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Being Nikki, Page 2

Meg Cabot

Chapter 2

  I WAS ALONE IN MY HOTEL ROOM (WELL, alone except for Cosabella, who wouldn’t stop licking the salt water from my face), attempting to defrost in my balcony’s private hot tub. Brandon and the rest of the people from the photo shoot had gone off for another one of their thousand-dollar sashimi dinners—expensed to Brandon’s father, billionaire Robert Stark, of course—at the hotel restaurant downstairs. I’d declined joining them in favor of the hot tub, a burger from room service, and a few rounds of Journeyquest in front of my MacBook Air. Listening to them gossip about the Olsen twins and then dancing to technopop, which I knew would follow, didn’t seem all that appealing after what I’d been through. Actually, it never seemed all that appealing to me…although Brandon had stood outside my door for a long time, begging me to reconsider, while I’d shivered. I’d finally convinced him to leave only by saying I’d come down later…a total lie. Which was why, when Nikki’s cell phone played the first few bars of “Barracuda,” I was sure it was him calling. It’s embarrassing to have “Barracuda” as a ringtone. But I’d never gotten around to changing it. Actually, since I’d never gotten over my suspicion that Nikki’s Stark brand cell phone was bugged (her Stark brand PC had had tracking software on it—why wouldn’t Stark be listening in on her phone calls, too?), I’d just never bothered to take the time to figure out how to work her phone beyond hitting the delete button. I simply avoided using it most of the time, preferring instead to make my personal calls on the iPhone I’d bought with one of Nikki’s credit cards. I checked the caller ID (I’d totally learned not to pick up unless I recognized the name. Otherwise I’d find myself at the receiving end of a long harangue about why I hadn’t called in so long and how much someone with a name like Eduardo was just dying to fly to Paris with me again) and was surprised to see that it wasn’t Brandon at all, but Lulu. “What?” I said. We stopped being polite with each other the night she and Brandon kidnapped me from the hospital after my brain transplant in a misguided attempt to “rescue” me. “Um,” Lulu said. “There was a guy here to see you. ” “Lulu. ” In the short time that I’d lived with Lulu, I’d come to love her like a sister. So I’d be the first person to admit she’s short a few brain cells. “There’s always a guy there to see me. ” It was sad, but true. The loft we shared was like guy central. The only guy who’d never stopped by our loft to see me was the one guy I actually longed to have there. And he hadn’t seemed to have made up his mind about whether or not he liked me yet. At least if the weird looks he kept throwing me in first-period Public Speaking were any indication. Then again, lately he was throwing McKayla Donofrio weird looks in class all the time, too, so this might have meant nothing. “This one was different,” Lulu said. That piece of information caused me to sit up straighter in the hot tub. “No kidding?” I’d gotten a bit pruny from being in the water so long. Plus my hands were wet, so I almost dropped the cell phone. “What did he want?” “Duh. To talk to you. ” “I know,” I said with forced patience. You needed a lot of patience when dealing with Lulu. It was like dealing with a five-year-old. “But what about? I mean, did he say what he wanted?” Lulu was chewing gum. Loudly. In my ear. “He just said you’d know. And that it was important and that he needed to see you and that he’d be back. He didn’t leave his name. ” My shoulders slumped with disappointment. It wasn’t Christopher. I mean, Christopher would have left his name. He was like that. Which meant it could only have been another one of them. Seriously, you’d think they’d give up already. Just how long were these scam artists going to keep at it? Really, announce on the news that a wealthy celebrity had amnesia and you wouldn’t believe what kind of scum crawled out of the bowels of the F train tunnel, claiming to be a close friend, or even a relation. It was unbelievable how many first cousins Nikki Howard apparently had. “He said you’d know what it was about,” Lulu informed me. “How am I supposed to know what it’s about if I don’t even know his name?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Lulu said. “But Karl showed me what the guy looked like on the security camera. And he wasn’t like all the other ones. This one was young. And kinda hot. And he didn’t have any visible neck tattoos. ” My heart skipped a beat. And I didn’t think it was because I’d been in the hot tub longer than the twenty minutes recommended by the sign posted beside the timer on the balcony wall. “Young?” I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I mean, they’d already been dashed so many times before when Christopher had glanced my way in Public Speaking, only to turn out to be looking at the clock, or some homeless guy out the window, or McKayla Donofrio. “Wait, Lulu…was this guy blond?” There was a pause as Lulu appeared to be trying to remember. “Yeah. Blondish, anyway. ” Good enough. “Was he tall?” I asked. “Uh-huh,” Lulu said. I thought I must be having a heart attack, which the hot tub regulations explicitly warned could happen. At least in the pregnant or elderly, of which I was neither. But I had major surgery a couple months ago, so you never know. Beside me, Cosabella was licking my cheek eagerly where some of the water from the hot tub had splashed onto my face. I had the jets on full, hoping to ease the cuts on my hands and feet caused by hanging on to the cliff face. Being a model, I was learning, could be painful, sometimes even life-threatening work. “Was he built?” I asked. I’d started scrambling to get out of the hot tub. I didn’t need to die of a heart attack just when my dream was finally about to come true. And okay, I knew an hour ago I’d been seriously considering permanent residence under the sea. But not really. It had been pretty cold down there. Also, I did kind of want to see what happened in Realms, the newest version of Journeyquest. The only problem was, in an exclusive deal with the game’s designer, you could only get Realms if you bought Stark Quark, the new PC Stark Enterprises was unveiling for the holidays. Journeyquest fans hadn’t been too mad about that. Much. “Like, not built-built, but…fit?” “It was hard to tell on the security camera,” Lulu said. “But I wouldn’t kick him out, let’s put it that way. ” “Oh, my God. ” I snatched a towel off the balcony railing. My heart was racing like I’d just gotten off the treadmill (which was something I had to do regularly now, in order stay in shape. But it was okay, because Nikki’s body enjoyed working out, unlike my old one, which despised it). I couldn’t believe it. After all this time—weeks now, I’d been waiting—Christopher was finally coming around. And I had to be in the Virgin Islands when it happened! “Lulu. Lulu. That was Christopher! It had to be!” Now that I was out of the hot tub, I’d stopped feeling like I was going to have a heart attack. My heart was still slamming into the back of my ribs, but it was doing it in a happy, anticipatory way. Like Bang-bang, Christopher wants to see you! Bang-bang, Christopher finally gets it! I had gone out of my way these past few weeks to subtly convince him that while on the outside I might seem like the perfect face of a soulless corporation intent on sucking the lifeblood from small businesses everywhere, on the inside, I was still his cool, video-game-loving, soulless-corporation-hating best friend, Em. Without actually saying so, of course, or I might have invoked the full wrath of Robert Stark and his high-powered legal team. While I was positive I could trust Christopher with the truth, and that he’d never tell—if I could even get him to believe me, which was a whole other story—what I couldn’t do was trust that my telling him wouldn’t be overheard somehow by Stark. Sometimes they even seemed to know what I was thinking. Don’t ask me how. Still, it hadn’t been easy, trying to get Christopher to see that I was Em behind Nikki Howard’s perfect blue eyes, especially what with McKayla Donofrio constantly trying to interrupt me every five seconds (what was with her new crush on Christopher? He cut his hair and suddenly even the head of Tribeca Alternative’s Business Club thought he was hot) and my having to refer to Journeyquest almost constantly, to hold his attention. Was that what had lured him to the loft? It had to be. Either Christopher was finally catching on that I was his old friend Em Watts in Nikki Howard’s body, or he was starting to think I was stalking him. M
aybe he’d stopped by to tell me he was dating McKayla and to gently recommend I seek counseling. Wait. No. I refused to stoop to such negative thinking. “Can you just ask the doormen to tell him that I’m coming home?” I said to Lulu. “Christopher, I mean? If he comes back? That I’ll be home as soon as I possibly can?” “Sure,” Lulu said, with a yawn. “I mean, I guess. But I don’t see why you can’t just call him and tell him yourself. Invite him to the holiday party—” Lulu had been planning this holiday party for weeks. Apparently, she and Nikki had been famous for it, and for their over-the-top entertaining in general. The party had been a huge success (the two years the girls had had it so far), with paparazzi showing up and photos from it appearing on Page Six and even in Vogue, and their friends loved it. Lulu herself hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything else since December first, much to the chagrin of her agent and manager, who were trying to get her to finish her album, which was supposed to drop sometime in the spring, if she ever got around to finishing it. There was just one little problem with Lulu’s holiday party this year, a problem that she didn’t know about yet: I wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t know quite how I was going to break this news to her. Basically, Lulu didn’t have any family except for me (or, rather, Nikki), since her parents were divorced and seemingly completely uninterested in her. I felt terrible leaving her alone for the holidays, especially for her big blowout party. But what was I supposed to do? I had a previous commitment. In reply to her question about Christopher, “I’m not supposed to know his number,” I reminded her. “Remember? I wonder how he found out where I live. ” “It’s not hard,” Lulu said. “All anybody has to do is look for the lines of depressed-looking Eurotrash hipsters hanging around outside, wanting to know why you won’t give them the time of day…or the money they want you to think you owe them, because they’re your long-lost unemployed cousin. ” I’d toweled off and was throwing on a pair of jeans and a cami over my bra and panties—no easy feat while clutching a cell phone and trying not to step on an excited miniature poodle. But you’d be surprised how fast you learn to get dressed in all kinds of conditions when people are constantly stripping you with absolutely no privacy whatsoever. “Lulu,” I said. “Do we have to talk about my faux relatives right now?” “Whatever,” Lulu said. “That one dude was kind of hot, in a greasy way. ” “He was my fake cousin,” I reminded her. “Seriously, Lulu, what am I going to do? Brandon wants to take me Jet Skiing tomorrow. ” “What?” Lulu sounded confused. “Brandon wants to what?” “Take me Jet Skiing,” I repeated. “He says he thinks I’m wound too tight. ” “Wound too tight?” Now Lulu sounded incredulous. “Why would he think that? The spirit transfer thing again?” “Uh…” I didn’t want to tell her the truth—the part about Brandon having recently dragged me up from the ocean floor, after my having made no attempt to save myself from drowning. It was too weird. Plus, since we were talking over Nikki’s Stark brand phone (which I was sure was bugged), and there was every chance someone from Brandon’s dad’s office was listening in on our conversation, it was a bad idea to be talking about any of this—especially my “spirit transfer”—anyway. So I just said, “Yeah. I guess so. ” “But you got the shot, right?” “Of course we got the shot,” I said. “Then,” Lulu said. “Whatever. You’re Nikki Howard. What you say goes. Just tell him the jet leaves tomorrow, or else. ” Stark Enterprises flew its employees, including me, around on one of several private jets, a move that’s time efficient for them but hardly friendly toward the environment. My carbon footprint was now huge. I’d had to donate large amounts of Nikki’s money in an attempt to offset it. “But technically it’s Brandon’s jet,” I reminded her. “Or his dad’s, really, but whatever. How do I talk him into leaving early?” “You don’t talk him into leaving early,” Lulu said. “You tell him you have to leave tomorrow, and to make sure the plane is ready. Then you do that thing you do with your tongue—” “Oh, my God,” I interrupted quickly. This was definitely not a conversation for Stark legal, or whoever might be listening in on Nikki Howard’s phone calls—if, indeed, anyone was—to overhear. “Lulu!” “Or you could just get back together with him,” Lulu said, sounding as if the idea had just occurred to her. “I mean, you know that’s what he wants. He’s been a wreck ever since the two of you broke up. But I don’t see how getting back together with him would work, since you like another guy…” “Okay, Lulu,” I said. She’d obviously been eating way too much microwave popcorn again. Some days when I wasn’t around, that’s all she ate, because she couldn’t cook. “I have to go now…” “Too bad you can’t just leave tonight,” Lulu said, with a sigh. “But that would mean flying commercial. ” She uttered the words “flying commercial” in the same revolted tone my sister, Frida, would say “wear non-designer jeans. ” “Ooooh,” Lulu squealed in my ear, having apparently just thought of something else. “I’m getting the caterer to serve oysters Rockefeller, and you know what oysters are? An aphrodisiac, that’s what. Once Christopher has one, he won’t be able to resist you!” This wasn’t the time or place to break it to her that I wasn’t going to be around for the holidays (also oysters, so not my thing), so I just said “of course” and hung up. Then I grabbed my room key and headed out to look for Brandon, Cosabella trotting along after me. I found him—or rather, Cosabella did—sitting on one of the thickly cushioned chairs on the empty moonlit deck outside the hotel bar with his face buried in the cleavage of the restaurant hostess. “Excuse me,” I said, torn between mortification and amusement. Brandon dropped the hostess in surprise. She fell off the deck chair, landing on the hard terrazzo deck with an Oof! I gasped and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Cosy barked excitedly as the hostess—her name tag read rhonda—rubbed her backside and glared at me from the ground. “Nikki. ” Brandon stood up and stepped over Rhonda as if she weren’t even there. “Are you all right? What are you doing here? I thought you said you were going to bed. ” “I am,” I said. “Or at least, I’m going to soon. Are you all right?” I asked Rhonda, since Brandon seemed to have forgotten her existence. “I’m fine,” Rhonda said, giving Brandon a withering glance he didn’t even notice. “Is there something wrong?” Brandon wanted to know. Only he was asking me, not the woman whose backside he’d nearly broken in the process of dropping her. “Can I get you something? Dinner? Are you hungry?” “No,” I said. “I’m fine. I just needed to ask you something—” “Anything. ” Brandon looked eager. “What is it?” “Um,” I said, bending down and scooping Cosy up to give Rhonda a chance to escape, since the dog kept trying to lick the hostess’s face as she attempted to climb to her feet. “It can wait…” “No, really. ” Brandon didn’t seem to care at all about Rhonda anymore, or her efforts to become vertical. “What?” Behind him, Rhonda had gotten up, smoothed out her tight black skirt, and lifted the tray on which she’d been serving Brandon his after-dinner drink when things had apparently gotten…well, cozy between them. As she walked away, her head held high, I got a hint of her perfume wafting back toward us on the warm tropical breeze. It was Nikki, currently available at a special holiday rate of forty-nine ninety-nine at any Stark Megastore. It cost Stark a couple of dollars a bottle to make (in China, of course), less than that to ship, and smelled so cloying I wouldn’t actually have worn it in a million years. “It’s just that I know you mentioned wanting to leave the day after tomorrow,” I said. “But I was wondering if we could leave a little earlier instead. ” “Earlier?” Brandon seemed confused. Whatever it was he’d apparently been expecting me to ask, it wasn’t this. I had a suspicion Lulu had been right, and that he’d been hoping I was going to ask him if he wanted to get back together. It was a hope he’d been harboring for some time. Sadly, it was never going to come true…Brandon might have been Nikki’s type, but he just wasn’t mine. At least, not while there was still hope that Christopher would someday come around. “How much earlier?” “Oh, not too much,” I said. “I was
thinking, say, tomorrow morning, around nine. ” “But that’s when Dad had us originally scheduled to leave,” Brandon said, looking astonished. “I was going to blow that off and take you on a Jet Ski tour of the island instead. ” During which, I was sure, he’d been hoping I’d fall head over heels in love with him. “Yeah,” I said. “And that’s so sweet of you. But something’s come up, and I really need to get back to town—” “And snorkeling,” Brandon said. “I was thinking we could go snorkeling tomorrow after lunch. ” Well, I couldn’t really blame him for this. I had shown a certain affinity for liking it underwater. “That sounds so fun,” I said. “But I really need to get home. ” “Why?” Brandon asked. His dark eyebrows had lowered in a manner that, if I hadn’t known better, I might have described as menacing. Except that Brandon didn’t have a menacing bone in his body. “It’s personal,” I said. I wasn’t about to elaborate further. At least, not to a guy who had, I was pretty sure, never read an entire book in his life. Not counting the Jet Ski operational manual. “But…I don’t want to leave early. ” Brandon flopped back down into the deck chair he’d popped out of, and reached for his drink. It was clear from his attitude that he was ready to argue. And that, unless I was ready to be his girlfriend, he wasn’t going anywhere. Great. I should have known it would come to this. No way, however, was I doing the thing with my tongue. Whatever it was. I slipped onto the deck chair beside Brandon’s and leaned forward, even though I knew my cami gapped in the front when I did this. I was wearing a bra, of course, so it wasn’t like he was seeing anything he hadn’t been seeing a few hours earlier when I was in my bikini. Still, he couldn’t seem to make himself not look. It really was true…the power of the cami was not to be underestimated, something Frida had tried to drill into my head years before, but I would never listen, insisting that, as a feminist, I wouldn’t wear garments that objectified the female form. Lulu was the one who’d pointed out that camis don’t objectify but enhance the parts all women should be proud of, no matter what their size. “Does your father know you’re keeping the corporate jet an extra twenty-four hours, Brandon?” I asked sweetly. Brandon went right on looking. “Who cares what my dad thinks?” he asked, a little sullenly. “It’s not like we don’t have other jets. He can use one of those if he needs one…” “Don’t you feel guilty about all the money this is costing your father, when we’ve already got the shot? Especially when it’s just so you can go snorkeling and Jet Skiing?” I asked. “No,” Brandon said, watching as I traced a little circle on his knee—a trick I’d seen Lulu perform numerous times on guys who’d bought her drinks at the nightclub Cave. Did I feel bad performing it on Brandon? A little. Did I hope it worked? Totally. “My dad and I aren’t exactly close, you know. ” “I know,” I said sympathetically. “My mom left years ago for that ashram, and I’ve barely seen her since,” Brandon went on, slurring his words a little. I could tell he’d had too much to drink. As usual. “I know,” I said again. I actually didn’t know this personally. But I’d read an article about it once in a People magazine Frida left lying around. “Look, I can’t speak for the rest of the crew, but personally, I’d prefer it if we leave tomorrow as scheduled. If we don’t”—I took my hand away from his knee, and leaned back abruptly, taking away his pleasant view down my shirt. This was another strategy Lulu had taught me. Giveth a little, then taketh away. But you have to time it just right—“I’m going to leave on the first commercial flight I can get. ” “Commercial?” Like Lulu, Brandon seemed horrified by the idea of my flying commercial. So horrified that he caught my hand and, with a quick movement, tugged me toward him. Hard. “Now what’s so important back in New York that you, Nikki Howard, would fly commercial?” he demanded. Um…oops. I always seemed to forget—maybe because he so wasn’t my type, with his frat-boy good looks and apparent lack of interest in anything but Bacardi and the latest hip-hop artist he was promoting—that Brandon was Nikki Howard’s ex. Also that the two of them—at least according to the tabloid clippings I’d found in Nikki’s room (she’d saved every article ever printed about her, in a drawer at the bottom of her night-stand)—had been hot and heavy for at least a year. The last thing I needed was Brandon getting jealous that the reason I wanted to get back to Manhattan so badly was because the guy I’m in love with might finally be coming around. “Nothing,” I said innocently. “I just have to get back to school. Remember? I’m still in school? I have finals this week. ” Brandon’s grip on my hand got a little looser. Instead of clinging possessively, he started sliding his fingers up my arm. “Oh, sure. School,” he echoed. “Finals. ” As soon as his fingers reached the back of my neck and curled into the heavy damp tangles of my hair, I realized we were going to have a problem. I won’t deny it: It felt good, having his fingers there. That was the problem: Brandon knew it. This was one of the many issues I had with what Stark Enterprises had done to me, putting my brain inside Nikki Howard’s body. I didn’t like Brandon Stark—at least, not that way. But Nikki Howard liked Brandon Stark…or at least her body did. My eyes drifted closed—totally against my will—as Brandon began to gently knead the place where my skull met my spine. This was so wrong! Brandon knew Nikki Howard was defenseless in the face of a good neck massage. Her entire body, I’d discovered shortly after a hairstylist first tried it on me, went limp when anyone started kneading the place where her spine met the back of her neck. Brandon obviously knew this, and was taking unfair advantage of the situation. “It seems like school is all you ever think about anymore,” he went on. “That and this Stark-Enterprises-is-ruining-the-country crap. ” “It’s not crap,” I murmured as his fingers went on kneading. “Your dad’s company is contributing to global warming as well as to the decay of small-town America—” “Man, it’s sexy when you talk all revolutionary like that,” Brandon murmured back. His voice sounded so close, I opened my eyes. I was surprised to find his face directly in front of mine, his lips just an inch from my mouth. Oh, no. It was happening again. I could feel myself leaning toward him, my body swaying closer to his as if pushed by some unseen force…even though kissing Brandon Stark was the last thing I wanted to do just then. Intellectually, I mean. The thing was, it wasn’t me. I had no control over it. It was Nikki. She was just boy crazy like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with a woman who enjoys kissing guys. Kissing guys is fantastic. In fact, I can’t believe I spent so much of my life pre-being-Nikki not kissing guys. The problem with Nikki was that she seemed to have spent so much of her life before my brain was inside her kissing the wrong guys. So much time, in fact, that kissing the wrong guys had become a habit too hard to break, and was now something her body did on automatic, without my being able to stop it. Like right then, for instance. Before I could do anything, my mouth was on Brandon’s, and we were full-on making out in the exact spot where just minutes before he’d been hooking up with Rhonda the hostess. And I could see why Rhonda had been into him, too. Brandon’s lips were so soft, his hand cradling the back of my head as his mouth moved insistently against mine. And I could feel that thing happening, that thing that always started happening whenever a guy started kissing Nikki, whether I liked him or not—which was how I’d almost ended up ruining my relationship with Lulu a month or two earlier, by making out with her boyfriend. It was horrible, but I honestly couldn’t seem to stop myself—er, Nikki, rather. Her body began arching toward Brandon’s as if of its own accord, my hands reaching up until they were slipping along his strong, sinewy arms, then wrapping around his neck, clinging to him. The thing was, I knew it was happening, that I was about to get lost, sucked under just like when I’d fallen into the water. I knew it was happening… …and yet I couldn’t stop myself, any more than I could keep my head upright when someone was giving me a neck massage. Because it wasn’t me. I swear it wasn’t me. And how could I control someone else’s body, someone I wasn’t? At least, someone I wasn’t yet. Not entirely. And then Brandon moved h
is hand, his fingers brushing the still sensitive raised scar along the back of my head. Little needles of pain shot though me. I jerked my face from his. “Ow!” I cried. “What?” Brandon’s expression had turned from one of desire to one of confusion. “What’d I do? Hey, what is that on your head? You have…Are those hair extensions?” “It’s not…it’s…never mind. ” I leaned back in my chair, my lips still throbbing a little from where he’d pressed them against his. I felt a myriad of emotions, but the primary one was relief. I had never been so grateful for my scar. What was I doing? Making out with Brandon? Oh, my God. Lulu had said to do the tongue thing, but seriously, I hadn’t meant to take her literally. “J-just another reason why it would be better for us to leave tomorrow, as scheduled. ” My voice wasn’t as steady as I might have hoped, considering the fact that I was in love with someone else. The truth was, while I was grateful to Stark Enterprises for giving me the chance to live, I sometimes wished they’d found someone else’s body to slip my brain into…someone not quite so…excitable as Nikki. “Fine,” Brandon said, looking down at his own hand, as if he were expecting to see it covered in blood. Which was ridiculous. I’d had my stitches out weeks ago. Only he didn’t know that. “You know, Nik, I just don’t get you lately,” Brandon went on, eyeing me from his deck chair. “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry about that. I have…some issues. I’m working on them. But I really do like you, Brandon. ” He raised one of those dark eyebrows. “Yeah?” he said. “How much? Enough to want to get back together? Because I gotta tell you…” There was no mistaking his tone. “I’d be up for it. ” I swallowed, feeling panic rise. This was so not what I needed…and exactly what I deserved for flirting with the boss’s son. Why had I ever thought I had the slightest idea what I was doing, playing with Brandon’s emotions the way I just had? I haven’t been Nikki long enough to know how to play the game the way she apparently used to. “Um, that is so sweet of you, Brandon,” I said quickly. “But I think it’s probably better I stay single for now, while I work out those issues I mentioned. ” Of course, if things went the way I hoped they would when I got home, and Christopher and I got together, Brandon was going to be mad when he found out I was lying to him about the wanting to stay single thing. But I’d cross that bridge when I got to it. Brandon glared at me, almost as if he’d been reading my thoughts. “You’ve never been single a minute of your life,” he said. “Who’s the guy?” “There’s no guy,” I assured him, with a laugh. I hoped the laugh didn’t sound as shaky to him as it did to me. “Honest. I’m just taking some me time right now. ” I’d heard that on Oprah the other day. Would he fall for it? Maybe if I nagged him a little to do the same. “You might want to try it as well. I think there are things you could be doing to help convince your dad to make his company more globally responsible. ” Brandon looked away. “My dad and I have some issues of our own,” he said tonelessly. “Oh,” I said. “Right. ” I remembered the conversation we’d had about his dad at a photo shoot a month or two earlier. He doesn’t speak to the talent, Brandon had said. Or to me. “I guess I’ll call the pilot, then, if leaving early is all you want. ” Brandon fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for his cell phone. He looked a little…there was no other way to describe it: angry. And why wouldn’t he be? It couldn’t be easy, growing up in a billionaire’s shadow. Sure, he had everything a guy could want. Except his dad’s approval. And Nikki Howard to make out with, apparently. “Thanks, Bran,” I said, and cleared my throat. “You’re a great guy. ” “Yeah,” Brandon said, looking everywhere but at me. “That’s what they all say. ” It was amazing, I thought to myself as I walked back to my suite, Cosabella trotting along at my heels. Thanks to the gigantic scar along the back of my head, I’d been saved from making a pretty colossal mistake. Well, probably. I doubt Brandon and I would really have gotten it on right there, outside Sea Breezes, the hotel bar. But if it hadn’t been for the surgery, I wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place. Instead, I’d be dead. Maybe, I thought, as I noticed how the full moon was shining down on the cold, dark water that, a few hours before, I’d been immersed in, it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and start appreciating the fact that I was alive. Sure, my new life wasn’t perfect. But things were starting to look up. Funny how, at the time, I really did believe that. As it turned out, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong.