“Hurry.”

He chuckles against my neck. “I thought you said we had plenty of time.”

“Not long enough.” I take his hand and guide it down to my skirt and between my legs. He strokes me through my panties, and I draw up one knee to give him better access, rocking into him.

“Brinley!”

Marston jumps off the bed before I fully register the sound of my father’s voice.

“What do you think you’re doing to my daughter?” Dad’s eyes are wide, his nostrils flared as he stalks toward Marston, and I freeze, paralyzed by fear.

Marston hangs his head and deflates. The guy I love. The guy who loves me but doesn’t believe he’s good enough—he deflates under my father’s anger, and the sight of that breaks something inside me.

I scramble off the bed, stepping between Dad and Mars. “Daddy, it’s fine.”

“This is between me and Rowe.” Dad palms my shoulder and pushes me to the side. “I give you a job, and you repay me by assaulting my daughter?”

“He didn’t assault me! I brought him in here. I love him.”

It happens so fast I don’t even see it coming. The sting of my father’s slap is so sharp that I expect to find blood on my face. I drop back on my bed, cradling my face in my hand.

“I won’t let my daughter act like some low-class slut.”

“Don’t touch her!” Marston lunges at my father as my mom walks in the door. His fist connects with Dad’s jaw with so much power that my father’s head snaps back. He stumbles into Mom, and she loses her balance and knocks her head on the doorframe.

I hop off the bed and wrap my arms around Marston from behind, pulling him back to keep him from going after Dad again.

“Harriet, call the police,” Dad says. His lip’s bleeding, and Marston’s knuckles are bright red.

“Yeah,” Marston says, “call them and let them know you hit your daughter.”

Tears roll hot and heavy over my throbbing cheek. “No. Don’t. He’ll leave. It’s fine.” My voice shakes. “Please.”

Mom searches her pockets and finally comes up with her phone, but she scans the room instead of dialing. “I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You let your daughters get away with everything.” Dad yanks her phone out of her hand and starts to dial.

I lurch forward and grab it from him. “Marston is leaving.”

There’s panic in Marston’s eyes, but his jaw is set, determination written in the hard line of his mouth. “I don’t want to leave you with him. He hit you, Brinley. That’s not okay.”

“It wasn’t anything. He didn’t mean it. Just go. Please.” My whole body shakes, and I beg, “Do it for me.”

Chapter Sixteen

Brinley

Present day

My father stands at the end of the long table at Orchid Valley’s finest restaurant, looking like a king ready to speak to his subjects. Every eye in the room is drawn to him even before he clears his throat to get their attention. Abraham Knox has that effect on people—whether they love him or hate him, they all fall into line.

He hoists his champagne flute in the air. “I’d like to propose a toast to my daughter Brinley, for finally finding someone who’ll marry her.”

Uncomfortable chuckles sprinkle throughout the room. Maybe a few of those laughs are sincere. I tell myself Dad’s friends are the only ones who’d find that joke funny, but people are assholes, so who knows. Beside me, Julian shifts uncomfortably, and I flash him a grateful smile.

“You’ve done well, Brinley,” Dad continues, “and I know that somewhere, your sister is looking down on you and she’s proud. She would have wanted you to be happy. Remember how much she loved weddings?” His face crumples, and he bows his head for a beat. Mom reaches up to squeeze his hand. “Brittany would’ve been such a beautiful bride, but life isn’t fair, so I’ll only get to watch one daughter walk down the aisle. Only watch one daughter say her vows.”

All I can do is focus on my breathing. A deep breath in, a long exhale. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This is the cost of being the daughter who lived. Nothing’s ever really about you again. It’s always about the child who was lost.

“But we take the good with the bad,” Dad continues. He shifts a bit to focus on my fiancé. “We’re so proud to invite you into our family, Julian. I know you’ll take good care of Brinley. You’ll be her rock when she’s unsteady. You’ll be her brain when she misplaces hers.”

Everyone laughs at this “joke,” and my stomach cramps.

“As long as you’re by her side, I’ll know I don’t have to worry. And I thank you for that.” He lifts his glass a little higher and smiles broadly. “To the happy couple!”

“To the happy couple,” everyone choruses.

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