So Amber disliked me. For no apparent reason, as far as I could tell.
“That’s unfortunate,” I said.
“Very,” Lori muttered in a tone that conveyed it really wasn’t. Then I remembered Lori and Amber hadn’t really communicated very much during dinner. Then again, Amber had been either busy with her phone or glaring at Chase and me simultaneously, waiting for one of us to spontaneously combust.
I kissed Lori’s and Katie’s cheeks goodbye and turned toward the door. I promised myself not to read into Amber’s reaction to me. I’d done nothing wrong.
Other than deceiving the entire Black family, a little voice inside me said. But Amber wasn’t privy to that, was she? Then I remembered she hadn’t seemed sold on my Brooklyn story. Neither had her husband, Julian. It worried me that I may have blown it. If Ronan knew Chase and I were lying, he’d be devastated, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
I ascended the stairs barefoot. The velvet carpet pressed between my toes lusciously. Everything was crème and navy and powder blue. Nautically rustic, with big pieces of furniture and white-painted wood. It felt almost unreal to be a part of this place. Like I’d cheated my way in. Which, in a way, I had.
I reached the second floor, holding the banisters for dear life, still buzzing with alcohol. I zigzagged past the hallway doors. One of them was ajar. It was a double door.
A low, gravelly growl seeped through the crack. “Over my dead body.”
I froze, recognizing Chase’s diabolical voice. He sounded ready to murder whoever was with him in that room, and I didn’t want to be there when it happened.
Move along, something inside me whispered. Nothing to see here. Not your business, not your war.
I checked the time on my phone. One a.m. What the hell was he doing up, and who was he arguing with? Curiosity got the better of me. I leaned against the wall, holding my breath, careful not to get caught.
“If that’s what it takes,” Julian drawled sardonically. I recognized his voice too. He had traces of a Scottish accent, littered in his words sparsely. Ronan Black’s family was originally from Edinburgh. Julian, Ronan’s late sister’s son, had been flown from Scotland when he was only six to live with the family after his parents died in a fatal car crash on Christmas Day. The Black couple, Lori and Ronan, once said in an interview Julian was the best Christmas gift they’d ever received. I’d read about it on the Black family Wikipedia page when I was Chase obsessed during the first month of our relationship. Julian and Chase grew up as brothers and, according to Wikipedia, were close. Whoever had written this page had been high, because during my six months with Chase, he’d rarely mentioned his cousin to me and never made an introduction. Now that Julian was here, he and Chase acted like sworn enemies.
“Don’t mistake my devotion to my father for weakness. My focus is on his health and well-being. If something happens to him . . .” Chase left the sentence unfinished.
I stuck my nose in the gap between the doors and peeked through it. They were standing in a darkened library. It was a gorgeous room, with floor-to-ceiling white shelves containing thousands of books seemingly arranged by the color of their spines. Chase was leaning behind a heavy oak desk, his knuckles pressing the exposed wood. Julian was standing in front of him, tall but not as tall as Chase, my fake fiancé’s shadow cast over him like a dark castle.
Julian threw his arms in the air, exasperated. “Something will happen. He is dying, and you’re not a good fit to replace him. Thirty-two and barely out of your corporate diapers. You’ll spook the shareholders and drive the investors away.”
“I’m the COO,” Chase boomed. It was the first time I’d heard him raise his voice to anyone. He was always deadly quiet and in complete control.
“You’re a fucking thief, is what you are,” Julian bit back. “You proved it three years ago, and I still haven’t forgotten.”
Three years ago? What had happened three years ago? Of course, I couldn’t very well walk in there and ask. One of the more unfortunate side effects of eavesdropping.
“He chose me as next in line. He chose you as CIO. Deal with it,” Chase barked, his eyes hooding.
“He chose wrong,” Julian deadpanned.
“You have some nerve talking to me about this bullshit on my engagement-party weekend.” Chase leaned back, opening a drawer and removing a cigar from it. Rather than lighting it, he broke it in two and fingered the material inside.
He was trying not to snap, I realized.
“About that.” Julian took a seat on a chair behind him, crossing his legs. “As soon as I met little Miss Louisa Clark, I realized something was amiss.”
“Louisa Clark?” Chase frowned.
“Me before You. I watched it with Amber. She cried a lot.”
“I would, too, if I had to fuck you on the reg,” Chase muttered. “Is there a point to your little story?”
“Your fiancée. She is a Louisa Clark. You don’t truly expect us to believe you are marrying this . . . this . . .”
“This?” Chase stopped squashing the tobacco between his fingers and cocked an eyebrow, daring him to finish the sentence. I swallowed. My heart was thrashing helplessly against my rib cage. I didn’t want to hear whatever came next but couldn’t unglue myself from my spot either.
“Come on.” Julian snorted. “Before we were enemies, we were brothers. I know you. This eccentric, artsy-fartsy, quirky-but-full-of-depth chick isn’t your type. You like them severely malnourished and personality-free. Your type wears designer clothes and doesn’t get sloppy drunk during family gatherings. I see through you, Chase. You want to show Ronan you’re good for it. That you’re ready to settle down, have kids, the whole enchilada. And with a normal, average girl, no less. Is that who you are now, brother? Grounded? Reliable? An all-around stand-up guy?” Julian threw his head back and laughed. He stood up, shaking his head. “I don’t buy your sudden engagement, and I don’t buy this relationship. You’re just vying for the CEO seat to get back at me by acting all high and mighty. You can play house with a girl who’s a six all you want, but I don’t for one second believe you’ll marry below ten.”
A six. I felt nauseous, so much so the need to throw up almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to slap Julian across the face. How dare he put a number on me? And how dare Chase just stand there and listen to this? I was his fake fiancée. In fact, screw that. I was his ex-girlfriend. A human being. He couldn’t let Julian speak this way.