I sat upon the ocean
But the motion brought me down.
Salted lips and whiskey kiss
Left me there to drown.
The darkness hangs heavy in the room, like the air of a tomb. My eyes dart over the sheets covering most of the furniture, squinting in the shrouded gloom from the heavy drapes across the enormous old windows.
“Mr. Crown will be with you in a moment.”
Carl smiles that small, tight, practiced smile I remember - his polished voice brushing through the stillness of the study. His aged eyes are warm, even if the rest of his face is drawn and lined. He frowns quietly, his bushy gray brows furrowing as he opens his mouth for a moment before he slowly shakes his head as if chasing away the thought.
“It’s good to see you here again, Ms. Bell. I believe this old house missed you.”
I could laugh, except for the bitter irony that creeps up the back of my throat like bile.
This house did not miss me because this house never knew me to begin with. For eight years, my father and I lived one hundred feet from this house, and in nine years, I’ve been inside of it twice.
The day I arrived here, and the day I left.
Sebastian Crown made sure of that.
I dig deep for some sincerity of what I should say back to Carl. I come up short, so I lie instead.
“It’s great to be back here, Carl.”
He flashes that tight, drawn smile again as if he knows I’m lying through my teeth even if he’s far too polite to say anything. Career butlers have a way of not calling you out on your bullshit.
“Your father is doing well with his recovery?”
My eyes drop to the floor. I say nothing.
“Terrible,” Carl’s bushy brow knits as he sighs heavily. “Just a terrible accident.”
I nod tightly, still saying nothing.
“Well then,” he nods, all business again. He steps towards one of the two sets of double doors to the study, pausing with his hands on the large iron knobs.
“As I said, Mr. Crown will be with you shortly.”
The devil. My devil. My tormentor, my darkness, my past. The knife that once sliced me in two.
I hate him.
I can feel my pulse tick a beat faster as Carl shuts the double doors, leaving me alone in the gloom of the old study. Across the room, the second set of doors are open, though there’s nothing but darkness and shadows past them. I shiver like I’m a kid alone in a basement as my eyes scan that shadowy doorway.
Three-thousand miles, two suitcases, one guitar, and a huge debt later, I’m back. Nine years later, I’m breaking the biggest promise I ever made to myself. The one I made the night he wrecked me.
Never come back here.
I shiver again as I turn my gaze to the recessed shelves on the wall behind the sheet-draped desk. Pictures used to line those shelves - at least a hundred of them. Happy faces, holidays, birthdays, exotic locations. A family. A life.
A boy who still knew how to smile without malice.
They’re gone now. I supposed the cliché would be to find them face-down or shattered on the floor. But if they ever were cast aside or smashed, they’ve long since been cleaned up or put away.
The sharp sound of something striking against the old wood floors sends a chill through me, and I whirl. I swallow, my eyes narrowing as I stare down the dimness through the open set of doors. The sound comes again, and I can feel my chest tightening as a figure begins to appear - a shadow emerging from the darkness.
His voice is like whiskey and gravel - a roughness rasping at the back end of his deep baritone. It’s changed slightly, but it’s a voice I’d know anywhere. It’s a voice I’ve heard in my dreams for years now. A voice I’ve thought I’ve recognized in strangers, heart pounding as I’ve twisted my head around to scan a restaurant for the ghost of my past who’s somehow followed me to dinner.
Of course, it’s never actually been him. Why would it be? Worse, why would I ever want it to be?
Bastian steps forward out of the shadows, and I can feel the twist in my gut that used to be familiar. Because years ago, Sebastian Crown was my terror.
In the richest town, on the most expensive stretch of coastal real estate on the Eastern seaboard, the Crowns were royalty, which made Bastian the crown prince. And in a school full of the phenomenally wealthy - a school where chauffeured limos or imported European sports cars brought kids in the morning, not yellow buses, and where the latest Italian fashions were being flaunted before they even hit the catwalks of Milan - Bastian always stood a head above the rest.
Wealthier than wealthy, more pedigreed than the British Monarchy, and more popular than any boy-band at the time. All of which came together to make Sebastian Crown the most insufferable spoiled trust fund kid in the long, storied history of spoiled trust fund kids.
…And my father worked for his.
In the land of off-shore accounts, and third and fourth vacation houses, and yachts, and imported cars, I grew up the daughter of a man who cut the Crowns’ lawn and trimmed their hedges.
Bastian never let me forget that, and for that and so many other reasons, I hate him.
He was a bastard back then, and I’d never heard of anything improving since. But since his accident six months ago? Well, since then, he’s become a monster.
Or so I hear.
I swallow thickly as my eyes dart over him. He’s in pajama pants and a T-shirt - the pants slung low on his hips and the shirt tight across his broad, muscled chest. I’ve never seen Bastian this underdressed. Not even that night.
The night he ruined.
The night he stripped everything I was away and broke me.
The night I pledged never to come back here.
When we were kids, and in high school, he was always the best, most expensively dressed. Always in perfect fashion. Always with impeccable, perfect hair, with that perpetual half-glare, half-cruel smirk on his chiseled, aristocratic face. Custom tailored pants and shirts, silk vests, Japanese cotton, Italian leather shoes - all of it somehow cool even if high school kids should be in jeans and hoodies.
The man standing before me though, leaning on his cane with those dark eyes sharp as daggers as they dig into me, is anything but that boy I used to know.
And it’s not just the pajama pants.
He’s huge, for one. Sure, Bastian was always in great shape back then. He played lacrosse, he swam, and there’s a gym on his property that rivals most professional sports teams’. But he was always in shape, nothing more. The man in front of me is ripped. Muscles bulge at the shoulders of his T-shirt, pulling it across a powerful looking chest and stretching it tight around chiseled biceps. He straightens, his hand gripping the silver handle of that cane in a white-knuckle grip as his eyes slice over me. The shirt pulls up just enough to catch a glimpse of grooved hips, a flat stomach, and a trail of hair…
I look away.
Bastian Crown is not “eye candy.”
He’s the devil.
The changes don’t stop there. The boy with the cocky smirk and cool gaze out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, with the chiseled jaw and the close-cropped hair flipped at the front that I remember? Well, he’s gone. Or at least, he’s hiding behind the mask of a thick, dark beard covering that pedigree jawline and cheekbones. Shaggy hair falls across his brow and shadows his dark eyes, giving him a primal, feral look.
Texas. It was always his little pet name for me, though it was never a term of affection. It was a reminder - that I wasn’t from or of here. That I was from a place that could just be boiled down into one sneered, spat out word, like it was a slur.
I draw in my breath, standing tall as I face him, unblinking.
This will not be my tormentor anymore. He will not be my nightmare and my forbidden daydream, like before. He’s just a broken, sad, rich prick. Hell, if anything, I should feel bad for him, after the accident.
But I don’t, and I won’t.
I take another breath, making damn sure I don’t shudder or shake as I meet his dark, withering gaze.
The corners of his lips curl for only a second before a shadow crosses his face.
“Only my friends call me Bastian, Texas.”
“I could always call you Bastard, like I used to if you’d prefer,” I spit back.
“And I could always fire you, void your father’s employment contract, kick you both off my property, and tell you to get fucked and good luck.”
He does smile this time, wickedly.
“I’m sure your father will have no problem paying for his medical bills without the insurance I provide. As I’m sure you’ll have no problem paying for those college tuition bills without family income - again, which I provide.”
He reaches up, his bicep curling as his fingers rake across his chest, toying with a small itch maybe. His eyes never leave me.
“And I’m sure your father will also have no trouble paying back the damages from his royal fuck up after I let him go. Right?”
My lips pull back in a sneer, and even if I know he’s baiting me - like he always did - I spring the trap anyways.
Like I always did.
“It was an accident,” I spit, my lips pulling back from my bared teeth.
“An accident it should have been Hank’s job to prevent,” he growls. “Some might call that negligence.”
I blink, my head slowly shaking back and forth as Bastian puts his weight on his cane and looks right back at me. Somehow, that cocky smirk comes through the beard.
“Relax, Texas. That’s why you’re here, to save the day, right?”
He smiles wickedly as he straightens and turns away from me.
“Or I could leave,” I hiss through my teeth.
“You won’t,” he tosses over his shoulder.
“I will. I’ll watch you with your mountain of college debt and your father with his mountain of medical debt leave my property.” He turns to look at me over his shoulder, a hand coming up to brush the hair from his face. His free hand slips into the pocket of his pajama pants and comes out with a pack of Marlboro Reds, bringing the pack to his mouth and using his teeth to pull a cigarette free of it.
Some things don’t change.
He nods at the guitar case sitting by my suitcases as he slips the pack back into his pocket and flicks open an old metal Zippo lighter.
“Maybe you could play corners down in Soho or something. Take requests on the subway maybe?”
I hate him.
I hate the casual way a man with more money than God can smile as he suggests literally throwing my father and me out on the street when we’re each at our lowest and most vulnerable. I hate the way working for him feels like indentured servitude. I hate how being back in this fucking place brings back everything I ran from years before.
“You’re an asshole,” I spit.
“And you’re my employee.”
“Not yet I’m not.”
The cherry at the end of his cigarette glows red in the gloom of the room as he drags on it slowly.
“The papers are on the desk.” He nods at a manila envelope and a stack of papers lying open on the sheet draped over the old desk, a pen lying next to it. “Sign them.”
My hand tightens into a fist at my side. I don’t budge.
“Texas,” he sighs. “Just sign the fucking papers. We both know it’s an easy choice.”
I shake my head as I turn and stare at the contract laying open on the desk.
“Why?” I say quietly, my voice small. “Why me? There have to be a hundred other—”
“Maybe I just like having you around,” he growls smugly.
I bark out a sharp, singular, brittle laugh. “You never liked having me around. I think you made that abundantly clear.”
Bastian just shrugs. “It’s not going to be on me to sell you on this. You can put up a fight and make yourself feel better if you want, but we both know how this ends.”
Yeah with me giving up my dreams when I was THIS close to touching them, so I can come back here and be Bastian Crown’s fucking gardener and save my father’s job.
That’s how this ends, and as much as I absolutely hate even thinking it, he’s right.
I am going to sign it because there’s no scenario where anyone with a conscience doesn’t sign it. I don’t say a word, and I ignore his eyes on me as I walk over to the desk, pick up the pen, and sign at the “x”.
“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it.”
My lips are pursed tight as I drop the pen and glare up at him. Bastian only smiles as he turns.
He stagger-steps back to the doorway to the dark, gloomy hallway again, his cane striking the floor with every step. Smoke curls around his head in the dim stillness of the room as his free hand comes up and pushes a button on a panel by the doorframe, which blinks green for a moment.
“Mrs. Tottingham will show you to your room.”
I frown. My room?
“I’d planned on just staying—”
“In the cottage? Well, it’s missing a wall, thanks to your father, and the water and electricity have been turned off due to the smoke damage.” He turns, shrugging with a sneer on his face. “But have at it.”
I meet his look with one of my own, unblinking and naked in its disdain.
He snorts. “Petulant as ever, Texas.”
“Asshole as ev—”
I jump a little at the sudden ferocity in his response - the icy coldness in his voice that lances through me, shutting me down.
“Remember that as of right now. As of you setting foot in this house and signing that?” His eyes narrow at me. “As of right now, I own you.”
The words hang in the gloomy silence of the study, and I’m just staring at him, seething, when I hear footsteps behind me.
“You rang, Mister Crown?”
Hearing Mrs. Tottingham - the motherly housekeeper and cook to the Crown Estate - is a moment of homecoming I’m not able to enjoy as I stand there frozen, staring at this monster of a man.
I hate him.
“Mrs. Tottingham will show you to your room,” Bastian repeats with a growl, dragging on his cigarette and turning his back to me again.
“This way, dear,” Mrs. Thompson says quietly as I pick up my bags and guitar and start to turn. She steps from the room opposite the doors Bastian entered from when I hear his voice behind me.
I close my eyes, my gut clenching like it always did when he said my real name instead of his little nickname. My breath comes shaking, and I pray it doesn’t show in my shoulders before I square them, clench my jaw, and turn to him.
His dark, shadowed eyes pierce right through me from under the flop of hair across his brow.
“Please remember one thing.” His lips pull into a grin. “Here, in this house? You’re mine. I own that petulant, back-talking, opinionated ass of yours.”
I hate him.
My lips purse, and my eyes narrow at him as I slowly shake my head and start to turn my back on him.
I close my eyes, forcing myself not to turn back as I hear his gravelly, low chuckle, followed by the cricking sound of his cane as he slowly makes his way from the room, leaving me alone.
I hate Bastian Crown. I hate him because years ago, at one point, for one night, I was stupid enough to think I loved him.
And I’ve been paying for it ever since.