Main The Billionaire's Lie
The Billionaire's LieAshley Zakrzewski
Matteo’s rough personality puts a damper on those around him. His girlfriend broke up with him right before he proposed and the thick walls he put up, as a result, keep people at arm’s length. Now his sister is getting married, and she is nudging him about his plus one. Lying was the easiest decision. Lacey agreed to pretend to be Matteo’s girlfriend for the week-long trip only so she could pay off her impending tuition. She would be set if everything went well. If not, she wouldn’t get a dime. Living a lie for a week shouldn’t have changed them forever, but when the island gets hit with a hurricane forcing them to spend the day along together, Lacey realizes Matteo has a whole other side to him. Can they pull off the lie without any hitches, or will it all come crashing down?
The Billionaire’s Lie Written by Ashley Zakrzewski This book is a work of fiction. Any references to real people are used fictitiously. The names, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2019 Ashley Zakrzewski All Rights Reserved Acknowledgements Let’s start off with my inspiration for this book. I decided to go back to college to finish my degree. Earlier in the day, I found out how much it costs for just a semester, and I was shocked. The institution was charging as much in fees as the tuition for the semester. That night, I went to bed to dream about Lacey and her struggles just wanting to graduate and make something of herself. She was dedicated like me. I very much resonated with her character in that aspect. Her scholarship didn’t cover all of it, so she had to find a way to cover the rest of her part. That’s when in my dream, she decided to sign up for an escort business. I was thankful in the dream that there were no inappropriate actions toward her from the company or the client. There was nothing “extra.” When I woke up, I decided to start a draft for it. Many of my books are written from dreams I’ve had. My mind is constantly giving me new ideas, and I just run with them. Next, I would like to thank my lovely supportive family. You guys have supported me throughout my whole author journey, and I couldn’t have survived without your support. You push me, asking “When is your next book coming out?” This makes me want to write the next one. Finally, I would like to thank my daughter, Kaylin. The day she told me she wanted to be an author just like me gave me chills. It was amazing to know she wanted to follow in my footsteps. She has an amazing imagination and determination just like me. Keep it up, girl, and one day, I will be reading your books and so will the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. You must believe in yourself and put in the hard work. I believe in you! Chapter 1 Lacey As I read the email, my whole body tensed. Dear Lacey Pierce, It has come to our attention that your scholarship fund has a remaining balance of $0.00. We will need a payment of $1,200 by December 31st, 2019 or we will have to cancel your classes. Please go to the Finance Office to discuss the details or set up a payment arrangement. Thank you, Debra Gallagher Secretary of Finance Administration Upon reading the disaster of an email, I realized my world had flipped upside down within a matter of seconds. My stomach tightened, and a headache started to ensue. What the heck was I going to do? I couldn’t stop now. My dream hinged on me graduating, and I wasn’t going to stop now. I wasn’t a stranger to such tragedy. My parents busted their asses when I was a kid to give me simple things like clothes on my back and a decent home. Why couldn’t I have had the blissful life like the rich kids? I wanted nothing more than to have a pair of new shoes, a purse, or a car. There was always this twinge of jealousy or even annoyance. My dad was never the healthy type, and when you grew up in a shitty neighborhood with barely enough to make the month’s rent, alcohol proved to be his medicine. He’d drink himself blind every night, and sometimes he couldn’t even remember my name. I forgave him because he was my dad, and kids like me understood just how rare it was to even know yours. These past few years turned out to be his karma. His liver turned to absolute shit, and the doctor told us he had liver cancer. It was sad to say we weren’t surprised. All the alcohol was catching up to him. Karma was really a thing. When I was ten years old, I swore I’d be the first in my family to graduate from college. Unlike my parents, I didn’t want to be stuck in their small town. My big dreams had followed me since childhood and were still inside me. I wasn’t about to fail at my own dream. In order to fulfill my own agenda, desperation became my muse. I would do anything to get my education paid for. School was a far-fetched idea for my parents, so with the joint risk of my father’s cancer and me not being home to help them, I knew asking for money would be a bust. So, I had to find a way to pay off my school debts on my own. If I didn’t have the funds within a month, I would be out on my ass. I couldn’t let that happen. Sure, I wallowed in self-pity and pessimism for a good week, but I quickly snapped out of that bubble. I worked too hard to let that become my reality. I had no idea what I was going to do. Being my usual faux-optimistic self though, I tried to be proactive. With my luck, a failed attempt of work study and a sweaty job at the local pizzeria served to be slaps in the face to only reiterate my fate. The truth of the matter was my scholarship only covered the first two years. When I applied to school, I promised myself I’d be working my ass off to have enough for the remaining years. I left to find something to eat when she approached me. “You looking for work?” Lindsey Monaghan whispered from behind a wall after seeing me sink to the floor. I had just been denied yet again another job, and things were turning for the worse. I rolled my eyes and sighed. Another one of Lindsey’s terrible ideas was about to be sprung on me. I looked down, swallowing hard, wondering what she was about to rope me into now. “Yeah, but it’s nothing you could help me with,” I grumbled as I struggled to get myself off the floor. Lindsey snorted and strolled confidently over to me. Her long red hair swished by her full hips just as her brand-new Louis Vuitton bag swung on her shoulder. She stood deathly close to me, a wave of her flowery perfume hitting me in the face. I rolled my eyes. Not actually at her, but at the shiny new bag that glared at my poor, broken self on the floor. “Well, for one, you always wear the same shit every day. Judging by your pleas for help, I’d say you need money. Quick money,” Lindsey retorted with a wink. I sighed. Lindsey was considered the slut on campus, but it would be a mistake to pass off her intellect. She had the highest GPA of our class and several job offers at big-time companies. I envied her so much. “Stripping is not on my list of options,” I snarled. “Yeah, I’d hope not. You don’t have the balls or tits for it.” She chuckled. My face reddened, and I cleared my throat. “Piss off, Lindsey, okay?” “Wait.” I rolled my eyes, wanting to get as far away from her as I could. What could this girl possibly want? “What, Lindsey?” Lindsey looked left and right before moving close to my ear, her raspberry-tinted lips practically touching my earlobe. “If you need quick money, there’s a job service that can provide that. Full discretion. And no, it’s not porn or stripping,” Lindsey whispered. “It’s something much more sophisticated than that.” Lindsey stepped back with a grin spreading across her perfectly structured face. I gulped. It sounded sketchy, but I needed it. Badly. “Okay. Say I’m interested in this gig. What exactly is it?” “Ever heard of escorting?” My heart sank. Escorting? No way in hell. “You’re crazy. I’m not about to be a prostitute!” “Calm down! It’s not like that! Look, how do you think I get the most expensive bags?” Lindsey shot back as she held out her new bag. It seemed to stare me in the eyes, shaming me for owning such a tattered, old book bag. “I don’t want to have sex with some old guy for money.” I winced, a lump growing in my throat. Was that what my life has come to? Sleeping with old guys just to get a degree? “Relax. You don’t have to sleep with them. Some just want the company of a beautiful, young girl.” “That sounds way too good to be true. You’re telling me you’ve never slept with a client?” “Oh, no, I do all the time. I'm just saying you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Lindsey chirped as she pulled out lip gloss and slabbed it over her full lips. I exhaled heavily, not as open about that sort of stuff in public as her. As much as I was against the idea of escorting, it honestly didn’t sound too bad. “Fine. Say I was interested. How do I get in?” Lindsey dug in her bag and pulled out a single pink card. It had a number and address on it. “Go to this address, then call the number. You have to be at the location first though, or else they won’t see you,” Lindsey instructed me. “Also, wear something a little more sexy. Not too skanky, but something that could show off that figure you have hidden beneath those drapes you call clothes.” I rolled my eyes and nodded. Lindsey blew me a kiss, then turned on her heel to head toward the elevator. Why did Lindsey Monaghan help me? I bit my lip and paced, trying to decide what I was going to do. Escorting was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was desperate. ✱✱✱ I took the leap and went to the location after having been paralyzed by fear for a good two days. My mind had been running in circles, going over every possible scenario, outcome, and dirty deed that could await me. I was exhausted, but what else could I do at this point? Taking Lindsey’s advice, I also trekked over to a secondhand store to find an outfit. As I walked in, there was a musty smell among the rows of outdated clothes. I was not the fashionable type, but I needed to make a good impression. I needed something sexy but sophisticated and not a cheap hand-me-down. I didn’t want to look too far away from myself though. Rows and rows of awful muumuu dresses and old seventies clothing were in front of me. This wasn’t going to work. That’s when I noticed a gray midi-length dress. It was the only thing I found so far that didn’t scream grandma. It appeared sophisticated and sexy. I took it to the dressing room and closed the curtain. Slipping it over myself, it hugged my curves perfectly. The outfit was the easy part though. Slipping into a costume was an effortless task; however, playing the part of the sexy, confident girl who chats with older men for money was the silent killer. How the hell was I going to pull that off? I wasn’t a Lindsey who walked like a sex goddess and had guys falling at her feet. I was an insecure mouse who no one ever paid attention to. The thoughts were never-ending. I finally made it to the address of what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot that Lindsey gave me, and I was positive my legs would cave in from shaking so bad. Pulling out my phone, I dialed the phone number with shaky hands, waiting for my bleak future to fall into place. “Hello, calling for a brand-new lamp?” a high-pitched voice crooned on the other end of the line. I furrowed my brow. Had Lindsey given me the wrong number? “What? No...I’m calling about...err...well, my friend gave me this number...umm...Her name is Lindsey.” My voice trailed off. There was prolonged silence on line, causing me to immediately accept my fate. “This must be the wrong number,” I muttered, starting to hang up the phone. “How old?” the voice on the other end of the line asked suddenly, their voice deepened. “Seriously?” I questioned as my heart pounded in my chest. “I’m old enough.” “Height?” “Five foot four,” I answered. “Hair color?” “Brunette.” I could hear several clicking noises in the background, which sent alarm through me. Were they writing down everything I said? What if this was a scam? “Name?” the voice inquired. I paused. I couldn’t give them my real name. I had watched countless documentaries about strippers and call girls, and they never ever gave their real name. My eyes searched around frantically, hoping to find a fake name in a matter of seconds. “Err, Gita?” I replied in a small voice as the Bergita’s Pizza sign stared sympathetically at me from across the street. Gita? What kind of name was that? “Alright, Gita. A car will be there to retrieve you in approximately fifteen minutes. Please note that this does not ensure you are a part of our services. This will be an interview process, in which our professionals decide if you would make a good addition to our company.” I started to say thank you, but the phone immediately hung up, leaving me standing in the empty parking of an abandoned phone company. Kneeling in my ultra-tight dress, I closed my eyes in an attempt to suppress unwanted thoughts. Reality was starting to sink in. Escorting was my only way for survival. I was awaiting a strange ride to have an interview. Who was I becoming? Before I could even try to answer my own question, a shiny black car pulled into the parking lot, stopping right in front of me. I waited for some type of action from them, but no one got out. Sighing, I stood slowly and walked over to the back door. Pulling it open slowly, I peeked inside. A man dressed in a dark-brown suit was the driver, but he never took his eyes off the steering wheel. “Gita?” he said in a thick German accent. “Yes?” I croaked, slightly forgetting that I had given myself the name. “Get in. You don’t have much time.” “So,” I started to say, hoping to make the ride less awkward. “What’s your name?” “Freddie,” he answered at once. “Oh, cool. How long—” “No questions. There’s no need for that,” Freddie scoffed, cutting me off. I nodded awkwardly. Conversation wasn’t my strong point, but I tried to spark it up occasionally, when things were too quiet. The ride was impossibly fast. We reached a black building in the very back of a busy plaza. There were tons of people walking about, chattering happily with shopping bags in their hands. It was a ritzy area, which made sense. Rich men probably wandered into the escort building as a treat to themselves. My heart was racing in my chest as we pulled into the parking space. Freddie turned off the car, then pointed a long, pale finger toward a red door. “Enter there. Say Freddie brought you. They will take it from there.” I nodded and nervously opened the car door. The red door looked like the gateway to hell as I approached it. Freddie sped away, leaving me shuffling toward my fate. My heels felt too high, and the dress suddenly seemed as if it would pop open. “Just open it, you coward,” I muttered to myself. With a very sweaty hand, I opened the red door which was surprisingly heavy. As soon as it was opened, I found a completely different world inside. The walls were red, and the carpet was black with red trim. I cautiously stepped one foot after the other, amazed by the atmosphere. Soft jazz music was playing, and there was a large red couch in the middle of the room. Several young women dressed in lavish clothes were lazily sitting down. Some smoked cigarettes, others applied lipstick and fixed their hair. They were beautiful. So beautiful that I wanted to ask them their names. “Hello, may I help you?” a man’s voice suddenly asked, causing me to whirl around quickly. He was a tall man with blond, slicked-back hair. He was clearly wearing makeup, and it matched perfectly with his black and red suit. “I’m L-, err Gita. Freddie brought me,” I squeaked, the words flying out of me. The man suddenly smiled, his lips stretched across his plastic face. “Welcome, Gita. We’re glad to see you’re interested in our company. Please sit and wait for one of our professionals to call you in for your interview.” I forced a smile back, then wobbled to the long red couch. I assumed the girls would scoot over to give me room, but no one budged. Squeezing in on the very edge, I tried to make myself comfortable. I sat there waiting patiently for my interview. The more I sat quietly, the more I fidgeted with my hair. The building was beautiful with expensive paintings on the walls. They had it decorated very classy. You would never know what was conducted in this building. I saw a beautiful woman, probably in her 30s with long blonde hair and a handsome man with broad shoulders and tousled hair walking toward me. The man was probably in his 40s and was wearing a suit. A suit that you could tell was tailored specifically to him. If my clients looked like him, this job would be a breeze. “Good morning, I’m Dr. Shepard, and this is Ms. Robinson. Would you like to come back, so we can start your interview?” “Of course,” I replied, hoping the sweat from my underarms wasn’t showing on my dress. He extended his hand and walked with me to the office. There was an L-shaped desk, a black leather couch, and a couple of office chairs. I sat down in the chair without being asked. I kept myself from speaking because I wasn’t sure how to start the conversation. I didn’t want to say something stupid, so I just waited to be quizzed. “So, Gita, what makes you want to work for us?” Dr. Shepard asked, looking me over. I couldn’t help but think to myself, with you as a boss, who wouldn’t want to work for you? I tried to stay focused, but I couldn’t. I began to feel hot, which in turn made me even more nervous. “Well, I am a college student. I need something to help pay my way. My scholarship doesn’t cover all of it.” “Well, first, I commend you for going to college. That’s a smart thing to do. I do want to let you know we only hire the best of the best. Our clients want beautiful, classy women to escort them to events. We can’t have anyone that is childish or grungy.” Crap, I had failed. Maybe I should have worn something else. He didn’t like my outfit. Well, much to his dismay, I wasn’t going to come dressed in a skimpy outfit. That’s not how I would dress to escort someone to a business dinner. “Do I not look okay? I thought this would be proper. I have more classier clothes I can wear.” “No, you look fine. In fact, you have a body that most men would kill to be close to. You’re a brunette with curly hair, which is most commonly asked for, and you obviously keep in shape. I have no doubt in my mind that you would do great here,” he said, while carefully taking my body measurements in, almost like he was keeping them for his memory. “May I ask what the problem is then?” I asked. Something must be wrong. There was something in his voice that made me feel like a but was coming. “Do not sleep with the clients. We want to watch out for our girls, and we can’t do that if you are contracting sexual transmitted diseases. There are plenty of men that would pay to have you by their side without the sex,” Ms. Robinson explained. That helped calm my nerves. I didn’t have any intention of ever doing that. “We would like to also know your preferences. This will only work if we can set you up with someone you will enjoy being around. Do you have an age limit?” she asked. I hadn’t thought of that. Did I? Surprisingly, I didn’t think I would be given an age option. My expectations were that I had to go out with whoever paid me, with no say so in the matter. “Max would be forty-five, I think. I hadn’t given much thought to that.” “Since we have gone over most of the rules and what you want, let’s move on. Usually, we invite our newcomers to an event where we finish the interview. We like to see our girls engage the clients in a business setting to make sure you have what it takes. Would you still like to continue?” I took a second, trying not to sound too eager. “Yes.” “I will pick you up at six p.m. Wear something elegant. This will also be your chance to show off. You can show them you can handle light conversation and what you look like. Come looking like you do now, and they won’t be disappointed,” he said, then escorted me out of his office. Ms. Robinson took me to the exit and gave me an address for the pickup location. It wasn’t too far from the college campus, so I could just walk. The car dropped me at campus. I raced inside to quickly get ready since it was already four p.m. I wasn’t sure what to wear, so I raided Angela’s closet. Angela had been my roommate since freshman year. Her long blonde hair and killer legs got her into every party on campus. Needless to say, she wasn’t home much. In her closet was a long maroon dress with a high slit on the side. It was classy yet sexy. Exactly what Dr. Shepard wanted. It hugged my curves perfectly, accenting my small waist. I left my hair in curls down to the small of my back and applied ruby-red lipstick. I decided on my strappy black heels to go for a more formal but daring edge to the outfit. I stood in front of the mirror, smoothing down the dress, looking at myself. I bit my lower lip, realizing I felt bare. This wasn’t me. Dr. Shepard arrived at the given location around five fifty p.m. in a limousine. I slipped inside the limo with a smile. He looked at me like he was surprised. Boy, was I. He looked yummy wearing dress pants with a light-blue button-up shirt; only the first two buttons were left open. I could see a glimpse of his chest. “Are you ready for tonight?” I was screaming at myself inside. I’m not that confident girl. There was no way I was going to pass this test. “I’m always ready.” The rest of the drive over was spent in silence, not really knowing what to say or ask him. Silence would be better than awkward blabbering. We arrived at a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows. I took a deep breath as he opened the door for me. He took my hand and held it as we walked inside. My gaze kept falling to the floor. How was I going to pull this off? When I thought about this job, all my mind could invoke was nasty old men. I was wrong. Most of them were under forty and looked damn good. Don’t get me wrong, some men looked to be in their fifties, but the one good thing about this job was if I got hired, the clients would request me. As he walked me around introducing me, my confidence level was slowly rising. It wasn’t so much about confidence in my looks but in my words. Dr. Shepard introduced me to a man appearing to be in his late forties. “What’s your favorite symphony, darling?” he asked me, his eyes widened like he didn’t think I even knew what a symphony was. It didn’t upset me; rather, it made me want to wow him with my knowledge. “I would have to say Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. He was the first composer to include a chorus and vocal soloists. What about yours?” I rattled off with my head held high. The one thing I prided myself in was my intelligence in a vast variety of subjects. He wrinkled his forehead and stuttered, “Uh...My…favorite would be Brahms’ 4th Symphony.” “Great choice. I’m a huge Beethoven fan myself, but Brahms has some great works too.” Dr. Shepard tapped me on the shoulder, advising it was time to move on. “Nice to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you at a symphony sometime,” I said, smiling politely as I followed him to the next group. “Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Gita.” He introduced me as we approached three men huddled, talking about politics. My personal rule was never to talk about politics with anyone. It led to many heated arguments, and it just never ended well. The difference was I knew how they felt already so I just had to tailor it to match. Sure, I completely disagreed, but they couldn’t find out who I voted for. “I agree, gentlemen. We need someone who is authentic. A leader who puts their country over party no matter the consequences.” They all seemed speechless at first with my response. They all looked at each other like I wasn’t real. “Wow, it’s nice to hear a lady speak intelligently for once. What else? I’d love to hear more.” “I think it’s time to have someone in office that takes into consideration the values of our past but still looks forward toward what we want to accomplish as a country. We can’t continue to look backward in hopes of moving forward. That’s just not how it works,” I explained in a little deeper detail. My feelings toward the candidates for presidency was known, but I wouldn’t reveal who I voted for even if asked. “I’m not sure where you have been hiding, but they need to bring more girls like you. There are plenty of pretty girls but not enough intelligent ones.” I smiled because that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Looks couldn’t be everything in a relationship, especially to me. I mean yes, my eventual partner would have to be attractive but as we age, that would fade. Our looks fade but our personalities do not. At the end of the night, Shepard told me I was well received and already had clients talking. There were way more business dinners, art shows, and fundraisers than I thought in this city. We walked back to the limo and headed toward my place. “Being beautiful pays off, you see.” He winked at me. “Thanks.” “But there is one thing.” My heart started to race. Crap, what did I do wrong? “Gita? The name sounds cheap. I know that’s not your real name.” “It’s Lacey.” He nodded in satisfaction. “We’ll keep Lacey. No need to change such a pretty name.” After that, he also explained I would have no issues finding work. The men liked that I could have a casual conversation with everyone without being awkward. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they start fighting over you. I’ll send some requests over to you tomorrow for you to go through. Just email me back with your answer.” We pulled up to the campus and said our goodbyes. I made it home to find Angela waiting up for me. She wasn’t back when I left. “Where the fuck did you go? Is that my dress?” I hoped she would be asleep, so I could just slip it back on the hanger and have it washed before she noticed. Angela didn’t take lightly to me borrowing her clothes. “I had a date. I’ll wash it and put it back in your closet. No damage.” Angela huffed at me and walked out of the room. I took a shower and crawled into bed feeling fresh and clean. Tomorrow, I had to pick my first client. Chapter 2 Matteo “Are you seriously gonna be single for the rest of your life?” Abigail whined to me over the phone. Rolling my eyes, I fake a quick excuse and hurry off the phone. Abigail had always jumped down my throat to get a girlfriend. Ever since I broke up with Lauren, she pressed me over and over, swearing up and down that having a significant other would take my mind off the hurt. I knew she only wanted me to be happy, but it never occurred to her that maybe I was happy with myself. So, I tried to avoid her exuberant phone calls, especially when I had a good enough excuse. However, amidst the news of Abigail's engagement to my best friend, I knew something had to be done. Abigail constantly tried to set me up on blind dates. The last one turned out to be the worst mistake. The lady was older, in her mid-thirties, and bored me the entire night. She couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation to save her life. It wasn’t just Abigail either. My whole family wanted to see me with a girlfriend. So, with the appearance of a girlfriend, perhaps they would get off my back. There’s only one place that gives full access to quick girlfriends. It’s a good little business on the side one of my old-time pals told me about. I was a little hesitant because the last girl I took to an event really caused a mess in my life. About three years ago, I had a significant event to attend, but my PR thought it would be better if I showed up with a date, so that’s where Dr. Shepard came in. He swore he had the perfect girl for me, only she turned out to be the complete opposite. Sure, she was drop-dead gorgeous, but she expected me to sleep with her. I wasn’t interested. To add to the mess, she accused me of being gay, sending in floods of reporters to capture the moment. The memory of it wasn’t something I like to remember. It’s the reason why I was hesitant on even trying again. I told myself I would never go back there, but I was desperate. All I wanted to do was get my family off my back. I called Freddie to pick me up. All trips to and from their office had to be with Freddie. It was early morning, so I knew he’d be open for business. I swiftly threw on my blazer and walked out the door. Right on cue, a limo was waiting for me. I slid onto the plush seats then ripped off my shades. “Hello, Matteo. I haven’t seen you in a while. Ready for your appointment?” “Yes, thank you, Freddie. I have lots to discuss with Dr. Shepard today,” I replied, hoping Dr. Shepard could ease my fears. The ride was swift, thanks to the speed racer, Freddie. I hopped out of the car and smoothly walked into the building. I nodded at the secretary but moved past her swiftly while she started to click frantically through her appointment sheet on the computer. I made it to Dr. Shepard's door before she could realize I had, once again, ignored the obligatory "by appointment only" rule. I swung the door open and walked straight into his office. Dr. Shepard jumped up from his desk, shuffling papers together in the process. “Matteo?” he asked, wide-eyed. I threw my blazer on a chair before sinking onto the large couch beside his desk. "You are a keen observer, Shepard," I smirked and leaned forward with my hands folded together. "Listen. I know I haven’t been here in a while, but I’m in dire need of your service." “How can I help you?” Dr. Shepard asked with caution. I nodded and stood abruptly, crossing my arms across my chest. “I need someone presentable and intelligent. The occasion will be a wedding. It’s a seven-day trip so they would need to be free for an extended period.” Dr. Shepard opened his file cabinet and shuffled through folders. There was picture after picture of gorgeous young women. Some were thin; some were curvy. “These are our most current girls,” he informed me. I held the thick brown folder in my hands. “Current?” “Yes, meaning they’ve been with us anywhere from a day to six months. They’re fresh and the best to choose from.” I nodded and started to flip through them. Blonde. Busty. Too Thin. Too plastic. I exhaled heavily as I flipped through option after option. “This isn’t very encouraging,” I grumbled. “Well, there’s a lot of girls in there. I’m sure you’ll find one you like,” Dr. Shepard assured me. “Maybe this is a mistake—” I paused. My finger grazed a picture at the bottom of the heap. Anxiously, I pulled it out, stunned by the treasure I had found. She was young with long chestnut hair and bright-green eyes. My heart pounded in my chest. “You like her? I was just out with her last night. She’s brand new but delightful. I think she would be perfect for this event,” Dr. Shepard said as he leaned back in his seat. “How old?” “Twenties. Five foot four. One hundred and ten pounds.” I waved at him to continue. "What else. No need to narrate a picture; I have one in front of me." He winked. "Smart. In college and is a wonderful conversationalist. She made a client who is a highly respected physician and his buddies do a double take last night when she started talking about politics." My mouth started to water. God, she sounded perfect. “She will do. Please let me know if she can do it. I will need to meet with her before we leave. We will have a lot to discuss,” I instructed Dr. Shepard as grabbed my blazer and left his office. I put my shades back on, then stepped right back into the limo. Freddie brought me back to my penthouse. I had gotten the hard part out of the way, but I was slightly aggravated. Why did I even need to jump through so many hoops just to please my family? Sure, I loved them, but I wasn’t that close to them. I liked to keep my distance, so people weren’t in my personal business. After plenty of failed relationships, I learned the hard way that my family would be satisfied with a simple lie. I had to make things match up. Right as I collapsed onto my plush couch, my best friend Shawn walked in with a torte in one hand and a beer in the other. “Hey, buddy, what are you doing?” I shrugged. It wasn’t unusual for Shawn to just walk in at odd times. We’d been best friends since grade school, and we both had keys to each other’s places. “Nothing, just waiting for a phone call,” I replied with a sigh. Shawn sat across from me, taking a monster bite from his torte. “Sounds like an unwanted call. Are you at least ready for the Bahamas?” he asked with a mouthful of food. Was I ready to get away from work? Yes. Was I prepared to be surrounded by my family for a week? Absolutely not! However, I was willing to make the sacrifice for my beloved sister. We had known Shawn for almost two decades, childhood friends. So naturally, Abigail and Shawn started to like one another. At first, I was mad, but how could I be when he’s my best friend and made my sister the happiest she’d ever been? I couldn’t ask for a better man for my sister to marry. “I’m ready to get away from here but not excited about being stuck around my mom for a week. You know how she is. Harps on everything,” I replied. Shawn laughed because he knew exactly what my mother was like. Hell, everyone did. She didn’t keep it to herself. She was a meddler. Nobody’s business was private in this family. I peered over at Shawn who was grinning. Unfortunately, if I wanted everyone to believe me, I’d have to start with Shawn. Sitting up, I faked a smile. “So, I am bringing a girl I’ve been seeing.” Shawn’s eyes became wide and animated. “What? A girl? I didn’t even know you dated anymore. Dude, that’s awesome! Who is she?” I knew it was wrong, but I had to start somewhere. If Shawn went along with this lie, then it would be easier for my mom and Abigail to believe it. “We have been together for about three months now. I’ve been keeping everything under wraps. I didn’t want my mom to go crazy and dig up her phone number or anything. You know how she is.” I laughed, but that’s something my mom would do. Like I said, meddler. “Well, I’m happy for you, bud. Hell, maybe you will be the next person to get married," Shawn mused, reaching over to place a warm hand on my shoulder. "Just kidding. I’m glad you are taking a chance at being happy with someone. That’s a big step for you.” I knew deep down that would never be the case. I just needed this wedding to come and go so I could go back to living my private life. That is if the date turned out right. Chapter 3 Lacey The next day, I got my first email. It had been around noon, after I’ve attended my long and grueling classes. My plans had been to collapse in the study room and sleep until I was rested enough. However, the email chime disturbed my plans. I knew it was them. With my heart pounding in my chest, I opened it immediately. It was a list of the offers I had received last night. A couple of them seemed easy, but then one caught my eye. It included a summary of what was expected, the pay, and a picture of the man. This man had messy charcoal hair with very dark-brown eyes. His shoulders were broad, and his jaw strong. He wasn’t bad-looking at all; in fact, he looked closer to my age than the rest of them. Why did this man need to pay someone for the company? He looked like he could get his fair share of women for free. This interested me the most. My fingers were anxious to read the summary he left. My name is Matteo Andrews. I am looking for a woman to accompany me to my sister’s wedding. I need someone who can look like a sweet southern girl. Nothing too slutty. Jeans and T-shirts are fine but must have some evening attire. If not, we can discuss how to continue. This will be a week-long trip. Airfare and a room will be provided to you. There was a small list of information regarding dates. The next line made my eyes almost pop out of my head. Compensation: $10,000 Was he crazy? Surely, he should have snagged some beautiful model type by now. If he’s handing out that kind of cash, then he has a damn good job too. I re-read the email another ten times before mentally agreeing to it. It didn’t say where we would be going, but I figured that didn’t matter. Besides, with that much money, I would be content if we were staying in a cardboard box. Without hesitation, I knew my choice. There wasn’t much to think about. I needed the most money offered, and Matteo offered the most. I quickly wrote back to Dr. Shepard. Dear Dr. Shepard, Please inform Matteo Andrews that I would be delighted to accompany him to his sister’s wedding. I knew I would get a response from him shortly because he said he typically responded within an hour. His clients, in fact, expected it. Sometimes they had immediate needs, and so he had to always be on call. My phone chimed. Lacey, He will be reaching out shortly to plan. Let me know if you need anything from us. What could I do with $10,000? I could put it toward my tuition. That could pay for a whole year of school from just working for one week. A smile started to form on my face. My worries would soon come to an end. Why didn’t I start this job before? The timing was excellent because after tomorrow, it was Christmas break. What was better than spending break somewhere else and making money? Hell, nothing. It gave me an excuse to not go home over Christmas break. Although, I would have to come up with a good explanation why. I could just tell them I am going with Angela to the beach or something. They would buy it in a heartbeat. My parents would never second-guess me. I’d never lied to them before coming to college. Throwing my book bag over my shoulder, I started to head to the study room once more. I wasn’t even halfway there when I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize. 516-824-5845: We have been confirmed through the agency. I will pick you up tomorrow at 6pm from there. We will meet for dinner before we leave the following morning for the Bahamas. I want to make sure we have chemistry before we go. Please let me know if this works for you. My heart raced. This must be him. Chemistry? I was positive finding chemistry with him shouldn’t be that hard. He’s smoking hot after all. I quickly texted back: We are on for tomorrow. See you then. Right after I sent the text, my mom called. I was washed over with guilt and quickly pressed ignore. I knew she’d be heartbroken about me not coming home. But this was important. I had to get this $10,000. Taking a deep breath, I just shot her a text. I won’t be coming home. I’ve been invited to the beach in Mexico with some friends from school. I really want to go. Hope you won’t be mad. I prayed she’d understand. I didn’t have many friends in high school due to my lack of a social life. It was all about my GPA back then. Anything to get me into a good school so I could have a bright future. All my childhood, my parents talked about how college was a big deal. I felt like they only downplayed it because they knew the cost to attend. When I got accepted for a scholarship, they were so proud of me. All the years I spent studying and stressed out paid off. Even though they never admitted it, I knew they both wished they would have attended. Life would have been different for us all if they had. I heard a ding on my phone. Mom: I understand honey. Have fun. Just call and check in with us, so we know you are okay. We will come to see you when you get back. Love you. Relief filled my heart. Good. I finally made it to the study room, hoping that no one would burst in. I spread out on the couch with a new book in my hand when Angela stormed inside. “What are you doing? It’s like two o’clock. Why are you reading?” Angela yelled at me like she was my mother. Who did she think she was? Why did she always have to be so damn mean? Nothing good ever came out of her mouth. “I was just enjoying the peace and quiet. Well, until you walked in anyway,” I replied. She rolled her eyes and sat next to me, frustration all over her flushed face. “What’s wrong?” I asked, assuming there was chaos in her life. “Kevin hasn’t called me in two days. He said he would call me after our date, but he hasn’t. I thought we both had a good time but obviously not.” Placing her hands over her eyes, she let out a whimper that hit the ceiling. I sighed and sat up. “Let me ask a question. Did you sleep with him on the first date?” Everyone knew how Kevin was. If you put out on the first date, then he would move on to the next one. If you didn’t, he would keep asking you out until you gave it up. Plain and simple. “Well, yeah. What does that matter?” she asked, not realizing the monumental mistake she made. I shrugged and lay back down with my book. “You left nothing for him to call for. He got exactly what he wanted without having to go on a second date,” I told her. She looked at me like I was the evilest bitch she had ever met, but it was true. Hell, she barely knew the guy. Sleeping together on the first date usually meant there wouldn’t be a second unless he was really just a relationship kind of guy. Kevin was not. I had a couple of classes with him, and he was a ladies’ man. He took them home and then never called. I knew I should have told her that before they went out. But she had been so anxious and excited that she’d rushed out. “Whatever, I’m going out. I need a stiff drink. You coming?” She paced toward the door, then turned around, waiting for me to get up. “Nah, I’m going to stay in tonight, read a little bit more, and then get some sleep,” I replied as I put my face back in my book, ignoring her. “God, you are so fucking boring. No wonder you don’t get laid.” She flipped me off and slammed the door behind her. I smiled widely at her as she walked out the door. Angela, and pretty much everyone else that knew me, had no idea what went on with my sex life. I valued my privacy and liked to keep people at a safe distance. Besides, it was none of her business. For all she knew, I was a virgin. I lay back and returned to my book, reveling in the fact that I had a date with a hot, rich guy the next day. Well, business meeting and definitely not of the getting laid kind. Still a better deal than being notch 532 on a manwhore’s bedpost. Chapter 4 Lacey The next morning, I woke up with my head pounding. I read most of the night, but even after I crawled into bed, too tired to function, my mind was on overdrive. Apart from me worrying about my parents, I still couldn’t get myself to be one hundred percent okay with the escort thing. I went back and forth between being excited, and then wanting to contact Dr. Shepard and call it all off. But this meeting would help me pay off my debts. I had no choice but to at least try and go through with it. Besides, I knew there wasn’t any added pressure of me having to sleep with him. This needed to be my little secret. After it was all over and I got my money, I would never look back. I had my delicious date on my mind. Where would he be taking me? What would he be like? I wondered if he was a hyper masculine guy who liked to call all the shots, or a sweet, sensitive guy? Where was he from? What was his style like? My mind was flooded with questions. I had every right to be curious though. It wasn’t like the email gave me much information on who he was as a person. My pulse was racing. I needed to know at least something about him. Out of the corner of my eye, my bright-pink laptop seemed to twinkle. Researching the man you’re going out with was always important. At least that was what my mom would tell me. I crawled over to my laptop then flung it open, my fingers typing away fiercely. After researching his name, hundreds of results populated, but none about him. So, I decided to go the sleuth route. I took his picture from the email, pasted it to the search engine, then waited. Almost instantly, I got results. There were tons of articles about the infamous Matteo. Not sure which one to choose, I randomly chose the first article that popped out at me. As soon as I read the title though, I knew it was trashy. The article tried to make him appear like the bad guy. It even said he was gay. Was he? It would make sense why he would pay so much money for a pretend girlfriend to please his family. I stared at his picture once more. His eyes were so deep that I wondered what they were thinking when the picture was taken. I wondered what his voice sounded like when he got angry, or when he was hurt. Who was he before he was an enemy of the tabloids? Shaking my head, I searched on. The next article explained what he did for a living. It was an article from about five years ago naming him The Smartest Guy Under 40 in Decades. Apparently, he came up with some new technology after graduating from MIT. Since then, he had one of the largest and most profitable companies in the technology industry. My jaw fell open. He was more than what I thought. Intelligent and rich? That wasn’t a mixture I was used to. My heart started to leap out of my chest. I was a nobody. Sure, I was a part of the escorting business, but compared to him, I might as well be a flea. My upbringing was anything but rich. Closing my eyes, I fell back onto my bed, thoughts of my childhood completely drawing me in self-doubt. What if I couldn’t make him happy? What if he turned out to be just like the guys in high school? They were always so concerned about what girls could physically offer them. My cheeks started to feel hot, leaving me with an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. My phone’s alarm went off, reminding me that it was time for me to get ready. I peeled myself off my bed, dragging myself to the shower. Turning the water to the hottest it could go, I let the steam hit my skin, warming up my shivering body. I let the water fall over my hair, hoping it would relax me enough to forget about my worries. After my shower, I quickly threw on an outfit I secretly snatched from Angela’s closet. It was another dress, but slightly longer with puffy sleeves, and it was a nice coral color. My mother always told me coral looked gorgeous on my complexion, and as I tugged on the skin-tight dress, I realized that she was right. I admired my newfound figure in the mirror. The matching heels I wore, also snatched from Angela, made my toned calves protrude and gave length to my legs. Before heading out, I spritzed on my favorite peach perfume, then exhaled deeply and strutted out of my room with the last ounce of confidence I had left. As I walked through the halls, I could hear muffled whispers. Some commenting on my dress, others asking who I was. A grin formed on my face. How could I not love it? I usually was the invisible one, completely overlooked by everyone. I finally reached the outside of my building and saw the familiar black car waiting for me. Taking a deep breath, I walked over to it with my head held high, opened the door, and slid in. Freddie, as usual, kept his eyes ahead and said nothing. I felt as if we had an unspoken connection though, so I sat in comfortable silence. The car quickly sped to the agency’s location, whipping past oblivious college students. There was a part of me that felt like I was a movie star living a secret life. I had a secret date with a hot billionaire, and I was being paid for it. God, it didn’t get any better than that! We finally reached the agency, at exactly six thirty. As soon as I stepped foot out of the car, I noticed that Shepard was waiting outside for me. Nerves immediately took over my entire body. He had on his usual gray attire with a red tie, and his wispy brown hair was flying back due to the heavy wind. Dropping the cigarette in his hand, he let it fall to the ground, putting it out with his red wingtip shoes. As I turned to face him, I saw that he immediately frowned at the sight of me. Pursing his lips, he marched over to me. Dr. Shepard’s short frame scurried over to me, his legs moving impossibly fast. “Good even—,” I started to say. “What are you wearing?” Dr. Shepard cut me off. He ripped off his gray shades and looked me up and down with disgust. Shit, was it too conservative? “He asked me to dress more conservatively since it will be around his family. What’s wrong with it?” I asked him, beginning to feel more self-conscious. “Uh—nothing. You just look so innocent. If you had shown up for your first interview like that, you definitely would have been turned away.” I wasn’t sure how to take his words. Was that a compliment or a put-down? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t here for Shepard. A limo pulled up behind Shepard. His words were inaudible as I watched the limo stop, and Matteo smoothly stepped out. He was dressed in all white, and his thick black hair was slicked back. His goatee looked nicely trimmed and outlined, and there was a certain glint in his dark eyes that made me melt. “Good evening, Lacey . Are you ready to accompany me this evening?” he asked politely. I glanced back at Shepard and smiled. “Yes.” I took his extended arm and joined him inside his limo. He smiled and waved to Shepard as we drove off. Matteo was looking at me but not like checking me out in a sexual way. “That kind of outfit will work perfectly for the trip. Nothing too revealing. A girl I can bring home to mom,” he said. “I’m glad you like it,” I replied, but I felt very violated. He wasn’t looking at me like he wanted to jump my bones but more like he wanted to evaluate my effectiveness for this trip. Was how I looked that important to his family? What the hell was I getting myself into? After that, there was no more talking on the ride to the restaurant. Complete and utter silence drove me nuts. Hopefully, that wasn’t how the evening would be. “Is there anything you would like to discuss before you make your final decision?” I asked because I would like to know more about the trip, my reason for going, and what was in store for me. A week was a long time to spend with someone I didn’t know, thousands of miles away. Matteo replied, “Your job is to sell that we are a couple. I’m sick of my family thinking I’m gay because I never have girlfriends. I work too damn much to have time for anyone. Hell, I barely even see them except for holidays and special occasions like this one.” Sell that we were a couple? This was going to be an interesting trip. A couple will be loving toward each other, show affection, hold hands in public. Was he ready for that sort of thing? “Just to be clear, you want me to hold your hand in front of your family?” “Well, yeah, whatever people normally do in a relationship. Honestly, I haven’t been in one in over five years. I can’t remember a thing about them.” Poor guy must be lonely. Five years without affection. How did he do it? There would be no way I could go that long. Kudos. I commended him for being able to hold out that long. Although, I highly doubted he hadn’t had sex in five years. He was a man. Men had needs that had to be fulfilled. I looked into his eyes, trying to get a feel for him. I needed to know he was going to be up for this. I leaned over and took his hand in mine, looked into his eyes, and attempted to kiss him subtly to sell that I could play the part. He pushed me off. “What the hell are you doing?” The way he looked at me was with disgust. I couldn’t believe he just shoved me off him. This would never work if he was going to be like that. “You said you wanted to see if we had chemistry. Shouldn’t we try to make sure we both enjoy the little things we will often be doing in front of others? You can’t look at me like that when your family is around. They will catch on instantly.” I had a point. If he looked disgusted every time we kissed, no one would buy that I was his girlfriend. He needed to lighten up. “I didn’t mean tonight. To be honest, I don’t enjoy the thought of you touching me, but I’ll have to get over it for this trip.” Wait, what? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? No man had ever insulted me like that before. “Excuse me?” “You are hired to help. Don’t touch me unless it’s part of the deal which tonight it’s not.” My cheeks grew hot as I was filled with embarrassment. What an arrogant asshole. Privileged much? He just called me hired help. This trip would be harder than I expected. I hated that Matteo was so good-looking because it kept me from wanting to kick him in the groin a couple times. Plus, the thought of a $10,000 paycheck was nice too. First, he basically asked me to kiss him with his need to be a loving couple and checking our chemistry and when I obliged for the sake of it, he flipped as if I wanted to kiss him? Bastard. The rest of the dinner was spent with factual information on his family. His mother was a meddler, plus the bride and groom were his best friend and sister. He went into the flow of functions we would have to attend together. I didn’t have anything else to say to him. Mostly, I just didn’t want him to say anything that would warrant me slapping him and walking out. I had a bit of a temper. He was not what I was expecting going into this. In his picture, he looked like a kind man. He was the complete opposite. I knew why he had to pay someone for company. Who the hell would want to be around that man willingly? He dropped me off at the edge of campus and handed me a ticket and a time to be at the airport in the morning. Honestly, a horrible thought crossed my mind walking back to my dorm. What if I got stranded out there? What if things went so horribly wrong that I didn’t have a way back? It was possible I might not be able to put up with his attitude for a week. I needed to have a backup plan. I called Dr. Shepard at once. “Lacey, is everything okay?” he answered. I looked down and realized it was getting kind of late. “Yes, I just wanted to make sure that if this doesn’t go well, that I won’t be stranded out there. He is nothing like I thought he would be.” He laughed into the phone. “Honey, I could have told you that. You picked him. But yes, your plane ticket is a round trip. If you need to come back sooner, just take it to the airport, and they will put you on the next flight back.” I started to reply, but he cut me off. “But, Lacey, for the amount of money he is willing to pay you, I would ride it out. No man is going to pay that amount to any girl here. You got a damn good deal for this trip. Do whatever you can to make it work.” Sadness started to settle in. What was I going to do? I knew he was right. Who in their right mind would pay someone that much? Although, who was I to complain since I was in desperate need of that sum? How could I turn it down? No way in hell! I couldn’t pass up the chance just because he was an asshole. I just needed to deal with it. Surely, I could deal with him for a week. “You’re right. I am being idiotic. I will count my blessings that he chose me for this. I will do what I can to make it work. It’s just a week. Thanks!” I sighed and hung up the phone, completely exasperated by the turn of events. I just needed to focus on the end game. My tuition paid. I put my phone on the charger and let my mind wander a little bit more about what could happen during that week with Matteo. Chapter 5 Matteo Lacey was not what I expected going into this meetup. She had an attitude, but what woman didn’t. When I picked her up, she looked like an innocent girl which meant she could play the part around my mother. That was the biggest thing for me. My mother had to believe this, or it would end badly. As the night went on, I could see the attitude, and that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t need a girl that was going to speak her mind. That could potentially cause problems, but I didn’t have any time to request someone else. She would have to work. I shook my head when I thought of how wrong things could go. As the night progressed, she got silent. I wasn’t sure if it was because she was having second thoughts like I was or that she was bored. I knew I was being a dick to her, but this was business, and I was her client, not her lover destined to make her happy. She had better get that into her pretty head. And even if it were a date, the guy who would bring the moon down for a woman simply didn't exist anymore. After Kelsey killed that side of me, I knew I could never be the sweet guy I was before. I would never go down that road again. Women couldn’t be trusted. They were all gold diggers or used me for my connections. True love was never going to find me. At first, I thought maybe I had found that with Kelsey, but then it blew up in my face. I wouldn’t give any woman the opportunity to do that to me. I’d been closed off for so long that I didn’t know if I could ever get the sweet side of me back. It was gone, locked away in a part of me that wouldn’t ever be found again. One thing about the night that really infuriated me was she felt the need to touch me and attempt to kiss me. I could understand while we were in the Bahamas, but we were at a restaurant having dinner. There was no need to do that just yet. I did follow her reasoning behind it, to see if we could even do it believably. It just wasn’t going to happen. The thought of her touching me was repulsive. Lacey was an attractive girl, but I didn’t want to get intimate with her. We were going to be enclosed in a hotel room together for a week. There was no need to complicate things. It had been five years since the situation with Kelsey, and I would like to keep it that way. The last thing I needed was to involve myself with someone again. It only ever ended badly. I’d had enough heartbreak for a lifetime. I would continue the route I was on and just indulge in some activities occasionally with a woman who had no idea who I was. It was the only way it would work without complicating things. Kelsey was someone I was once very fond of. We were together for almost a year before I found out her real intentions behind being with me. She had wanted to gain connections to a vital person within the community, and she used me to get close to him. Once she got what she wanted, she left me. The sad thing was that I was going to propose to her the next day. Naturally, I felt like a total fool to think I had believed her charade the entire time we had been together. Ever since then, my guard was always up. I didn’t date because I didn’t have time for heartbreak anymore. My work was far too critical to be locked in my bedroom for weeks, crying like a baby. Kelsey was enough of that. From then on, I focused on myself and the business only. Women were trouble. I refused to let anyone close to me. They would just use me like every outsider had ever done. Bringing Lacey along to the Bahamas would be the only way to get my family off my back. I couldn’t tell my sister the real reason why I didn’t have a girlfriend all those years, but was it even any of her business? Yes, she was my sister, but sometimes it was best to keep secrets. I didn’t need any of my family to feel pity for me. I would be content by myself. No girl was going to give me happiness. If Lacey could play this part well, then I wouldn’t have to worry about my family breathing down my neck for at least a couple of months. I would be able to breathe. But what if something went wrong? My mind started going on a rampage about the what-ifs. What if they didn’t believe us? What if they saw right through our lie? I couldn’t imagine what would happen if my family found out that Lacey was hired to play the part. Honestly, Shawn would probably laugh at me, but the rest of them would kill me. Figuratively. Of course, I had my doubts about going through with it, but I kept talking myself into it. Regardless of how Lacey was, it was going to have to work because I was out of options. All this could have been avoided if I just wouldn’t have opened my mouth. I could have just continued not to date anyone and told them to mind their own fucking business, but that didn’t work with my family. As I have said before, my mother was a meddler. If I didn’t have a date, she would spend the time in the Bahamas trying to fix me up with someone. I did not want that. The first time my mother set me up with someone was right after college. I only agreed because my mom begged me to go. She vowed she would be perfect for me. Well, she was wrong on so many things. The woman was dumb as dirt. If I had to choose between someone who was drop-dead gorgeous or someone who I could have an intellectual conversation with, it would be conversation. I swished my bourbon around in my glass and contemplated how the week might play out. Chapter 6 Lacey Our flight was set to leave at eight a.m., but I wanted to be early because security would be crazy to get through. I made sure to arrive ninety minutes prior to ensure time to check my bags, get through security, and get coffee. When I arrived at the gate, Matteo was in the corner, flustered, yelling at someone on the phone. Why did he already have to be in a bad mood? Five hours was a long flight when sitting next to someone who had a piss-poor attitude. Not exactly the best way to start off my morning. I took a seat, awaiting the onboarding, and soon after Matteo sat down next to me. I didn’t open my mouth because I knew he was frustrated. We sat in silence for a good twenty minutes before he broke it. “Are you ready for this?” he asked me. He gave a little smirk for a split second, and then it was gone. Was I ready for this? Once I got on that plane, this was happening. I wasn’t going to be close to safety. I would be flying across the country with a man I barely knew to stay in a hotel with him. Was I insane? No, I needed that damn money. I knew the moment I touched down in the Bahamas, I was going to have to act happy and in love with him. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” The airline employee came over the speaker to board first class. I looked at my ticket and saw coach while Matteo got up and boarded the plane. Did he really buy me a ticket for coach when he was flying first class? My temper was trying to make an appearance, but I stopped it. In the back of my head, I just kept reminding myself about the money. I could deal with this asshole for a week for $10,000. Shit, I’ve had to do it for years for free. At least I’m getting compensated for my troubles. I boarded the plane with a bad attitude, but today was my lucky day. The seat next to me was empty. I wouldn’t have to deal with some asshole or a screaming baby. Hell, I think I might just take a nap. Who knew what I was walking into when I got there? I never thought to ask Matteo about his family. Did they even get along with each other? I could be walking into a shitshow. Five hours later, the flight attendant announced our descent. I cringed at the thought of being stuck with Matteo here. If anything happened, Dr. Shepard would be the first person I would call. When we left the plane, I headed toward the baggage claim. I needed to find Matteo, so I knew where we were going. Aside from feeling lost in a country I had never been to, I had no idea where we were staying or where to go. He left me in the dark on that part of the trip. I started to feel like a dumbass as I walked in circles. He could be a murderer and just lured me here, and I fell for it. “Stop freaking out!” I muttered to myself. Shepard knew where I was so if anything happened, he would report me missing. Oh, fuck! Wait? My mind started running over scenarios, a symptom of watching way too many crime shows. Right as I was coming to the prime of my overwhelming fears, I turned and noticed Matteo staring at me with his right brow raised. “Hey, where are you going? We need to be headed that way.” He pointed in the opposite direction. Of course, toward the transportation exit. Sighing, I trailed behind him, unable to form words to express my discontentment. It looked like I was going to be stuck with him. Taking a deep breath, I tried to forget all the crazy scenarios my head had cooked up. A limousine transported us to the hotel which was beautiful. It was a resort on the beach where the rooms led out to the sand. I’d never been somewhere so beautiful before. Honestly, I had only been to the beach once when I was little. As we walked up the walkway to the hotel, I could see people out on the beach with sand that looked incredibly soft. I wanted to run directly over there and stick my toes in it. So I did. I ran toward the beach, dropping my purse, not caring if he followed me. Stepping onto the sand, it felt like pillows beneath my feet. Almost like I was walking on clouds. Remembering back to the only other beach experience I’d had, the sand here seemed so much better. What was so different about it than the other? I found myself wondering while squishing the sand in between my toes. “Come on, we need to check in. You can do that later,” Matteo yelled at me. Such a buzzkill. I could tell this wasn’t going to be a fun trip. The rest of this trip I would probably have to follow him around like a puppy dog. I was in the Bahamas, and it killed me to know I might not even get to enjoy it. In the back of my head, I told myself, you will, you better. We walked up to the front desk, and a young brunette woman handed him a key. “There is a pull-out couch in the room as well if needed,” the attendant said as she noticed how uncomfortable that made me. I was glad I was that obvious. Why was I so stupid? Of course, we would share a room. His family thought we were a couple. If we had separate rooms, it might raise suspicion. I could do this. It was only a week. Afterward, I would go home and resume my normal life. We made it to our hotel room, and all I wanted to do was feel hot water against my skin. I dropped my suitcase on the bed, then pulled out underclothes, jeans, and a tunic. A nice hot shower would make me feel better. I didn’t even let him know I was getting in the shower. I turned the shower on and let it warm up while I got undressed. Stepping into the shower, the water hitting my breasts, felt amazing. I felt disgusted after traveling all day with him. His attitude was unbearable. I noticed myself thinking about him while I was standing in the shower naked. Stop! I focused on cleaning myself and getting as much time alone as I could. A shower might be the only time I would get time by myself while being here. I might as well enjoy it to the fullest. A couple of minutes later, he barged in, asking me to hurry up. Damn, did he have no patience? I wanted to jump out of the shower and slap him, but I was naked. No way I was giving him the satisfaction of seeing me bare. So I just yelled at him from behind the door, “Get the fuck out! Don’t just come in here while I’m in the shower. You sick fuck!” I wanted to say so many other things but figured that would get my point across just fine. “We are supposed to be down for dinner in an hour. You going to be able to get ready fast enough?” he asked like it was going to take me hours to get ready. “I don’t need to wear a bunch of makeup, right? I’ll be ready in time.” I yelled as he inched out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him. I didn’t really like his tone much. I knew he was paying me to be here but still, he could treat me with some respect. You didn’t walk into the bathroom while someone was showering. How fucking rude could he get? I asked myself this, knowing it could possibly get a lot worse. Keep it together. Do it. Put up with it. Go home and collect your paycheck. I desperately needed that damn money. If I didn’t, my ass wouldn’t be here. Hell, I wouldn’t have made it past the first ten minutes of dinner that night if I wasn’t so desperate. Once out of the shower and dressed, I walked out to see him in a very lovely tuxedo. I looked down at myself, realizing I needed to look more formal. Well, he could have said something. I pulled a red gown on and black strappy heels and waited for his approval on the outfit. He looked me up and down, and said, “I guess that will work. The first impression of you with my family is going to mean everything. Make sure to smile and laugh. You need to look happy for this to work.” It wasn’t like I was an idiot. I knew what I was getting paid for, and that was to make them believe a lie. Why he didn’t have a girlfriend, I could never guess. Oh wait, being by his side for this long, I already want to gouge his eyes out. Being single for him made sense. We walked downstairs to the resort’s restaurant to an outside deck where his mother introduced herself with a huge smile. His mother was decked out in diamonds, and the dress she wore looked like it cost a pretty penny. Matteo grabbed my hand eagerly. I looked happy, but he didn’t. I elbowed him and gave the evil eye. If he fucked this up, I was still getting paid for doing my part. “Mom, this is my girlfriend, Lacey.” Matteo introduced me. Although, he didn’t seem very sincere. You are going to have to do a better fucking job than that! “Hi, dear, I’m Lorraine. I’m so glad to meet you. I was surprised to hear Matteo had a date for the wedding. He has never been the type to have a girlfriend for very long. Hopefully, you stick around,” she said with a sincere voice, but her eyes were wary, looking for my flaws. I could tell she was protective of her little boy. At this point, I wanted to laugh so bad and let her know it was all just a scam, but I didn’t. I kept the thought of $10,000 in the back of my mind. It was the only thing that was going to get me through this trip safely. Lorraine walked me over to meet the rest of his family. First, the father, Jack, then his sister and her future husband. They all seemed very surprised I showed up. His sister kept giving me looks from afar like she didn't believe this ruse for a second. I didn’t blame her. Matteo didn’t even look happy. He was the worst actor ever. If he wanted to sell that we were a couple, he needed pointers because, at this rate, I’d be going home tomorrow. We sat down at the table for dinner, and I was surprised to find out that it had already been ordered. I didn’t even get to choose my food while being here? Shit! The family was discussing things that I knew nothing about, so I just smiled and nodded my head occasionally, so they would think I was listening. The truth was, I kept spacing out thinking how bad the time here was going to be if I couldn’t even pick my own damn dinner. Did they get to choose my outfits too? At this point, the food was served, and it was a fancy fish contraption. If Matteo knew anything, he would know I hate fish. Something about it tasted awful to me. The smell was even worse. How could people cook that in their home willingly? I would never understand. There was no way I was going to eat this. I began to scoop a spoonful of fish at a time and toss it under the table onto the ground. I kept looking around to make sure no one was looking at me. The last thing I needed was to get caught wasting food around some rich family. I went to throw another spoonful underneath when someone said, “How does it taste?” It tasted like shit actually, not that I would ever put it in my mouth. Once his mom’s eyes were off me, I threw the last of it underneath the table. Not a single person noticed, but I felt terrible for the waiter that would have to clean it up once we left. The sad thing was that I was starving; my stomach gurgling loudly caught Matteo’s attention. I cupped my stomach, trying to silence it, but didn’t help. “Do you want more?” he asked, looking at my cleaned plate. I wanted something to eat badly, but I couldn’t say anything to him. It’s not like we even got along. He would probably lose his shit if he knew what I did. I just shook my head in response. When the waiter came back and asked if anyone wanted dessert, I quickly spoke up. Everyone around the table looked at me. What? Was it not customary to get dessert? I didn’t care. I needed something to put in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten all day. I was not going to bed hungry. The waiter brought my brownie delight to the table which was a colossal brownie with ice cream on top with nuts. It didn’t look as delicious as a steak would, but right now, I just wanted something to put in my stomach that wasn’t fish. I devoured it in a matter of minutes, and when I finished, everyone was staring at me. “This woman loves her dessert. I can’t take her anywhere without getting dessert before we leave,” he said, smiling and grabbing my hand. Nice save. I knew I would probably get asked about it later, but right now, my belly wasn’t growling, and that was all that mattered. They could stare at me all they wanted. I was entitled to dessert if I wanted it. Chapter 7 Matteo Heading back to the hotel room, I couldn’t believe how the night had gone. Why couldn’t she sell it better? Who would ever be so quiet at the dinner table? She was meeting my family for the first time; the least she could do was be more interactive. I doubt anyone believed that façade tonight. Right now, I was furious. If this didn’t pan out, then I was screwed. Maybe, I should have picked someone else. Lacey just wasn’t meeting my expectations. I couldn’t have this fall through. Otherwise, I would look like an absolute fool in front of my family. That couldn’t happen. We must do better tomorrow. I checked my phone to see if Kimberly, my assistant, had left any voicemails. Nothing. Usually, when I was away from the office for more than a couple hours, she was calling me with an update. Weird. I dialed her phone number. She answered, “Thank you for calling Matteo’s office. How can I help you?” “Everything okay? I’ve got no voicemails or emails from you,” I said worriedly. “Yes, boss. Everything is okay. Enjoy your vacation. I’ve got this handled,” she replied, and I could tell she was wearing a smile on the other end. Kimberly had been my assistant for five years. She knew almost every aspect of my life. My laundry schedule, how I liked my coffee, my favorite places to eat, and probably anything else you could think of. A dedicated employee, she knew how important it was for me to get away. Lacey walked into the room, huffing and puffing like she had any right to do. “I don’t know what happened tonight, but you are going to have to step up your game. Tomorrow must be better than this. I got way too many looks like they were unsure. Do you understand?” I didn’t mean to come off like an utter asshole, but after the way she turned and looked at me, boy, was I glad I did. I had to close my eyes and take a deep breath to calm myself down. She scoffed. “Excuse me? Step up my game? All night you looked like I was your crazy ex-girlfriend who tried to murder you.” I couldn’t believe how she was speaking to me. No one talked to me that way, especially not hired help. How dare she? I felt my face get hot, and I couldn’t think of anything to say in response. “You want me to be better, then you need to do better. You need to look happy and smile occasionally. Matter of fact, look at me like someone you love!” she said, waving her hand around in my face. I couldn’t. All I could give her was a disgusted look. I didn’t like her attitude toward me. It was off-putting. How could I look at a woman like I loved her if I didn’t know a damn thing about her? This had gotten off to an awful start, and it needed to get better. Something had to give. “Well, you want to know something? I can’t stand you either. It’s mutual, buddy. You have got to be one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met. The way you talk to women is despicable. No wonder you had to hire me to pretend to be remotely interested in you. No one else would be otherwise,” she said as she slammed the bathroom door in my face. How fucking dare she? My face gets hotter when I realized this woman just called me an asshole and then told me no woman would ever be interested in me. Not that I was complaining because I didn’t want a woman in my life anyway, but it still hurt. How did I not defend myself one single time throughout all of that? I didn’t even get a word in! Well, I would now. “First of all, you have no right to talk to me like that. I’m this close to calling this a loss and sending your ass back home. Second, hurry up. I need to get changed so I can go to bed and forget about this day happening,” I said, banging on the door to make her hurry up. Lacey stormed out of the bathroom with her hair in a bun and her makeup taken off. “There, it’s yours, asshole. Send me home, I wouldn’t mind. The company I’m stuck with is unbearable, to say the least. I don’t know if it’s worth the ten thousand dollars anyway. No amount of money is worth this. You realize that I didn’t even eat but dessert tonight. Your family ordered me some disgusting fish. I hate fish! You should probably get to know your girlfriend better.” I didn’t have anything to say back to her. I was at a loss for words. This woman was getting under my skin with her attitude and making me be the worst version of myself. Things must be bad if I couldn’t pay a woman $10,000 to spend a week with me. Then, I realized the end part of what she said. She didn’t eat? Where the hell had the food gone? I remembered her clean plate but also hearing her stomach grumbling under the table next to me. That explained it. I started to feel bad because I knew when we got dinner, devoured wouldn’t even be the right word to describe how fast I had eaten. “I’m sorry. I had no idea. You should have just said something. You could have gotten something. There’s no need for you to starve while you are here,” I said in the kindest tone I could find inside me right now. I looked over at her, attempting to read her, but I couldn’t. Once I had changed, I lay down on the bed and turned out the lights. I could hear her heavy breathing across the room. I turned the lights back on. “Listen, we are both pissed right now. We are going to have to get over this disgust for each other and make it work. You need the money, and I need my family to believe this for a week. Can we come to an agreement to try and get along for the sake of this trip?” I didn’t know why I felt the need to say that to her, but I did. My mouth started speaking before I even had a chance to stop it. Lacey muttered, “Turn the damn light off.” She was indeed a hard girl to handle. This was going to be harder than I thought when I planned this lie. I didn’t expect to have a woman that was disgusted by me. Most women flocked to me because of my money, but she wasn’t. Yeah, she only came on this trip because I was paying her, but it was different. I needed to be kinder to her if I wanted her to stay on this trip. I didn’t have a choice at this point. Be nicer! Chapter 8 Lacey I woke up to Matteo singing in the shower, then banging around in the bathroom, making it sound like a train wreck. Who the hell thought it was okay to get up and start banging stuff around at five a.m.? Matteo did. Let’s be clear though, Matteo thought of himself as a higher power and not having any manners for those around him. He’d made that entirely clear in the last two days. Hell, all I wanted to do was sleep. I knew I was going to need it if I was going to be around him all day. It took everything in me not to be a complete bitch to him. Last night, I had to put him in his place. He needed to hear those things. Maybe it would make him question himself. I crawled out of pull-out and headed straight to the bathroom after Matteo left. After getting ready for the day, I headed downstairs to consume breakfast. At least at the buffet, I could enjoy whatever I wanted. The resort had so many different breakfast items to choose from. I planned on trying a little bit of everything before leaving here. Well, that was if Matteo didn’t end up sending me home early. After last night, who knew, he might. I did say a lot of awful things to him, but they were all true. I would feel worse if they weren’t. However, there was no way I was going to apologize. He needed to hear them. Maybe, just maybe, he would think twice before he talked or treated me the way he did yesterday. I’m all about gaining $10,000, but I won’t be completely disrespected. After grabbing a massive plate of food, I sat down at a small table, hoping no one would bother me, but alas, here came Abigail. “Lace, we are going to have so much fun today. Just us girls!” What was she talking about? I wasn’t aware of this plan. Damnit, Matteo pawned me off on his sister so he wouldn’t have to face me today. How childish of him. I couldn’t be mad though. That meant I didn't have to put up with him today, so I was okay with it. Anything to make this trip a little more enjoyable. Bring it on! “So, what’s the plan for today? Matteo didn’t mention this to me, but I am happy to spend some time with you today,” I told her. It wasn’t a lie. I was happy to get away from him, but I couldn’t tell his sister that. “Well, I thought we could go out on the water. I wanted to go scuba diving. We can spend all day out there. What do you think?” She waited for an answer. My face said enough. I never had money so things like that were way out of my budget. How was I going to afford to pay for these things? “Well, Matteo told me not to bring any money, so I’m not sure I can go.” “Oh hell, don’t worry. Anything you can do can be charged to his credit card. We are going to have fun today! I’ll meet you on the beach in thirty!” she yelled as she walked away with the biggest smile on her face. Who was I to diminish her happiness? After I ate and changed into my bathing suit, Abigail was waiting on the beach for me. Harbour Island was too beautiful for words. The sand was a pinkish color, and the water was crystal blue. “Follow me. The yacht I rented is waiting for us over there.” She pointed at a big yacht-like boat. Wow, it was huge and very extravagant. This was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity! Ships like this didn’t come around very often. No way was I going to turn this down. A huge smile crept across my face as I realized that my fear when I first got here would be diminished. I wouldn’t be stuck with Matteo the whole time. Here I was, standing in front of a huge boat, about to do things I’d never gotten to experience. I climbed aboard and enjoyed the view as we sailed out into the ocean. We headed toward Devil’s Backbone, a shallow and jagged reef, where the captain told us that outlining coral reefs had stingrays and turtles. I liked turtles but not so much stingrays. Abigail put the scuba gear on and went straight into the water. I stood there, scared. Yeah, it sounded like a great idea, but now I was a little terrified. What if I get stung and then vanish? Nobody would be watching me from up here. Anything could happen. I decided to just stay on the boat. I had a great view from up here anyway. Far away in the distance, I could see pastel houses. “What is that?” I asked the captain as he took a sip of his beer. “That’s Dunmore Town. We can make a pit stop there if you want before we head back.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Honestly, the longer I was on this boat, the worse I felt for denying the scuba diving experience. Why should I feel bad? I shook my head, telling myself not to beat myself up. Just enjoy yourself. Abigail came back up to the boat, and I helped her take off the equipment. “Wow, that was amazing. There is so much down there.” She looked around, realizing that I never went. “Why didn’t you come down? You would have loved it. Are you sure you don’t want to?” I was sure. The captain mentioned the fact I was curious about Dunmore Town, so Abigail decided to go there. She didn’t even ask me, just ordered the captain to take us there. I was really starting to like her. Abigail reminded me more and more of myself the longer I spent time with her. I would need to be careful. Getting too close to her would make the result of this trip harder. No getting close to his family. You are leaving in five days. “Come on, I want to do something you can enjoy too. Let’s go sightseeing, be tourists,” she said with a smile on her face. One thing I really liked about Abigail was how upbeat she was all the time. Genuinely, I liked her. She wasn’t anything like her brother. That arrogant asshole. If I didn’t know they were related, I never would have guessed it. They were just way too different in many respects. When we reached Dunmore, we got out on the dock and admired the view. For miles, all I could see was pastel houses and shops. “Let’s go shopping!” Abigail yelled. Since she mentioned we could charge everything to Matteo’s credit card, I didn’t object. The first couple of shops we bought beach hats and then decided to have lunch at this sit-down restaurant called The Waterfront. You could enjoy your food while sitting in the water. It was fascinating, and I had never seen anything else like this. Instead of looking at the menu, I told the waiter to bring us whatever the specialty was, hoping it wasn’t fish. I wanted to try some authentic food before I left. Which for all I knew could be tonight with how things were going between Matteo and me. Abigail and I enjoyed sitting there in the water while eating the house special of crab. The flavor was magnificent. It was a great experience. I wished I could do this back home. The icy blue water was just the right temperature. “So, not to be weird, but what are your intentions with my brother?” she asked, looking a little like she was going to throw up. “I just know he had a rough time with women in the past, and I don’t want him getting hurt.” I couldn’t tell her the truth because that would devastate her. “Well, to be quite honest, I am still getting to know him.” She shook her head. “I meant, how is your relationship going?” It’s hard for me to speak highly of a man that I can’t even be around. Here I was, doing everything in my power to stay out longer so I didn’t have to go back to that room with him. For the sake of the money, I replied, “It’s going fantastic. He’s very sweet even though you would never know because he refuses to show affection in public. It’s weird, but I can’t force him.” “I can tell he is happy with you. Personally, that scares me much more than it does him. The last time he had a breakup, Shawn and I had to be there for him to put him back up on his feet. He was devastated. Has he told you about Kelsey? Actually, never mind. That’s something I shouldn’t talk about.” I could tell she was starting to feel like her mother, a meddler. Abigail wasn’t one. She just wanted to look out for her big brother. I couldn’t blame her. If I had a big brother, I’d do the same. Something needed to be said; it just got incredibly awkward. “I can see myself being with him for a long time. I haven’t thought about marriage just yet. We haven’t been together long enough.” I wanted to get off the subject of our relationship and onto hers. “So where did you and Shawn meet?” I figured if I could get the subject to change, I wouldn’t have to lie anymore today. Lying wasn’t my strong suit. Especially seeing as I would need to remember every lie, so I could fill Matteo in later. Our answers were required to match. She laughed, bit her lip, and started to explain but then stopped, “Wow, my brother hasn’t told you. I’m surprised. Well, we met through him. Matteo and Shawn met in the fourth grade. He started coming home every day after school with him. We were all inseparable from that point on. We didn’t start to like each other as more than friends until high school. One day, Shawn walked up and asked me out on a date. The fairy tale started from there.” Wow, they have been together since high school? I’m surprised they were just now getting married. Most people rushed into marriage after they graduate but not these two. Smart! A quarter of the kids I went to high school with were already married to their high school sweethearts. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why they would do that. “So, where did you two meet?” Abigail asked, sipping on her mojito. Shit, we hadn’t discussed what we were going to say when someone asked. “We met at an event for his company. I ran into him, and then we said a few choice words. At the end of the night, he asked for my number, and from there, well, here we are.” I smiled even though the story was entirely made up. She didn’t have to know that. It was our little secret. The one bad thing about lies was who knows if ours were going to be consistent. I’m sure someone had asked him that same question already, but how did he answer? I doubt it would be the same answer as mine. What was he up to today? He wasn’t just sitting in the hotel room. Chapter 9 Matteo When Lacey decided to go with my sister, Shawn invited me along with him. I forgot to mention to her that my sister wanted to get to know her amidst the awkwardness of our fight. Obviously, I wanted to bring it up, mainly because I was shocked, but it never came up. I hoped things would get better because I didn’t want to be stuck with someone who couldn’t stand me. A part of me also started to feel guilty for my coldness. How could I help it though? It was all I knew. “You ready to go?” Shawn said from outside my hotel door. He had his usual goofy grin on his face. “Coming.” I turned off the lights, and we headed out. I didn’t want anyone to know about mine and Lacey’s fight because then they’d start to pry, and that was the last thing I needed. I figured Shawn had an entire agenda planned; however, he just plopped right outside with his open shirt and a mimosa. He didn’t really have much planned today. Relax. I had a mind to push him to do something, but it wasn’t up to me. This was his decision to get married, and even though it was to my incredible sister, marriage was still a leap. Ultimately though, that was what he wanted to do. Sunbathing wasn’t productive, but I couldn’t blame him. Getting married seemed to be a very stressful time. Nothing like you see in movies. The stress, the drama, and not to mention the reality that you’re tied to one woman for the rest of your life sounded like a goddamn nightmare. On top of all the stuff you had to get together and coordinate, I decided that marriage was a death trap. No thanks. Didn’t seem like my kind of fun. After lounging for a little longer, we walked to the bar on the beach, grabbed a table, and ordered some Jack and Coke. “My sister still isn’t driving you nuts yet?” I asked jokingly. I knew those two were meant for each other, so I could joke around. “Nope, never. Yours?” I didn’t even reply because if I did, then the truth would have come out without me even noticing it. Thank god for that. “She’s too pretty for you, brother,” he said laughingly. “I’m surprised she’s still with you. Look at you. What’s going on with you?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew he was only trying to help. “What do you mean, what’s wrong with me? Nothing. I’m fine.” “You have been uptight since you got here. Lacey should be loosening you up. Something wrong between you two? If so, just fix it,” he said, giving me advice about my fake relationship. “You know how I get around my family. It’s just how I am. We are fine,” I replied but felt sorry for lying to him. Hell, I had only ever lied to him a handful of times over our many years of friendship. “So, a future with her?” He was reaching for an answer of marriage. Hell, even if this were a real relationship, I wouldn’t propose to a girl after a couple of months. Rushed relationships end in divorce. Proven fact! “Hell, I don’t know yet. We have only been together for a couple of months, what do you expect? We haven’t known each other our whole lives like you and my sister. I would never marry a woman after a couple months of dating. Try at least a couple of years. Relationships are tricky and hard to manage for someone like me. Honestly, I’m surprised she’s still around,” I explained. It was the truth. She was still here, although she could’ve snuck up and flown back sometime today without me even knowing. I hoped she would be in the room when I got there. That would be hard to explain if she wasn’t. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with Kelsey, would it?” he asked. Now, why the hell did he have to go and bring her up? If this were an actual relationship, Kelsey would have nothing to do with it. Yes, she played the part so well, marriage was coming. I got lucky with the timing. Honestly, Kelsey had broken my heart. I fell in love with her when I was twenty-one, and she was a couple years older than me. When we broke up, my heart shattered. Deep down, I believed that no one would want me for myself, only for my money. I had to give up the notion of finding someone to love. Fairy-tale endings weren’t true. That’s why they were called fairy tales. So, for the past several years, I’d just stayed to myself. Not putting any focus on any woman. I vowed to never put myself in the situation to be played like that again. Sure, I could be a significant douchebag sometimes, but I had been great to Kelsey. I still asked myself why she had to do that to me. Shawn seemed to feel the mood change. His big eyes started to look clouded as worry took over. That was not what I needed. “More drinks?” I offered. Shawn hesitated, studying my face for a few seconds before shrugging. “Sure, I don’t see why not.” Relief. After our round of drinks came, I admittedly felt wounded. He brought up something I never wanted to think about again. Why do people mention things at the worst moments? I guess if they knew what was going on, they wouldn’t, but that was too big of a risk. I chugged beer after beer, allowing the alcohol to take over my body. Dizziness lured me to want to fall over, but Shawn caught me, sitting me down on the bench. I slapped his arm playfully, glad he was there to monitor me. After slowly sipping his drink though, Shawn sighed loudly, placing a sweaty hand on my shoulder. “Just remember, not every girl is Kelsey. Lacey seems to genuinely care for you. Don’t let that slip by because of what that crazy woman did to you. You have to open up your heart at some point, bud.” I heard every word he said, and it made sense. However, I didn’t want to believe it. I’d been so closed off since Kelsey that I had barely touched a woman since. I know it was stupid, but even intimacy scared me. What happened if we spent too much time together? I didn’t want to catch feelings for anyone. My guard was always up around my weak heart. “I heard you, brother. I know. I’m trying.” Was I though? Could I open my heart back up again? The answer had yet to reach my drunken mind. A couple hours and many drinks later, Shawn shuffled me to the hotel room for bed. I was out of it. I really shouldn’t have drunk that much. Who knew what I had said? All I could remember was the door opening to my hotel room and Lacey in a nightgown. Shawn handed me off to her. She could have just let me fall asleep on the floor, but she helped me up, undressed me, and got me into bed. Even after all the dickish things I’d done and said to her, she was still a good person. Chapter 10 Lacey Yesterday, he didn’t get back to the hotel room until around ten thirty p.m. Shawn brought him and gave him to me to take care of him. He was a drunken mess. I tried to be quiet. The last thing I wanted to do was wake him up. He looked peaceful, despite being a complete asshole. I lay down on the pull-out couch and regretted having to sleep on this damn thing again. It was by no means comfortable. Matter of fact, for the amount of money he was probably paying, I would’ve thought it would be a lot more comfortable even for a pull-out couch. I tossed and turned most of the night, but then my mind and body finally gave up. The hours in this place seemed to drag on, reminding me how miserable I was. I wished I was back in my dorm with my books and fluffy pillows. Unfortunately, after cracking one tired eye open after another, my vision reminded me I was still trapped in the hold of Matteo and his impossible demeanor. Thankfully, my suffering wasn’t too prolonged. The next day, I spent most of my time in the spa with Abigail. We got deep tissue massages, facial cleanses, and then there was the sauna. I’d never been in one, and everybody made it seem so awesome, but hell, I was just hot. I could feel my cheeks turning beet red as the heat left me sticky and uncomfortable. It wasn’t my idea of fun. I understood it made the toxins sweat out but why spend that much time in there? I wouldn’t pay to sit in there. I could think of a million other things I’d rather do than sit in a hot steaming room in a towel with a bunch of sweaty, half-naked strangers. If I wanted to sweat out toxins, I’d sit in private in my car, with the windows rolled up, blasting the heat on a summer day. “I take it you’re not a summer baby,” Abigail suddenly remarked as I lay exasperated at the very edge of my seat. I faked a laugh and swiped away a dribble of sweat. “Nope, I was born in January,” I wheezed. She smiled, nodding her head slowly. When she smiled, I realized just how much she and Matteo looked alike. The same deep-brown eyes, high cheekbones, and adorable smile. Matteo rarely smiled at me, but I caught him smiling when Shawn cracked a joke. His smile crept on his face slow and easy, quickly reaching those gorgeous eyes. “What?” Abigail asked with a confused look. Oh fuck. I had been staring at her like an idiot. “Oh. Nothing. It’s just that you and Matteo have the same smile,” I admitted. She chuckled, leaning back. “Yep, he’s my twin. We get it from our father actually.” I smiled back, enjoying the pleasant conversation. She was so kind and gentle, which was the opposite of Matteo. Afterward, we both went and got our hair done. She wanted to get some highlights in her brown hair and then talked me into doing it too. Honestly, I’d never colored my hair. It had always just been this same color. So I was excited about the change. The only thing I didn’t like about it was how long it took. The hairdresser picked and probed at my hair for what felt like hours. Finally, he whirled me around with a satisfied look on his round face. “Feast your eyes on your new look,” he announced. My jaw dropped. My hair looked incredible, and for once, I felt extremely pleased on the trip. “You look beautiful, Lacey!” Abigail squealed, hugging me out of the blue. Stunned, I stiffly hugged her back, my shoulders eventually falling as I felt the warmth of her embrace. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was time for dinner. Abigail told me to get Matteo and meet them at a restaurant for dinner. When I walked in the door, I found that Matteo hadn’t been there yet. I took advantage of the quiet and hopped right into the shower, plugging in my phone to the Bluetooth speaker and jamming out. No one was there, so I sang loud in the shower. I wanted to enjoy myself. Afterward, I straightened my hair and put on very subtle makeup for a classic look. I went to the closet to find something to wear tonight. I had brought a couple of nice dresses, and I decided on a lilac knee-length dress. I went back into the bathroom to slip it on when in walked Matteo. “Oh, I’m sorry. Why didn’t you shut the door?” he said, flabbergasted and trying not to stare. He continued staring at me with his jaw to his ankles. “Well, you could stop staring at me. That would be the first step to making this a little less awkward.” He apologized some more and went into the other room to get changed. Wow, that wasn’t awkward at all. He was just standing there. He could have at least looked away, but he didn’t. I came out of the bathroom to put my heels on, and he just looked at me. “What, is this not fancy enough for this family dinner outing?” I was entirely sarcastic because I was wearing it whether it was or not. I didn’t care that much about how I dressed. “No, uh— You look beautiful,” he said. “So, I just wanted to apologize for the other night. A lot of things were said. Let’s just make this work.” I smiled at him because I knew we would have to agree, or this wasn’t going to work. I really needed that money, or this all would have been for nothing. There were some things that I still needed to make clear. “For this to work, you are going to have to be better at acting like you like me. I know it’s hard, but you have to.” His family wasn’t stupid. Eventually they were going to figure out I was a fake if he didn’t do a better job at acting. He needed to be able to show me affection and smile more. “Okay, tonight we will act like the happiest couple ever, besides the bride and groom, of course. No one can be as in love as them.” He la