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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 30

MAXIMOFF HALE

BOARD MEETINGS at eight in the morning are like an average human’s ten-minute sprint. Come prepared to my table—then we’ll be back in our individual offices by 8:10.

Fifteen other people sit in leather chairs. At twenty-two, I head the table. It’s not just hard work that put me here. Clearly nepotism plays a vital role.

I don’t ever forget that.

“We have three grant applications that look promising,” Yara says, a longtime board member and also the COO of Cobalt Inc.

Outside of our own projects, H.M.C. Philanthropies funds local and regional nonprofit organizations, but with the amount of requests we receive every year, we need to be selective in where the money is allocated.

“Are those the ones you emailed me last night?” ask.

Yes.”

“Approve them all,” I tell her. My eyes lift to the clock on the wall. 8:05.

Farrow will pick me up at 8:10 on the dot. I’m scheduled to drop by the local animal shelter and talk about future fundraising events.

Just as I start wrapping up the meeting—the damn door blows open. Heads swing.

People freeze. Coffee cups to lips and pens raised midair. Silence invades the room like an airborne virus.

What the fuck is he doing here?

Charlie Cobalt stands in the doorway, all six-foot-three of him looks like he just fucked someone. No shit. White collar popped on his button-down, half-tucked into black pants. His sandy brown hair sticks up in odd places. Artfully messed.

“Sorry I’m late.” He saunters inside with a commanding, oxygen-vacuuming presence. Everyone is caging their breath—everyone but me.

Charlie strolls past my chair and the long row of board members. Reaching the opposing head of the table. They watch.

Staring.

Like he’s a reptile in the terrarium, burrowing underneath the dirt. Only exposing himself when he wants you to see him.

My phone pings on the table. I read the message without clicking in the text.

I just learned that Oscar is at the H.M.C. office. Heads up, if Charlie’s not there yet. He will be. – Farrow

Just one minute too late, but I appreciate that Farrow tried to warn me.

look up.

Charlie stands at the other end. I shake my head a few times. He carries poise like a unique possession only he owns. His tweets go viral in under seconds. His words are like cannonballs thrown into pools.

You’ve seen him on We Are Calloway. You’ve watched him as long as you’ve watched me.

Threads about Charlie being a miniature version of his father—genius IQ, egotistical, self-serving and pretentious—swim around the internet like truths, but they’re webbed from slanted perceptions.

You think you know Charlie Keating Cobalt.

But you have no fucking clue.

I know him as my cousin who turned twenty in September, just two months ago. Who skipped two grades and landed in mine. Who cheated off my science homework only because he could—not because he needed to.

As the eldest sons of two larger than life men, we both know what it’s like to be shadowed by someone else’s past. But for as many similarities as we share—for as many things that should bond us together—we’ve chosen to let them push us apart.

Fair warning: you fuck with him, it’s going to make me want to defend him. So don’t.

All in one swift move, he tugs back the chair, sits down, and kicks his black leather shoes onto the oak table. His yellow-green eyes cement on me. “What’d miss?”

I temper my irritation and say easily, “What are you doing here, Charlie?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He spreads out his arms. “I’m attending a board meeting.”

“You haven’t been to a board meeting since you were put on this board,” I remind him. I’m highly aware that fifteen other people separate me from my cousin. Fifteen people observe this interaction with keen interest that hoists my guards tenfold.

“There’s a first for everything.” Charlie waves me on, then leans an elbow on his chair. Propping his head up with a finger by his temple.

He’s pissed at me.

But this is Tuesday and the sky is blue. So everything is as it should be.

I speak to the other board members. “We’re done here anyway. I’ll see you all next week. Thanks for coming.”

They collect their things. Sending wary glances at Charlie before filing out.

When the room empties, Charlie’s feet fall to the floor. He makes no move to cross the boardroom. The long empty table divides us.

I cross my arms. “How long did it take you to plan that entrance?”

“That’s the problem with you,” Charlie says, “you think everything has to be coordinated and premeditated. When the honest truth is: I was driving by your office. I wanted to talk to you. I stopped by. No, I didn’t wait for the board meeting to be over because who the fuck cares.”

I care,” I snap. “And that’s the problem with you. You can’t account for anyone’s feelings but your own.”

“Why should I?” he combats. “You dominate the role of over-protective brother and cousin. I have no fucks to give because you’ve taken all of them.”

“Are you really sitting there and blaming me for your own lack of empathy?” I say, dumbfounded.

“I’m making an observation,” he says. “And second, I do care. It’s why I’m here. You just can’t fathom a scenario where someone else cares more about this family than you.” He rolls forward to the edge of the table. “The world believes you have no ego, but you’ve done a bang-up job of choking it down. I’m not even sure you know it’s in there.” He waves a finger towards my body, my stomach. “Slowly but surely engorging.”

I blow out a breath, clench my teeth. A growl scratches my throat, one that I won’t let out.

Fighting with him leads nowhere good. Growing up, we were in plenty of fistfights, usually with his twin brother and Janie physically separating us.

We’re caustic together. No matter how much we try for a better relationship, we always drive down the same road. Sometimes I think he just likes being on the opposite side of me.

I uncross my arms. “Just tell me why you’re here. If this is about Jane

“It’s not. I respect my sister enough not to intervene in your friendship,” he says but has to add, “even if I think you can be a piece of shit.”

“Thank you for that,” I say dryly. “It’s not a nutritionally balanced day until you’ve called me a piece of shit.” I shut my tablet off as a notification pops up. “Why are you here?”

“The Camp-Away,” he says. “I never received my invite.”

You’ve got to be shitting me.

“I stopped sending you charity function invites a year ago,” I remind him. “You usually don’t show. On the occasion that you do grace us with your larger-than-life, peacocking presence

“Classy, peacocking.”

“—you never RSVP,” I say, but I’m not done. “In 365 days, you’ve never come to complain. So why now?”

“This is your biggest event of the year,” he tells me. “I’m sincerely hurt that you wouldn’t even text me about it.”

“You don’t text back!” I’m nearing the edge of a cliff that I want to push him off of. But I can’t. He’s family. “Pop up our text conversation right fucking now. There’s a row of about fifty texts you’ve never responded to.” I gesture from my chest to his. His to mine. “This is a two-way street.”

Charlie doesn’t deny that fact. “Am I invited or not?”

No,” I say firmly. “You’re not invited because if I make the announcement to the press and you don’t show, then that’s on the philanthropy.”

“Then don’t make the announcement.”

“I don’t want surprise guests.”

Charlie lets out a vexed breath. “You just don’t want me there. And you can’t admit it, like a coward.” He stands.

stand.

Someone raps the door. We quiet when it swings open, and Farrow stops himself from entering fully. He sees Charlie.

He sees me.

Farrow says to me, “Do you need me to come back later

“No. I’m almost done.” I watch Farrow slip inside and shut the door behind him. He leans his shoulders against the wood.

My focus returns to Charlie. “You’re unreliable and erratic. You’re not invited. And I’m not joking around, Charlie. If you show up unannounced, I’ll get security to escort you out.” I doubt I’d actually follow through with the threat, but I need to make my point clear.

Charlie doesn’t blink. “You’d use our security against me? There are only five bodyguards in Omega. One is at the door, and what would you tell them? Treat Charlie like the enemy.”

No. You’re not my enemy. You’re my family, and the amount of energy I’ve spent trying to include you in the past could row a goddamn fleet of Viking ships—but you refused to jump on board. You wanted to do your own thing, and I get it. Go do your own thing. Stop fucking with mine.”

Charlie sits partially on the edge of the table, hand in his pocket. He turns his head to my bodyguard. “Tell me you see how big of a self-righteous asshole he is.”

Standing leisurely but on guard, Farrow says coldly, “I see how big of a prick you are.”

Charlie arches a single brow. “We both could be right.”

Unlikely.”

“Then you’re a self-righteous asshole too.” Charlie stands. “Looks like you’re a perfect match for each other.”

I go rigid, even though he’s just referring to my bodyguard-client relationship. At that final note, Charlie exits—and I’m left hoping and praying that he’ll leave the Camp-Away alone.


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