There would be countless times where life would test our limits, strength, power and perseverance. Most of us learned from these small skirmishes, but those were all simply calculated steps to prepare us for the grandest battle of all; that one fight where everything was all on the line. It wouldn’t ask kindly for permission to oppose you in an all or nothing duel; no, it would demand it of you. A duel where we had everything to lose and it had the power to gain an incredible advantage.
It would be an unforgettable battle. The fight of your life. A head-on assault which would riddle you with scars, marring you deeply. Although many had survived it, they would never be the same again.
Sadly, my friend didn’t survive the attack when it came for him.
Richard passed away on a Thursday morning—two weeks after the wedding—at the young age of twenty-five.
A few of his staff commented that Richard probably needed to see his sister secured before finally giving in to the relentless demand of the cancer; a condition that his frail body could barely register before it had eventually taken over, running him into the ground and ultimately claiming his life.
Not only was it heartbreaking to bury my best friend, but it was also wretched to see his sister softly sob as she tried to hold her tears at bay during the burial. Stella von Berg, the last of the direct heirs to the von Berg inheritance. A young, impressionable, eighteen-year-old heiress that held an insurmountable amount of money. Richard’s passing was kept private—for now—however once the news spread that he had died, the vultures would flock in droves.
Glancing at Stella’s pained state, it was obvious that she could easily be drawn in with sweet words, a fake sense of security and the comfort that any stable, functioning man could easily provide. She would be, undoubtedly, one of the top targets to con and extort money from.
Yes, now I truly saw how vulnerable she’d be without me in the background.
Richard had been right in making the decision to wait until she was at the age of twenty-six to release half of her estate and allow her to be a free woman to marry of her choosing. Until then, she’d have me.
I wouldn’t limit her when it came to her dating life because I truly believed a woman should learn how cruel and selfish men could be. So that when she finally married one day, she’d know she found the best man standing beside her. A man who would protect her from harm, at all costs. A man who would love her the way her mother was loved by her father. Most of all, a man who would appreciate her wholeheartedly, no holds barred, because he only had eyes for her and no one else.
Quietly, I moved towards her sullen body, wrapping an arm around her to let her know that I was here for her even though she might consider me a stranger. Her crystal grey eyes were awash with fresh tears when I crooked her neck to face me and then softly kissed her warm forehead.
Little did she know that she was the only family left for me.
“What’s with the sour puss expression?” Mark eyed me with mock concern.
How many times did I have to go through this humiliating experience in one lifetime? “Not today, I beg of you. I haven’t slept yet.” I slid on the opposite chair, gracelessly as ever, before I took a careful sip of my coffee. Lucia and I shared an apartment where Mark, most of the time, crashed because he loved to mess with our lives.
“What gives?” Mark pressed on, knowing my embarrassment had doubled by my reddening cheeks.
“Derek dumped me. He said waiting on me was taking forever. A year with fringe, semi-benefits isn’t all that bad, is it?”
“No, but we’re men and we love to own everything we touch in its entirety.” Mark winked at me before he bit into his buttered toast, washing it down with his cappuccino before adding to my misery. “Why don’t you take care of the problem with a dildo? Or better yet, you’re already married; why not make the very man himself do the bloody deed?”
Good question, but the thought of asking the infamous playboy, who I barely knew, was stupefying. “It’s not real, Mark! Besides, I don’t think Callum goes for the virginal type. I mean, I’m experienced, but not as a whole, you know?” In Callum’s eyes, I was probably laughable. He didn’t do women like me—ever. The whole of England knew that.
Mark smirked, brown eyes dancing with amusement. “Callum likes his ladies a tad blatant. Say, on the experimental side? I do admire the man. One of these days, you should introduce us. I want the inside digs as to where he gets those captivating felines he usually toys about with.”
Rolling my eyes, I stole the tiny bit of toast he had left before slipping it inside my mouth. “Shut up. You have the hots for Lucia, you just have to admit to it,” I muttered, shaking my head at the stubborn fool I’d known since I moved to England three years ago.
I had been born in England, however my family moved to St. Lucia when I was two when my father purchased a sprawling estate for his surprise present to my mother on their wedding anniversary. It was my favorite place on earth. I had been saddened when I had to leave my home, but once a year I went back to remember what life used to be like. What life had resembled before my family was taken away from me. As much as I loved living in London, St. Lucia would always be my home.
Being British, I had always had an accent that spoke of that heritage, however my accent had a slightly different tone to it. Some couldn’t really pinpoint what the difference was and I always ended up saying it was Australian. I did sound similar to one and I loved that so much, but now I was starting to sound like a proper Brit. Each time I caught myself, I was reminded of my family.
I was alone. If not for my friends, I really would have no one.
My reverie was broken, when I heard Lucia muttering about some project that was due today before she entered the kitchen. “Mark, get me coffee.”
Mark glared at her, yet did it anyways. Lucia was Her Highness when Mark was around. Their dynamics were odd, but it worked perfectly well for them.
“I think you two should have sex and get it over and done with,” I murmured, smiling.
“Oh, shut it! Mark is gay. Did you not know?” Lucia raised her brow.
“Coffee.” Mark slid the mug toward Lucia. “How many times do I have to emphasize the fact that I am not gay? In fact, I had the most gorgeous Italian in my arms last night and mind you, she loved every second of it.” The man had a thing for Italian women, hence his major crush on Lucia.
“I would love to meet her.” I grinned towards a still Lucia. “What do you think, Lu?”
Her gorgeous, tan face and green eyes masked the fakest of happy smiles. “Sure. Bring her over. I would love to meet one of Mark’s shag buddies.”
I hid back a smile because she was stung and failing at hiding the fact.
Mark eventually left when I announced that I was going to get ready for work. I went in early and left a little early. Lucia, however, went to work late and didn’t leave the office until dark.
We worked great and we balanced each other quite well. If a friend could be a soul mate, Lucia would be it for me. Actually, I suppose I would call her my soul-sister at this point.
The Italian knockout kept me sane.
After an hour, I was striding towards our office building that was located in St. James Square.
Alec, Mark’s older brother, called in to see if I wanted to join him for lunch, so I agreed to meet him at our usual favorite. It was a cozy, French gem of a patisserie that served breakfast all day long. Not to mention, the treasures the place produced were my idea of Heaven on earth.
After working as his intern for over three years, Alec and I had gotten close. At first, he was a total ass because, let’s face it, he was doing his baby brother a favor by hiring us, however that didn’t mean he wanted or needed Lucia’s or my help.
Alec’s brashness ebbed away as we worked closely together almost on a daily basis and proved myself on every task I was given. Where my friendship with Mark was all jokes with easy laughs, parties and the mandatory BFF heart-to-heart once every six months, my friendship with Alec, on the other hand, was on a much more mature level. I appreciated his honest opinions if I needed consulting with any of the projects I worked on.
Where Mark had the boyish good looks, Alec was charming, polished and looked like he had stepped out of a designer suit advertisement. Okay, so I wasn’t immune to his looks. It was a harmless crush, one I kept to myself.
We were in the middle of our lunch when my phone vibrated on the table.
Callum: Are you busy this afternoon?
Callum, texting me during lunch, let alone texting me at all, was odd.
My interest piqued, I quickly typed away on my screen.
Me: It’s manageable. What’s up?
I was about to place it down when it beeped again.
Callum: I have something important to discuss with you. What time are you free?