I’m so excited for Cruel Money to release on Tuesday! It’s been a long process to get to this point and I’m dying for all of you to get to read it. As a treat, I’m giving you the first three chapters now!
K. A. LINDE
Not for reprint or sale.
Here are the latest rejection letters from publishers regarding Told You So. I will follow up with a list from Caroline of the remaining publishers who have the manuscript out on submission.
Assistant to Caroline Liebermann
Whitten, Jones, & Liebermann Literary
Told You So has an interesting take on the value and cost of friendship. I enjoyed the journey the characters take and style of prose. But, unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends. The heroine, Karla, was a caricature of bad judgment and a complete Mary Sue in every other regard. She’s plain, ordinary, and not at all interesting enough to follow for 100k words. I felt Tina might have been a better lead, but it wasn’t clear from the start whether the author was knowledgeable enough to convey the true depth of either of the characters. Perhaps the author should find a muse.
Natalie definitely knows how to tell a story and pull the reader in with a clever introduction. I just didn’t find the characters relatable or the story high concept enough for what Warren is looking for right now. For us, we weren’t completely sold on the genre, as it straddles the line between women’s fiction and literary and thus, sits with neither.
Told You So could have been great. Karla and Tina have so much potential, and the concept, while like several things we already have in our catalog, could have been brilliant. However, I never believed in their friendship, and the middle fell flat. The pace was slow, and for once, I was actually wishing there were a romance to break up the monotony. Maybe a more talented writer could have pulled this off.
“Fuck,” I groaned. “I get the message.”
I threw my phone on the cushion next to me. No need to torture myself by reading any more of that. I couldn’t even believe my agent would send me those comments. Let alone on a Friday night before she left for the weekend. Even worse that it came through from her assistant with all those horrible notes about my writing.
Was this the writing on the wall? My agent was finally finding out that I was a hack. Two books and two years later with no offers and pile after pile of heartbreaking rejections. Maybe this was the end.
I stared around the beautiful Hamptons beach house I was vacation home–watching this fall. I’d been hired a month ago and shown up only three days prior, determined to finish my next manuscript. It was a dream come true to be here without any distractions—no parents or guys or anything. Just me and my computer screen.
Then, my agent had gone and dropped the biggest distraction imaginable on my plate. I glared at my screen.
Oh, hell no.
I was not letting these letters set me back. Maybe Told You So wasn’t the book, but the next one might be.
No, I needed to cleanse myself of this bullshit. I didn’t normally subscribe to my mother’s New Age spiritualism. She spent her spare time reading about auras, staring into crystal balls, and divining from the stars. It was a running joke in my life at this point. But there was a time and place for everything. And, if I was going to get something done during the next couple of months, I needed to leave the past behind me.
I knew what I was going to do.
I was going to burn this motherfucker to the ground.
Okay, maybe a little dramatic. Even for me.
But, hey, this was on the publishers. Was it so hard to craft a kind rejection email?
It’s not you; it’s me.
Maybe we can just be friends.
Come on. I’d heard it all from guys. Publishers could have the decency to try not to break my heart.
Ugh, fucking rejection.
But a plan had already formed, and I wasn’t going to back down now.
I set my laptop up next to the printer in the office library with a bay window overlooking the ocean. I’d planned to write at that window nook. And I still wanted to. I pressed print on the computer and left to raid the stocked Kensington family wet bar. I’d have to replace whatever I scavenged, but it felt worth it tonight.
I was only watching the house through the fall season. I’d gotten the job after watching my best friend’s parents’ flat in Paris last summer. Word of mouth moved me around the world from there. From Paris to Turks and Caicos to Aspen, and now, I was watching the mayor of New York City’s summer home in the Hamptons. And the mayor had a damn good selection of alcohol.
“Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea,” I muttered to myself.
Good enough for me. I grabbed the bottle and went in search of everything else I needed.
Fifteen minutes later, I had the stack of papers, a packet of matches, and the bottle of bourbon. I hoisted a shovel onto one shoulder on my way out the back door. When I hit the sand, I kicked off my shoes, grabbed a fistful of my flowy dress, and traipsed across the beach. My eyes were cast forward, and I moved with a sense of determination. The sun had finally left the horizon, throwing me into darkness, which was good, considering I was about to commit arson.
When I reached the soft sand right before the waterline, I dropped my supplies and dug my shovel into the sand. The first shovelful was incredibly satisfying. I took out my frustration and aggravation on that hole. Driving into the sand like I could erase the words from my brain. The tension in my shoulders intensified as I dug until I hit the wet sand beneath, and then I tossed my shovel to the side.
I reached for the supplies, and with my foot on the pages so that they didn’t blow away, I unscrewed the top of the bottle of bourbon and took a large mouthful. The liquid burned its way down my throat. I sputtered and then took another.
That made me feel steadier. More alive. I shuddered as the alcohol hit me and then put it aside before retrieving the most important part of all of this.
Pages and pages and pages.
Forty-seven pages to be exact.
Forty-seven perfectly polite, perfectly soul-crushing pages.
Every rejection letter I’d ever gotten in the last two years, including the latest batch my agent had just sent over.
My eyes skimmed over the first page before I balled it up and threw it into the pit. A smile stretched on my face as I tossed page after page after page in the sand. Forty-seven pages of kindling.
I grinned wickedly, ready to put all of this rejection behind me.
I snatched up the bottle of bourbon and liberally poured it on the pages, like adding milk to cereal. Careful to move the bottle far enough away so that it wouldn’t blow up in my face, I snatched up the box of matches.
“This is for you,” I called up to the moon. “My ritual burning, my offering of this energy. Just take it away and help me start over.”
I struck the match against the box and dropped it into the pit. When the first spark touched the fuel, the papers burst into flames, sending a jet of flames up toward the heavens. I laughed and danced in a circle around the flames, already feeling lighter.
So, maybe this book wasn’t the one. Maybe this hadn’t changed the world. But maybe the next one…or the next one. And, even if it was none of them, I was a writer. I would never stop writing.
A weight dropped off my shoulders, and I tilted my head back toward the moon. I flung my hands out to the sides and did a poorly executed turn, tripped over my own feet, and landed in a heap in the sand. But nothing could stop the euphoria that settled in my chest. Who knew it would be so liberating to burn my rejection letters?
All I’d wanted was to change my luck and let the past go, but damn I felt like a million bucks.
The flames grew and grew, burning through the last two years of my life. And I rode the high as power threaded through me, leaving me drunk and not just from the bourbon.
Jumping back to my feet, I didn’t even bother glancing down the beach. No one was in the Hamptons during the off-season. That was why I’d been hired to take care of the place during the interior renovation. Just last weekend, wealthy children of wealthy businessmen and wealthy politicians and wealthy celebrities had flocked to these beaches and overrun them at all hours of the day. But tonight, I was safe.
I wrenched at the bottom of my dress and lifted all the many layers of flowy material over my head. Tossing it into the sand, I unclasped my bra and discarded it as well. Then with a cry of triumph, I walked with my head held high straight into the ocean. The water was a bit frigid, and I shivered against the first wave that broke against my naked body. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t here for a swim. I was here for primal cleansing. Burn the negative energy and wash away the last remnants.
I dunked my head under the water and laughed when I breached the surface. This was what it was to live. This was what I needed to remember. Life went on.
The Kensington house was just another job. Just another way to make a living while I pursued my passion. One day, I would catch a break, but until then, I would be damned if I let those publishers bring me down. I’d put one foot in front of the other and make it work.
Confident that the ritual burning and impromptu skinny-dipping had done its job, I hurried back out of the water. My steps were light as air, and my smile was magnetic. Whatever spell my mother’s crazy life-journey had cast over all of this nonsense, it sure seemed to work. Believe in anything enough, and belief would turn into reality.
But as I was tramping back up to the fire to collect my clothes, I realized with horror that I wasn’t alone. And what was worse, I recognized the man standing there.
I never forgot a face. And definitely not that face. Or the built body. Or the confident stance.
No, even though six years had passed, I would never forget Penn.
Or what he’d done to me.
My dream and nightmare stood before me.
Clothed like a god walking off of a James Bond set with dark hair and midnight-blue eyes that flickered in the dying embers. Six years had only intensified his magnetic allure. The sharp planes of his too-beautiful face. The ever-present smirk, which sat prominent on those perfect lips. The coy glance as he slid his hands into the front pockets of his black suit pants.
I had been a girl then. Young, naive, and incredibly innocent. I’d thought him a man—bold, honest, emotive, and utterly larger than life. Now, as I looked upon him, I had no idea how I’d thought of him as anything but a rogue. The kind of man who could charm you with a glance and entice you out of your pants with a few pointed words. The sort of man I purposely walked away from now.
I’d never imagined I’d see him again. Never considered what would happen if I came face-to-face with him. But, now that I was, the words just tumbled from my mouth.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” I gasped.
He cocked his head to the side in surprise. An emotion I was sure that he wasn’t accustomed to. He was definitely the kind of man who liked his life in a certain order. People didn’t surprise him. He didn’t let people in his life enough for that.
“What am I doing here?”
His voice was just as I remembered it. Smooth as butter and deeply entrancing. I thought I’d made it up. Like no one actually talked like this. In my mind, I’d magnified everything he was and everything he’d done. But standing here, I was wondering if I had remembered him better than I gave myself credit for.
I braced myself for this conversation. I’d built steel walls up around my heart, mind, and body. I didn’t let people in as easily. And I needed to prepare myself for his manipulation. Let the anger I’d harbored all of these years tear him down as he had once hurt me.
“That’s what I said,” I snapped back.
I’d finally reached him, and I scrambled for my dress. It was a floor-length white boho number that had more fabric than sense, which made finding how to get it on incredibly difficult under good circumstances.
These were not good circumstances.
I struggled with the dress and the layers of material, desperate to find the opening for me to slip my head through. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was seeing Penn again for the first time in six years, I had to do it completely naked.
Seemed fitting. That was the last way he’d seen me then, too.
“Yes, but you are the one who is out of place, skinny-dipping on this beach. Don’t you know these are private residences?”
“I’m well aware.”
I finally found the bottom to the dress and yanked it over my soaking wet head. My long silvery-white hair was such a nuisance sometimes. If only I’d let my best friend, Amy, convince me to chop off my ass-length hair, but no. I had to have another weapon to make getting my dress on more difficult.
“And you’re only supposed to have bonfires in preapproved metal containers.” He glanced down at my makeshift fire. It had almost completely died out by now. “Not to mention, have at least a two-gallon bucket of water to douse the flames.”
I rolled my eyes. Was he actually serious right now?
My euphoria from the ritual began to evaporate. Well, that hadn’t lasted long.
With a huff, I ruffled the bottom layers, pulled my sopping wet hair out of the back of the dress, and then grabbed the shovel off of the ground. With a mighty heave, I covered up the dying flames with a heap of sand.
“There!” I spat. “Now, can we get back to what is important? Like what you’re doing here after all this time.”
He frowned, as if confused by my statement. And that was when it hit me.
He didn’t remember me.
Penn had no clue who the hell I was.
I hadn’t thought that this could get worse or more humiliating. Sure, I looked like a crazy person, burning soul-crushing rejection letters and then stripping nude into the Atlantic. But, now the guy I’d cursed for years was standing before me … and he was staring at me as if I were a stranger.
Six years was a long time.
Most people might not remember someone that they’d had a one-night stand with from that long ago. I knew it was maybe a little irrational to be upset about it all. But, fuck it, I was upset.
You didn’t have the most amazing night of your life with a total stranger and then completely forget that person! I didn’t care who the hell you were. I didn’t care how many times you’d had a one-night stand.
And it had been pretty clear that it wasn’t Penn’s first time—though it had been mine—but still, how could he have forgotten me?
“After all this time?” he asked.
“Never mind,” I grumbled. “The real question is, what are you doing here? Do you live nearby? I thought this was the wrong time of year for the rich and entitled to be in the Hamptons. Memorial Day to Labor Day, right?”
I couldn’t keep the snark out of my voice. No point in filling the bastard in on how I knew him. If he lived nearby, this was going to be one hellacious house-watching.
“Most people are gone. But this is my home, which is why I was wondering what you were doing here.”
“This is your home?” I whispered, pointing at the house off the beach. “No, this belongs to Mayor Kensington. She hired me to watch it this fall. You can’t possibly own that house.”
He shrugged and then sighed. “I didn’t think anyone would be here,” he said, clearly frustrated at my appearance.
“But…but…why would you…”
Then, it dawned on me. My heart stopped. My jaw dropped. I released a sharp breath in disbelief.
“You’re a Kensington.”
He gave me a sheepish grin. “I suppose it’s my family home.”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.” I shook my head in disbelief.
I thought this ritual was supposed to cleanse shit from my life. Not bring in another issue. Fuck.
I could not deal with this right now. Not with my anxiety high from the rejection letters. I’d only been here three days. I’d thought this was a dream come true. Everything was pointing me to get the fuck out of Dodge. Because, man, what else was life going to throw at me? Everything always came in threes. That was what my mom had said.
“I can’t,” I said. I held up my hand to keep him from saying anything. Then, I grabbed the remaining matches and the bourbon, which he eyed curiously, and then stomped off with the shovel over my shoulder.
“Um…where are you going?”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I told him.
I didn’t care that I was being incredibly unprofessional. Or that I was probably ruining my chance at staying at this house. Not that I wanted to work for the woman who had birthed this asshole. But I just needed to get away. I needed to get away and decompress and figure out how to proceed. If I saw his gorgeous face and that come-hither smile anymore, I was likely to stab him with the shovel.
Penn didn’t seem to listen though. He barged right up the beach after me. Heedless of the sand in his loafers or messing up his probably bajillion-dollar suit.
“Uh, you left this,” he said, holding out my bra.
I squeaked, juggled my full load, and snatched it out of his hand. Just fucking great. It wasn’t the first time he’d held my bra or anything, but, god, at some point, I had to catch a break. I had to.
“You’re welcome,” he muttered under his breath.
I had no intention of thanking him for anything. So, I kept my mouth shut.
“Are you going to tell me why you seem like you’re ready to set me on fire?” he asked. He was calm—curious but calm.
I was a puzzle he needed to solve. He needed to be able to put me in a box so that he could figure out how to manipulate my emotions to his whim.
“All right,” he said. But it only made him inspect me harder. “I really don’t understand why you’re mad. This is my house. I thought you were the one trespassing.”
“Well, I’m not,” I growled. “I got this job a month ago. And I had no idea that you were going to be here. In fact, I had no idea you were even a Kensington.”
He peered at me inquisitively, as if he were memorizing the span of my face and the curve of my figure. As if he were about to take a test and was having a last-minute cram session to remember all the little things he already knew about me but promptly forgot. “Have we met before?”
I snorted. “Observant.”
“And it was a bad meeting?”
I snapped my narrowed eyes to him.
He held his hands up. “Okay. Very bad meeting.”
“The fact that you don’t even remember is…” I trailed off.
“You know, you do look familiar. I thought you did this whole time.”
I rolled my eyes skyward and then deposited the shovel back where I’d found it. Better to keep it out of arm’s reach for the rest of this conversation. “Don’t bullshit me.”
“Sure,” I said sarcastically.
I wasn’t sure he knew how to do anything else.
“No, really, how do I know you?”
I shook my head. Hurt broke through the anger. Hurt that I hadn’t let myself feel in so long. “If you can’t remember, then I don’t really see any reason to enlighten you.”
Then, I reached for the door, but he stopped me in my tracks.
I whipped around in shock. He did remember. That bastard did remember something. But hurt was then immediately replaced with that boiling anger. That righteous, vindictive flame that shot through me every time I remembered my first time.
I yanked the door open and glared back at him. “That’s right. We had one night in Paris. You wooed me, you fucked me, and then you ghosted!”
Pushing the door the rest of the way open, I stepped into the Kensington summer cottage. And I froze in place as four people turned to face me. Four people who had clearly heard me screaming at Penn and airing our dirty laundry.
My face turned the color of a tomato.
“I…um…” I stammered, at a loss for words.
I looked like a hot mess, standing soaking wet in my sand-covered dress with a bottle of bourbon and my bra. They probably thought I was a lunatic. A madwoman that Penn had picked up outside when he went to check on the fire.
It was even worse that, whoever these four people were, they looked fabulous. Two men and two women clothed in tailored suits and cocktail dresses. Glamorous, confident, wealthy. It was evident in their dress and mannerisms and the way they let me stand there and gape like a fish out of water.
“I’m so sorry,” I finally managed to get out. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to be at the house tonight. I was hired by Mayor Kensington, but Penn informed me that he wasn’t aware of that fact. Just as I was not aware that he had…friends with him.”
Penn stepped over the threshold and inside. He kicked at the sand on his shoes. Our eyes met, and my breath caught. He was even more stunning in the light. No wonder I’d noticed him in Paris, writing furiously in his notebook in the park by my flat. Or why I’d approached him at that party. Or why…I’d had that one-night stand.
“Why don’t you introduce us to your friend, Penn?” the brunette girl asked coyly. She was tan, as if she had spent the summer on the beach, and wore a glittering emerald-green dress.
Strangely, she gave me Anne Boleyn vibes. I wasn’t sure yet if that was good or bad.
“He doesn’t have to, Katherine. I should be giving the introductions,” the other girl spoke up. She was pale with a splattering of freckles and wavy dark red hair to her shoulders. Her black dress fit her like a dream, but she didn’t seem as relaxed as the others. She was jittery, as if she’d had too much coffee. “This is Natalie Bishop. She’s watching the house for the next two months.”
“I…yes, I am,” I said in confusion.
“Sorry,” the woman said, stepping forward with an extended hand. “I’m Lark. Larkin St. Vincent.”
My throat bobbed. And I’d thought the night couldn’t get any worse. Here was the woman who had hired me.
I hastily put down the bourbon bottle and hid my bra before taking her hand. “Lark, it’s so nice to meet you.”
“It completely slipped my mind that you were going to be here this weekend. For some reason, I thought that you started next week. Since I handed this off to my assistant, I never saw you come into the office.”
“So, you knew someone would be here and suggested it anyway?” one of the men asked. He was incredibly tall with smooth medium-brown skin and short-cropped hair. One look from his depthless dark brown eyes said he was as much trouble as Penn standing next to me. He knew the effect of his good looks.
I swallowed and glanced away.
Lark just rolled her eyes at him. “I didn’t remember, Lewis. You can blame the fact that I haven’t had a vacation in three years.”
“That’s your own fault,” Katherine said.
The last guy just bobbed his head and said, “Yep.”
“Stay out of this, Rowe,” Lark said.
I saw this as my opportunity to get out of there. I looked horrible. This wasn’t how I’d thought I’d meet anyone. “I’m just going to…” I pointed past them, down the hallway to the bedroom I’d been staying in the last two nights.
“That’s probably for the better,” Katherine said. “Did you fall in the ocean?” Her eyes cut to Penn’s, and a smile grew on her pretty red-painted lips. “Did you push her in?”
Penn, who hadn’t said a word up until that moment, finally spoke up, “I think we should allow Natalie a moment of privacy. On a good day, we’re overwhelming. She shouldn’t have to meet the crew like this.”
My head whipped to the side. I was caught between anger and relief. Anger that he’d spoken for me. And relief that, dear god, I really needed to get the fuck out of there. It was way too much all at once. I didn’t people all that well to begin with. I was better one-on-one. But standing where I was and facing down his incredibly attractive and put-together friends when I wanted to yell at him didn’t help anything.
“Uh…yes. Privacy.” I nodded and then stepped around his friends. “Nice to meet you all.”
I raised my hand to awkwardly wave good-bye and realized a minute too late that it was the one that had been hiding my bra. My eyes widened in horror, and then I snapped it down to my side.
I opened my mouth to try to apologize for my behavior, but then I stopped and just fled down the hallway. I didn’t owe anyone in there an apology, except Lark. And, really, what good would it do at this point? There was no way that I was keeping this job after she saw me like that. She would most definitely tell the mayor that I wasn’t fit for the position. That whatever recommendation I’d gotten from my previous house-sitting job must have been fabricated. Because no one could have this many missteps and not be utterly incompetent.
The room I’d been assigned was a soft and luxurious guest bedroom with a white four-poster bed draped in a blue-and-pink-flowered duvet. It had an actual canopy on top. Everything was plush and inviting with a million and a half throw pillows of every variety imaginable and a rug so lush that my feet sank right into it. I was going to miss this room the most.
Only two nights in the down-feather bed, and it had already been the best nights of sleep of my life. I’d really been looking forward to another night in that bed. But, alas, it would not be.
I tossed my bra onto the bed with a huff, threw on a pair of shorts and an oversized T-shirt, and tied my hair in a messy bun on the top of my head. I kicked the sandy dress into a corner and then dragged the two suitcases out of the closet. I was a fast packer. Product of growing up as a military brat and traveling year after year after year to various locales the Air Force had sent us. As a vacation home watcher, I carried the entirety of my life in these two suitcases so that it was easy to move in. And, now, more importantly, out.
All signs had pointed that this was the perfect opportunity for me. Now, all signs pointed to run and run fast. I couldn’t have been more awkward if I’d tried. I wasn’t even that awkward when I tried. But something had just come over me. A cataclysmic reaction to being in Penn’s presence again. My brain had shut off, and my mouth had opened. Ready to unleash on a relative stranger.
A stranger who was the son of my boss.
Who apparently was friends with the woman who had hired me.
I shook my head in exasperation as I unzipped the suitcase and pulled out the packing cubes. What had I even been thinking?
Of course, I hadn’t been thinking. I’d just acted on impulse. Six years of pent-up anger had just unleashed.
I yanked open the first drawer and removed my clothes. This was such a fucking disaster.
Now, I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of the year. This was a cushy job. Sit around and watch someone’s house? Get paid to do that? Um…yeah, a no-brainer. But, without that, I’d probably have to go home. Back to Charleston. A month at home had been plenty to begin with. Between my parents constant arguing about my job and nagging about the lack of boyfriend situation and my perfect little sister, Melanie, starting her senior year of high school with the same guy that she’d dated since we moved to the town. I couldn’t handle it.
I’d have to find another way. Maybe have Amy get me a job at the gallery even though she really didn’t need the help. And maybe I could move in temporarily. Current boyfriend—Steve or Chuck or Tom or whatever his name was—probably wouldn’t like that. They always thought they were the one until a few months later when Amy would kick them out because a new artist had come into town for her gallery. It was a recurring cycle. She loved artists. She somehow continued to settle for losers back home in the interim.
I needed to call her.
She’d freak out about Penn.
She was the one who had warned me about him to begin with.
Of course, I hadn’t listened.
But I realized I didn’t even know where my phone was. Where had I left it after getting that awful email from my agent? Probably the living room.
I grumbled under my breath as I stuffed a bunch of underwear into a small cube. I was fucked because no way in hell was I going back out there to make a fool of myself.
It was bad enough that Penn was here. Let alone that he had seen me naked and watched me humiliate myself. I didn’t have to make it worse.
Plus, what the hell did I have in common with those people? I threw the cube into the suitcase. They all looked famous with their fabulous clothes and perfect hair and manicures and stylish makeup and easy confidence. They’d had their life given to them on a silver spoon. And I had grown up with nothing. Amy had money, but even she wasn’t rich like this.
There was rich, and then there was wealthy.
And I didn’t even follow the lives of the rich and famous, but I knew the name Kensington carried its weight in gold.
I was an idiot. I’d known in Paris that he had money. He’d opened doors that I couldn’t fathom even now. But it had never occurred to me that he was the heir to the Kensington fortune. That he was that wealthy.
A knock on the bedroom door broke me from my silent rant.
“Natalie?” Penn called from the other side.
What the hell? What was he doing, trying to talk to me?
I’d basically run away from him and his friends on his suggestion. It hadn’t been long enough for him to consider his offer of privacy expired.
“Yes?” I took a half-step toward the door and then stopped.
“May I come in?”
Come in? What the fuck? No!
I checked my clothes. Still in shorts and an oversized Grimke University T-shirt. It was one of the best damn private schools in the South and had the added benefit of being in Charleston. But still…it wasn’t much better than my dress.
Shit, why did I even care?
Oh, of course I cared. He was hot as fucking sin. The man made delectable a proper noun. It was ridiculous.
I finally settled on. “Uh…why?”
“I wanted to speak with you.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I guess so.”
The door handle turned, and I tried to look natural. As natural as a deer caught in headlights. A gazelle staring down a lion.
Sometimes, I really wished my writer brain would turn off.
Like right now.
Penn stepped through the open door, and my breath caught. He’d removed his suit coat and his black tie. The white button-up underneath was undone on the first two buttons, and it fit him as if it had been made for him. Broad shoulders that narrowed down to his trim waist and those incredible legs.
I admonished myself with an imaginary smack in the face and met his cool blue gaze. “Can I help you?”
He leaned against the open doorframe and slid a hand into his pocket. Habit maybe. “I came to check on you.”
“I wanted to make sure that you were all right.” His eyes moved to the open suitcase on the bed and the mess of clothes between it and the drawer. He straightened. The only sign that my packing had taken him by surprise. “Are you leaving?”
“Yeah. I’m just packing now, and I’ll be out of your hair by the morning.”
“That was not what I meant.”
“Well, why don’t you say what you mean?” For once, was the implied addition. “I’m kind of busy.”
“You don’t have to leave.”
“Of course I do. This is your house. I was hired to watch and maintain an empty house for the season before some big party in November. Not only is the house not empty, but I also assume I’ll be fired by Monday. So, I might as well get started.” I stuffed another shirt into the suitcase to make a point.
“Why on earth would you get fired?”
I released an exasperated breath. “Lark hired me. After that performance, I can’t imagine her reporting back kindly.”
“Lark…isn’t going to report back to my mother.”
Now, I turned to him fully. My own surprise clear. “Why ever not?”
“This is actually her first real vacation in three years. She got the weekend off from the office, and I dragged her here with the others after her last event.” He gestured to his suit as if to say, Hence the outfit. “The fact that it slipped her mind that you were here is a testament to how much she needs it. So, you can imagine work is the last thing on her mind.”
I couldn’t imagine. Her life sounded horrible. Who didn’t take any time off for three years? What kind of slave driver was Mayor Kensington?
“But,” he continued when I didn’t respond immediately, “we can get out of your hair. Head back to the city or something. So see, you should stay. And we’ll go.”
“No, that’s absurd. This is your house. I’m the interloper here. Even if Lark doesn’t report me, which I’m still doubting, I would get in the way. There’s no reason for me to be here if you’re here.”
“But it’s your job. None of us”—he paused on the word us, as if contemplating whether what he was about to say was true—“wants to take that from you. So, you should stay.”
“I’m already halfway packed.”
“Natalie,” he said softly.
He stepped forward into the room and placed his hand on one of the posters of the bed. His gaze softened and bore into mine. I was transfixed once more. The way he said my name. The way he stared at me. Oh god, he was such a menace.
“Don’t,” I snapped.
His eyebrows rose in response.
“Don’t say my name like you know me or even care whether I stay or go. We don’t know each other. And I’m certain I don’t want to know you.”
It was harsh but honest. And I didn’t feel bad, saying it.
“Fine,” he finally muttered on a sigh. “We’ll figure it out in the morning once you’ve cooled off.”
“I don’t need to cool off,” I bit out. “I’m perfectly levelheaded.”
“Just stay,” he barked.
“No, I think I should go.”
He walked back to the door. “Do whatever you want, I guess. I came to check to make sure that you weren’t humiliated after what happened. But it seems that your pride is too great to even continue staying under the same roof as us. You don’t have to stay,” he said, glancing back at me. “But, if you do, try to stay out of the way.”
He snapped the door closed behind him, and I threw the closest thing I had at the door. The pair of socks thudded uselessly against the door.
Here was the real Penn Kensington.
He wasn’t trying to make everything better. He was trying to keep from having to leave tonight while I was around. I was a nuisance and needed to stay out of his way. He made me want to scream. And not even in the fun way!
I didn’t even know how to respond to him. Pack or stay, it seemed I was playing into his hands. I flopped back onto the bed, sinking deep into the down comforter. When would I catch a break?
No. I wouldn’t succumb to this shit.
That was the old Natalie. The idealist who had let herself get taken advantage of. The new Natalie wasn’t going to play that game anymore.
I was the one who was supposed to be here. I was the one getting paid to watch the house. I wouldn’t stay in my room and cower. Not from Penn Kensington or his beautiful friends.
Thanks so much for reading this excerpt of Cruel Money! If you want to keep reading, preorder now!
P.S. If you didn’t know there’s already a FREE prequel to Cruel Money available now! One Cruel Night takes place six years before this book opens and follows their one night stand in Paris!