[Five years ago]
I was eager to get out of the office doors, tired of the same white walls and the cream marble floors. So, when my only friend in Paris offered to take me up for some drinks, I couldn’t say no.
"You have no idea what you’ve saved me from," I said as we walked past the massive queue outside the club.
"Humour me." Cole ran a hand through his coffee-coloured hair. "On second thoughts, please don't. Your job is the very reason I ran from home."
"Not everyone's as lucky as you. I had no option," I huffed.
Cole shook his head and raised a brow at me. "That's where you're wrong, man. You had a choice. It's your fault you didn't take it. You were too busy looking after your mother to do anything for yourself."
“I couldn’t leave her like that.”
“Even when she wanted you to?”
I chose not to dwell on that. I couldn’t leave her behind, knowing how she would break and blame herself for everything in her life.
The streets of Paris had something about them I could never understand. I wanted to know why this place was called the city of love, not that I believed in such nonsense. It was to feed my curious mind.
Exchanging some small talks with the bouncer, we both walked in. The club was cosy with a small dance floor and the bar on one side and a sitting area on the other. The lights were dim, but I could make up almost every face in the room.
"You seem to know these people well," I yelled, trying to reach over the sound of the music.
Cole smiled at the bartenders and nodded. "This is where I landed my first job. I had low cash on me. No place to crash."
"You could’ve come to me for help."
"And risk your uncle blurting my shit to my dad? No, thank you.” He waved his hand around. “This place needed bartenders and came with a package of free food and stay."
"Things were tough, I assume."
"I underestimated the pressure." Cole laughed, watching me give my favourite ‘I warned you’ look. "Yes, you get the satisfaction of saying I told you so."
Cole pointed at the sitting area, and I followed him. Plopping down on the round couch, I exhaled a heavy sigh. The dance floor was full of people. Many women sitting at the bar were staring in our direction, something that wasn't new to either of us.
"Just like college, isn't it?" He laughed. "No wonder we have big egos. At least we had . . . attributes to add to that."
He wagged his head. “Sense of humour, ambitions and big dicks.”
I chuckled. My eyes paused at the blonde by the bar, sitting with her friend and laughing. She swept those smooth locks to one side of her shoulders, revealing a diamond cut at the back of her red body-con dress that hugged her body in all the right places.
Something about her was very enticing, was luring me toward her. Maybe it was the way she laughed, or perhaps the way she ignored all the advancements and lusty stares at her.
"Bonjour!" A shrill voice pulled my attention back.
Standing before us were two brunettes. The taller one wore a tight mini dress, tight especially around her breast, while the other was in a knee-length dress and seemed a little shy.
"Would you like to have a drink with us?" The tall one's accent was drawled.
I glanced at Cole, who nodded back with pleading eyes. Turning back to the girls, he said, "Pourquoi pas? Asseyez-vous." (Why not? Have a seat.) Cole leaned toward me and murmured, “We are about to get lucky. Which one would you pick?”
“Have you watched the movie Hostel?”
Cole's mouth pressed into a fine line and he gave me a judgemental glare before turning back to the girls.
"Quel âge avez-vous les filles?" I asked, narrowing my eyes at the girls, to which Cole stomped on my boot. "What the fuck was that for?" (How old are you girls?)
"For being an arse!" Cole whisper-shouted while the girls stared at me uncomfortably. "Look, man, I haven't slept with anyone in months. Don't ruin this chance for me."
I rolled my eyes. "Can't you see? These are kids and I don’t do kids."
"Nous avons vingt," the same girl added, smiling. “I’m Jessica.” (We are twenty.)
I was sure the other girl wasn’t shy. She was bloody mute.
"Cole," Cole quickly added, shaking his hand with her.
“I’m Sonia,” the other girl finally said, staring at me from top to bottom as if she was planning something sinistrous. Not so shy after all. This was how the girls—the ones I usually kicked out of my house after a one-night stand—looked at me.
"Whatever." I stood up, shaking my head. “I'm out of here.”
"Why?" Cole asked, his blue eyes filling with doubt. "Fine, go! At least give me the key to your hotel room. I might take one of these fine ladies there. Or maybe two."
“Why my place?”
“Bigger space, V, bigger space. My living accommodations aren’t as luxurious as they used to be,” Cole cooed, and I mentally groaned before handing him the swipe key and pacing toward the bar.
I had no intention of playing house with those girls because there was someone else I wanted to devote my attention to.
The woman in the red dress was now alone, still in the same seat, lost deep in her thoughts. No part of me had ever wanted to approach a woman so badly but this woman had a magnet that pulled to her and now I was standing behind her, a little disarrayed. I didn’t know what to say to her.
I watched as she took a slow sip of the drink in her hand. Margarita. She had good taste.
I was tired after the long day I’d had but I couldn’t leave or let her leave without knowing her name at least. Or I would regret it for the rest of the night.
“Are you even listening to what I’m saying?” Beatrice’s voice drew my attention back to her.
I had been zoning out for the last twenty minutes of our conversation, and when caught, I just nodded.
Bea asked, “Are you worried about the inheritance?”
I couldn’t lie now. Bea knew me better than that. Giving in to her intuition was only going to prove a problem for me, though.
I shook my head, raking my hand through my hip-length hair. “I’m just worried about the project. It seemed too easy. Development projects are based on trust, and Dad seems to have hurried on his decision to work with this set of investors.”
“I tried to talk to Mr Gale, but he just shut me off. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” She shrugged. “And I absolutely agree with you. These investors looked shady as fuck. I mean, who offers a billion dollars for a project this small?”
“We should not take a single penny more than the amount written in the contract.” There was enthusiasm building in my voice, but it was not real.
I was worried about the company and about Dad, of course. But I was more worried about my dreams that were slowly drifting away because I was too busy pleasing my father.
“We won’t.” Bea looked at her golden wristwatch. “Shit, I’m getting late.”
“Where are you going?”
She got down from the barstool and adjusted her dress over her knees. “I have a meeting.”
“Meeting?” I frowned. It thrilled me that all the meetings for the project were over and I could at least rest a day before I returned to New York. “Am I not supposed to accompany you?”
Bea shook her head. “It’s more of a personal meeting.”
From the smile on her lips, I got the hint. “Then I’ll see you back at the hotel. Have a wonderful night, Bea.”
Her cheeks turned red. “Thank you. Tomorrow, we’ll go on a tour. I know some great places.”
As soon as she disappeared out of the door, I slumped in my seat. With Bea gone, I felt lighter. I didn’t particularly hate her or her efforts at pleasing me, but she had a habit of reporting every single thing to Dad. Dad appreciated her loyalty, but it disturbed me. I could never be myself around her.
At least I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to join the Gale industries. My brother Isaac was the same. The pressure of continuing under Dad’s name, who was a perfectionist, was a lot to take. So Isaac snuck out to pursue his passion as a travel journalist, which, according to Dad, was a waste of valuable time.
Seeing the glass in my hand empty, I ordered another. I needed more alcohol in my system to not feel the guilt of wanting to make my name in the literary industry behind my father’s back.
"Les Ville de l'amour," a raspy voice called from behind.
I whirled around, coming to face a man with hair as dark as anthracite and aluminium eyes that had me going speechless almost instantly. I wasn’t just shocked because of his undeniably handsome looks, but because I knew him. Not personally. I knew who he was.
His face had been appearing in every business newspaper and magazine that was delivered to our office. He was the CEO of the year, the heir to the Rivian Enterprises, Vincent Brown. He had a clean-shaved face, his jaw sharp and nose pointed like that in those magazines, but he seemed a lot more carefree.
He was also the man with the grand entrance. People looked at him as if he was a big shot. I had laughed at them, but now I knew what all the fuss was about.
But what the hell was he doing here?
He looked less like a businessman and more like a biker in his slacks, grey t-shirt and black leather jacket. I had expected him to have a brooding aura but instead, he seemed carefree, his hair ruffled to the side.
"Beg your pardon?" I said, confused by the look on his face.
"The city of love,” he clarified, wiggling his brows. “What are you sitting here all alone?"
Was he here to hit on me? I went along. "Who says I'm alone?" I yelled back at him to make my voice audible over the sound of the bass.
"I saw your friend leave a few minutes ago. But you’re still here, drinking margaritas all alone." He smirked. God, that sight was sexy.
"How long have you been watching me?"
“Do you want the truth?” I shrugged, and he added, “Since the moment I got here.”
“Are you a stalker or something?”
“Do I look like a stalker?”
I knew he wasn’t one, but it was still fun to see how my words were slowly offending him.
“Sources say that 90% of stalkers are actually incredible looking and can easily lure their prey with sweet talks.” I suspiciously raised a brow at him, and with a small gulp, emptied the entire glass of margarita. “The next thing I know you’d probably be taking me to a remote warehouse to keep me hostage until I give in to your temptations.”
His eyes filled with shock as he questioned, “Do you really not know who I am?”
I considered telling him. But, at the same time, I wanted to see how he behaved with someone who was completely clueless about him. Truthfully, besides his name and the dirty tabloids about him changing girlfriends every week, I knew nothing about him.
“Am I supposed to know you?”
He studied my expression to look for a hint of deception. I was much more experienced in hiding my thoughts and emotions than I was at handling my father’s business.
In the end, he sighed and said, “No, absolutely not.” He laughed to himself. “Rest assured I’m not a stalker. Since you are alone and I’m alone too, I thought maybe you’d like to have a drink with me.”
I was already half-drunk when he came into the bar, but I was pretty sure I had seen him enter with another guy who was also very charming.
“What happened to your friend?”
“He’s got a tad bit busy.” He pointed at his friend by the lounge who was swiftly flirting with two girls who looked barely of age.
I turned back to Vincent and sighed. "Well, since you’re not a stalker or a trafficker or a kidnapper," I pouted, "or a murderer, I guess I can stay." I couldn’t help but hold in my laughter as his jaw twitched and his eyes widened.
"I really need to add those adjectives to my vocabulary.” He laughed it off. “Usually people say how handsome I am and how I make them feel things.”
Everything about him was perfect—his aura and presence along with his accent, his physique that looked as if he were straight out of a television commercial, and his grey eyes that were beyond compare. All of this made him look unreal. Even his lips were pink and firm. I couldn’t stop imagining what his lips would feel against mine.
I was fantasising about Vincent Brown. What was wrong with me? There was no billionaire more a ladies’ man than Vincent.
"So, what's your name?"
"I don't give my name to strangers." It was definitely the alcohol talking by this point and not me.
"Is that so?" I bobbed my head to which he puckered his face. "Then let's go past the stage of strangers."
I chuckled, shaking my head. "I've got a better idea. Let's remain strangers and see where the night takes us."
I was a nobody to him, anyway. Not telling him who I was seemed safer. Gale Industries wasn’t as big as Rivian Enterprises, but it was still well known.
He remained quiet for a while, furrowing his brows as his gaze shuffled between me and his friend. "It’s fine by me."
"Then pick a name. Any name."
"V," he said as quickly as the words left my mouth.
"V? Only an initial?” He nodded, and I pulled my lips upside down. I couldn’t complain because I already knew who he was. “Okay. I'm feeling very joyful today. So I pick Joy for my name." It was short for my name, but he didn’t need to know that.
"The name suits you,” he said.
The change in his expressions quickened my heartbeat. His lips bent into a small smile, which I found myself staring at. The smile was sweet. Who was Vincent Brown? Really?