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Chapter One

 

“You’ve ruined my life.” The break of the ocean waves outside of my apartment does nothing to soothe my anger. 

His head cants to the side like he doesn’t understand. Blue-gray eyes make a weak case for his behavior. I used to fall for that puppy dog look. Not anymore. 

“That’s it? You have nothing to say about ruining my life? You have nothing to say about your completely inexcusable, animalistic behavior?” 

He shifts his large frame and scratches behind his ear before returning his focus to me. 

Emotion tingles my nose as more tears fill my eyes.

“I worked so hard for this. My life was finally on track, and you’ve derailed it!” 

Satan saunters off to the patio doors, leaving his back to me thinking he can ignore me.  

“I hope you’re cursed with an eternity of anal itching, and I will make it my life’s purpose to ensure you never find anything to hump again. Do you understand me?” I hug my mangled hand to my chest. “Eternal anal itching. NO humping!” 

He paws at the door. 

“AND STOP SCRATCHING MY DOOR!” 

Swarley whines. Why? I don’t know. Nobody broke his paw today. 

Not all dogs go to Heaven, and when I murder my sister’s dog, he will not cross over any rainbow bridge. His human-hating soul will burn in Hell, but his body will live forever—with incurable anal itching. 

Swarley whines again. Apparently his need to piss his name in the sand is more important than my need to hate him for chasing that stupid cat while the leash tangled around my hand. 

I hate cats! 

And dogs. 

Dogs may be the worst. They disguise themselves as man’s best friend, but I know better. The last thing I need is one more friend with no self-control. 

Pain slices along my hand, shooting up my arm, as a cold sweat breaks out along my brow from the nausea settling into the pit of my stomach. I admit it—if only to myself—I, Avery Montgomery, am a wuss. 

I’ve cancelled clients because of an irritated hangnail. Menstrual cramps leave me bedridden for twenty-four hours. And I’m one of those patients who require nitrous oxide just to get my teeth cleaned. It’s genetic. There has to be a low pain tolerance gene. 

Inches from the door, I drop to my knees and collapse into a fetal position on my side to keep from fainting. My long, blond hair sticks to my face. My hair—how am I supposed to do my hair with one hand? Bathe? Apply makeup? Latch my Chanel necklace or Tiffany diamond bracelet?  

Dear Heavenly Father, I know my relationship with you has been a bit parasitic—my bad—and I need to get my derrière to church, but if you could find it in your unconditionally loving self to give me the strength to not pass out, I swear to never use your name in the throes of passion again. Okay … I won’t swear because I know you don’t like that since I’ve sworn on the Bible one too many times only to have broken those sacred promises, but you get my point. I’m going to do better. I feel certain this is a coming-to-Jesus moment. 

The pain! It’s so insufferable. The X-ray showed no broken bones, but I’m certain the extensive ligament damage is just as bad, if not worse. No amount of physical therapy will correct this. I’m ruined. Disabled at twenty-nine. Well, it’s been a good run.

Swarley cries. I cry. 

The remorseless Weimaraner scratches at the door. I claw at the cold tile with my good hand to get close enough to slide open the door. 

“Go!” I grunt. “Go piss on someone else’s day.” 

No leash. No supervision. Just miles of beach for digging holes. Go dig your grave, buddy.I’m ready to bury your ass.My sister cannot get upset with me for letting her dog drown or get eaten by a shark. My brutally mangled hand is his fault. I’m her sister. She’ll take my side. 

I think. 

Maybe. 

Who am I kidding? It’s highly unlikely. 

Holding my hand to my chest with the fragility of a newborn baby, I find my feet, wobble a bit, and collapse onto the kitchen stool. 

“Hey, Siri, call Anthony.” 

Siri doesn’t respond. Straining my neck, I lean toward my phone on the other side of the counter. 

“Call Anthony.” 

Nothing. 

“Dammit, Siri! Call Anthony!” 

The screen lights up. “I don’t see Dance with me Anthonyin your contacts. Shall I look for locations by that name?”

“C-ALL AN-THON-Y!”

“Okay, this is what I found on the web for colonoscopy.” 

Swarley scratches at the door. 

“For Pete’s sake, have all sharks given up red meat? Why are you still alive?” I slide open the door with my foot, grumbling. 

Swarley saunters into the living room and plops down on his designer dog bed that I bought him before we broke up. Yeah, we’ve broken up. This will be the last time I dog-sit.

 I wiggle my toes before using them to slide the door shut. I need a pedicure. The robin’s egg blue polish has a few chips in it. And it’s been two weeks—two weeks—since I’ve had one. Don’t even get me started on the gnarly callous forming on my pinky toe. 

As the whirling nausea subsides, I shuffle around the counter to my phone and call Anthony—my everything. He’s good at making money—you-could-never-spend-it-all-in-a-lifetime kind of money—and I like the challenge of trying to spend it all in one lifetime. We are a perfect fit.

 I went from a lowly massage therapist, barely scraping by each month, to managing L.A.’s newest boutique spa that Anthony funded just for me, his angel. We’ve traveled the world together via private jet, luxury cars, and fancy yachts. Marriage is next. He’s hinted to it so many times, especially when I’ve suggested moving in together. His parents are devout Catholics, and he wants to please them by “doing things the right way.” I can wait. 

“Anthony, why aren’t you answering your phone? It’s almost eight, and I’ve had the worst day of my life. I need you to send a car for me. I can’t drive.” I sniffle. “Sw-Swarley ruined my hand!” A sob breaks from my chest because I’m in pain, my sister is gone, Anthony won’t answer his phone, and I may never give another massage again. 

Swarley cocks his head at me. Maybe it’s an apology. I can’t forgive him. Not yet. At the moment, he’s nothing more than another selfish male in my life, reacting on impulse with no consideration for my feelings. 

Except Anthony. He cares. 

It took many failed relationships, cheating asshats, and broken hearts to finally find a man who really cares about me. I think it’s because he’s older and more mature. He comes from a strong family. And I’m young, beautiful, and fertile—his words, not mine. Although, I didn’t argue with him. 

We’re going to have three kids, a Teacup Poodle that doesn’t need to be walked on a leash, a tummy tuck and boob job after our last child, and I’m going to be the center of my family’s world. 

After an hour with no callback and no driver buzzing my door, I kick Swarley out to the sharks again, but he comes back unscathed. I dump some food into his bowl just before heading out to catch an Uber. Maybe my neighbor,Ronnie, will let him out later if I offer a free— No … Son of a biscuit! I can’t offer a chair massage. Swarley robbed every bit of bartering power I have. 

A half hour later, I arrive at Anthony’s sprawling estate—the castle where one day I will be his queen. The driver pulls forward so I can enter the code to open the security gate. I wonder if I will ever stop having these pinch-me moments that this is my life. Swarley’s run-in with the cat probably ruined my chances of ever giving someone a good massage again. I will miss some of my favorite clients, but taking care of the day-to-day tasks around here will be a full-time job. 

“Anthony?” My voice echoes across the cathedral ceiling as I shut the front door. The grand marble entry gives way to an even grander split staircase. 

“Miss Montgomery.” Kim, Anthony’s full-time cook, greets me in the foyer, curling a strand of shoulder-length black hair behind her ear. I envy her perfectly straight hair, flawless Asian skin, and shy demeanor. 

Her presence calms me. I hope when I move in here, Anthony keeps her here to cook for our family. 

She frowns as her gaze affixes to my wrapped hand hugged to my chest. “Oh, dear …” 

“My sister’s dog chased a cat on our walk. He didn’t seem to care that the leash was wrapped around my hand. Supposedly, it’s not broken, but I wonder if they read the X-ray wrong. It’s the worst pain imaginable.” 

Kim grimaces. “I’m so sorry.” 

“Thank you. Me too. Where’s Anthony? I tried calling him.” 

“He’s in his office.” 

“Thanks.” I take a few steps toward his office and turn back to Kim. “You’re here late.” 

“Mr. Bianchi requested I make some meals and freeze them since I will be on vacation next week.” 

“Oh. Lovely. Where are you going?” 

Kim’s expression morphs into something between nervous and scared. “Um …” 

I shake my head. “Sorry. It’s none of my business. I hope you have a nice trip. We’ll probably eat out most of the time.” I gesture to my hand. “Clearly I won’t be doing any cooking.” 

A constipated smile settles onto Kim’s face as her head dips into a cautious nod. 

I knock twice on Anthony’s office door. 

“Come in.” 

I ease open the solid cherry door.

“There’s my angel.” Anthony shuts his laptop and leans back in his leather chair behind the presidential-looking desk. 

He’s twenty years my senior, but at forty-nine he’s the sexiest silver fox I’ve ever seen. Okay, maybe the second sexiest silver fox I’ve ever seen. I once dated a guy in his early fifties who looked like the Pretty Woman version of Richard Gere—but with straight teeth and more muscle definition. He died unexpectedly during a routine procedure to repair a hernia. I wasn’t in his will. Apparently, three months of deep-throating isn’t enough to get as much as a pair of diamond and white gold cufflinks. Lesson learned. 

Anthony has an odd-shaped nose, like a three-year-old’s first attempt at molding putty, and it’s a bit too big for his face. He tastes of thick, molten whisky and the clashing flavor of spicy, full-bodied, hand-rolled Cuban cigars. I used to be more of a minty mouthwash kind of girl, but I’ve grown accustomed to his particular taste. Money. 

Anthony Bianchi Jr. tastes like money, and he treats me like a queen. 

I’ve tried the sweet nice-guy route—the jock, the teacher, the aspiring actor, the musician. I’ve tried the bad-boy route—the tattoo artist, the wannabe rock star, the guy who always carried a gun but couldn’t tell me why. They are all cheaters with no direction and clueless when it comes to knowing how to treat a woman. 

“Angel, what happened to your hand?” He stands and closes the distance between us. 

“Don’t touch it!” I cringe, angling my body away from him. 

“I’m not. What happened?” 

“Swarley happened. Where have you been?” I shoot him a teary-eyed look. “I called. You never answered. You didn’t respond. Ingrid took me to the hospital.” 

“Ingrid?” 

My head juts forward. “Yes. Ingrid.”

No light turns on. He has no clue whom I’m talking about. “You hired her as my personal stylist last year.” 

“Oh …” He nods. 

He still has no clue. 

“Why didn’t you call your sister?” 

“Hello?” I scoff. “Where have you been? My sister is on vacation. I’m dog-sitting Swarley for her. Do you not listen to anything I say?” 

He rests his hands on my shoulders and kisses my cheek. “Of course I do, angel. I’ve just been very busy lately. I’m sorry I missed your call. I thought you were going out with your friends tonight.” 

Okay, so he kinda listens to me. “I was, but Swarley chased a stupid cat, and my hand may never be the same. I can’t go out with friends. I can’t see clients. I’m useless at the moment.” A lone tear trails down my cheek. 

His phone buzzes. He glances at the screen. “I have to take this. It’s business. Give me a few minutes, and you’ll have my undivided attention.” 

I nod, wiping the tear I thought he’d wipe away with the tender pad of his thumb or kiss away with those full ruddy lips. Never mind. I got it. He can catch the next one. 

After he slips out of his office to take the call, I collapse into his desk chair, relishing the buttery leather that molds to every curve. I bet it cost more than my first car. 

My phone chimes. It’s my niece, Ocean, FaceTiming me. In spite of my horrible day, I grin. When I swipe to accept the call, the screen goes black. My battery is dead. Of course it is—par for my day.

Anthony’s laptop is a Mac, so I flip up the lid to use his FaceTime to call her back. I click to shut out of the window he has open, but it doesn’t close; it plays instead. It’s a video. 

My body goes rigid for a split second before collapsing in on itself. The weight of utter shock and disbelief drags me to the depths of Hell like an anchor off the side of a boat. That abused organ behind my ribs slows from the sludge of anger crawling through my veins. The only part of me that moves is the cold sweat beading along my skin and the bob of my throat as I try to swallow the truth. 

The truth? 

Anthony stuck his slightly bent dick into Kim, and he recorded it. 

My head eases to one side and then the other. Yep. Any way you look at it, they are going at it in the kitchen. How appropriate. We first had sex on my massage table. He was a client of mine. Not my usual MO. I guess Anthony Crooked Dick Bianchi likes to see how women perform in their element. 

He pulls out of her, swipes his finger through a bowl of chocolate mousse, and … no no no … he smears it between her legs as she arches her back off the white granite counter top. What a waste of chocolate mousse. Anthony doesn’t even like chocolate—

Gasp!

Bile seeps up my throat.

Liar!

Clearly, he likes chocolate mousse. He’s eating itas if he’s starving and it’s the last food on earth. 

Why am I watching this? I know how it ends, yet I can’t look away. Even worse, my finger inches to the volume button. I tap it once, twice, three times until his moans fill the room, accompanied by Kim chanting, “Tony, Tony, Tony…” Wait a damn minute. He told me his name is Anthony like Saint Anthony. Period. Not Tony. No nickname. 

“Avery?” 

My head snaps up. I don’t shut the computer. I don’t mute the volume. 

Tony’sjaw ticks, eyes wide and flitting between me and the computer. 

“Spread them wider, my little angel.”

He grimaces at his recorded voice full of lust, and my eyebrows shoot up. Well, I wasraised to believe there is only one God, but many angels. Kim’s skin is beautiful, some might say angelic. Moans and the intermittent slurping of Saint Anthony enjoying his mousse keep us both entranced. Who will speak first? 

Me. I’ll go first. 

“So you do like chocolate, Tony.”

“Avery.” Anger purses his lips as he takes three long strides forward, slapping the laptop shut. 

I can’t even … Nope. My world is gone. Swarley is off the hook. I can’t even feel the pain in my hand at the moment. I can’t feel anything. Disbelief is a long-lasting shot of anesthetic. 

“Why were you snooping on my computer?”

I choke on a laugh as it attempts to break free. “Why were you sticking your bent dick in Kim? And why is there a video of it?”

He gnashes his teeth some more. “I’m sorry. We can fix this.” He tugs at his tie like it’s strangling him. If only …

If disbelief is an anesthetic, then shock is an adhesive that temporarily holds everything together. I can’t find a single tear. I can’t even find appropriate words to say or muster the energy to scream at him. It’s as if I’m on the outside looking in objectively. 

“I’ll bite. How would we fix this? I mean…” I shake my head and shrug “…had you just asked, I would have let you do that to me.” 

“Jesus, Avery …” 

“No. Don’t say that. I know a lot about Jesus and you should too, Saint Anthony. I’m certain he wants nothing to do with this conversation.” 

I lean back in the chair, cradling my hand. Anthony bends forward, resting his fists on the opposite side of the desk. “My parents like you. I like you. We could be such a great team.” 

“A team?” 

“You like the lifestyle, Avery. Don’t pretend you don’t. You’ll get everything you could ever possibly want—kids, mansions, cars, yachts, jets, a closet bigger than your entire apartment filled with the most expensive clothes …” 

“And what do you get?” 

“My angel.” A satisfied grin slides across his face. 

“Which one?” I cock my head to the side. 

His lips twist, eyes narrowed. “All of them.” 

Them. Them! THEM!?!

My jaw plummets to my lap. 

“But you will always be my favorite—the chosen one. My wife. Mother of my children. Queen of my empire.” 

This is the part where I should break something like his computer or his toddler-sculpted nose. 

I don’t. 

As livid as I am with this stranger before me, this man who fooled me for two years, I’m more upset with myself because for a few brief, totally insane seconds I think about his offer. When did I surrender my pride, my sense of self-worth? Who broke me to the point that I don’t feel worthy of the one thing he’s not offering me? 

If I walk out that door, who will I be? What if something better never comes along? I’m knocking on thirty’s door while mastering the art of failed relationships. If in ten years I have nothing more than a two-bedroom apartment, arthritic hands, and a measly disability check, will I regret saying no to a family and everything money can buy? 

“I just want the spa. We go our separate ways, but you sign over the spa to me.” 

“Avery.” He shakes his head while clucking his tongue. “I haven’t acquired this level of wealth and success by handing out million-dollar businesses to every woman who rolls through my bed.”

“It’s my spa.” 

The smirk on his face stings. I already know what he’s going to say. I let myself become dependent on a man—again. My whole damn life at the moment is a lease. 

My job. 

My car. 

My apartment. 

The clothes. 

The credit cards he lent me. 

Anthony pushes off the desk and slips his hands into the front pockets of his tailored pants. “I can’t give you the spa. I’ll shut it down. It’s not that profitable. I’ll need both credit cards back. Your rent is paid through the end of the month, but then you’re on your own. I’ll need the car back. Better hope your old one starts. The rest of the stuff is yours. I’d suggest selling it to make ends meet.” 

I peel myself from the chair. When we’re face to face, I let my emotions break freely. “You said you loved me.” I sniffle as tears race down my cheeks. 

“I do. I love you for you. I love you in spite of your selfish needs. Why can’t you love me in spite of mine?” 

Unbelievable. 

I’m out of here. 

I’m done with men. 

Done. 

Done. 

DONE!