“We’ve worked so hard for you to have a good life.”
“And I do. You’ve done a wonderful job, and I’m very happy.”
“What about Ned Wimble? I heard he and that Avon heir ended things.”
I set down my fork, squeezed my hands together underneath the table, and smiled.
I left my parents’ house a few hours later, a bag of gifts in the trunk of my car. Cashmere cardigan. Sapphire earrings from my father. A JD Robb paperback from Becky, the maid who probably knew more about me than both of my parents combined. She was the one who cleaned up my puke in the bathroom when my drunken teenage self didn’t make it through the night. She’d thrown away condoms, birth control packets, and vodka bottles. Held me at fifteen, when I suffered my first broken heart, courtesy of Mitch Brokeretch—who didn’t deserve my virginity, much less my tears.
My real gift wasn’t in the trunk. It was in the date, the trust paperwork that had been completed before my first birthday. Twelve million dollars waited for me in a joint account that I had watched from afar for over a decade. With that date, with the papers I was about to sign, I would be free from my parents, from their expectations and requirement that have held this money above my head for the last twenty years. I drove to the attorney’s office, and, thirty minutes later, was a free woman. I allowed a small smile—a real one—upon my exit from Jackson & Scottsdale. Allowed a full beam once I visited the bank and transferred the funds into a money market account that was solely in my name.
Then, freedom. It felt damn good. I put down my convertible’s top and screamed into the wind. Celebrated the evening with one of my building’s valets—a twenty-one-year-old kid who only made it five pumps, but brought some good weed and laughed at my jokes.
It was a sad start to my new life.
3 YEARS AGO
I spent my first two decades planning, holding out for the moment when I could desert this culture. Throw off my cardigan and manners and rush headfirst into life. Dance in the moonlight. Smoke a cigar. Ride a motorcycle and fall in love for a reason other than social standing. I had romantic notions of waiting tables, hitchhiking across America, kissing a strange boy, feeling a rush of unknown possibilities. I hated every stitch of my surroundings and craved escape. Wanted to leave the dinner parties, the ingrained disdain of others, and raised brows of judgment. I wanted the happily-ever-after of movies. Where my family would share their day while eating at a round table. Wanted to visit life in a world where mothers hugged daughters with bruises and consoled them after first dates went awry. My dream had legs, fully developed fantasies, my future as clear as my past. The day of my twenty-fifth birthday, I had felt free. Filled with hope and possibilities. The first day of the rest of my life.
Yet, five years later, I was still stuck. I’d had a few wild nights. Fucked some strangers with calluses on their hands. Visited a 7-Eleven and bought a hot dog. Went to Tijuana long enough to realize I would never go back. Then… like a migrating bird, I drifted home to this world. Settled back in without even realizing it. Five years later and I was still surrounded by the people from my youth. The friends who weren’t friends. The parties in which everyone smiled but no one had fun. Where life was a constant race to one-up each other, and the prom queen was still the bitch no one liked but everyone flocked to like maggots to meat. I needed to escape this life, I needed to find something different, I needed to make my own path, but it was hard to escape the only world I had ever known.
The man appeared in the doorway behind me, his chauffeur hat in hand, and met my eyes in the mirror. “I’ll be out front, whenever you are ready to leave for the event, Ms. Fairmont.”
“Thank you. I’ll be out shortly.”
He nodded, turning to leave, my eyes returning to the mirror. Brown eyes lightly outlined in mint chocolate. Enough makeup to hide flaws, but no more. Classy, not trashy. My mother had trained me well. I stared into my eyes and tried to find the person in them. The mirror showed the woman I had been raised to be. Designer gown that was subtle yet sophisticated. A polished exterior, from my hair to my heels. I stared at my shell and wondered why I couldn’t break from it. Tonight was the primary fundraising gala for an organization close to my heart. An important event that shouldn’t be missed. Maybe tomorrow I could turn over a new leaf. Try again to leave the nest and live a genuine and happy life. I applied a coat of clear gloss over my lipstick and avoided my eyes in the mirror.
“I like your hair.”
“I’m not a prostitute.”
His mouth didn’t change, but his eyes warmed. “I can overlook that fact.”
The five lines of our meeting, uttered two hours into the fundraising gala. Unromantic. I blamed my bold response on alcohol, two glasses of wine already downed, my self-loathing slightly pacified by merlot.
I accepted the hand he extended, shaking it firmly as I studied the man, his name instantly recognized as soon as it had floated off his gorgeous lips. I had—on some minor level—stalked this man ever since I got involved with the Homeless Youth of America.
Brant Sharp. Genius. Billionaire. Philanthropist.
He was even better looking than I imagined, the tiny thumbnail image used in press releases barely showing his features. Certainly not doing this man any justice, his looks worthy of a GQ cover. But his intensity, that was what really surprised me. He peered at me as if I was a problem, and he searched my soul for a solution. He also seemed inordinately pleased by my hair, his eyes frequently leaving mine to stare at their erratic strands.
I can overlook that fact. I laughed at the response, the sound one he seemed to enjoy, his own mouth twitching a bit. Not a smile, but close. For me, one for whom a smile meant masked emotion, it was a refreshing change.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m a big fan of your work with HYA.” Homeless Youth of America was the only holdover from my mother’s painful rearing—a charity she pushed me into at a young age, one that ended up gripping my heart and not letting go.
Any hint of a smile dropped. “I wouldn’t call it work. My office cuts a check. Nothing else is done.”
“The funds mean a great deal.” Funds was putting his contribution lightly. Last year I personally donated half a million dollars, six percent of the annual donations. His check covered ninety-two percent. It was enough to make him the honorary Chairman of the Board, though he’d never shown his face at the facility or the board meetings. We had heard, discussed freely over coffee and stale donuts, the rumors surrounding our chairman. Beth Horton, a sharp-tongued mother of seven, whose face carried a permanently dour expression, unless sharing an exciting piece of gossip, had brought up the escorts to me.