I walk quickly around the couch, my parents heading in the opposite direction down the long narrow hallway. “Mom!” I shout, scooting past one of Jonathan’s burly lawyers.
She doesn’t look back. “Mom!” I yell again, nearly reaching her as I walk faster. She ignores me, and I rest my hand on her shoulder to stop her.
She spins around on her heels, my father padding ahead.
Her cold eyes puncture me, filled more with malice than anything else, and it takes me a moment to remember what I was even doing in the first place.
I stumble back a little. “I’m sorry,” I choke. “I’m so sorry.”
“You can be sorry all you want,” she says with a chill. She touches her pearls across her sharp collarbone. “It won’t repair the damage you have done to this family.” She takes a step forward, and I take one step back so we don’t bump chests. “You have everything a girl could ever want, and you had to spread your legs for every boy who gave you an ounce of attention. I didn’t raise you to be so disgusting.”
Tears cloud my eyes, and I disobey my therapist’s orders and internalize everything she says. I deserve her hate. I’ve ruined everything my father has ever created. Years and years of hard work have been tarnished by me and my stupid f**king decisions.
Her eyes flit to Lo as he comes to my side. Coldness blankets me, and my hand feels numb to his palm. My mother looks him over in one long gaze before she says, “You could do better.”
I try to disentangle my hand from his, but he grips fiercely, holding on. Tears spill down my cheeks as I focus on prying each one of his fingers off mine. He directs his attention to my mother.
“You don’t know us,” he says. “If you did, you would realize how guilty she already feels, so stop tearing her down.”
I shake my head. He doesn’t get it. I want to hear her anger and disappointment. I’m so tired of people telling me it’s okay when it’s not. It’s not okay that my little sister is being theorized as a future sex addict. It’s not okay that my father’s company has lost investors. I don’t want to lock myself in an apartment and pretend that everything is fine anymore.
There is no one else to blame but me.
Lo squeezes my hand with extra force, making it impossible for me to let go.
My mother purses her lips. “It’s late. You both need to talk with the lawyers.” She spins on her heels, and they clap all the way down the hall.
I breathe in sporadic, choppy inhales, and my head spins so much that my vision starts to whirl with it. Lo presses his hands to my cheeks, cupping my face with strength that I do not possess. Months ago, he’d probably leave me on a bench in the hallway to go collect bottles from the liquor cabinet. Now that he’s here, I try to ingest some of his power to stand upright. But all I see is a boy who’s good and whole and a girl who’s broken and weak.
I want to be him.
I want that.
But those are my parents. And they hate me.
I think I hate myself more.
“Lily,” he says, very softly. “You’re going to have a panic attack if you don’t slow your breaths.”
Going to? This isn’t a panic attack?
“Lily,” he snaps. “Breathe. Slowly.”
I try and listen to him and focus on his chest, the way it rises and falls in a stable pattern. When my lungs feel less strained and my breath steadies, we both turn to the team of lawyers who linger in the corridor. Exhaustion sags their eyes, and they each hold stacks of papers that they’ll be sifting through for the next forty-eight hours.
The head lawyer, Arthur, holds the largest stack. “We need to discuss what should happen in the upcoming weeks.”
I don’t know what my parents have decided to do. Send me to rehab? Fly me to Switzerland? I’m supposed to tell them to go to hell, but after confronting my mother, all I want to do is make this right.
And that means giving in to whatever they want. Whatever they need. I’ll repair the damage I’ve done.
Jonathan Hale steps forward, already clutching a crystal glass of scotch. Surprisingly, like my parents, he didn’t utter a word during our briefing in the den. “I can take it from here, Arthur,” he says easily. “I think Loren and Lily have had enough of this intermediary bullshit.”
Arthur sways on his feet, hesitant to leave.
“You don’t need to relay information,” Jonathan snaps. “You need to get your ass back to your office and make phone calls and fact check the hell out of those stories. It’s time for you to go. Now.”
They disperse quickly, and Arthur hands Jonathan a couple files before he leaves. A burst of envy pops in my chest, and I’m frightened that I covet Lo’s father and want to trade mine in for the Jonathan Hale version, wishing mostly that my dad could be more supportive.
The world has gone mad.
Jonathan looks to us. “We should do this at my house. The staff here is getting on my last goddamn nerve.” On cue, one of the groundskeepers walks into the house from the back door and then speeds off in another direction. Jonathan mumbles something that sounds like ridiculous motherfuckers. But I really can’t be certain.
The farther I am from this house, the better, even if it means that we have to drive through mobs of camera crews again. Lo and I climb into my car, and before he puts it in drive, he faces me.
“I have to tell you something, and you’re probably going to be mad.”
I frown, not having a clue where this could go. I watch Jonathan’s car exit the gates, cameras flashing and clicking, the light glinting off the tinted windows.
“What is it?” I ask, my voice smaller than I like.
He licks his lips, guilt lining his face. Uh oh. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen my father since rehab.”
The truth washes over me in a freezing cold wave. I shiver and nod, letting this sink in fully. Okay. He’s lied. But he just opened up, so that has to count for something, right? Still, no matter how much I make excuses for him, I can’t help the sadness that pours into me.
I lift my legs to the seat and bury my head in my knees, hiding from Lo, not the paparazzi.
“Lil,” he says, his hand hovering above my head, hesitant to touch me. “Say something.”
I can’t speak, the words tangle, swollen in a pit midway up my throat. So Lo pulls the car out and navigates past the cameras. He explains his conversations with his father and how he went to him specifically to find the blackmailer and to learn more about his mother.
By the time we reach the street, away from the paparazzi and news vans, he has finished spilling all these secrets. After a long tense silence, he asks, “Are you mad?”
“No,” I say softly, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I don’t lift my head from my knees. I’m just sad. I should have known and busted him like he did me. He was able to go to rehab and come back a little stronger than before. I didn’t have that. When he returned, I started back at day one, trying to figure out how to cope with my addiction and him in the same room. And I’m just realizing how much of a rock he is for me, and how much I may have let him down if he relapsed and I didn’t stop him sooner.
“Lily, please talk to me.” He tails Jonathan’s car and slows down when we reach the gate.
“Did you drink?” I murmur.
“No, I promise, Lil. I mean…”
My chest collapses. I don’t like I means.
“…I thought about it, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I’m on Antabuse,” he says. “The idea of vomiting stopped me more than once. Being around my father does make me want to drink. I can’t deny that.” He pauses “But I’m at a point where I can say no.” At least he’s being honest now.
I raise my head, rubbing my cheeks on my sleeve. “You didn’t tell me because you knew I’d disapprove.”
He nods. “But Lil, he’s my dad. He’s my f**king family.”
I can’t tell him what I think. That even if his father shows heart one minute, he’ll cut Lo into pieces the next. I’ve seen Lo walk away a shell of himself after his father screamed at his face for half an hour.
He parks the car and lifts my hand. “You’re my family too.” He kisses my knuckles. “Always.” He wipes a stray tear. “Please don’t be upset over this.”
“I just don’t want to see him hurt you,” I say softly.
Lo is not built of armor. He goes into every fight without the padding. He lets people hurt him because he believes he deserves that pain. It’s sick. It’s something I think I’m coping with right now.
I breathe heavily and just nod. “Okay.” I feel so ripped open. The extra dagger just fits in place with the others. I have to believe that Lo will be fine in the face of his father, that he can handle all the verbal onslaughts and the sudden disparaging comments. The why aren’t you living to your potential? Why are you such a f**king disappointment? I have to believe he’s stronger than me.
I think I can do that.
We enter the house, and I skid to a stop by the grand staircase, absorbing a home that I spent most of my childhood in. It’s quieter and darker than my parent’s place and carries a somber quality. Maybe because I have more memories here. And not all of them good.
“Can we do this in the morning?” I ask. Postponing the inevitable sounds nice. I could take another sleeping pill too, or Lo might even go down on me tonight. I shouldn’t be thinking about sex right now. I shake my head to try to reset it. I’m a spin-cycle revolving backwards.
Lo strokes my hair. “My father is impatient.”
Oh, right. He leads me to his father’s office where I’ve been many times before. Jonathan is already pouring himself scotch when we walk in. I settle on the brown leather sofa, and Lo scoots close beside me.
I remember kissing Lo on this couch. We’d have these hot and heavy make-out sessions, complete with over-the-clothes caressing, just to be caught by Jonathan or the staff. We weren’t really together, but we made excuses to kiss each other. We said that we were “reinforcing our relationship,” even though it was just pretend. I liked the stroking and the groping more than I should. And Lo did too, I suppose. He just never declared, outright, that he wanted to be with me.
Jonathan lingers by the liquor cart, examining his bottles. “Greg and I agreed not to speak during the briefing. If it felt formal, it’s only because we didn’t want the thing to last all f**king night.” He raises a crystal bottle of amber-colored liquid. “Would you like a glass or are you still being obnoxious?”
“No thanks,” Lo says, his voice firm.
Jonathan returns the bottle and slumps in the plush leather chair behind his desk. He shuffles the three files out along his desk as he takes a slow sip from his glass.
“From here on out, the goal for both of you is to reform your images. You will become upstanding individuals who can proudly wear your last f**king name.” He flips open a file and scans the page. “We’ll start with Lily. The easiest solution would be to deny all the claims, but no one would believe that sixty men were lying.”