The peer and the puppet, p.2
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       The Peer and the Puppet, p.2

           B. B. Reid
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  With two clicks of his tongue, he lifted the gun, but the last thing I heard wasn’t his voice or the bullet leaving the chamber. It was a racing engine.

  Hmm…much better.

  “THE GOOD NEWS IS YOU’LL certainly walk again.” The tall, bubbly redhead discarded her gloves and smiled.

  “And the bad?”

  “I’m afraid you won’t be taking midnight rides for quite some time.”

  I sunk back against the reclined hospital bed and sighed. I should be happy just to be alive, but all I could think about was how I would explain all of this to Gruff. I’d lose my job for sure and rightly so, but would he forgive me? Would I forgive me?

  I was mindlessly flipping through channels after the doctor promised to return with my discharge papers when the door opened, and Rosalyn rushed to my bedside.

  “I thought I’d never see you again!” she said with a sob.

  Confusion and guilt kept me from responding. Had it been unfair to think she might be happy if I died? She definitely would have been better off. I looked away before her tears undid me, and that was when the large hands holding Rosalyn’s petite shoulders and the man they belonged to captured my attention.

  He wasn’t dressed in a lab coat or nurse’s scrubs. Even if he had, his touch was too familiar to be that of a polite stranger. He wore a white dress shirt that would have stretched tight over his broad chest if it weren’t slightly gaped and wrinkled. I could see a light splattering of tawny-colored hair that matched his full head. The charcoal slacks he wore were also wrinkled, but the matching dress shoes were still perfectly polished and scuff free. Even with the neatly lined scruff on his lower face, this man looked expensive and exactly the kind of man Rosalyn usually courted. My eyes rolled, which didn’t go unnoticed if the amused smile toying at the man’s lips was any clue.

  “How did you—” I paused to clear my throat, but it only made my throat burn.

  Rosalyn’s latest flame guessed what I needed and quickly poured a glass of water from a pink pitcher. Cobalt eyes assessed me as he handed over the glass.

  “Thanks,” I said after I emptied the cup. “How did you find out?”

  “I’m your mother,” Rosalyn reminded as she plumped my pillow. “Of course, they called me.” I hid my shock at hearing her admit her motherhood. Without a doubt, she was pretending for the handsome man offering her comfort.

  Never for me.

  Rosalyn laid a trembling hand on her chest as her eyes welled up again. “Oh, Four, I was so worried.”

  Not as good of an actress, I said, “I’m sorry I ruined your weekend.” She had left yesterday morning for yet another getaway with the man scrutinizing me over her shoulder.

  “Don’t trouble yourself with that. We’re just so happy you’re okay.”

  I stole another glance at the other half of her ‘we.’ Rosalyn Archer was the love ’em and lose ’em type. She was never without male companionship, but they never lasted long, either. Maybe that was why she’d stopped bringing them around and stayed away instead. I’d lost my desire for a father long before she’d lost the hope of providing me with one. It wasn’t as if I were completely without. Gruff filled the role as only a loner who’d earned his name could.

  “You must be Thomas.” Even though I no longer met Rosalyn’s lovers, she still talked about them. Thomas McNamara was the name she often spoke with a sigh and the man who currently fed her notions of happily-ever-after.

  “Silly me,” Rosalyn chirped. “Where is my head?”

  “You’re emotional,” he murmured. “It’s to be expected.”

  She leaned into him, and it seemed too natural. As if she’d done it a thousand times before. Panic speared my chest. The average lifespan of Rosalyn’s relationships was three months. My own father had disappeared before she even knew of my conception.

  I quickly counted the months to when I first heard this man’s name.

  Eight months.

  I’d been too busy with the shop and racing and the consuming fear that I wouldn’t be good enough to go legit once I graduated to realize she had sunken her claws deep this time.

  Oh, God. Maybe I had died, and this was hell.

  Rosalyn worked full-time as a maid at NaMara, an international five-star hotel chain inherited by Thomas McNamara himself. His business trip had turned into pleasure when he’d laid eyes on Rosalyn Archer. Her beauty had been something that skipped a generation. Most women, including her own daughter, paled in comparison. Dark blonde hair that I inherited flowed in waves almost reaching her tiny waist. Slim hips seemed to dance when she moved on legs that went on and on. Wide brown eyes flecked with gold—also inherited by me—captivated men everywhere. Skin deep, she was the perfect woman. Beyond it, however, lurked something that sent men fleeing as fast as they’d appear.

  But Thomas had done what no other man could, and with the realization came another—he was either a fool or trouble. As he stared back, unperturbed, I had a sinking feeling it was the latter.

  “Rose.” His deep voice commanded attention without needing to raise a single octave. I tore my gaze away to search for this Rose, but there was no one else in the room. When Rosalyn looked over her shoulder at him, I realized she was his Rose.

  “Yes, Thomas?”

  “Why don’t you see what’s keeping the good doctor?” Without waiting for her agreement, Thomas gently steered her toward the door.

  Rosalyn paused to look me over, and her lips, without their usual vibrant red, trembled as she nodded. “Yes, of course.” And then she was gone, leaving Thomas and me alone.

  “It’s nice to finally meet you. Your mother has been quite adamant about keeping you a mystery.”

  I wanted to tell him that he was just another one of many, but flaunting her reputation to fend off her latest beau would only hurt her. I’ve caused her enough grief.

  “Your mother’s a chatterbox,” he said when the awkward silence stretched. “I guess it skipped a generation.”

  “Among other things.”

  He studied me for a long moment. “Interesting…I see much of her in you.”

  A little embarrassed that he’d known what I meant, I shrugged off the compliment, and then awkwardness filled the silence once again until he sighed.

  “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.”

  I was sorry we met at all. It would only make their inevitable breakup harder on Rosalyn. Thankfully, I was saved from replying when she returned with Dr. Day. They got the same run down that I had. The bruises would fade, and my leg would heal, but I couldn’t erase the last twelve hours. One sleepless summer later, I learned just how true that was.

  BLACKWOOD KEEP SOUNDED LIKE A place where the sun never shined, life couldn’t grow, and hope didn’t exist. That morning, Gruff found me straddling his red 1975 Honda CB400F Cafe Racer, crying a river with a pocket full of cash because I couldn’t work up the courage to run. I ran into his arms, begged him to tell me what I should do, and as always, Gruff had been a man of few words.

  “You mind your mother, and don’t go chasin’ trouble, kid. Hear?”

  Even though Gruff couldn’t hide his own sadness, he sent me on my way, and just as the sun was setting, I arrived in Blackwood Keep, Connecticut.

  My hope that this new start would end soon died at each peek of the beautiful homes beyond the curtain of green.

  I was forced down this highway to hell a week after the race. Gruff had shown up on our doorstep, not to fire me but to warn that the Feds were poking around. Two Special Agents arrived later that day to question my involvement with the Exiled—a violent gang polluting the east coast. It didn’t take much for me to connect the dots after that. These Exiled had been the ones marked with the X.

  Apparently, Mickey’s humble gambling ring landed on the FBI’s radar after he’d gotten mixed up with them. One harrowing interrogation later, the agents lost interest in me, but after planting the seed that a vicious gang was after me, Rosalyn was spooked.
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  To make matters worse the client whose bike I totaled threatened to sue. I had been ready to forfeit every penny I’d won, but Thomas swooped in with his gold-plated fountain pen and leather-bound checkbook and saved the day.

  And it didn’t end there.

  I’d probably still be slumming it if it had. The billionaire’s fast-talking lawyer then saved me from losing my license. I still had to pay a fine for speeding, but Thomas had taken care of that, too.

  Summer passed, Gruff forgave me, Rosalyn kept her sanity, and once my leg healed, I naively believed it was all behind me.

  But then Rosalyn announced that we were leaving Cherry.

  We stayed long enough to pack, but as it turned out, there wasn’t much Rosalyn had been unwilling to part with. For a week, I sat back as she bestowed our things on the neighbors. The day Thomas arrived in a pearl white Lincoln Navigator, she left with little more than the clothes on her back.

  “…and then there’s Robin Point. It used to be a private beach for locals, but some guy sued, and now it’s open to tourists.” Thomas had been giving us a history lesson of Blackwood Keep as he drove us to his home, but I couldn’t muster the interest. It wasn’t until I noticed Rosalyn frowning at me from the front seat and Thomas stealing glances in the rearview mirror that I realized some response was expected.

  “Sounds good.”

  “Your mother tells me you’ve never learned to swim. I’m sure Ever can teach you if you’re up for it.”

  “I’m sorry…” I couldn’t decide who to focus on as I recited the name in my head. At last, I forced myself to ask the burning question. “Who’s Ever?”

  Thomas and Rosalyn had some silent conversation that ended with her biting her lip and Thomas letting out an aggravated sigh.

  “He’s my son.” I couldn’t hide my flinch, which might have prompted him to say, “It wasn’t my intention to corner you. I thought your mother would have told you by now.”

  Well, I was already uprooted from my home, why not get one more blow in while I was down? Out loud, I said, “It’s fine.”

  “You’ll be fortunate to know someone at your new school,” Rosalyn added.

  “Yes,” Thomas confirmed. “Maybe you’ll have a few classes together.”

  Great.

  I ignored their attempts to soften the blow and resumed staring out the window.

  So Thomas had a son.

  I wonder how he felt about our new living arrangements.

  I trailed behind the couple as Thomas gave us a tour. Home seemed too inadequate a word to describe the monstrosity sitting on five acres of the greenest grass and the tallest trees I’d ever seen. I didn’t know much about the rich other than their piles of money, but I never would have painted an accurate picture of just how glamorous they lived. I pictured the two-bedroom single-wide we left behind…it probably would have fit inside the two-story foyer.

  After meeting the housekeeper, a jolly woman with graying blonde hair and red glasses, Thomas led us through heavy wooden sliding doors and into a living room three times the size of ours back home. There was a fireplace at each end, adjacent sofas made of bronze and gold fabric with ornate carvings and rolled arms, and a coffee table made of ivory, marble, and dark oak. Three sets of bronze French doors decorated with gold billowing curtains opened onto a terrace spanning the rear of the house.

  A rectangular pool sat perpendicular to a two-bedroom pool house. Thomas then explained that we could find the theater, gym, indoor pool, massage, and the steam and sauna rooms on the lower level. Rosalyn openly expressed her awe as he showed us the library, billiard, family, kitchen, dining, and breakfast rooms.

  I’m surprised he doesn’t have an elevator to get around this place.

  “And you can find the elevator on the east wing if the stairs become tedious.” Unwillingly, my jaw dropped, causing Thomas to chuckle. “I know it’s a little much.”

  He seemed ready to say more, but with lips pressed tight, he averted his eyes, and for the third time that day, I was stumped. I peeked at Rosalyn, but she was too focused on the grandeur to notice his pain. I sighed, knowing this romance wouldn’t last long, and once more, I’d be the one to piece Rosalyn back together. With a forced smile, Thomas promised to show us the rest of his home when we were better rested. I shouldn’t have expected less since I’d googled his name the moment I was released from the hospital.

  The McNamara family was worth more than the goddamn Hiltons.

  Upstairs, he quickly pointed out the master suite before leading us past two more bedrooms, down six steps, and past a second set of stairs at the end of the hall. This second hallway seemed longer as we passed the elevator, a laundry room, powder room, and his son’s room before finally stopping at the very next door.

  “This will be your room.” I was careful not to give my thoughts away as he turned the elegantly carved bronze knobs and pushed open the door. “Decorate it however you wish. This is your home now.”

  The sincerity in his eyes made me realize why he’d lasted longer than the others had. Rosalyn wasn’t the only one with stars in her eyes. As I crossed the threshold, I wondered who would be the first to shake free of the illusion.

  The room was twice the size of my old bedroom, and the bed in the center could easily sleep three or four. A plush yellow comforter and pristine white sheets stretched tight over the mattress with a mountain of pillows resting against a cream tufted headboard. “Your mother told me yellow was your favorite color, so I had Christina order some items I thought you might like.”

  “Is she your daughter?” I questioned, barely managing to keep the sarcasm from my voice.

  “No,” Thomas answered tightly. “Christina’s my assistant.” He walked past and pushed open another door. “This is your closet.” I managed a quick look inside and barely glimpsed shelves, drawers, and racks before he moved on to another door. “And this is where you’ll find the bathroom.”

  I walked inside and couldn’t help but gape at the elegance as I spotted a small crystal chandelier hanging above. It was a bathroom, for fuck’s sake. The marble floors were black and white, and the walls of the bathroom were midnight blue casting the room in mostly shadow until Thomas flicked on the lights.

  The opulence wasn’t something I’d get used to in this lifetime.

  A massive walk-in shower with glass walls stood on one side of the room. At least, I’d never have to worry about elbowroom whenever I washed my hair. I held back a snort when my gaze passed over a toilet surprisingly not lined with gold. An oval bathtub with a deep drop sat in the corner, and my bones quaked at the invitation. I caught a glimpse of my astonishment in the mirror spanning the double vanity and quickly looked away.

  That was when I noticed the door facing my own.

  I hoped it wasn’t another closet. I barely had enough clothes to fill a corner of the first closet. “What’s through there?”

  Thomas seemed surprised since it was the first bit of interest I’d shown since arriving, but then he chuckled almost nervously.

  “I hope you don’t mind…you’ll be sharing this space with Ever. On the occasions I entertain, I prefer to keep the other bedrooms with more private baths available for guests. On the other side of that door”—he pointed—“is Ever’s room.”

  When we first arrived, Thomas said his home had six bedrooms, seven baths, and six half bathrooms, not including the two-bedroom guesthouse. Just how hospitable was he?

  “You must throw quite a party,” I answered dryly. Rosalyn had her lip between her teeth again. Still, I waited for her to voice how inappropriate it was to have her sixteen-year-old daughter share a private bathroom with a sixteen-year-old boy—one who was very much a stranger. Instead, she shot me an apologetic look and laid a hand on Thomas’s arm.

  “Thomas, honey, where is Ever? I’d love to have Four finally meet him.”

  Me.

  Not us.

  Because she’d already made the prince’s acquaintance.

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nbsp; I wasn’t sure why I felt betrayed, but Thomas’s frown as he looked at his watch was enough to distract me from the emotion. “I’m not sure. He should have been here.” He pulled out his phone and quickly punched a couple of buttons before lifting the phone to his ear and strolling for the door.

  The door closed with a soft click, but then I could hear him bellow, “Get home now,” in his thick northern accent. Rosalyn faced me with a hand on her chest and eyes wide.

  “I hope you’ll be comfortable here, Four.” Because why be happy when you can settle for wealth?

  “You don’t need to talk to me like I’m a guest, Rosalyn. This is my home now, remember?” Thomas’s words thrown back at her caused her to drop the Stepford act.

  “I’ve had enough of your attitude. You made the choices, young lady, and now Thomas just wants to help.”

  My lip curled slightly. “I’m sure.” I threw myself down on the bed and sighed when my body sunk into the plush mattress. Eternal resentment aside, this bed was the shit.

  I swept the room with a careful eye—sheer curtains that welcomed twilight, a cream cushioned bench at the foot of my bed, white writing desk complete with a matching chair, and an oval floor-length mirror with LED lighting.

  All the appropriate trappings for the newly found princess.

  I snorted.

  Rosalyn lingered, likely wondering how long before I messed this up for her.

  “You don’t need to worry,” I said while staring at the twinkling chandelier, “I know what’s at stake.”

  Moments later, I was blissfully alone.

  I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep until a knock on my door woke me. I checked my phone and saw that only an hour had passed.

  “Four?”

  I smirked at the hesitant note in Rosalyn’s voice. As usual, she wanted to avoid me as much as I did her. I rolled until my dirty, worn chucks hit the floor, then strolled over to open the door. Rosalyn Archer could turn heads in sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt—not that she’d ever be caught dead—but she was absolutely breathtaking when set to stun.

 

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