“Katie is dying to see you, and I don’t think you’ve met Julian, Chase’s older brother, and his wife, Amber, yet. They weren’t with us last Christmas. They celebrated with Amber’s family in Wisconsin,” Mom blabbed, snatching Madison’s hand and leading her into the house after ten painful minutes. “Clementine, their daughter, is such a peach.”
“Sounds fruity,” Mad squeaked, getting whisked away by Mom without sparing me another glance.
Sounds fruity. She’d actually said that. I’d been inside this woman at some point. What in the holy fuck had I been thinking?
Two uniformed employees materialized from the entrance, rushing to carry Madison’s suitcase. I directed them to the room we were going to share—yes, share—glancing at the golf cart by the Tesla. I entertained the idea of heading straight to the golf course to interrupt Julian and Dad, then thought better of it. I wasn’t some hysterical preteen begging to be included. Besides, I had to go upstairs and work the Madison angle. Prep her before she met the rest of the Black clan.
My father had the uncanny ability to see past bullshit and dissect situations and dynamics successfully. I wouldn’t put it past him to call me out on this engagement if he noticed my bride was contemplating murdering me with a steak knife. Yes, I decided. The crap with Julian could wait. It wasn’t like we were going to go for each other’s throat near Dad, anyway.
Reluctantly, I headed to our room on the left wing of the estate. The side reserved for immediate family. Julian and his family resided in the right wing. The official reason was because they needed more space. If it were three years ago, I’d have bought it. Not now, though. Now, Julian felt like an outsider through and through.
I found Madison caught in a mindless conversation with Katie and Mom in our room. Amber was probably taking a bubble bath somewhere in the mansion, trying the latest skin-care fad. Koala blood or turtle shit or whatever it was she smeared on her face to appear younger. The women in my family were still holding Madison’s hand hostage in turns, cooing at the engagement ring like it was a newborn. Clearing my throat, I stepped inside and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
The gesture didn’t feel familiar or pleasant. I’d never done it before, even when we were seeing each other. Madison had slim, narrow shoulders, something I’d never truly noticed before. It didn’t feel right, the weight of my entire arm on this woman. Other men obviously didn’t have partners Mad’s size, or they’d bury them completely. How I’d been able to be on top of this girl several times a week was a mystery to me. She looked so fragile standing next to me in that moment. I decided not to put the full weight of my arm on her shoulders, which resulted in my arm sort of hanging in the air an inch from her body. It was inconvenient, but she was tiny.
So tiny she couldn’t possibly count as an entire person.
I technically only had half an ex-girlfriend.
Just admit you had a fucking girlfriend, you full-size piece of shit.
“I was just asking Maddie how come we haven’t seen her for so long.” Katie turned to face me, fiddling with the pearls on her neck. She was tall for a woman, with long dark hair and an impeccably malnourished figure she liked to wrap in elegant dresses. She was the type of person to blend in with the furniture and take up as little space as possible. The opposite of small, olive-skinned, chatterbox Madison.
“You mean grilling her,” I corrected. I didn’t want my fake fiancée to be under unnecessary scrutiny. Her lying game was probably as weak as her fashion sense. Katie recoiled visibly, insulted by my dig, and I immediately felt like a douchebag. For all my resentment of romantic relationships, I was usually a decent human to my family.
“Thank you, Chase. I can take care of myself.” Madison smiled tightly.
And you might need to with the asexual fool you’re dating.
“You’re right, sweetheart. I know firsthand how good you are at taking care of yourself.” I elevated a suggestive eyebrow, referring to the arsenal of sex toys I’d once found in her kitchen drawer while looking for a spoon for my coffee. (“I’m space efficient, okay?” she’d yelled. “This is a studio apartment!”) Madison, as predicted, turned crimson in a second.
“Self-care is important.” She looked up at the ceiling, presumably trying not to combust.
“Preach, sister.” Katie sighed, our innuendos flying over her head. “I’m thinking of going back to therapy now that we found out about Dad.”
Mad’s eyes dropped back to Katie, her face crumpling from horrified to sad. “Oh, honey.” She touched my sister’s arm. “You should do whatever it takes to put yourself in the best state of mind. I think it’s a great idea.”
“Did you go to therapy? During . . . ? After . . . ?” Katie asked hopefully. My sister was a little older than Madison and yet ten times more naive. I chalked it up to a sheltered upbringing, combined with the luxury of never knowing true hardship.
“Well, I couldn’t really afford it.” Madison scrunched her nose, making Katie’s eyes bulge out with horror. Yeah. She forgot shrinks were a perk not everyone could afford. “But I had my dad. And anyway, lots of family, so . . .” She shrugged.
There was an awkward pause in which Katie probably felt like dying, I felt like killing someone, and Madison . . . who the heck knew what she felt at that moment?
“Well”—Mom clapped with a cheerful smile, snapping us out of our reverie—“let’s leave you lovebirds alone to settle in. We’re having a late snack at ten. Nothing formal, just a bit of food and a chat. We’d love to have you, if you are not too tired.”
Mom gave Madison one last hand squeeze before dragging my sister out of the room and closing the door behind us.
I removed my arm from Mad’s shoulders at the same time she swiveled toward me, stomping on my foot with all her might. It took a second to register her foot was on mine. She weighed practically nothing. Most of it was fabric and accessories she’d probably found in a Claire’s discount basket.
“We’re not staying in the same room.” She wiggled her finger in my face. I began to loosen my tie, sauntering into the walk-in closet, in which a full-blown wardrobe was waiting for me, appropriate for all seasons. I knew she’d follow.
“Fact-check that statement, Madison, because it looks like we are.”