I plucked one of the white roses. Its thorn pierced my thumb. A heart-shaped blood droplet perched between the petals.
“To marry or not to marry Boston’s favorite villain?”
I plucked the first petal.
The second one.
Don’t marry him.
Then the third.
By the time I reached the last petal, my fingers quivered, my heart drummed fast, and every inch of my body was covered in goose bumps. I pulled the last petal, the snowy color of a wedding gown.
Fate said the last word.
Not that it mattered as my heart already knew the answer.
A decision had been made.
Now I had to face the consequences.
“Good session, Mr. Fitzpatrick. You’re one of the most talented equestrians I’ve ever seen. Mad skills, sir.” One of the pimply stable boys under my payroll staggered behind me, his tongue lapping about like an eager puppy.
I made my way from the barn back to my car, shoving my bridle into his chest along with a fat tip.
If nothing else, being filthy, immortally, disgustingly rich meant people were eager to tell me how I was the best at anything, be it horse riding, fencing, golfing, and synchronized swimming.
Not that I synchronize swam, but I was sure I’d be given a medal for it if I asked for one.
“Thanks for the tip, Mr. Fitzpatrick! You’re the best boss I’ve ever—”
“If I wanted my ass kissed, I’d go for someone curvier, blonder, and with an entirely different reproductive system,” I said cuttingly.
“Right. Yes. Sorry.” He blushed, opening the door to my Aston Martin Vanquish for me, bowing. I slid into the car, revving up the engine.
The Ring app on my phone advised me there was a visitor at my front door.
Tugging at my gloves, I tossed them on the passenger seat before swiping the phone screen.
I didn’t have to check my wrist to know I wasn’t at my usual fifty beats per minute. I was a highly conditioned equestrian, a born athlete. But right now, it was at least at sixty-two.
I was a certified moron to develop a preference toward one potential bride over the other, considering none of the candidates on my list were going to walk down the aisle happily or willingly.
They all had reasons to say I do, and none of them had to do with my winning personality, wit, or flawless manners.
Persephone Penrose was the first I’d approached. She needed financial relief like I needed a good PR stunt and a couple of kids.
She was, however much I hated to admit it, also my favored contender. Good-natured, of sound mind more or less, with the face of an angel and a body that could tempt the devil.
She was perfect. Too perfect, in fact. So perfect I sometimes had to look away whenever we were in the same room. I averted my gaze from her more times than I could count, always opting to observe her mouthy sister. Watching the train wreck that was Emmabelle reminded me I didn’t want the Penrose DNA pool anywhere near mine.
Emmabelle was loud, lewd, and opinionated. She could argue with a goddamn wall for days and still lose. Focusing on her was less dangerous than watching Persephone.
And watching Persephone was something I did discreetly, but often, when no one was looking.
Which was why the fact she hadn’t returned to me with an answer was a good thing. Terrific, really.
I didn’t need this mess.
Didn’t need my heart rate hiking over sixty.
Case in point—as the video of my black, brass hardware double doors came into view, my pulse began strumming over my eyelid. It was the cleaning ladies and my chef, marching into my house to prepare it ahead of the kickback I was hosting tonight.
I threw the phone to the passenger seat, glancing at my Rolex.
It had been exactly forty-nine hours and eleven minutes since I’d presented Persephone with my offer. Her time was up. Timekeeping and reliability were two of the few things I’d admired about people.
She lacked both.
Clicking open my glove compartment, I produced the sticky note Devon had given me with names of potential brides. Next on my list was Minka Gomes. An ex-model who was now a child psychologist. Legs for miles, a good family, and a perfect smile (although Devon had warned me she had veneers).
She was thirty-seven, desperate for children, and traditional enough to want a Catholic wedding. She’d already signed an NDA prior to my approaching her, something I’d made Devon do with all of my potential brides, save for Persephone, who was:
My first candidate, and therefore my sloppiest attempt. And—
Too good to tell a soul.
I punched her address into the navigation app, rolling out of my private ranch’s driveway, where I had spent the past few hours riding my horses, ignoring my responsibilities, and not seething over the fact Persephone Penrose needed to think about marrying me when the other option available was grisly death in the hands of street mobsters.
I deliberately wasn’t home because I knew Persephone wasn’t going to take the bait.
She had too much integrity, morals, not to mention—another flipping husband somewhere in the globe.
“Let’s hope for your sake you’re not dumb enough to turn down my offer, too,” I muttered to an invisible Minka as I took the highway toward Boston.
Bride number two it was.
As if it made any difference.
Sam Brennan threw his cards onto the table later that evening, tilting his head back, a ribbon of smoke curling past his lips.
He always folded.
He didn’t come here to play cards.
Didn’t believe in luck, didn’t play for it, and didn’t count on it.
He was here to observe, learn, and keep tabs on Hunter and me, two of his most profitable clients. Made sure we kept out of trouble.
“Sally” by Gogol Bordello rose from the surround system.
We were in my drawing room for our weekly poker night. A tasteful, albeit boring space, with upholstered leather incliners and heavy burgundy curtains.
“Don’t worry, sons. It’ll all be over soon,” Hunter tsked, attempting his best John Malkovich impression in Rounders. “Poker is not for the faint of heart.”
“This, from someone who is a Nordstrom membership away from being a chick.” Sam slid his cigarette from one corner of his lips to the other, his forearms nearly ripping the black dress shirt he wore.