I learned early not to trust men or money. Both of them have a way of disappearing when you need them most. There must have been some hope left, though.
Because it’s my stepbrother who breaks me completely.
Salt hits my tongue before the driver opens the door, splashing the sleek leather interior of the limo with watercolor light. This dock homes the most expensive boats in Boston, outfitting them with caviar and champagne before they set sail.
The driver’s face is in shadow, sunshine forming a halo around him, but I already know he’s expressionless. Like that time I sweet-talked my way into the flight attendant’s lounge? He showed up in his black suit and bland smile, having searched the whole airport with security.
Like every part of my father’s life, he’s cold and predictable and expensive.
Gravel shifts beneath my sandals. I have to squint my eyes against the brightness. Seagulls swoop above me as I step onto the long deck, searching for their breakfast, completely oblivious to the thud of my heart against my ribs.
I would know which yacht belongs to Daddy even if I hadn’t seen it before. It’s the biggest one, the best one. The one that gleams the brightest, with Liquid Asset in bold letters.
The silhouettes of three people split the sunlight.
Three people, not one. Disappointment hitches my breath. What did I expect?
Last year Daddy’s new wife got so drunk she threw her champagne flute in the air. It came down in a splash of pale liquid and bubbling despair. After the steward mopped up the broken crystal, once the wife had gone belowdecks to sleep it off, Daddy sat looking out at the dark sea. I sat beside him. “Why?” I asked, unable to keep the question in. After so many years it came out. “Why do you keep getting married to these people?”
He had been a little drunk himself. Not enough to play volleyball with the drinkware, but enough that his eyes had gleamed with a distant sadness. He pulled me close, and I nestled against him the way I had as a little girl, breathing in the cedar-salt scent of him.
“I love your mother,” he said then, present tense. He loves her.
There shouldn’t have been enough of the wide-eyed little girl inside me to believe it meant my parents would get back together, not after ten years and even more spouses between them. They couldn’t even arrange my visits on spring break without an intermediary—me, of course. But maybe some part of me thought there wouldn’t be a new wife this year, after that confession.
Well, now I know for sure. There’s no chance of them being together, not even in the same room. But it would be nice if Daddy had stopped marrying his way through every divorcée in Boston’s upper crust. Like the limo that picks me up from the airport, there’s a new model every year.
Daddy smiles at me from the deck, and I can’t help the smile that meets his. Can’t help the little run I make down the rest of the deck before launching myself into his bear hug. We’re far from a happy family, but I always love seeing him. I may be fifteen years old, but the little girl inside me wears pigtails and wants to run to her daddy.
Even if it means putting up with the strangers he marries.
“How’s my girl?” he asks, tucking me into his side.
“Sleepy.” A guy in a rumpled suit had snored beside me the whole flight, which would have been more annoying if I hadn’t swiped his phone and read his e-mail using the plane’s Wi-Fi. Someone had a secret girlfriend in New York City. At least she used to be secret. A few clicks had changed that as we were flying over the Atlantic.
Guilt still knots my stomach, but then I imagine my mother as that man’s wife. More likely she would be the secret girlfriend. Men shouldn’t be allowed to hurt her so much.
“You can take a nap after brunch,” says the woman I was hoping wouldn’t speak to me.
“Harper,” Daddy says, giving my arm a secret squeeze. He’s never forgotten the time I yelled, You aren’t my mommy.Never mind that I was seven years old. “This is Louise Bardot. Louise, this is Harper. Isn’t she beautiful?”
I’m surprised I don’t get frostbite, that’s how chilly this woman’s smile is. “Everything you said about her is true, Graham. She’s an absolute doll.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say just to see her dark eyes flash with rage.
Daddy’s smart enough to run a Fortune 500 company, but he can’t figure out when a woman is bullshitting him. Or maybe he knows, because he steers me away from her. “There’s someone else I want you to meet. This is Christopher.”
There have been other boys. Other girls. Most of the time we ignore each other, having bigger problems in our broken rich-kid lives than the stepsibling of the month. Sometimes one of them will take a swipe at me, with sharp words or a surprise shove as we pass in the hallway. A preemptive strike, so I know better than to mess with them.
I don’t want to mess with them. They’ll be gone by next year.
There’s no reason Christopher should be different.
Except that he is.
Even in a burst of sunlight he manages to look like a shadow, with raven hair and onyx eyes. He’s taller than me, taller than Daddy. His arms solid and muscled beneath the thin cotton of his black T-shirt. He’s wearing jeans, technically, but nothing about him is casual. Not the way he holds himself, as if he needs to guard something—maybe himself. And definitely not the way he’s looking at me, intensity a physical brush against my skin, like he’s made of ocean and I’m sand, washed away, washed away, becoming smooth and pliable beneath him.
He inclines his head. “Your dad talks a lot about you.”
“He never mentioned you,” I say before I can stop myself. I would have remembered. He looks like some kind of conquering warrior, like a knight from the old medieval days. The kind who would have defended the peasants, but who would also have demanded his due.
Daddy makes a disapproving sound. “Harper.”
The corner of Christopher’s mouth turns up. “There’s not much to say.”
“Liar,” I say before I can stop myself. “I bet you’re top ten percent of your class.”
“Graduated valedictorian,” Daddy says, pride rich in his voice. “Now he’s in his first year at Emerson studying business with a 4.0 GPA. You could learn a thing or two from him.”
It’s really not surprising Daddy has a new wife every year. The only thing he knows how to do with the female of the species is make us mad. “He can get good grades, but can he paint a three-story Medusa on the wall of the gymnasium?”
A rueful laugh. “That little stunt cost me a brand-new science lab.”
Even two coats of thick white primer hadn’t completely covered the shape of her thick lips and wild snake hair, painted dark and angry in the small hours of the morning, using the folded-up accordion stands for scaffolding.
The new wife makes some kind of cooing sound, like a bird on the street, and Daddy goes to make her a drink. That leaves me and Christopher standing on the deck, the echo of his perfect GPA and my costly little stunt hanging in the air between us.
“Daddy seems to love you,” I say, unable to keep the venom from my voice.
He laughs softly, which infuriates me. “You’re one to talk.”
“He’s my dad. Of course he loves me.”
“Of course. That’s why you need to paint the gym to get him to notice you.”
Asshole. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“So you aren’t a poor little rich girl?”
There’s a twinge in my chest. “We both know you’ll be gone next year. I’ll never see you again, and you’ll never see me, so let’s just stay out of each other’s way for the next week, okay?”
“Sure you wouldn’t rather learn a thing or two from me?” he asks, mocking.
“If I want to know how to make enemies and alienate people, I’ll call you.”
He blinks, and I think for a minute that I may have actually struck a nerve. Then his eyes harden. “I’ll stay out of your way,” he says, his voice so cold it makes me shiver even as the sun beats its heavy blanket on my bare shoulders.
It’s not the worst encounter I’ve ever had with a stepsibling, but it’s the first time I think I started it. Apparently I’m not above lashing out first, if the boy in question is smart and handsome enough.
Though he isn’t really a boy, this one. His first year at Emerson College. Business school. No wonder Daddy loves him. He probably thinks he’s found his true heir, because his wild daughter isn’t going to take over the family empire. That will never be me, but I was right about one thing.
Christopher will be gone next year. They always are.