Holy shit! My heart fluttered, then pounded uncontrollably as I stared at the most glorious specimen of a man I’d ever seen. His midnight dark hair was slicked back, further intensifying those seductive green eyes. His skin was a perfect golden sheen against his crisp, white dress shirt and he wore black trousers that hugged his come-squeeze-me ass. Topping it off was a tailored black sportscoat that stretched over his broad shoulders. I suddenly found it impossible to breathe. I sometimes hated that Abel had that effect on me, but judging by the expression on his face, he felt likewise.
His eyes traveled over me, licking his lips in appreciation. He raised an eyebrow. “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
I flashed a smile. “Not Heaven yet, just a prelude.” I twirled, the skirt of my royal-blue cocktail dress flying up to mid-thigh. “So, I take it you like?”
I had barely had time to complete my twirl before his arms were around me, his teeth nipping playfully at my earlobe. “Hmm, that’s putting it mildly.”
I wiggled out of his embrace and walked over to the hall table to retrieve a small, gift-wrapped silver box. “Don’t want to forget your mom’s gift.”
His eyebrows furrowed. “You didn’t have to get her anything. She’s just thrilled you’re coming.”
I shook my head. “Shut up! It’s her 50th birthday! What’d you get her?”
He smiled, then kissed the tip of my nose. “I’m glad you asked.”
Abel led me out onto the porch. It was a balmy November evening. The breeze was calm and the setting sun was just dipping below the horizon. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
Relinquishing his lead, he joined me at my side and motioned to the circle driveway before us. The smile on my face evaporated. Just the sight of it made me want to turn around, run back inside, and call it an evening. Goosebumps settled along my arms, chilling me to the core.
Beautifully restored, the black 1970’s Dodge Challenger glistened in the dwindling sunlight. Even though it had been gloriously resurrected by Jagger and wasn’t Sebastian’s actual car, it served as a grim reminder of his death. The uneasiness I felt even staring at that hunk of metal must’ve resonated with Abel. He wrapped his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder.
“You don’t like it?”
God, what a question! I let out a deep sigh. “Yes and no.”
He studied me, trying to dissect my pensive thoughts. “What’s wrong?”
I met his gaze, his lime-green eyes sending currents of electricity throughout my body. What’s wrong? Was he fucking asking me that? “It’s sorta creepy, don’t you think?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, the car personifies everything Sebastian was. Wild, uncontrollable. It’s a beast! And so was he.”
I bit my lip. “I knew about the restoration.”
“What? How?” he demanded, his eyes narrowing.
“Jagger showed me. Just before I saw you at the pub that night.”
His expression soured at the memory. “Oh right. The night you both were showing-and-telling.”
Awkward! I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks, but I persevered. “I assumed he would drop it off at the party.”
“Well, that was the plan. But I decided to pick it up instead.”
Yikes! Glad I’d missed that! “How’d that go?” I asked nervously.
He lifted my chin and stared into my eyes. “Fine. He knows what’s mine.”
Christ, knuckle-dragging son-of-a-bitch. I opened my mouth, but he put a single finger to my lips.
“I didn’t tell him that, Colette, so don’t get your panties in a wad.”
I rolled my eyes. “Good, I-“
“I invited him to the party.”
My eyes widened. “You did?”
He nodded, then leaned in and gave me a soft kiss. “I’m not always an asshole.” He grabbed my hand and led me down the porch steps to the passenger door. I climbed in and rested the silver gift box on my lap. Seconds later, Abel joined me and started the car. Its powerful engine roared to life, rumbling beneath my feet.
I took a deep breath and tried to suppress the grisly images that flashed through my head, replaying like memories. Glimpses of Sebastian’s mangled car and body…Genesis bloody and bruised, yet desperate to spend her remaining moments of life with the man she trusted and loved. I shook my head, trying to dispel them from my subconscious.
“Hey love, you alright?” Abel asked, leaning into me and laying a hand on my thigh.
My skin tingled at his intimate touch and I faked a smile for his benefit. This night was about celebrating a momentous occasion. The demons playing jump-rope with my emotions could be held at bay for one damn night. “Never better.”
He winked and squeezed my leg, but his eyes gave him away. He knew I was putting on a front but didn’t press further. Instead, he simply nodded at the delicate box on my lap. “So, what’d you get her?”
I lifted the lid and tipped it in his direction. “It’s called a caged heart necklace.”
His eyes lit up at the silver, heart-shaped necklace entwined with wavy lines that looked like miniature trees. One emerald and one topaz gemstone sat within the confines of the heart.
“My birthstone and Sebastian’s,” he mumbled, clearing his throat. “She’ll love it. She’ll cry of course but love it nonetheless.”
I leaned my head against his shoulder, the rich aroma of new leather filling my nostrils. Outside, the waning beams of sunlight had submitted to impending darkness and a glittering tapestry of stars had blanketed the sky. I rolled my window down and let the warm breeze waft through my long, loose waves. On the horizon, an oversized, white tent came into view, decorated with multiple strings of party lights. Dozens of cars were parked in an expansive grassy lot, reflecting the moon’s generous glow. I could faintly make out the sounds of music and laughter that filled the air. We drove up the winding brick driveway, finally reaching the massive Campbell estate.
My jaw dropped. Did these people just shit money? Seriously, they had exquisite homes, luxury vehicles, and servants ready at every beck and call. And here I was: Cinder-fucking-rella taking the night off from hanging with ghosts to go to the damn ball with Prince Abel.
Biting my lip, I stared up at the stately, Colonial-style mansion. Four massive, white Corinthian pillars supported the oversized portico, accentuated by dentil moldings along the ease of the roof. Two intricately carved mahogany front doors were showcased by an extravagant white scroll pediment that loomed overhead. Large symmetric windows lined the front of the house and identical brick walkways encircled an ornate marble fountain. Meticulous flower beds adorned the front lawn, adding sporadic pops of color.
The architectural detail took my breath away. “Wow,” I breathed. “How do you not just sit in awe and stare at your house every damn time you come home?”
Abel stood next to me, snaking an arm around my waist. He kissed the side of my head, then brought his lips to my ear. “The only thing that has me awe-struck is you, love.”
“That’s something only rich people say,” I muttered.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Bit hypocritical, don’t you think? You’re not exactly living in the local trailer park, Colette. Just relax. Nobody’s here to judge you.”
I nodded and let him lead me through the impressive double-door entry. It was similar to Kinsley’s house, with marble flooring and sprawling twin stairways. My heels clicked on the tile as we made our way toward the backyard.
“Everything set?” a deep voice bellowed. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Standing in the side hall was an older gentleman with greying brown hair and deep blue eyes. He was dressed in a tuxedo and his black, patent leather shoes squeaked against the floor. He gave Abel a no-nonsense look as he awaited his answer.
Abel nodded, then flashed a smile. “Yep, out front.” He hooked a thumb in that direction, then ticked his head at me. “Dad, this is Colette.”
I wiped my sweaty palm on the skirt of my dress, then extended it to him. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Campbell.”
His face lit up, but he ignored my request for a formal handshake. Side-stepping instead, he pulled me in for a hug. “It’s Drake. Vic’s just been raving about you non-stop that I feel like I already know you!” He laughed as he pulled back. “C’mon. Everyone’s outside.”
Abel took my hand and we followed his father into the lavish party tent.
Crystal chandeliers hung from the tent rafters. Elaborate floral centerpieces sat atop each round table, complimented with lilac table linens, sterling silver flatware, and sparkling stemware. A long, rectangular table overflowing with gifts stood in the corner and a four-string quartet strummed harmonious melodies upon the stage.
“Holy crap. This is a party!” I exclaimed. I nodded to Abel’s father who had started mingling with guests. “He throws one like this every year?”
Abel swallowed. “Except last year, after Sebastian’s death.”
I grimaced, then squeezed his hand. “I see your mom. Let’s go say hello.”
Victoria Campbell stood in the center of the tent, surrounded by well-wishers. Her wavy blonde hair was braided and twisted into an updo and her green eyes sparkled. She wore a silver, rhinestone-encrusted evening gown that hung off her shoulders, matching her chandelier earrings. She radiated happiness—a refreshing change from the day I’d met her at the bookstore.
When she saw me, she took a page out of her husband’s playbook and engulfed me in a hug. “I’m so glad you came!” she cried.
I smiled and handed her the wrapped box. “Happy birthday.”
She looked at me in shock. “Why did you…you shouldn’t have--“. She broke off and looked down, a smile sweeping across her cheeks. “Forgive my manners. Thank you.”
Abel cleared his throat. “I’m here too, Mom,” he teased.
Victoria laughed, throwing her head back. “You’re so well-groomed, I didn’t recognize you!” She gave him a brief hug, then looked around the tent. “I know your father’s here somewhere…” she trailed off, her eyes scanning the crowd.
Over her shoulder, I saw Fallon and Scarlett tossing back drinks. They were nearly unrecognizable without their lip piercings and black lipstick. Although both wore black dresses, they otherwise looked normal. It was downright disturbing. Then the crowd shifted to reveal a pair of eerie golden eyes aimed in my direction. My throat tightened and I felt a rush of uneasiness surge over me.
“You invited Cassius? Seriously!” I hissed, nudging Abel.
“No, I invited Scarlett and Scarlett invited Cassius,” he clarified, glaring at the malicious creature of the night.
“Technicalities! Regardless, the bastard’s still here.”
“Well, I know I saw him earlier,” Victoria stated, redirecting my attention.
“She met Dad already,” Abel announced. “Briefly. In the house.”
“So, where is he now?”
As if on cue, a deep voice echoed through the tent. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I could just garner your attention, I’d like to say a few brief words about why we’re all gathered here on this fine November evening.”
An intrusive spotlight fell over the crowd, bobbing along until it stopped on a single man standing atop the stage. With a microphone gripped firmly in his hand, he motioned for the guests to quiet.
Much like his son, Mr. Campbell was the sort of man that demanded your attention. As the commotion of the room came to a standstill and voices turned to whispered murmurs, he flashed a polite smile.
“Thank you all for coming. From the very bottom of our hearts, our family would like to extend our gratitude to this great community for all the warmth, love, and kindness you bestowed upon us this past year. It’s been a difficult one, of course, but we’ve managed to persevere—thanks to each of you.” He cleared his throat, trying to restrain his emotions. “Tonight, however, we’ve come together to celebrate an incredibly special woman. Intelligent, beautiful, sensitive, and generous, she’s never ceased to amaze me throughout our 28-year marriage. I am forever grateful for the life we have built together, and the two sons we raised. I love you, Vic.”
Thunderous applause broke out as the spotlight shone upon Mrs. Campbell. Beaming in response, she blew a kiss to her husband. The band started up, playing the beginning notes of Frank Sinatra’s ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ Tears started to stream from her eyes and moments later, Mr. Campbell had whisked her away to the dance floor.
I melted. Yep, I was one of those. The eyeball-rolling, nausea-inducing, happily-ever-after endorsing romantics. Sensitive and sappy, I was ruled by my emotions. So, when Abel took my hand, bowed, and demurely asked “Madam, may I have this dance?”, my insides turned to mush.
I leaned in and nuzzled his neck, savoring his scent. “You can have every dance,” I whispered. I felt him jump as my warm breath caressed his skin.
He wrapped his arms around me. “Okay, screw the dance. Let’s go to my room instead.”
I grinned and poked him playfully in the ribs. “Not tonight, Casanova. “
He swept me onto the dance floor, twirling me in hypnotic circles before dipping me toward the floor. He leaned down, his soft lips meeting mine in a passionate kiss. “I know it’s my mom’s birthday, but I’m the one with the best gift,” he said coyly, brushing his lips against mine once more.
Swoon! My skin tingled with all the “feels” and I couldn’t suppress the stupid, giddy-ass grin that spread across my face. I was sublimely happy. And that’s about when it all went to hell.
It started with Fallon disintegrating into a drunken, blubbering mess—staggering about and rambling incoherently about Harlow. Then Scarlett and Cassius got into some heated disagreement, resulting in Scarlett bawling her eyes out on my shoulder for a half hour and Cassius leaving (that part thrilled me). The big gift reveal went over about as well as a sack of monkey shit and Jagger was a no-show. But all of that paled in comparison to what happened next.
Abel and I were sitting at a table, chattering mindlessly when I saw Victoria march resolutely toward us. She was visibly shaking as she gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles turning white.
“Mom?” Abel asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I need to speak with both of you. Now please.”
Abel and I exchanged glances as we followed Victoria into the palatial mansion. We settled into chairs in the den and Mr. Campbell shut the door behind us. I noticed my gift box lying on a nearby table.
“Mom…you’re freaking me out here. What’s going on?”
She took a deep breath, her eyes shifting between me and her son. “Let me begin by saying that I do like you very much, Colette.”
I swallowed. With an opening statement like that, I knew this conversation was going to suck.
“But I must admit, I found your gift to be of poor taste.”
Abel stood up. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Victoria’s mouth set in a firm line, undeterred by her son’s outburst. “I just think it would have been something more suitable to give me in private.”
Abel started pacing. “You’re unbelievable-“
I looked over at him. “No, really, she’s right. I…I just thought it had been long enough…” My voice trailed off and my eyes fell to the floor as I felt flames scorch my cheeks. “I should have considered something else.”
Drake Campbell came and stood behind his wife, placing his hands on her shoulders. “However, with all of that said, we do appreciate the sentiment and of course, we’ll be supportive.”
My brow furrowed. “Huh?”
“Well, it’s not really like you can return it,” Victoria said with a soft chuckle.
“It’s no big deal to me. I’ll just get rid of it,” I said reassuringly.
Their eyes widened in horror. “Oh dear God,” Mr. Campbell murmured, rubbing a hand over his forehead.
Victoria held up her palm. “No…now, nobody is asking you to do that. Let’s be very clear.”
I cast a side-eyed glance in Abel’s direction. He looked like a wild animal just waiting to be sprung from its cage. I laughed nervously and reached for the box. “Here, I’ll handle it. No problem.”
Mrs. Campbell’s face fell. “Maybe we could sit down with your parents and discuss this matter more fully.”
Abel’s face was beet red. “How much have the two of you drank tonight?”
I grabbed the box and lifted the lid. “It’s fine, really. I should have-“ The words died on my lips and I scrunched up my nose. “What’s this?” I asked, reaching inside and retrieving the object. My caged heart necklace was nowhere to be found, replaced instead by a small black and white sonogram photo.
Abel leaned over my shoulder, hanging his head in his hands. “Jesus Christ,” he mumbled.
“What’s going on?” I asked, my mind racing to catch up.
And then, like a Mack truck, it hit—knocking the wind out of me and causing me to sway precariously. I collapsed in the leather chair, the photo fluttering to my feet. I stared blankly into the crackling fire that blazed fiercely in the stone hearth, trying to make sense of what was happening. The Campbells were staring at me as if I were a leper. From my periphery, I saw Abel settle into the chair next to me, both arms sprawled over the arms of his seat. He took a deep breath, then raised his head to meet the gazes of his confused parents.
“That photo…it’s not what you think,” he began, shaking his head.
“How is that?” Victoria asked, biting her lip.
Abel leaned down and retrieved the photograph from the floor. He held it up to them. “Colette’s not pregnant.”
His dad’s forehead creased. “She’s not? Then who is?”
Abel sighed, trying to force the truth from his lips. “Not is…was,” he said quietly.
The wails of anguish that filled the room were heart-wrenching. It was emotional torture seeing Mrs. Campbell break down into uncontrolled sobs, slumping to the floor as her husband tried his best to console her.
That moment right there—that was my breaking point. Something inside me snapped and I felt pieces of my core identity break away. Tendrils of sin wrapped around my soul, enticing me to fully embrace the darkness. My jaw set in determination and I made a silent vow. Whatever it was Sebastian sought, I would ensure his failure. Even if it destroyed me.