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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Boss I Love to Hate by Mia Kayla πŸ’• Book Blitz & Gift Card Giveaway πŸ’• (Contemporary Romance)



Dear Mr. Brisken,

How do I hate you?
Let me count the ways.

>I hate your smug, sexy millionaire face.
>I hate your cocky, skirt chasing, playboy ways.
>I hate working as your secretary—but, I love the pay. It almost makes dealing with you worth it.

>I hate how my friends call you a BILF, when really BILK (Boss I’d like to kill) is more appropriate.

>I hate that I need you to be my date for my best friend’s wedding because my ex-boyfriend, the King of Heartbreakers, and his new busty blonde girlfriend will be in attendance.

>But mostly, I hate how once the charade is over, I might not hate you at all . . .it was so much easier when you were the Boss I Love To Hate.




Chapter One

SONIA

“Her boobs can’t possibly be real.”

My best friend, Ava, always tried to make me feel better. Too bad I knew she was lying. Lying through her teeth.

With my forefinger, I pushed my glasses farther up my nose and leaned closer to the computer screen, so close that I nearly went cross-eyed. The scent of coffee hit me directly in the nostrils. The sound of paper spat out of the printer. The chatter of my coworkers rang loudly behind me. But I ignored it all and concentrated on my computer screen—her—my replacement. Jeff’s replacement for me.

“She’s not that pretty,” Ava continued.

I scrolled through my ex-boyfriend’s Facebook feed again, fixated on their endless pictures together, laughing, hugging, smiling, eating. And her … I couldn’t get over her. The replacement was beautiful, her body built like those mannequins at the store, tall and perfectly proportional. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. High cheekbones contoured like those stupid tutorials Ava always watched on YouTube.

“I hate her.” Venom dripped from my tone. Not only because she was beautiful, but also because she had him.

Already tired of looking at my computer screen, I leaned back against my chair and straightened my pens, separated by color in their cup-like containers.

“I’m telling you, she’s not that …” She coughed. “But do you think her boobs are real?”

“They can’t be.” My eyes level with the screen. “Who has a perfect face, body, and boobs, too?”

Why must life be so unfair?
“Sonia!”

I jerked back at the sound of my boss’s voice and knocked over my coffee in the process, causing me to jump back and drop the phone. “Damn it!”

Liquid spilled everywhere—on the desk, on my keyboard, on my skirt.

Fisting a handful of Kleenex from my tissue box, I cleaned up my desk. The light-brown liquid soaked the tissues. I grabbed more, repeated the process, patted my damp skirt down, and glared at his office door.

I had ordered his breakfast, picked up his dry cleaning, and gone over his schedule for today. What the hell did he want now? Couldn’t I get some peace for five freaking minutes?

I reached for the phone dangling off my desk and placed it to my ear. “Gotta go, Ava. The crass hole is beckoning.”

She sighed overly loud. “Tall, dark, and oh-so fine. Give my love to your BILF.”

Boss I’d Like to—yeah, right.

How about Boss I’d Like to Kill?

“I’ll tell the BILK you said hello. Bye.” I reached for my iPad, adjusted my glasses, and skittered to his office, my two-inch turquoise Mary Janes clicking against the black marble floor. After I pulled down my plaid knee-length skirt, I entered his fishbowl office.

Floor-to-ceiling windows outlined every single wall. His eyes focused on the screen in front of him, his backdrop was worthy of a picture frame—the Chicago skyline.

Brad Sebastian Brisken had the face of a Hollywood heartthrob, the jawline of a GQ model, and the body of someone who lived at the gym all the time. His suit was always perfectly pressed, and the lines in his sleek slacks always hugged his firm thighs. There was never a dark strand of hair out of place. He looked like a Greek god—tall, fit, and fine.

“Took you long enough.”

“Sorry, was on the phone with my mom.” Jerkface. I didn’t sound sorry.



And this was how our two-year working relationship had been going. Him being mean, me snapping back or blatantly not caring.

Who cared if Brad was a millionaire? Who cared that he was seriously one good-looking, fine specimen of a man with his chestnut hair and dark brown eyes? Every woman fawned over him. Every male wanted to be him.

Me? Sometimes, he drove me to the point of insanity where I wanted to wrap my arms around his neck and choke hold him, WWE-style, until he turned blue.

After working for him for over two years, there was one thing I had come to realize: good looks and all the money in the world did not make up for his jerk-like attitude.

He motioned to the chair in front of his desk, and I sat down. And, as I swiped at my iPad, his phone rang.

“Hey, Jimmy.” He leaned back on his chair, resting his ankle on the opposite knee, and with a flick of his hand, he waved me off as though I were a fly on his shoulder.

I stood, about-faced, and was almost to my desk when he called out to me as though he had a permanent megaphone attached to his mouth, “Sonia!”

I pivoted and walked back into his office. When I sat down, his phone rang. He picked up, and with a flick of his hand, he waved me off—again.

“Yeah, yeah. But did you get the tickets?” His boisterous laughter grated on my nerves. He swiveled in his chair and faced his floor-to-ceiling windows, his back toward me.

This guy!

I glared at him, stomped back to my desk, and was about to sit down when he called out again.

For the love of all that is holy.
My eyes fell shut, and I inhaled deeply. I took out my essential oils and rubbed one at my temples and my wrists. Lavender was supposed to alleviate stress, and I debated on dumping the whole bottle on myself to speed up the process.

Breathe. Or go postal and lose your job.

I counted backward and walked into his office at a normal pace, purposely taking my time.

“Did you spill coffee on yourself?” He lifted a perfect eyebrow and eyed the brown stain on the front of my skirt. “That’s a first.”

Of course, it was a freaking first. I prided myself on being organized and neat, and I was—before stalking Jeff and his new girlfriend. Seeing them together and being so in love had officially screwed with my head.

Brad’s head ducked back to his computer screen where he tapped away. “Dry cleaning is on the couch. Where’re my other clothes?”

I peered over at the far corner of the room where a pile of pants, suit jackets, and shirts were stuffed into an overflowing bag.

“Last week’s dry cleaning is in your closet.” That was the first thing I had told him when I saw him this morning.

Maybe I needed to slip him some of that earwax solution, leave it on his desk with a little courtesy note.

“I’ve also made reservations at Alessi’s Restaurant for your date tonight.”

He lifted his head from the screen. “I said Carlucci.”

“You said Alessi.” My eyes widened, and I double-blinked. I’d chased this reservation down for the past few weeks and called every day to check if there was a cancellation. I’d finally snagged a reservation yesterday. Is this man serious?

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t.”

This coming from the guy who couldn’t read his schedule. Despite that I kept it organized, yesterday, he had met with the wrong Mr. Wilson.

Boss, really quick, can I borrow your desk because it’s closer than mine so I can bang my head against it?
“Did you book the hotel?”

“Yes.” I clenched my teeth in a tight smile and ground my molars. “I also ordered flowers, and they will be delivered to your table.”

I’d basically set the plans for him to get laid tonight. Who knew what poor soul he had his sights on?

I had tried to warn off the countless interns and account officers who walked through Brisken Printing Corporation, but they still wanted him. Brad threw them one look, and they were all a forgone without-a-job conclusion.

Because canoodling between the sheets with the boss could turn the most professional women into the jealous and crazy stalker types, which usually ended up with them quitting and heading to the back of the unemployment line.

“What kind of flowers did you buy?” He leaned back on his chair and steepled his fingers by his lips.

“Roses, the kind I always order.”

“I want to change it up this time. Order me some peenees.”

My brow wrinkled, and I leaned in, clutching the iPad against my chest. “What?”

“Peenees. Remember, I told you about them the other day. The front desk had an arrangement of peenees.”

My boss loved to hear himself talk, and I was on the receiving end of that one-way dialogue, but I filtered out all things not work-related, and that didn’t require my attention.

What the hell is he even saying?
“What kind of flowers?”

“Peenees,” he drawled out the word as though elongating the E would make me understand him. He sounded like he was saying penises.

Why will I have to order that? Isn’t she going to get that later?
He almost looked annoyed, so I made him repeat it again.

“Sorry, what was that again?”

I bit my lip and schooled my features. If he was going to make my life hell, I could at least have a little laugh of my own.

“Peenees.” His voice was softer this time as though he were unsure. “Oh, for shit’s sake, come here.”

He began typing on his keyboard, and when I approached behind his desk, I expected to see a bunch of penises on his screen, but he typed peenees flowers in his search engine, and peonies came up.

Like a smart-ass, I pointed to the screen. “There’s an O there. It’s pronounced as pee-O-nees.”

He visibly frowned. “Real funny,” he deadpanned. “Do I look like a florist to you? Just add those flowers to the order.”

“Okay, will do.” I smirked, stepping around his desk.

He waved a hand, dismissing me. “Thanks. Wish me luck tonight.”

Brad didn’t need luck. He’d get laid, and he’d lose interest. It was his MO. And I’d hear about it all the next day because he was a sharer—but only to me, it seemed.

“Make sure you pick up my lunch at Klypso,” he added.

“Already ordered. Is that it?” I lifted an eyebrow.

The sounds of him typing on his keyboard echoed through the room.

“Yeah.” He didn’t even lift his head from the computer.

He was in fine form today. I tried not to roll my eyes as I slowly shut the door and made my way back to my desk.

This is just a job, I reminded myself.

Charles—his brother, the CEO of Brisken Printing Corp.—and Mason—his younger brother and the VP of finance—had hired me over two years prior. They had interviewed me, and I had been told that the job had two main functions. One: keep Brad’s schedule organized and on track. And two: do not sleep with him. It was two requirements that I had to adhere to.

Before me, Brad had gone through six secretaries within a six-months. But his inability to keep it professional and their inability to say no were affecting their work, and his schedule was disorganized. It didn’t help that some of those secretaries had gone on a warpath when Brad decided to move on. And he always moved on.

He changed women like he changed the channel—quick and wanting to know if there was something better.

I had been in a serious relationship with Jeff, so that number two rule was a no-brainer. It would not happen. Following rules was built into my DNA, and organization was one of my strong points.

And, although super fine, Brad was not my type.

I was kinda geeky. I embraced the romantic nerd in me. I loved playing PokΓ©mon Go, I read a dangerous amount of romance novels, and I was the biggest Harry Potter Head.

I couldn’t exactly picture Brad watching a marathon of everything on the Hallmark Channel or all seven Harry Potter flicks.

Brad tended to like the girls with the A, B, Cs—ass, boobs, and curves.

And I was five-two, petite, and flat-chested with dark brown hair and glasses because I couldn’t function without them.

It was a match made in secretary-boss heaven. Purely platonic.

No secretary in the whole Chicagoland area made as much as I did. Seriously. I was overpaid but under-laid, which was fine by me. And it was worth it. My friends who had full-time jobs worked a part-time job to make ends meet. Me? I had a one-bedroom condo in walking distance from work in downtown Chicago, and I could only afford it because of my job. Every year, I got a substantial raise and bonus. It was as if they were increasing my pay exponentially every year I continued to keep my legs closed.

The Brisken brothers paid their employees well, and keeping my panties on meant it would stay like that.

#

BRAD
Maybe Charles was right. I was already tired of the dating game.

I ran one hand through the top of my dark hair and let out a tired sigh, looking at myself in the hotel bathroom mirror. Tired dark brown eyes stared back at me.

My younger brother, Mason, was in a five-year-long relationship with the epitome of a gold-digging she-devil. When I thought of their relationship, it only confirmed what I never wanted in one of my own.

But my older brother lived in romantic bliss with his second wife, reminding me again how a good relationship should be. Seeing Charles and Becky together changed my mind about relationships.

I wanted what they had and what my parents had—a real relationship with someone I could connect with.

“Come back to bed, baby,” Olivia cooed when I stepped from the bathroom. Her tone increased in pitch, the way women tried to sound cute but weren’t.

I toweled off my wet hair and body, slipped on my black pants, and worked to button my shirt. I stared at her long and hard, trying to force a connection between us, but it simply wasn’t there. “I’m sorry. I have to go. Early morning meeting.”

She’d seemed prettier earlier, but maybe that was because I’d been drinking.

That wasn’t true. I hadn’t had too much to drink. I had purposely remembered to pace myself.

I averted my gaze, disappointment seeping deep into my skin. I had known this night would come. I was hoping it wouldn’t, but it had with the previous girls I dated. Like clockwork, after sex, I lost interest. Not because the sex was bad. It was good, as all orgasms were, but that closeness I had been hoping for—that familiarity—wasn’t there.

This was our sixth date. I’d thought dragging it on would be sweeter, and we’d have more of a connection, but I guessed not.

It wasn’t only Olivia’s red hair and deep blue eyes that had caught my attention; it was also her sharp wit and intelligent, investment banker self. Now, her red hair had lost its sparkle, and her blue eyes, which had once seemed endless and deep, were now shallow. I’d spent time getting to know her, wanting to know her, yet something else was missing.

She pulled the sheets to cover her breasts and sat up straighter on the bed. “Are you really doing this right now, Brad?” Her once-strong tone turned whiny.

This was the part I hated, but honesty was better than leading her on.

“I really do have to get to work early.” I walked closer to the bed and sat at the edge, finishing off the last button. “You are welcome to stay till the morning. Breakfast will be delivered.” I took in her tousled red hair, her once-piercing blue eyes … but there was nothing. No spark. No sudden urge to kiss her. Only an unbearable itch underneath my skin to get up, leave, and shower again at home.

“You’re not going to call me.” Her tone was resolute, soft, her high-pitched, trying-to-be-cute voice gone.

This was better than the previous psycho woman who had destroyed the hotel room when I left, but it still sucked.

I sighed resolutely, trying to add some feeling into it. “You’re way too good for me, Olivia. I’m too busy, I would never pay you any attention, and I’m an asshole.”

All of this was true, but really, she wasn’t the right girl for me. Maybe I was looking for something that didn’t exist. My parents had been married thirty-five years, and when my father had met my mother, he said he had known. It was in the way she’d made him laugh. He’d just known that she was it for him. I knew Olivia wasn’t it. And the woman before her hadn’t been it and the woman before that.

Will I eventually find someone I want to be with? What if it isn’t in the cards for me—to have what Charles or my parents had?
My gut clenched at the thought.

She leaned into me and rested her head on my shoulder, and I resisted the urge to cringe.

“But, if you change your mind, you will call me, right?”

“Of course.” I forced an even smoothness in my tone, knowing I wouldn’t, and I kissed her forehead one last time before standing up to leave. Relief flooded me once I was out of the hotel.

I hopped into my Aston Martin and headed home to the suburbs. I didn’t want to sleep alone tonight, not at my condo in the city. That wasn’t where I called home anyway.

As I drove and the city lights disappeared behind me, my shoulders slumped. I should’ve felt energized. Olivia was a freak in the bedroom, but all I felt was fatigue in my bones and an undeniable desire to knock out on my bed. All this work when dating—the wining and dining and the sex—was tiring. I didn’t mind the sex, but it seemed as though I were on the hamster wheel of dating. I’d pick a girl, repeat the cycle, and hope that it was different this time, that I’d like a girl long enough to keep her. But finding her hasn’t happened yet and round and round the cycle I went.

I hated when my brothers were right, and they were; I was already tired of the game.

I waved at the guard at our palatial estate to open the gates and drove up the winding road to the mansion that my parents had built and expanded over the years.

Thinking of not having them here anymore always sent an ache to my chest, an unbearable tightness in my lungs. It was almost four years ago, and it seemed as though tragedy had hit us one after the other during that time.

Charles’s wife, Natalie, had died when giving birth, leaving him to raise two girls by himself. And my parents asked Charles to move in so they could help with their grandchildren. Charles was an absolute wreck during that time, unable to go to work or properly care for the girls. It was one of the hardest times we’d gone through; we were all afraid he wouldn’t break out of his depression.

And, just when life had gotten back to normal, a drunk driver had taken my parents’ lives. It had gutted us, and we’d never been the same since.

But family was of the utmost importance, so we all tried. Mason and I had moved in to help Charles raise the kids. Though Mason and I had our places in the city, we were sleeping in our Barrington suburban house we’d grown up in because family always came first in the Brisken household.

As I entered our house and stepped into the silence, an agonizing sadness took over me. I took the stairs two at a time and slowly opened Sarah’s door. I could see the moonlight shine a light over my niece’s small twelve-year-old frame, and I released a soft sigh, knowing she was safe.

Next, I tiptoed into Mary’s room. The night-light on the wall illuminated her room in a faint amber glow. The princess decals on her walls smiled down on my sweet niece. I walked closer and took in her petite features, the way she hugged the elephant that I had given to her when she was three, and the way she slept with her mouth slightly ajar. Damn precious. I kissed the top of her head and brushed the back of my hand against her cheek.

Dads weren’t supposed to play favorites, but no one ever said anything about uncles.

#

SONIA
I lifted my head from the iPad screen, already seated in front of the BILK’s desk.

“Did you get that?” Brad paced the length of his office, talking while I typed, the Chicago skyline his backdrop.

Of course, I’d gotten it. I wasn’t an idiot, nor did he speak a foreign language. I typed faster than he spoke and had a typing accuracy of ninety-nine percent. I simply smiled.

Grinding my molars, I gritted out, “No, I didn’t. If you can speak a little slower.”

I lifted an eyebrow, looking at him as though he were an idiot, and he merely laughed.

If he had woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, I had fallen off the bed and woken up under it. I had been up stalking the replacement until midnight last night, and obsessed was an understatement. Now, I was sleepy and cranky, and three cups of coffee were not helping my foul mood.

“There is never a dull moment with you, Sonia.” He shook his head, amused. “You’re in fine form this morning.”

Me? ME!

I smiled often, but it wasn’t because I was happy or amused or even slightly entertained. I smiled because, in my head, I was ticking off ways I would secretly torture him if he weren’t my boss. Pull out his nose hairs with tweezers. Put itching powder in his dry cleaning. Or spit in his morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon snack. Or better yet, delete all his e-mails and pretend that it was a virus.

And that was why I smiled. It was that or throw this damn iPad against his beautiful face.

I bit my tongue. Don’t say a thing.

I reminded myself again, This job is easy and they pay well and I like living on my own and not with my five siblings back at home so I can handle his rude ’tude this morning.
“Why does it look like you have a bad case of stomach issues?” He smirked, entertained, and I so badly wanted to punch that cocky smile off his face.

“What?” My smile faltered, and I gave him that look, the look that didn’t hide a thing, the look that I was irritated beyond the highest mountain, the tallest skyscraper. I wasn’t in the mood, so it was especially hard to fake it today. And, after seeing booby girl kissing Jeff on his Facebook feed, I didn’t have enough room in my patience jar for any more of Brad’s rudeness. “I’m fine.”

“Did you get everything?”

“Yes,” I snapped.

He accepted my attitude with another smirk.

Asshole.

“All right then, read it back to me.”

My hands clutched the iPad harder within my fingertips, so tightly that I could have cracked the screen. I read back his schedule for the day, down to every last detail, knowing that I had captured every word, capitalizing the beginning of every sentence and ending with the right punctuation.

I should transcribe for a living. Given how fast I typed and my accuracy level, I’d rock at that job.

I had written down what was necessary, about Titan Printing company—a business they were looking to acquire—but ignored his regular topics off point, like how the CEO of one of our clients was a pompous ass or how the CFO of the same company was having an affair. Worst yet, he’d had to mention his horrendous date last night, his disappointment in not liking her as much as he’d thought he did. Honestly, how does that concern me?

Do men usually gossip this much? I hadn’t known him to talk this much to other people, or maybe he was only like this toward me.

The phone buzzed in my side pocket, and when Brad turned toward his floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, I swiped at my screen, reading back the text: Jeff is invited to the wedding.

It was Ava.

What?

An intense ringing initiated in my ears.

I blinked, staring at the screen, reading it over and over.

How does that make any sense?
My face scrunched at the cell. Then, I read it four, five, six times, as though reading it multiple times would change the text. Nope. Still the same.

There was only one wedding that she could be talking about. It was the only wedding that Ava and I were in together as readers of passages from the Bible and the only wedding that I had been invited to this year.

My stomach dropped and kept on going. I gripped my center as though I would throw up my breakfast on Brad’s black marble office floor.

I quickly typed back: What? How did you find out?

I pushed my glasses farther up my nose and peered up at Brad, who continued to babble. For once, I was grateful he liked to hear himself talk.

Because I couldn’t wait, I sent another text: How?

When Ava didn’t respond, I typed another slew of question marks to fill the next line.

Ava: Carrie told me. She’s going to tell you herself. But I wanted to tell you first so you wouldn’t be surprised.

I shook my head and lifted a hand to the ceiling as if asking the heavens above what was happening.

Ava was the gossip queen of the universe. This time, I was glad that the gossip queen was closer to me than she was to Carrie. Why would Carrie do that to me? She knew how brokenhearted I had been for months over our breakup.

Ava kept typing, little dots popping on my phone, and then she stopped. I was waiting for words. Reasons as to why Carrie would betray me.

I held my breath the whole time I was waiting, seconds ticking by. Good gosh, this woman needed to be more direct, even in her texts.

Ava: Tim wanted to invite him. He and Jeff have become good friends.
So? was my response.

I lifted my head to the ceiling, feeling my face brighten with heat that rose from my cheeks to my ears to my hairline. If I were a cartoon character, smoke would be steaming from my scalp.

What happened to girl code? Friendship? I’d known Carrie since college. Where is the loyalty in choosing to invite Jeff to the wedding instead of taking my feelings into consideration? I thought Tim was my friend, too. They needed to pick a side, and right now, they had chosen the wrong damn side.

I gripped the phone, feeling it form an indentation within my palm. I wanted to throw it out the window—or better yet, ram it up Replacement’s hoo-ha so Jeff would find something extra special when he was up there.

Gah!

Ava: Don’t be mad. They’re friends, too.
I didn’t care. They had only met Jeff through me. This was beyond messed up. Carrie “wore the pants” in that relationship. Nothing got past her. Why didn’t she tell Tim no? My stomach churned, and I blinked, staring at Ava’s last text, thinking of what I needed to do to get out of the wedding.

The buzzing in my ears intensified. Then, the worst possible scenario filtered into my brain.

Wait!
Me: Does he get a plus one???
Waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

I bit my pinkie nail, my leg bouncing as I held my breath. The dots on my phone blinked, indicating she was typing, and then she stopped again.

Damn it!

Seconds ticked by.


I glanced up, and Brad was still babbling.

Then, one word popped on my phone that made the world around me stop dead, followed by my heart.

Ava: Yes.

All I could see was the one word on my screen as though it were a flashing neon light. All I could hear was the pounding in my ears, loud and deafening. All I could feel was the tightness in my chest, making it difficult to breathe.

No. No. No. This is too soon. I wouldn’t be able to deal with seeing them together.

“Sonia!”

I dropped my phone, and it fell to the ground in a big clatter.

“Is there something more important on your phone than your job here?”

I heard what Brad said but not really.

He gets a plus-one.

He’s bringing my replacement.

Typically, I never cried. I was built like a man. Internally and somewhat externally as well with my lanky, unshapely body. But, this time, I wanted to cry, and it would not happen in front of my boss.

“Sonia?” He took a step toward me.

Immediately, I stood, embarrassed that I had gotten caught on the phone and fuming beyond belief that my friends had betrayed me and, more than that, devastated at the realization that I would see Jeff and his new girlfriend—the Replacement—in almost three weeks, at one of my supposed best friend’s weddings.

“Sorry, I need to use the ladies’ room.” I averted my eyes, taking the iPad with me. Then, I walked stiffly toward the door, not looking back.



CHAPTER TWO
BRAD
Meetings went by in a flash, and I had secured two new clients to add to our portfolio. Before I knew it, I was out the door and in my Aston Martin, driving home. Win-win on my part. Like there was any doubt. I was damn good at my job.

Being the VP of acquisition at our printing company, sales and acquisitions were my strong suit. Maybe not numbers, maybe not financials, and not even being tactful in real life, but selling a client on our product or acquiring a new company to merge with ours was where I excelled. It was where I thrived and got my natural high. I could seal the deal and sell practically anything to anybody. I could sell condoms to nuns if I wanted to. Not to be cocky, but it was true.

I left the city skyscrapers behind me, heading home to the suburbs.

The car phone beeped, indicating an incoming call.

“Charles calling,” the automated woman on the receiver announced.

“Big brother!” I smiled. “How is the honeymoon going? And, anyway, what the hell are you doing, calling me from Jamaica?” It was only day four of their almost-month-long honeymoon.

“Hi.” Charles’s voice was rushed and nervous and nothing like my typical older brother. “I just wanted to check on the girls.”

“I’m not home yet. Did you try the house or Annie’s or Sarah’s cell?”

Sarah, my twelve-year-old niece, had had a cell phone at eight. It was what the cool kids did. Annie was the sitter, the hired no-help.

Charles and Becky didn’t want to burden Mason and me, so they’d hired a sitter. The worst sitter. The sitter they’d found via an overpriced and overrated agency. Watching my nieces wasn’t a burden. They couldn’t be a burden if I wanted to do it. My nieces were my joy outside of work, my vacation in the everyday grind of things.

The babysitter. Did I trust her? Nope. Not when the first thing she’d asked me when she came over to watch the girls was if she could have some friends over. I gave her a look. A look that shut her down fast. I ignored her. It had either been that or fire her before she even started.

“Annie’s not picking up. None of them are. I think Sarah’s phone is dead.” Charles’s tone tightened, the wind muffling his voice through the receiver. I could picture him pacing through the sand, the clear blue waters of the ocean his backdrop.

When they’d left, I had guaranteed them everything would be fine and stay under control. My brother deserved some time off, and for fuck’s sake, he was a newlywed.

“I’m pulling through the gates right now. Calm down,” I told him. “I’ll call you when I’m home.”

He would have fun on his damn honeymoon if I could help it. Mason and I’d made a pact to not bother Charles for a single thing regarding the girls, and we’d made Charles promise he would call only once a day if that.

“Don’t worry; everything is fine.” Then, I hung up, waved to Jerry—our security guard—and drove through our gated community.

The large, grassy area and manicured hedges highlighted the beauty and massiveness of our neighborhood. I drove down the long driveway, which widened into a circle that encompassed Brisken Estate.

The first thing I noticed was that Annie the babysitter’s car wasn’t in the front. Instead of parking in the garage, I parked right by the steps of the house and hurried to unlock the door.

“Honey, I’m home.” I punched in the code to the alarm and stepped into the foyer, my eyes flying to the chandelier above us and to the double winding staircase that led to my nieces’ rooms.

Nothing.

No screaming. No laughing. No music. No TV.

Just silence.

Usually, my nieces were bickering or laughing or fighting. But never, ever silent. The babysitter had a schedule, and tonight the schedule meant homework and dinner.

Tiny goose bumps prickled my neck, and unsettling nausea built in my gut.

I plucked my phone from my back pocket, dialing Annie’s number, but the call went straight to voice mail.

“Mary? Sarah?” I rushed to the winding staircase, searching for my little people.

My younger brother’s car was not in the driveway. I called him, and when he picked up, I was breathless, already running upstairs to their rooms.

“Mason?” I pushed open Sarah’s door. Nothing.

“Yeah?”

“You got the girls with you?”

My mind didn’t usually go to the worst possible scenarios, but given that the babysitter that Charles and Becky had hired was absolutely inconsiderate and irresponsible, I had no choice. She didn’t exactly calm my nerves.

“No! They’re not home? Did you try Annie? Sarah’s cell? Are they all not answering?”

I stopped in the middle of Mary’s room and picked up her Ariel princess doll.

“Brad! What’s going on?”

His panicked state was not helping my mood. Shit. Wrong move. I shouldn’t have called the biggest worrier of the family. He worried about everything—what the girls ate, what they were watching on TV, if they were getting too much computer time, even what they wore. Mason was the type to put our nieces in all organic clothing as though anything else would burn their skin.

Honestly, he was worse than their own father.

“I’ll call the school. I’m sure everything is fine.” I tried to calm him down but knew nothing would when it came to my anxiety-ridden brother.

“I’m coming home.”

And, before I had a chance to tell him that there was no need, the phone went dead.

Running one hand through my hair, I descended the stairs two at a time and went straight to the fridge, running my finger down the paper with all the emergency numbers and finding the school’s.

I dialed, and it went straight to voice mail, understandable with it being after hours.

The tenseness in my neck reached my temples. There weren’t many things I worried about, but not having any children of my own, my nieces were at the top of that list.

My phone buzzed in my hand. It was Charles, and automatically, I pressed End. I wasn’t going to pick up his call until I had his daughters right beside me so he could talk to them himself. I’d promised him that I had this under control. I had never broken a promise, and I wasn’t going to start now.

I called Mason again. “I’m heading to the school. No one is picking up.”

I was starting to get pissed off. If anything had happened to my nieces, there would be hell to pay. I’d be the devil incarnate himself.

His voice was riddled with worry. “No, I’ll head over. Just stay there. I’m already in the car, and I will be at the school in ten minutes.”

I had just called him. How fast was he going, ninety miles per hour? From Brisken, he was at least forty minutes from the school.

“You’re not going to be any help if you’re dead. Slow down.”

He huffed like I was ridiculous. “Just call me if you hear anything.”

I banged the phone against the counter.

One thing was for sure: I was going to take this babysitter by the tips of her ears and walk her out of my house and out of our lives once I found her.

Thirty minutes later, laughter bubbled through the foyer. Mary’s laughter. It was the one and only noise I wanted to hear. Immediately, my whole body went lax as I rushed toward the joyous sound.

“Uncle Brad.”

My adorable five-year-old niece, Mary, bum-rushed me, and I scooped her up in my arms and inhaled deeply, taking in her baby shampoo scent. She was blonde-haired with ringlets that framed her face. Her cheeks were painted in an array of colors—pinks, yellows, and blues. She cuddled against me, and I, VP of Acquisitions, should have cared that she was getting paint on my five-hundred-dollar button-down shirt, but I didn’t. This girl owned my heart, one of two in the whole world who did.

Annie sauntered in a moment later, followed by a not-so-happy, moody Sarah stomping behind her. Something was going on with Sarah. Becky, her stepmom, had said it was the beginnings of puberty, and I wanted to stay miles away from that.

“Where did you go?” My stare and my irritable tone were directed toward the babysitter.

“Six Flags Great America!” She smiled as though this were a good thing.

The theme park? Yeah, this girl is fired.

“Great. America,” I rolled the words off my tongue like it was a curse word, steady and in movie-like slow motion. I blinked and then stared at her as though she were shit I’d stepped on.

Breathe, Brad.

I didn’t even pretend this time. Pretending was long over. I had pretended the first couple of days when I arrived home from work, and they weren’t bathed. I had pretended that it was okay for them to be up at eleven when I had a late work function, and it was a school night.

But now? I was done.

Sarah was always the voice of reason, but she didn’t help the situation. “I’m the one who said you wouldn’t be okay with this. I’m the one who said it’s a school night, but Mary insisted, and every single person does what Mary says!” she yelled, making me reel back.

“I just wanted to go.” Mary pouted in my arms.

She blinked her long eyelashes at me, and I touched her button nose.

“See?” Sarah pointed. “This is exactly what I’m saying. No one wants to listen to what I have to say.”

Then, she bolted up the stairs, leaving me speechless, wide-eyed, and stunned.

Hormones. Becky said she’s going through changes. At twelve though? Isn’t that too soon?

“Uncle Brad … guess what I am. Can you tell from the paint on my face?”

Mary had two dimples, and when she smiled, she looked like an angel. An angel that never got yelled at. I could already feel my whole mood shifting into Mary Land.

I shook my head, needing to rein things in, so I placed Mary on her feet to deal with the help. “You’re a princess?”

She pouted again. “No.”

“A butterfly,” Annie smirked, sipping some of her Starbucks coffee through a straw, one that she probably charged on the credit card that we gave her to use, specifically for the kids.

The door flew open, and Mason stormed in, hands on his hips and breathless. “They’re not at the …” He stopped mid-step, taking the scene in, his eyes landing first on Annie, me, and then Mary. “Brad, I tried calling you, but you weren’t picking up.”

Mary rushed toward Mason’s side, this time charming him. “Look at me!” As though she were flying through our kitchen, she flapped her hands, using them as pretend wings. “Can you guess what I am?”

He knelt beside her and then kissed the top of her head. “Butterfly.” Then, he clutched her against him, closed his eyes, and released a long, heavy sigh for everyone to hear.

Dramatic much? With Mason, always.

His eyes flipped to mine. “Sarah?”

“Upstairs,” I said. And moody, I thought but didn’t add.

He breathed out again. “Okay. Okay.” He patted down Mary’s hair and kissed her forehead.

“They went to Great America. An hour away.” My slightly enraged smile tightened.

His still and stoic features changed. His eyebrows pulled together, and he did one very slow blink. A Mason blink. The blink that said he wasn’t a happy uncle.

He stood and then addressed the to-be-fired babysitter. “Hi, Annie.”

At least he had manners; I had to give him that.

His gaze moved to my niece, most likely excusing her to yell at the babysitter. “Mary, why don’t you get ready for bed? Did you eat dinner?”

“Yes! Cotton candy.” Her eyes widened, and she jumped up and down in sugar-induced fashion.

Mason stared at me now and then again with a slow blink and the tilt of his head.

Internally, I laughed. This girl was a goner. Fired. Off on her ass. I’d gladly let him do it because he was the calmer and more professional one. I would have just told her to get out and stalked upstairs to change out of my work clothes.

After Mary galloped upstairs, I walked toward the kitchen island and leaned against it, waiting for a show.

“Annie,” Mason began, using his disappointed tone that said I’m better than you, but I won’t make you feel like it, “didn’t you have your phone with you? We tried calling you.”

“Oh, you did?” The straw hung at the side of her mouth as she dug to the bottom of her purse. The annoying slurping sounds of her straw grated on my nerves. “Oh, you did.” She reached for her cell, gripping the phone and showing us fifteen missed calls. She smiled and then shrugged. “Sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry.

Then, the slow blink happened.

I averted my gaze, suppressing the urge to laugh out loud.

“It’s important that you have that cell phone accessible at all times. We were worried sick. And the girls can’t be going to Great America on a weeknight. They’re cranky in the mornings, and they need all the sleep they can get.”

I sat on the barstool, texted Charles that everything was okay with the girls, and rested my chin on my hand, elbow on our center island.

Get this over with, Mason. Fire her ass already.

He continued, “What happened today is not acceptable.” Mason proceeded to spit out statistics, being the numbers guy that he was, about how many people go missing daily and kidnappings, and then he went into the land of homicides.

I leaned in, wishing I had a bag of popcorn. Shit, maybe I could tape this showdown, post it on YouTube, and title it “Repercussions of an Irresponsible Babysitter.”

This was going to be good.

“Trips like Great America and activities out of their normal day-to-day school functions have to be approved by us first, okay?”

Wait.

Did he just say okay? Okay? Not okay. I shot up in my seat. What the hell is he waiting for?

Annie nodded and smiled and continued to slurp her coffee through her straw. For shit’s sake, there was nothing left at the bottom of the cup.

“It’s better if we are informed. The girls have a schedule that we have to adhere to.” Mason pointed to the schedule on the fridge that he set up for the girls. “Especially during the weekdays.”

Where is he going with this?
“Just please be considerate,” Mason said.

Be considerate? How about using common sense? How about don’t be an idiot?
This was not going as planned. What was Mason’s deal? If anything, he was stricter than I was when it came to the girls.

I threw him one irritated look, the annoyance pinching my features. And, when Mason’s shake of his head was directed toward me, I was really royally pissed, and it sent me over the edge.

“We were worried sick.” My tone was sharp, cutting, like a blade through the skin. I emphasized the word sick with such force that Annie flinched. “Their father called, and we couldn’t tell him where they were. How would you feel if you were in that situation? Not knowing where your own kids were, not knowing if they were safe, and being out of the country and feeling helpless to do anything about it,” I slowly spat out. Maybe, by speaking slower, she’d understand me better.

Her calm demeanor faded quickly when I stepped closer, needing her to hear those two words that would end her employment.

“It won’t happen again.” Her voice was soft and repentant, but ask me if I cared.

I didn’t. For some reason, I didn’t believe her because she was irresponsible, and you couldn’t trust the irresponsible, not when it came to little lives.

“Damn straight it won’t because you’re—”

“You need to go home now,” Mason cut me off. “Be here bright and early tomorrow morning.” He framed her shoulders and pushed her toward the door.

What. The. Fuck?

He’d cut me off before I gave her an Apprentice exit, Trump-style.

I stared at his retreating, backstabbing back long and hard as he ushered the idiot out of our house, my nostrils flaring. I wanted to kill him. Damn him. I undid my tie and stormed to the fridge, reached in for a beer, and popped it open with my teeth, talented like that.

“Brad …”

“Don’t fucking Brad me when you let that girl off so damn easy. If you didn’t have the guts to fire her, I would have. I was going to until you cut me off.” I chugged the beer, feeling the cold liquid hit the back of my throat.

“What did you want me to do?” He exhaled a heavy sigh as though this were my fault.

I looked to the ceiling and around the kitchen, and then I opened my arms wide with my beer in one hand. “Hire someone else. Not. That. Hard.”

“We can’t.” His expression was pinched. “I just need until the middle of next week. Don’t you remember I’m flying to Ohio this weekend, and I won’t be back till Wednesday?”

I lifted an eyebrow as if to say, So? I swore. I could speak with facial expressions.

“Becky and Charles will be back at the end of the month. It makes no sense to hire someone new and retrain another babysitter,” Mason said. “It took me two weeks to feel comfortable with Annie after we trained her on the girls’ schedule. If we had to do the same with a new hire, Charles and Becky would be back in town by then.”

Felt comfortable? Yeah, right.

During Annie’s training period, Mason had followed her to school on the very first day that she drove the girls to make sure that she indeed took the girls to school and wasn’t going to sell them to sex traffickers.

“I’ll watch them.” Better me than that poor excuse of a babysitter.

Mason smirked and followed up with a peal of laughter. “You?”

My eyes searched the area. I looked left, then right, and then to the ceiling for an exaggerated effect as if there were someone else in the room. “Yes, me. Is there anyone else here?”

“No offense …” Somehow, I knew whatever was going to come out of his mouth would definitely offend me. “You’re the fun uncle.”

“And? State the obvious, would you? And what the hell is that supposed to mean?” I scratched at my jaw and took my empty beer bottle to the recycling bin. The beer bottle that I had drained. I needed to eat something and cook something for Sarah and Mary because, apparently, they’d only had cotton candy for dinner.

“You can’t even take care of yourself. Remember the puppies?” Mason reminded me.

Dickhead. Will he always bring up the puppies? We were ten damn years old. And someone had left the gate open, and because I’d had the puppies last, I had been the one blamed when it clearly wasn’t my fault.

Mason strolled to the freezer, plucked out some prepackaged chicken breasts, and threw them in the sink. I guessed he had the same line of thinking, knowing the girls hadn’t eaten yet.

“I know I’m a selfish bastard, but when it comes to those girls …” I didn’t have to finish my sentence. Mason knew I would do anything for my nieces.

I guessed he was making chicken strips because he plucked out the breadcrumbs from the pantry. Me, being the cool uncle, got out the ingredients for mac and cheese, one of the few things I knew how to prepare for myself. And let’s get real; kids loved mac and cheese.

“She’s staying on,” Mason argued, using his work tone on me. “And, once I get back from Ohio, I’ll be able to watch the girls more closely.”

I tried hard not to shove him against the stove. This bastard would be the death of me. When he was in this type of mood, it was like trying to reason with a child.

With the set of his firm jaw, I knew there was no way I would win. He’d beat me down with words, and I would just want to throat-punch him because I couldn’t speak as fast as he could.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “But she messes up one more time, and she’s out.”

The smug, small nod of his head had me clenching my fists.

The safety of my nieces was nonnegotiable. “And, if anything happens to them, I’m going to blame you because I wanted her gone. You just remember that.” I pointed to him. “It’ll be your fault.”

When the smile faded from Mason’s face, I felt slightly vindicated. I’d won.


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Mia Kayla is a USA Today Bestselling Romance writer who lives in Illinois. She is the wife to the husband of the year, and mommy to three unbelievably cute little girls who have multiplied her grey hairs.

In her free time she loves reading romance novels, jamming to boy bands, catching up on celebrity gossip and designing flowers for weddings.

Most of the time, she can be caught on the train with her nose in a book sporting a cheeky grin because the main characters finally get their happily-ever-after at the end.

She loves reading about happy endings but has more fun writing them.


    


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