Chapter One Brody

Seventeen years earlier

Friction crackles in the air as we line up for the next play. Tension coils in my body like a spring, ready to unleash on the opposing offense. That fucker, Lucas Rosas, smiles at me, this smug shit-eating grin that I would be happy to wipe right off his face. I’m on edge tonight. Something’s got to give. The Raiders need this win.

Hamilton, our quarterback, calls the play. My focus is razor-sharp; it has to be as linebacker.

“Hey, Alexander! Heard your old man was caught fucking some skank that wasn’t your ma. What are you going to do about it?” Lucas calls just as the ball’s about to be released.

I freeze, fists clenched at my sides, as the words echo in my ears. What the fuck is he talking about?

Parker glares at him. “Keep your fucking mouth shut if you know what’s good for you,” he snarls with intensity in his eyes.

With a roar, I surge forward, barreling into Lucas with the force of a freight train. The impact sends us both crashing to the turf, a tangled mess of limbs and rage. Parker’s right behind me, defending me as one of the other guys jumps in.

The whistle’s blown, and we’re dragged off each other. Adrenaline courses through my veins. My father’s done it again. He fucking promised me last time was the one and only, but I always knew he was fucking lying. He won’t get away with it this time.


That night changed my life forever. Not because we went on to win the local derby and showed the Bluewater Beach Eels they couldn’t mess with us and get away with it, but because of the chain of events it kicked off. And as I sit here and listen to my father’s last testament being read, I feel just as angry as I did that night. How dare my father destroy our family. All because he couldn’t keep his cock in his motherfucking pants.

My head throbs, the aftereffects of drinking until the early hours of the morning with Parker Whittaker and Elliot McAllister, two of my brothers from the team. Back when we were seventeen, that football team was our world, the boys in it our brothers for life. Except it didn’t work out that way in the end. I haven’t seen either of them for years. The ache in my cheek is a reminder of how fucked up things got between all of us back then. Getting into a fight with the Prescott brothers at McAllister’s is yet another reason why I shouldn’t come back to this town. Hamilton holds me responsible for what happened.

I clutch my sister’s hand under the table, not sure how to help her through this. She loved our father, but she doesn’t know the truth. She was too young when it all went down.

Lana Alexander, my father’s new wife, has been granted control of the Alexander estate. She grins greedily, but she can have it. I don’t want anything that reminds me of him or what he did to our mother.

“‘The Alexander Hotel will be left in the capable hands of my son, Brody Alexander, and he will assume the position of CEO,’” our family lawyer, Wade Monroe, reads, and my skin prickles. “‘Under the proviso that in twelve months, he will turn the business around. If he fails, control may be transferred to Lana Alexander, making her the CEO. Victor will oversee operations as the general manager during this interim period, guiding him through the day-to-day.’”

My jaw clenches, the swelling from the shiner and busted-up cheek throbbing, a reminder of why I can’t stay in Deception Bay. I have enemies here. The Prescotts top that list.

Lana gasps.

This is my worst nightmare. Part of me thought he would leave it all to the tramp who managed to lock him down. Or to Victor, his right-hand man for so many years. Or even my sister who has been helping run the place since she graduated high school. I don’t deserve it or want it.

As Emerson squeezes my hand, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s pushing me to defend our family legacy. This is important to her. I know it is.

“‘Emerson, my beloved daughter,’” the lawyer continues, “‘as part of my bequest, you inherit the two downtown houses and the responsibility for the wedding-and-events side of the business under Brody’s direction. Collaborate effectively with your brother, contribute your unique skills, and grow our family legacy. Make me proud.’”

Lana snorts, sounding like the pig she is. Disgusting.

Emerson casts a quick glance in my direction. I can’t offer the answers she’s searching for. Perspiration trickles along my spine. I came home for the funeral like she wanted. I did it all for her. But I can’t stay here. This town will suck the life right out of me.

Victor assesses me with a subtle twitch of his left eye. He didn’t expect The Alexander to be left to me either. Working by Victor’s side seems impossible. He might have been my father’s constant, but I don’t trust him for a second.

As Mr. Monroe concludes the proceedings, Lana and Victor exit the room. I stare at the wall in front. I have a job, one I enjoy. I have a life back in New York, and that’s where I want to stay.

Emerson tugs my hand, and I realize Mr. Monroe is motioning us over.

“There is another stipulation in the contract your father insisted upon. ‘Employee Relationships: No managers are to engage in any romantic or personal relationships with employees under their direct employ of The Alexander Hotel during the term of this Agreement,’” he states, and I exchange a puzzled glance with my sister. “‘In the event that management is in a pre-existing romantic relationship with a current employee, they shall promptly disclose such a relationship to the CEO in writing. The current hotel board of directors reserves the right to assess and address any potential conflicts of interest arising from such relationships and, if deemed necessary, the board of directors may be required to take appropriate actions, including but not limited to reassignment or termination of the employment contract. If this stipulation is not met, the hotel will revert ownership to Lana Alexander.’”

The fucking nerve of him. After what he was doing in that place. I nod, not giving away what I know to my sister. “I understand,” I agree. I don’t look at Emerson. I don’t want her to see what I’m keeping from her.

“A bit of advice from me: keep your eyes open, both of you. Your father altered the stipulations of his will the week before his heart attack. He didn’t appear his usual self—something had him on edge. I sensed he was worried someone close might be plotting against him. I urged him to report it to the police, but he declined, fearing he’d be dismissed as paranoid. It was all based on a hunch; from what he told me he had no concrete evidence to go off, but something was scaring him.” Mr. Monroe hands each of us an envelope, bearing our names handwritten on the front.

“What did the autopsy reveal?” Emerson asks.

Mr. Monroe lowers his head sadly. “They didn’t conduct one.”

That brings me out of my daze. “Why?” I demand. If he’d been threatened, why wouldn’t his death be seen as suspicious?

“That, I don’t know. But if it were my father, I’d be seeking answers.”

As we leave Mr. Monroe’s office, I wrap an arm around my sister. I know what I have to do. Stop being so fucking selfish. Seventeen years ago, I left, got the fuck out of this town, but now I have to come back for her. Save the business our father is sending into ruin so she has the legacy she deserves. I need to make up for his mistake. Whether it’s what I want or not.

Chapter Two Giselle

“I have the perfect role for you.” My father’s words from dinner last night play on repeat as Moreen, my makeup artist, paints the final stages of my makeup on to my face.

She chats away happily about the latest dramas with her boyfriend. I smile and nod along, trying to focus on her words, but I’m not really here. “The script has just been finalized for a show I’ve been working on for years. This is hush-hush, we haven’t even hired the creative team yet,” my father had said.

I see that determined look in his eyes, the one I know means business. I’m going to have no choice but to take whatever this role is. Just like I had no choice but to take acting, dancing, and singing classes from the age of four so I could be molded into his perfect protégé.

I take after my mother, the great Susan Kelley. She was transcendent, the best actress this city has ever seen. She and my father met when he was producing one of her shows, and they had an illicit affair that resulted in me. My mother was never quite the same after having me. She didn’t want the leading roles anymore. She wanted to be at home with her baby, but my father was relentless—until he realized he could turn his attention to me. My mother gladly faded into the background while I took center stage. It would be most little girls’ dreams come true, but it was never mine.

“You’re all done.” Moreen grins, checking out her handiwork. “You look more like your mother every day. But I guess you must hear that a lot around here,” she says while packing away her makeup case.

I glance at my mother’s photo on the wall beside me. She had a grace about her, a star quality that made everyone adore her. Long golden hair and piercing blue eyes. When she took the stage, the audience gushed in awe of her magnitude. I’ve heard the stories.

“Thank you,” I say, forcing a smile to my lips. I can play pretend; it’s what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.

“Break a leg tonight, sweetie. I’ll catch you at the afterparty.”

I offer a wave, my body running on autopilot. Before she shuts the door, our company choreographer and my best friend Cassie waltzes in, carrying an enormous glass vase of roses. Sickness fills my stomach. “Where do you want these?” Cassie asks cheerily.

With a shaky hand, I motion to the dressing table.

She places them down then moves in front of me, leaning against the dressing table as she hands me the card from the bouquet.

Last night as Satine. Perform your heart out, precious, make me proud. Next show, we will be working together. Dad

My heart pounds in my ears as the words on the card blur. For the last twenty-three years I have been who my father wanted me to be. Performed for him on cue. And I’m miserable. I don’t know who I am or who I want to be. All I know is if I have to take the stage again and pretend to be someone I’m not, I’m going to completely freak out. I stand in a rush, trying to stop the swirling thoughts now taking over.

“Gigi, are you okay?” Cassie’s hand comes to my shoulder as I pace back and forth.

“No,” I mutter, feeling like all the air has been sucked from my lungs, the corset of my costume tightening impossibly around my middle. “Get this thing off me,” I whisper, feeling like I’m going to pass out.

Her worried eyes meet mine. “You’re about to take the stage.”

“I can’t breathe, Cassie,” I cry. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I have worn this costume for months, and I’ve never had an issue before.

“Here, I’ll loosen it for you.” She comes around behind me, struggling with the ties of the bodice, eventually loosening it.

Leaning over, I place my hands on my knees, attempting to inhale deeply. I can’t do this. It’s impossible for me to go back out there and pretend to be Gigi Kelley, the leading lady, when all I really want to do is run like hell in the opposite direction.

Her hand comes to my back. “In for three, out for three.” She rubs my back as I try to calm my breathing.

My head spins, and I take hold of the wall in front of me.

“I think you’re having a panic attack.” Cassie coaches me through it, helping me get my breathing under control. “You’re okay, Gigi, you’re safe here with me,” she tells me in a calming tone.

Eventually the fog clears, and I can see my shaky hands in front of me. I straighten up, my breathing more normal.

She takes my arms. “Is this about what happened last week with Dallas? Because fuck that jerk. After tonight you never have to see him again.”

“It’s not. I don’t care about Dallas. That whole thing was a mistake I would like to forget.”

“Understandable. My offer to fill his dressing room with scorpions still stands. Or maybe tarantulas? What do you think would cause a more painful death?”

“You’re so morbid.” I laugh at my friend, loving her for trying to protect me from my last mammoth dating mistake. Who also happens to be my co-star.

“Five minutes,” comes the announcer over the speaker system.

It causes my heart to go into overdrive again. I take a deep breath and glance back at my friend for courage.

“Break a leg.” She smiles.

“You’re still joining me at the bar after the show, right?”

“Would I miss the chance to party with my bestie? Don’t think so.” She beams. She wraps her arms around me, giving me a squeeze, careful not to get too close so she doesn’t mess up my makeup or costume. “Let me fix this dress up,” she says, adjusting the ties on my costume. “Get out there and have fun tonight, give them a performance to talk about forever.” She turns me and pushes me toward the door like she thinks I might just run away now.

“Right.” Nervous butterflies dance in my stomach. I’m not sure if I have it in me tonight. I open the door to my changing room, lifting my posture, shoulders back and head held high. I try to shake off the tremble in my hands, knowing my father has a front-row seat. I just need to block him out. Block them all out, the entire audience, so I can make it through one more night.

Cassie motions for me to get a move on, knowing I’m running out of time. “See you after the show,” she calls as I disappear down the hall and take on my character. Tonight, I’m playing Satine, the sparkling diamond of the Moulin Rouge. I can do this.


Three hours later I’m dressed in a hot-pink cocktail dress with a V-neck and a hemline so short you can almost see my panties. It’s layered with sparkly beading that makes it look like rows of tassels. Strappy gold heels complete the look. Cassie has on a gold mini dress that shimmers all over and looks amazing with her auburn hair.

Our company has taken over the private function room of The Star, a club just up the road from our theater, and the directors have ordered champagne for all to celebrate the success of our show. Closing night is normally bittersweet, knowing the crew that have become like family are all going to move on with their lives, off to something new. But tonight, I just want out. I’m standing with down at the far end of the room, trying to avoid the drama with the rest of the crew, sipping my champagne.

“Do you ever feel like you’re not living the life you were born to?” I utter, almost breathless. I still don’t feel right after what happened to me in my dressing room earlier. It’s the strangest feeling, like I’m ill, but I know I’m not.

“Not anymore. But sure, there was a time when I didn’t feel right in my own skin because I wasn’t doing what I wanted with my life.” She looks at me with concern in her eyes. “What’s wrong, you don’t enjoy being the company’s superstar?”

I’ve never admitted my real feelings out loud, too afraid of how others would react, or maybe I’m just scared that once I say the words swirling around in my head, they will become real, and I won’t be able to pretend that I’m happy with this life anymore.

I swallow hard, trying to work out my thoughts, knowing how crazy this is going to sound to her. Cassie didn’t have my luck, and she went through hell to land her dream job here. I feel selfish saying what I’m thinking out loud to her, but I don’t have anyone else I can confide in, and this feeling is starting to eat away at me. I need to talk to someone. “I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a superstar. Fame and the limelight were never important to me. I just wanted to be a regular kid. This is my father’s dream for me.”

“I’m sorry, Gigi, I had no idea the inner turmoil you were going through. You always seemed so content, I just assumed you were.” Since she arrived in New York a year ago, she has been an absolute lifesaver to me. But until now, I couldn’t really show her who I was, not who I really am.

“I’m good at putting a smile on my face and acting like everything is peachy. I’ve been doing it for as long as I could talk. I thought I could keep pretending and eventually I would fit into this life like I was born to. But that empty feeling I have in the pit of my stomach is getting worse. And tonight, it’s actually starting to choke the breath right out of me. I want to run away and never look back,” I admit, surprising even myself at how determined I sound.

She assesses me like I might have just lost my mind. And maybe I have, but even saying the words makes them so much truer, and I know I can’t stay here and keep pretending. “Well, I’m going to miss you like crazy, but I think you already know what you need to do. You’re done with this show. What better time to seek out a change?”

I stare back at her, letting her words really sink in. Seek out a change. “You really think I could?” Suddenly I feel like a weight has been lifted off my chest. “My father would kill me.”

She takes hold of my shoulders, looking me right in the eye. Cassie is one of those striking girls you can’t believe are real when you first meet them. She has piercing green eyes that contain wisdom beyond her years. They meet mine, and I feel the power behind her intense expression. “If your body is telling you something’s not right, you need to listen. What I saw in that dressing room tonight wasn’t a girl who was happy with her life. That was a panic attack. I know because I used to get them. Take a season off, travel, or just go someplace different and try something completely new and see how it fits. As much as you love your dad, this isn’t about him.”

She obviously doesn’t know my dad all that well. Everything is about him. If I leave, he will take it personally. But she’s right, I’m a big girl. I think it’s finally time I stood up to him. I bite my lip, unable to stop the genuine smile that’s trying to escape at the idea of all of this. The idea that the possibilities for my life could be completely endless. Could I really do it? Walk away from my safety net and the life I have always known and try something different?

Dallas walks past us with two of the core dance crew, his arm draped over both of them, lapping up the attention he gets for being a straight male in this industry. His gaze drops down my body, and he winks at me like the pig he is. I cringe and quickly move my line of sight back to Cassie. I’m not going to show him how much he gets to me anymore, he’s not worth it.

Now that the show is finished, I don’t have to pretend to tolerate Dallas anymore. It’s my own fault really, I should have known better than to ever get involved with him in the first place. Workplace relationships are never a good idea, and even Cassie warned me he was a major player. I should have listened to her; I would have saved myself a lot of trouble. But with all the rehearsal time we spent together, he won me over with his charm, and naively, I thought he would change for me because I was worth it. But last week, when I walked into his changeroom to find him with Etta O’Donnell, I knew just how wrong I was. I’m sure it was her way of getting back at me for landing the role she expected to get; she has been nasty to me since the cast list was posted. But I honestly never expected to find her on her knees sucking his cock. The worst part was he didn’t even stop when he noticed me. Instead, he grabbed the back of her head and smirked at me as he filled her mouth with his release. Disgusting. That was it for me. I stormed from the room and have only spoken to him in character on the stage since.

Cassie looks at me a little more seriously; she must have seen the wink. “You’re not leaving because of Dallas, are you?” she asks, her voice full of concern, and I see the pity in her features.

My heart sinks, hoping she’s not right. “No. But honestly, could I really do another show with him as the male lead and me as the female? There’s no way, Cassie. This company—actually, scrap that, this city isn’t big enough for the two of us,” I whisper.

“It’s New York! It couldn’t get any bigger.” She laughs. “He’s an immature pig, Gigi, don’t let him get to you.” She glares daggers in his direction, and I know if I had let her, she would have gone postal on him, but I’m a lover, not a fighter. I prefer to just walk away from bad situations and carry on with my life. He knows what he did, and I’m sure karma will sort him out eventually.

One of the other company members, Sarah, tops up our drinks. “You were amazing tonight, Gigi,” she gushes.

“Thanks, sweetie.” I smile at her. She’s a talented girl a few years younger than me and will make an exceptional lead herself if she keeps up the hard work. It does make me feel like a jerk for even contemplating leaving all this, but I have been performing on stages like this one since I was twelve and I had my first big role in Annie. I can’t do it forever when my heart’s not in it.

Cassie picks up her flute, taking a sip, then places it back on the table, looking me over as if trying to read my mind.

“Gisele, can I see you for a moment?” My father’s voice booms from behind us, and I jump. He might be my father, but he runs our house with military precision, and he scares the shit out of me most of the time.

Cassie’s eyes meet mine. She drops her head closer. “Now’s as good a time as any. Be strong and tell him what you want,” she encourages me. I wish I had her courage.

I turn to face my father with a smile. “Of course.”

He links his arm with mine and walks me away from the others into the main bar.

“How did you enjoy the show?” I ask, trying to keep my voice light, even though my stomach is tied up in knots.

Examining me closely, his forehead wrinkles deepen. “Are you ill?”

“No,” I reply, confused.

“What was wrong with you then? That wasn’t the Gigi Kelley I know.” He glares at me, and I feel like I’m five years old again, messing up my dance recital.

I can see the frustration on his face, he’s clearly annoyed. This isn’t a friendly chat. A parent encouraging their child. It’s now or never, Gisele. “I… I need a break…”

He cuts me off, “Excuses, Gisele. You have one bad performance, and you want to start with the excuses instead of owning it. I won’t be able to offer you this new role with an attitude like that.”

I look at him, not feeling any disappointment about missing out on the role. “Okay, maybe that’s for the best,” I whisper, wishing I had some of ’s strength right now.

He stares back at me blankly before his face reddens. “It’s not for the best. This role is perfect for you, and you will audition and land the role.” His demand resonates over the music, causing a few onlookers to stop and stare.

“You’re making a scene,” I say quietly.

“You have three months to refocus and get your shit together and be ready for my show. Don’t disappoint me,” he bellows before storming off in a rage.

I watch him leave, shoving his way through the crowded room. He’s furious, probably angrier than I have ever seen him before. Part of me understands he’s put a lot into building my career—dance, acting, and singing lessons—but never once did he ask me what I wanted. For the first time in my life, I see him for who he really is—a bully. And I let him get away with it because I wanted to keep the peace and make him happy. But I’m not living for anyone else anymore. Not when it’s making me ill.

Cassie walks toward me quickly, shoving a champagne flute in my direction. “You look like you need this.”

I take the drink and throw it back, wishing it could solve all my problems.

“Are you okay? That looked rough.”

“What could he do if I just ran away? I’m twenty-three, it’s time to move out of my parents’ place anyway.”

Cassie picks up her flute, taking a sip. “Now you’re talking.” She laughs, mischief in her eyes. “Where are you going to go?”

“I don’t know. Honestly, until I told you all this tonight, I never really let myself think about what else I could do.” I think on it a bit longer as I sip my drink. What do I want? “Somewhere no one knows my name or anything about who my parents are. I want to go in there with a totally clean slate so I can work out who I even am and what I want for my life.”

Cassie nods, agreeing with me. “Okay, maybe the opposite to what you have done your whole life.”

“Now you’re talking,” I say a little more enthusiastically, starting to work out a plan. If I’m halfway across the country, he can hardly demand I return to perform in his show when it’s ready. As I think on it, my attention is captured by a ruggedly handsome man sitting in one of the booths. He tilts his head, his lips turning up at the side as he studies me.

“You should go there,” Cassie says, bringing my attention back to her.

“Where?” I ask, thinking she might have found somewhere for me to disappear to.

“Over to the hot dude checking you out. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice, because I can see the color of your cheeks, and I know you did.” She smirks, a gleam in her eyes.

I can feel the heat coming from my face, so I know she’s right. He’s very nice-looking, a little older than me, with dark hair, a full beard, and a warmth in his eyes that makes my insides dance. His suit is tailored, and his glass looks like it contains something like whiskey or bourbon. Yum, to both the drink and the man.

I glance back at him, but his attention has returned to the man he’s sitting with. “You know I can’t do that,” I squeak. “I think we should dance.” I grab Cassie’s hand and drag her to the dance floor with me. Dancing I can do no problem. Talking to a sexy stranger, I can’t. We join some of the other girls from the show who are already dancing to “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus. I love this song, and I let my mind go blank as my body moves to the beat.

Chapter Three Brody 

I throw back the remainder of my bourbon as I open the article my buddy Parker sent me, reading the words for the third time in an hour. I clutch my phone in my hand with white-knuckle force.

On the front page is a picture of my late father. Shadows of Deceit Unveiled: The Scandalous Secrets of The Alexander’s Late Owner. I can feel the anger coursing through my veins at the title alone. Fucking Hamilton Prescott. I should have knocked out his front teeth when I had the chance. I keep reading.

Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Late Owner’s Sordid Affairs.

In a shocking revelation that has sent tremors through the tight-knit community of Deception Bay, The Alexander, a once-respected hotel, now stands at the epicenter of scandal.

Recent investigations into the life of the late owner have shattered the picturesque façade of The Alexander, revealing a web of betrayal, deceit, and heartbreak. It has been discovered that the once-celebrated hotelier engaged in illicit affairs with members of his own staff that lasted many years.

My body is tight with anger. The week I inherit my family’s hotel and it becomes my responsibility, this fucking bullshit has to surface. It couldn’t have happened while my father was alive to clean up the mess he made. While he was here to face the fucking music and answer the questions of our townspeople—because there will be questions, a fucking shitload of them. Nope. It’s me and my little sister Emerson who will have to clean up his mess.

The shockwaves extend further, with the revelation that the late owner’s wife met a tragic end 17 years ago in a car accident, allegedly caused by his suspected infidelities. The circumstances of the accident are now under renewed scrutiny as whispers of foul play and secret affairs emerge from the shadows.

As the scandal unfolds, Deception Bay grapples with the aftermath of a shattered reputation and the revelation of secrets that were meticulously concealed for years. The Alexander, once a symbol of hospitality and charm, now stands as a haunting reminder of the complex and dark realities hidden behind its elegant façade.

The community is left to wonder what other secrets may be buried beneath the surface, and how the aftermath of this scandal will shape the future of The Alexander and the town itself.

Sweet Tea Scandals, Annabelle Grace Turner

For three generations Alexanders have poured everything they have into making our hotel what it is today. Now, because of my father, it’s in complete disarray. I should have known, as soon as he could, fucking Hamilton Prescott would slander my family’s name and share our secrets with the world. Secrets my father thought he was taking to the grave. But I knew. And so did all my closest buddies at the time.

Elliot McAllister, Parker Whittaker, Noah Harrington, and Hamilton Prescott. All part of the Raider brotherhood, or so the town named us. We were the first team to beat the Bluewater Beach Eels, our biggest rivals. We became celebrated heroes for doing what generations before us couldn’t. There was a time when those boys and that team were my life. We knew the ins and outs of each other’s lives, the good, the bad, and the fucked-up shit we were all going through. They were all there when I saw my father with one of his mistresses. As a teenage boy, the revelation devastated me. As an adult, reading the words printed in a local paper makes me homicidal.

It’s unbelievable that someone I once saw as a lifelong friend would do this to me, especially considering that I am now in charge of The Alexander and that this directly impacts me. The accident severed communication between Prescott and me, and we haven’t talked since. I knew he hated me, blamed me even, but to use his new appointment as CEO of Prescott Media against me is low, even for him.

I should reach out to my sister, it’s what a decent brother would do. I stare at my phone, contemplating how. Our relationship is strained, and I know that’s on me. But she doesn’t know what I did over the years to protect her, and keeping this from her was a part of that. Instead, I type out a message to her, not knowing how to support her.

BRODY: We can talk about the article when I’m back. If you need to.

I hit send. I wouldn’t even know the truth myself except our father eventually couldn’t stand the guilt eating away at him and confessed it all to me. I know I’m an asshole for not telling her how sorry I am or for asking how she is, or for not calling her to check in, but I’m shit at this stuff. I have spent most of my adult life avoiding ever getting too close to anyone so I don’t have to deal with the emotions of it all. And my little sister has a lot of emotions about everything. It’s not her fault she grew up practically an only child with me leaving home at seventeen after our mother died. She was just a child, merely seven years of age. We were completely different. We never truly had a chance of knowing each other. Now, it’s my responsibility to return home and support her through this difficult situation.

Tomorrow, life as I know it ends. In the morning, I board a flight from New York to Savannah, then on to Deception Bay to take the CEO position at my family hotel for one reason only—I owe it to my sister.

As I wait for my uncle to return from the bar, I let my eyes roam around the establishment where we rendezvous every Friday night for post-work drinks. This city has cradled me for fifteen years. How am I supposed to say farewell to a life that’s been my refuge? Without Emerson, I’d have dismantled the business, sold it piece by piece, just the way my uncle trained me. But it means the world to her, and I can’t shatter her heart. She deserves better. It’s not her fault our father was a philandering adulterer. Or that our mama died when she was so young.

My uncle takes a seat across from me, sliding a fresh tumbler of bourbon into my hands. “I always knew this time would come,” he says, warmth in his voice. Oliver Stratton is more than an uncle; he’s my mentor and confidant. He’s a fucking legend. I owe him more than words can say. And with him, I wouldn’t need to say anything. He knows I don’t like talking much. He gets me like my father never did.

“You did?” I ask, taken aback. Once I was here, I never intended to leave the city. Deception Bay might have been the town I grew up in, but it hasn’t been my home in so long.

He nods. “Your name’s been on the deed to that hotel since the day you were born, whether you accepted it or not. All the toil you’ve put in has been grooming you for this moment. It’s time,” he says proudly.

I take a swig of my bourbon, trying to come to terms with my fate. Climbing the ranks to CFO at Stratton Holdings International, a role I poured my heart into since leaving Columbia University, this existence is all I ever saw for myself. “I’m not leaving because I want to. I’m doing it for Emerson. She needs me,” I say, making sure he knows returning to the small town I grew up in wasn’t part of my future until my father’s passing.

“She does. Your sister is brilliant, and she’s done wonders with the events side of the business, but she can’t manage it all. And this is your chance to grow your own legacy, not just help me grow mine.” He beams at me, trying to show his encouragement. I need it more than he knows.

My insides clench uncomfortably, knowing what going home really means. Dealing with it all, the feelings I have been able to bury for so long. Dealing with the people I have avoided, the ones that force me to remember what it was like before my mom died. Especially my little sister. I throw back the rest of my drink, trying to ease the discomfort. “You can call me anytime. If my replacement falters, I can be back here in less than a day,” I tell him, making sure he knows my loyalties are still with him.

His hand covers mine, and I meet his gaze. “We’ll endure, Brody. I can see a part of you hoped I’d say you couldn’t leave, that you should sell the hotel. But it’s more than just a business this time; this is about family. Your mama cherished that hotel, it was her essence, and she wouldn’t have wanted it in anyone else’s hands. I believe, deep down, you know this is what you have to do.”

He speaks of my mama as if she’d been blissfully married, supporting the man she loved, but I know the truth, and so does he. “I promised Emerson I’d give it twelve months. I plan to revitalize the place. It’ll be profitable and running seamlessly. But after that, I’ve no intention of staying. My life is here.”

“I know you will give it everything you have,” he says with a nod. “Give it time. Who knows, you might find comfort in small-town life now that you’re older. You might even decide to stay.”

I watch the smoking-hot woman standing with a friend near the bar, her face lighting up as she engages in conversation, a champagne flute in her hand. She looks like fun. Just another thing I’ll miss. In New York no one has to know your name, and that’s how I have gotten by.

I always aimed to be nothing like my father. Throughout my adult years, I’ve consciously steered clear of relationships, determined not to inflict the same pain on someone as he did on my mother. Being straightforward with a woman about it being just a one-night thing simplifies dating and ensures no one ends up hurt. That’s easy here in New York, but going home means my life will again be under the scrutiny of a town that’s filled with whispers of secrets I would prefer stayed hidden. The article alone is enough to prove my point. There is no hiding there.

“I doubt it,” I murmur. I’m positive twelve months will be all I can tolerate.

My uncle follows my line of sight, and I realize my eyes have unconsciously returned to the captivating woman in the sparkly dress. He gives me a knowing smirk, able to read my mind. My uncle bats for the other team and has been in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend since before I moved here, but he knows me better than anyone else.

“It’s the sparkly dress, it’s hard to miss,” I grumble, although deep down, I know it’s so much more than that. This girl isn’t like any of the girls from back home; she’s magnetic. And since this is my last night here, why shouldn’t I indulge?

“You know who she is, don’t you?” he asks me.

“No idea.” I shrug, trying to work out if I have seen her before.

“Gigi Kelley. The daughter of Susan and Lawrence Kelley. She’s a massive name on Broadway. I saw her perform the lead in Moulin Rouge last week, she was incredible.”

I glance at her again. She’s pretty as a peach. Light brown hair cascades in waves down her back, sun-kissed at the ends. Long legs in a tight short skirt that lead to curvy hips and full tits I just want to get my hands on. Perfect pouty lips as she takes a sip of her champagne. Her eyes rise to meet mine as she places her flute back on the bar. I don’t look away. Tonight, away from the mounting problems, I could use a distraction. And she looks like just the woman to help me forget.

My uncle slaps me on the back. “Good luck, son. This one might just be out of your league.”

“I always did like a challenge. You know that, Uncle.” I smirk, unable to take my eyes off her. She doesn’t know it yet but she’s leaving here with me. This city’s parting gift.