Series: Tabby Classics
Release Date: March 29, 2015
His darkest secret... is her deepest desire.
I gave up on love the moment she walked out of my life. I told myself it was for the best. There was no way she and I could be together. She was too carefree and spirited to fit into a world like mine and my path was set in stone the moment I was born holding a silver spoon.
The fact that her mother married my father was just icing on the forbidden cake that is my love for her.
But now she's back. After all this time, Rocky Ramone actually came home.
And she's asking for my help.
A job. Any job. She's broke, desperate,... and has no memory of the night we almost spent together.
I'll give her anything she wants to keep her in my life but she can never know that I remember everything.
If she finds out what happened, she'll leave and I'll never see her again.
I lost her once. I won't lose her again.
I raise the fine-tip marker and circle another job listing in the newspaper. The red ink bleeds through the thin paper, staining my fingers. I lick the ink and wipe it on my jeans, ignoring the red smear it leaves behind.
“I have everything under control, Mom,” I say once again, speaking into the smartphone. It slides down my shoulder and I catch it just in time to avoid paying for another shattered screen. “In fact, I have a few interviews later this week.”
I glance up at my calendar, tacked up on the bare, white wall of my studio apartment. The entire week in question is blank.
“If you must insist on working, I don’t want you flipping burgers, Rockette,” my mother says. “You are a Belmont. I want you to act like it.”
I roll my eyes. It drives me crazy when my mother acts more important than she really was. If I listen carefully, I’m sure I can hear the sound of her filing her nails down while the maid cleans nearby, her sounds echoing off the walls of the Belmont mansion.
And I am not a Belmont. My name is Rocky Ramone. I was a teenager when my mother married Mason Belmont — the Mason Belmont — and I had no real reason to legally change it to match my new stepfather’s name. But just by association, most people call me Belmont. I grow tired of correcting them.
“Once again, Mother, I have it under control. I won’t be flipping burgers anywhere.” Another lie. My eyes scroll over the next ads in the paper.
Now hiring hourly crew members.
RN positions open.
Call center. Some full-time benefits.
I’ve been at it for weeks. The job search is not going as well as I hoped it would. If I don’t find one soon, I’ll be kicked out of my university for failing to make minimum payments. My education means the world to me. I want to make my own way in this life and the thought of relying on my wealthy family for anything makes my stomach turn in knots. I’m desperate to keep that from happening. They could easily pay for everything I need or want in a heartbeat. It would be a parking ticket in the grand scheme of their bank account.
Unfortunately, I hit a few snags in my quest for independence. Right now, I can barely pay my rent.
“Why don’t you call your brother?”
I twitch. “Zeke?” I ask. “Why would I do that?”
“Because he lives in the city and he can help you.”
“No,” I say with a firm voice. “I’m not going to ask my stepbrother for money.”
“You’re not asking him for money,” she says. “You’re asking him for a job. I would trust him to find you suitable employment over anyone else in that godforsaken hellhole city you choose to inhabit.”
I open my mouth to argue but pause when I hear the cruel growl of my empty stomach. “I’ll think about it,” I say.
“I’m sure he’ll help you out. He’s always been quite fond of you,” my mother says. “I’ll text you his number.”
“I can look it up.”
“No, you’ll just get the hotel’s desk. I have his direct line.”
“I don’t need a direct line—”
“Rockette, for heaven’s sake, I’ve already sent it.”
I sigh and glance at my phone. A brand new text message from her with ten numbers all in a line. “Thanks,” I say.
“Call him. Now. The sooner you nip this, the better off your bud will be!”
“Fine. I will.”
I hang up and toss the phone onto my bed. I really have no intention of making that call. It’s been ages since I’ve seen my stepbrother, Zeke.
Ezekiel Belmont. Zeke is his father’s golden child. He’s been primed for leadership since he was crawling, the sole male heir of his father’s company.
She is right, though. Zeke was always fond of me. Of all the Belmonts, Zeke treated me the least like a plague when I first entered the fold, much better than my stepsister, Becky, and the monsters she called friends.
But our friendship fell apart during the summer before our senior year. I honestly don’t remember what it was that did it.
It doesn’t matter anyway. In the end, I don’t want to be a part of that life. To have everything I want handed to me and to watch everyone else in the world suffer from a tower made of ivory. I cringe just thinking about it.
I eye my phone, a hunger pang striking my gut. I feel immediate regret over what I was about to do. If I don’t make the call, my mother surely would. And then I’d have to wait for the inevitable phone call from Zeke. “Oh, hey, so your mom called me…”
If I make the call myself, I could at least control the outcome. I pick up my phone and open my mother’s text message. I stare at the numbers, reading them over and over again in my head.
You don’t even need to ask for a job, I remind myself. You can just call, say hi, tell him that your mother made you call him, decline any offers, and part ways. It will be a piece of cake.
I feel my stomach growl once more, the painful urge of hunger.
“Here we go…” I say to myself as I tap the number and hold the phone up to my ear.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I pause, startled by the suddenness of his greeting. “Um, I… uh…”
“Who is this?”
I take a deep breath and suddenly remember why I stopped speaking to the Belmonts. “It’s Rocky Ramone. Your stepsister. Or do you actually know more than one person named Rocky?”
A short pause fills the void. “Oh, hey —” His tone changes. “What… uh, what’s going on?”
I sigh, lost in my train of thought. “Oh, not much, Zeke…” I roll my eyes, hating everything about this phone call. “I’m just calling to check in on you… and, uh…”
“And, uh… what, Rocky?”
“Listen, Zeke,” I begin, choosing my words carefully. “I didn’t want to call you, but my mother insisted.” My eyes flick toward the newspaper, stained red with ink. “And if I didn’t make this call myself, then she would just find out and call you herself and I didn’t want to put you through that.”
“How very kind of you.”
I chuckle. If there was ever anything the two of us agreed on, it was how intrusive my mother is. “Right, and she just wanted me to ask if you… had any job openings at the hotel?”
“Job openings?” Zeke repeats.
“Yeah. I want a job.” I decide at the last moment to change my word choice of need to want. Wanting a job sounds far less desperate than needing one.
I brace myself for a response but only hear breathing on the other end.
“Come over,” he says.
“What?” I ask.
“I’ve got some extra time today. Come over and we’ll talk about it.” He speaks fast, his words quick and precise.
“Um… okay. At the hotel?”
“Yeah, I’ll let my guys know you’re coming.”
Zeke hangs up before I can finish my sentence. My arms fall to my side and I stare once again at the blank, white wall in front of me. I feel like I’d been sideswiped on the highway, left to watch the other car race off into the distance. Confused and afraid. Lost and angry.
So very excited.
Did that just happen?
Rocky Ramone is back.
“Who was that?”
I glance at Madison across the room. “Nobody,” I answer.
She stares at me from the couch in my penthouse. “Nobody is coming over?”
I clear my throat. “It’s kind of a... personal thing. Do you mind?” I gesture toward the elevator. “I need to clean up.”
She scoffs. “I just got here.”
“I’ll call you later, all right?”
Her eyes narrow. “Is this literally happening right now?”
“Madison—” I grunt. “Please.”
She grabs her purse off the coffee table. “Fine. I’ll go.”
I don’t wait for the passive aggressive pout. I head down the hall toward my bedroom, stripping off my old, dirty shirt in favor of something a little sleeker. A sweater, maybe? Or should I stick with casual?
Christ, why am I so nervous?
I look at myself in the mirror, my eyes landing on the small key hanging from a chain around my neck. I swallow, taking a deep breath. My nostrils fill with an old memory. Cherry lip gloss and almond liqueur.
I shake it away and reach for a shirt, this one clean and casual.
Casual. That’s all this requires. It’s just a quick chat with my stepsister. Nothing more than that. That’s all it can be.
She wants a job. That’s what she said, right? I could barely hear her over the pounding of blood in my ears but I’m sure that was it. The managers are always throwing up postings for new maids online, so I’m sure we can find somewhere for her.
I cringe at the thought. Rocky in an old smock and rubber gloves? That’s no look for a Belmont — even the ones who rejected the family name as much as she did.
Lightning strikes my brain and I smile.
I know just where to put her.
I gather my things, determined to not have to make cold calls for minimum wage. A cold sweat settles on my brow as panic rises within me and I curse myself for not following the script.
You were supposed to say thanks, but no thanks. This was just to get your mother off your back. And now you’re actually going over there?! You are so damn weak, girl.
I pause for a moment as I open my apartment door. My ears focus on any and all sounds in the hallway. When I say I can barely pay rent, I mean that I can barely pay my rent. And my landlord, Marty, is well-aware of that fact. I’ve been trying to stall the inevitable showdown for weeks, but it is only a matter of time before Marty finds me.
But that day is not today, thankfully. I charge out of the building into the hot April sun. I curse under my breath as I check myself out in the mirrored windows of office buildings. I’m not exactly dressed in my best interview clothing, but in all honesty, I don’t really care. It was just Zeke, after all. My stepbrother, not a stranger.
It’s ten blocks to Belmont Tower. Everyone knows about it. It’s a hotel — the hotel — that caters to only the rich and famous. I’ve never been there before. I refused. I wanted to keep that part of my family history from invading my life. But my toes tingle with each step deeper into the city.
As I round the final corner, Belmont Tower and all its glory fills my vision. It’s one of the tallest buildings in the entire city and was built that way on purpose by my stepfather’s father. He wanted the world to know their family’s name the second they entered the city. He wanted them to know who had the most power.
I step toward the golden doors and without hesitation, the doorman stops me from entering.
“Miss, do you have business here?”
I catch my breath fast, my pulse still thumping from the heat and urgency of the walk. “Yes, I’m here to see my stepbrother, Zeke Belmont.”
The doorman pauses, looking me up and down. “Rocky Ramone,” he says quickly, his fingers squeezing the door handle.
I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking that I don’t belong here. That I’m not dressed the way they dress. I’m the black sheep.
A smirk runs across his lips and he chuckles at me. “The elevator is straight ahead through these doors. Hit P — for penthouse.”
“Thank you,” I say as I enter the golden doors.
The memories come roaring back. The glorious luxury of being a Belmont. My mother dragged me around from party to party during my teen years. “At least try to act like you belong here, Rockette,” she’d say to me. But I never could. I’d cause trouble and bring up politics with the more conservative folk in my stepfather’s circle. I’d never felt so out of place in all of my life and I never felt happier than the day I abandoned the lifestyle.
Everywhere I look, I see suit jackets and fancy dresses scattered across the lobby. Ties and stockings. Those who bother to make eye contact with me throw their noses up with disdain. I look straight ahead and ignore them, my feet stomping toward the golden elevator.
When I reach it, I tap the call button repeatedly to open the doors, glancing over my shoulder at the other guests. I breathe a sigh of relief when they finally open and I step into an empty elevator.
P for penthouse. I push the button and watch my reflection come together as the doors close on the lobby.
I wipe the sweat off my face and fix my hair the best I can in the reflective walls. My empty stomach turns as I ascend higher and higher in the golden box, inching closer and closer toward the life I left behind. I close my eyes and breathe in and out, listening to the full rumble of mechanics beneath my feet.
I feel nervous. Painfully nervous. I have no business being here. Just tell him it was nice to see him and dismiss yourself. You don’t have to take anything from them. Just go home and contact the call center. That job can’t be as bad as people say—
The final ding fills my ears as I reach my destination. My heart leaps into my throat, my nerves bouncing throughout my body.
I step off the elevator and enter a small foyer. It’s completely bare with white walls and two benches on either side of the front entrance. A door stands on the opposite side with a doorbell next to it. I take a few quick breaths before reaching out and pushing the button.
The sound of it bounces off the walls of the small room, vibrating my ears. My ears are ringing and the seconds feel twice as long. But I hear the rustling sound on the other side of the door, then the clacks of it unlocking, and it jerks open a few inches.
My breath catches in my throat as I look upon my stepbrother for the first time in years.
“Zeke?” I ask.
He’s still tall, very tall, but now he sports thick, muscular shoulders. He’s built like a fireman with perfectly styled, short hair. His t-shirt is tight, showing off his perfect physique. And his eyes. They aren’t hidden behind glasses anymore. He’s upgraded to contact lenses and they show off his dark eyes. I stare at them in the dim entryway, trying to decide what shade of gray they are.
“Hey, Rocky,” he says, pulling the door open all the way. “Come on in.” He steps away from the open door frame and walks down the hallway.
My heart thumps in my chest. I can feel it flutter with each breath, forcing me to take gulps of air to sustain it. “Um,” I say, watching him slink of out sight around the corner. My eyes flick downward to catch a good glimpse of his rear end, packed into a tight pair of jeans.
I take a curious step forward into the penthouse. My feet move without my involvement, following him into the main room. I immediately spy a beautiful set of black furniture in the living area. Everything is neat and tidy. A bachelor pad ripped right out of a magazine ad.
“This is nice,” I say, my eyes as wide as saucers. A little voice inside my mind screams at me, telling me that it was all just a lie. Don’t be seduced by this luxury. But I just can’t help myself.
“Yeah, well,” Zeke says, shrugging his shoulders. “I had the maid come through before you arrived. Should have seen it twenty minutes ago.”
“Right,” I chuckle, reminding myself not to get lulled in.
“Want a drink?” he asks, holding up a glass. A soft, brown liquid swirls around inside of it.
“Sure,” I say.
Zeke steps toward the drink cart in the corner and tosses two ice cubes into an empty glass. I listen to the clinking sounds as my eyes wander around the room. Fine art lines the walls. Expensive electronics sit upon the shelves. I forget what it feels like to have whatever I want at my fingertips. And I hate myself for missing it.
Zeke holds out the fresh drink to me. I take it from him and raise it up to my nose, inhaling deep.
A smirk runs along my lips. “Amaretto sour?”
“Of course,” he says with a grin. He takes the seat in the large armchair across from the couch and motions for me to sit in front of him.
“You remembered?” I ask, genuinely touched. I bring the drink to my lips and the cold elixir of almond liqueur and sour mix teases my taste buds.
“How could I forget? You made me make you one of these every day for an entire summer.”
I recall that summer — the sober pieces, anyway. It was just before our senior year. My mother and stepfather went to Europe for three months. It was a constant party at the Belmont mansion until they suddenly came home a few weeks early. The house was trashed. The maid had quit. And Zeke and I were no longer on speaking terms. I can hardly even remember why anymore. The aroma of almonds teases my brain, urging me to remember, but I just can’t form the thoughts.
“So, you want a job?” Zeke says, breaking the tension.
I sit down on the couch across from him and reach for a coaster before placing my drink on the glass table. Maybe that was why we stopped speaking to each other. Back then, Zeke was very anal about coaster usage.
“Yes, I do,” I say. “But, really, you don’t have to do anything. I just called you to get my mother off my back about it. I’m fine, really.”
I look up from the floor to find Zeke staring at me. His eyes, frozen in space, look into my own as if he caught sight of something special.
“Well,” he says. “I checked with hotel management. They don’t have anything.”
I breathe a sigh, not really sure if it was for relief or disappointment. “Oh… okay. Thanks for asking. Maybe now I can get Mom to leave me alone.” I reach forward and grab my drink off the table.
“Doubtful,” Zeke says, taking a sip of his own drink. “But I could always use somebody.”
I pause, the rim of my glass balancing on my lips. “Use somebody?”
A laugh escapes my lips. “You need an assistant? I thought you people had like four of those?”
Zeke smiles at me and I feel a shockwave radiate through my kneecaps. “Executives usually do, yes. But I’ve never had one. Never wanted one. But Dad has been bugging me to get one, saying that I’m hard to get in touch with for business.”
“Is that why you answered the phone like a total dick earlier?” I ask.
“Probably,” he says, downing the rest of his drink in one go. “So, what do you say? I hire you on as my assistant. Gloria stops bugging you about dumb shit. Dad shuts up about me making him look bad to his colleagues. And I get peace and quiet. It’s a win for all involved.”
I pause, the world falling into slow motion. I tilt the glass over my lips, pouring the rest of my drink onto my tongue. A bit of it drizzles out of the corner of my mouth and runs down my chin. I wipe it off, enjoying the light buzz of alcohol for the first time in ages.
Decline the offer. Leave. Call center.
That sounds… fun… right?
“How much would I be paid?” I ask.
“Whatever you feel is fair,” Zeke says.
“No, seriously. How much?”
“We can negotiate that later. Just say yes.”
I want to say yes. I really do. With one single word, I can banish away all of my problems. I can pay my rent. I can afford both food and my utility bill. And most importantly, I will be able to continue going to school.
“I’m still in school,” I spit out, my voice shaking.
“We can work around your schedule,” he says.
The smell of amaretto lingers in my nose and toys with my brain. I can’t shake the feeling that there is something wrong. There’s something amiss, something on the tip of my tongue that I can’t get out.
But instead of waiting to figure it out, I look up into his gray eyes.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m in. Yes, I’ll take it.”
“Excellent,” Zeke says, his lips curling into a smile.