And then, of course, the inevitable, unanswerable question: What the FUCK am I supposed to do now?
I rolled over, my face smushed up against the rough fabric of the couch, which stank of old pot and cigarette smoke and worn-in dust. I coughed, rolled away, and sat up, then rubbed my face with both hands, as if to push back the fresh wave of tears that were already bubbling behind my eyelids. The scent of coffee and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls finally filtered through to my awareness. I looked up to see Layla approaching, two mugs of coffee held in one hand, a plate of gooey, icing-glazed cinnamon rolls in the other.
“I know what my bitch needs,” she said, setting everything down on the battered wood and scratched glass coffee table. “Caffeine and Cinnabon.”
I took the coffee and sipped at it, then grabbed a roll and took a massive, extremely unladylike bite. “You’re my lifesaver,” I said, my mouth full.
“I know.” She matched me chomp for chomp, and we proceeded to devour the entire batch of rolls.
Stuffed, I leaned back and wiped at the corners of my mouth with my thumb. I flopped my head to the side, meeting Layla’s concerned brown eyes. “Okay,” I said. “Ask.”
“OHMYGOD what happened?” Layla shrieked. She was the master of the ear-piercing, girly freak-out.
I sighed. “It’s a really, really long story.”
“Okay, well, I’ve read War and Peace, so it can’t be any longer than that. Jesus, I’m stuffed.” Layla pivoted on the couch and extended her feet across my thighs, laying her head on the armrest and her hands across her belly. “I should not have had those last two cinnamon rolls. Why’d you let me pig out like that, Key?”
I laughed and smacked her leg. “I did question your decision to eat that last one, if you’ll remember.”
“True. But it was just so good.” Layla let out a massive belch, and then covered her mouth with her hand as if shocked. “Seriously, Kyrie. I want to know everything.”
I tugged my hair out of its ponytail and jerked my fingers through the tangles. “Okay. But what I’m about to tell you stays between us. Like, you can’t breathe a word to anyone, not even Eric.”
“What is this, some kind of national security crisis?”
“Might as well be.” I let my expression tell Layla how serious I was. “He takes his privacy very seriously, and even though I left, I’m not going to compromise that.”
She raised her hands in an I surrender gesture. “Okay, okay. Mum’s the word. Jeez.”
I took a big breath, held it, and then let it out. “His name is Valentine Roth.”
Layla’s eyes widened. “Holy shit. What a name.”
“No kidding. And he’s…honestly? The most insanely drop-dead gorgeous man I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, not even Alexander Skarsgård can top him. And he kind of looks like our boy Alex.” I had to blink back emotion. “Six foot four and built like a Greek god, blond hair, blue eyes. God, his eyes. He has this way of…looking into you. And his voice…Layla, you don’t even understand. I was blindfolded for the first three days, so every time I was around him, all I had to go on was the sound of his voice. Like, he can seduce you just with his voice. His words. Fuck me, Layla. The things he said to me….”
“Wait. Waitwaitwait.” Layla sat up, swung her legs off me, and leaned forward. “You were blindfolded? For three days?”
I nodded. “If I was around Valentine, I was blindfolded. And I didn’t know his name until after he finally took the blindfold off. It was…a game. Not a fun ha-ha game, though. A very serious exercise in trust. I don’t know how to describe what happened. What he did to me. The way he touched me, spoke to me. He could get me so turned on with just a few words, a kiss, a touch, and then he’d leave me hanging. He made me…crazy. Just crazy. I didn’t even know what he looked like, and I wanted him. Just the way he talked to me. You know what he said to me, the first time we met? Well, ‘met’ isn’t really the right word. When he brought me to his tower—”
I laughed. “That’s how I think of it. He owns a building in Manhattan, and he had the whole top floor custom built into this…just ridiculously palatial home. It’s not a condo or an apartment, though. I mean, it’s a mansion, but it’s in a high-rise. I think he must have had the building custom-built for him, because there were, like, things in this place that shouldn’t have been possible in a high-rise. Like the library. It was, and I mean this very literally, the library from Beauty and the Beast. Shelves full of books going up to the ceiling, which was easily fifty feet high. He had actual suits of armor that had been used in battle in the fourteenth century. First-edition copies of, like, Pride and Prejudice and this hand-transcribed copy of Dante’s Inferno. No kidding. Super crazy-rare books.” I waved my hand. “That’s not the point. Yeah, he’s crazy rich. That’s not really relevant.”
Layla gaped at me. “Not relevant? How in the f**king hell is that not relevant?”
I shrugged. “It’s just not. I mean, it was amazing. I’m not gonna lie. He did some truly incredible things for me. He took me to the opera at the Met. And get this: he had a Christian Dior gown made for me, and jewelry that must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And his personal driver-slash-bodyguard-slash-pilot, Harris, whom you met last night, flew me to a private dinner in a restaurant he’d closed down just for us. Flew me, in his helicopter. And then he took me to the Met in his Maybach. We went sailing, too. He’s this amazing sailor, and we went all the way around to Long Beach and back, and had dinner at this tiny restaurant in Little Italy….” I sighed. “I know I was there for only a short time, but it seriously felt like a lifetime, Layla. Everything is different.”
“So if it was so amazing, why are you here? What happened?” She grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “And, more importantly, where is the Dior gown and jewelry?”
I laughed at her. “I left it all there. I mean, he did give it to me, but…none of it matters.”
“Doesn’t matter? Are you on drugs?” Layla flopped back against the couch with a groan. “Only you would say that. After all you’ve been through, you go and do something crazy like leave behind a fortune.”
“You don’t get it, Layla.”