THE BANKER (STARLING KEY #3)

THE PROLOGUE: 4 years earlier

Isaac

“You’re bored?” My director stares back at me, his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open.

I don’t flinch. “Yes, sir.”

“You’re a practically untouchable operative in the CIA and you’re… bored?”

I know Emerson doesn’t take kindly to repetition so I don’t respond. He knows the answer.

“Let me get this straight. You’ve risen to the top of your paygrade faster than anyone else from your intake; you led the operation to take down the Qatari Finance Minister after several others failed; you masterminded the operation to nail the Libyan terrorist hacker group… And you’re FUCKING BORED?”

I bite the inside of my cheek to stop a grin forming. That wouldn’t earn me any Boy Scout badges. And to Emerson, this isn’t funny. I know how inconvenient this is for him. He’s already lost four operatives at my level—two got hit in a random attack in Mexico, one retired early and the other left after suffering a mental breakdown. Let’s face it, if I stay, the odds aren’t good. But, that’s not why I’m leaving. I’m leaving because it’s true: I’m bored. Everything I do for the Agency is closely monitored and housed within strict parameters. Everything is to further the interests and successes of the CIA, and rightly so. But I’ve given them ten years, a couple hundred international criminals and several dumpsters of blood. I deserve a bit of time to do something for me.

“You know what this makes me, D’Amico, you prick?” His face has turned a putrid shade of red and sweat is beading out of his forehead. “Disa-fucking-ppointed.”

Spit lands on the desk beneath him as he delivers the sentiment every operative dreads. But, it rolls off me like water off a duck’s back because this is one of the reasons I want out. It doesn’t take much to disappoint a superior in the CIA. I haven’t had the misfortune of disappointing anyone in all my years here, but others have and it can be debilitating. The self-doubt it inspires can cripple a man, especially one who goes to battle with his mind, not his muscle.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I reply, my face as blank as a fresh covering of snow.

“Do you realize what you’re throwing away?” He continues to seethe. I know what this is. He’s processing the five stages of grief. First, denial, then anger, now comes the bargaining.

 

“You’ll never be able to come back at this level, you realize that, don’t you?”

“I do, sir. I’m not planning on coming back.”

“That’s fucking hasty, D’Amico. You’re not thinking straight. How about I give you a sabbatical? Let you think it over, come to your fucking senses?”

“I appreciate that sir, but there’s no need.”

“One year? Two years? How long do you think you’ll need, to get this crap out of your system?”

“There’s no crap in my system, sir. I want different things.”

“D’Amico,” he glares at me, practically panting. “You leave, there’s no turning back.”

“I know.”

“Ah, Jeezus.” He claps his palms over his face and throws his head back in defeat, finally. Just when I think he might actually be crying, he removes his hands and stares back at me with a mixture of sadness and mild panic. “It’s a shitshow, Isaac. I need you.”

I lean my forearms on the table and breathe out. I feel him watching me with a disproportionate sense of hope.

“Emerson… I really am sorry to leave you when you’re so many men down, but I’ve done my time. I need a break from the agency. I need to use other parts of my brain…”

“Seriously? It doesn’t get any more challenging than this.”

“I want to be a part of a business where I can reap the profits of a job well done. I want to be able to see the fruits of my labor. I want to be able to clock off and enjoy the sun and a few beers without having to constantly look over my shoulder. I want to be a part of the normal world for a change.”

“The world out there ain’t anywhere near normal, kid.”

“I’m willing to take my chances. Besides, I want to relax, kick back with a few women, you know?”

“You haven’t been deprived of women, D’Amico. Look at you for fuck’s sake. And I wasn’t born yesterday—I know what you boys get up to in your downtime.”

“I don’t mean those kinda women, the ones in the clubs, still living off their parents, still at school in some cases. I mean real women, Emerson. I’m going somewhere I know there are plenty, and I’m going to enjoy them, one hundred per cent.”

Emerson shakes his head. “And where are these ‘real women?’” he says with an eyeroll.

I sit back again, a small smile creeping onto my lips. “The Florida Keys.”

“You kidding me? That place is full of retirees.”

I arch an eyebrow in reply.

“Really, D’Amico? That’s what floats your boat? The older woman?”

I nod, lightly. “Real women, Emerson. The ones who’ve been around town a few times, know what they’re doing. They take care of themselves, they have class. They don’t want to get attached.”

“You know what? It sounded pretty good until the part about them not wanting to get attached. I never came across a woman who didn’t want to be attached.”

“The women I like don’t want to be. They don’t need to be.”

“And why’s that?”

“Well,” I say, relaxing my shoulders. “They’re already married.”

Emerson collapses back in his chair with a half-laugh, half-sigh. “Ah, man. I thought I had you all worked out, D’Amico, but I barely scratched the surface.”

I smile wryly. No one knows the real Isaac D’Amico. Not even my mother. “Isn’t that what makes a good operative? Someone who can assimilate into different environments, become different characters, get into different peoples’ heads?”

“Yeah. Yeah it is.” Emerson sighs heavily. “You sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

“I’m sorry, man. It’s my time.”

“Fine,” he shakes his head. “Fine. You got a job lined up already?”

“Yeah, an old friend recommended me for a security job at one of the resorts.”

“Security? Fuck, D’Amico. You’re going from the CIA to a shitty security job, to become a beach bum drinking beer and chasing cougars?”

“Yup,” I grin. My new gig isn’t quite as low level as he thinks it is. I’ll be orchestrating the books for the entire beach resort and managing some not-entirely-legal-but-entirely-lucrative side hustles below the radar. But, I’m enjoying winding the guy up.

“I really don’t know you,” he says again, his eyes burrowing into me as though he’s reassessing everything he once thought about CIA Operative, Isaac D’Amico.

“How well do we ever really know anyone?” I shrug.

Several seconds pass as he ponders. “Fair point.”

“Here.” I pass him my new business card.

He picks it up and flicks it back and forth between his fingers. “Starling Key,” he mutters. “Sounds like a wildlife sanctuary.”

I ignore his jibe. “You should visit. Bring the wife and kids. I’ll get you a discount.”

“Hmph,” he mutters in reply.

I stand up to leave his office, not bothering to take a last look around it. I won’t miss this place. “Thanks for everything, sir,” I say.

“Whatever.”

I grin back at him, open the yellowing door, and walk straight out. No looking back.

CHAPTER 1: Present day

Isaac

 

I trail a finger along her delicate collarbone, then down her chest to the valley between her breasts. She’s laying on her back but the surgeon’s genius ensures her breasts remain pert and bulbous. I bend my head to press the flat of my tongue against the surprisingly soft and taut skin, and lick from the right side of her ribcage up to the deep pink of her nipple, which I suck softly into my mouth.

“God!” She gasps, her back arching, pressing the firm dome into my face. “Isaac, baby, you’re killing me.”

I push her chest back down to the floor and shift my weight above her. We’re lying naked on the deck of the Hemingway Villa, the most luxurious sea villa on the resort, and my cock wastes no time in resting between her legs.

“Keep still, my love,” I say, my tongue lapping at the hard peak, my cock nudging at her entrance.

“I’m going to come before you’re even inside me,” she moans.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I reply, licking down into the valley and across to her left nipple.

Her head flips to the side as though she’s in pain. I gently bite down on the skin of her left breast, eliciting a gasp of frustration.

“Please, Isaac. I mean it. You can’t do this to me.”

“You’re so impatient, my love. I’m just getting started.”

She grinds her hips against me in an attempt to hurry me along, so I take both her hands and pin them to the ground behind her head.

“Patience,” I growl at her.

A tear rolls down her cheek. “Please…” she whispers.

I lean forward and lick the salty track away. “You break my heart.”

She lifts her head and bites into my neck, chasing it with hot kisses. The mixture of pain and her expert caress sets me on fire, and for a second I forget my need for control. My hips jut forward without thought and she seizes the moment. Her legs spread and she hooks her ankles behind my back, pulling herself up and onto my cock with a cry of release.

“You fucking—” I splutter, as the sensation of being inside this gorgeous woman overtakes me.

“What, Isaac? What am I?” she pants, as she meets my thrusts with her strong, Tracy Anderson-toned hips.

“You’re a fucking vampire,” I groan, working her faster. “Biting my neck like that.”

“You asked for it,” she replies, breathily. “You know you shouldn’t tease me. I lose my mind.”

I move inside her, hard and deep. This is what I love about older women. They know exactly what they’re doing. There’s no nervous fumbling, no fear of asking for what they want, no second-guessing what they need. Older women know the language; they speak it fluently. Especially this one, Paris Navitsky. And they don’t take any shit. I can skip the tasting stage and go straight for the full bottle. I get better quality sex, all the time, unlike the other guys who go for women with hardly any experience at all. That’s not for me. The idea of breaking in a virgin positively turns me off. No. This. This is what I live for. A good woman who wants good sex and nothing else.

“This is incredible, Isaac,” she breathes out.

“You are incredible,” I reply, slanting my mouth across hers. I know when she’s about to come. Her voice turns all breathy and desperate-sounding, and I live for it. “That’s it, my love,” I say, coaxing the climax out of her. That’s another thing I love about older women. Their orgasms seem to be more powerful; they can be felt a mile away. When Paris finally erupts, she comes off the floor. Her legs unravel and I raise myself up on my knees, one hand spanning her lower back, supporting her as I thrust my way through her climax. She clenches down hard with a cry and I go from zero to sixty in half a second, dumping myself inside her with the force of a ten-ton truck.

I remain on my knees, the muscles bulging out of my thighs as she comes down from her high.

“You made me come too fast, Paris,” I snap.

“Then we’ll have to reconvene again soon,” she replies, lazily, her face smug and sated. “I have to meet Roman at the gate in thirty minutes.”

I pull out and wipe her and me with the Egyptian cotton Starling Key branded towel lying beside us. “Where’s he dragging you to today?”

“Lunch with Jamaica Miles, she’s the wife of a potential investor and a supreme bitch. She’s from New York society. Thinks she’s better than everybody else. It’ll be a win if I can get through lunch without spitting in her food.”

“Sounds like fun. Wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall to watch you play nice with someone you don’t like.”

Paris lowers her eyes to my face and reaches for my hands. “I wish you could be a fly on the wall. I hate leaving you to go and do Roman’s dirty work.”

I lean forward and brace my hands either side of her head, taking her in for just a little longer. She has the kind of face I could stare at indefinitely. She’s fifty-two-years-old—twenty-two years my senior—but could pass for thirty-five and has the spirit and libido of someone far younger than that.

“Is he coming back here with you afterwards?” I ask, stroking an immaculate blonde hair from her eyes.

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I hope not. But, he has an appointment tomorrow in Miami before he heads back up to the City, so maybe.”

I lower my lips and brush them against hers, feeling her sigh into my mouth. “Tomorrow?” she whispers. “Can I see you tomorrow?”

For a second I’m completely lost in the sensation of her words against my skin, then I remember. I sit up and rub my eyes with no small amount of annoyance at what I’ve landed myself in.

“I’m busy tomorrow,” I sigh, heavily. “I have to be around for Aurelia Bird.”

“The singer?”

“Yeah. She’s doing a residency this season, remember?”

“Right. Of course.” If I didn’t know Paris better, I might have mistaken the look that flashed across her face as one of jealousy, but knowing Paris as I do, it wouldn’t have been. I’ve known Mrs. Navitsky for six months and I’ve been fucking her behind her husband’s back for five months, three weeks and six days. It was lust at first sight and it hasn’t abated in the slightest. I haven’t even entertained any of the other golf-obsessed guests’ wives, as I normally would, since Paris arrived on the scene. She gives me everything I want, everything I need. Space, no strings, sex like I’ve never known, and the smugness of knowing she would rather be with me, a low-paid security bum, than a billionaire Russian oligarch. Well, up to a point. Paris and I have an unspoken agreement. She will never leave her husband and I will never ask her to. It’s perfect. Ok, so Luca has asked me one too many times if it bothers me she wants the money more than me—because that’s what it’s about at the end of the day—and I reply honestly every time: not one bit.

I know who Paris is and it’s not her heart I want, it’s her body, her vibrancy, and the little part of her soul that reveals itself at the peak of her climax. That’s what I want.

“Is she going to be staying here? On the resort?”

“No. Starling Key isn’t good enough for her social-climbing idiot parents. They’re staying at the Ritz Carlton.”

“Nice,” Paris replies, her face serene once more. “So, when can I see you again?”

I think quickly. “Well, I need to make sure Aurelia and her parents know where everything is, introduce them to the events team, work out the schedule for her security detail while she’s on the island…”

“Who’s the lucky guy?” Paris asks, with a wry smile.

Fuck, I thought I’d told her. “Um, well, me.”

Paris pushes herself up and slides her legs away from my thighs. “What?”

“Yeah, I’m leading her security. It’s no big deal.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought I had, to be honest.”

“Um, no,” she says, slowly. Her breasts stay completely still as she hops to her feet.

“It’s no big deal,” I repeat.

“So you keep saying.”

“I’ve said it twice.” I grasp one of her hands as she attempts to walk away. “What’s the problem, Paris? It’s work. It’s my job. She’s a child.”

Paris whips around and if her surgeon hadn’t done such a fine job with the filler, her frown would be saying everything in one long sentence. “She is not a child anymore, Isaac. She’s a grown woman, and a beautiful one at that.”

“Really?” I say, almost to myself. “She looks about twelve.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better,” Paris pouts before looking away to the sea.

“I always want you to feel better, my love, but it’s what I really think. I met the girl once. She’s incredibly young, she can’t go anywhere without her childhood friends trailing beside her, she’s being used by her parents. That’s why I put myself forward. She needs someone like me to look out for her, because her fucking parents don’t.”

“Wait, what?” Paris spins back to face me, and filler or no filler, she looks horrified. “You put yourself forward? You actually offered to be her personal security while she’s here? For FOUR MONTHS?”

Ah, sheesh, when she puts it like that. “Look, Aurelia Bird is nothing more to me than an investment. She’s bringing valuable publicity and high-paying visitors to the resort. That’s all I care about. The way her parents spoke to her… I can’t be sure she’ll get through a full four months without breaking down, and I can’t risk that happening as we’ll lose a lot of fucking money. Ok?”

Paris grinds her teeth, delicately. “But, you’ll be with her the whole time she’s here, right?”

“Only when she’s rehearsing and performing. I don’t think she’ll want to hang around here much when she’s not actually working. So, I won’t even be with her really. She’ll be up on the stage or with her dancers.” I don’t actually know that for sure, but it seems to make Paris feel better as she turns her whole body towards me and steps forward, bringing her pussy to my face.

“You owe me,” she orders. I oblige happily, rubbing my nose over her clit, breathing in her possessive scent, before my tongue acts of its own accord. I don’t even care that I came inside her only minutes earlier. I want to please her. I want to feel her shudder against my face, make her scream so loud they can hear her on the golf course. I dig my fingers into the cheeks of her smooth ass, feeling the skin bruising beneath them. She’s small enough that I can inch my thumbs around and part her, easing the way for my mouth. I make a point of French kissing her slow and deep, until I feel her knees weaken, then I hook her left knee over my broad shoulder, bringing her closer still.

“God, Isaac,” she chokes.

I move my lips decadently, sucking her in then circling her with my tongue, as though it’s her mouth I’m plundering.

“Promise me nothing will happen with her,” she gasps, holding back her impending orgasm. “I know I can’t… with, well… I’m not in any position…”

“Shut the fuck up,” I murmur. “I only want you.”

The tremors start the minute I return my mouth to her and I focus intently on her clit as she grips my head, her nails digging into my scalp. Even when her shuddering abates, I don’t stop. I lighten my touch, I blow and I caress, until the sensitivity has passed, then I French kiss her again, deeply, drawing another climax from her core.

Chapter 2

Aurelia

I gather up the brochures, writing pads and pens and slide them into a drawer to make space on the dresser, then I carefully place my good luck charms in a row, one at a time. The verbena candle Ana bought me to invoke some sense of familiarity wherever in the world I am. The small trophy I won at my first talent show, aged eight. It reminds me of what I love about music and dancing, why I keep at it, despite the way this industry turns the people you love into near-strangers. Lastly, the gold locket my grandmother gave me before she died two years ago, to remind me to always keep my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground.

“Well, here we are, Grams,” I say, opening the locket and looking in at the face I knew more intimately than my own mother’s. “Miami. You always wanted to come to here. Well, this is it. And the Ritz Carlton, no less.”

“Did she want to stay here?” Ana says behind me, pausing between hanging outfits in the closet.

I laugh out loud, dragging my gaze away from the locket to my best friend, and the closest thing I have to family. “No, not Grams. She would actually be turning in her grave knowing we’re here. She hated all this… materialism. Would have called it vulgar. She’d have preferred to stay in some beach hut somewhere, floating around in a kaftan, smoking a joint or something.”

Ana chuckles and returns to smoothing down my favorite Stella McCartney dress and placing it in the closet alongside a Thierry Mugler gown. “She sounds awesome. I know I always say this but I wish I had met her. I can’t believe I never did.”

“She lived too far away. And she never liked Chuck, so when Mom married him, she refused to visit. She knew Mom and Chuck were off doing their own thing, especially in the early days, and I was on my own a lot. She asked me to move in with her so many times. Part of me wishes I had.”

“But, then you’d have moved away and we probably wouldn’t have stayed besties,” Ana replies, turning to lift another packaged outfit off the bed.

“Exactly. These things happen for a reason.”

Ana stops and glances down at the locket in my hand. “I’m so sorry she’s gone, Ray,” she says, using the nickname she gave me, like, forever ago.

“I know,” I say, sadly. “Me too.”

Ana puts the packaged outfit back down on the bed. “Do you want to go for a walk? Just the two of us?”

I almost snort. “Yeah. I’d love that. Never gonna happen.”

“I’m serious,” Ana says, diving across the bed to her own bags. She pulls out a brown wig, a pair of Jackie O sunglasses and a Burberry mac. “I came prepared.”

“It’s beige,” I pout. “I would never wear beige.”

“Exactly,” she says, bouncing back up to her feet. “It’s a disguise. You’re not supposed to look like you.”

I shake my head. “Tried that before, remember? It didn’t work. It never does. And they know I’m staying here, don’t they? Chuck made sure of that. The whole damn world knows the Birds are staying at the Ritz Carlton.”

I stride across to the window, pull back the curtains and gesture out the window without even looking. Ana rolls her eyes and reluctantly follows my pointed finger. I can hear the crowd gathered below so I know what she’s looking at.

“Yes,” she nods. “This does complicate things. But, come on, Ray. How good will it feel to sneak past them all, none of them any the wiser? We could go to a little café, or a quiet park, just… somewhere outside and not cooped up in this stifling building.”

“You feel it too, huh?”

Ana steps towards me and takes hold of both my hands. “Ray,” she says quietly. “I always feel it. It’s claustrophobic; it’s oppressive. You are pushed around like cattle at a market, and worked to the freaking bone. These hotels that I used to think were so glitzy and decadent, they don’t shine anymore for me. I’ve seen what lies behind them, and it’s not happiness. It’s deep dissatisfaction. It’s a ravenous need to be better than everyone else, and that’s miserable. You’re miserable.”

“Not all the time,” I say, defensively.

“No, that’s true. When you’re up on that stage, or at the meet and greets, you are incredibly happy—you come to life. But all the other times—and there are a lot of other times—you’re miserable, you’re lonely, you’re creatively starved. I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t envy your life.”

“But I’m not lonely,” I protest. “I have you and Billy.”

She smiles, sadly. “You do. You really do. We love you Ray, so much. But, you know we won’t be here forever. Billy has to leave for school in a few days, and I can only stay long enough to help you settle, then I have go help Mom in the store.”

“If it’s the money, Ana, I can pay you…” I say, clutching at straws.

“I know you can,” she replies, sternly. “And you know I’d never take it. Mom needs the help. Ever since Aunt May stepped down, she hasn’t been able to find anyone reliable to do the deliveries. I just need to help her get back on track and find someone decent to take over Aunt May’s work, then I can come back, ok?”

I would offer Ana’s mom money too if it wouldn’t totally offend her, because I’m desperate. When Billy and Ana leave, I will have no one. No one except my parents, who have both become strangers to me over the five years since the success of my first single. Our relationship now is all business. Chuck, my stepfather, is my manager. I was fifteen when I first hit the number one spot with Break His Heart and I had no idea about managing the finance side of things, or my schedule. In a way, I was lucky my mom met him—he took over the business of being Aurelia Bird.

But then my time was taken up rehearsing and recording all the new material he arranged for me, making appearances on talk shows and networking with anyone he saw fit to boost my career. I was to be the next Britney Spears. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t even born when she got her first number one. When my best friends leave, it will be just me. Me and Grams, who lives in a bloody locket.

“Where is Billy?” I ask, changing the subject. “He took off while I was in the press briefing.”

“Oh, he just found out one of his cousins is staying downtown. He’s gone to meet them for a coffee. He’ll be back later. Anyway, what do you say?” she asks, reaching for the wig and waving it in my face. “Fancy being someone else for an hour or two?”

I sigh in surrender. “Fine. I’ll give it a try. But it won’t work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Ten minutes later, Ana has transformed me into a sophisticated French woman with a glossy chestnut bob, thick black shades, a crisp beige trench, ankle grazer jeans and white sneakers. She’s dressed the same, but with a navy jacket, a blonde elfin wig—a total change from her usual long dark plait—and geeky red-rimmed glasses. Ana has been with me for so much of my career, she’s almost as recognizable as I am, so we agreed she should disguise herself too.

“No!” I hiss, as she propels me through the lobby towards the main entrance. “Are you crazy? There are about a thousand people out there.”

She turns and lowers her voice. “We can’t exactly take a back exit, can we? It will look so suspicious. Like, who are these two girls sneaking through our kitchens? The best deception happens right under the nose.”

“Whatever you say, Sherlock,” I groan. I follow her but make a point of seeking out one of Chuck’s security team standing near the entrance. At least I can run to him if this doesn’t work.

“Chin up,” Ana hisses under her breath as we near the doors. “If you look as though you’re hiding something, people will suspect you are.”

I hold my breath as a doorman opens the heavy glass doors and Ana steps through, me following close on her heels. We may be wearing disguises, but they are eye catching ones at that, so we attract a few glances as we make our way through the crowd. But, I do as Ana says and keep my chin up, looking straight ahead, willing my heart rate to slow the hell down. I haven’t ventured anywhere without security since I first hit number one and almost immediately, half the state of Massachusetts seemed to be camped out on my doorstep. That was five years ago. I haven’t been without security for a quarter of my whole life. But now, with the crowd thinning out, and no one having seen through the disguise Ana has wrapped around me, I’m beginning to feel an unnerving combination of excitement, freedom and almost paralyzing fear. Ana seems to sense this and reaches behind her to hold my hand. I take it gratefully and she tugs me through the last row of fans all waiting for a glimpse of the popstar who’s just managed to sneak past them all unnoticed.

 

We make it two blocks and turn a corner before we cover our mouths and scream at each other.

“Oh my God, Ray. I didn’t think we’d do it!”

“What?” I squeal. “You thought it might not work? And now you tell me?”

“Blind optimism,” she giggles, taking my hand and pulling me along the sidewalk. “It’ll get you everywhere.”

I let her drag me another two blocks until we reach a park with a large marina beyond it. Ana leads me to a quiet spot on the outer edge of the park and we sit down beneath a cluster of palm trees. I breathe in deeply and stretch my legs out in the shade.

“This couldn’t be more different to Middlesex County.”

“Right? The vibe for a start. It’s just gorgeous here,” Ana sighs. She removes her giant sunglasses and rests them on the grass beside her.

I watch her close her eyes and hold her face up to the sun peeking through the leaves. “I envy you, you know.”

She snaps her head back to me. “Why?”

“You can just take off your glasses like that and, I don’t know, be yourself.”

She looks around. “You can do it too. No one’ll see. It’s really quiet here.”

I feel both courageous and petrified as I do the same, removing my glasses and placing them on the ground. I lean back on my elbows and relish the anonymity, the freedom of my face being uncovered and open, in public. “This is awesome. Thank you, Ana.”

“What for? Thank Miami, not me,” she grins, laying back and stretching her arms overhead.

“I would never have done this if you hadn’t been so persuasive.”

She gives me a sidelong glance. “I was as desperate to get out of that place as you were.”

I lay back too, relaxing into the warm grass. “Are you looking forward to going home?” I ask, quietly.

Ana rolls onto her side to face me. “Would you be upset if I said yes?”

“Of course not.” I stare up at the palm leaves dancing in the blue sky. “I’m sad you’re leaving but I think it’s great your mom has you to help her out. Will you give Mrs. Willis a big kiss from me?”

“You know it. She sends her love—I can tell you that already,” Ana grins. She rolls onto her back again and takes a breath. “I hate leaving you,” she whispers.

“I’ll be fine.” She doesn’t answer but I can hear her shallow breathing. “I honestly will be. Starling Key is beautiful. It has a really cool, laid-back vibe, and the staff seem nice.”

“Yeah,” she breathes out. “They do. And I think you’ll be safe with Isaac. He doesn’t look like he’d be easily bought by Chuck. And he was soooo hot, girl.”

“Who, the security guy?”

“Um, yeah.” She fans her face to emphasize her point.

“Right. I didn’t notice. I guess I was more concerned about the way he was with my parents. You can tell a lot about how someone’s going to turn out by how much they suck up to the management, you know?”

“Yeah, I guess. He didn’t seem too impressed with your mom and Chuck, actually.”

“No,” I giggle. “I liked that.”

Ana sits up and brushes blades of grass from her elbows. “I think you’ll be fine. I have a good feeling about it.”

I sit up too and we both stare out at the marina. There’s something about being near open water that soothes my soul. I can’t wait for more of this when I get to Starling Key.

“Excuse me,” a small voice ventures behind us. Ana and I spin around to see a young girl, and who appears to be her father, standing behind looking at us expectantly. “It is you, isn’t it? Aurelia Bird?”

“Shit,” Ana mutters under her breath.

“It’s ok,” I mutter back. “She’s only young.”

I get to my feet and walk over to the young girl who instantly flushes beet red. “Hi, I’m Aurelia,” I say, bending down to her level. She is shaking like a leaf. “What’s your name?”

“Ag… Ag… Ag….”

“It’s Agnes,” her father answers.

“Agnes? What a beautiful name.”

The girl sniffs and I can sense tears brewing behind her eyes. Even after five years, I still don’t get why people react to me this way. I’m a living, breathing human being exactly like them. I just sing on a stage for a living, that’s the only difference.

“Would you like a selfie, Agnes?”

I look up at her father to check it’s ok and see Ana in the corner of my eye pacing on the spot. Her father nods and offers his phone. I crouch next to the girl, holding the phone up to face us. “Smile!” I say, softly. She manages a very small one before she bursts into tears.

 

“Hey! It’s ok,” I say, putting my arms around her. “It’s ok, Agnes.”

A couple minutes pass and I can sense Ana having a conniption behind me. “It’s so nice to meet you,” I say, pulling away from the hiccupping girl. I stand and give the father an apologetic smile, then join Ana to walk out of the park.

“Put these on,” she orders, handing me my sunglasses. I do as she says and we walk quickly back along the road towards the hotel. “I have a bad feeling.”

“A bad feeling about what?”

“As nice as those people were, they have your photo. It’s probably on social media already, location tagged and all.”

We get one block away and the sound of stampeding feet freezes me to the spot. The source of the sound is not yet visible. Ana and I look at each other. Even behind the sunglasses, I can tell she is freaking out. She spins around to scan the area; Ana was always quicker on her feet than me.

“Down there,” she hisses, pointing to a back road filled with dumpsters. “Go hide. I’ll send someone to find you.”

I stare at her. Is she out of her mind? The sound of running feet gets closer. “Go!” she hisses.

I spin in my sneakers and run down the back alleyway, keeping as close to the dumpsters as I can in case I need to dive behind one of them. I turn back and see Ana looking straight ahead, her posture rigid. I keep running, dodging bits of trash that have likely been dragged out of the dumpsters by vermin. I look back again and Ana is nowhere to be seen. Instead, there’s a giant mob of people in her place. Shit. I keep running until I realize I’m close to the end of the alley and right around the corner from the Ritz Carlton. I can hear chanting so there is still a crowd outside the hotel. I take a left, hoping to get in through a back exit, then I hear someone yell. “She’s there!”

I turn to see another group of people appear in the alley to my right. It’s one thing to be courteous to a lone fan, a young girl who chances upon me in the middle of a quiet park, but I’ve been in the business long enough now to know it’s a whole other thing to find yourself mobbed by a group of people fanatical enough to stand outside a hotel for hours—days even—waiting for a slight glimpse. My legs burn as I run as fast as I can to the back of the hotel. I look over my shoulder to see the group flying up behind me, and when I spin back around, I slam into something large and solid. An arm wraps around me, lifting me up and over a thick, broad shoulder, and again we’re running.

“I’ve got her. I need back-up. Side exit. Five seconds.”

I would cry with relief if I wasn’t hyperventilating so badly. We burst through a fire exit and keep running down a concrete corridor. Three security guards pass us heading for the exit. I can’t see them but I hear commotion as the group of fans slam against the closed door. A gun fires and finally, my tears fall.

I doubt anyone is going to be hurt but to think all this is my fault almost cripples me. We eventually reach my parents’ suite on the top floor and the security guard—who I now recognize as my stepfather’s number one, Franklin—lowers me to the couch, where I sit, trembling.

Chuck emerges from another room and comes to sit opposite me, frown lines indented on his brow, and waits until my sobs slow a little.

“What the hell were you thinking?” His voice is low and menacing.

“Ana…” is all I can say.

“Forget Ana,” he rumbles. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinking,” I stammer. “I was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone outside. We were stupid.”

“Damn right you were. Who’s idea was it?”

I look up at Chuck, finally, to see him glaring at me with a venom I haven’t seen before. “Does it matter?”

“So it was Ana’s.”

“No,” I fluster. “No, it was my idea. Don’t blame Ana for this. She tried to talk me out of it.”

“So why was none of this…” he scans his appalled eyes over my outfit, “shit packed in your bags? Huh?”

“I knew that you or someone else would probably find it. I made Ana pack it.”

“You just said you hadn’t thought about pulling this ridiculous stunt. But now you’re saying you two had planned this?”

I look back at him, sheepishly. I know I’ve landed us both in serious trouble. The best I can do now is say nothing.

“She leaves. Today. And you will not see her again until after the residency.”

“What? That’s in almost five months!” I gasp.

“Exactly. She is a bad influence, Aurelia. I will not have anyone put you at risk like that again under my watch. Do you understand?”

“Wh—what about Billy?”

“Him too. I need complete focus from you. I don’t need idiot kids from back home who have no idea what it’s like to manage a multi-billion dollar music career, getting in the way, thinking they know what’s best for you.”

My voice feels squeezed. “They don’t get in the way,” I whisper.

“Of course that’s what you think. You can’t be objective. That’s why you have me.”

“Where’s Mom?” I ask, sheepishly. Maybe Mom could get Chuck to see reason. Not that she really helps on that front anymore. She’s more interested in shopping and lunching with her so-called friends than defending me to my stepfather.

“She’s out. And she will agree with me anyway, so don’t even think of trying to get out of this through your mother.” He gets up to end the conversation. “You’ll thank me for this one day.”

He gives me one last disappointed glare then walks out of the room as smoothly as he walked in.

I watch him leave then drop my gaze to my fingers which are still trembling. He’s just removed the only support I had. I doubt that the ‘one day’ he refers to will ever come.