Where the hell was I?
Wherever it was, it smelled like honey and sex.
I rolled over. Silk sheets felt like clouds against my skin, and I breathed in the lingering honey scent still clinging to the pillows until my nostrils took in strands of hair. A woman’s hair. I finally managed to open my eyes and peered blurrily around through the dark, barely able to make out the silhouette of a young woman sleeping next to me.
Ah, so there is the source of the honey scent. And the sex.
Grinning like the sly dog I was, I draped an arm over her slender waist and leaned in close to press my lips to her ear. “Good morning, love.”
She yawned and stretched, running her smooth bare feet down my calf. If I recalled correctly, she had white-painted toes and wore a sexy gold anklet with an evil eye dangling from the end of the clasp. Funny how I could recall that little detail but not her name.
Funny but nothing new.
“Good morning,” she purred, rolling onto her back and reaching her arms over her head. Her spine cracked, followed by her hips and her ankles. She must have been a dancer. She certainly was last night, twirling and spinning all around me on the dance floor at my favorite night club in New York City, Liquid. “You have the most comfortable bed I’ve ever been in. Can I stay here forever?”
“I’d make a good trophy wife.” She turned over onto her stomach and rested her chin on my chest. With one wandering index finger she traced swirl marks over the hairs in the center of my chest. “You said so yourself last night.”
Her lips curled in a feline smile. “Uh huh, you sure did. And then you promised to buy me a Range Rover to take the kids to school in.”
Drunk me would say just about anything, and I must have been hammered last night.
She giggled. “I’m just pulling your leg, Cas. This was fun, but I’m under no illusions about who you are.”
“And who am I?”
She shrugged a tanned, slender shoulder. “A player. A Whitlock.”
She said my last name like it carried more weight than the word player—like it summed up in two syllables just how much of a bastard I really was. And yet she’d still jumped at the offer when I suggested she come back to my family estate with me. We’d gone on a drunken tour of the grounds, setting off motion detector lights and fleeing like idiots across the grass and through the gardens. I’d brought her inside, cleaned the soil and grass stains from her legs and feet—that must have been when I saw the anklet—and helped her upstairs to my room.
At least I was a charming bastard.
Someone knocked on my door.
The girl, whose name had still not resurfaced in my mind, pulled the covers up to her chin. “Who is that?”
“Go away,” I called.
The knock came again, more persistent this time, followed by the door opening a crack. A head poked around the frame with permed dark gray hair and big round glasses. The housekeeper, Marianna, had her eyes closed as she knocked one more time on the door, even though she was halfway into my room. “Mr. Whitlock? Are you decent?”
The girl in my bed—let’s call her Honey for the sake of simplicity—shrank even deeper under the blankets.
“Come in, Marianna,” I said.
Honey shot me a wide-eyed look of betrayal.
“She’s my housekeeper,” I said, like it explained everything and she had no reason to be shy about being naked in front of her.
Honey hissed at me. “Where are my clothes?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably on the floor?”
Marianna came in and her eyes swept across my room. They were magnified behind her thick lenses. She did a quick lap of the room, collecting Honey’s tiny black dress and undergarments. She handed them to Honey, who snatched them out of Marianna’s hand like a rabid dog.
Marianna smiled pleasantly before turning to the windows and throwing open the heavy drapes. “There. Sunlight. Isn’t that better?”
I winced and shielded my eyes with one hand.
Honey had already begun dressing under the covers. She muttered a string of profanities at me. “You couldn’t have asked her to wait until I was decent?”
“Marianna’s seen it all,” I said.
Marianna turned from the window, that same pleasant smile curling her lips. They were wrinkled around the edges now, and she had deep crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. As a boy, Marianna had seemed old to me, but she’d only been fifty. Now she was closing in on her seventies, and it was beginning to show.
My mother, the woman of the house, had been gently suggesting that Marianna retire, but our old housekeeper liked to keep busy, and she liked to serve the family. In all honesty, I’d always seen her more as a grandmother than a housekeeper, and some part of her always saw my brother and me as part of her family, too. After all, she’d more than half-raised us.
Now fully dressed, Honey threw back the blankets and got out of bed.
“You don’t have to go,” I said.
“Oh, I most certainly do.” Honey marched to the door, grabbing her purse from where it hung on the back of my bed post as she went. She paused and turned back to me, some of the anger in her gone. “Call me?”
I grinned. “I will.”
Marianna rolled her eyes to the ceiling and smirked. “He won’t.”
Marianna and I listened to her high heels clip on the hallway floors and down the stairs until they were out of range.
I gave my housekeeper a cheeky smile. “I think she liked you.”
“And I think you need to get your behind out of bed and downstairs. Your parents are waiting for you, and it sounds like they have something important they’d like to discuss with you.”
“Is Mom pissed that Honey and I went traipsing through the gardens?”
Marianna’s eyebrows lifted over the frames of her glasses. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Guess I’ll keep that to myself.” I nodded down at myself. “I’m kind of indecent here. Give me a minute?”
Marianna moved toward the door and stepped out into the hall. “Make yourself decent, Cassian. They’ve been waiting some time. It’s half past ten.”
After Marianna left, I got up, splashed cold water on my face, relieved myself, and put on a pair of at-home slacks and my robe. All of us Whitlocks had robes in our state rooms, sort of like a guest might receive at a hotel. Mine was navy blue with dark gold thread, and the family name had been stitched over the chest pocket.
I raked wet fingers through my hair, slicking it back, before stepping into my slippers and moving out into the hall, following the burgundy carpet to the top of the stairs and descending to the main floor.
It smelled like mornings always did at the Whitlock Estate—eggs, frying onions, fresh-baked bread. I inhaled deeply and my stomach gave a low rumble, announcing its desires. On my way to the dining room where I knew I’d find my mother, father, and brother, I passed through the kitchen, where the head chef swatted at me when I swiped a fresh croissant from a tray. I’d crammed almost all of it into my mouth before I even left the kitchen, turning to offer him a silent apology as I chewed.
The chef, Miguel, rolled his eyes but chuckled in good humor. This little routine of ours went like this almost every morning, and neither of us ever seemed to tire of it.
My mouth was still full when I stepped into the dining room, where my family sat with straight backs, already dressed for the day.
At the head of the table, my father sat proudly, wearing a navy blue suit and sipping a cup of black coffee. To his right, my mother peered through a pair of reading glasses at the morning paper. She held my father’s hand in hers and ran her thumb absently over his. She looked up and smiled when I entered, and her smile faltered only a bit when her eyes landed on my robe and slippers.
“Good morning, Cassian,” she said. “Join us.”
I took the seat across from my brother Christian, who smirked blatantly at me. “Good night, little brother?”
I reached for an empty coffee cup in the middle of the table. Sitting on a silver tray were a different assortment of creamers and sugar options. I fixed my coffee and sat back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Christian looked sharp in a black buttoned-up shirt and matching slacks. The top buttons of the shirt were undone, making him look more relaxed, but he’d always been the sort of guy to look put together with little effort. I envied him for that, among other things.
“Marianna said there was something you guys wanted to talk about?” I sipped my coffee and watched my mother over the rim of the mug. Of all of us at the table, she had the worst poker face. The corner of her mouth twitched, and she looked at my father. Naturally, I turned to him, too. “Is something wrong?”
My mother closed her newspaper.
My father, Victor Whitlock, the legend who had made our family as wealthy as we were because of a little idea in the seventies, studied me thoughtfully. He’d opened his own chocolate shop here in the city when he was barely of legal age to run a business. He’d hired friends to help him get it off the ground, sharing his recipes and his passions, and word of mouth spread like wildfire. Whitlock Chocolates became famous and coveted, and my father, with a business mind sharper than an eagle’s talon, saw every advantage that came his way, and he took it.
Now our family was worth billions, all because of a sweet treat.
With Easter just around the corner, my old man would be stretched thin at work. It was our busiest season, second only to Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
My father shifted in his chair and stroked his gray moustache. “I need you to do something for me, Cas.”
I looked to my mother and brother, who remained silent and averted their gaze.
What is this about? “And what is that?” I asked.
My father met my stare. “You’re getting on a plane for the Ivory Coast tomorrow morning.”
I blinked. “You’re sending me to Africa? What the hell for?”
“Language,” my mother said, her whisper somehow cutting and loud.
My father nodded. “I’m creating an opportunity for you, Cassian. It’s time you step up and realize your place in the legacy of this family. I assure you, it is not upstairs in that musky bedroom of yours with new women every weekend.”
“Agree to disagree,” I muttered.
My father’s eyes narrowed. “I’m being serious, Cassian. I’ve let you savor your youth for as long as I could, but now it’s time to grow up. Christian is ascending to take my position soon, and where will that leave you? I expect your full cooperation. You will be going to the Ivory Coast to collect the new cocoa beans we want to use for our new line of chocolates. I’ve arranged a guide to see you to your destination, and I’ve hired a videographer to capture footage of the journey for a marketing campaign that brings you front and center as well as reinforces our fair-trade agreements with the locals who grow our beans.”
All of that was gibberish to me except for the part about my brother. “Christian is stepping into your role?”
My father pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “This isn’t about Christian. This is about you.”
I looked to my brother, who gave me a weak shrug and a sympathetic smile that said, that’s just the way it goes, little brother.
I turned next to my mother. “Mom, help me out here.”
She sighed, released my father’s hand, and leaned toward me. “Cassian, I have spoken to your father at length about all this. I don’t like the idea of you going off to Africa, but your father has made up his mind, and I support him.” She leaned back, signaling the end to the conversation.
My father stood. “Your flight is booked. You have the day to prepare.”