“Claude!” I yelled after him, but if I could have smiled, it would’ve been then. I hadn’t smiled since Kai had broken me.
I didn’t know if I could get through this meeting, or why Kai was even here, but I forced myself to go. Once I got to the hallway, I stopped. I couldn’t. My feet refused to move. Would he come in search of me if I refused this meeting? Could I do this? Could I see him after what we had shared?
I’d have to leave.
He would look for me in the house, so that meant I’d have to physically remove myself. But I wouldn’t be able to hide. Those were the stipulations. Kai owned me in every way except sexually now, and I couldn’t leave. He would kill Blade and Carol. He was the monster I’d always known he was; I’d just gotten used to his disguise.
I was turning, ready to ask Claude to bring a car around, when the door opened behind me.
I sucked in my breath, relief flooding me. It wasn’t Kai.
Turning, I saw Tanner in the doorway.
Kai had sent Tanner down to help with running the company, but after only a few days in the office, I let him take over.
Why had I thought it was Kai here tonight?
My stomach dropped—because I had wanted him to come. I wanted him to try, for me.
I was so stupid.
“Yes.” My voice shook. “Hello, Tanner. Hello.”
He gave me a knowing look. “He won’t come unless he absolutely has to.”
I folded my head down. “Of course.”
He was still in me. I felt him. I loathed him now, though. The hatred I’d long harbored for my father had a new target.
Shoving all that down, I cleared my throat, my head rising. I moved past Tanner, extending a hand to one of the couches. “Would you like something to drink?”
His gaze followed me everywhere. He shook his head. “Your butler already offered. I’m not here for a social call.”
Of course. They’d gotten what they wanted from me. Now I was dispensable.
I drew in a pain-laced breath and asked, almost not even realizing it until the words were out, “Once I sign the company over, will you kill me?”
I wasn’t looking at Tanner, but I heard his soft intake of air. “No. Why would you think that?”
I looked, feeling the robot that had inhabited my body take over. “Because you’ll no longer need me, of course.”
He frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Is this because you and Kai broke up?”
Broke up. I almost laughed at that.
“We didn’t break up. Kai had no more use for me, or desire. He ended things.”
“What? He did?”
I waved my hand in the air. I felt a hole opening inside of me, and if possible, I could feel my rotting insides starting to spill out. I didn’t want that, for my own pride. Embarrassing myself, letting his brother see my weakness, I couldn’t do that.
I had to have something he couldn’t take from me. Some amount of pride, at least.
“Riley, that doesn’t make sense—” Tanner moved forward, shaking his head.
“It doesn’t matter.” I raised my voice, wincing at the shrill note at the end. “You said this wasn’t a social visit. Why’d you come?”
“I…” He eyed me, confused. Then he blinked, and it was gone. His hands went into his pockets. “I wanted to tell you Brooke’s asked to come stay with you.”
“Would you like her to come?”
Did I want to see Brooke? She’d been demolished by her brother as well. We could commiserate together, but she was Kai’s sister. She was a part of him. She even looked like him. Having Tanner here, even knowing he was in the same city as me was painful enough. Feeling Kai’s presence hanging over everything in my life, literally everything, was starting to wear thin. So did I want another appendage of him inside my home? Or more than whoever was reporting to him from the staff, because I knew someone was.
“I’d rather have Blade and Carol come, to be honest.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
I nodded. “Or if I could visit them?”
“Kai doesn’t want you to leave, you know that.”
“I’m getting sick of your brother’s hold over my life.” Resentment was filling me up, and fast.
“I know,” he admitted, turning away. Grabbing the back of his neck, he let out a sigh. “You’ve lost weight.”
“I’ve been sick.”
“Do you want Jonah to come?”
I scoffed, shaking my head. “Your family is unbelievable.”
I wanted to wake up from this nightmare. I wanted to be free of Kai’s hold over me. I wanted to live my life in freedom, actual true freedom. I wanted to decide where I went, how I went, who I went with. But I knew my prison was here. I was to be used, after all. I had literally stepped into my father’s shoes, except it hadn’t been greed that put me there. It had been love.
“I know, and for what it’s worth, I am sorry. Whatever happened between you and Kai, I know he’s hurting too. If that helps at all—”
“It doesn’t,” I snapped.
How dare he? How dare Tanner? Kai wasn’t allowed to hurt. He’d seduced me. He’d done what he intended to do, then tossed me like a piece of trash.
“What can we do, Riley? How can I help you?” He motioned to me. “It’s obvious you’re hurting too.”
I snorted. “How can you help me? You can release me from this gilded prison your brother’s put me in. You can buy me out. Take the entire company. I don’t care. I want out! I don’t want anything to do with this place. I want to see my friends. I want my old life back.”
I wanted to hide.
I wanted to nurse my wounds alone, out of his spying eyes.
I wanted to survive him. That’s what I wanted.
Tanner’s mouth turned down. “You want out? For real?”
He paused, studying me, then he nodded. “Okay. It’s been a month, but the other board members aren’t resisting me speaking for you. I’ll talk to Kai. We’ll buy out your share, give you a good price for everything.”
I was shocked.
My mouth thinned. “Are you serious? I can’t—I can’t take being jerked around, Tanner. Don’t jerk me around, not about this.”
“You really do want out?”
“Then we’ll buy you out.”
“Out of everything?” My father had other businesses he had invested in. I didn’t want to be connected to anything he had.
“Everything. We’ll take care of it. I’ll make sure. I’ll have Eduardo make a list of all your father’s holdings. Is there…is there anything else you’d like from me?”
“I already told you.”
“I can help with the business and investments, but I don’t think Kai will allow your old roommates to come down. We’d have to work it for them to request a transfer. They won’t come on their own. They can’t, but even if they did or we did…” He hesitated, and I knew why.
It would give me a stronger hold on my old self. I would be getting support from someone who wasn’t on Kai’s payroll.
My heart tore in half, having this small thread of hope taken away from me all over again. I turned, not wanting Tanner to see my tears. My back to him, I crossed my arms over my chest. My eyes closed, though I could feel the tears sliding down. I made a move to wipe them clean. I made sure my voice was clear of emotion. “Fine. That’s fine.”
“Riley?” I heard him move for me.
“The businesses then.” My voice rose, sharp. I didn’t want him to see me hurting. “The businesses will be fine then. I’ll make do.”
“Okay.” The floor creaked under his weight. When he spoke again, his voice a little farther away. “What about the homes your father owns? There’s a good list of them.”
The homes too. Did I want to give him everything?
I could handle the homes. I could talk to a realtor, have them sell everything, unless there was one I wanted to keep.
“No. I’ll handle the homes.”
“Okay.” I still heard his hesitation, but then I heard his footsteps on the floor, down the hallway. I could hear a slight murmur from the distance as Claude met him at the door, and a moment later, Claude was speaking behind me.
“Is there anything you wish of me, mistress? A nightcap, perhaps?”
My stomach rumbled at the mere mention, and I pressed on it. “No, thank you, Claude.”
“As you wish.”
He was leaving when I rounded. “Claude?”
He paused, and to his credit, he didn’t flinch when he saw the tears on my face. “Yes?”
“Can you put a list together of the household staff?”
“Of course, mistress.” He started to leave.
“And list their family dependents?”
“Ma’am?” His eyebrows pinched together.
I almost smiled. Almost. I’d never seen Claude confused. And to hell with it. I spoke clearly. “I need to know how many families depend on my father’s money to get by. I’d like to know, if you can add this to the list, even though it might be an invasion of privacy, how much in need everyone is?”
He still didn’t understand.
“Just make the list, Claude. Please.”
“As you wish, mistress.”
This time, I didn’t correct him. It wouldn’t matter soon anyway.
Two months later
Everything was nearly done.
Tanner was back to conclude our business, and he had been right. Kai gave me a decent price for everything. I was shocked at the number when I saw it.