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Twisted Lies by Ana Huang


Twisted Lies

by Ana Huang

Published by Bloom

Book 4 in the Twisted Series


He'll do anything to have her...including lie.

Charming, deadly, and smart enough to hide it, Christian Harper is a monster dressed in the perfectly tailored suits of a gentleman.

He has little use for morals and even less use for love, but he can’t deny the strange pull he feels toward the woman living just one floor below him.


She’s the object of his darkest desires, the only puzzle he can’t solve. And when the opportunity to get closer to her arises, he breaks his own rules to offer her a deal she can’t refuse.

Every monster has their weakness. She’s his.

His obsession.

His addiction.

His only exception.

**

Sweet, shy, and introverted despite her social media fame, Stella Alonso is a romantic who keeps her heart in a cage.

Between her two jobs, she has little time or desire for a relationship.

But when a threat from her past drives her into the arms—and house—of the most dangerous man she’s ever met, she’s tempted to let herself feel something for the first time in a long time.

Because despite Christian’s cold nature, he makes her feel everything when she’s with him.

Passionate.

Protected.

Truly wanted.

Theirs is a love twisted with secrets and tainted by lies…and when the truths are finally revealed, they could shatter everything.



Genre


Triggers

Stalking, Kidnapping, Violence, Death


 

I know, I know ... I should have done this review a long time ago.

But I've been busy.

But here it is! My thoughts on the final book in the Twisted series, Twisted Lies.

I loved it.

I think it's actually my favorite in the series.'

It had everything I loved about the past three books - sexy and steamy, alpha men, strong female leads, and interesting story woven amongst all the juicy stuff we love to read in this genre.

There were things that annoyed me, however.

The main one being that I feel like every man from the Twisted series is the same with minor changes to make them stand out.

All alpha men into rough sex.

Two of them are mega-powerful and insanely rich.

Two of them are successful in their careers, and don't hurt financially.

All have trauma relating to their families and pasts. All of them have issues with love.

The wash, rinse, and repeat character profiles got a little boring.

Did I enjoy Christian's character? Absolutely. Loved him and all his twisted lies. But in the back of my head the entire time, I was thinking that he was the same as the others with just minor tweaks.

Stella's character arc was interesting. Ana Huang does make an effort to have the leading ladies have different personalities, and different problems to tackle. They do all have similar traumas, however. Family issues.

Stella's issues with her family were at least much more refreshing.

And her problem with the stalker was also interesting to read, and felt pretty realistic, considering her career.

I don't know how many social media creators who have admitted to being stalked, but I know I have heard quite a few.

The romance was great. Ana Huang is superb with writing a romance filled with tension. It's always a slow burn, but when it finally happens, its explosive, intense, and consuming.


Twisted Lies was an entertaining and steamy end to this much loved series. And while I didn't love how similar the characters were to one another, I find myself intrigued by the spin off series Kings of Sin.



 



 

Christian: “Careful, Stella.”

His low warning pulsed between my legs.

Christian: “I’m not the gentleman you think I am.”


Green eyes. Green dress. Symbolic of life and nature. Green.

Apparently it was my new favorite fucking color.


No matter what I did, something always drew me back—the gentle lilt of her voice, the scent of fresh florals and greenery. A turquoise ring that burned a hole in my pocket long after I’d vowed to toss it in the trash. It wasn’t love. But it was maddening.


Christian: “What I want…”

I pressed a thumb against the pulse at the base of her neck. Its wild flutter told me she wasn’t as indifferent to the pull between us as she pretended to be.

Christian: “Is for you to be safe. There are bad people in this world, Butterfly, and some of them are in the room right outside. So next time, I don’t care if I’m in the middle of a conversation with the queen of fucking England. Interrupt me. Understand?”

Stella’s eyes narrowed.

Stella: “Butterfly?”

Beautiful. Elusive. Hard to catch. When I didn’t answer, she released an exhale that caressed my chest and tightened my groin to the point of pain.

Stella: “Is that all you want?”

Christian: “Not even close.”


Jules: “It’s about time.”

Jules stood in the hall, one hand planted on her hip and the other carrying a drinks tray from a nearby coffee shop.

Jules: “Five more minutes and I would’ve broken down your door.”

Stella: “With your arm strength? Doubtful.”

I cracked a smile at her offended gasp.


Jules: “Is sex part of the deal? If it’s not, it should be. Christian looks like he would be a beast in bed.”

As expected, Jules was the first to get over her shock and jump straight to the dirty part.

Jules: “No offense, but you could use a little lovin’ in your life. As much as we adore you, there are some things we can’t provide.”


Christian: “Let me worry about business strategy. You do what you do best.”

Kage: “Kick ass and be devastatingly handsome?”

Christian: “If that’s what you think, you need a new mirror, because it’s lying to you.”


Rhys Larsen used to be my top bodyguard until he fell prey to the disease people called love. Now, he was the prince consort of Eldorra.

Sometimes, I texted him photos of him looking bored and grumpy at various diplomatic functions just to fuck with him. I didn’t need to say anything for him to get the gist. You’re whipped and it’s pathetic.


Christian: “Duly noted. Now, I believe you have an event early tomorrow morning. Better get to sleep, Your Highness. You need your beauty rest for the photo ops.”

Rhys: “Fuck you.”

Christian: “Sadly, while I’m sure you have the women of Eldorra swooning, you’re not my type.”


Christian: “Kage, I need you for an assignment…yes. Overnight.”

Several beats passed before he spoke again, his voice hard.

Christian: “I don’t give a fuck if you’re dining with the pope or having sex with Margot fucking Robbie. I want you on the tenth floor of the Mirage in twenty minutes.”


Stella: “Christian!”

She placed a hand over her chest, her face two shades paler than usual.

Stella: “What are you doing here?”

Christian: “Scanning your apartment for hidden cameras. There are none,”

I added when she paled further.

Stella: “You can’t enter my apartment without notice! That’s an invasion of privacy.”

Christian: “Privacy doesn’t exist when it comes to security.”

Everyone wanted privacy until they were in trouble. Then they gave up keys and passwords like they were nothing. I’d merely skipped the inevitable back-and-forth with Stella about access and jumped straight to the protection part.

Stella: “Sounds like something a tyrant would say.”

Christian: “I’m glad you understand.”


She’d sent a screenshot of a Stories poll. A picture of me, back turned and phone to my ear, took up the left side of the screen; a familiar purple unicorn dominated the right side. The question was simple: Who would you rather cuddle with? Mr. Harper or Mr. Unicorn?

Stella: “You’re losing, by the way. Mr. Unicorn is beating you 53 to 47 percent.”

I stared at her, sure I was hearing wrong and that she didn’t have the fucking audacity to pit me against a raggedy stuffed animal with a crooked eye in some absurd social media poll. I was also sure I couldn’t be losing to said stuffed animal.

Christian: “The poll must be broken because that’s ridiculous.”

I tried not to sound as insulted as I felt.

Stella: “It’s not, but you have twenty-three hours and fifty-one minutes to catch up.”


Christian: “You need followers with better taste if they’re choosing a unicorn over me. I’m wearing Brioni, for fuck’s sake.”


Christian: “When was the last time you left your apartment? You’re wilting.”

My mouth parted in shock at the utter rudeness of his comment.

Stella: “I am not wilting. I am merely…hibernating.”


Christian: “Call it whatever you want. The result is the same,”

Christian said, clearly unimpressed by my euphemism.

Christian: “Fifty minutes to get ready.”

Stella: “I’m not going.”

Christian: “Forty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds.”

Stella: “Nothing’s changed in the past three seconds. I’m. Not. Going.”

Christian: “This was our deal.”

His cool voice sent a rush of indignation down the back of my neck.

Christian: “You accompany me to events; I pose in your photos and act as your boyfriend. You don’t want to cut off the momentum when it’s going so well, do you?”

He was right, but that didn’t mean I appreciated Christian telling me what to do.

Stella: “Are you blackmailing me?”

His smile was all lazy charm and amusement.

Christian: “Not blackmailing. Persuading.”

Now he liked euphemisms.

Stella: “Same thing in your world.”

Christian: “You’re learning.”

Christian tapped the face of his watch.

Christian: “Forty-seven minutes.”


Stella: “I see caffeine hasn’t improved your mood.”

I loaded a plate with food and sat next to him.

Stella: “I’d hoped it would bring Dr. Jekyll back. Mr. Hyde isn’t doing it for me.”


Christian: “You’re here because you’re in danger, and since you’re now fully under my protection, we need to take appropriate steps to secure your safety. Staying here until we catch the person who’s been leaving you those notes is the first step. My team will move the rest of your belongings in today. While you’re here, you will sleep in the guest room and adhere to the house rules. No bringing friends or men over…”

His voice iced at the word men.

Christian: “And no touching unrecognizable devices. There’s a fifty-fifty chance they could kill you. Other than that, consider this your home for the foreseeable future.”

Fifty-fifty chance they could kill me? What kind of devices did he own?

Stella: “Oh.”

I forced a bright smile.

Stella: “Well, who can resist a welcome like that? You really know how to make a girl feel all warm and fuzzy.”


Ava: “Screw the wedding—crap. Hold on.”

Ava must’ve covered the speaker because her words became muffled.

Ava: “No, honey, of course I still want to get married! I was talking to Stella about the, um, wedding planner…no, don’t fire her. She’s great. I was just frustrated in the moment. Bridal nerves, you know. I’m fine now. Yes, I promise…why did I call for you? Uh, I’m craving those new raspberry lemon cookies from Crumble & Bake. Can you please run down and get some for me? Thank you! Love you.”

Ava returned, sounding breathless.

Ava: “Sorry about that. Alex has been so on edge about the wedding. He made our florist cry the other day.”

She sighed.

Ava: “We’re working on his interpersonal skills.”


Christian: “If you saw yourself the way other people see you, you’d never doubt again.”

Curiosity and something infinitely sweeter and more dangerous fluttered to life in my heart.

Stella: “How do other people see me?”

Christian’s eyes didn’t leave mine.

Christian: “Like you’re the most beautiful, most remarkable thing they’ve ever seen.”


I firmly believed that if someone showed you who they were, you should believe them. And Christian had indicated time and time again that he wasn’t interested in a real relationship. The day people stopped thinking they could change someone who didn’t want to be changed was the day fewer hearts got broken. I wanted a real relationship one day, but I did not think for a second I could ever change Christian Harper.


Christian: “It’s because you haven’t looked me in the eye since New York. Because you’re all I can fucking think about no matter where I am or who I’m with, and the thought of you hurt or upset makes me want to raze this city to the ground.”

Soft, almost desperate viciousness coated his voice.

Christian: “I’ve never wanted someone more, and I’ve never hated myself more for it.”


Christian: “I’m not a jealous man, Stella. I have never envied someone for what they have or who they’re with, and yet…”

My fingers glided down to her wrist.

Christian: “I’m jealous of every person you smile at.”

A brush over her fingers.

Christian: “Every laugh I don’t hear.”

My touch dipped to her knee and made a slow, languorous journey up her thigh.

Christian: “Every breeze that touches your skin and every sound that pours through your lips. It. Is. Maddening.”


Jules nudged Josh in the ribs with a dreamy sigh.

Jules: “Why don’t you call me princess? It’s so cute.”

Josh: “Because you’re not a princess. You’re a hellion,”

he said, earning himself a deep glare.

Josh: “And that’s just the way I like it.”


Stella: “If you want to engage in PDA too, now’s the time,”

I joked. She laughed.

Ana: “Noted, but we’re good for now.”

Her voice dropped to a stage whisper.

Ana: “Alex is allergic to PDA.”

Alex: “I am not allergic.”

He grimaced when Jules looped her arms around Josh’s neck and said something that made his face soften.

Alex: “Merely disturbed.”

Josh: “Alex has performance anxiety,”

Josh said without looking away from Jules.

Josh: “It’s okay, dude. Happens to the best of us. Maybe you can invest in the development of a pill that’ll help with your problem. It’ll be like Viagra for kissers.”

Alex: “If I were to invest in the development of anything, it would be a custom muzzle to keep you quiet.”

A mischievous dimple creased Josh’s cheek.

Josh: “Alex Volkov spending all that R and D money on me? I’m honored.”

Jules buried her face in his chest, her shoulders shaking with laughter. Ava placed her hand on Alex’s arm.

Ava: “Don’t kill them. We can’t lose a bridesmaid and best man this close to the wedding.”

Alex: “The term best man is false advertising.”

Alex pinned Josh with a dark glare.

Alex: “I should swap you out with someone else.”

Josh: “You can try, but I’m your only friend, and who can throw a better bachelor party than me? That’s right, no one.”

Josh answered his own question.

Josh: “Besides, I already put down the deposit for the jumbo banana float and custom poker cards. They’re illustrated with a drawing of Ava and a robot in a suit.”


Jules: “Listen, if you want to leave and bang his brains out, I won’t be offended. It’s a new season, babe. Time to clear out those cobwebs from your sex life. It’ll be like spring cleaning for your vagina.”


My annoyance ratcheted up another notch when he examined me with…amusement? What the fuck was so funny?

Rhys: “I’m sure you do.”

Humor lengthened his drawl.

Rhys: “Catching feelings, Harper?”

Christian: “Only that of irritation at being interrogated.”


My smile was pure ice.

Christian: “I would spend more time improving your chess skills and less worrying about other people’s business, Josh. I’ve beaten Alex in chess. Have you?”

Josh’s smile disappeared.

Josh: “What do you mean, you’ve beaten Alex in chess? When did you play chess together?”

He whipped his head toward Alex.

Josh: “You’ve been playing chess with someone else?”

Alex closed his eyes briefly before he opened them and glared at me, his expression filled with frost-tipped venom. My smile widened.

Christian: “We have a standing chess date every month.”

I swirled my drink in my glass.

Christian: “Didn’t he tell you?”

Josh looked stricken.

Josh: “You have another, secret best friend? But…I’m your best friend! I bought you a banana float for your bachelor party!”

Alex: “I don’t want a banana float, and he’s not my best friend.”

Alex’s glare intensified. I shrugged, my meaning clear. What can you do? C’est la vie.


Jarvis: “Are you threatening me in my own home?”

A steel edge ran beneath Jarvis Alonso’s voice.

Christian: “Not threatening, sir. Suggesting.”


Christian: “If you’re wondering why your daughter would keep things from you, look in the mirror. Look at how you reacted. Instead of supporting her, you attacked her. Instead of being proud of her drive and passion, you force her into a box she doesn’t belong in. Stella is one of the most selfless, creative, and brilliant people I know, yet you belittle her for not conforming to your limited definitions of success. Why? Because you’re embarrassed to have a child who dared stray from the rigid path you yourself took? Your pride matters more to you than her happiness, yet you’re surprised that she considers the only adult who was there for her growing up to be more of a parent than either of you were.”


Stella: “I don’t care about unfounded rumors or what you think you know about him. Here’s what I know from firsthand experience: he’s been nothing but helpful since we met. He encouraged me to follow my dreams and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He’s been more supportive of me in the few months I’ve known him than you’ve been of me my entire life, and I won’t let you insult him for standing up for me.”


Christian: “Are you packing for three days or three months?”

Christian eyed my mountain of luggage with a raised brow.

Stella: “It’s Hawaii, Christian.”

I wedged another swimsuit into my overstuffed suitcase.

Stella: “My hair care alone takes up an entire bag. Do you know how much havoc the beach and humidity wreak on curly hair?”

Christian: “No.”

His gaze was alight with amusement.

Stella: “Exactly.”

I stood to catch my breath.


Christian: “We leave tomorrow morning at 8:00.”

Christian nodded at my luggage.

Christian: “I’ll hire a sherpa for you.”


Stella: “Spoken like a true pessimist.”

Christian: “Realist.”

Stella: “Cynic.”

Christian: “Skeptic.”

Christian’s lips tugged up at my frown.

Christian: “Shall we continue playing thesaurus or move on to a more interesting topic?”

Stella: “We’ll move on, but only because I want to spare you the indignity of losing,”

Christian: “That’s very kind of you.”


Christian: “Perhaps.”

Christian’s shrug expressed the depth of his skepticism more than words could.

Christian: “But there’s a second issue, which is that people use love so often it’s lost all meaning. They love their dogs, cars, happy hours, and their friend’s new haircut. They say love is this grand, wonderful thing when it’s the opposite. It’s useless at best and dangerous at worst.”

Stella: “There are different types of love. The way I love fashion is different from the way I love my friends.”

Christian: “Varying degrees of the same disease.”

Dark amusement filled his face when I winced at the word disease.

Christian: “Is this where you’ll try to change my mind? Convince me that love does, in fact, make the world go around?”

Stella: “No. You’ve already made up your mind. Nothing I say will change it. The only way you’ll change your mind is through experience, not words.”


Darkness was always drawn to light, but I wasn’t just drawn to her; I was fucking obsessed. I would throw myself into her flame and let it burn me alive if it meant her warmth was the last thing I felt before I died.


Christian: “I would’ve let it go like the gentleman I am.”

A smile worked its way onto my mouth at the way her brows formed twin arches of skepticism.

Stella: “You said you weren’t a gentleman.”

Christian: “I didn’t. You did.”

Stella: “And I was right.”


Seventy thousand dollars for one moment alone with her. It was worth it.


Stella: “You’re telling me you’ve never said the word please.”

Christian: “Never needed to. People do what I want anyway.”

A chuckle vibrated in my chest at Stella’s adorable grumble.

Stella: “I should’ve stayed in the water and made you say please before I got out. Teach you a lesson.”


Stella: “I don’t know if watching me stand and pout is exciting,”

she laughed. Her arms tightened over her chest, but neither of us made a move toward her clothes, which lay folded on a towel a few feet away.

Christian: “I could watch you count every grain of sand on the beach and it would be exciting.”


My name fell off her lips in a sweet, breathless plea, but it might as well be the shot from a starting pistol. One word, and the full force of my desire snapped from its leash. I wanted to swallow the sound of my name from her mouth, see if she tasted as sweet as she made it sound or if it was dirty and wanton, like sin made verbal. More than that, I wanted to bury myself inside her, paint her with my cum, and ruin her so thoroughly it made the fall of the angels look like child’s play.


Christian: “Let go, Stella.”

My mouth grazed her ear.

Christian: “When I tell you to scream, I want you to fucking scream. Or I’ll bend you over and spank your ass raw until you beg me to let you scream.”


I shouldn’t, for both our sakes. Giving her release was one thing. Kissing was a whole other. I could own every orgasm. I could stay buried inside her to feel her trembles as she gave in to me.

But a kiss? It would touch a part of me I’d kept buried and hidden. A kiss with her wouldn’t be just a kiss. It would be my fucking end.


Despite what I’d said about love being a drug, Stella was my greatest high. A temptation with no escape. An obsession with no end. An addiction with no cure.


Christian: “You must love that dress,”

he said as I pulled on my swimsuit and threw the dress I’d worn to the shoot over it. The white lemon-print cotton piece was one of my favorites.

Christian: “You’ve worn it five times since spring began.”

My breath fluttered in my chest before it whooshed out in a surprised exhale.

Stella: “I didn’t realize you noticed what I was wearing.”

Christian: “I notice everything about you.”


Christian: “I love this dress on you.”

His gaze slid over my silk dress in an electric caress. Breathe.

Stella: “I thought you don’t believe in love,”

Christian: “You’re right. That was the wrong word.”

Christian touched the small of my back while his eyes met mine in the mirror.

Christian: “Because love is ordinary. Mundane. And you, Stella…”

The soft rasp of the zipper filled the air as he dragged it up my spine in one exquisitely, torturously slow glide. My breath left my lungs at both the sensuality of the movement and the raw intimacy of his next words.

Christian: “You’re extraordinary.”


Christian: “You did so well. Such a good girl.”

His words wrapped around me like a soft blanket and sparked another ember of heat in my stomach. I guess that was what happened when girls with a need for academic validation grew up. They developed a praise kink.


Stella: “Kind of?”

He notched a dark brow as he straddled the motorbike. The engine roared to life and sent a thrill through my blood.

Stella: “I can’t make a final determination until I see what your actual driving skills are like. So yes, for now, it’s kind of.”

Christian: “You’re talking about driving skills?”

His brow rose higher.

Christian: “Butterfly, you almost rear-ended our guide yesterday.”

I knew he wouldn’t let that go.

Stella: “It wasn’t my fault,”

I huffed.

Stella: “He came out of nowhere!”

Christian pressed his lips together, and it took me a second to realize he was suppressing laughter.

Stella: “It’s not funny.”

My cheeks flamed. Maybe I wasn’t the best driver in the world, but I’d tried.

Stella: “I felt bad about you driving us everywhere, so I offered…stop laughing.”

Christian: “I would never laugh at you,”

he said with a grin.

Christian: “I will also never get in a car with you behind the wheel again.”

Stella: “I take back what I said.”

I climbed onto the back of the bike and wrapped my arms around his waist with a disgruntled frown.

Stella: “You’re not sexy at all.”

Christian: “It’s okay.”

His shoulders shook with laughter as we pulled away from our hotel.

Christian: “I’m sure I can change your mind.”


Christian: “I want to make a few things clear.”

Christian’s lips brushed mine with each word.

Christian: “Touch another man, he dies. Let another man touch you, he dies. Tell me I can’t touch you…”

His grip tightened on the back of my neck as his voice dropped.

Christian: “And I will fucking die.”


Kage: “Don’t tell me you shot him,”

he said when he saw me. The office was soundproofed, but he correctly assessed my expression.

Kage: “What a fucking mess.”

Christian: “He pissed me off.”

I checked my watch. Dammit. The only grocery store that sold Stella’s favorite salsa closed in fifteen minutes.

Christian: “Clean that up for me, will you?”

Kage: “I always do,”


Stella: “It’s a Vespa. How hard can it be?”

I planted my hands on my hips and leveled Christian with an insulted glare.

Christian: “I’m not saying it’s hard. I’m saying there are a lot of pedestrians you can run over in the city.”

His mouth twitched at my gasp.

Stella: “I am not going to run over anyone. I have zero vehicular deaths on my watch, thank you very much.”

Christian: “What about near deaths?”

I didn’t dignify that with a response.


Stella: “I trusted you. I trusted you when I barely knew you. I guess that was my fault.”

Her bitter laugh made me flinch.

Stella: “You told me about your family, but I don’t even know if the story is true. Was that also a lie? I have no idea who you are or what you’re capable of. Your dreams, your fears—”

Christian: “My dream is to be with you. And my biggest fear,”

I said, my voice low and ragged with emotion,

Christian: “is losing you.”


Christian: “Do you want to know another secret, Stella?”

My voice was unrecognizable in its rawness.

Christian: “I can’t say no to you.”

Not when it came to the things that mattered.

Christian: “But I will always be here if you need me, no matter how far in distance or time. I don’t care if we’re on different continents or if it’s five, fifty years in the future. I never want you to wake up and feel like you’re alone, because you’re not. You’ll always have me.”

My eyes burned as my final, greatest truth scraped up my throat.

Christian: “I love you. So fucking much.”


Stella,

It’s 2:30 in the morning as I write this. I haven’t slept in almost twenty-four hours. But I couldn’t go to sleep without telling you this… I’m trying, Butterfly. I’m trying so fucking hard. To stay away from you. To not think about you. To not love you. My life would be so much easier if I could move on, but I know I can’t. Even if you never forgive me. Even if you never talk to me again. Even if you move on. I’ll still love you. You will always be my first, last, and only love.


Stella: “Christian.”

He turned to look back at me.

Stella: “Don’t give him any pieces of your soul,”

I said softly. Julian made his bed, and it was time to lie in it. But Christian…I didn’t want him doing anything that would haunt him, especially if it was for me. Especially if it would break any part of him.

Christian: “One of my favorite things about you,”

he said, his voice like the darkest of velvets,

Christian: “is that you think I have any pieces left.”


Christian: “Here’s the thing.”

I pressed the tip of the knife into his sternum.

Christian: “I don’t like getting my hands dirty. Blood doesn’t go well with any of my clothes. But sometimes…”

I dragged the knife down his torso. Blood welled and snaked down his body like thin rivulets of red.

Christian: “Someone pisses me off enough that I make an exception.”


Her hands tangled in my hair as I hiked her legs higher on my shoulders and gave her clit another long, languorous lick.

Christian: “We just got started, sweetheart. This is going to be a long course.”


Jules: “You should’ve asked him for a bathtub of diamonds. He would’ve made it happen.”

Ava had needed a breather from all the mingling required of the bride, so Bridget, Jules, and I had ushered her off to a corner while the rest of the guests drank and danced.

Ava: “Jules, what would I do with a bathtub of diamonds at my wedding?”

Jules: “Roll around it like the rich bitch you are. And I mean that in the most affectionate way.”

Jules’s eyes glinted with mischief.

Jules: “Or you could pass them out to your guests, specifically your wonderful bridesmaids, who very much did not get you into trouble in Barcelona.”

I spluttered at the mention of Ava’s bachelorette trip.

Stella: “Jules.”

Jules: “What? It was harmless fun. Who knew Alex would get so upset about male strippers? It was a bachelorette party.”

Bridget: “I think it was less the strippers and more the waking up in a strange hotel in Ibiza part,”

Stella: “I think it was both,”


Rhys: “I should take a photo of this moment,”

Rhys drawled as he and Bridget passed us. My friends had paired up to dance after the music shifted to a slow song and Ava’s cousin Farrah and her husband, Blake, pulled her and Alex away.

Rhys: “A besotted Christian Harper. What a sight. I should blast it out to the Harper Security alumni network. The guys would love it.”

Christian narrowed his eyes.

Christian: “You’re one to talk, Larsen. Didn’t I see pictures of you attending a royal tea party the other week? With a cat in your lap, no less.”

Color rose on Rhys’s cheekbones.

Rhys: “It was not a tea party. It was a lunch ceremony, and Meadows gets upset when we leave her alone for too long. At least I didn’t buy up all the fucking wheatgrass in the grocery store…”

Bridget caught my eye and shook her head. Men, she mouthed, her expression one of exasperated affection. I stifled a laugh.


I sipped my wine and waited for the inevitable complaints. It happened every damn year.

JOsh: “There’s no way you’re not cheating.”

Josh stared at the Monopoly board with disbelief. Just like clockwork.

Josh: “How do you win every time?”

Alex: “What can I say? I work in real estate. Perhaps if we play a medical board game, you might stand a chance.”

Josh: “I refuse to believe it.”

Josh sat back on his haunches.

Josh: “Every Christmas…”

Jules: “There, there.”

Jules patted his arm.

Jules: “It’s just a board game.”

Her diamond ring flashed beneath the lights with every movement. She and Josh had finally gotten engaged last summer, though they hadn’t set a wedding date yet.

Josh: “It’s not just a board game, Red. It’s my pride. My dignity. My—”

Ava: “Fake money?”

Ava raised an eyebrow.

Ava: “You say the same thing every year.”

Josh: “Yes, well, it doesn’t make it any less true,”

Josh grumbled. He leaned down until he was eye level with his three-and-a-half-year-old niece and nephew.

Josh: “Your dad is a cheat.”

Neither child seemed impressed by his accusation.

Sofia: “Daddy won!”

Alex: “That’s right, little sunshine.”

Alex cast a smug look in Josh’s direction before he swept her up and kissed her cheek. She giggled with delight.

Alex: “Your uncle Josh is a sore loser.”

Her twin brother, Niko, sat back on his haunches and pounded the board with tiny fists.

Niko: “Uncle loser! Daddy winner!”

The Monopoly pieces went flying from the force of his pounding.


Christian: “I never thought I’d say this, but Rhys’s kid is the only one who isn’t a little terror,”

I muttered to Stella. At least Camilla had the decency to sit still. I watched, appalled, as Sofia played with Alex’s hair.


Christian: “No idea what you’re talking about.”

Rhys: “Sure you don’t, Mr. I Don’t Believe in Love.”

Aggravation lit in my chest.

Christian: “Are you still going on about that? It’s been five…”

I lowered my voice so Sofia and Niko couldn’t hear.

Christian: “Five fucking years.”

Rhys: “Oh, I’m going to give you shit about it for the rest of our lives, so get used to it,”


Christian: “Of course I’m happy, sweetheart. How could I not be?”

I needed to find the best obstetrician in the country ASAP, plus redo the penthouse (which was currently as nonchildproof as it could get), take Stella shopping for maternity clothes, book a babymoon…

Stella: “Well, you just called our friends’ children little terrors, so…”

Her voice held a teasing note.

Christian: “Yes, but that won’t be our child.”


 




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