Chapter 1

 

SHE’S LIKE A FIREWORK.

That’s the best way to describe her. The way she blasted into my life eight years ago – all sparkle and flame and bang. A firework gone in seconds, leaving a memory of something – someone – who became irreplaceable.

But I got Freja back. She’s my life now. I keep expecting to wake up from a cruel dream. As I lie here next to her, I imagine her disintegrating beneath my fingers and floating away at the slightest touch. But we’re together, I’m hers. I get to keep my firework . . . and Christ, listen to me. I’m not even cringing that I sound like bloody Katy Perry, or a writer for smoochy Hallmark Valentine’s cards. This is what she’s done to me, and I don’t give a shit how whipped I am over her. I want this feeling – this silly, euphoric, incredible feeling – to last forever.

She murmurs in her sleep and her foot nudges mine. Even in unconsciousness, her touch is everything. I want to wrap my arms around her and hold her until morning, but I don’t want to wake her. After the past few weeks, and especially after everything she did yesterday, she deserves to sleep for a full month. And, back to my silly Hallmark feelings, I could happily spend a month lying awake next to her – thankful I’m able to watch over her, that she’s safe and we’re together.

Light in warm shades of peach and apricot streams through an opening in her curtains, dancing across her porcelain-pale skin and brightening her red hair. I sink into the pillows and breathe in her scent. She’s wearing a flowery, ethereal perfume which is maddeningly at odds with the essence of who she is. She isn’t daisies or tulips or lavender. She’s stormy waves crashing against a rock. She’s a wildfire raging in a forest. There must be a perfume out there that embodies her fire and her strength. I imagine an amber glass bottle with a black label engraved with gold writing. Sleek and classy, just like her. I’ll buy her some new perfume next chance I get, and I know she’ll laugh when I tell her why. She’ll say something witty and observant about me, her hazel eyes sparkling with life, her smile wide and her eyes creased with how much she enjoys teasing me.

Her body jerks restlessly beside me. Her feet kick under the duvet and her breathing speeds up. She did this an hour ago. Her movements jolted me out of my own sleep just as dawn broke, but she eventually settled back down. I rest my hand against her back, making soft, soothing patterns against her warm, freckled skin.

“Shh,” I mumble into her hair. “Shh, it’s okay.”

She rolls against me and pulls the duvet tight around herself. Her breathing slows and I hope with everything I have that she can drift back into a peaceful sleep.

This is only our fifth night together. Just five nights after eight years apart. She’s changed so much in that time. Stylish riverside London home instead of a shared beach house in Santa Monica. High-powered city advertising job instead of waiting tables in a diner. I’m so damn proud she’s achieved so much, but even though her life is different, all the best things about her have stayed the same. Her confidence, her kindness, her maddeningly exact intuition . . . that’s all still there, and that’s the stuff that sets her apart. That’s what makes her the only woman I’ve ever truly fallen in love with. I’ve spent eight years forcing myself into relationships with other women, trying to deny the truth: she was the only one for me. That’s why losing her hurt so much. And that’s why finding out what my father did to her – to us – is like having my heart ripped from my chest.

Burning-hot rage blasts through my body when I think about him, settling into a dull ache. My hands involuntarily ball into fists, the deep lacerations on my knuckles pulling against the torn skin. Images flash in my mind. The tremble in her voice when she told me what he did, the panic attack she had in her office, the deadness in his eyes when I pounded my fist into his skull.

Her restlessness returns, and the pain in my chest grows stronger as I watch her struggle. “No,” she murmurs, her voice heavy with sleep. “No. Stop. No.”

I rub her back again, then I smooth down her hair. She quietens after a minute, but the tense knots that have been twisted up in my gut are still there. I force my selfish, useless feelings back down deep inside me. What good have my feelings been to her over the last few days? I let her down when she needed me. I let my anger get the better of me and I behaved like a pissed-up thug. I’m not proud, but still, I wish . . . I wish I’d hit him harder. Fuck, I wish I’d hit him another fifty times – enough to ensure the cuts and bruises I gave him turn into scars that never heal.

She flips onto her back. Her skin is covered in a layer of cool sweat. I feel a surge of guilt, because I did this. I brought her more pain and more anxiety. I fucked up. I managed to make things a hundred times worse.

“Can’t move,” she mumbles, her voice strained. “Can’t . . . speak.”

Her legs thrash against mine, then her heels dig into the mattress. It’s as if she’s trying to run in her sleep, her chest heaving with panic, and I can’t watch her anymore. I gently take hold of her shoulders. “Freja, it’s okay. It’s just a bad dream. Wake up.”

A huge gasping breath escapes her body. She bolts upright in the bed, her hand grabs for mine, and her eyes frantically scan the softly lit room. Her grip on my hand tightens, every breath making her body shudder, then she pulls her knees up to her chin.

“Another nightmare?” I ask, hugging her close.

“Yeah . . . I thought they’d stop after . . .” She rubs her forehead, as if she’s trying to physically erase the bad dream from her brain. She reaches up and strokes my cheek. “No need to worry. I’m sorry for waking you.”

“It doesn’t matter. You need sleep more than I do.”

She tilts her head, a faint smile pulling at her lips. “Thank you.”

I hold her for a few more moments, enjoying the sweet smell of her apple shampoo as her head nestles under my chin. “Do you want to talk about your dream?”

“It’s the same as always. I’m on the bed and I can’t move. Your dad’s there. And Brett. They’re touching and pulling me, then there’s camera clicks and flashes and . . .” She shrugs and lets out a heavy sigh. “I’ve never gotten used to having nightmares. It’s been so long, but they still happen. I know I’m safe, but when I wake up I feel so afraid. I hate feeling like this.”

I kiss the top of her head. It’s a pathetically small gesture, and I feel completely fucking useless doing it, but I don’t know what else to do. “I wish I could do something.”

“You are, Nate,” she says, wrapping her arms tight around me. “You’re here.”

It’s been just over a month since she accidentally blasted back into my life. I wasn’t prepared. Not for one second did I ever think I’d find her again, and as for us being together? Not a fucking chance. You have to lose at love at least once to eventually find the person you were meant to be with, right? Well, I always knew I was meant to be with her. If I really were a poetic-greetings-card kinda guy, or maybe Katy Perry, I’d say we were written in the stars. And I’m far less embarrassed than I probably should be about how gushy that phrase is.

She yawns and we lie back down, her head resting on my chest. I glide my fingers through her long hair and force myself to focus on the simple truth: we have each other. I’ve never once believed in fate, but now I do. Freja Larsen was always meant to be in my life, and a force a million times stronger than gravity has pulled her back to me.

My phone flashes on her dressing table. I spotted Griff’s message alert before we headed off to bed last night. Griff is my right-hand man. I’ve worked with him for ten years, and if he’s texting me late at night it’s never good news. Which is why I ignored him. I needed last night to be about her – about us. One more night. The calm before the storm.

I shove the feelings of doom away, but my gut still aches with dread. Avoidance clearly isn’t good for my health. It’ll probably give me an ulcer, or worse, but if I give my shitshow of a family any more of me, I’ll end up letting her down again. And I won’t let that happen.

“If you’re staying home today, I want to stay with you,” I tell her. “We’ll shut out the world, watch old movies and order takeaways for breakfast, lunch and dinner – what do you say?”

“I’d love to.” Her voice is slurred with sleep, making her accent stronger. God, I love her accent. I almost forgot how beautifully, deliciously sexy it is. “But I’m not sure if that’s a great idea. I’ve a crazy workload at the moment.”

“Didn’t Ethan Fraser give you a direct order to take today off?”

She chuckles and her breath tickles my skin. “Ethan’s sweet and he’s a great boss, but the exec team isn’t back from Seoul yet, so he has nobody to help him out if—”

“If I dropped this year’s biggest corporate scandal down on him from a great height?”

She moves her head onto the pillow and turns on her side. Her eyes scan my face, analysing my expression and burrowing into my psyche. “I wasn’t going to say that, but if you’re worried, we should talk.”

I force a smile onto my face. “I know you weren’t, but it’s true.” My mind travels back to my flashing phone and Griff’s message. I feel like opening the window and hurling the bloody thing into the Thames. Just give us another day. Please. Just one more. “I want to spend today with you, even if that means I have to talk about all the things I don’t want to talk about.”

“Okay, but don’t you have plans for today? Europe’s fastest-growing online payment company isn’t going to run itself. Especially now it’s being promoted by a crazy-hot set of TV adverts from the city’s best film ad producer.”

Warmth spreads from her eyes to her gorgeous smile, and I resolve that I am going to do everything I can to stay here all day. Fuck work, fuck my dad and fuck the world. “I don’t care anymore.”

“Nate,” she says, drawing out my name in her enchanting Danish lilt. “I know we’ve been through a lot these past few days, but BuzzPay is your life—”

“It was my life, but maybe it shouldn’t have been.” I coil a lock of her hair between my fingers; it feels like silk. “I created BuzzPay, but my dad bankrolled it. It was never mine.”

“How much of the company does he own?”

“Fifty-one per cent.” I laugh at that lethal number. My dad cut the deal as an investor, silently financing my vision in exchange for a slice of the profits. He makes sure he retains full control of every company he ploughs money into, and the fact that I’m his son, as opposed to a faceless business opportunity, didn’t make a blind bit of difference.

Sadness creeps into her eyes. “This is what I was afraid of.”

I take hold of her hand and our fingers intertwine. I love the feel of her hand in mine. I love feeling like we’re glued together and can’t be separated again. “If he wants to fuck with my business he can take his best shot. BuzzPay is important to me, but you’re more important.”

“I should’ve bartered for your dad’s BuzzPay investment instead of his Tribe investment. If I’d known he owned the lion’s share of your company . . .”

“Like I said, if he wants it, he’s going to have a fight on his hands. The first thing I’m going to do when I get back in the office is find someone to buy out his investment. I won’t line his pockets. I won’t work for him.”

“I’ll make him sell up. I still have the film of Brett confessing to what your father made him do—”

“No, you’ve done more than enough already.” Bile rises into my throat when I think about what she did yesterday. I landed myself in a heap of shit, and she hauled me out of it. She risked her own career for my literal get-out-of-jail card, making fools out of my dad and his top execs in the process. My dad isn’t just a multi-millionaire CEO of Britain’s biggest tech empire: he’s a celebrity, an influential newspaper columnist and a powerful member of the House of Lords. He’s used to winning, so losing something big – his stake in Tribe, London’s most up-and-coming advertising agency – is going to gnaw away at him until he unleashes a revenge attack. Nobody has ever got one up on my father like she did. “I don’t want you getting involved with BuzzPay. I don’t want you near him again.”

The hardness in my tone echoes in my ears. I fully expect her to protest, but instead her eyes flash with acceptance. Her incredible insight may be unnerving at times, but it sure makes communication easier. “I understand.”

I glance over her shoulder as the digital numbers on her clock click through to six a.m. “Do you want me to make you some coffee?”

“Actually, no. But I wouldn’t mind a glass of water.”

I feel my eyes pop. “Really? Don’t tell me my coffeeholic girlfriend is turning down a freshly roasted morning blend of whatever May’s coffee bean of the month is?”

She sends me her cutest lopsided smirk. “It’s Ethiopian Limu Kossa, but if I have some now I’ll wake up and . . .” She yawns and hugs the duvet around herself. “And I’m not ready to wake up yet.”

I kiss the top of her head. “I’ll be back in two minutes.”

I pick up my irritatingly flashy phone and go downstairs to the kitchen. My blood pressure soars when I see Griff’s single message alert from last night has given birth to three more messages this morning. I take a deep breath and open the first one: Something major in the works, old boy. Give me a call pronto. Despite my being twelve years younger than him, Griff has called me “old boy” ever since we first worked together. A card-carrying English eccentric, he was headhunted by my dad a decade ago after he’d made a small fortune dealing for Compaq. He moved to China as my COO at KTech, then eighteen months ago he joined me at BuzzPay. He’s a visionary in the tech world, but he’s also as crazy as hell. At the moment, he seems fully committed to living his life as if he were locked inside a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

And I wish I was joking here, because the memories of bailing him out of jail last New Year’s Day will stay with me for the rest of my life. The plank can’t even remember belting out “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” on Hong Kong’s Avenue of the Stars, and he swears he has no recollection of why he was wearing nothing but a pair of high heels, a sumo belt and a spotted bow tie while he was doing it. Ever since that night he’s completely sworn off alcohol, so I’m grateful for small mercies. His dining room was beginning to resemble a small pub.

I click onto his other three messages. They don’t elaborate any further on what the “something major” is. Instead he tells me that “call me pronto” means “call me now” and the etymology of the word is Spanish, derived from the Latin “promptus”. Knowledge every man needs to know. I close the kitchen door and, with a heavy heart, call his number.

He answers after two rings. “Finally. Where the devil are you, old boy?”

“I’m at Freja’s place.” I take a tumbler from the kitchen cupboard and fill it with water. “What’s so urgent? Don’t tell me you’ve been caught giving a half-naked performance of The Mikado in Trafalgar Square.”

I laugh, but he doesn’t. Which means this is bad. Really bad.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he says after an unnervingly long moment of silence. “Sam told me you got into a fight with your dad, but he didn’t say why. Nate, I shouldn’t have to tell you that this has all the signs of becoming an absolute bonfire of a scandal.”

“Just a bonfire?” I say, trying to defuse his escalating terror. “I was aiming for a nuclear fallout.” Silence again. Jesus, what the hell is he trying to do to me?

“We need to talk. Promptus.”

Oh great. Now I’m getting Latin. It’s a downward spiral. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you. It’s a very long story, but suffice to say I no longer have a father. We’re through.”

He sighs so deeply the phone practically vibrates in my hand. “I’m shocked, but I can’t say I’m surprised. You know I’ll have your back, but I don’t have a clue how to handle this. It really is a public relations nightmare, old boy.”

“We’ll take it one step at a time. It’ll all die down soon enough.”

“Not this time,” he says with a snap in his tone. He sighs deeply again. “A hack from the Herald Online tipped me off last night. Somebody took photos of the incident yesterday and sold them to him. Your dad not only writes for that toilet-paper factory but has the editor-in-chief in his pocket. You can imagine the slant they’re giving the story.”

I fall back against the kitchen bench. I was worried this would happen. “How bad?”

“One clear shot of you grabbing your dad by his throat. Another of him being stretchered out of your girlfriend’s office building. They’ve dredged up everything from the circumstances of your blue-blooded mother’s death to your getting expelled from Harrow.”

Panic surges through me because all I can think about is her. “Have they named Freja?”

“No, they don’t know who she is. Not yet.”

“Shit.”

“Look, it’s too late to kill this thing. It’s online and it’s gone to print already. It’ll no doubt be trending on Twitter for the rest of today.” He sighs and I imagine him raking his hand through his thinning mop of curly grey hair – a gesture he always makes when he’s bricking it. “I’m already at the office and there’s a wall of paparazzi outside the entrance. How soon can you get here?”

I consider Griff to be one of my best friends, not just a work colleague. We moved out to China together and he’s always had my back. I know his stress levels will have reached peak freak-out over this, but I also expect him to understand that Freja comes first now. He was the one who sat with me into the night, warning me that we only get one shot at happiness. He encouraged me to fight for my second chance with her.

“I’m sorry, Griff. I’m not turning in today.”

I can almost hear him sweat. “I don’t understand. Nate, I know your dad’s a swine and you’ve had a rough time of it, but this is serious. We need you.”

“I know, but she needs me more.”