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Prologue


On the eighteenth of August, 2014, London Pistol fell in love with Zeke Landa-Hollis.

And it was in one word – Glorious!

London’s heart jumped when he walked into the restaurant all blue eyes, tall, muscular, spectacled and suited up to boot. He looked like he’d just walked out of a boardroom meeting. Her pulse raced as she watched him stride towards their table where she was with her best-friend, Shakira and Nathan, Shakira’s fiancé (who was also Zeke’s younger brother). The world tilted on its axis when Zeke’s burning gaze lingered over London for just a second too long, then plummeted when he looked away from her to greet Nathan and Shakira.

All through dinner the normally talkative London was all nerves and wooly tongue. When she discovered that Nathan and Shakira had asked her and Zeke out to dinner because they wanted them to be their best man and maid of honor – well, words couldn’t explain the thrill that coursed through London.

She and Zeke. Planning a wedding. Together. Chills.

Exactly three months later – precisely two days before her twenty-fifth birthday – she fell out of love with the bastard.

This is what happened;

Though London and Shakira did most of the planning for the wedding, London found herself coming into contact with Zeke often. If London thought she had a crush on him before, it was nothing compared to what she felt after actually getting to know him. Despite the cool, inscrutable façade he presented to the outside world, Zeke Landa-Hollis was nice.

Nice. Such a silly little word, yet it somehow fit Zeke perfectly. In his own quiet way he knew how to make anyone feel welcome and as if they were the most important person in the room. He always had something nice to say to London, and when she finally worked past her wooly tongue to respond, he actually listened. Then he had this way of standing next to her with his palm set lightly on her shoulder whenever there were other men in the room, as if he was claiming her. That light touch was enough to set her heart fluttering and her senses tingling.

It didn’t matter that he was way too tall for her.

Or that he was richer than her by a gazillion bucks.

Or that she was black and he was white.

This was love.

She waited for him to make the first move – a little kiss would’ve done it – but he never made one. Not one to let being female get in the way of what she wanted, London resolved to do the seducing. Since weddings were the perfect place for these things she planned to do it right after Shakira’s. She’d catch him when he was slightly tipsy and mellow from all the happiness around. Maybe she’d ask him to dance, or perhaps pull him into one of the rooms at his mother’s house – then kiss him.

London was superbly confident that she could do this. She may’ve been petite and the chairlady of the itty bitty titty club, but no man had ever said no to her. And though Zeke had never made a move, she’d seen how he looked at her sometimes – like he was hungry and she was the only meal in the room. There was no way he’d say no.

Unfortunately, she never got the chance to test her seduction skills on him. That day shattered any desire she had to have anything to do with him, let alone seduce him.

Yes. Even now, almost two years later, she still referred to it as that day.

It was Shakira’s wedding day and London had been sent to let the men know that the bride was ready. Since the wedding was taking place on the grounds of the Landa-Hollis family estate, London only had to walk a short distance from the left wing of the house where the ladies were dressing up to the right wing where the gentlemen were. Her footsteps muffled by the carpeted floor, she crossed the little living-room between the wings then entered the right wing’s hallway.

That’s when she heard their voices.

Male voices. Hollis brothers’ voices.

At first London couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying in between their boisterous laughter. She smiled. She’d witnessed first-hand how close and protective of each other the Hollis brothers were. It made her wish that she’d had siblings. Maybe it would’ve made her life easier to have someone to talk to during that dark time in her life when it seemed like the sun would never shine again.

Still smiling, London followed the sounds of the brothers’ laughter to the room at the end of the hallway where the door was open. And as a testament to the bad luck that had plagued her throughout her life, the first clear words she heard when she stepped into the room were Zeke’s. And they were the cruelest words he could’ve said.

“Hell no,” Zeke exclaimed as he straightened his bow tie. “I would never marry London! Where would I hide her? The media would roast me alive for marrying someone so-”

“So what?” The words slipped from London’s lips before she could even think even as her throat closed up and heat flushed to her face.

The three Hollis men turned to face her with identical horrified faces. What proceeded was the most awkward five minutes of London’s life. Any other woman would’ve turned on her heels and ran out of the room in abject embarrassment.

But London wasn’t any other woman.

She said nothing for what seemed like an eternity. Then with a coolness she didn’t even know she was capable of, she looked straight at Zeke and said, “I never asked you to marry me.”

His cheeks flushed red, his nostrils flared, and he opened his mouth – but no words came out. London bet that that was the first time he’d ever been at a loss of words.

Her voice sounding hollow even to her ears, she said, “And you don’t -” She swallowed hard. “You don’t have to hide me anywhere. I’m fine right where I am.”

“London,” Zeke finally managed, “I’m so sorry.”

But the damage was done. She didn’t need to be a psychic to figure out how he would’ve finished that sentence had she not interrupted him.

Someone so low-class… so beneath me… so unfitting.

They were words that had been applied to her several times. With her background and her flair for garish hairstyles and clothes, she wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for some reason she’d thought Zeke was different.

Nevertheless she told him, “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“No,” he insisted. “I do. I hurt your feelings, and-”

“You didn’t know I was here.” Her hands curled into fists. “I should be the one apologizing since I interrupted a private conversation.”

“But still-”

“You’re not going to marry me.” Despite the anger and disappointment rolling inside her, her voice was surprisingly even as she added, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” She turned her gaze to the youngest Hollis brother. “Danny?”

“Yes.” Danny who’d clearly been trying to keep from being dragged into the conversation, snapped to attention at the mention of his name.

“Does it hurt your feelings when I say that I won’t marry you?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Danny answered quickly.

“There.” She forced her lips into a bright smile as she told Zeke, “No feelings were hurt and so you have nothing to apologize for.” Turning her attention to Nathan, she said, “Now, to the reason I came. Shakira’s ready.”

“She is?” Nathan’s troubled gaze immediately turned joyful.

“She is.” London grinned, her anger fading slightly at Nathan’s glee. “We’re just waiting for you guys to head out to the garden then the ceremony can start. So hurry up.”

“Damn, I haven’t even put on my bowtie-” Nathan exclaimed. “Where are my-”

London took advantage of the sudden flurry of activity to make her escape. But Zeke’s hurtful words lingered for years after. Every time she saw him, they echoed in her head reminding her of what a classist snob he was. And it made her dislike him even more.

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Chapter 1


JULY, 2016

MARACAS BEACH

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It was the perfect day for another Hollis wedding.

The morning was warm, happy and bright. The soft breeze whipping around them was tinged with the sweet scent of the sand and waters of the Caribbean Sea. All the white wooden chairs were filled with smiling, chattering guests dressed in their lightest, brightest clothes. The reverend was standing by to conduct the ceremony, and the band was playing orchestral versions of popular songs while they waited for the bride and her train to emerge.

Yet, even though this wasn’t his wedding, Zeke Landa-Hollis couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for the occasion. Primarily because he knew that everyone expected him to be the next to walk the plank.

And by everyone he meant his mother.

Even as he stood with his two brothers at the end of the aisle, he could see her seated on one of the front seats, looking appropriately solemn for her position as mother of the groom. Seated to his mother’s immediate left was Meredith Weinstein.

Ever since Nathan’s marriage, Edya had been giving hints that it was time for Zeke to find himself a bride. And if those hints weren’t enough she’d recently started throwing women she thought were suitable at him in hopes that one of them would stick. Meredith was another one of those unsubtle attempts.

The beautiful, brunette was a Wharton-educated stockbroker. But more importantly, she was the daughter of venture capitalist, Oscar Weinstein. Edya had personally flown Meredith in for the wedding – which was all the incentive Zeke needed to make sure that there was always several feet – and people between them.

Zeke’s eyes caught Meredith’s and she gave him a sweet smile. Loath to give her any ideas, he turned his gaze away.

It wasn’t that he expected to stay single forever. He just wanted to delay marriage for as long as possible.

“Damn it, Danny, can you stop tapping your feet?” Nathan drawled from his position between Danny and Zeke at the end of the aisle. “Everyone’s looking at you.”

“I bet he’s calculating the distance between here and the door,” Zeke murmured with sardonic amusement.

“We’re about to have a runaway groom,” Lewis, the bride’s cousin-in-law who was standing on the other side of Zeke, chuckled.

“I’m not planning to run away.” Danny cast the all the groomsmen a dismissive glance before turning his eyes back to the stairway where the wedding party was supposed to emerge. “I just want this thing to start already. Where are they? They should’ve been hereby now.”

As funny as it was, Danny’s impatience was understandable. He’d been in love with his bride-to-be, Misha, for over fifteen years. Even though they’d claimed they were just best-friends for the better part of those fifteen years, a blind person could’ve seen that they were meant to be much more. It’d been a relief to see them finally get together.

Danny turned suddenly worried eyes to his brothers. “What if she’s changed her mind?”

Nathan snorted. “Please! Misha isn’t going anywhere. She’s as crazy about you as you are about her.”

“Frankly, it’s embarrassing how whipped you both are,” Zeke added.

Danny’s gaze narrowed on Zeke. “Just wait. Your time will come.”

Zeke flicked an imaginary speck of dirt from the sleeve of his shirt, his half smile turning into one of pure cynicism. “I have no doubt that someday I’ll be standing in front of a crowd like this. But it won’t be soon and I definitely won’t embarrass myself over the woman, whoever she is, like you two.”

“Oh, the confidence!” Nathan chuckled as he stared at his brother. “I can’t wait for your turn. Some woman is going to take you down so hard we’ll be picking up pieces of you for years to come. I bet you’re going to be even worse of a train-wreck than junior over here.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Zeke retorted.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want a love match. It was that he knew – and had long accepted – that it wasn’t in the cards for him. He wasn’t as lucky as his brothers. Nathan and Danny were allowed to choose their career paths, do what they wanted, fall in love and be with any woman they chose. However, Zeke had the full weight of the Landa-Hollis legacy on his shoulders. Everything he did, his whole life, was purposed towards nurturing and growing that legacy. Even his marriage – as his mother had drummed into him – was meant to solidify their position as one of the most prominent families in American business.

The woman he eventually shackled himself to would have to be someone who could bring something other than love to the table. Preferably business connections or a bump to their reputation courtesy of her lineage. She would have to be irreproachable in the eyes of the world so as not to hurt their business interests. She’d have a back bone of steel, an excellent educational background and business savvy. She’d be someone who could take over the legacy in case something happened to him or his mother.

“I definitely won’t be falling in love,” Zeke murmured more to himself than to his brothers.

“We’ll see,” Danny pronounced ominously before glancing at his watch. “Damn it, where is that woman?”

Just then the music announcing the beginning of the wedding match started. All three men, along with all the wedding guests, turned their attention to the stairway just as the first of the bridesmaids emerged at the top.

London.

The moment Zeke saw her, he straightened as every muscle in his body tightened in appreciation. Her short pixie haircut with bold streaks of red perfectly highlighted her cocoa-dark skin and her fine-boned features, while her vivid, green dress exposed her graceful shoulders and clung to her petite, delicate figure.

She was beautiful.

“Oh, so that’s your type?” Nathan whispered, a smile of knowing amusement creasing his face.

“Shut up,” Zeke retorted even as his gaze stayed locked on London as she descended the stairs.

He couldn’t take his eyes off of her even if he wanted to. He didn’t know what it was about London, but from the moment he’d met her almost two years ago he’d been fascinated by her. Every time he saw her he had this irrepressible urge to get closer to her, to be around her. He didn’t know if it was her bubbly warmth, her easy smiles, her wit, her panache, her fierce loyalty, or her beauty that had captured him. Or maybe it was all of that and more.

Even though he’d known that they could never be anything more than friends, he’d been unable to stay away from her. All through Nathan’s wedding preparations Zeke had taken every opportunity he could to be in her presence, and he liked to think that they’d become friends. He still remembered their brief friendship with fondness. And hated how it’d ended – and the part he’d played in it.

Once London reached the bottom of the stairs, Zeke left Nathan’s side and started toward her. Her gaze immediately connected with his, and despite the distance between them, he felt the zing. But before he could savor it, her eyes skittered away from him to focus on the reverend as she started down the aisle. Hollow disappointment rolling in his belly, Zeke closed the distance between them.

He schooled his expression into a smile and held out his arm as he reached her. London didn’t even bother faking a smile. He felt the heat of her irritation in the reluctant way she fit her hand in the hook he made with his arm. He felt it in the stiffness of her muscles and the way she tried to keep her body from brushing against his as they walked down the aisle. He felt it in her quick steps – as if she was eager to get to the front and be rid of him. And he hated it.

But he could also understand it.

In the days leading up to Nathan’s wedding, his mother had been pestering him endlessly about getting married. He was the first born, Nathan couldn’t get married first, Senator Scott McFarland’s daughter was in town and she’d be the perfect bride… blah, blah, blah. Add that to the fact that London had become increasingly flirty with him, tempting him with what he could have had if he wasn’t Zeke Landa-Hollis – and he’d been at the brink of exploding.

Then while they were preparing for the ceremony, his brothers had started teasing about the very same thing, and suggesting London as a potential bride, and Zeke had finally snapped. The next thing he knew, he was announcing, in a very loud voice, that he wasn’t going to marry London.

Everything he’d said after that was a mere outburst stemming from his frustration with the position he was in. No matter how he felt about London she wasn’t appropriate for him. If beauty, personality and character were the criteria for a wife for him, she would’ve beat every woman he knew hands down. But they weren’t. London was none of the qualities he’d been taught to look for in a wife. She had no family connections, she didn’t even have a high school degree and her past was – to put it kindly – colorful.

She was so inappropriate.

And that frustrated him to no end because despite her unsuitability he wanted her. Badly.

He’d never intended for London to hear him mouth off. Except somehow she was standing right there in the doorway, her liquid brown eyes shining with pain and embarrassment, and probably a million other unpleasant emotions that he was too ashamed to decipher. It was one of the most awful moments of his life – one he wished he could erase. It’d been unforgivable.

That didn’t mean he hadn’t tried to get her to forgive her. It hadn’t worked. His apologies were met with icy retorts, his flowers came back without the cards being opened and his phone-calls had remained unanswered. It was at that moment that he’d learned that London hated just as hard as she loved. The harder he tried, the more hostile she became, snipping at him if he so much as came within a foot of her. Finally, he’d backed away.

If only he knew the words that would make her forgive him – the words that could revive their friendship, he thought with a mental sigh as he watched her practically scramble away from him to go and stand with Misha’s other bridesmaids. Sure friendship was a pale imitation of what he really wanted – but better half a loaf than none.

Thankfully, the wedding ceremony was brief. The lifelong deal was done inside two hours and a couple of hymns. With a kiss, Danny said goodbye to his days as a bachelor. Judging his wide grin, it was obvious that he didn’t give a damn that he was officially shackled.

Once the ceremony was over, the wedding party headed for the photo session. The posing, smiling and picture snapping didn’t take long and soon they too were spilling towards the reception area to join the rest of the wedding guests. Well, all the members of the wedding party except London. She joined the band onstage – her band.

If he wasn’t enraptured before, Zeke certainly would’ve been after listening to London sing. If angels could sing, Zeke was sure that this was how they’d sound. London’s voice was low, haunting and smoky, tempting everyone to follow her bidding.

“I love her voice,” Shakira murmured. “I still can’t believe no record company has snatched their band up yet.”

“I thought they got an offer last week?” Zeke asked as he twirled his sister-in-law around the dance floor in an easy waltz, her vivid green gown sweeping the floor behind them.

“They didn’t take it.” Shakira grimaced. “Something about the company wanting their souls or something.”

“So they’re free?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Shakira nodded. “Why do you ask?”

“Landa-Heron’s been having some issues with its weekday evening band,” he mused as they swayed to London’s music. “The hotel needs a new band. Do you think the Xin Monsters would be interested in a gig like that?”

“Would they be interested?” Shakira’s eyes widened with excitement. “Does the sun rise in the morning?”

Zeke laughed. “I take it that means they would be.”

“She’s going to be so excited!” Shakira exclaimed just as London started a fresh song. “When are you going to ask her?”

“Actually-” He hesitated for a moment before saying, “I was hoping you’d do it for me.”

Shakira arched back slightly to look up at him. “Why?”

“You know how London feels about me,” he said. “She’ll probably refuse just because I’m the one asking.”

“No.” Shakira shook her head. “If this was something else – something to benefit just her, she’d probably refuse. But this is about the Xin Monsters, not just her. So she’ll listen to you.”

Zeke’s eyebrows arched. “You think so?”

Shakira nodded. “I do.”

“Okay, then-”

“Can I cut in?” Nathan cut short their tête-à-tête as he came to a stop beside them.

“Nathan, Zeke and I were talking,” Shakira derided even as amusement danced in her brown eyes.

“And you can finish later,” Nathan said as he reached for her hand. “Right now I want the dance you owe me.”

“I guess that’s my cue to find a new dance partner.” Zeke chuckled as he released his sister-in-law into his brother’s care. However, before he could find another dance partner, Mark, the hotel manager, drew him aside to discuss accommodation for their guests.

The good thing about hosting a wedding in your own hotel was that food and accommodation was readily available and extraordinarily cheap. The bad thing was that the staff were constantly underfoot trying to impress him and the family. Even though they were perfectly capable of handling the mini-crises that came up, they kept asking for his input and reassurance that they were doing a good job.

Any other time, he would’ve pulled Mark aside to remind him that he was hired because he was a capable manager with years of experience and didn’t need constant handholding. But this wasn’t any other time. This was Danny’s wedding and Zeke didn’t want anything to go wrong. So he had no problems keeping a close eye on the arrangements.

Fortunately, the staff was just as capable as he expected and almost everything went smoothly. The only hiccup they had was not having enough rooms for the wedding guests who’d checked in this morning just before the ceremony. But Zeke and Mark managed to resolve that quickly enough by transferring the younger guests to the family cottages. Which worked out great because then they could have their wedding after-parties without incurring the wrath of the older guests.

Long after everyone had retreated to their respective alcoves, Zeke was still haunting the hallways of the hotel making sure that everything for tomorrow was set up.

“What time have you set up the morning calls?” Zeke asked Mark as they stood in the lobby.

“Eight, since we’ve set up breakfast for nine a.m.”

“Make it seven and start with the kids in the cottages,” he ordered. “It’s going to take them a moment to work off those hangovers. Have you organized pick-ups for the airport?”

“Yes.” Mark nodded. “Two buses are already here, and Vancamp says they’re sending the other two by six in the morning.”

“Good.” Zeke asked, “A separate van for those using the private plane?”

“Yes, it’s here t-”

“Enzo, please just go to bed,” London’s shrill voice cut into Mark’s words.

Both Zeke and Mark turned towards the sound of her voice, to find her emerging from the glass double doors that led out to the car-park with her band-mate, Enzo, on her heels. She said, “You’re drunk and I don’t feel like dealing with you right now.”

“London, wait please.” Enzo stalked her. With his shock of black hair, pale skin, beanpole physique and black clothes, he looked like he’d just walked off the set of a bad vampire movie. Grabbing London’s arm, he said, “What’s wrong with me that you won’t even give me a chance?”

London whirled around to face him as she tried to tug her hand from his grip. “There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m just not interested in a relationship right now.”

“When will you be interested?” Enzo stared at her wildly as he kept a tight hold on her arm even though she kept trying to dislodge his grip. Considering how petite she was, it was easy for the man to hold her hostage.

“Please, let my arm go,” London pleaded, frustration evident in her voice.

“No,” Enzo refused. “We’re not done here.”

And that was Zeke’s cue to intervene.

“Yes, you are.” He strode down the lobby towards them.

Both London and Enzo turned toward him. The moment Enzo’s gaze focused on Zeke, recognition flooded his eyes. He quickly let go of London’s arm and released an embarrassed laugh. “We were just having a friendly conversation.”

“What’s wrong? You didn’t hear me?” Zeke said coldly, noting how quickly London darted away from Enzo as she rubbed her arm. “The conversation is over.”

“London and I are just playing,” Enzo said, his nervous smile still in place. “You know how friends are.”

“No, I don’t.” Zeke shot Enzo a scalding look before turning to his hotel manager. “Mark, please show the gentleman back to his cottage.”

Enzo looked like he wanted to protest. But one glance at Zeke’s fisted hands and he lifted his hands in surrender and turned on his heels. The moment Enzo was gone, the tension pulsing in the space seemed to dissipate and the air almost seemed lighter.

Zeke turned his gaze to London who was standing a distance away still rubbing her arm, her eyes holding a troubled light. He asked, “You all right?”

“You didn’t have to get involved,” she mumbled. “I was handling it.”

Didn’t look like it, he wanted to say but restrained himself. Instead, he said, “Let me walk you to your room.”

“No, thanks,” she said curtly, before turning and heading straight towards the same double doors that Enzo had just exited through.

“Please tell me you’re not going after him,” Zeke said as he followed on her heels.

“Of course not.” London shot him an irritated glance as she charged out the door. “I’m going to get drunk.”

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Chapter 2


London was so angry she could feel her blood boiling in her veins. She still couldn’t believe Enzo had had the nerve to ambush her like that, grab her like that. How many times had she told him she wasn’t into him? Dozens of times, hundreds even. Yet her words never seemed to penetrate his thick skull.

“Is Enzo always so violent with you?” A deep voice startled her out of her thoughts. She quickly swiveled to find Zeke strolling down the steps behind her with his hands in his suit-pants. She’d been so lost in her musings she hadn’t even noticed that he’d followed her.

His features were set in their usual solemn, indecipherable state, and she wasn’t in the least surprised to note that despite the warm weather and the fact that the wedding ceremony had ended hours ago, he was still in the uptight wedding suit complete with perfectly knotted tie.

Annoyance rippled through her. The man looked perfect, as if he’d just stepped from some Forbes photo-shoot. Even though the wind currently ruffled his dark hair, he somehow managed to look perfectly windblown. His irritating perfection always made her feel so messy – like an unmade bed. Made her want to smooth down her hair, change from the shorts and tank top she was wearing into something more formal, and surreptitiously check her teeth for spinach.

Which was completely ridiculous since she didn’t care what he thought of her or her clothes. In fact, she didn’t even want him looking at her.

“Stop following me,” she ordered.

“It’s one a.m.,” he said in that quiet way he had that irritated the hell out of her. “You shouldn’t be out alone.”

“Thanks for the advice, Dad. Now, shoo.” She waved at him before turning to continue her walk towards the hotel’s bar. Zeke followed right along. She turned back to him, her eyes narrowing and her voice rising with her exasperation. “If I wanted a stalker I would’ve kept Enzo. Bye, Felicia.”

“Who’s Felicia?” he asked, his tone unconcerned.

“Felicia is-” She kissed her teeth. Why was she even talking to him? Determined not to let the irritating man disrupt her fabulous plan to get drunk and forget everything Enzo, she turned away and took the last few steps down the stairs.

Even as she skirted past the large, oval swimming pool towards the wall-less bar she could still sense Zeke behind her. The bar was empty except for the bartender and a couple seated at the table to the furthest corner of the space. Ignoring Zeke, London headed directly towards the long bar.

The bartender smiled when he saw London and Zeke headed his way. The moment London slid onto one of the barstools he greeted, “Good evening, Ma’am. Sir.”

“Hi,” London returned with a smile.

“Evening, Jim,” Zeke greeted affably as he settled on the barstool next to London. “Busy evening, I see.”

“Saturdays are a good night.” Jim asked, “What can I get you two?”

“We’re not together.” London said, “Brandy. Neat. And put it-” She jerked a thumb towards Zeke without looking at him. “- On his tab.”

“Isn’t brandy too hard for this time of the night?” Zeke asked.

Seriously? London snapped her head in his direction and glared at him so hard, he raised his hands in surrender. Still glowering at him, she repeated to the bartender, “Jim, please get me a brandy, neat. And make it a double.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Jim turned to Zeke. “Sir, what about you?”

“Nothing for me.” Zeke shook his head. “Thank you.”

The bartender scooted off to get her drink – or maybe to get away from the heat searing between her and Zeke.

Still staring at Zeke, London gritted between her teeth, “Go away.”

He, of course, ignored her. Propping his arm on the counter, he said, “Getting drunk won’t get Enzo off your back.”

London widened her eyes in mock shock. “No shit.”

“I’m serious.” Zeke watched her, his eyes softening in what could only be described as… concern. Yuck. Like she needed his concern. He added, “He won’t leave you alone unless someone is firm with him.”

“What?” London’s mouth fell open in faux-surprise. “You don’t say.”

“London, be serious.” His brow knotted in concern, he said, “I didn’t like the way he grabbed you.”

“Because what you like matters sooo much to me.” London snorted. Just then Jim came back with her drink and set it in front of her. She offered the bartender a smile, raised her glass in a silent toast, before tossing back a healthy gulp. The liquid burned a searing path down her throat. Just the way she liked.

To be honest she didn’t like how Enzo had grabbed her either. But he wasn’t usually that violent. Okay, he could be possessive sometimes… but it’d never gotten physical. This was just the frustration of her rejecting him that was getting to him.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Enzo. In fact, she loved him. She just wasn’t in love with him. It was hard to fall in love with someone you thought of as your brother – plus he was too high-strung for her. His hitting on her had started out as light flirting and she’d let it go then because – well, he was Enzo. He was the friend who’d been there for her even before Shakira and she couldn’t even contemplate hurting him. When he’d become more insistent, she’d had to tell him that she didn’t feel the same way about him.

It wasn’t enough.

Enzo could be pigheaded when he wanted something, and he wanted her. Usually London had no problem being cruel to men who didn’t get the hint, but it was hard to be tough on Enzo. And she risked breaking their friendship if she was. The unfortunate consequence of her reluctance to hurt him was that his attempts at seducing her had persisted and even gotten more desperate (which only made him more unattractive). If only she knew of an effective way to dissuade him without losing him. Sighing tiredly, she took another sip of her drink.

Zeke who’d been watching her in silence the whole time offered softly, “Let me talk to Enzo.”

“No.” She took another throat-burning swallow of her drink. For a long moment she was silent as she sipped on her drink and stared at the landscape painting directly across her. But even then she could feel Zeke’s quiet yet somehow irritating glance burning into the side of her. Finally she turned to him and announced, “You are seriously killing my vibe. Don’t you have someone else to bother?”

He shook his head. “No.”

London stared at him for a long time before she said, “I’m not getting rid of you, am I?”

This time he actually smiled. “No.”

The man was so annoying.

She stared at him broodingly for a while before kissing her teeth. “Well, if you’re going to keep hanging around me like some creepy stalker at least drink something.”

“Okay.” He waved the bartender over, then said, “Club soda, please.”

“Hell, no,” London cut in. “Jim, get the man another brandy.” When Zeke opened his mouth to protest, she jumped in before he could. “If I’m getting drunk, you’re getting drunk too. No way are you going to be sober while I’m drunk.”

Zeke pushed his glasses higher up his nose. “I don’t get drunk.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Everybody gets drunk.”

“I don’t.”

“Because you don’t drink?” she asked. That she could understand. The guy was such a boring stick she wouldn’t be surprised to find that he picketed alcohol factories during his free time.

“No, I drink.” Zeke shrugged. “I just don’t get drunk. I have a high alcohol tolerance.”

That sounded like a challenge, right? There was a reason London held the beer pong trophies in three colleges even though she’d never attended college herself. And she was sure the only reason Zeke thought he had high-alcohol tolerance was because he’d never met anyone who could show him what the term really meant. Well, today was his lucky day.

She smiled. “Care to prove that?”

Suspicion immediately tinged Zeke’s eyes. “I’m not getting into a drinking competition with you.”

“Mm mm.” London pursed her lips and shook her head. “A snob and a coward. It must suck to be you.”

“I’m not-” Zeke stopped talking. He looked pensive for a long moment before saying, “You know I’ll beat you, right? You’re a woman and half my weight.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. It’s just science. I metabolize alcohol faster than you.”

She gave him a toothy grin. “Then put your money where your mouth is, genius.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re not planning to cheat, are you?”

Her eyebrows rose. “How would I cheat?”

He stared at her suspiciously for quite a while before nodding curtly. “Fine. How are we doing this?”

Her grin widened. “First one to black out pays a thousand dollars.”

He reared backwards in surprise. “Do you have that kind of money?”

“You don’t know me like that,” London retorted. Actually, her account had exactly eighty-three dollars right now. But that didn’t matter because Mr. Money Bags over here was just about to top it up. She hiked her eyebrows. “Are we doing this?”

He observed her for another long minute before nodding. “Fine.”

She rubbed her hands together in obvious glee. “Rack ‘em up, Jim.”

As expected, three hours later she was on the verge of victory.

“You sh- should let me t- talk to Ensho.” Zeke slurred his words as he twirled his quarter-full glass. He looked decidedly more disheveled than he had a couple of hours ago. His jacket was now hanging on the back of his barstool, leaving him in his shirt whose sleeves were now rolled up. His tie was loose, his hair was a mess as if he’d been running his fingers several times through it (which he had), and his eyes were bloodshot and hooded.

“Yeah. Sure.” London, who was feeling a bit tipsy herself, patted his hand. Frankly, she was enjoying how blitzed he was. It wasn’t every day that one saw the stoic, perfect Zeke Landa-Hollis let loose. She slyly extracted her phone from her pocket, lifted it and snapped a picture of him.

Zeke gave her a bleary glare.”What – what – are you doing?”

“Checking my email.” She smiled as she stuck her phone back into her back pocket before cooing, “Finish your drink, Zekey.”

“I’m ser-serious.” He tipped his glass and took a long swallow. “I don- don’t want that – that man hurting you.”

“Aw. You want to protect me. That’s so sweet.” She laughed. He looked kind of adorable with his hair standing on end like that. She ached to smooth it back. But she couldn’t, right? They were enemies, right? This was just the drink talking, giving her stupid ideas.

But his hair looked so smooth and silky and…

Oh, what the hell. She reached between them to smooth his hair. His hair felt as silky, smooth as it looked.

Zeke closed his eyes and sighed. “Mm mm. That feels so – so good.”

Still stroking his hair, she giggled. “Your hair feels like a cat’s.”

Zeke’s eyes snapped open. “No, it does – doesn’t. My hair is very, very manly. Like – hic- a man. It’s yours – yours that feels like a cat’s.” He reached forward as if to touch her head.

“Boy. We are not that close.” London quickly drew back. She was not that drunk. Which reminded her… “Are you ready for our next shot?”

Zeke started to nod, but was unable to lift his head to complete the nod. His chin got stuck on his chest and his eyes closed as if he was about to sleep. He mumbled. “Ensho does- doesn’t desherve you.”

“No, no, he doesn’t,” she soothed. Just then a bout of dizziness hit her and she closed her eyes. Get it together, London. She was not losing this money. She shook her head to clear it before turning back to Zeke. Rubbing his back, she said, “You look tired. You should sleep.”

“Yeah, I shou-should.” He set his glass down then put his arms on the counter almost knocking his glass over in the process. If it wasn’t for London’s quick grab of the glass, its contents would’ve spilled over the wood. Unconcerned, Zeke lowered his head to his arms.

“That’s a good boy,” London encouraged with light pats to his heads. Sleep, sleep, make me some money.

He suddenly sat up. Ugh!

“No.” Zeke blinked and shook his head. “If I black- blackout, you – you – win.”

London narrowed her eyes as she stared at the man. She called out to Jim. “Jim, another round.”

“I know – know what you’re doing.” Zeke said waggled his finger at her as Jim filled their glasses.

Duh! She was making her rent for next month. Injecting innocence into her tone and widening her eyes, she asked, “Do you?”

He gave her a drunk nod that included closed eyes. “You’re punish- punish-punishing me. For – for what I said that day.”

He didn’t even need to elaborate. She knew exactly what day he was talking about. The day he’d said those nasty words. Usually at this point pain and anger would stab at her at the memory of the things he’d said. But tonight she was high on brandy and the prospect of paying her rent on time for the first time this year. So she patted him on the back and said, “You don’t need to worry about that.”

“You kno-know I didn’t mean it, right?” Zeke continued on.

“Of course you didn’t,” she agreed affably as she picked up his glass and fit it into his palm. “Here, drink up.”

Only he didn’t. His stare was intense and his words were surprisingly clear as he said, “London, I’m really, really, sorry.”

There was so much sincerity in his gaze that she found herself saying, “We’re good. We’re good.”

“So you forgive me?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” She pointed to his glass. “That brandy’s not going to drink itself.”

“So we’re – we’re friends again?” he asked, his tone insistent.

“Besties for life,” she agreed as she tipped the drink higher towards his mouth. “Come on, drink up.”

Frankly, she wasn’t sure that she was ready to forgive him. Not after he’d hurt her so badly. But it this was a drunk pinkie-swear, so it didn’t count, did it? Besides, he’d never remember this conversation anyway.

“London-” Zeke called out as he put his glass back on the counter. Turning bleary eyes towards her and grimacing, he said, “I don’t feel so good.”

“What’s wrong?” She turned slightly on her chair to stroke his arm. “Are you sleepy?”

Please be sleepy. Please be sleepy.

“No, I feel-” And just like that he lurched forward and emptied the contents of his stomach onto her lap.

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