Three sets of lingerie sat atop Danika’s bed as she agonised over which one to wear for her next date with Malik. Ridiculous really, since he would likely rip them off her the moment he saw them. Still, she wanted to send the right message. I just need to decide what that should be: Pink because I want to have fun; red because I want scorching passion, or black because I want to assert some dominance. The powerplay had made for some hot foreplay, but given his fragile state, it could prove risky, so she chose the red set. As soon as she had finished putting the others away, her phone rang. Reading the name Elise, she picked up without hesitation. ‘Hey, hun, how are you?’
‘Physically, I’m doing a lot better, thanks. I just….’
‘Go on,’ Danika prompted.
‘Dad and Grayson are both out tonight, leaving me alone, and I’m freaking out.’
Danika’s heart rate quickened, and her blood surged in hot, prickly waves through her veins. ‘Why? What’s going on? Should I call Brennan?’
‘No! Please don’t!’ Elise’s voice spiked, and Danika began to panic even more. ‘What I mean to say is, it’s nothing like that. I don’t need the cops, just a friend. I’m stuck in my thoughts, and I could really use some company. I… I almost rang Malik, but honestly, I don’t think a night of meaningless sex is what I need right now.’
She cringed at the thought of Malik hooking up with Elise and hoped that he would have the decency to turn Elise down now that… her train of thought halted at a roadblock. What exactly are we? It’s not like we agreed to be exclusive. She decided not to spill the beans on her own relationship with Malik. As far as Elise knew, Danika was engaged to Hayden and getting ready to live her happily ever after. Keeping Elise in the dark was the safest option—for everyone concerned. ‘That’s fair enough and totally relatable. I have plans later tonight, but I could come over, at least until Grayson gets home.’
‘That would be amazing, thank you.’
Danika typed out a quick text to Malik using the burner phone Estelle had given her: I need to catch up with Elise for a bit, so I might be late. Don’t start without me ;-).
His reply came seconds later: No worries. I wouldn’t dream of taking matters into my own hands, not when I have your tight hole to look forward to.
She spluttered at his filthy response and her cheeks blazed. After slipping into the lingerie that matched the shade of her face, she picked a matching dress from her large walk-in closet. With any luck, the short, red bodycon dress would drive Malik mad with lust, then it would end up on the floor in shreds. She threw a change of clothes into an overnight bag and tossed it in the boot of her car. The Marshall residence was only a few blocks down the street, but she would need her car for later and didn’t want to explain herself to Sterling, so she drove the short distance and got Elise to let her park in the garage of the large red-brick Federation mansion.
‘Thanks for joining me.’ Elise wrapped her in a pair of frail arms.
‘Anytime.’ She forced a smile to smooth away the worry lines.
‘I gather you have a hot date with Hayden tonight.’ Elise scanned the skimpy attire Danika wore and waggled her brows.
She laughed drily. ‘Something like that. Speaking of dates with Hayden, I’ve been meaning to ask—will you be my maid of honour?’
Elise’s eyes widened. ‘Me? Really? I figured you would have asked Taylor.’
‘Yeah, well, Tay and I haven’t been very close lately, what with her disappearing and all.’
‘You still haven’t found her?’
Heaving a dramatic sigh, she held Elise’s eyes and shook her head. ‘Afraid not.’ The ease with which lies slithered off her forked tongue scared her, and she worried that she might not recognise herself by the time she had destroyed Hayden Archer and everyone who stood in her way. Still, the sacrifice would pale in comparison to the alternative.
‘I would be honoured, Danni, but fist, I need to ask—are you sure Hayden is the right man for you? You never seem happy when you’re with him. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great guy—he even saved my life—but, do you love him?’
Danika huffed. ‘You know as well as I that there’s no room for love in our world. That shit’s reserved for fairy tales and the working class. Dad wants me to marry Hayden Archer to secure his business deals, so that’s wat I’ll do.’
Elise sighed. ‘You’re such a good daughter. I’m nothing but a disappointment to my dad.’
‘Don’t say that, Lise. Grant loves you. I’ve seen the way he dotes on you.’
Elise shrugged. ‘Maybe if I could find an eligible bachelor like Hayden to marry, rather than slumming it with Malik, he’d have reason to be proud of me.’
‘I could get Hayden to set you up with his best man,’ she suggested, hating herself for suggesting the sort of match she was trying to get out of.
‘That’s an awesome idea, thank you.’
Then again, it appears Elise is happy living in her bubble of ignorance and wealth. She is one of them.
Picking up the remote to her smart television, Elise waved it in Danika’s face. ‘I’ve been missing my stories lately. You want to watch them with me?’
‘Sure.’ After making herself a G&T and pouring a soft drink for her recovering host, she settled in beside Elise on the couch.
The sound of keys jingling, followed by the click of a latch drew Danika out of the fictional drama on the screen and back to her own. Grayson appeared seconds later, his brows lifting at the sight of her. ‘Hi Danni. I didn’t expect to see you here.’ He slipped his keys back into the pocket of his charcoal chinos.
‘I was keeping my girl company.’ She pulled Elise into a sideways hug.
‘Danni asked me to be her maid of honour,’ Elise announced in an excited burst.
She chuckled. ‘That too.’ Rising from the sofa, she let the snuggle blanket slip from her lap.
Grayson gasped at her dress, his eyes blazing as they scanned up and down her body. ‘Danni, can I please speak to you in private?’
With a nod, she followed him out to the guest house. ‘What’s up?’
‘You mean aside from the obvious?’ he rasped. As soon as the door shut behind him, he stalked toward her. ‘I can’t stay quiet about my feelings any longer, Danni. I know you have a thing going with Malik, but I’m also aware that your relationship isn’t exactly exclusive, that you’re also sleeping with Brennan. This gives me hope because I am done pretending you do not affect me.’ He placed his hands on her shoulders and pressed his lips to her ear. ‘I’m crazy about you, Danni. When the dirt settles on Hayden’s grave, I hope you will consider picking up where we left off before that arsehole waltzed back into your life.’
She gaped at him. ‘You’re willing to share with Malik?’
He nodded. ‘And Brennan, if that’s what it takes to win a slice of your heart.’
His confession floored her. Almost literally as she sank to the couch behind her. Question is—will Malik be willing to share, full stop? ‘If we all survive this and I don’t wind up as the next Mrs Archer, I will give it or us, rather, a go.’
‘That’s all I ask, my sweet princess.’ Sitting beside her, he brushed a feather light kiss across her cheek, sending a wave of goosebumps across her flesh.
‘How did your recon mission go?’ she asked, forcing a much-needed change of topic.
‘A resounding success,’ he chimed. ‘I expect I’ll have access to the vault in no time.’
‘It’s where they lock away all their blackmail material.’
Her brows launched into space. ‘That’s huge! If you got into that we could wreak a lot of havoc. Go you!’ Leaping into his lap, she threw her arms around him, forgetting for a moment how revealing her dress was.
The blush in his cheeks reminded her though, as he tried and failed to avert his eyes from her cleavage which she pressed up against his chest. A split second later, she noticed the bulge in his pants as it strained against her exposed core.
‘Danni,’ he warned. ‘I’ve been trying my hardest to be the perfect gentleman, but you’re making it very difficult for me to maintain my resolve right now.’
Biting into her bottom lip, she considered telling him where to shove his resolve. But then she remembered her plans with Malik and guilt tapped her on the shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ she whispered as she rose. ‘I need to go. Malik’s expecting me.’
‘Of course.’ His expression deflated like a balloon hours after a party has finished. Brushing himself off, he stood and followed her out.
Climbing into her car, she lowered the electric window. ‘Please keep a close eye on Elise. I’m really worried about her.’
‘Will do.’ He waved as she reversed out of the driveway.
The week had flown by amidst the staged excitement surrounding Danika’s upcoming nuptials and the cloak and daggers scheming to ensure they would not go ahead. Standing in the doorway of her childhood bedroom and holding a large suitcase in each hand, she cast her eyes over the space one last time and a wave of nostalgia washed over her. Recent events had tainted so many memories of her father, like all the nights he perched on her bed and read stories to her now looked like opportunities to manipulate her; but she also fondly recalled the times when Malik hung out with her in this room, including the moment she realised she was in love with him:
‘Malik! You have to see this!’ She ushered him over to her window the moment he entered her room. ‘Dad gave me this telescope for my birthday. It’s incredible.’
‘Isn’t your birthday another week away?’ He sauntered across the room and wrapped his large hand around the optical tube.
‘It is, but Dad couldn’t wait to give this to me.’
After holding her gaze a moment, he peered through the eyepiece and whistled. ‘That’s impressive, although I have no idea what I’m looking at.’
‘You see that long band of cloudy dust? That’s the Milky Way.’
‘Isn’t that a chocolate bar?’ he asked with eye glued to the telescope.
She giggled. ‘Do you ever stop thinking about food?’
Stepping away from the window, he stared at her. ‘Yeh actually, I do. In fact, I find myself thinking less about food and more about… other things.’
The longer he held her focus, the more her stomach fluttered. She tried to laugh it off. ‘Don’t tell me you’re actually paying attention at school now?’
He grunted. ‘Hell no! Not to the schoolwork anyway. The girls on the other hand….’
Gasping, she slapped his arm. ‘You’re such a pig!’
‘What?’ He shrugged his shoulders, drawing her attention to how broad they had grown of late. ‘It’s only natural for a boy my age. You can’t tell me you don’t ever think about sex.’
Turning bright red, she huffed. ‘Not with every boy I look at, I don’t.’
‘I never said I’m hot for every girl I look at.’ Moving in close, he pressed his lips to her ear and his voice turned to gravel, ‘Now tell me, who gets you thinking about sex?’
‘Malik!’ she screeched, pushing him back barely an inch. ‘I’m not talking about this with you.’
His brows rose. ‘Why not? We’re best friends, right?’
She nodded, unable to maintain eye contact.
‘And best friends tell each other about their crushes.’
‘I don’t have any crushes.’ She crossed her arms and he laughed.
‘I bet your diary tells a different story. Do you still hide it in your pillowcase?’
They both glanced at her bed, and she dived for it a second before he got to it. She clutched the book of secrets against her chest and glared at him. If he read what she had written about him—all the wet dreams of him she had recorded in there—she would simply die of embarrassment.
‘Well, now I must know. Will you tell me?’
She shook her head.
‘You leave me choice, Danni. I’m gonna have to tickle it out of you.’ He launched at her, and they both fell onto her bed in a mess of tangled limbs, her right hand tucking her diary beneath the small of her back. His hands tickled her waist and she writhed beneath him, laughing uncontrollably.
‘Stop, please,’ she sputtered between bursts of laughter.
‘You know the rules,’ he reminded her as his hands moved up to her armpits while his lower body pinned her to the mattress.
‘Mercy!’ she cried.
He stopped, although he did not move. Instead, he held her there, waiting expectantly for her confession, all while she became increasingly aware of the hard bulge between his legs that pressed against her core.
Her breathing laboured and her pulse thudded in her ears. That’s when it hit her. The crush she had harboured for years had evolved. The boy staring at her with eyes like molten chocolate meant the world to her. She did not just love him as a best friend, she did not just want to know what it was like to kiss his beautiful mouth, she needed to entwine her very being with his, to feel him move within every molecule of her body. ‘Malik,’ she exhaled his name.
‘Yes, Danni?’ he rasped.
A loud knock on the door startled them and Malik flew across the room faster than a shooting star falling to earth. He dropped into her desk chair as she sat up against her bedhead and straightened her skirt. Her father opened the door and waltzed in, halting at the sight of Malik panting in his seat. He shifted his gaze to Danika and his expression soured at the sight of her crumpled clothes before narrowing in on the diary that had fallen to the floor beside her bed. ‘You know the rules, Twinkle Toes. Keep the door open when boys are visiting.’
She lowered her gaze. ‘I’m sorry, Dad.’
‘Dinner’s almost ready,’ he announced in a brighter voice, lifting her out of her guilt spiral. ‘I’d invite you to join us, Malik, but we have some other guests tonight, so I am afraid we’ll have a full house.’
‘It’s no problem, sir. I was just leaving anyway.’ Pulling Danika into his embrace he whispered some parting words in her ear, ‘I’ll give you a week to come clean, after which I’m stealing your diary.’
She sighed as the memory faded back into the depths of her mind. Leaving the suitcases to stand upright on their own in the hallway, she approached the tallboy in her room and fished around inside the bottom drawer for the latch that opened the false bottom. It clicked and released the panel of plywood. She retrieved the collection of journals that sat amidst the boxes of photos and other memorabilia. This was where she had hidden her diary after Malik’s threat, knowing it was time to retire it and start a fresh journal that he would find in its place. Only, the diary in question was no longer with its counterparts. Huh, that’s strange. I specifically remember leaving it here. Have I seen it since, or—
The grandfather clock downstairs chimed out the tenth hour, jerking her back into the present. She gave her room another glance, sad to see it go, but also hoping it would be the last time she stepped foot inside. Her favourite bedspread—the navy blue one with golden constellations stitched into it—still sat atop her bed. She could have packed it along with her other previous belongings, but she did not want to risk losing them in the aftermath of her plans. She had asked her father to keep her room available for nights when she would visit with her future husband, to save them a late-night drive across the lake. He had happily agreed to her request and understood the logic of leaving a few of her things behind for such occasions. If everything went according to plan, her mother would ship everything else to Danika’s new home.
‘Are you ready?’ Stirling asked from her doorway.
Turning to face him, she nodded enthusiastically, plastering a fake grin on her face. ‘I still can’t believe this happening.’
‘Me neither,’ he admitted. ‘Still feels like yesterday when I would tuck my little girl into bed and read stories about the stars. They were always your favourites, you know? I never told you this before, but you were the reason I pursued a career in astrophysics.’
‘Really? I thought it was the other way around. I followed in my old man’s footsteps.’
He shook his head. ‘No, Twinkle Toes, you were always the one leading me down this path. Your singular obsession with the heavens was truly inspiring. I guess I have a lot to thank you for.’
She gaped at him, trying to recall what he did with his life before delving into the world of astronomy. ‘What did you do before I was born?’
He laughed. ‘Nothing as interesting, I assure you. I was a businessman. Now, let’s get your things in the car so I can drive you to your new home.’
The enormous house loomed over Danika as she alighted from Stirling’s car who handed her suitcases to a servant. She took in the architectural details, clocking the polychrome brick building as a Victorian era masterpiece.
‘Welcome to Moonlake Estate!’ Hayden announced as he emerged through a large set of double doors. ‘Your new home, Danni,’ he added as he descended a few steps from the patio to join her by a pretentious water fountain that mimicked one of the mansion’s towers. ‘My family built this place when they founded the town in 1870. It fell into disrepair in the 1ater half of the twentieth century, but I recently took it upon myself to restore the old manor and earned a claim over it as a result. This is where we will start our own family, my angel.’ Leaning in, he pecked her cheek with a chaste kiss and waited for her to return the favour.
A chill coiled around her spine at the thought of bearing Hayden Archer’s children. She forced a polite smile. ‘It is stunning.’
‘I’m so glad you approve. Wait until you see the rest of it. Greetings, Stirling.’ He shook her father’s hand before pulling him into a sideways hug.
‘Good morning, son. I look forward to catching up more later, but I will leave you to it for now. I’m sure you would prefer some time alone with your fiancé at any rate.’ Stirling patted Hayden’s shoulder before stepping back and giving Danika a parting hug.
She watched his car weave its way along the driveway until it disappeared around a bend.
‘Come on, I’ll show you to your room.’ He grabbed her hand and led her inside, giving her a moment to stand in awe of the rich brown timbers and red soft furnishings. ‘Where possible, I have restored the original interior, otherwise I have replaced broken items with original antiques that I have bought from auction houses around the world.’
‘I had no idea such a gem sat just across the lake.’
‘The estate is well hidden, I know. Perfect for the privacy we will require.’
The reality of her situation sank in like a lead weight in her gut, and she shuddered. ‘As beautiful as it is, don’t you think it’s a little large for just the two of us?’
He grinned. ‘Don’t worry, the place won’t feel empty for long. Initially, after our wedding, I intend for us to host the wildest orgies in the country. The rich and famous will flock to this remote estate for a chance to revel in a little debauchery. Then, when we both tire of that lifestyle, you and I are going to fill this house with children.’
Curious. Does that mean they will cease their business at the country club and move it here? ‘Sounds like fun. Is there any particular reason you want to wait until after our wedding?’
‘Well of course.’ He flashed his teeth. ‘I’m hardly going to let anyone else fuck you before I’ve had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with your body. Although…,’ he drew closer and traced a finger along her collarbone, ‘if you are keen to start sooner, I will happily take you to my bed as soon as you are ready.’
She shook her head. ‘I’m determined to wait for our wedding night. I may not be a virgin, but it will be fun to pretend, don’t you think.’
Pulling her flush against him, he breathed heavily against her neck. ‘I like the way you think, my fallen angel. Make sure you wear white lingerie beneath your wedding dress so I can rip it to shreds when I violate your virginity again.’ He winked at her before guiding her into an ancient elevator. ‘In the meantime, to help avoid temptation, I am giving you a room in the opposite wing to mine.’ He pulled the door closed, then cogs and gears groaned as they slowly rose five stories to the top of a tower. The doors opened to reveal a large suite full of antique furniture and modern appliances. At the centre of it all stood a king-sized four poster bed complete with a canopy of red velvet curtains. ‘It may interest you to know that this will be our room as of our wedding night. I thought you might like a chance to settle into to it beforehand.’
‘It’s lovely, thank you.’ She had a feeling that by the time she escaped this place, she would never want to see red velvet ever again.
‘I should let you get ready. Our engagement party starts in less than two hours. You should find everything you need in here. Ring the bell if you are missing anything and your maidservant will attend to you.’ He pulled her into an embrace and pressed his lips to her cheek. ‘I can’t wait to show my beautiful fiancé off to the world.’
The moment he left, she collapsed on a loveseat and took a few deep breaths. This is it. No turning back now.