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“Can I? Can I kiss you?” Benjamin asks his summer crush after their picnic dinner under the full moon.

They’re sitting on a blanket by the lake on their last night of the mission.

Tess stares at him for a long, considering time…then she tentatively nods.

It’s not the Fourth of July, but his chest lights up with fireworks. “Yes?”

“Yes,” Tess confirms. “But Benjamin?”

“Yeah?” he leans forward, giving him her full attention.

“You should know that you’re my first kiss ever,” she says, her voice taking on a shaky note he’s never heard before. “I just don’t have a lot of experience, and I’m really nervous.”

He’s her first kiss? Something in Benjamin’s stomach jumps at that new piece of information. Yeah, he definitely wants to kiss the hell out of this girl. But first he has to make a confession of his own. “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.” She leans forward too.

“I’ve got more experience than you, sure. But it’s only stupid stuff at parties where nobody should have been drinking.” He swallows and admits, “I’m nervous, too, but I’m trying to act confident—like I know what I’m doing so that you won’t dump me for being a loser.”

“Wow, seriously, that’s the story you’re really trying to sell me, looking all fine under this moonlight?”

He wants to laugh, but he’s got to remind her, “This isn’t going to work unless we listen and validate each other. That’s what you said.”

“Sorry! Sorry! You’re right.” Tess’s disbelieving look becomes an apologetic wince. “I shouldn’t invalidate what you’re feeling. I’m just finding it difficult to believe that someone as good-looking as you is as insecure as me.”

“Oh, I’m way more insecure at this point than you,” Benjamin insists. He ticks off the reasons on his fingers. “You were abandoned by your mom as a baby. Mine did that shit after actually getting to know me. The only parent I have left is an abusive piece of shit who never put in any volunteer work a day in his life. And oh yeah, I’m living in my brother’s shadow, and I might only be sixteen, but I’m already beginning to suspect that situation might stick.”

Tess scrunches her forehead.

“Still don’t believe me?” He raises the other hand, prepared to give her a hell of a lot more examples.

“No, it’s more like I can’t believe I’m just now figuring out how much we had in common from the start.” She peeps up at him shyly. “I really did think we were an opposites-attract romance.”

“Only on the outside.” Benjamin covers her hand with his on the blanket. “Tess?”


“Still nervous?”

“Not so much anymore. Thanks for walking me through it.” She offers him a sweet smile. Then she asks, “Benjamin?”


“Can we kiss now?”

This girl….

More fireworks explode in his chest as he leans forward to capture her mouth.

She tastes as sweet as her smile. Like the cherry Coke she had with dinner.


That innocent word leads to dangerous thoughts. He kisses her even deeper, his cock turning to concrete at the idea of taking her virginity tonight. But go slow…

He gently guides her into a lying-down position on the picnic blanket, even as his mind pops off with lurid images of himself moving between her legs.

He already knows it will be as good as he imagined all those nights he lay in bed alone, yearning for her in the dark. Better, probably.

He groans into her mouth, hips grinding into the front of the pretty light blue jersey dress she wore for their picnic date under the moon. He’s going to ruin her outfit if he’s not careful.

But fuck careful.

“If I buy you another one of these, can I rip this dress off your body?” “he asks, his voice rough with dark desire.

“That’s a thing that actually happens outside of romance novels?” she asks, giggling breathlessly.

Her laughter morphs into a surprised gasp when he rips the pretty-but-offensive barrier down the front.

And Benjamin’s mouth waters when he sees the glorious set of tits she was hiding beneath the dress’s too-high neckline. They strain against the lacy white cups of her bra, begging for his attention.

But they don’t have to beg for that. They’ve got his full devotion along with every other curve on his summer crush’s body.

“Look at you, Tess,” he breathes out. “You need to stop with this low self-esteem shit. You’re the sexiest girl on Earth.”

Her gaze melts. “When you say things like that, I actually believe you. Thank you,”

“No, thank you.” He takes a deep breath and says, “I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but all I want in this world is to be your first. I’m already so far gone over you, Tess. Can I have you? Can I have you tonight?”

She swallows thickly. Then seems to decide right then and there. “Yes…yes, I want you to be my first time. I stand by that decision.”

This girl…

It’s all he can do not to fall on top of her. But no… Control yourself.

Forcing that animal instinct down, he refocuses on Tess. Her pleasure…that’s his only job tonight.

With that in mind, he pulls the cups of her bra aside, freeing her luscious breasts to give them the attention they deserve. This is not a hardship at all. He sucks the dark aureole into his mouth, swirling his tongue around the nub, then bites down just enough to make her release a breathy, “Oh, oh…”

She’s so responsive, and that’s enough to make him linger there. He latches on to the other breast and draws just as hungrily while molding his palm around the first breast. He loves the sounds she makes as he swirls his thumb around its hard black-cherry peak.

“Oh, Benjamin! Oh, God. Why does that feel so good?”

It’s obvious from Tess’s response that her breasts have not been given the respect they deserve over the years. God damn shame really. Luckily, he’s here to put an end to all that neglect.

Her needy whimpers are driving him crazy, not to mention the way she’s wriggling beneath him, driving her hot core into his stomach.

He has to remind himself several times to stay in control as he cups her pussy, using just enough force to keep her still. She whimpers dejectedly, like something unfairly caged.

“Ssh, not yet, baby. Not yet,” Benjamin whispers around her breasts. “I’m so fucking turned on right now, but I’m not going to rush us. I want your first time to be so good you don’t ever think about being with another guy. I’m going to open you up with a couple of fingers. Make sure you’re ready.”

He reaches underneath the band of her cotton panties, and she lets out a soft gasp when he strokes one finger into her virginal tunnel. But then she widens her legs to accommodate the second one he pushes into her. And when he pushes a third one in, she moans brokenly as her pussy contracts around his fingers

“Good, good,” he says thickly. “You’re doing so good….”

She’s getting really close. He could light up her body with just a few more pumps of his hand.

But there’s a presence in the woods with them. And he has to point them out.

“You see Donovan and those other Connecticut asswipes over there? Watching us from the woods?” he asks, nodding toward a point just a few feet away from where he’s fingers-deep in her core. “No, don’t stop. I want them to watch me worship this pussy.”

Tess stiffens underneath his hand. Donovan and his boys watching them was not something they discussed beforehand, and he can see her old insecurities threatening to overtake the lust.”

“I’m going to orgasm you, baby, and you’re going to come for me like you don’t give a fuck whose watching,” he growls. “C’mon. Let them see us. Let them see how good we can b together.”

Lucky for him, Tess was always the kind of girl who settled for nothing less than straight A’s in school. In the end, she gives into her new assignment with a little nod.

She’s already soaking his fingers. But true to his word, Benjamin will settle for nothing less than complete worship. He keeps one hand molded to her breasts but dives his mouth down to the sacred space between her legs, splitting her folds with the flat of his tongue, before thrusting it in for a most reverent kiss.

That’s when the moaning really begins. Tess twists her fingers into his hair as he lathes her core, and her chest heaves under his hand. She looks glassy-eyed toward the spot where Donovan and his boys are standing.

“I can’t believe I’m letting you do this in front of them,” she whispers. “But I can’t tell you to stop. It feels too good.”

Her words nearly unravel him. His cock is so heavy and full it’s pressing painfully into his zipper. But he continues to drink her down like a man dying of thirst. He won’t stop. He refuses to stop. Not until…

Her pussy clamps down hard on his fingers then shudders as she comes with a helpless cry while her thighs flex around his head. Christ, he loves the sounds she makes as she finds her completion.

But it isn’t enough for him. Again. The thirsty man disappears, and he becomes an animal, licking at her soft inner thighs before diving right back into her sodden pussy.

“I can’t, Benjamin,” she half-sobs, her fingers pulling at his hair. “It’s too much. Please…”

Thank fuck they talked about safewords earlier. He continues going because she can. He knows she can show Donovan and company how a real woman receives her just rewards.

And he’s proven right a few moments later when she cries out with a second orgasm before becoming boneless underneath his mouth.

Good, good. She’s nice and soaked. Ready. He pulls his fingers out and rises to his knees.

But the picture she makes lying on the blanket beneath him…eyes glazed with her thick thighs akimbo and her dark breast spilled out over the underwire of her lacy bra. No, he doesn’t ever want to hurt her, but it causes him pain to unzip his jeans and pull out his rigid cock.

“You see what you do to me, baby?” he asks as he picks up the foil package from where he left it on the picnic blanket. “I’m going to have to think about hockey drills when I put on this condom just to keep from blowing early in front of Donovan and company again.”

“Then don’t,” she says softly.

Her words freeze him in place.

“Don’t what?” he asks carefully.

Her lust-filled gaze raises to meet his, “Don’t put on the condom. Take me raw.”

Everything falls away. The woods, the lake, that summer—all the memories they’re trying to undo.

No, Donovan wasn’t in the script they talked about when they decided to try a roleplay dinner date to heal what happened that summer. But neither was this.

“We’ve already proved we can co-parent with me hating you,” she explains into his shocked silence. “I’d like to see what it would be like to do it the opposite way.”

Benjamin blinks.

Because that’s what you do when you suddenly find yourself in a dream, right? And there’s no way, Tess, the woman he’s been yearning after for nearly four years actually wants to try for another kid with him.

That would be too good to be true.

If this is a dream, he doesn’t want to wake up.

Still, he has to do his due diligence. It’s like he promised Tess the night he told her everything in the wake of Stephanie’s departure. No more lies. No more secrets. From now on he follows his conscience and does what’s best for Tess—not himself.

He won’t risk losing her again.

So he has to ask. “You remember the safeword?”

She nods.

Not good enough. Not for this.

“Say it out loud for me, baby.”

“Tommy’s Pizza,” she answers, sitting up on her forearms. The sex glaze is gone, and she looks at him with clear eyes to insist, “I know the safeword, and I don’t want to use it.”

He shakes his head, unable to let himself believe. “Tess, are you serious? You gotta be serious because it’s going to kill me if you take this back.”

She regards him with a sympathetic gaze. Then she sits all the way up and pushes his jeans further down his legs. “I want a baby. One I can keep. Do you want a baby too? With me?”

“Fuck yes,” he rasps out.

“Then come on.” She places her hands on his hips and eases him back down to the blanket with her. “Let’s make a baby.”

He follows her to the ground. “Please don’t regret this.”

He doesn’t realize he’s said that prayer out loud until she answers, “I won’t. I promise I won’t. I never got over you either. Now, please, let’s make this right.”

Let’s make this right.

He lodges himself deep inside of her and crashes his mouth back down on hers. She’s so tight and wet and his. He’s not going to last long if he doesn’t keep kissing her. He needs the separate action to remind him what’s at stake, that he can’t mess this up if he wants forever with her.

For a moment everything is quiet as he concentrates on loving her the way he should have that night, with long, slow strokes that touch her deep inside.

But then she falls out of the kiss to tell him. “Benjamin, I love you. I love you so much. I never stopped, even though I wanted to. Thank you for never giving up on us.”

He’s bid himself so many times tonight to stay in control. But he just loses it after she says that. No more kissing. No more slow loving. He begins thrusting into her, crude and rough.

“I will never give up on us. Never stop loving you,” he snarls into her neck. “You’re going to have to marry me, baby, because I can’t stop. I’m never stopping with you again. Take this baby, Tess. Make us a family.”

He’s too far gone to temper his emotions, but his real talk doesn’t spook her. No…

She pulls him in closer, her arms wrapping so tight around his neck, he can hear the clacking of her teeth as he thrusts into her faster and faster.

Neither of them is in control. They mate like animals on the ground. Too base to do anything but follow a prime directive to reproduce.

She cries out beneath him, “Oh, God, I can’t. I can’t take this! Please, I can’t.”

No safeword.

“You can,” he growls low into her ear. “You are. You will forever.”

No more secrets. He lets her see everything he feels for her. Everything he’s hidden behind carefully-worded suggestions, nice-dad smiles, and invitations on A4 cardstock. The never-ending love. The impatient obsession he’s harbored for three years. The dark entitlement.

“You’re mine, Tess,” he informs her roughly. “You were mine from the moment I laid eyes on you. And when I put this baby in you, we’re never going back to the way it was.”

She should be scared. All the second thoughts—that’s what she should be having right now.

But instead of pushing him away, she screams. Not in fear, but in pleasure. Her face slackens into wonder as another orgasm crests over her.

Thank goodness, Daphne sleeps with noise-canceling headphones. Benjamin couldn’t quell her screams if he wanted to—not with her pussy flexing and contracting around his cock.

Benjamin wanted this to last forever this time. But he can’t…he can’t….

He explodes.

“This is forever, Tess,” he declares, mindlessly pumping as he empties inside of her. “I’m never going to let you go. I’m going to love you until the day I d—”

“Oh my God, Tess! Tess! Are you okay?” Stephanie’s voice calls out, right before the door crashes open and she and Hades come rushing into his bedroom.

Stephanie’s face is frantic with worry—until she sees the picnic scene on the floor. Then she says, “Oh, my God!” again for a much different reason.

Benjamin and Tess tumble out of their lake fantasy, back into the primary bedroom of his three-bedroom condo in Seaport.

And Stephanie slaps a hand over her eyes.

“We heard you screaming, and we thought you were hurt,” she explains. “But maybe that’s not the case. Are you okay?”

“I’d say she’s more than okay, ma belle,” Galen points out with a devilish grin. “It looks like the two of them have made up, just like us.”

“Wait, you took him back,” Tess asks, pushing at Benjamin to let her up. “Even after Operation Birthday Card?”

“Yes, our love is no match for snitching birthday cards.” Galen glares at them as Benjamin re-zips and grabs a robe from the walk-in closet for Tess to put on over her ruined dress.

“I took him back before I lost my memory actually,” Stephanie answers her sister in a much kinder tone. “It’s a super long story which I will be more than happy to share with you in full—after you get dressed.”

“Okay, I mean, sure, I guess. I need to hear that story,” Tess says, pulling on the robe. “But what are you two doing here?”

* * *


His daughter comes awake with a jerk when four adults yell her name loud enough to be heard over the noise-canceling headphones she likes to wear to bed.

“What the…” She lifts her silk mask with an angry look–only to burst into a smile when she sees the two people standing beside her parents. “Steph, Uncle G! What are you doing here?”

Stephanie holds up the phone. “You texted that it was an emergency and that Tess needed my help. Then you never answered my return texts. And your mom was…ah…occupied—all I knew was that Tess needed my help and that the both of you were here in Boston. So we basically dropped everything and flew out here in a private jet.”

“Ooh, you flew here in a private jet.” Daphne clasps her hands and lets out a wistful sigh. “That’s so cool. I tried to get Mom and Dad to fly us out here in one, but they’re, like, agreeing now, and they both said it was wasteful.”

“Environmentally unconscionable actually,” Tess says, throwing Hades another dirty look. “But Daphne, focus. Why didn’t you text your aunt back? You had her really worried and made her fly out here for nothing.”

Daphne appears just as confused as Tess for a moment.  But then she remembers out loud. “Oh yeah, my phone died before I went to bed. But my charger’s all the way out in the living room so, you know…”

She trails off with a shrug as if she expects all the adults in the room to fully understand why, of course, she couldn’t walk all the way to the living room to plug in her phone.

“You might have a point about her being spoiled,” Benjamin concedes to Tess under his breath.

Might?” Tess repeats.

At the same time, Stephanie asks, “What the heck, Daphne? What emergency, even? Tess is fine!”

“Better than fine,” Hades can’t help but add with a secretive grin.

Tess glares at him much in the same way she glared at his brother Keane yesterday when he magnanimously “forgave” her for not forgiving his little brother sixteen years earlier.

“I mean yeah, she’s fine right now,” Daphne answers defensively. “But earlier tonight, she told me she was going to wear Crocs underneath her evening gown to Dad’s Man of the Year ceremony tomorrow. Crocs.I was texting you so that you could talk some sense into her.”

What?” Stephanie stares at Daphne for several disbelieving seconds—before turning to Tess and saying, “Yeah, no, you can’t do that, sis.”

“Why not?” Tess whines, immediately jumping to her own defense. “Keane’s wife never wears heels. She says she can’t anymore after having three kids.”

“You had one kid when you were sixteen,” Daphne argues from the bed. Then she turns to Stephanie with an exasperated look. “See why I needed your help?”

“Totally,” Stephanie says, shaking her head at Tess. “I’m glad you texted, Daphne. I’ve got this. Go back to sleep.”

She strings an arm around Tess’s shoulders and guides her out of the room while sternly informing her, “We’re going to go out tomorrow to find an evening gown for me and a pair of comfortable heels for you.”

“Comfortable heels are an oxymoron!” Tess insists.

To absolutely no avail.

The next night, Tess finds out why her daughter was so insistent on her wearing a cute pair of heels when Benjamin proposes on the Boston Charities red carpet.

But she does have to worry about her make-up smearing when she answers with a tearful yes. With no hesitation whatsoever. They’re not teenagers anymore, and they’re done second-guessing themselves—not when they make each other this happy.

“It stings, it stings,” she says, rubbing at her eyes after he slips the ring on her finger. “But that’s okay. All the pain is worth this.”

Benjamin gets the feeling she’s not necessarily talking about her mascara as he pulls her in for a big kiss with their families clapping and news cameras flashing all around.

No, Tess and he didn’t get their happy ending the first time around when they were teenagers.

But that’s okay.

They’re getting it now, and he already has the feeling they’ll appreciate their true love way more the second time around.

* * *

Oh my gosh, Bono and Tess have been lurking around for years in the background of the 50 Loving States Universe.

All I knew when Bono presented himself for KEANE was that he was deeper than he appeared, and he got someone pregnant while away on a mission trip.

Over the years, Bono’s secret baby came up occasionally in other stories. And I kept on getting glimpses of his first love as someone super practical who ran a shelter—but there was no story to go along with these quick character peeks. So, imagine my surprise when Tess—Stephanie’s secret sister—presented as Bono’s first love and asked for a B story.

I really loved getting to tell a secret baby story that actually included a custody agreement. And I just adored how petty Tess was about not wanting to speak or see Benjamin ever again.

But I’m even happier, Benjamin and Tess figured things out.

Hey, want to meet their baby?

Join my Patreon at any level

for a couple of bonus scenes

featuring an upcoming couple

from the 50 Loving Series!

And thanks so much again for reading HADES: Stephanie and the Ruthless Mogul!

PHANTOM Bonus Epilogue




“Aw, don’t cry, Eric. Don’t cry….”

Lord knew we’d learned our lesson about giving anyone unnecessary hugs over the last few years. But Olivia immediately pulled Eric into her arms—as best she could with her six-month pregnant belly. Meanwhile, I rubbed his back, trusting the vaccines we got toward the beginning of the year to keep us safe.

I figured Eric would be happy when Olivia, O2, and I showed him the flower-covered lattice archway and the rows of white chairs we’d set up for his wedding on Glendaver Castle’s back lawn.

But I didn’t think he’d burst into tears, turning the light yellow sleeve of Olivia’s dress dark with his guttural sobs.

Olivia and I exchanged a sympathetic look over his shoulder. This was about more than really liking the aesthetic we’d chosen for his wedding.

“Why are you crying, Uncle Eric?” O2 asked as if sensing the same thing we did.

“I’m sorry,” Eric answered. He pulled away from Olivia and mopped at his tears with the back of his hands. “After the year I’ve had—that we’re still having, I just don’t know how else to respond to all this beauty. I’m so happy to see you all again, but Olivia, you’re so pregnant. And Bernice, you’re still you, but O2 is so big—I just missed you so, so much!”

And there he went again.

This time I pulled Eric in for the hug while Olivia patted his back.

“We overstand,” I let Eric know.

I wasn’t just commiserating either.

None of us expected to be apart for this long. Two Januarys ago, Olivia and Phantom had returned to New York to introduce their baby daughter, Fei, to the grandmother they named her after and check in on the clinic. When I told Olivia about my landlord finding out that I wasn’t the great aunt on the rent-controlled lease and only giving me seven days to find a new place, she’d come up with a novel solution.

She’d bring O2 and me back with her to Kentucky so that I could help her continue setting up the clinic while she was technically on maternity leave. Three months, six months tops, we’d figured—just enough time to help Olivia get the clinic in Louisville fully staffed and running. Then O2 and I could move back to NYC and live in Phantom’s Upper West Side penthouse until we found a new place of our own.

My Aunt Minerva, who’d moved into the castle after she found out Olivia was pregnant, had even volunteered to also watch O2 during the day.

Rent-free castle stay, no-charge babysitting, extraordinary boss—Olivia had made it virtually impossible for this single mother to say no to her.

But shortly after O2 and I arrived in Kentucky for our short stay, the reports of a virus that would eventually upturn the world kept getting worse and worse. By the time three months rolled around, the idea of moving back to New York felt crazy. And by the time I got the vaccine over a year after our arrival, I honestly couldn’t see us ever returning to the big city I could barely afford.

Sure, Glendaver County was a little too close for comfort to the place where O2 was conceived. But that was just me being silly.

O2 had plenty of space to play outside without the risk of getting run over by a car if she wasn’t paying attention while chasing a ball. She loved Fei like a little sister. And she just adored Aunt Minerva, who’d set up a supposedly temporary daycare for the clinic staffers in the castle’s guesthouse, as did all the kids who’d ended up in her care during the pandemic.

Sure, Aunt Minerva occasionally sent the children home with simple spells to fast heal booboos and anything else that was bothering them. And around the holidays, quite a few of the parents had asked her to stop telling the children that one of her cousins was actually Santa Claus’s second wife. But other than that, we could all agree that Minerva was essential to us essential workers being able to do our jobs during the worse of the pandemic.

And as crazy as her spells and stories were, only one of us parents pulled our kids out of the makeshift daycare after getting our vaccines—and that was only because the child was going to live with her grandparents for the summer. Otherwise, Minerva’s witchy daycare would still be at total capacity.

Olivia had made it easy for me to agree to come to Kentucky and impossible for me to leave.

As Phantom had said last Thanksgiving when he stood up to give the toast with Fei in one arm and a glass of Glendaver Whiskey in his free hand, “I like our version of family.”

The only downside to the new family we’d created in Kentucky was that it didn’t include Eric.

So we held each other tight, and eventually, O2 tugged on the skirt of my maxi dress to say, “Now you’re crying too, Mama!”

Eric and I both let out watery laughs.

“We just missed each other,” I answered for both of us. “A whole, whole lot.”

“Yes,” Eric sniffled and once again mopped away his tears. “I missed you so much, I agreed to come down here for my wedding—even though my man wanted to just get married in some courthouse in New York.”

“You’re acting like this was an inconvenience. But Phantom did fly you out here private,” I pointed out, easily falling into my old snippy dynamic with Eric. “And we were the ones who did all the planning in set up work. I think the two words you’re looking for are ‘thank you’”

“I know, you’re right. Thank you! You two are the best.” Eric blew both of us kisses. “But you know my guy’s a city boy through and through. It was a job to get him to step foot in Kentucky, much less get married here like Olivia and Phantom.”

Olivia nodded.

“I can understand that he wouldn’t necessarily feel Kentucky was a safe place for him,” she said, validating him like the excellent boss she was—even if Eric was the one in charge of the NYC Women with Disabilities clinic now.

It was the exact right response. But then, O2 asked, “Mr. Byron is scared of Kentucky? But he’s a police officer!”

I mentally slapped myself. It hadn’t occurred to me that Olivia would remember the only boyfriend Eric had ever introduced her to before we left NYC for our temporary Kentucky stay. But, of course, she did.

After nearly five years of motherhood, I’d learned that kids’ #1 talent in life is zeroing in on the one question that will make things awkward for all the adults involved in the conversation.

“No, sweetie-bug,” Olivia said, bending down to address her as best she could with Phantom’s huge baby boy in her belly. “Uncle Eric is getting married to Uncle Phantom’s brother.”

“Oh,” O2 said with seemingly complete understanding—only to ask, “What happened to the police officer? He was nice!”

Because I guess she just didn’t feel this conversation was awkward enough.

This time Eric answered O2 for himself with a tight smile. “Well, Uncle Eric upgraded himself to Mr. Mike, a caring doctor who would never, ever go behind my back and cheat.”

O2’s mouth dropped open. “Mr. Byron cheated on a test?”

Kids. They bring the awkward, and they bring the funny, too.

O2’s next question ended up being, “Why are you laughing?”

And a little while later, after we told her we were going inside to introduce her to Mike and the rest of Phantom’s family, she said, “Hold on!” as soon as we walked through the kitchen’s door.

We all watched her run up the back staircase to Olivia’s old childhood bedroom, which she’d called her own for over a year—Olivia had even helped her swap out the N’Sync posters for ones of Applejack, Pinkie Pie!, and Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony.

She came back down a few moments later with a sheet of gold star stickers. We had no idea what she had planned for them until she reached up and stuck it on Mike’s mask after he introduced himself.

Of Phantom’s three doctor siblings, Mike looked the most like the only CEO in their family. Tougher and squarer than his other two older willowy brothers.

But his hard face softened as he asked her. “What’s this for?”

“For not cheating on Uncle Eric’s test!” O2 answered. Then she once again found herself having to ask, “Why is everybody laughing?”

We laughed a lot that day.

* * *

That night instead of having a traditional rehearsal dinner, Eric’s parents and younger tech billionaire brother brought over takeout from the Mayan Café, an Indigenous-inspired farm-to-table restaurant in Louisville that was hipster enough for Eric and Mike citified tastes, but delicious enough for the rest of us.

After setting up the kids in the kitchen with Minerva, we placed the food out buffet-style in the castle’s great hall. But it being early August, eventually, the small party spilled outside where the adults could mingle on the stone deck, and the unvaccinated children could take off their masks and play in their pod on the huge lawn below.

For many of us, this was the first time we’d been to any sort of largish event since the start of the pandemic, and we enjoyed each other’s company to the utmost.

Phantom’s parents told me all about Fei’s grandma, who’d sadly passed away just a few hours after meeting Fei. This was a happy story, according to them, and Phantom’s father insisted, “She promised to send me a sign of who she’s become before I die.”

Sensing a way to help, I told them about my distant cousin—who contrary to the requests of the skeptical daycare parents—really was married to Santa Claus.

“She talks to spirits,” I let Phantom’s father know. “And if there’s anyone who can help you figure out what happened to your mama, it’s her. But you’d have to travel to San Francisco during the twelve days of Christmas to see her. Here, let me get your number, and I’ll send you all the details….”

Eric pulled me aside after I exchanged numbers with Phantom’s much more tech-savvy mother.

“Can you go get Olivia? She’s talking my brother’s ear off. I think she’s trying to set him up with that spouse-stealing tramp.”

“C’mon now, Eric, stop calling one of the nicest people I know out her name. Allie didn’t steal your work wife. Olivia decided to stay down here before she even hired her. And she’s the one running the clinic by herself tomorrow while Olivia and me enjoy your wedding. Also, that’s my best friend you’re talking about.”

He glared. “Now you’re on the mistress’s side? That makes me despise her even more.”

So, same old Eric.

He ended up doing his own dirty work, pulling Olivia out of the conversation with his crazy rich brother with a ding of his glass to get everyone’s attention before he thanked her and Phantom for providing their house for the wedding.

And by thanking, I mean he mumbled something about their generosity—then took not-so-humble credit for “saving” her from marrying Garrett by telling Phantom about their upcoming nuptials.

“Mike and I had only been dating for a few weeks, but after I got that invite, I was like, ‘not to be totally insane, but you’ve got to introduce me to your family, like, way too soon so that I can pretend to let it slip to your brother that Olivia’s getting married.’ Honestly, I knew he was the forever one when he actually agreed.”

Olivia and the rest of Phantom’s family had tears of laughter in their eyes by the time he was done with the story. But Phantom, who’d kept a thick arm wrapped around his wife’s waist the entire party, grumbled something low in Olivia’s ear.

I didn’t have to hear what he said to know that Eric’s story was still in the “too soon” category for him. If not for Eric’s interference, Phantom would have lost his wife to Garrett Easton. And I was no Olivia in the empathy and validation department, but I could guess that the longer they were together, the worse that thought became for him.

In any case, Olivia quickly stopped laughing and laid a soothing hand on his cheek.

I could almost imagine what she was saying. Something along the lines of… “I know those memories are hard for you. But look at us now. Concentrate on the present. Think about our future.”

Whatever she said, it worked. Phantom’s concrete face broke out into a soft smile, and he laid a hammy hand on her belly while pressing his forehead into hers.

The moment was so loving, so tender….the hot pang of jealousy erupted in my chest before I could stop it. I had to look away, turning my back on the scene in favor of watching the children play under the setting sun.

Nobody deserved to be happy more than Olivia. But more and more lately, it had been hard for me not to covet what she had—not the money and the clinics, but all the blessings she’d received in her personal life.

I adored O2—a little too much, even more now after the pandemic. The longing for another had become an ache in my heart. But I didn’t want to go the single mother route again.

What would it be like to actually fall in love and get pregnant? The right and solid way—not the crazy and wrong way, like I had with O2’s father?

“I think I know what’s got that pensive look on your face….”

I didn’t realize Olivia had moved until her voice tore me away from thoughts of the things I couldn’t have.

“Um…” I answered. I was pretty sure Olivia didn’t know I was experiencing a helpless bout of jealously over her happily ever after, so I didn’t know how to respond.

“One of us has got to talk to Dawn as soon as she gets here with Victor tomorrow,” Olivia continued, assuming that we were on the same wavelength. “I mean if she says anything to Eric about her brother and….”

I caught up in an instant and concluded, “Oh wow, yeah, that could definitely ruin Eric’s big day. As in love as he is with Mike, he’s still really bitter at Byron.”

“I know, right?” Olivia agrees. “Better not to chance him finding out until after the wedding. But they’re not getting in until right before the reception. And since I’m Eric’s best person….”

“Don’t worry, I’m on it,” I assured her.

* * *

“Hey, what are you doing out here?” my best friend, Allie, asked me the next day when she found me seated on the steps of Glendaver Castle. I was reading the latest sci-fi novel by another one of my aunts, Clarissa Quinn, instead of whooping it up with everybody else at the wedding reception.

Allie was supposedly here to pick up her son from the backhouse daycare where he was hanging with O2 and Aunt Minerva. But she’d worn a pretty wedding-appropriate sundress for the occasion.

Olivia’s scorned work husband would never have invited her to the reception himself. But since Allie had to pick her son up from Minerva’s daycare anyway after the clinic closed, Olivia and I had told her to drop by for some free food and fun.

“Let me guess,” she said before I could answer. “You’re trying to finally get a quiet moment by yourself for the first time since the pandemic started.”

I laughed at her guess.

Allie understood the struggle more than most as a single mother herself. And she had a near similar story to my own. Olivia had hired her for her already overly popular clinic in Louisville despite her being visibly pregnant just because someone she trusted—me—recommended her. The only difference was, she’d been hired on as a fresh out of medical school general practitioner doctor instead of a clerk.

Over the course of the pandemic, we’d become even closer—to the point where O2 insisted on calling Allie’s toddler son “Little brother,” no matter how many times we explained they weren’t related by blood.

And even though she was the doctor with the least experience at the clinic, she was the best, according to our online reviews. Olivia trusted her to be the doctor in charge when she was away and lived in fear that her second work spouse would quit on us.

That made me feel a little better about the lie of omission I’d told to get her the job. I’d insinuated that Allie—or as she was professionally referred to—Dr. Allison Snow was a medical work colleague from my pre-New York days.

That was only kind of true. She’d worked with me back then—but not at the doctor’s office I’d clerked at in Tennessee. The job we’d worked had been off the books in a place you couldn’t find on Yelp or Google Maps.

But we never talked about what happened at that under-the-table job.…or the fathers of our children.

Hopes and dreams, all day—I could tell you Allie’s 5-year plan, line by line. But our pasts….well, let’s just say that the reason we’re such good friends is that we understand what’s thoroughly off-limits.

As far as we’re concerned, we’re exactly what we say we are. A boring office clerk and an ultra-capable doctor. The girls we were when we worked at that roadhouse right at the Tennessee/Kentucky border….well, we’ve left them behind.

For us, there’s only now, and we try not to think about our pasts ever catching up with us.

“Good guess,” I said to Allie in answer to her question about why I was waiting outside the castle. “But really, I’m out to intercept Dawn, who should be here any second with her husband, Victor.”

Allie’s eyes widened, “Oh my gosh, are you going to run interference to warn her not to bring up the situation with her brother and the yakuza….”

“Yup,” I answered before she was even finished with her guess.

When I said we were best friends, I meant best friends. And though our own pasts are off-limits, everybody else’s is fair play.

My gossip game was A++ after years of being a side character in The Phantom and Olivia Show. So my girl knew all the special guest stars in their universe, including the obscure ones she’d never met.

“Ooh, I’ll wait with you,” she said, dropping down to sit on the stone steps beside me. “Maybe his sister will have an update for us too. I can’t wait for another episode of that story!”

“See. This right here is why we’re best friends,” I let Allie know with a huge laugh.

She laughed too, and the southern accent that she tried not to use in her professional day-to-day came back full force as she declared, “I’m just saying this single mom Kentucky life is thin on drama. I need an infusion of it wherever I can get—”

Roaring engines in the distance cut off whatever she was going to say.

The laughter disappeared from our voices, our minds, our very souls.

Because we knew that roar. It was the growl of ruin and danger, announcing a motorcycle gang’s arrival at the roadhouse. It was the sound of our pasts catching up with us.

Every nerve, every drop of blood, every breath in my body froze.

“Don’t freak out,” Allie said, her tone dropping back into doctor mode. Unlike me, she had a full view of the road as she assured me, “It could be anybody, it doesn’t have to be them—”

But then she stopped cold, her pretty face collapsing into horror.

It was them.

I knew that even before I turn to see the ten bikers roaring toward us with their president at the front of the pack. He had a distinctive red beard, parted into two braids like a Viking—Viking that’s what his fellow Reapers called him. But all outsiders had to call him Waylon under threat of physical violence or, in our case, getting fired.

Don’t piss off Waylon—that had actually been a rule written down on a whiteboard in the back of the roadhouse.

“Maybe…maybe he won’t remember us,” Allie said beside me, her voice shaky and hopeful.

But we’d been the only black women who worked at that roadhouse. Of course, he remembered us.

As if to confirm my guess, Waylon stopped his bike right in front of Allie and me while the rest of the gang drove on toward the parking area around the side of the house. “Red, Allie, is that you?”

He knew Allie’s real name, but of course, he didn’t know mine.

I didn’t give it to any of the bikers at that roadhouse 1) I wasn’t stupid—at least not until O2’s father looked down at me with those piercing blue eyes, and 2) I was pretending to be somebody else back then. A woman with flaming red hair who did what she wanted and was ready to party.

Allie, so capable beyond her years, just stared at him, her face as stunned as I felt.

“What are you doing here?” I asked for the both of us.

“Security. Something about a secret show for the gay brother of some big shot alcohol guy,” Waylon answered.

Too late…

Too late, I remembered the other party conversation I’d overheard. Phantom teasing his little brother about not wanting to come to Kentucky but loving a particular country trap artist…

My brain went desperate like Allie’s.

Maybe he wasn’t talking about the same guy. He’d retired from performing shortly before the pandemic. And lots of other acts used MC gangs as security, especially in small venues like ours.

It could be anybody—

“What are you doing here, Red?” Waylon asked again, interrupting my denial fest. Then before I could answer, he said, “You better come with me. He’s been looking for you.”

He’s been looking for you….

Like it’s been five days since I last saw him, not five years.

And that let me know without a shadow of a doubt who had come to perform tonight. There was only one person who Waylon referred to as “he”—like he was some kind of deity who needed no introduction.

This was my worst nightmare.

I glanced at Allie.

Best friends. We were best friends for reasons we never talked about….

Without having to say a word, we both broke toward the castle’s front doors.

We ran…ran through the castle toward the backhouse daycare and our secret children as if we had hellfire at our feet.

But we screeched to a halt at the back house’s door.

“Mama!” Allie’s son called out, toddling right on up to her.

But O2…my Olivia…

She didn’t call out my name. Because she was deep in conversation with a masked man who’d squatted down to speak with her. He wore a cowboy hat paired with a Ruthless Reapers leather vest. And though his back was turned to me, I recognized all the tattoos running up the back of his neck and down his arms.

I’d teased him one of the days we’d been together. Kissing each inked piece while my hands grazed his hard, lean body—until he put me on my back and buried his mouth in my sex, aggressively returning all my soft kisses with a hard wet one of his own.

“Mommy! Mommy!” O2 called out when she saw me over his shoulder. “It’s G-Latham!”

I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even breathe as G-Latham slowly stood up to his full six feet plus.

“Bernice?” Allie asked somewhere in the distance.

At the same time, O2’s face went from excited to worried. “Mommy?”

I needed to say something…reassure my daughter, the love of my life.

But I could only stare at G-Latham as he turned to face me. Or Griff as he’d introduced himself to me that night when I thought he was just another Reaper, like nearly every other guy at the roadhouse.

A few more hopeful maybes sparked in my chest…

Girls in his world were a dime a dozen. There’d probably been a million mes while he was out on the road.

Maybe he wouldn’t recognize me. Maybe he wouldn’t realize—

“Red,” he said, his ice-blue eyes narrowing on me, then on my daughter.

Our daughter.

All the hope died in my chest.

G-Latham. G-Latham was here. And he knew…

He knew the little girl he’d just been talking to was his secret daughter.


Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!

You have GOT to find out what happens next

in the Ruthless MC series:

WAYLON: Amira and the Grumpy Reaper

GRIFFIN: Red and the Big Bad Reaper

REAPERS: Dr. Snow and the Vengeful Reapers

HADES: Stephanie and the Merciless Reaper



Also by Theodora Taylor


WAYLON: Amira and the Grumpy Reaper

GRIFFIN: Red and the Big Bad Reaper

REAPERS: Dr. Snow and the Vengeful Reapers

HADES: Stephanie and the Merciless Reaper



HOLT: Her Ruthless Billionaire

ZAHIR: Her Ruthless Sheikh

LUCA: Her Ruthless Don

AMBER: His to Reclaim


RUTHLESS TYCOONS: Broken and Ruthless

KEANE: Her Ruthless Ex

STONE: Her Ruthless Enforcer

RASHID: Her Ruthless Boss



VICTOR: Her Ruthless Crush

VICTOR: Her Ruthless Owner

VICTOR: Her Ruthless Husband

HAN: Her Ruthless Mistake

PHANTOM: Her Ruthless Fiancé



Cynda and the City Doctor

Billie and the Russian Beast

Goldie and the Three Bears

Reina and the Heavy Metal Prince

(newsletter exclusive)



His for Keeps

His Forbidden Bride

His to Own



His Pretend Baby

His Revenge Baby

His Enduring Love

His Everlasting Love



Her Ruthless Tycoon

Her Ruthless Cowboy

Her Ruthless Possessor

Her Ruthless Bully



Her Russian Billionaire

Her Russian Surrender

Her Russian Beast

Her Russian Brute



Vegas Baby

Love’s Gamble



Her Viking Wolf

Wolf and Punishment

Wolf and Prejudice

Wolf and Soul

Her Viking Wolves



Her Dragon Everlasting

NAGO: Her Forever Wolf

KNUD: Her Big Bad Wolf

RAFES: Her Fated Wolf

Her Dragon Captor

Her Dragon King


ALIEN OVERLORDS (as Taylor Vaughn)

His to Claim

His to Steal

His to Keep



Her Scottish Wolf

Her Scottish King

Her Scottish Warrior



About the Author

Theodora Taylor writes hot books with heart. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, she enjoys spending time with her amazing family, going on date nights with her wonderful husband, and attending parties thrown by others. She LOVES to hear from readers. So….

Join the Ruthless Romance Readers on Facebook


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Her Ruthless Fiancé




It was time to deal with the doctor who wouldn’t stop asking questions about Dawn.

A couple of weeks ago, Phantom’s cousin, Victor, had decided to install his ex-girlfriend Dawn into a prison disguised as a house in Rhode Island. Okay, fine. Phantom had a few questions about how this whole kidnap and imprison your ex-girlfriend thing would end. But this was his cousin, plus one of his literal partners in crime, so yeah, sure, he’d agreed to helped him blow up her life.

He’d not only snatched her from her college dorm room, but he’d also hacked into Dawn’s school account and sent the email himself that she was quitting the internship she landed at the Women with Disabilities Clinic in Manhattan before it even started.

“I changed my mind about taking the internship. Replace me with someone else.”

Blunt and clear. It hadn’t been nice, but it had done the job. After a few hours, Olivia had sent a polite but terse email back:

Dear Dawn,

Thank you for letting us know you wouldn’t be joining us for the summer internship.

Though your message was brief and received only three days before you were due to start, I’ll assume this must have been a hard decision for you to make.

Fortunately, we have a long waiting list for this incredibly prestigious internship, and I’ve already filled your spot.

Best of luck with your future endeavors.

Dr. Olivia Glendaver.

Great. She’d basically said that Dawn was an easily replaceable asshole in the politest possible way. That should have been the end of it.

But a few days later, the doctor appeared to have a change of heart. A new email popped up in Dawn’s inbox, which Phantom was still monitoring.


This is Olivia again. That last email didn’t sound like you.

Are you okay?

Are you safe?

I know we never received the chance to work together and get to know each other, but I’m here for you if you need me. And if you’re in any kind of trouble, I’d like to help. Just let me know.

We need more doctors like you.

Your friend,


Dammit. He supposed he should have known that a bourbon heiress who worked as a pregnant lady doctor at a clinic for women with disabilities wouldn’t be the cold-hearted type. Ah, well…

He deleted the message, figuring that would be the real end of it. But a few days later, a new email popped up in Dawn’s inbox.

Olivia again, I haven’t heard from you. I’ll keep on emailing until you answer one way or another. I’m not going to give up on you.

He’d heaved a huge sigh and typed back as Dawn:

“I’m fine.”

They weren’t texting, but her reply had popped into Dawn’s inbox less than a minute later.

I don’t mean to be rude, Dawn, but you don’t sound fine. I’m a pretty good judge of character. And the woman I met wouldn’t have sent that first email. Or answered my two concerned emails with “I’m fine.”

Well, shit.

That was when Phantom decided to pay her a visit. Obviously, some intimidation would be required to get the doctor to back off.

It had been an easy meeting to arrange. The clinic was understaffed, and though he wasn’t a woman with disabilities, it had been easy enough to slip past the over-worked front office clerk and walk down the hallway until he found the door with a Dr. Olivia Glendaver, MD plaque beside it.

Even better, she wasn’t there when he walked into the simple room, which housed only a desk, two guest chairs, and a bookshelf filled with medical texts. That meant he could use the good ol’ “Bad Guy Waiting In Your Office When You Walk In” intimidation routine.


While Phantom bided his time like the villain he was, he checked out the two framed pictures sitting on top of her desk. One was of an older trim man in a pastel suit flanked by a pair of thin blonds in equally bright dresses and large hats.

Their colorful outfits, along with the horses trotting around in the background, told Phantom that they must be attending the Kentucky Derby. The blonds looked alike with smiles frozen in place by Botox. But they weren’t twins.

One had much more triangular and feline features, a sure sign of some face lifting underneath all those fillers. The other just looked like she’d decided that her thirties was the exact right time to start cutting off access to her facial muscles. Mother and daughter, Phantom figured, and one of them had to be Dr. Olivia Glendaver. They both looked like former southern belles, born and bred.

The other photo featured a Ken Doll in a suit, leaning against a bar with a glass of whiskey in one hand. I-banker. Phantom might call Rhode Island home now, but he could still spot one a mile away after growing up in Queens. No matter their color or weight, they all somehow managed to look like entitled douches with their shellacked hair and fake smiles.

So that meant the daughter was Dr. Glendaver. Douchebag and Early Botox Girl looked like a perfect match.

Yeah, it shouldn’t be too hard to intimidate her, Phantom decided, sitting back in her office chair.

“What are you doing here?”

The question brought his eyes up from the pictures of her loved ones. Dr. Olivia Glendaver’s voice was soft petals falling off a flower that could only grow in the lush southern heat. It sounded exactly like he’d figured it would, given her old money Kentucky background.

But the woman…

She stopped his heart.

Tall and ebony and beautiful beyond compare. She was the exact opposite of the blonde in the photo. Yet, he knew who she was in an instant. This, not Early Botox Girl, was Olivia Glendaver.

An ebony goddess statue disguised as a doctor in a white coat.

Adoptee, his brain told him, answering the question before he could ask it out loud. But that only brought up another question.

“Why?” He stood and picked up the photo of the white family. His brain had gone all fuzzy, and later he would think about the risk he’d taken in leaving fingerprints behind after he broke into her office. But at that moment, he had to know, “Why aren’t you in any of these photos?”

“Because I took them,” she answered with a careful tilt of her head. “Is this…is this about my family? Are you…?”

She didn’t finish the question, but she didn’t have to. Phantom knew what he looked like. Knew what anybody with half a brain would assume when they found a goon like him waiting in their office.

And usually, that assumption would be one hundred percent on lock. But in this case, he put down the photo and raised both hands to assure her, “No, I’m not here to hurt you. I…”

New problem. Words. He’d never had any trouble coming up with them before, but this woman—she made all his what to say next disappear. The mean-ass things that made a habit of hanging out on his tongue had scattered like cockroaches when she appeared.

And even if they hadn’t. He didn’t want to say all the usual shit to her. Didn’t want to threaten her or do that thing where he pretended he’d ever really lay a hand on a woman in order to inspire them to do what he said.

She already looked scared enough, and he suddenly had no desire to terrify her out of asking too many questions as he normally would.

What the hell was wrong with him?

He stuttered—actually stuttered when he answered, “I’m…I’m a friend of Dawn Kingston’s. She…she asked me to come up here to see you.”

Phantom had no idea where these words came from. They were the opposite of the truth, even though he prided himself on telling it like it is.

“A friend…” she repeated.

Her voice shook, and she eyed him distrustfully. Plus, her hand was in her expensive Hermes bag, probably poised to call 9-1-1 if he made any sudden moves. But she stayed put even though she was obviously scared.

And that made Phantom admire her all that much more, even as he lied, “Yeah, she told me you were worried about her decision not to go the doctor route and move to Rhode Island with her guy.”

He gave the doctor just enough details to sell the story. “And since I was coming into the city, I offered to stop by to let you know she’s all right.”

Dr. Glendaver considered his words. Then she considered him and asked, “So you and Dawn are together?”

Phantom let out a laugh, sharp and barking because hell no. Even if Dawn didn’t belong to his cousin, she was the opposite of his type.

Weird and girly—not to mention the daughter of the man who’d brought their old Red Diamond Triad down.

You’d have to pay him to sleep with Dawn, and even then, there probably wouldn’t be an amount big enough.

But this woman—he’d pay. He’d pay to be able to…

Stop staring, man. Be cool.

He made himself avert his eyes for a couple of beats. “No, we’re not together. She just got married to my cousin.”

“Oh, so this is a marriage thing.” She looked to the side. “In that case, I suppose I understand, even if I wish she’d made different choices. She was very bright. She would have made a good doctor.”

No, she wouldn’t have. Dawn was pretty much at the bottom of Phantom’s list for people he thought would make a good doctor. But he suspected Olivia Glendaver was one of those women who saw the best in everybody.

Case in point, she brought her hand out of her expensive purse as if the information he’d given her meant he could be trusted.

Which he absolutely could not.

He glanced toward the picture of the i-banker on her desk. He could practically see the silver spoon hanging out of that douchebag’s mouth.

And although he knew the answer, he had to ask, “This your boyfriend?”

Is he protecting you? he added silently. Fucking you right? Like I would if you were mine?

She had the smarts to start looking afraid again and the even better instinct not to answer his question.

Good. That meant she wasn’t an idiot.

“Thank you for letting me know about Dawn, Mr.…” she trailed off, obviously waiting for his name.

Phantom wondered what it would be like to hear his name—his real name covered in her flowers and molasses voice. But he wasn’t an idiot either.

Instead of answering her question, he simply stood up and left. He walked past the goddess doctor without another word and figured he’d never see her again.

But yeah, no.

This story is about how he couldn’t have been more wrong about that. So turn the page to find out what happens next!


Chapter 1


“Happy Birthday!”

I looked up to find my best friend, Eric, standing in my office doorway along with our front desk receptionist, Bernice, and her cutie pie daughter.

“What’s all this?” I asked, taking off my computer glasses.

They burst into a round of “Happy Birthday to You” in answer.  And I came around the desk with my hands clasped to my completely touched heart.

Eric’s voice sounded a little reedy and strained. But Bernice “put her foot in it,” as Minerva, her aunt and my former nanny/housekeeper back in Kentucky, would have said.  And her little daughter sang with a voice more robust and pitch-perfect than I would have ever expected from a three-year-old. Even if she hadn’t been raised in a black church choir in Tennessee like her mother, it was clear that apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Happy Birthday, Aunt Olivia!” she cheered when they finished. Then she handed me a mylar balloon with the same sentiment minus the “Aunt Olivia” written across its front.

“Thank you, O2,” I answered. O2 is what we all called the little girl since she was also named Olivia. Bernice had been extremely grateful that I was willing to take her on as a front office clerk at the Women with Disabilities clinic, even though she was visibly pregnant—simply because she was a relation to Minerva.

I picked O2 up for a huge hug to thank her for the balloon and song.

Big mistake. O2’s sweet coconut hair product and little kid scent scratched at my heart and filled it with longing for a child of my own.

I buried my nose in her curls, and my namesake pretty much had to pry herself away to tell me, “I wanted to get you a birthday cake, but Uncle Eric said no because you were about to go to the gym.”

My fellow OB/GYN Eric wasn’t really her uncle, just like I wasn’t really her aunt—despite her move to the Big Apple, Bernice remained the kind of southern that couldn’t bear to hear a child call an adult by their first name without some sort of title attached.

But the handsome Korean-American and I had been best friends ever since we met at orientation for Manhattan University’s six-year BS/MD dual degree program. And he’d even left his job at Chelsea Sinai to come work with me at the clinic when our patient roster became more than one OB/GYN could handle by herself. So it truly felt like I was addressing my actual brother when I said, “Uncle Eric, seriously?”

“First of all, you are a straight-up snitch,” Eric declared, pointing his finger at the darling little girl in my arms. “And, second of all, sugar is evil. And third of all, we need to head out, like, five minutes ago, if we don’t want to miss the spin class that will get you into wedding shape!”

“Wedding shape for the ceremony she still hasn’t picked a date for,” Bernice edited out of the side of her mouth. “And it’s obvious from the way she’s hugging on my daughter that she’s way more interested in babies than weddings right now.”

I guiltily set O2 down but let Bernice know, “This is all your daughter’s fault. You should tell her to stop being so dang cute.”

“You want me to change my face?” O2 asked with a crushed look. “But I can’t! I don’t know how!”

And there went my heart again, sending all types of messages to my now thirty-six-year-old ovaries. I’d gone off the pill back when Garrett proposed, but the few times since then that we’d manage to coordinate our busy schedules for sex, I’d made him use a condom with the idea that we should wait for official baby-making until after the wedding. Maybe Bernice was right, and I should just get to that part sooner than later.

Meanwhile, I picked O2 right back up and gave her hugs and kisses as I told her, “No, sweetie-bug, of course not. I was just joking. There is not a thing in the world I would change about you.”

Then just to make sure she knew how much her Aunt Olivia adored her, I pretended I didn’t see Eric motioning that we had to go and asked O2 all about her day at Manhattan Mercy’s daycare center.

Another mistake. I ended up having to apologize to Eric an hour later when we missed the cut-off time for our favorite spin class.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, as we took the stairs back down to the gym’s main floor where I’d just have to settle for a regular old workout, even though I’d come all the way to Eric’s Lower East Side gym to attend this spin class specifically.

It was no one’s fault but my own, and I had to admit, “Bernice might be right about me being baby crazy. I just can’t think straight when it comes to O2.”

“I can’t blame you,” Eric said, letting me off the hook with a grin. “I don’t even have ovaries, and she makes mine explode—oh, but that reminds me.”

Even though we were in the stairwell and at least six boroughs away from where Bernice lived in Harlem, he lowered his voice to tell me, “I’ve got possible tea. Get this, I had my car at work the other day, so I gave Bernice and O2 a ride home. This G-Latham song came on, and she was all like, ‘Turn it off’ even though it was the Pure Pop radio edit, so no curse words. Then O2 was like, ‘I love this song!’ And Bernice gets into this weird argument with her, asking her where she heard it, telling her she didn’t want her listening to ‘his’ music. Then she flat-out yells at me to turn it off—so do you think G-Latham is O2’s secret father?”

I squinted, and though I tried my best always to be polite, I had to tell him, “The only thing crazier than you insisting on hanging on to that car in this city is the idea that some country singer is the father of her daughter.”

“Okay, first of all, I am a Californian—that means I need a car. It’s in my blood. And second of all, he was a country trap artist—so hitting all the markets, including people who like hip-hop.”

“You’ve been living on the East Coast for eighteen years,” I answered. “And maybe Bernice just really hates country music, even if there’s a trap beat underneath it.”

“I will never give my car up,” Eric insisted, his voice righteous and resolute. “And she’s cousins with Colin Fairgood. How can she hate country music?”

“She’s his cousin-in-law,” I edited. “Just because her favorite cousin married a country superstar, doesn’t mean she—”

“Plus, O2 is obviously biracial,” Eric pointed out before I could finish my sensible argument. “And I’ve never seen Bernice date a white guy.”

“Half of New York is multiracial, and we’ve never seen Bernice date anybody,” I retorted.

We were both doctors, but sometimes it felt like I was the only one who believed in reason and logic. “It could be anybody.”

“Yeah, anybody.” Eric opened the first floor’s heavy metal door for me. “But if it were a famous somebody, that would explain why she won’t tell me who it is. Or you—you know, the woman she named her whole baby after?”

Of course, Eric was wrong about G-Latham. But I had to admit he had a point about Bernice’s secretiveness on the subject of Olivia 2’s father. Still…

“It’s her business,” I reminded Eric as I walked through the door he was holding open for me. “And we have no right to pressure her to tell us who it is or to gossip about her behind her back. Now can we please change the subject?”

“Fine!” Eric answered with a dramatic roll of his eyes. But he perked up to ask, “So, where’s your future baby daddy taking you for your birthday?”

“Oh, well, he asked me to wear an evening gown tonight because….”

Eric’s eyes widened. “Ooh, is he taking you to the new production of Chrysanthemum with that one autistic opera singer? I hear it’s spectacular, but I couldn’t even get tickets!”

“…we’re going to a charity gala to celebrate Chrysanthemum’s upcoming opening night at his parent’s place,” I finished with an apologetic wince.

Eric deflated—then jerked his head. “Wait. Are you trying to tell me he’s making you go to some charity gala? On your birthday?”

“No,” I answer, rushing to Garrett’s defense, the same way I still cheered for the Louisville Cardinals, even though I had serious reservations about the long-term effects of concussions.

But then I had to admit. “I’m pretty sure Garrett didn’t remember it was my birthday when he told me I needed to be there.”

“What?” Eric caught my arm to stop us walking. “And what did he say when you reminded him?”

I silently sighed. “Um…”

Eric’s mouth dropped open, and he stared at me for a long disbelieving second before guessing correctly, “You didn’t tell him!”

He threw up his hands. “Why are you like this? Why don’t you ever stand up for yourself?”

“Garrett’s been crazy stressed at work lately,” I rushed to explain.

Eric jerked his head back. “Bitch, so are you. You founded, run, and work at an accessible clinic for women with disabilities. And you still managed to find the time to throw him a surprise party on his last birthday.”

True. But… “I don’t need anybody making a huge fuss about my birthday anyway. And reminding Garrett would have just made him feel guilty when he already has so much stuff on his plate—ooh, isn’t that the construction worker you were flirting with last week?”

I pointed at the tattooed honey brown man standing in line for the Smith machine.

Eric followed my finger and let out a frustrated growly sound when he saw who I was pointing at. “Yes, that’s him. And I know I shouldn’t let you change the subject, but those tattoos….”

Eric fanned himself. “You know I’m powerless when it comes to racially ambiguous bad boys.”

“Yes, I know you are,” I said, sympathetic to his dilemma but also grateful for the distraction from my disappointing birthday plans. “And you should go talk to him while he’s still standing around and waiting.”

Eric shifted hesitantly from foot to foot. “Do you think so?”

“I’m not even sure why we’re even having this conversation,” I answered with a shake of my head. “I mean, we both know you’re going over there.”

Eric grimaced and inhaled through his teeth. “Yeah, I am. But really quick before I go….”

He spewed advice while walking away backward. “I understand that your biological clock is ticking, but is Garrett truly everything you want in a marriage partner? I mean, you don’t even feel comfortable enough to tell him that he forgot your birthday. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure engagements aren’t supposed to be this much of a trudge. Okay, love you, bye!”

I wasn’t any kind of expert either, but Eric’s words echoed in my mind as I walked over to the treadmill section.

I mean, I wanted to have a baby, and Garrett and I were great on paper. Perfect even. Both my mother and my sister insisted that I was so lucky to have gotten a second chance with him.

They’d been pleasantly shocked that despite my “circumstances,” I’d been able to land an i-banker who hailed from the prominent Easton Whiskey family and hadn’t understood why I broke up with him ten years ago.

So, they were overjoyed when I started dating him again five years after our breakup. And they’d acted like it was a miracle akin to Jesus turning spinster water into wife wine when he actually asked me to marry him.

And they were right. I’d been sure they were right…at least up until I delivered Luca and Amber Ferraro’s baby. The mafia don had been so connected with his blind wife during her difficult delivery, so obviously in love with her.

It had made me want things I never had before in my relationship with Garrett. Not just respect and occasional companionship when our schedules synced, along with the eventual birth of our double heir child.

I hungered for things like passion and tender love. The kind of things that I’d assumed only existed in books and films until I witnessed it for myself in real life.

Amber was blind and couldn’t see the way her husband looked at her. But I had no doubt she’d felt it.

And over a year later, as I climbed on the only empty treadmill in the packed gym, I wondered what it would be like to have someone look at me the way Luca Ferraro looked at his wife. With such intensity. With such love….

Though, speaking of intense stares—a little old lady walking slowly on the treadmill beside my chosen machine did a visible double-take when she saw me.

Then outright stared.

Oh, no, here we go again. Most days, I loved Eric’s neighborhood gym, which bordered Chinatown because it was still somewhat diverse compared to the rest of a rapidly gentrifying Manhattan. But there was a particular portion of the population among their membership—like little old Asian men and women—who didn’t mind openly staring at me when I wandered into their purview. As if I was a freak of nature, a blue-black giraffe who’d somehow wandered into their ecosystem of Chinese people and gay men.

And unfortunately, this particular gaper wanted to talk.

After a shocked moment, she immediately began to babble in a language that sounded like Chinese.

Okay, well….pretending not to hear or see her, I punched in a light six miles an hour jog into the machine and stuck my AirPods into my ears.

Lizzo’s voice filled my headphones, replacing the old woman’s nosy questions. But then I startled when someone patted me insistently on the arm.

It was the little old lady trying to get my attention.

And darn my polite southern upbringing, I just couldn’t bring myself to keep on ignoring her. I took out my AirPods and turned to politely answer her questions—

One moment she was there, smiling because she’d gotten my attention, and the next, she was whipping backward. She hovered horizontally in the air for a brief heart-stopping millisecond before gravity re-introduced itself most brutally.

Her upper body hit the tread, and her dentures went flying before the unfeeling machine ejected her unceremoniously onto the gym floor.

They always make it look so funny in movies and commercials when people fly off treadmills. But I can tell you right now, watching it happen in real life was one of the most horrific non-childbirth-related things I’d ever witnessed in my entire life.

Gasps went up all around us as I jabbed my finger into the treadmill’s emergency stop button.

“Call 9-1-1!” I yelled out before running to the little old lady’s aid.


Chapter 2

Everything happened in a whirlwind after that.

“No! No!” the old lady cried out when I tried to move away after the paramedics arrived.

She didn’t speak much English beyond that, but she managed to make her feelings clear on the subject of me leaving her side. She held on to my hand with both of hers, her grip surprisingly strong despite her injuries. There were lacerations and friction burns all over her face. Blood and nasal discharge streamed from her nose. And we really couldn’t rule out a possible concussion.

Leaving her side agitated her and her wounds, so after finding out I was a doctor, the paramedics let me stay so that they could check her over without upsetting her too much. Then I somehow found myself running alongside the gurney as they rushed her toward the ambulance.

She still wouldn’t let go of me when they put her in the back of the emergency vehicle, so I ended up racing toward Chelsea Sinai with her, even though I didn’t have privileges there.

She didn’t have a phone on her—just a single gym membership card with her name. And unfortunately, she’d been with the gym so long her only emergency contact was for a husband who’d died over ten years ago.

One of the nurses who helped the paramedics and me transfer her from the stretcher to a hospital bed figured out that she was speaking Cantonese. And she called up a medical interpreter on an iPad.

Considering the little old lady didn’t speak a lick of English, you’d think she would have let me go when we managed to find someone who could communicate in her language.

But she continued to grip my hand tight as she went back and forth with the interpreter…

“She’s saying to tell you that her grandson isn’t a villain,” the interpreter told me after a few moments. “She says he looks like a villain, but he is a sweet boy underneath all that scary. She wants you to promise to stay until he arrives.”

I scrunched my forehead. “What? Why?”

“No idea,” the medical interpreter answered, looking just as baffled as me. “But she’s saying she won’t give us her grandson’s number unless you agree to stay until he gets here. She says it’s very important because she wants to uh…die?”

The interpreter’s tone went up with confusion, turning the last word into a question. And I blinked several times myself.

“Should we get psych down here?” I asked the nurse holding the iPad.

The nurse frowned. “Possibly…”

We both glanced over at the old woman, who didn’t look suicidal at all. She gave me a huge gummy smile as if she couldn’t even feel the pain from her wounds and surely broken nose.

“Either way, we need to get her grandson down here,” the nurse added. “Do you mind just agreeing with her so that she’ll give us the information we need?”

I glanced at my watch. The gala was about to start.

But the little Chinese widow was old and alone and in a hospital where she didn’t speak the language. I couldn’t just leave her here. So I agreed, “Sure, I’ll stay.”

And after they got her all patched up, I used my free hand to text Garrett.

Sorry, running late. Emergency at the hospital.

Garrett’s answer came back in an instant.

GARRETT: You can’t skip out on this. I already told my mother you’d be here, and you know how she gets.

Irritation flared because I was spending my birthday in a hospital with an old woman who refused to let go of my hand, trying to explain my tardiness to the fiancé who’d forgotten about it altogether.

But I tamped that anger down before it could rise to my texting thumbs. Garrett was right. I had promised, and the only thing I hated more than not keeping my word was being late.

I’m genuinely sorry. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Dots filled up my screen, and I wondered if this would finally lead to the fight we’ve never had, not even the first time we broke up ten years ago.

Maybe Garrett would finally yell at me about my schedule or demand that I cut back my hours and spend more time with him.

Or maybe he would be the braver one in our relationship. The one who finally admitted out loud that we weren’t the match my mother and sister insisted we were.

I mean, surely he had to feel it too. That we weren’t a real couple but two people playing the roles assigned to them long after the little real desire we had for each other had run its course.

I waited for his reply, literally holding my breath. And I couldn’t say what I’d feel if he wrote back either of those things. Sadness? The anger I never allowed myself to indulge? Relief?

But as long as it took him to type the message, his answer came back nice and short.

GARRETT: Okay. Understand. Text me when you’re on your way and I’ll meet you outside so that we can walk in together.

I let out the breath I’d been holding in a weird anti-climatic spurt. I should have known he’d be fine. Garrett was always fine. That was what made him such a perfect fiancé.

My mom and sister were probably right. I should try to be more grateful for the successful and handsome fiancé who put up with me instead of daydreaming about a guy who’d look at me like Luca Ferraro looked at his wife.

That hypothetical man was a ridiculous fantasy. Garrett was my real life. And as my sister, Skylar had pointed out on more than one occasion, there were plenty of other women in New York who’d be happy to snap him right on up.

I slipped my phone back into the Hermes bag my mother had gotten me as a graduation present from medical school—not because she was proud of me. She and my sister were the sort of old-school Southern rich that didn’t believe in modern things, like wives working outside the home for actual money.

They were the kind of women who sat on non-profit boards for popular charities and volunteered their nannies and maids for any and all grunt work. So Mom had been embarrassed, verging on mortified when I showed up to the graduation party she insisted on throwing for me back in Kentucky carrying a sturdy cross-body Baggallini I’d scored at Century 21.

I’d received the graduation gift the next day not in a box or bag but with the contents of my disappeared Baggallini already deposited inside my purse.

Of course, I hadn’t been bratty enough to turn down the gift—or even ask where my original bag had gone. I’d just taken diligent care of it ever since.

Because I was lucky and should be grateful for everything I’d received.

I needed to remember that. I mean, who complains about receiving a Hermes bag as a graduation gift? Or puts off marrying her gorgeous fiancé for two years when she’s supposedly dying for a baby?

I chastised myself as I turned to hang the expensive leather bag off the back of my seat as opposed to just plopping it down anywhere—

Without warning, a wave of adrenaline surged through my body, and every fear response I’d read about in medical textbooks started happening all at once.


Hair rising on the back of my neck—check.

Sudden urge toward flight or fight paralyzing me into freeze mode—check.

Crazy Fluttering in the pit of my stomach—check.

What the heck?

Only one person had ever made me feel like this in my life, and somehow I knew who had just entered the curtained-off cubicle even before I unfroze enough to look up.

This only made the internal reaction worse. My sympathetic nervous system released even more adrenaline and cortisol, increasing my heart rate and shunting blood away from my digestive system, which caused that butterflies in the stomach feeling that books are always talking about.

Sure enough, it was him…the huge Asian man who’d paid a visit to my office to talk about Dawn Kingston, the Mount Holyoke grad who’d mysteriously dropped out of her internship just a couple of days before she was due to start.

That had been ten years ago. But not much had changed.

The man who stood at the hospital cubicle room’s curtain was still difficult for me to describe—to look at even.

I was tall. Five-nine without heels. He wasn’t just taller than me but larger. So large that I was sure a lot of tailoring must have gone into his outfit—both the dark grey suit and the black wool coat he wore over it. Maybe even the scarf had to be lengthened to accommodate his height and girth.

He was also big in a way that went beyond size.

When he entered the room, he took up everything—all the space, all the oxygen, every single bit of attention.

I’m like any woman, living in New York. I usually assess men around my age by their appearance. This man was not cute. His face was three hard slabs with two glittering black shark eyes in front. Underneath that lay a large, crooked nose that obviously hadn’t been properly reset after a break and a wide unsmiling mouth.

But he also wasn’t the kind of guy you classified with looks. More like the type you crossed the street to avoid, especially at night. He had a tattoo peeking out above his shirt collar, the head of a black snake with two red diamond eyes.

Goon. Bruiser. Ruffian. Thug. Gorilla in a suit.

Those were just a few of the ways to describe men who emanated with violence and danger the way he did.

I stared at him now as I did back then.

And he….he stared back at me, his shark eyes scanning me from head to toe and back again.

His gaze sent shivers through me and made my heart race—not with fear, though. With something else I couldn’t quite name because I’d never felt it before.

Who was he? Why was he here?

The answers to those questions came in the next moment when the little old woman finally dropped my arm and called out, “Hak-kan!”

That was when I realized that the man who’d made my nervous system go haywire was the little old lady’s grandson. The one she’d insisted only looked like a villain.

It was him.



Chapter 3


It was her.

Phantom had rushed to the hospital when he got the news about his grandmother. He lived in Rhode Island but had received the call just as he entered New York City with his cousin Victor to settle a score with their 24K rivals. It was a sign of his grandmother’s infamous good fortune that it had only taken him an hour to get here.

First thing first, he’d had a quick consult with the attending physician, who’d told him the details of his grandmother’s accident and that they’d already patched her up.

“We’ll have a nurse do one more check over before we discharge her, but that’s it,” the doctor had said. “It’s a miracle that she didn’t break anything other than her nose.”

“No miracle,” Phantom had assured him. “My grams keeps it Lucky 3000.  I’m zero percent surprised.”

Still, Phantom had hurried to where she was resting, just to congratulate her on holding on to that Toughest Broad in Chinatown champion belt.

However, he’d stopped short when he saw the woman sitting beside his grandmother.

It was her. Dr. Olivia Glendaver.

The memory of their first meeting ten years ago spilled into his head like a box of dropped bullets. And his heart stopped at the sight of her now, the same as it had done back then.

Yeah, he’d wondered about her over the ten years that passed. More than wondered, actually. He’d watched her from afar in ways that might not be deemed socially acceptable. And a few times, he’d been tempted, so tempted to touch.

He’d tamped down those urges, though, for over a decade.

But here she was again.

In a hospital room, sitting next to his grandma, like she was her blood relation, not him.

“Oh…hello,” she said, standing up. She looked just as confused to see him as he was to see her.

Phantom dropped his eyes to check her out before he could stop himself. Like a Chinese goon version of Joey Tribbiani.

The white jacket had covered up her body before, but now he could fully appreciate the curves he hadn’t been able to see back then. Full breasts underneath an exercise tank, and wide hips and thick thighs encased in bike shorts. So she was tall and slender, but not rail thin as he’d assumed.

She’d changed hairstyles too—a long weave worn in a ponytail as opposed to a Cleopatra bob. But other than that, she looked just like he remembered as if the ten years between now and the last time they met hadn’t happened.

“Hak-kan! Be nice! I told her you weren’t truly a ruthless villain. You just look like one!”

His grandma, speaking to him in Cantonese, ripped him away from that stare-down.

Maamaa…” he said, re-focusing on his grandma in the hospital bed.

Syun zai, what took you so long to get here? The tall black doctor is trying to leave!” his grandma answered as if that was way more urgent than her lost fight with that treadmill. “I am ready to die! I am so very, very ready to go on to my next life.”

“Can you tell me what she’s saying?” Olivia asked him. “She keeps trying to talk to me, even without the interpreter here, and I feel terrible that I don’t understand.”

Yeah, he could tell her, but she wouldn’t like it—especially the part where his grandma insisted over and over again that she was ready to die.

“She’s wondering what took me so long to get here,” he muttered instead.

“What are you telling her?” his grandmother demanded. She hadn’t even attempted to learn English even though she’d been living in America for longer than Phantom had been alive. “You must speak to the tall black doctor who came to my rescue! I am ready to die!”

“Thanks for coming to her rescue—she also said that,” Phantom added to Olivia, omitting all the rest.

A skeptical look passed over Olivia’s face. “She appears to be agitated.”

“She’s like 200,” Phantom answered. “She’s always agitated over something.”

Olivia laughed.

Big mistake making a joke. That laugh, light as summer rain, pierced his chest like a bullet.

But then she said, “Unfortunately, I must hie away. I’ve got this opera gala thing to attend. You’re going to stick around, right? I don’t want your grandmother getting too agitated as 200-year-olds are at great risk for high blood pressure—though hers was shockingly level, even after what happened.”

All he heard was that she had to go. She was going to leave, just leave without saying anything—probably because she had that polite southern shit on lock. So it was on him to say, “I remember you, and I think you remember me.”

She stilled, letting him know she hadn’t forgotten him even before she said, “Yes, of course, I was so worried about your grandmother that I didn’t think to bring it up. You’re Dawn’s friend.”

Dawn’s friend. What a strange thing to be known as, considering what she’d put his cousin through recently.

It had taken Victor months and a threat against their other business partner, Han, to come back out of his break-up misery. In fact, after Phantom got his grandma settled, he would meet up with “Return of the Mack” Victor to kill some enemies currently hanging in chains in The Silent Triad’s warehouse in Queens as a sort of toast to him finally being over that shit with his ex.

So, no, Phantom did not consider himself Dawn’s friend.

But the woman standing before him, her face open and sincere…

She did mean something to him, especially now after she helped his grandma. Also, there was a certain honor code in his world. He couldn’t just let her walk out of here without issuing a proper thank you.

“Listen, you did me a solid. So I’ll do you one, too.” He pulled a business card out of the inside pocket of his suit. It didn’t bear his name or a title, just ten digits where he could always be reached. “You ever need anything, this is the number to call.”

She hesitated. Then took the card from him with a shy smile that turned his dick to stone. “Thank you. That’s very thoughtful of you to offer me your assistance.”

Fuck, was she always this polite? Even in bed? The things he’d do to her if he ever got the chance to find out…

But she wasn’t his, he reminded himself. She belonged to that pretty douchebag.

That thought turned him into a sour bastard. Someone petty enough to add, “And tell your boyfriend you cleared his debt with The Silent Triad.”

She tilted her head, her smile fading into confusion. “My boyfriend? Do you mean my fiancé, Garrett?”

Ten years ago, she’d known better than to tell the creepy dude who’d shown up in her office that the Ken Doll in the photo was her boyfriend, Phantom noted. But she’d obviously been so surprised by his pronouncement that she’d let his name slip.

Yeah, Garrett. The douchebag who’d come back like herpes six years ago after their first break up.

Phantom had wondered if she knew about the gambling a few times, about all the debts her boyfriend had racked up with the kind of banks that weren’t backed by the FCC, and her response told him the answer to those questions.

“Yeah, Garrett,” he replied. Then he ground his teeth  and said, “Better get to your gala.”

“But how…” she started to say.

Only to get interrupted by the arrival of an ER nurse who announced herself in a flurry of Cantonese. “Hi, I’m An. I just came on shift and was told you needed a nurse who could speak Cantonese. I’ll do your final check-up, and then we can get you out of here. I’m sure you’re eager to go home….”

Phantom turned his full attention back to his grandma, letting the doctor know this conversation was done, and he wasn’t down to answer any of her questions.

But he knew exactly when she quietly slipped away because his grandmother pushed away the penlight the nurse was shining in her eyes to tell Phantom, “She’s leaving? Hak-kan, why? Why are you letting her get away? I am ready to die!”



Chapter 4



“Finally, you’re here. My mother’s about to have a conniption fit,” Garrett said in lieu of a greeting when I met him on the steps outside of his parent’s 13,000 square foot townhouse in Lenox Hill, where the gala in honor of Chrysanthemum was taking place.

Their abode was maybe a fraction of the size of the Glendaver estate in Kentucky. But this being New York, its size was three times as impressive. Jack Easton Jr., the son of Easton Whiskey’s Virginia-based founder, had bought the townhouse back in the late 40s as a reward to himself for guiding his father’s company through prohibition, The Great Depression, and a World War II ban on the manufacturing of whiskey.

A wise investment, as it turned out. The house now belonged to his great-grandson, Gerald. Otherwise, mere 8 figure millionaires would never have been able to afford this much house in Manhattan proper.

Still, it never failed to amaze me that both Garrett and I had grown up in houses where galas were held on a regular basis.

When we’d first met at a mutual friend’s party we’d spent hours marveling at all the things we had in common. Whiskey bottle labels with our last name splashed across them, heir status to liquor fortunes, and extremely difficult, nit-picking, and withholding mothers.

So I usually went out of my way to get to these functions on time because I knew what it was like for Garrett to get judged by his mom.

But not tonight. Tonight I was still reeling from what the old Chinese lady’s grandson had revealed about my fiancé.

“What the heck, Garrett…?” I asked him before running down what had happened with the Cantonese-speaking grandma and her huge, intimidating son.

Garrett shook his head after I finished. “You helped the grandmother of one of The Silent Triad’s Dragons? What are the chances?”

“Dragon?” I repeated. “What does that mean?”

Garrett frowned, and he shifted uncomfortably. “He’s one of the three heads of The Silent Triad, an international Chinese mafia syndicate—basically a criminal who didn’t take it too well when I refused to help him wash his money. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

Now, it was my turn to frown. “He made it sound like you owed him money, not like you’d refused to help him out.”

“Yes, well, he’s a criminal. And I suppose he believed that I somehow owed him something after turning him down.”

That didn’t make any sense, and I opened my mouth with so many more questions.

But before I could ask them, Garrett took my hand. “We’ll talk more about this later. Right now, we must get inside and say hello to Mother.”

I let Garrett pull me along but made a mental note to circle back around on this later.

I didn’t judge criminals. The pre-40s version of the Glendavers had been a hillbilly mob family before the government declared their wares legal again, and they adopted airs. Also, the mafioso, Luca Ferraro, had given my clinic its largest donation ever in exchange for my performing home visits during his wife’s pregnancy.

And, not to stereotype, but I was pretty unsurprised that the menacing guy who’d let himself into my office ten years ago also ran a criminal organization.

But how crazy was it that my clean-cut fiancé knew Dawn’s criminal friend? They were so opposite. I couldn’t even imagine them talking.

I recalled how haywire everything inside of me had gone as soon as he showed up at the hospital. How he’d looked at me…and sent shivers down my spine.

How would it feel to lay underneath someone that big and heavy, to wrap my legs around his thick waist? Wait, what are you thinking, Olivia?

As Garrett led me through the doors of his parent’s Beaux-Arts style limestone townhome, my cheeks warmed—for reasons that had nothing to do with the heat blasting inside the mansion Metropolitan Architecture once called “an ode to the gilded age.”

Okay, maybe I should remind Garrett that it was my birthday and ask for some sexy time tonight. It had been a while since we managed more than a super tired quickie. And obviously, my body was out of sorts if I was fantasizing about another guy, just because he’d stared at me in a way that made my nervous system act up—wait a minute, is that Leighton.

All thoughts of the gang leader I’d inadvertently met at the hospital dropped away when I saw my willowy blonde stepsister talking with Garrett’s parents.

“What is Leighton doing here?”

I tried to stop short, but Garrett kept on walking, dragging me with him. He was determined to present me to his mother.

“She saw the reminder card on my desk,” he explained quickly. “And she asked if she could come, too.”

Again, I frowned. I’d done such a good job of mostly avoiding my much younger stepsister since she moved to New York two years ago to attend business school at Manhattan U. I’d forgotten she was interning with Garrett’s firm this semester even though I was the one who’d made the introduction at her request.

She wore a black evening gown, the same as me. But she was dainty and pretty in a way you’d expect for a member of high society. Whereas I always felt so out of place at these things, she appeared like she fit right in.

And looking at her now, I doubted few would suspect that she hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in her mouth but had it unexpectedly placed there when my dad decided to leave my mother for hers.

“Livvy!” she gushed as soon as I arrived. She beamed and pulled me in for air kisses as if we were the best of friends. “I’m so glad you’re finally here. We were all afraid that you wouldn’t make it.”

“Of course, she made it,” Garrett’s mother, Tilly, answered for me with a sniff of her long thin nose as she also gave me air kisses. “Chrysanthemum is one of her favorite operas, very close to her heart, even if she couldn’t spare anytime whatsoever to help us plan our gala.”

Oh, geez. I very deliberately turned to greet Gerald Easton as opposed to acknowledging her dig. “How are you doing, Gerald,” I said, doing another set of air kisses.

No, I didn’t have time to plan elaborate galas, even for an opera I loved. Tilly kept saying that dedicating myself to one of her many charitable efforts would be a fantastic way to transition out of my career after Garrett and I had a baby.

She didn’t ever seem to hear any of my rejoinders about how I planned to keep working, even after children. Just like she never seemed to hear any of my gentle corrections about being from Uganda. Not Malawi, the African country she’d decided to direct her charitable endeavors toward before Garrett and I even met. I supposed in her mind, all African orphans were pretty much the same.

I didn’t hold her against Garrett, though. Lord knew my parents were an even hotter mess in comparison. They’d both remarried much younger spouses almost half their age, and seven years after their acrimonious divorce, still couldn’t stand to so much as be in the same room together.

If we were back in Kentucky, my mother would probably be complaining about how I ran off to the big city and started some random clinic instead of dedicating all my spare time to her Kentucky Children Charities organization as she and my big sister, Skylar, did. So really, Tilly was tame in comparison.

And at least I knew Garrett would find an excuse to pull me away if her barbs became too direct. That was the only way we managed to get through these events. If one of us gave the sign, the other had to come up with a way to extract us from the conversation, no matter how preposterous the excuse.

As if reading my mind, Garret said. “Look at this. We all need drinks.”

But then, instead of pulling me away, he turned to my stepsister and suggested, “Leigh, why don’t you come with me to fetch libations?”

I inwardly jerked. Was he seriously going to just leave me here alone with his parents on the birthday he’d forgotten?

Yes. Yes, he was. He started off in the direction of the bar without waiting for our response or even taking a drink order. I mean, he knew I always just sipped on one glass of champagne at these things, but still, he could have asked.

“An intern’s work is never done,” Leighton singsonged before following him toward the bar.

“What a sweet girl,” Tilly observed as they disappeared into the well-dressed crowd.

Yes, she certainly appeared to be all sorts of helpful now, I admitted. Leighton seemed far removed from the selfish brat I remembered, who’d barely been able to hold a conversation that didn’t involve herself or her friends, or something she and her friends did that was so fun. Maybe her two years in New York had helped her turn over a new leaf.

I should find time to take her out to dinner, I decided with a guilty heart.

At the same time, Tilly declared out loud, “I should tell Garrett to introduce her to one of his younger friends. She said that while she enjoyed working with Garrett, she found the work rather cutthroat and exhausting. I’m not sure she’s cut out for a life in the business world.”

I wasn’t so sure about my stepsister becoming an investment banker either. Leighton really did seem more like the Ladies Who Lunch type, not the Ladies Who Bought Lunch With Their Own Hard-Earned Money.

But some tiny bit of stubbornness kept me from agreeing with Tilly out loud. How many times had I been told by my mother and sister that I should give up running the clinic I’d founded so that I could be the wife and mother Garrett deserved. There was no way I’d start trying to make decisions for my stepsister too.

“So, how are you progressing on the wedding?” Tilly asked, turning fully to face me. “Were you able to meet with the wedding planner I sent your way last summer?”

I grimaced. “This fall has been crazy. The clinic keeps getting more and more popular. I think we’re going to have to bring in another doctor soon, which is great, considering how many more people we’ll be able to help with accessible health care in the future—”

“You’re almost out of your baby-making years, Olivia,” Tilly reminded me, cutting me off. “And I know both you and Garrett want children. When will you prioritize planning this wedding over your work?”

Tilly still beamed for the rest of the party to see, but her tone let me know her teeth were most definitely clenched behind that bright smile.

Or maybe I was projecting since I was smiling and clenching my own teeth as I answered, “Maybe this is a conversation you should be having with Garrett. He could also find the time to meet with a wedding planner.”

Tllly visibly startled as if the idea of her precious youngest son planning his own wedding was on par with a member of the aristocracy being asked to take out the trash.

And that was it for keeping up appearances. Her smile disappeared, and her eyes narrowed on me like a blonde honey badger.

But before she could reply, Gerald said, “Let’s not make a scene, dears.”

The Easton CEO turned to me with a conciliatory look. “My wife is simply excited to get the ball rolling on this wedding before our big acquisition.”

“What big acquisition?” I asked, grateful but confused about the subject change.

Gerald visibly startled at my question. “Easton Whiskey has been in talks to acquire Glendaver Bourbon since Garrett proposed. Did your father not tell you?”

I shook my head—not only because my father hadn’t told me, but also because I could hardly believe it.

Glendaver was one of the few privately held liquor companies left in America, and my father tended to look down his nose at companies that had either been gobbled up by liquor conglomerates like Jack Daniels or gone public, like Easton. Plus, he abhorred their product.

“If you ever think I’m letting that Virginia whiskey past my lips, then you’ve been out there in New York too long,” he’d said after I offered to bring him home a bottle when I dated Garrett the first time around.

But now Dad was discussing selling Glendaver to Easton? I mean, I know our family-owned company had taken a hit during the last recession. People had turned to cheaper options like Bulleit. Also, unlike Bulleit, the Glendaver marketing department, which was pretty much made up of Dad’s University of Kentucky B-school buddies, had failed to grasp the importance of social media and other alternative modes of advertising.

So though bourbon had grown in popularity since I left home, Glendaver had become that slightly too expensive bottle in grocery stores that people might gift but tended to skip over when it came time to pick a bottle to imbibe at home.

Dad had talked about retiring next year and selling the company. But I wouldn’t have guessed that he’d choose Easton Whiskey as a buyer in a million years.

Why hadn’t he told me?

Even more upsetting, why hadn’t Garrett told me?

“Excuse me,” I mumbled. “I have to…go change my usual drink order with Garrett.”

I walked away before Tilly could ask why I didn’t just text him.

Suddenly, I was tired of being accommodating. It was my birthday, and all I’d gotten from my boyfriend was a whole bunch of confusion and unanswered questions.

I went looking for him at the wet bar right off the formal dining room. But he wasn’t there.

And I also couldn’t find him anywhere among all the guests milling around the first floor—a few of whom asked if I was one of the Chrysanthemum cast members who’d apparently performed a song from the show before my arrival. I almost couldn’t blame them for the assumption. I was one of the very few dark-skinned people in attendance who wasn’t in the cast. Yet another reason I’d like to be ringing in my thirty-sixth birthday pretty much anywhere but here tonight.

Maybe Garrett was upstairs. Whenever we visited for dinner, Gerald Easton made sure to take us up to his study to share a finger of the 100-year-old Glendaver I’d gifted him the first time Garrett and I dated.

“When Garrett told me you’d parted, I said to him, ‘Well, I’m keeping the bottle!’” he’d joked the first time we came over for dinner after getting back together—and pretty much every dinner afterward. So the bottle was nearly empty now.

Garrett preferred top-shelf alcohol, so it stood to reason he’d come up here to enjoy the good stuff.

I opened the door to the study to check, and as it turned out, I was both right and wrong.

My whole body went cold with shock and I dropped my clutch onto the study’s plush rug.

Yes, Garrett was in the study. But the only thing that was getting swallowed was his dick—which was in Leighton’s mouth.

He half sat on the edge of his father’s desk, his eyes closed and his mouth gaping open as my sophisticated stepsister bobbed her head frantically, making gagging sounds as if Garrett’s four inches was actually the six he’d claimed.

“Oh, babe, you always do that so well,” he said, fluttering his eyes open to look down at her. “You’re so much better at it than—Olivia!” He yelled out when he saw me standing in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

And I…

Well, I was learning all sorts of things today about the difference between real life and the movies. Treadmill accidents are just horrific—not funny in real life.

And discovering your fiancé cheating?

There were no recriminations. No demands to know why. Not even a “How dare you?”

I just turned and ran. Ran as fast as I could from what I’d just seen.

“Olivia? Olivia? Where are you going?” I heard his mother call out in the distance.

I couldn’t answer. If I did, I knew I would lose it in front of all these high society people in this world where I didn’t belong no matter what last name had been pinned onto me.

I ran and ran—until I slammed into somebody’s chest.

It was so hard that I bounced off like some law of force from a long-forgotten Physics class.

I was wearing heels, and there was no doubt I would have fallen if the person I’d run into hadn’t wrapped two meaty hands around my upper arms, steadying me before I could tumble.

I blinked, realizing two things at once.

One, I was outside now, standing on the stairs in front of the party.

And two, the person I’d run into…it was Dawn’s friend. The criminal who had threatened Garrett after he refused to wash his money. What had he called him? A Dragon.

A new fear joined all the confusion swirling around inside my chest as I silently asked for the second time in the same day, Why is he here?

I mean, what possible reason could he have for showing up at an opera gala?

As if in answer to my unspoken question, he said, “Come with me. Dawn needs your help.”



Chapter 5



Phantom had done what he needed to do. Escorted the baby doctor from her uptown party to the hospital to see Dawn after Victor found out his ex had been mugged.

He could have left out after that. He’d already done more than enough for one day—including settling his angry grandma back in her Chinatown apartment, shooting eleven 24Ks in cold blood in retaliation for what their gang had done to the third Silent Triad Dragon, Han, and then fetching the mesmerizing doctor from that swanky AF Upper East Side party.

He’d known as soon as Victor got that call that he’d need somebody he trusted to check over the baby. And Olivia Glendaver was the best baby doctor he knew—granted, she was the only baby doctor he knew. But still, he’d bet his stake in VIP Bai3 that there wasn’t anybody else on staff with a better bedside manner.

So yeah, he’d done his part just by getting her here. He should bounce to the apartment he kept on the Upper West Side and take care of other business until Victor needed him again.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he lingered by the closed door of Dawn’s VIP suite until the doc emerged still wearing her evening gown from the gala—just underneath a white coat some nurse had handed her.

“Oh! You’re still here!” she said when she found Phantom standing there like a mountain who didn’t know what to do with itself.

She didn’t run straight into him this time, but she backed up a few steps as if she had. “Hello again.”

He shifted from wingtip to wingtip, weirded out by all the feelings popping off inside his chest just because she was talking to him. He’d never been shy a day in his life. Or nervous. But Olivia Glendaver had him struggling to get words out.

He finally managed two: “Dawn okay?”

Olivia answered in a reassuring rush, “Yes. I can’t give you any details about the exam, of course. But I will say, don’t worry, both she and the baby are unharmed. Thank goodness…”

Her breath hitched on those last two words, and it sounded suspiciously like she was trying not to cry.

“Anyway, thank you for coming to get me. It was lovely to see Dawn again and just amazing to hear about her chosen career path. I can see now that becoming a doctor wasn’t for her, and it seems like she’s right where she should be.”

Phantom narrowed his eyes. “You okay?”

She gave her head a little shake and plastered on a smile. Phantom wasn’t intuitive or anything close to empathetic, but even he could tell the smile was a terrible patch job. All teeth and it didn’t make it anywhere near her sad eyes.

“It’s been a long day. I’m going to….” The shoddy smile job crumbled off her face. “I’m going to go.”

With that, she turned and got in an elevator like they didn’t have anything left to say.

Which he supposed they didn’t. Their business was done now.

The elevator doors closed, disappearing her—probably forever since Victor would undoubtedly take Dawn with him back to Rhode Island. The NYC doctor’s services would no longer be required, so no need to follow her. No need at all—oh, who was he kidding?

Phantom took his own elevator down to the first floor and heaved his huge body into a jog to chase her out to the street, even though he fucking hated cardio. The need to catch up with her burned inside him that bad.

He still had enough cool left to slow down right before he got outside, though. He made himself act casual as he walked through the hospital’s front doors. Less, I’m chasing you down like a dog. More, hey, look at us just so happening to be on the same street at the same time.

However, that faux casualness blipped out when he saw her walking north. North. Not south. Even though that was the direction of the subway she always took to reach the brownstone she shared in Central Park West with her boyfriend.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” he demanded, running to catch up.

She jumped and gasped when he suddenly fell into step beside her. And he added, “Uh, this is the same place where Dawn just got mugged.”

He figured that sounded a little better than, “I know where you live, so I know you’re walking in the wrong direction.”

“Um…um…I’m not sure.” She looked all around, her expression confused, verging on shell shocked.

“I um…forgot my purse back at the party. And I can’t go home, and my friend Bernice lives in Harlem. But um…she only has a one-bedroom and a little child, so not her, I’m thinking now. I can sleep in the clinic. It’s only a few blocks away.”

“Why can’t you go home?”

She didn’t answer, just kept on walking with her head down, like she was running away from something.

So he stopped her, catching her by the shoulders. “Listen, you don’t have to tell me anything. But I’m not letting you sleep in your clinic, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have security. I’ve got a place on the upper west side. We’ll go there.”

Fear flashed across her eyes, and he liked that. Not her being afraid necessarily, but her having second thoughts about going somewhere with a random guy she didn’t really know.

If it was anybody else but him making this offer, he’d want her to run fast as she could in the other direction. But in this case, he assured her, “It’s a two-bedroom. You don’t have to worry about me. And if that’s not good enough for you, I can drop you off there and head back to Rhode Island—that’s where I’m usually at.”

“No, it’s okay. If it’s a two-bedroom, then there’s no problem.” She appeared to decide at the same time she said, “You were your grandma’s first call. I trust you.”

She trusted him.

Three tiny words. Didn’t even add up to ten letters. There wasn’t any reason they should punch his chest in, but they did.

And he choked a little as he said, “Alright.”

They started walking south. Together.

“It’s a bit of a walk,” he said after a few steps. “Like, fifteen blocks. You might be regretting it soon in those heels. You want me to get my car out of the garage?”

She shook her head. “I’d rather walk if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, sure.”

So that was what they did. Walked in total silence.

His cousin, Victor, couldn’t talk—that was the whole reason they’d name themselves The Silent Triad. And he found most vocal people outside of Han irritating as fuck. So he didn’t mind the quiet.

At least he shouldn’t have minded the quiet.

But for the first time in, like, ever, he found himself wondering what a woman was thinking. Why had she been running out of that party without her purse? Why couldn’t she go home?

He was no good at small talk—hated that shit with the force of a thousand suns. But this awkward silence made him feel like Han’s loud vintage corvette, growling beside a sleek electric car.

“So…you into any sports?” he asked, giving it a try.

Several beats passed by. Then she said, “Today’s my birthday, but my fiancé forgot. Then I found out tonight that he was cheating on me. With my stepsister. That’s where I was going when I slammed into you at the party. I was running. I was running away. And that’s why I can’t go home.”

Phantom blinked at her sudden answer to all the questions he’d decided not to ask out loud.

“Well, shit,” he answered. “Want to go back to his parents’ townhouse and watch while I smash his teeth in? I got time.”

She laughed. Phantom had no idea why since he was one-hundred percent serious.

But instead of answering his offer, she continued talking. “You know, we broke up a couple of months after your visit. The guy in the picture—he was just my boyfriend back then. We drifted apart and had a very adult conversation about exploring our options. But then, one day, he ran into each other again at this Manhattan U. alumni mixer, and we both were cool with dating around the other’s busy schedule. It was so easy to start dating again whenever it was convenient for us. Then eventually move in together to ‘optimize our budgets and delete his commute’—that was how he put it when he convinced me to let him move into the brownstone my dad bought me as a med school graduation present.”

“Sounds…practical,” Phantom said out loud while deducing that must have been around the first time Garrett asked him for a loan, on top of what he was already getting paid for his money-laundering services.

“We were never the world’s most passionate couple,” she went on with no idea of the bullet she’d dodged. “Not like Luca and Amber. But we made sense. At least on paper….”

Her face took on a bitter cast. “And as it turns out, that’s probably why he asked me to marry him. Because his family wanted to acquire Glendaver—oh, I should add here that I come from this prominent Kentucky Bourbon family. Maybe you’ve heard our slogan? The Best Kentucky Bourbon Courtesy of Scotland.”

“Yeah, I know Glendaver,” he confirmed, leaving it at that.

And the doctor heiress went back to her main point. “I guess everyone knew this was basically a marriage of convenience but forgot to tell me.”

She shook her head. “I don’t even know why I’m so upset. I mean, what was I expecting? He’s the scion of this old-money family. And the only reason I even walk in the same circles as him is that my mom decided to adopt me from Africa as a Hail Mary to save her marriage—which by the way didn’t work.”

He had another urge he’d never felt before. To reach out and take her hand. To let her know she could expect whatever the fuck she wanted. Because a woman like her—generous, smart, and capable AF with beauty on top? A woman like her deserved nothing less than all her dreams coming true.

But Phantom was about as good at deep conversation as he was at shallow ones. Business. Business was pretty much his sweet spot. Especially the kind that came with high stakes and a side of intimidation. And this wasn’t that.

“Uh…” he scraped a hand over the shaved back of his head. “What part?”

“Excuse me?”

“You said your parents adopted you from Africa. Which country?”

She shook her head. “Nobody ever asks me that.”

He shrugged. “Guess I’m nobody then.”

She laughed. And this time, it was appropriate, so he chuckled too—but more out of relief that the sad cloud hanging over her head seemed to have dissipated a little. “I’m originally from Uganda.”

“Ever been back?” Phantom congratulated himself on that follow-up question.

If he wasn’t mistaken, this was how small talk was supposed to go. And who cared if he already knew all the answers to the things he was asking. At least Olivia was talking to him about herself instead of making excuses for her douchebag ex.

She nodded. “I go every year in May with my dad. He established a Glendaver Healthcare Center there before I was even born. That was actually where my birth mother delivered. But they only have white male obstetricians on staff and no one who focuses on women’s sexual health, so I do what I can for the couple of weeks I’m there. Especially for women with disabilities.”

“So that’s your specialty no matter where you go,” Phantom realized out loud.

She cast him a side-eye glance.  “My birth mother was blind, and her pregnancy was due to rape. That and not being treated with special care made my birth very hard for her. Too hard…”

Olivia dropped her eyes to the ground. “She took her own life shortly after I was born, which was how I ended up an orphan. From what I could piece together when I tracked down a few of my Ugandan family members to ask them about it, I think she probably had full-on postpartum and understandable depression. When I found out the story, the whole story, and came back to my stupidly big house in Kentucky, I felt….”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, just so incredibly sad that no one had been around to help her—that she hadn’t had other women there who truly took her situation under consideration. And my dad encouraged me to do something about it so that other women wouldn’t have to suffer the way she did. You know CEOs—very biased toward action over moping around their homes because of things you can’t change.”

She looked back up to tell him, “So that was why I became a doctor as opposed to the wife of someone who has enough money to fund my charitable efforts. And why I never miss the May trip even if that’s been getting harder with the clinic’s growing popularity—wow, look at me, talking about nothing but myself and my problems.”

She threw Phantom an apologetic wince. “I never talk this much. I’m sorry for monopolizing so much of the conversation.”

“That’s okay,” he answered, meaning it. She was telling him all the in-between stuff you couldn’t get from far away. He liked that.

“Anyway, here I am,” he said, stopping in front of his high-rise apartment building—which was pretty much the opposite of the cutesy brownstone she shared with Garrett.

In his kind of business, places like that were out of the question. If he couldn’t have a reinforced house with gates and guards, then he had to live at the top of a high-rise building with coded elevators that made it hard as hell for The Silent Triad’s enemies to reach him.

“Wow, look at your view,” she gasped when they entered his penthouse. She walked straight past the marble-top kitchen, built-in bar, linear electric fireplace, and all the other shit the real estate agent had insisted made this place so special to take in the nighttime view of the Hudson under city lights.

Phantom stopped at the edge of the sheepskin rug and drank in the sight.

Yeah, his place was totally opposite from hers. Yet, she looked completely at home with her long ponytail and evening gown, framed by the most spectacular view money could buy in New York City.

Okay, enough of that.

He forced his eyes away from the goddess standing at his window and said, “I can show you to your room, but first let me do something, okay?”

“Sure. Is it okay if I make use of the facilities?”

Goddesses. Just like us when it comes time to take a whizz.

“Yeah, go for it. First door on the left, back where we walked in.”

He entered the kitchen and watched her walked away out of the side of his eyes. Her hip swayed gracefully under the elegant gown, giving him some not-so-refined thoughts about all the curves he’d find if he took that dress off of her.

Dangerous road, man, a voice inside of him warned. You promised her a safe space. Bring it back.

He concentrated on the task at hand. Lucky for him, he found all the things he needed in the Scavolini cabinets above the marbled counters and in the drawer with all the take-out menus.

By the time she returned to the living room, he had her surprise all ready: A glass of wine in one hand and a Chocolate Hostess Cupcake with a lit birthday candle in the other.

It wasn’t much—just the best he could do at the last moment. But she clapped both hands over her mouth like she’d won the lottery as he began singing, “Happy Birthday To You.”

“Sorry that douchebag forgot your birthday,” he told her after he was through. “But trust an expert, a hostess cupcake and a glass of wine will solve anything after a long day. Now come on, blow out this candle.”

She lowered her hands from her mouth, blinked like she was in some sort of daze.

But then she blew out the candle and smiled up at him, a beam of Southern sunshine in his cold, dark penthouse.

“Did you make a wish?” he asked.

She stared at him with the strangest expression on her face. Then suddenly, she grabbed him by the lapels of his suit…

And kissed him.



Chapter 6


I kissed him. I pressed my lips to his and clumsily shoved my tongue in his mouth, and he….he tasted the opposite of every guy I’d kissed before him, like danger, violence, and cold wind.

He pulled back, ripping his lips away from mine. “Hold on. Stop.”

Mortification—the kind that unrolls a set of blueprints inside your stomach with plans to build a forever home in the part of your brain where you keep all your cringiest memories—that kind of complete and utter mortification exploded inside of me.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I said, letting go of his lapels. “I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. Of course, you don’t want that from me. You were just being nice and truly thoughtful. Maybe it was the processed sugar—it’s been so long since I had it. I think it went straight to my head without me even having to taste it. Made me do something really stupid….”

I trailed off because what else could I say? I mean, I could throw all the Chocolate Hostess Cupcakes I wanted under the bus, but there was no real explanation for my serious lapse in judgment.

“Are you done?” he asked.

“Yes—I’m sorry,” I added one more time. “But yes, I’m done.”

He set the wine down on a nearby table. “Good. Then let me finish.”

Okay, that would be a no. There was no way my heart could withstand whatever he was about to say next.

“You know what, I’m just going to walk to my friend Eric’s place,” I told him, backing away. “I’m sure an evening stroll to the Lower East Side will be refreshing after everything that happened tonight. Thank you for your generous offer to host me.”

I  headed for the door—only to have him jump in front of me.

He raised both hands.

“Listen, I’m trying not to be that scary fuck. But you are making this shit real hard right now. Especially after that kiss. Can you just hold off on leaving until I say my piece?”

“No,” I admit, my voice miserable. “I can deliver a breach baby in a bathtub to a mom who can’t hear. But I have no idea how to stand here while you tell me that I’m really nice, but you don’t see me that way.”

“I don’t think you’re nice,” he answered, his voice frank. “I don’t think you’re nice at all. A nice person would have let me talk already.”

I shriveled a little inside, knowing he was right. I was being unbelievably rude. Still…I canted to the left and tried to dart around him.

But he caught me around the waist before I could. “Okay, I tried. I tried to play it nice with you. Remember that.”

And that was all the warning I got before he swung me up into his arms.

“Where are you taking me?” I demanded when he started walking toward the penthouse’s other hallway.

We walked past an open door with a neat queen-sized bed and no city views.

“That’s the guest room. That’s where you would have been staying if you hadn’t kissed me and made this shit weird.”

Before I could process his words, much less react to them, he kicked open the door to a huge master with the same kind of window wall as the one in the open-plan front room.

I barely had time to register his space, though. He tossed me on the bed and loomed over me, blocking out everything beyond him in the room.

“If you had let me talk, then I would have told you, ‘Hold on, I’ve gotta set down this glass because red wine is a bitch to get out of a sheepskin rug. Maybe I would’ve done some of that consent shit. Let you eat your cupcake and drink your wine in a leisurely fashion while I made sure you were sure about starting something with me. Because guys like me—we don’t make out. It’s all or nothing when you come at us like that.”

My mind reeled, trying to catch up.

“But you didn’t let me finish, so this is your consent talk,” he continued before I could form a reply. “You kissed me like your birthday wish was for me to fuck you. So now I’m asking, is that what you want? You want me to wish your pussy happy birthday?”

I wasn’t wearing pearls—rather a diamond pendant necklace my mother had given me as a Christmas gift back in my twenties. But I clutched it. Boy, did I clutch it

He was so unbelievably crass. No one. And I mean, no one had ever spoken to me like this before.

“I’m going to need a yes or a no.”

Holy moly, he actually expected an answer. A decision….

But I couldn’t think. Everything was happening too fast for me to stitch together a proper response.

Maybe that’s why the “Yes…yes, please” slipped out of my mouth without warning.

He stilled, then crooked his head to regard me with those cold shark eyes.

“Yes, please,” he repeated, his tone mocking and cruel.  “You going to be that polite when you come all over my dick?”

Was I going to be that polite when I….

I couldn’t repeat the question. Not even in my head. But the shock of it loosened my tongue, and another truthful answer dropped out of my mouth: “I don’t know.”

He smiled at me—actually, no, I wouldn’t quite call it that. Smiles are meant to be happy things, gentle and reassuring.

This was more a slight lift of his mouth and a baring of his teeth that made me wonder if he had plans to eat me alive.

“How many?” he asked.

“How many what?” I asked, my voice breathless with confusion.

“How many times do you want to come?” he asked, his own voice slow and careful. Like I was an idiot, not a grown woman with a medical degree.


He scanned me from head to toe. And though I was still covered in pounds of evening gown, it felt like his gaze was stripping me bare as he said, “Tell me the truth. Mr. Forgetful never made you come on his dick, did he?”

My entire face burned with embarrassment. “Contrary to popular belief, penetration isn’t the only way to help someone climax. You can have quite a satisfying sex life without it.”

“How about once? Did he even take you there once without fingers and tongue?”

Just fingers, actually. No tongue. What Garrett hadn’t told Leighton about my lackluster blowjobs was that I had become considerably less enthusiastic about giving them after Garrett confessed that going down on a woman “just wasn’t his thing.”

As if refusing to give oral sex was some kind of lifestyle preference, like placing the toilet tissue up or down.

“So I’m going to say we start with three and take it from there,” the Dragon said.

“There’s no guarantee I’ll come even once,” I warned him, sitting all the way up in the bed. “We’ve only just met again, and we don’t know each other all that well.”

He looked at me. And for some reason, it felt as if he were making a decision when he said, “Alright.”

“Alright?” I repeated.

“I had a crazy day, but challenge accepted. I’ll make you come four times.”


“Alright, five. You got it. If I were you, I’d stopped yapping and kiss me again to give me this consent. I’m not even sure your body could take six orgasms anyway.”

I had been about to protest again, but that declaration snapped my mouth shut.

Silence descended, and he stood there with an expectant air—waiting, I realized after a few confusing moments. He was waiting for me to kiss him.

Awkward. I felt so awkward as I stood on my knees and hobbled over to him as best I could in my evening gown.

This wasn’t like back in the front room. I carefully pressed my lips to his with no tongue, a chaste declaration of consent officially given.

And in return, he promptly inhaled me into a deep kiss without any consideration whatsoever.



Chapter 7

The Dragon pushed his tongue into mine with way more skill than I had into his. Invading and dominating before my mouth even got a chance to take full charge.

He pillaged my mouth like a warrior in one of those historical romance paperbacks I loved to read before I went off to college—the kind that had words like Brute and Villain scrolled across their glossy covers in flowery cursive.

No one had ever kissed me like this, with such focused intention, as if his goal was to consume me whole.

But then he abruptly pulled back from feasting on my mouth.

“You or me?” he asked.

I shook my head, so helplessly confused.

And he clarified, “Who’s undressing you?”

“Oh, I…”

The situation had gone from awkward to fiery hot, right back to awkward again.

“Actually, it’s going to be the both of us,” I answered, once again knee-hobbling to turn around and give him my back. “Do you mind unzipping me?”

His hands were large but surprisingly quick. He undid the top clasp and unzipped me with deft and ease. Holy moly, this man knew his way around a zipper….which made me feel even more self-conscious because I didn’t know the first thing about undressing a man.

Garrett and I were more the get undressed, place your clothes carefully in a mesh dry-cleaning bag, and then meet each other in bed type of people.

The gown was one of those heavy numbers with loads of hidden scaffolding underneath. So once unzipped, it dropped around my waist as if it were giving up the fight.

Or maybe it was just this guy. I wondered how many men had dropped their weapons when they saw him coming. How many women had surrendered without putting up any fight at all?

The Dragon abruptly brought all those self-conscious thoughts to an end when he twisted me onto my back and pulled the dress all the way off.

He tossed it, and I heard the couture gown land somewhere with a heavy clunk.

Then he looked at me for a few moments, just looked at me, his black eyes filled with hunger and heat.

I still had on my underwear—a burgundy La Perla balconette bra with a pretty floral print and conservative briefs to match. But for some reason, my heart was beating so fast. It felt like it was pulsing in my ears. Am I really going to do this? With him?

He didn’t give me time to reconsider and back out.

One moment my panties were there, and the next moment, they just weren’t. He whipped them off my body the same way he’d rid me of my dress.

Then his large hands shoved at the underside of my thighs, pushing my knees into my shoulders, and he attacked my pussy with even more hunger than he did my mouth. Opening me with a lewd, slow lick up my slit and circling his tongue around my clit.

The sight of a man as large as him doing this to me, still dressed in his suit. The negative lizard inside my head instantly lost the fight to keep me self-conscious.

I couldn’t feel anything but the animal feasting on my snatch. Couldn’t think of anything but the sensations building between my legs. Couldn’t do anything but fall back in surrender to helpless want, which eventually turned into a sweet pain that made me whine and moan with the need for relief.

And suddenly, I was…I could barely believe it even as I announced out loud, “I’m coming!”

Something gave way inside me, flooding me with pleasure and involuntary actions. I bucked my hips into his mouth, my body jerking like the nasty dances the etiquette teacher warned me against doing before my debut. “Lest you want people to think you’re that kind of girl.”

But apparently, I was…I was that kind of girl. I ground myself into his mouth as I fell apart.

“One,” he said, rearing back to wipe off the glistening mess I made on his face with the back of his suit sleeve. “Fuck, that was hot. Now hold on while I put on a condom so you can back that sloppy pussy up on this dick.”

I was pretty sure I should hate the crass way he talked to me. Be alarmed when he flipped me over, pulled my hips back, and started to press into me with what felt like a considerable-sized dick.

“You were fucking delicious, by the way,” he said, feeding me his cock, inch by inch. “I’m going to have to make you come on my mouth again before this is all done. I’ll bet you’ll squirt for me real good if I press the right spot.”

Yes, I probably should have felt some sort of way about all the crude presumptions he was making. But dear saints in heaven, I started coming again, my pussy spasming around his dick.

“Two,” he said above me with a low, feral laugh. “Look at you, beautiful. Coming all over this dick before I’m all the way in. Is that polite?”

No, it wasn’t.

“I’m sorry!” I gasped out—only to gasp even louder when he buried himself all the way inside of me.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said as he started powering into me, rough and hard. “Just understand why I’ve got to take you like this, why I can’t be nice. Not when you come for me like that.”

With those words, he fell on top of me, his huge body pressing into my back.

And yes….he was as heavy as I expected. So heavy, I fell to my forearms, unable to stay up as he rutted me like an animal.

It was too much. The filthy words. The weight. The pressure between my folds as he pumped into them. He was big. I suddenly understood why women sometimes said impossible things, like, I could feel him in my womb.

I’d never been filled like this, so completely that I couldn’t properly breathe between strokes. Not just because of his almost crushing weight on top of me, but also because when he pulled back, I kept holding my breath in anticipation of him filling me up again.

But surely I wouldn’t. I couldn’t—

That thought cut out, and the world disappeared.

“Three,” a voice said somewhere in the distance as another climax hit.

He was so heavy, and in the end, I needed that. He laid on top of me like a weighted blanket, keeping me grounded and safe as the orgasm tore through me.

“Best one yet, beautiful,” he said, lifting off of me when I was done. “But I’m going to have to take a break, or else I’ll blow before we get to five.”

His idea of a break and my idea of a break were two very different things. I found that out when instead of flopping down on his back like I did, he crooked one of my legs over his shoulders. And…

Holy moly…if I thought the first time was good, it barely compared to what happened when he buried his face between my legs along with two fingers, polishing my clit while he worked them inside of me.

This was crazy. I didn’t want to be this wanton woman coming all over a virtual stranger.

But my body was so primed—I couldn’t hold on. Just a minute or two later, he raised his mouth from my pussy with a triumphant. “Four. And looks like I was right about you being a squirter.”

Oh my gosh….luckily, I was too wiped out to feel as mortified as I should. I lay there like a melting chocolate pudding pop, my body quivering with aftershocks.

He rose from the bed. And now.…now he finally took off the suit. I watched him strip in a daze and wondered at all the tattoos covering his chest. The snake with red diamond eyes who slithered all the way up to his neck, also a dragon, and an ancient-looking man, who I could only guess was some Chinese god. They appeared to be meaningful.

Too bad I was incapable of asking questions in this melted pudding pop stage.

He climbed back into the bed and flipped me over onto my stomach before my eyes could travel below his waist.

“Can’t believe I lasted this long.” His voice held a new urgency as he pulled my hips up again and lined the hard knob of his dick with the back of my pussy.

He didn’t have to feed it to me this time. I was wet, so slippery with all my orgasms. He slid right into my still clenching core.

I began to meet his thrusts, finding a store of bad girl endurance I wouldn’t have guessed I had.

But then, for the first time ever, I voiced a sexual want out loud. “Could we do it this last time, facing each other?”

He stopped pumping behind me, and his voice was quiet and tense as he answered, “I figured this would be easier for you if you didn’t have to look at me?”

“What?” I unimpaled myself from his cock and flipped back over to look at him.

I’d spent so much of tonight feeling weird and uncomfortable until he dropped all my shields with that no-holds-barred sex. But now, he appeared to be the awkward one.

He scraped a hand over the back of his head. “I’m not pretty like your boyfriend. And I know…I know women like that.”

It was funny. How many women had acted like I was so lucky to have such a traditionally handsome boyfriend. A few of them had stared at us on the street, their thoughts as noisy as shouts. How did she manage to land him?

But I realized something for the first time at that moment.

The things that made people most attractive had almost nothing to do with facial symmetry.

“No, you’re not pretty,” I agreed. “But I don’t care about that. You were the person your grandma asked for when she got hurt. You came to get me when Dawn needed someone to check over her baby. You sang me happy birthday after the worst night of my life. And now you’ve given me, hands-down, the best sex I’ve ever had. To me, you’re beautiful—plus, it’s only fair to let me see your cum face since you’ve seen mine so many times tonight.

He chuckled, the sound a low grumble in his chest. Then he said, “Alright. As long as you promise me one thing…”

“What?” I asked without reservation, feeling bold and sexy—yet another thing I could credit to the Dragon in front of me.

“Don’t ever bring up my grandma again while we’re smashing,” he answered.

This was only a one-night stand, but I couldn’t help but laugh and wince. “Yes, yes…I hear it now. You almost lost your erection, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did,” he let me know with a disgruntled shake of his head. But then he sobered to say, “Olivia.”

His voice was so serious. I couldn’t tell if he was asking for my full attention or commanding it. Either way, I answered, “Yes?”

“Happy birthday, beautiful.”

He claimed my mouth and fell back on the bed with me. No more back and forth, no more jokes. He just pushed right into me and began taking me again with deep, powerful thrusts.

He felt even larger inside me at this angle, and I widened my legs to give him some room, to take him even deeper. And this time…

This time I wasn’t surprised when the orgasm crested over me just a few minutes later. Of course, it did. I’d learned to expect it, and when that fifth train came thundering through me, I climbed aboard and hung on as it lifted off the tracks and throttled me into outer space.

“Five…five…five,” somebody was chanting as I floated back down to Earth and found myself underneath the Dragon’s frantically rutting body.

But then he suddenly stopped and bit out, “Fuck, beautiful.” He pushed into me with one final shove. Then his entire body spasmed as he released into the condom.

Some feminine instinct made me wrap both my arms and legs around him. I held on as best I could, anchoring him like he’d anchored me earlier when I thought the orgasm might actually tear me apart.

It was the least I could do. I’d never felt so wanted. So satisfied. So….so….everything that I suspected could exist with sex but didn’t know for sure until this moment.

It was like that final note, Sirena Gale hit at the end of the opera, Chrysanthemum. She held you inside of it for so long that anyone with a soul was weeping by the time she released you from its thrall.

Actually, it was exactly like that. I didn’t realize I was crying until The Dragon said, “Sssh, it’s okay. It’s okay….”

He rolled us onto our sides and wrapped me up in his arms.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, sniffling into his barrel chest. “It was just so good.”

He chuffed. “Hey, don’t be sorry, beautiful. If you wanted to make me feel like a king, this is how you do it.

And just like that, I went from crying to laughing.

“Seriously, you could teach a masterclass,” he told me. “Hey, this is Dr. Olivia with a message for all you women. You want to make a man happy in bed, all you gotta do is come five times in a row and cry legit tears because”—he put on a high southern falsetto to imitate me, “’ It was just so good! Nobody does it like you, Phantom!’”

I stopped laughing to ask, “Is that your name? Phantom? I thought maybe it was Hak-kan. That was what your grandma called you, right?”

He stopped laughing too. And it felt like a decision when he said, “Hak-kan is my Chinese name. Phantom is what everybody else calls me.”

“Really? Not Hawk?” I asked. “I mean, as far as American nicknames go, that one’s pretty intimidating.”

He stilled. “Alright, now I’m pissed that I didn’t think of that. You’re right. Hawk is totally bad-ass.”

My fiancé forgot my birthday. Then I caught him getting a blowjob. From my stepsister. My dream of having a child of my own had never been farther away.

But somehow, I found myself laughing uproariously with Phantom. Like a girl without a care in the world.

“So what should I call you?” I asked when we were done with that round of laughter. “Phantom or Hak-kan?”



Chapter 8


Phantom came to regret his decision the next day.

He woke up way later than usual, thanks to last night’s activities—nearly noon. But the sight of Olivia’s dark body wrapped up in his white sheets…

His dick turned to concrete, ready to go again as if last night had never happened.

But it had. Her presence this morning proved it. And he wanted to make last night happen again. Maybe spend the entire day in bed repeating the challenge.

But first, a real birthday celebration.

He got up, rinsed off in the shower, and threw on some sweatpants. Only to immediately regret the decision when she rolled over. She must have taken off her bra sometime during the night. The sheet pulled down, revealing one of the perfect dark breasts he hadn’t taken the opportunity to sample when he had the chance. Fucking hell…

Alright, jeans it was. But when he looked back up after the wardrobe change, the sheet had slipped even further. Both breasts….both supple breasts were now exposed, those black cherry nipples just begging to be touched, and sucked, and a whole lot of other things—

Food, he reminded himself. Gotta feed her.

This responsibility was the only thing that allowed him to rush out of the room before he could give into temptation.

Victor and Han loved having at least a handful of their Silent Triad ranks at their avail at all hours. So every meal they ate was either prepared by their full-time chef in Rhode Island or brought to them by someone else. He doubted either of them had any food delivery apps on their phone or even knew how to make their own restaurant reservations.

Phantom preferred to do all that shit himself. He didn’t even bother with guards unless it was for show during a big meeting. But that afternoon, he felt kinda conflicted about his usual stance.

On the one hand, he would have preferred to stay in bed with Olivia. On the other, he knew exactly where to go around his place to celebrate her right.

He ran down to his favorite brunch spot, where everything on the menu was chef’s kiss. Then he went a few doors down to the bodega for some champagne and ran across the street to the French pastry shop and got a box of croissants, along with two cupcakes, so he could sing her “Happy Birthday” again.

The text from Victor came through just as he was headed back into the building.

VICTOR: “Where are you?”

Phantom immediately texted back.

Personal business.


VICTOR: Need you here tomorrow for breakfast to run interference.

Phantom cursed out loud. He’d forgotten about the ongoing drama of the Victor and Dawn show.

PHANTOM: Fuck your C-drama shit but K. B there.

Loyalty. No Questions. That was his three-word belief system. Especially when it came to his fellow Silent Triad Dragons, but that was another stance he was low-key regretting as he made his way back to the penthouse.

He wouldn’t have minded spending a few more days in the city before going back to Rhode Island. Maybe taking Olivia out on a real date to show her he wasn’t just a gorilla who knew what to do in bed.

Speaking of which, he took the time to plate up the food like a civilized morning after date. He even made a note on his Alexa device to put a tray on the shopping list so that he could do breakfast in bed right next time.

Next time…

His chest rattled with all sorts of emotions jumping up and down in there.

“Hey, wake up…Liv? Livvy?” he asked as he walked into the bedroom.  “We never talked about what I should call….”

His words trailed off when he saw the note on the now empty pillow where Olivia’s head had been resting before he left.

“Dearest Hak-kan,


Thank you so much for last night. I’ll never be able to repay you. I used your landline to call Garrett, and I was able to go home. Again, I am so grateful. I’ll never forget you or be able to thank you enough for being there for me in my time of need. If ever, you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call. Now, I owe you one.”


Your friend,


He could almost hear her flowers and molasses voice as he read the note.

No, you’re not pretty. But I don’t care about that…To me, you’re beautiful.

That was what she’d said. And he’d believed her. But one night. One night was all he got with her before she decided to go back to her pretty ex-boyfriend.

Rage boiled inside of him, corroding his bones like acid. And he hurled the food he’d so carefully plated a few minutes ago into the wall.


Oh no! Is this the end of

Phantom and Olivia?

Read what happens next in

PHANTOM: Her Ruthless Fiancé

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