I must’ve practiced for this moment dozens of times before today. I know exactly how I want to introduce myself, how I want to smile, the way my head should tilt.
But suddenly my mouth is numb and my vocal chords have stopped functioning.
I can’t even move my tongue. It’s in knots.
I never thought the phrase “tongue-tied” could feel so accurate, but right now it literally applies to me.
It’s been like this since the moment I walked through the door of Holden Quinn’s spectacular penthouse office. Maybe it started when I caught sight of Manhattan through the floor-to-ceiling window behind his desk, with the skyscrapers in the distance winking to life under the still rising sun. Or maybe it’s when I heard the surreal click-click-click of my heels on the polished onyx floor.
Actually, it’s neither.
I can pinpoint the exact instant my tongue stopped working—it was the second Holden Quinn’s skin touched mine. In that brief impersonal handshake, an electric circuit coursed through my body. It must have shorted out my brain too, because in that span of time, I started imagining the way his mouth might move against mine, or how those taut muscles beneath his suit would feel pressed up against my naked skin.
Which is ridiculous.
I expected to feel a lot of things about Holden Quinn—but unadulterated lust certainly wasn’t one of them.
He leans forward, elbows on the desk, large hands clasped, pointer fingers steepled with nonchalant formality. “So,” he says. “You knew Mrs. Kratky, then?”
I take a sip of coffee, allowing the exotic warm liquid to loosen the knot in my mouth. My tongue slowly begins to unravel. After a long pause, my voice works surprisingly well. “Knew of her,” I say, the first but not the last of several lies I’ll tell today.
His chocolate eyes harden. “I see.”
I flick my tongue across my top lip, moistening my dry mouth, reassuring myself that I can in fact still talk. “As I mentioned in my e-mail, I understand she was a very well-liked teacher …” My voice trails off as I realize I’m already losing him. A muscle at the side of his temple jerks. I clear my throat, and keep pushing forward before I lose my nerve. “I’m afraid she was gone before I could take her class.”
Holden’s expression softens.
My cheeks flush a little at my deception. The truth is, I’d long since moved from Maine before I was old enough to attend high school. My mother and I packed only a suitcase, then snuck out of town, leaving behind our home, our friends, and the horrific memories of a tragic day when a lone psychopath opened fire on a classroom, killing twenty-six students and a teacher before shooting himself in the head.
Not a psychopath, I remind myself.
My father. Roger Moorehouse.
A sharp pain stabs into my chest.
This secret I’ve been carrying with me for almost my entire life still hurts as badly now as it did when I was a little kid.
Ten years later and I’m still looking for answers, for some kind of rationale that will help me understand how a man that once took me to movies on the weekends and bought me candy, suddenly became a mass murderer.
I glance down at my hands folded on my lap, fingers interlaced to stop them from fidgeting.
“She was a thoughtful woman,” Holden says, mistaking my personal, selfish pain, for something more compassionate. “Truly an angel.”
I know all about Mrs. Kratky—her contributions to charity, the community, the love she had for her students. I’ve researched every facet of her life that isn’t closed off to the public, but it’s still not enough. Nowhere close to what will explain why my father murdered her. Why her class? Why those students?
What really happened that day?
Pinpricks of tears sting my eyes.
Holden shifts uncomfortably. “Perhaps we should just move on to your questions then, Miss Faber?”
“Chelsea.” I lift my gaze, and my breath hitches. Holden Quinn has an intelligent soul—dark like his hair, his aura. I can’t decide if I want to hop on the back of a Harley with him or have him bend me over a desk and punish me for my growing list of falsehoods.
Christ, Chelsea. Something must be seriously wrong with my brain, because neither of those situations is consistent with—
Well, with me.
I uncross my legs and tuck my hands under my bare thighs. Sweat creases the back of my knees, making my skin stick to the leather chair. A soft crackle whispers through the awkward silence as I change position.
“You’ve obviously read the many articles that were written about the incident,” Holden says coolly. “I’m not sure I can provide any additional insight at this stage.”
The beat of silence between us stretches while I gather my nerves. I inhale, blow out a slow, deep breath. “I wondered if there might be some things about that day you remember now, things that you may have blocked out at the time?”
Holden’s lip curls into a slight sneer.
I fumble to backtrack. “I just mean, sometimes, the victims of such crimes…”
The high-pitched ring of his office phone cuts off the rest of my painfully awkward sentence. He holds up a finger and answers with a curt greeting. I cringe, knowing I’m dangerously close to setting off his infamous temper.
My eyes sweep across the office, noting the commendations on the wall, the collection of photographs depicting well-noted business acquisitions and monumental trades on the New York stock exchange. Impressive. In my research, I’ve learned that victims respond to tragedy in one of two ways—they allow it to define them, or they use it to define themselves.
Holden Quinn certainly belongs to the latter group.
Daylight Holdings is the most successful hedge fund firm in the state, one of the most well known in the world. The partners—all three survivors of my father’s senseless killing spree—built the company from nothing but the sheer determination to rise from the ashes of a catastrophe that shook the entire country. Security at schools tightened, teachers became stricter, debates about gun laws heated up across the nation.
“Just make a decision, Mason,” Holden says into the phone. “I’m in the middle of something and don’t have time to screw around.” He hangs up the phone and clears his throat. “Continue,” he says to me.
Tension radiates from him, creating a claustrophobic thickness to the air that makes my skin prickle. The hair at the back of my neck stands at alert. “Is everything okay?”
His dark eyes narrow into thin slits. “That’s none of your concern, Miss Faber.”
“Chelsea,” I say again. The way he says my last name only jacks up my paranoia. I haven’t even stuttered out a full question, and he’s already suspicious. It’s like he has laser vision, and it’s trained on my lying soul.
Holden clucks his tongue softly. “Remind me again. You’re a student of…?”
I willingly take the prompt. “Sociology and criminal justice.” That much is true, at least. “I’m writing my dissertation on mass murders and the larger social implications of such horrific crimes.”
Holden’s eyebrow lifts. “Dark subject matter.”
I take a deep breath and keep going. “I’ve been interviewing victims…”
His hand tenses around his coffee cup with enough force to turn his knuckles white. “And you chose this incident after ten years because of your connection to Mrs. Kratky?”
My chest tightens. “It happened in my home town.”
Truth, but not even close to the real truth…
Mom and I have managed to keep our identities out of the press, but neither of us has forgotten who we are, and what we’re running from. Maybe we could shake the hatred thrown at us by former friends and family, but the shame and despair still clings to me, like the cloying scent of death. Mom begged me not to revisit the past. I have to. It’s the only way I’ll ever be free.
“Do you have student identification?”
The question rattles me. “Excuse me?”
Holden stands and begins to pace the length of his generous office. Every few seconds, he turns to face the window, then pivots to stare at me. His eyes smolder with conflicting emotions. It’s like he can’t tell if he wants to strangle me or fuck me.
Holy shit, Chelsea. I blink at the ridiculousness of my wayward thoughts.
Holden turns again and puts his hands in his pockets, drawing my attention to his firm torso. A blue tie hangs from his neck like an arrow, pointing downward to the muscles rippling beneath his crisp white shirt. My gaze lingers on his groin. I’m probably imagining it, but I’d swear his cock has gone partially erect. A blush creeps up the side of my neck and I look away.
“You’re not a reporter, are you?”
“Of course not,” I blurt out, shocked by the accusation. “I’d tell you if I was a journalist.”
My chest squeezes at yet another misleading statement. I’m not a journalist, but I haven’t been up front with him either. My dissertation is part of why I’m here, but my true agenda is to once and for all uncover the truth behind the tragedy that continues to haunt me.
The community lost a beloved teacher.
Parents lost their children.
I lost the one man I thought would never betray me: my father.
“Are you hoping to publish a book, get some money out of this tragedy?”
I gasp at the outwardly cruel tone of his voice.
“I’m not here for money.”
“They all say that. But everyone seems to want what I have. Especially beautiful young women like yourself.”
I flush for many reasons, not least of all because he called me beautiful. But I’m also truly offended.
I’d have to live under a rock to not know Holden Quinn’s worth. A recent issue of Forbes listed the partners’ combined earnings at several billion dollars, a staggering amount of wealth. Money doesn’t impress me.
I keep trying to tell myself that’s why I’m drawn to Holden, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. I’m mesmerized by the way he looks at me, like he could gobble me up in one wolfish bite.
Holden knows it too, I can see it in his eyes, his cocky smirk, the way he stands in such a way that I can’t help but focus on his groin and wonder what it might be like to feel him inside me.
I stand abruptly. “Perhaps this was a mistake. You don’t seem to think very much of me or my reason for coming here.”
His grin goes wide. “Sit, Miss Faber.”
My name on his lips gives me pause. I ease back into the chair, breathing in steady breaths to calm my nerves, my temper. Every muscle in my body is rigid.
Holden leans up against the edge of his glass desk, arms crossed. He’s close enough I can smell his musky scent. His knees knock up against mine, and static electricity buzzes through my skin.
“I don’t think we have anything else to say to each other,” I say, my voice so small it’s almost a squeak. “I’d like to leave now.”
His eyes twinkle with unexpected mischief, and my whole body goes slack with yearning.
“Perhaps you’d care to hear my proposal first.”