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Most Eligible Billionaire: Chapter 4


THE INSIDE of the police station is an old friend I never wanted to see again. The shiny institutional surfaces, the hard seats, the sounds of police radios up and down the halls, the emotional distance that the cops and other staffers maintain, everything strangely plain and professional even as you’re scared out of your mind.

And, of course, the little room they make you wait in.

I tell myself it’s different this time, but it doesn’t feel different.

At least I have Smuckers with me. He took a pee on the way here, but he didn’t poop. I’ve got the poop card to play.

I wasn’t on the criminal end during the incident with Denny Woodruff—I was the one who made the accusations and Denny was the one who had to sweat it out in the little room. But after my story was made to look faked, I became the criminal. The false accuser. The one in the little room.

I sat in there alone, thinking I’d be sent to a juvenile facility. Considering home life at the time, it would have been an improvement, except for having to leave Carly unprotected with a mom who’d betray her own daughter for the right price.

Mom wasn’t always that way. There was a sunny “before” picture of us in a tiny but bright little home at the end of a long driveway. I would ride my shiny bike up and down it while Mom and Dad hung out with Carly, a pudgy two-year-old with fat cheeks and a huge smile.

Then Dad died.

The “after” picture was a chaos of lost jobs and increasingly shabby apartments, and us two sisters eating cereal dinners alone in smelly, dirty kitchens. And Mom was either a ball of scary energy or else had the shakes and the weeps and the two-day sleeps. And the kind of boyfriends who were overly friendly to little girls when she wasn’t looking.

The Woodruffs “generously” decided not to press charges; they saw to it that I didn’t get into trouble for supposedly lying to the police, falsifying evidence, and selfishly causing a three-day manhunt. “You owe them a debt of gratitude,” a stern policewoman named Sara told me as she led me out.

I said nothing. I had protested my innocence enough by then to know it was a waste of breath.

I followed Sara out, hungry and tired and beaten down because I’d told the truth and the whole world had turned against me, and I still didn’t understand how those tests came out the way they did, or how Denny’s lies became truth and how my truth became lies. And I didn’t know how I’d get home or if there would be food, or if Carly was okay. She was eight that summer, and Mom would leave her alone to “do errands.”

Sara held open the door for me and I stepped out into the sunshine only to come face-to-face with a crowd of reporters, yelling questions, taking pictures.

Do you have an apology for Denny Woodruff and his family? Do you feel like you deserved to be released? Do you have a message? Do you have a statement? How does it feel to be forgiven?

I didn’t have much left in me by then. Just two words for the crowd: Never again. I just looked into the nearest camera and vowed it. Never again.

People wanted clarification. Did I mean I’d never lie again?

I headed off onto the sidewalk. A few of the reporters tagged along with me, trying to get me into conversation. I would say nothing more. Eventually Sara the policewoman took pity on me and drove me home.

My release and my definitely-not-grateful-enough comment made the local and national news. It was your classic study in “do and don’t”—the Woodruffs outside their beautiful home with their forgiveness, hoping I could get help. They were the DO. And then there was me with my tear-stained cheeks and swollen eyes croaking Never again into the camera. I was the DON’T. Put a red circle around my face with a line through it.

I got asked about my terse statement a lot after that. People want contrition from a villain. They need you to feel pain for the wrong of your ways. Never again just doesn’t do it.

But it did it for me.

Never again was my vow to the world, to myself. Never again would I be bullied by people like the Woodruffs. Never again would I allow a rich asshole to make me feel small and scared.

Never again.

Looking back, the exercise of hauling me down to the station was simple intimidation. It was the Woodruffs flexing their muscles. This is what happens when you oppose us.

I tell myself that’s all this is with the Locke clan. I’m being detained, not arrested.

I think again of Henry, standing there all smug. We will bury you. Suddenly he was Denny Woodruff. And all I could think was Never again, motherfucker.

Never again.

The price of taking that money was way too high, because it would be like admitting I’m a scam artist or a liar or guilty of something.

The price of taking that money would be losing myself.

When Henry’s cop friend showed up wanting to “Clear up the matter down at the station,” I went. They didn’t fingerprint me, though I was alarmed when they ran my ID. It seemed to hold up. It always does. The person who supplied our wildly expensive new identities seven years ago said they’d be foolproof, but it’s not like you can test drive that sort of thing.

I wait to see what the police will do, worrying mostly about Carly. I don’t want Mom knowing where to find us and taking Carly back. She never filed a missing persons report on us, but she’s a drug addict who’s proved she’s willing to put her habit above her girls. I’m not taking chances.

I called Carly on the way down to the station. She was just leaving rehearsal with her friend, Bess. I talked to Bess’s mom and made arrangements for Carly to stay there until I could deal with my “unexpected personal emergency.” I’m sure that left a great impression.

My phone is running out of juice, and frankly, so am I.

Finally the door opens, and there’s Henry, still in his fabulous suit.

His smile is pure arrogance, his attitude breezy. He sets a white bakery bag on the table—a bag that’s full of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, if the smell is any indication.

I’ll admit, the smell of the cookies is exciting me a lot, but mostly it’s Henry. It’s as if his presence is lending me new energy.

Like he’s the lion who has finally appeared to my David.

Or maybe he’s the flame who has appeared to my moth, but let’s just go with lion.

“The playboy smirkitect has arrived,” I say simply. “How lucky for me.”

His blue eyes twinkle. He tilts his head. “Hello, jelly bean.”

I ignore the sizzle of his gaze on my skin. “Not my name.”

He puts down a leather folder and settles into a chair opposite me. I’m struck by how muscular and golden his hands are, with just the perfect amount of roughness to them.

That wristwatch still peeks out from under his jacket sleeves and white shirt cuffs, all hot heft and dials.

Like what a race car driver would wear. Henry probably owns race cars. He probably drives them in places like the Alps or Monaco.

I tear my gaze from his hands and back to his eyes, ignoring the warmth spreading up my spine.

People have reactions to each other, just like chemicals do. Some blend. Some layer. But some transform each other—they fizz and bubble right out of their containers.

That’s Henry and me—something about him gets me reacting—pulse too fast, skin too tight. Wanting to spar. Something. Anything.

It’s hate, I tell myself.

I hate the hotness of his hands and the wrong heat of us in this room.

“Let’s end this charade,” he says.

Something dark arrows through me.

Charade. To most, the word conjures up a marginally fun game where you wish there was more wine.

Not to me. It’s one of the words they hammered me with. Selfish charade. Disgusting charade.

“I have the papers for you to sign right here. And a check.” He slides it across the table. The implication is clear—if I sign, I’ll be released.

I look up at him.

“You don’t win this,” he says softly. “You don’t win against me.”

My blood races through my veins.

Never again. Never again. I vowed it, didn’t I? Never again to be pushed around by somebody like this.

I watch myself stand. I watch myself pull Smuckers into my arms. “Keep your cookies,” I say. “And keep your money, too. Smuckers and I are not for sale.”

Speaking those words, I feel this rush of energy, like I’m sticking up for that girl I left in the dust of Deerville. I’m sticking up for Vonda O’Neil.

It feels amazing.

I turn. I walk. My knees are shaking like Jell-O, but I walk. With every step, I feel stronger. Expanding beyond my container. Bubbling over, wild and free.

I can’t believe they’re letting me leave, but they are. I get out of the police station with nobody stopping me. So they never intended to arrest me after all.

I walk down the sidewalk feeling strangely new.

Never again.


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