through his tousled hair, looking at me as if I was insane.

I tossed my satin purse onto the silky black sheets of my four-poster bed, camouflaging it. “Well, if it bothers you so much then why don’t you go take a bath in that one to christen it.”

He thought for a second. “Alright, I will, but only if you join me right now.”

I jerked my head back, cupping my nose with my hand. “Ew, no. You stink of prison sweat.” I stated, grimacing with disgust. “I’ll shower later. Then maybe some other night we can use the outdoor hot tub.”

The paparazzi would be out in force after our little jailbreak. The last thing we needed before the Gala tomorrow would be to make front-page news, fooling around in the outdoor tub.

Axel’s husky laughter trailed off as he closed the door behind him. I heard the sound of water running in the shower instead of the bathtub, and wondered why he’d changed his mind and if that maybe he was waiting for me to join him. A few moments later he emerged from the en-suite, naked and dripping wet. “Are you sure I couldn’t tempt you to come and join me, with this?” He spoke suggestively, shaking his hips from side to side, causing his large manhood to slap against both thighs. “I’ll get you all clean and dirty at the same time.”

His tone was playful and meant to tempt. I covered my face with my hand, giggling with shock. “Axel, the blinds are wide open.”

He gave a disinterested shrug. “So, who cares?”

“Blinds down.” My voice came out shrill and desperate. I massaged my forehead knowing he was going to be a handful, “Go get washed and I’ll wait for our maid to knock with the refreshments.” I spoke without even looking his way, chewing on the insides of my cheeks to prevent a grin.

Axel chuckled as he left to get a towel and I sat down on the edge of my bed, pulling the shoes from my feet. I pressed my aching soles against the floor as I stood, padding over to the dressing table where I threw down my watch and earrings. I was way too preoccupied, thinking about what would happen come the morning, that I didn’t anticipate that Axel would approach me, catching me unawares.

Strong hands gripped my waist from behind, pulling me against his rock hard chest. His warm breath tickling the side of my neck as he spoke.

“Have I told you how stunning you look tonight?” Axel’s tone was different from before. It was confident and seductive, so much more possessive.

My body shuddered in response. “You may have mentioned it once or twice,” I replied back, hearing the weak tremor in my voice. What was he doing to me? He had me going weak in the knees. My breathing grew shallow with each kiss he nuzzled against my collar bone, my pussy was growing wetter by the second.

“Axel.” His name came out breezy and drenched with need. Droplets of water dripped onto my skin from his hair. “What’re you doing?” I asked, letting my eyelids flutter closed, giving in to the hypnotic sensations that ran through my core.

His lips curled against my skin. “You like this, huh?” He murmured with confidence. It wasn’t a question but more of a statement of fact because he could blatantly see what this was doing to me. He was much more sexually dominant, so much more self-aware than before. My nipples pebbled behind the scrap of lace that concealed them, becoming prominent through the silk material of my dress.

Axel’s chin laid to rest on my right shoulder, his fingertips traveled from my hips to my globes, caressing them with the palms of his hands.

“You’re so turned on,” he stated the obvious, gripping my nipples through my clothing.

My chest heaved as unevenly as my pattern of thought, unable to find the right words through the tangle of pleasures that consumed me.

“What about if I did this?” His fingers trailed to curve around the hem of my neckline, snapping my eyes open.

I managed a single gasp, feeling the material pull taut, then an almighty tear filled the room as he tore my dress in half. I shrieked with shock.

“Axel? What the?” I yelled out, flustered. I didn’t care about the dress, I was more shocked by his actions, not that I was gonna complain much.

I turned abruptly in his arms, the damp manly scent of his body sent a pool of moisture rushing straight to my core.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I pulled back, pressing my palms against his clammy pectorals.

A slight smile flickered across my lips as I struggled to maintain composure. He’d surpassed all of my expectations, proving himself to be the sex God I knew him capable of being.

A carnal hunger blazed in Axel’s blue eyes. His expression tensed like an animal that was done playing with its food. His movements were swift, tearing away the scraps of lace that covered my modesty and using all of his pent up frustration by sweeping my legs from beneath me. My back hit the floor, gently, with one of Axel’s arms snaked around my waist and one cupping the back of my head.

The ability to breathe left me for a second or two, startled by the unexpected action. “Fuck! Prison changed you,” I panted, impressed already.

Axel flashed a roguish smirk. “Nah, you did that.”

We held each other’s gaze for a moment, until the sexual gravity pulled us together, kissing one another with raw, savage hunger. He knew what I wanted and I knew what he needed, wrapping my legs around his hips, stroking my pussy against his impressive length. He may have been the one in charge tonight but that didn’t mean that I’d refrain from teasing him.

He second-guessed what I was trying to do and pinned my limbs still. Sucking my flesh into his mouth, leaving the faintest little marks behind. The sound of someone knocking could be heard on the other side of the closed door.

“Just leave it outside and I’ll come to get it,” Axel called out, turning his attention back to me. We listened as the sound of footsteps trailed away.

I understood his intentions, perfectly. Tonight I was his to devour like the submissive little vixen he wanted me to be, and I would let him have his way with me, over and over again until the both of us were spent.

Axel’s kiss was scorching, his lips branded mine as his tongue fervently made love to my mouth. Every kiss before his had been mediocre in comparison. Empty, passionless encounters that meant absolutely nothing at all. I’d never known what I was missing until our lips touched for the first time. Never knew just how perfect falling in love could be. This kiss, unlike his earlier hesitant kisses where he lacked self-confidence, was harsh and demanding. His lips battled mine with so much passion, despite him cradling me with absolute reverence. Each stroke of his tongue against mine made me feel loved and cherished, showing me that he was feeling exactly the same way as I was.

“You’re so fucking sexy.” His voice was a rough husky growl. “I want to see your perfect body.” He leaned back, eyeing my naked body with approval. A delighted flush heated my skin and I lay still, just as he commanded. My eyes were giving their own seal of approval of his perfectly sculptured torso. So completely drunk on love, I traced my fingertips across his sinewy muscles, watching how they rippled and flexed with each ragged breath.

Axel was watching me like a starving man, his eyelids drooped low, his gaze shadowed with lust. His fingertips skimmed my skin, rough and calloused, serving as his own natural aphrodisiac, leaving a trail of goose flesh in their wake. His jaw clenched, pulsing as his fiery blue eyes darted between mine, no doubt plotting his next move.

I shivered as the cool air caressed my heated skin, and my nipples pebbled to hardened peaks. I liked this newfound sexual dominance in him. He was a natural, and he had me completely at his mercy. He ran the pads of his fingers over my stiffened buds. I gasped, arching into his touch, craving more.

A deep, rumbling sound of pleasure left his chest and he cupped my breasts fully. His giant hands, fully encompassing them as he messaged.

“Axel, please,” I begged, needing more.

I leaned into him and clutched his huge biceps. He withdrew his touch and I gasped in protest.

“Shhh, baby,” he breathed. “I’m not finished my business here.” He crawled to his knees before me, his eyes riveted on my sex as I compliantly spread my legs before him.

It took several seconds for him to regain composure, not wanting to rush. I used the small amount of time to shift my position, making myself more comfortable on my cool, wooden floor.

He leaned in, close enough that his hot breath teased across my clit. Without thinking, I dropped my knees to the sides, craving his touch. He pressed his lips just above where I needed him, trailing kisses across my mound.

“I love the way you open yourself like a pretty flower that’s all for me.” The words vibrated against my flesh as his lips brushed across my skin. “Please, Axel,” I begged again.

He lifted his gaze and shot me a wicked grin. “You want me to show you how much I love you. Is that what you want?” His carnal gaze was dripping with lust and I fell deeper into his thrall, intoxicated by his desire for me.

All I could do was nod my head hastily, desperate to feel him caress the bundle of nerves that pulsed with each teasing breath. His large hands smoothed across my skin, cupping the globes of my rear and lifted my sex to his mouth.

“God, Axel! Yes!” My head reared back with abandon, arching my back off the floor, writhing my hips in his grasp, matching with each and every stroke of his punishing tongue.

Axel snarled as he lapped, feasting greedily as if thoroughly enjoying the taste. My legs quaked, my sex clenched and my stomach tightened. “Oh, God,” I chanted, over and over, seeing stars. His tongue softened as he lapped up my essence, his hand holding me still as I tried to wriggle my ass, pulling my highly sensitive clit away from his touch.

“Mine,” Axel growled, his hulking frame crawling over my trembling body like he was coming forward to claim his prize. His knees splayed my legs apart, his rough, masculine, worker's hands sought out my wrists, dragging them above my head, pinning them there. He nestled his powerful hips at my center, positioning his cock at my slick entrance, nudging its way home.

He held me right there at begging point for several torturous seconds. Never before have I ever begged a man to fuck me, never had I wanted someone as much as I wanted Axel. But he had stoked the embers of my passion, breathing the flames back to life.

“Please,” My needy voice pleaded. If he didn’t do something soon I thought I would die of frustration.

Axel lowered himself so that his lips were a mere hairbreadth from mine and in doing so, he sheathed the full length of his cock deep inside my loins. His blue eyes locked onto mine with an ocean of love that completely swept me away.

With every gentle stroke of his organ, he made love to me, mind, body and soul. I knew right here and now that I would die for this man. And no matter what life was to throw at us, we could get through anything as long as we had each other. My fingers clung to his muscular shoulders as he rocked me into sweet submission. Rather than wake the dead with the sound of my cries, I sank my teeth into the groove of his neck, leaving behind a claiming mark of my own.

Our romantic bubble was fit to burst the second that the sun came up. We both knew that our peace would be short-lived. At least Axel and I managed to bathe and grab a quick breakfast before Mom hammered down the door. The minute she caught up with us, we were ambushed with orders. She had us styled, dressed, and camera-ready by half-past six in the morning.

Mom had set up an interview with Good Morning America, as well as arranged a photoshoot for OK Magazine. Our living room had been transformed into some kind of television studio overnight. Cameras were angled at the sofa, people bustled about behind the scenes, handling the situation with so most professionalism that even I felt like I was out of practice. Even the way we sat together, posed on the sofa like two lovesick teenagers was choreographed by a member of the team.

“Lean a little closer to Mrs. Thorne.” The woman in charge fluttered her hand as if to signal him to edge closer to me. “And Mrs. Thorne, angle yourself towards your husband. You have to let the nation believe that you’re in love,” she advised.

Axel snorted and my gaze snapped to him, barely able to suppress a laugh.

“Look like you’re in love, please,” he muttered with sarcasm. “We could always give them a recap of last night as proof enough,” he mumbled, low enough for only me to hear.

I giggled. “Just go along with it,” I replied, maintaining a poker face. “The sooner we get this over and done with, the sooner we can...”

Alex finished off my sentence. "Sit through hours and hours of photoshoots.” He let out an exhausted exhale.

I turned to him, cringing in an apologetic manner. “I’m so sorry. It comes part and parcel with our lifestyle, babe. And I know you’re not looking forward to the Gala tonight, but I promise, I’ll make it up to you afterward.” I flared my eyes with lustful intent.

Axel’s eyes shimmered with excitement. “Hot tub sex?” He whispered, seductively.

I blinked rapidly, feeling the heat creep up my neck. “Yeah, sure, whatever you want.” I flashed an embarrassed smile, making sure no one overheard that comment. “But what I meant was, we could have ourselves a honeymoon before we go back home. It’s not like we’re gonna be left alone much after today, is it?”

I saw the curiosity brewing as his brows scrunched with intrigue. “What have you got in mind?” He asked.

“Focus, please.” Mom clapped her hands together. “You go live on-air in under three minutes.”

Both of us snapped our gaze forwards, regaining our composure. Speaking from the corner of my mouth, I managed to give him a little clue to keep his spirits up. “While you were in hair and make-up, I booked two tickets to Graceland.”

Axel stiffened beside me, gripping my knee. I smirked triumphantly, knowing that I’d just pleased my husband. Because one thing I was fairly sure of was this: Axel had never been at a loss for words in all the time I’d spent with him.

One of the crew made an announcement, “We’re going live in, three, two.” He then pointed a single finger to signal number one, then the interviewer, a pretty, brunette in her mid-twenties began the introduction.

I spared a quick glance at my husband, who was still basking in the euphoria of the prospect of visiting the home of his idol. At least my little reveal took away some of his nerves. He seemed perfectly at ease as the cameras started rolling.

“And Riley, what was it about Axel that first captured your attention?” The interviewer, called Carmen, asked.

My lips pressed together as I processed her question, thinking how best to answer. I could see my parents behind the cameras, both waiting anxiously to hear the big love story that everyone thought it was. How could I ever tell people the truth, and would they ever believe it if I did?

“Um, we met unexpectedly...” I began to explain, watching Carmen lean forward in her seat, resting her chin on her hands.

“She almost ran me over.” Axel cut in, making her sit up straight with raised brows.

“Hey, you just walked out in the middle of the road,” I responded with a quick comeback.

Axel rolled his eyes, then told Carmen, “I bet the tire marks are still visible on the road where she spun off.” He flicked his finger up to point across the room as if to accentuate his statement.

I scoffed, folding my arms across my chest defensively. “Excuse me? You removed the glow plugs from my car, practically stranding me at the guest house.” I nodded to Carmen who was staring at us both, open-mouthed.

My parents looked on with shocked expressions, their eyes darting back and forth between Axel and me like a game of ping pong.

A dreamy smile stretched across Carmen's face. “You did that so you could buy some time to talk to her. How romantic.” She sighed, dreamily.

After chewing the inside of my cheeks, I turned to Axel. “And his little plan worked, didn’t it, honey?” I looked straight into his sparkling blue eyes as I spoke.

He grinned, “It certainly did,” he replied, holding my gaze.

People didn’t need to know the sordid little details of how he carried me off back to his cabin in the woods, how I woke up in his bedroom with him sleeping naked beside me. Those memories were ours, even if they were as creepy as hell.

When it came to questions regarding my pregnancy, or fake pregnancy, we asked for a little discretion. I wasn’t sure how we were going to claw our way out of that hole, but eventually, we would have kids. It wasn’t like they were completely off the agenda because they weren’t. I just wanted to leave it a while so we could enjoy one another first. We hadn’t exactly been careful last night, so who knows? Perhaps we’d conceived during our sex marathon. Only time would tell.

Carmen spoke to us privately when we came off air. “You two really are the real deal, aren’t you?” She held that knowing look in her eyes that could see straight through the bullshit; probably because she saw enough of it all the time in her line of work.

Axel held my hand as I spoke, “When you meet the one, you just know,” I told her. He brought our entwined hands up to his lips and kissed the back of my hand, gently.

“Your dad is eye signaling us, babe.” He jerked his head towards the far right-hand corner of the living room, to where my parents were waiting.

“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Thorne, it was such a pleasure meeting you,” Carmen shook both of our hands as she excused herself.

We made our way over to where Mom and Dad were waiting, and Mom held out a clipboard with a schedule attached to it.

“I know you’ve only just finished the interview, but from now until three, you’ll be having a photoshoot. They’re gonna ask you some questions throughout so be mindful of your answers,” she advised. “There will be a short break for lunch, so make that count because it’ll be a while until we have dinner.”

“We’re having dinner at the Gala?” Axel asked, trying to make himself sound nonchalant, but really he didn’t know what to expect.

Mom turned her gaze to his. “Yes, dear, fifteen courses.”

Axel choked on thin air as he spluttered, “Fifteen courses?”

Mom’s eyes pinned him where he stood. “It’s a la carte, dear, I’ve no doubt you’ll manage.”

Dad held his hand up, curling his finger and thumb to form a small circle. “The portion sizes are teeny tiny little bite-sized amounts. More like miniature, edible works of art than anything else.” Dad shrugged.

“Why bother going to all that effort?” Axel responded with a confused frown. “What a waste of dishes.” He turned to me. “At least we’re not on wash up duty.”

Dad found his comment amusing, whereas, Mom flicked her wide-eyed gaze to me, then back to Axel. “Um, Axel dear?” Mom spoke, choosing her words with care. “If at all you find tonight overwhelming, please don’t hesitate to come to us at any time.”

He placed a hand over his heart. “Oh, I promise, I will be on my best behavior.” The volume of his voice dipped low. “I don’t want to cause you any embarrassment.”

Mom placed a hand on his shoulder, speaking in a gentle tone. “Nonsense, nothing you say or do will embarrass us. I’m not worried about that, Axel, I’m more concerned for you.”

Her comment surprised me. She turned to face Dad. “Are we feeding the poor boy into a pit full of lions, Carlton? Some of those people can be vicious,” she voiced, showing concern for how they’d treat Axel, as opposed to being worried about Axel’s behavior itself.

“Mom, he can handle himself,” I assured her, “I’ll be right beside him all night, so just let’em try.” I scowled, folding my arms in front of me. “Your mother is worried that our family has been the topic of gossip, just lately. What with your disappearance, sudden marriage announcement, baby rumors, and our recent reconciliation,” Dad explained. “Not to mention what your poor cousin, Sheena has been subjected to. Especially with all the malicious rumors that good for nothing ex-husband of hers has been spouting off to the press.”

“We’re used to living in the public eye. We can handle whatever people throw at us,” I assured him. “Will Sheena be there tonight?” I asked, feeling nothing but sympathy towards my scorned cousin.

“Your uncle Dolton has insisted, considering we’re all representing the five charities. Sheena loves children, so I’m sure she’ll come to show her charity some support,” he revealed.

Sheena was the only daughter of Dolton Griffiths, my dad’s little brother. She was older than me by four years. Uncle Dolton married a lot earlier than my parents did. I knew this meant that Sheena was also a fox shifter like us but I couldn’t believe she never told me. We were incredibly close when we were kids.

“Would you all excuse me for a minute, I want to go give her a call. I don’t want her to feel like I’m rubbing her nose in my happy marriage when hers has broken down,” I explained. “Mom, Dad, look after my husband for a minute and try not to scare him off while I’m gone.” I winked at Axel, giving him a playful smile.

Reconnecting with my cousin was something I really needed to do and I was ashamed that I hadn’t reached out to her sooner. Over half an hour later I returned back with my mobile phone still hot in the palm of my hand.

“I’ve managed to convince her to come, but she said she’ll only stay for an hour,” I told Dad, whose eyes crumpled with sadness.

“Oh dear,” he muttered under his breath. “It’s still early days, and I can only hope that one day she’s as lucky as you’ve been with finding her mate. Human emotions can be so very fickle, indeed.”

Mom coughed to clear her throat. “And what exactly do you mean by that?” She shot Dad a pointed look.

Dad immediately jumped into defense mode. “I’m not implying anything about you, darling. You’re my mate, not just some human woman that I became infatuated with.” As he returned her a smoldering gaze, I witnessed my mother melt before him, blushing like a schoolgirl.

“Anyway, I’m glad you two have patched things up,” I commented. “But if you’re going to suck each other’s faces off, please do it in the privacy of your own room.” I pulled Axel’s arm. “Come on, you. We’ve got a date with the wardrobe department.” His muscular shoulders drooped as he sighed in defeat.

During the next few hours, Axel and I endured outfit change after outfit change, being ushered around different rooms around the house, both indoors and outdoors. But what would’ve been a boring, life-ending, tortuous stint, Axel turned into something out of some hilariously funny comedy sketch.

“Shit, were these meant for her?” He gestured to the white feather boa and clip-on earrings he was wearing. The cluster of stylists exchanged a mixture of shock and horror between them. I gave rather an unladylike snort as I roared with laughter, unable to catch a breath.

“What do you think?” He pulled one of the long-stemmed red roses from a vase and held it between his teeth as he posed, batting his eyelashes.

I curled my finger and thumb as a sign for 'OK'.

“Oh yeah...” I nodded in approval. “That’ll start off a new trend.”

I hurried away, only to come back wearing the suspender britches that were meant for him, tucking the oversized shirt into the waistband.

“How about these?” I asked as I drew on a fake mustache with black eyeliner.

Axel applauded. “Bravo... You should totally wear that tonight,” he encouraged, trying his best not to laugh.

“And... We’re all done here.” One of the girls conducting the shoot announced, probably due to the fact that we had lost all interest.

“Thank God.” I threw my head back as I gave a relieved sigh. “Any longer and I’d piss my pants.”

Never had I ever goofed around like that before; never had I ever spoke so uncouth before, either. Axel gave a hearty laugh as I twirled him around.

“Don’t miss me too much,” I said, rising up on my tiptoes to give him a kiss.

No sooner had I come back from the bathroom, we were summoned once again.

“Riley, it’s almost time to get ready for the gala.”

Mom barged her way through the cluster of people in the sitting room with what looked like a small entourage trailing behind her.

“Axel,” Mom addressed him directly, using her pen to point with. “This is Mai Lue, your stylist.” She gestured to a tiny, immaculately dressed Japanese woman. “She’s America’s number one fashion guru. Listen to her because she knows what she’s talking about.”

Mai craned her head up to look at him, blinking twice before muttering with sarcasm, “That’s right, give me a weird looking mountain to dress.” She then cast Mom the stink-eye.

Mom tucked her clipboard under her arm and slouched all her weight onto one leg. “Oh come on, Mai, you can handle the challenge. That’s why I chose you,” she buttered her up using flattery. Something Mom was good at.

“Fine—” Mai Lue dragged out the word. “But you pay me extra for dressing an extra-large man.”

Mom blinked, shaking her head and not wanting to argue. “Whatever.” She then turned to me. “Honey, I had to pull a few strings with Daddie's pilot, but I managed to get Serge over from Sicily.”

Sergio wasn’t only my stylist, he was probably the one person in the universe that I could actually count as a real friend. He stepped out from behind Mom, dressed in a colorful fitted suit with golden stitching.

Serge greeted me with open arms, air-kissing both sides of my face, noisily. “Riley, apart from the fake mustache, you’re looking radiant, darling.”

I spoke in hushed whispers, “I’m not pregnant, Serge. These baggy clothes were supposed to be Axel's.”

“Meh.” He swatted the air, then placed a hand on his hip. “Shall we get started?” He over accentuated the action of checking his diamond-encrusted watch, giving a fake gasp. “We only have like four hours to get ready. Ohmygod!”

Axel did a slow turn, pleading with huge, wide eyes. “Four more hours of torture?”

Just as I was about to answer, Mai got there first.

“If you don’t get a move on, I'll show you torture,” she promised, prodding his stomach with her index finger.

Axel’s brows furrowed as he glanced down at her fierce expression. I could tell he was trying to figure out whether to laugh or not.

“Be nice to Mai, Axel.” The warning was there in my voice. “You wanna look your best tonight, don’t you?” I nodded, eye signaling him to play nice.

Mai’s eyes twitched, silently daring him to sass her.

“Follow me, Mr. Thorne,” she muttered, turning to exit the room. Axel trundled behind her, apprehensively.

“Phew,” Sergio mumbled, fake swiping his hand over his perfectly dry brow. “I’m glad she’s gone. One minute alone with her makes me thankful I’m gay.”

I threaded my arm through his, then smiled at Mom as we passed. “I’m so glad you could make it, Serge. After the couple of days I’ve had, I want you to make me look like the Belle Of The Ball.”

The camera crew was packing away equipment in the hall as we rounded the stairs. “Oh, honey, relax. I know what you want. You wanna make that Ex of his jelly? No?” Sergio winked.

“She’s not his Ex,” I corrected.

Sergio cast me a doubtful look and I stopped halfway up the staircase, causing him to halt in place right alongside me.

“Fine, Amica then,” he huffed with amusement.

"Yeah, she was his best friend," I revealed.

“You know I love to tease, I’m sorry, Bella.” Sergio’s tone was sincere. “Don't be intimidated by a girl that he friend-zoned years ago. You made a point of dating your way through the world's rich list and you don’t think that your sudden marriage to a poor guy isn’t gonna raise some eyebrows?”

He was right, all focus would be on Axel tonight. Judging him, sniggering at him, whispering spiteful comments that his shifter ears would pick up easily. I was ready for it, but was he? Of course, he wasn’t; he’d never experienced the snobbery of the high-class elite before. This night could end up being disastrous.

“If you want my advice, you’re leading your boy, Axel, straight to the shark tank at feeding time.” Sergio only confirmed what my parents and I already feared. But keeping him out of the spotlight would also set tongues wagging. I’d be accused of hiding him away out of shame, which wouldn’t be true at all.

I resumed climbing the stairs, bringing Sergio along with me. “I can handle myself,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, you can, but can he? It’s a long way from Forest Lake, Riley. He seems so....” Sergio circled his fingers as he searched for the right word.

“Nice?” I answered.

We made it to the landing, hearing the distinct sound of Japanese curse words coming from my room. I half chuckled, wondering what the heck Axel had gone and done now.

“Yeah, nice, but good would be more fitting,” Sergio corrected me. “He brings out the best in you, I can see it already. And someone so good, is shark bait for people in your world. Don’t let them destroy the happiness you’ve found.”

“I’d like to see them try,” I replied, my hands curling into two tight fists.

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