South Carolina is seriously lacking in skyscrapers.
The Deep South—right now, it’s all rolling green fields, cowboy boots, and barbecue. A million miles away from the bustling streets of Upper Manhattan that I’ve lived in my whole life. The numerous state parks, the lakes, the mountains—they’re all alien to me.
And they’re all, thankfully, so much more charming than endless summers in the Hamptons.
I tap my fingers against the steering wheel and glance at the clock on the dashboard. The Hamptons—the place I should be right now.
Preparing for my wedding in four days.
Yep. I’m that girl. The runaway bride, the jilter, the disappearing act.
I fully expect panic to be ensuing at my parents’ sprawling house as they wake and realize I’m no longer there. Knowing my mother, she’ll be having some kind of miniature breakdown, ensuring all eyes are on her, while my father paces and angrily shouts into the phone for someone to find me.
He’ll call all of the NYPD, demanding they pull their heads out of their asses and utilize every resource they have at their fingertips. My mother will continue to hyperventilate and be seen to by a flurry of people, namely the people whose family I was supposed to marry into.
And he—Matthew Hamilton, my darling betrothed, my perfect dream—my utter bastard of a fiancé. He’ll have his mask in place, every traumatized word falling from his lips a lie. His anger will be barely contained by the necessity for his pretense.
I shift in the seat and wince. My back is stiff from one break in nine hours of driving—through the night, no less.
No. I grit my teeth. The pain isn’t from driving, although it probably hasn’t helped. I won’t make excuses anymore. In around ten days, when the bruising has gone, I’ll no longer have anything to hide. I won’t have to spin endlessly in front of the mirror to see if my outfit covers every discolored blemish on my skin.
My phone lights up from its place on the passenger seat. Damn. I could swear I turned it over.
His name flashes on the screen, and I grit my teeth even harder. The call clicks over to voicemail. I quickly reach over and flip the phone so its screen-down. I don’t need the distraction of the calls.
I don’t need the fear that every message he leaves tells me he’s coming after me.
I don’t need the fear that he knows where I am.
So I keep driving. Just drive, drive, drive. Don’t look back.
I made the right choice. I know I did. I wasn’t born to be a punching bag. I won’t be the wife that cowers in the corner before her husband arrives home from work. I won’t be the woman afraid she left a speck of dust on the mantel or undercooked the potatoes just slightly.
I refuse to be afraid to breathe for fear it’d be too loud.
I tighten my hold on the steering wheel and make the turn into downtown Charleston. The saddest thing about this is I didn’t jab my finger randomly on a map and set my GPS to the destination. I planned this. I’ve known for three days I would be here, and that’s the only reason I was able to get through the last time Matthew was allowed to touch me.
The only thing that makes the bruises that cover my lower back and snake around to my stomach bearable is the fact he’ll never get to do it again.
The early-morning rush provides a welcome noise to silence the voice inside my mind. It’s not New York, but it’s enough. It’s comfort and safety in an unfamiliar place. Comfort and safety I’m glad for.
I follow the GPS’s directions to the Viscount Hotel on the Charleston seafront. I must be crazy—truly crazy.
Twelve hours ago I was a Harvard graduate preparing to enter a job at a prestigious New York law firm. I summered in the Hamptons, delighting my parents with my abilities to entertain others. I was about to get married to millionaire Matthew Hamilton, heir to Hamilton Enterprises, in the wedding of the summer.
Now I’m a Harvard graduate about to join the team of America’s favorite rock band as their personal assistant.
I might not be able to hide from my family or now-ex-fiancé, but I can keep running. Joining Dirty B. on the final leg of their countrywide tour is definitely the best way to do that, even if I did have to have “two hair appointments,” “a manicure,” “a pedicure,” and “two pre-wedding facials to ward off a spot break out” in the last three weeks to apply for, phone interview, and subsequently talk to their current assistant to get this job. It was almost worth the mini-beating for spending so much money on myself.
I pull into the Viscount’s parking lot and kill the engine. My eyes are burning with exhaustion, and the only thing I want to do right now is meet some girl named Sofie and go to my room to sleep for hours.
I pick up my phone and unlock it. There are over a hundred missed calls from my mother, father, Matthew, his parents, and his brother, accompanied by a ridiculous slew of text messages and voicemails.
After a moment’s hesitation, I open one of the messages from Matthew.
Ella where the fuck are you? If you have any sense, you’ll come home. Now.
That’ll be a negative on the coming home. My fingers twitch with the urge to respond. I can just imagine it: a snarky, hotheaded response that won’t earn me a physical payback. Call me senseless when you graduate college with higher grades than me, dickhead.
I smile to myself and exit the message before I type exactly that. I dial voicemail, purely out of curiosity. I wonder just how different those messages are.
“Ella, baby, where are you?” I listen as his recorded pleas fill my ear. “God, I’m going crazy here. I’m so worried about you. Just . . . call me, please. When you get this, just call me and tell me you’re okay. I love you, okay? I love you so much.”
I hang up, a sick feeling churning my stomach. I don’t know how he can go from abusive to darling in less time than it takes me to pee in the morning. Either way, it’s scary.
My phone rings, and yet again his name fills my screen. I stare at it until the call switches to voicemail and get out of the car. Crossing the busy street to the side of the hotel, I run down the tiny road coming off it. A car engine rumbles in front of me, so I dart to the side and run between some trees.
I spent enough time gazing at the satellite image of this place on Google Maps in a dreamlike haze. Now it’s time for my final act of freedom.
Coming out on the other side of the trees, I jog down to the walkway that reaches out. Boats bob on the surface of the water, docked and waiting for their owners. Given that the sun is already high in the sky, they probably won’t be docked for much longer.
I lean against the railing and look down at the water beneath me. It looks cold, dangerous, getting gradually deeper as you reach the middle of the river that leads into the ocean.
A smile tugs at my lips. I could walk farther up, but I won’t. I’ll just stay here.
I bring my arm back and throw.
My phone sails through the air, my eyes following it until it finally falls, entering the water with a dull splash. As it sinks, my heart flies.
One of my father’s first moves will be to track my phone and credit cards. Even my debit card. I’m not naive or stupid. I stopped at an ATM in Brooklyn and withdrew every last dollar from my bank account, then cut up all of my cards. I threw the shattered plastic pieces into the nearest trash can.
Now, with a couple thousand dollars tucked into my suitcase and my phone languishing at the bottom of the river, I do declare that I win round one of the runaway-bride saga.
I turn and run back up the dirt road to the hotel. After grabbing my purse and suitcase from my car and locking it, I head inside toward reception. The white marble floors and elegant decor isn’t new to me. I stayed here last summer with Matthew when his aunt got married nearby, and I won’t deny that I shivered when I was told to come here.
I approach reception and wait for the woman in front of me to finish on the phone. It takes her a few minutes, but when she’s done, she shoots me a dazzling smile.
“Good morning and welcome to Viscount Hotel. I’m sorry to keep you waiting. How can I help you today, ma’am?”
“Hi.” I rest my hand on the counter. “I’m supposed to meet a Sofie Callahan at reception?”
“Is it Ella Dawson?” she asks, flipping through a notepad.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Two seconds, please.” She picks up the phone and presses a number. “Hello . . . yes, this is reception. Ella Dawson is here for Sofie. . . . Perfect. Thank you.” She sets it back down and smiles at me again. “She’ll be down in a moment. Please take a seat.”
“Thank you.” I offer my own smile and wheel my suitcase over to the seating area.
I sink back into one of the plush black chairs and clasp my hands in my lap. God, what am I doing? I must be insane—driving through the night to go on tour with a rock band? Was I hit over the head with a brick or something?
This is truly crazy. I don’t know the first thing about managing a band, much less four twentysomething guys, and I sure as hell am not used to living on a bus and out of hotels. And if Matthew finds out? I’m done for. I’m so, so done.
I should probably run out of that door right now before Sofie gets down here. I should probably run and make up some crazy lie about needing to drive to get something for the wedding and leaving my phone at home.
Only . . . I can’t. I made my bed the second I drove away from the Hamptons, and now I have to lie in it. No matter how uncomfortable the mattress.
“Hi! Are you Ella?”
I look up at a blond-haired girl holding a toddler on her hip. From TMZ, I recognize the little girl instantly as Conner Burke’s daughter and the woman holding her as her mom.
“Yeah. Hi.” I stand awkwardly.
“Hi! I’m Sofie.” Sofie grins and puts the little girl down. “Mila, stay here, okay?”
“’Kay.” Mila follows it up by tottering across the lobby with a dolly trailing behind her.
Sofie sighs. “Ajax, can you get her?”
“From security to babysittin’,” a tall, muscular man with cropped hair sighs. “Mila!”
Tiny giggles fill the air.
My lips twitch as I watch him stride after her and swoop her up onto his shoulder. Sofie laughs and turns back to me. “I’m sorry,” she says. “The guys are practicing, so I couldn’t leave her upstairs.”
“Oh, it’s okay. She’s beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Her cheeks flush. “So.” She sits down, and I do the same. “Did you get my email?”
“The one with a list of job requirements?” At her nod, I go on. “Yes. And it’s fine. Really. It can’t be that hard.”
“It’s not the job that’s hard. It’s the people you work for.” She laughs. “But don’t worry. I’ll help you out for the first couple weeks, until you get to know their routine—if Tate doesn’t switch stuff up again.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I’ll figure it out.”
“Please, let me help you.” She cups her cheeks with her hands and leans forward. “I have been surrounded by pure testosterone for two weeks. The only female interaction has been courtesy of a two-year-old who demands Peppa Pig and Frozen ten times a day. I am so ready for some company.”
I laugh. “Well, I don’t imagine company would be a terrible thing to have.”
“Great!” She sits up and claps her hands once. “Let me grab your room key, then we’ll go up. You look like you need some rest.”
I smile apologetically. “I drove through the night. I’m sorry. I probably won’t be much help today.”
Sofie stops at the reception desk and turns to me. She studies me slowly, her blue eyes regarding me with interest. Just when she opens her mouth to say something, the receptionist asks how she can help.
“Key for room 435, please.” She takes her eyes off me only when the key card is placed in her hand. “Thank you. Ajax?” She looks over her shoulder, but when I look, too, the security guy and Mila are nowhere to be seen.
“Where did they go?”
Sofie waves her hand dismissively. “To the playground out back. I’ll see ’em in an hour. Come on.”
I follow her into the elevator and she presses the button for the fourth floor. We whizz up in seconds, leaving me with a little vertigo, and exit.
“So you’re from New York?” Sofie asks, guiding me down a hallway.
“Yeah. I’ve lived there my whole life except for college.”
“Awesome. I can’t wait to go in a few weeks. Will you see your family when we go back?”
I swallow. “Um, I’m not sure. They might be on vacation.”
“Oh.” She slides the card into the slot for room 435 and the door clicks open. “Your room is more of a mini-apartment. There’s a hot plate, a fridge, and there’s a laundry room at the end of the hall. We have the whole floor booked out, and I’m right next door to you, so don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.” She grins widely and hands me the card. “I have your number, so I’ll call you later when we have a dinner reservation and you can meet the guys. I’ll let you get some sleep.”
“Thank you,” I say softly, watching her walk out of the room. She pauses by the door and smiles kindly, then shuts it behind her.
I take a deep breath and look around. The suite is spacious. A corner sofa on one side, a small kitchenette on the other, and a door just off of there leads to the bedroom. I dump the suitcase by the door and drop my purse on the kitchen counter.
Fear nothing, right? Yes—fear nothing. Except the four men I have yet to meet and the abundance of tasks I know nothing about. Sofie sent me a list, sure, but what about little things? Do I run for coffee? Water? Sandwiches? Condoms?
Oh my God. I’ve never bought condoms in my life.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Okay. I can do this. I can absolutely flip everything I’ve ever known upside down and live a completely different life. I can do this.
I wave my hands absentmindedly at my mental tangent and walk into the bedroom. One look at the queen bed and I’m kicking off my shoes and crawling beneath the covers.
A loud knock on my door jolts me from sleep. What the . . . I roll out of bed and stumble through the suite to the door. “Who is it?”
Oh. Crap. I open the door, rubbing my eyes. “I’m sorry. I was sleeping.”
“Oh—shit. I’m sorry.” She covers her mouth with her hand. “I tried to call you but it went straight to voicemail.”
I pause, my knuckle digging into my eye. “Oh. Yeah. Um. I forgot to tell you earlier. I kind of don’t have a phone anymore.”
Sofie raises an eyebrow and walks into the suite. “Okay. What happened to it?”
“I, er . . . I threw it into the river.”
“As in . . . the river in front of the hotel?”
“That would be the one.”
Her lips twitch. “I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere.” A giggle escapes. “But I’m not going to push you. Not right now anyway.” She grins, and it’s so infectious I can’t help but smile back. “I just wanted to tell you we’re having dinner downstairs tonight. In, like, fifteen minutes, actually.”
“Oh, it’s okay. If you could give me a few minutes, I can freshen up now.”
“Great!” She sighs happily. “Conner has Mila and it’s the happiest I’ve seen her all day.” She drops onto the sofa, locates the remote, and turns on the TV.
I smile and grab hold of my suitcase. “I’ll just be a minute.”
“Take your time. They won’t do anythin’ without us if they know what’s good for ’em.” She winks over her shoulder.
I wheel the suitcase into the bedroom and drop it onto its back. I close the door quietly, then rifle through the case for a summer dress and clean underwear. The bathroom is large and glittering white, the brightness almost blinding as I change and freshen up. A touch-up of mascara and I’m ready.
Ready to go and meet the band that three-quarters of America have their panties all bunched up over. My new employers.
I look in the mirror. My dark hair falls softly around my face. My eyes are full of freedom, something that hasn’t been there for two years. I swallow, and my tongue flicks out to wet my lips several times as I leave the bathroom. I hesitate by the bedroom door—I’m still insane. Still completely, utterly, certifiably insane.
“Hey, Ella? Are you ready? Apparently my daughter is screaming the place down for her pizza.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry. Just . . . I don’t know.” I shrug a shoulder and follow Sofie into the elevator.
She glances at me knowingly. “Scared?”
“Uh, not in the way you’d think.” I smile reluctantly. Because I’m not.
I’m not afraid to meet America’s hottest crush. I’m afraid to be in a room full of several men I’ve never met in my life, which is ridiculous, because I’m not in danger here. I’m safe, hidden away, in a world entirely different from my own.
But my body wants me to look over my shoulder, just in case.
“They’re not bad. Well, most of the time. I promise. Come on.” She takes my hand with a beaming grin and opens the door to the private dining room. Noise fills it—laughter, toddler giggles, loud, booming male voices—but they all silence when Sofie yells, “Hey! Hey!”
Four sets of eyes land on us.
“Now y’all better be nice or I’m gonna kick some butt,” she says firmly, tugging me beside her. “This is Ella. She’s your new PA.”
Conner Burke is the first to stand and offer me his hand. I shake it, then he tugs me in for a hug.
“It’s great to meet you, Ella. If we get too demandin’, just tell us where to go.”
“Someone’s suckin’ up because he wants to get laid tonight.” There’s a chuckle from the corner, then movement. Kye Burke approaches me with a cocky grin, and before he can say a word, Sofie slaps his arm.
“Try it. I dare you.”
Her tone stops him dead, because he holds his hands up and shrugs. “I wasn’t tryin’ anything, Sof. I was coming over to be nice.” He shoots me a wink. “Kye.”
“Hi,” I say quietly.
“Ignore him.” Aidan Burke, Kye’s twin, stands in front of me. “He thinks he’s the big man, but he’s still stuck in puberty.”
“Y’all are gonna get my shoe up your butts in a minute. Stop trying to hit on her. She works for you,” Sofie snaps. “Ads, sit down before I make you.”
“Sof, you’re five foot nothin’.”
“I’ll be five feet of terrifying if you don’t start actin’ like a gentleman. All of you.” She sweeps her eyes over the three single Burke brothers. “Tate? Your manners get lost inside your beer bottle?”
Aidan sniggers and sits back down.
“Tay! Be nice!” Mila calls from the corner, smacking tiny hands against the high chair tray. “You nice!”
I hide my laughter behind my hand. Conner catches my eye and winks at me.
“Fine.” A beer bottle hits the table, and my eyes fall in the direction of the sound.
Turquoise eyes the color of the ocean at the height of summer stare back at me with a brooding glint. His dark hair is spiked to the side, rough stubble lines his jaw, and his lips curve up to one side when his eyes connect with mine. My gaze drops to his body, because I can’t help but look at the tattoos that cover his arms, the full sleeves stopping in perfectly straight lines at his wrist. I can’t make any of the designs out, except for a few music notes on the inside of his left forearm. And, oh man, he has nice arms. And shoulders. And stomach. But it doesn’t matter.
Because Tate Burke is walking right up to me.