The Pryce Family, Book 3
Having grown up in a dysfunctional family, Vanessa Pryce knows the futility of relying on a man for happiness. But there is one man who makes her want to ignore the truth: the irresistible Justin Sterling, her no-strings boyfriend since their college days together. Even after they break up, she continues to meet him for passionate encounters while keeping the relationship secret. No need to make public something that’s doomed.
Billionaire tycoon Justin Sterling understands Vanessa’s fears. But he’s about to change the game they’ve been playing… Because when one drunken night of sex leads to pregnancy, he’s going to move heaven and earth to rewrite their rules.
Vanessa let out a long breath as she and Felix walked out of the firm’s glitzy lobby to grab a latte from Starbucks. Her head throbbed, but she clenched her hands to avoid rubbing her temples. The client was guilty as hell, that was obvious, but she and other lawyers at the firm would spend endless billable hours to ensure a Desirable Outcome.
“You okay?” Felix lowered his voice. “You seemed really distracted in there.”
“I’m okay.” But she wasn’t. Her oldest brother Dane had texted her in the middle of the deposition: Parents are divorcing. And now the jerk wouldn’t answer her calls or texts.
Vanessa stopped as two young girls ran toward her. Just like that the throbbing in her head started to dissipate, and she felt her mouth start to curl into a smile. They were clients from a previous case on which she’d worked pro bono. She turned to Felix. “Do you mind getting me a tall skinny latte? I’ll meet you back upstairs.”
He nodded and walked away, leaving her alone with the girls. “What are you two doing here?” she asked. “Does your dad know?”
The younger girl nodded. “Dad drove us. He was coming to downtown anyway.” She hugged Vanessa’s legs, her small hands sticky. “Dad’s so awesome.”
The older one, Suzy, added, “We wanted to see you and say thank you again.”
Vanessa grinned. She’d fought long and hard to get their no-good drug addict mom and her abusive boyfriend away from the kids. It hadn’t been easy to convince the court that the girls were better off with their father. The man was a gruff, blue-collar high school grad, while their mother had gone to community college and knew how to work the system.
“Aunt Sally said you didn’t get paid. Is that true? I brought some money.” The younger one reached into her pocket and pulled out a small change purse.
Vanessa put a hand over the girl’s. “I’ve already been paid, just to see you guys this happy.”
Their father rushed over and gathered the kids around him. “I’m so sorry they’re bothering you. I told them they weren’t going to be able to see you again, but they just wouldn’t listen,” he spoke fast, his face flushed.
“It’s all right. I was on a coffee break. It’s great to see them doing well.” When she’d first met them, they’d been skinny, dirty and wary. Now they clung to him, their gazes certain of his love.
He sniffed. “Couldn’t have done it without your help. Thank you.”
“I’m just glad everything worked out.”
“I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I know you’re a busy woman, helping people like me.” He turned to his daughters. “Hey, say thank you to Miss Pryce, real polite now, and then we can go have ice cream.”
The girls crowed, their faces flushed, then thanked her again in a loud chorus. Chuckling, the man started herding them across the street. Something warm and sweet unfurled inside Vanessa as she watched them laughing and joking around. She blinked away sudden moisture in her eyes. Now that, she thought, was a Just and Proper Outcome.
It sort of sucked that her paying clients rarely fit into the same category.
She started to turn away, then stopped when she saw her mother climbing out of her car. She was dressed as elegantly as usual. Nothing about her hinted that something as disastrous as divorce was about to impact her life.
“Mom!” Vanessa started marching toward her mother at a rapid pace.
Ceinlys’s face relaxed into a smile. “Hello, dear,” she said when Vanessa was close enough to hug.
Vanessa searched her mother’s expression, looking for any signs of distress, but Ceinlys looked perfectly composed. Still, Dane wouldn’t have sent a text like that for no reason. “Is it true?” She’d kill him if he’d only done it to make her ask stupid questions.
“Is what true, dear?”
“That you and Dad are divorcing.” It couldn’t really be happening. Both her parents were in their sixties. Why now?
Ceinlys hesitated for half a second, then said, “Yes.”
The answer hit Vanessa like a hammer to the base of her skull.
“Where did you hear that?” Ceinlys asked.
“Dane told me.” Bitterness bubbled. “Why is Dad doing this?”
A wry smile twisted her mother’s mouth. “You have it wrong, dear. I am divorcing him.”
This time it was like a sledgehammer. “Why? The prenup—”
“If you wish to talk about my divorce, call my lawyer.” Ceinlys’s diction was proper and precise. “Her name is Samantha Jones, and as it happens I’m late for our appointment.”
Something cold and hard fisted around Vanessa’s chest. Samantha was one of the most well-known divorce attorneys in California. Nobody hired her unless they were serious, and she was exactly the kind of lawyer her mother needed if she wanted to leave her father. Vanessa forcibly drew air into her tight lungs. “But—”
“Don’t you have to go back to the office? It’s only four thirty.”
As if to prove her mother’s point, Vanessa’s cell phone started ringing.
“Nice chatting with you, dear.” Ceinlys walked away. She didn’t look back.
* * * * *
Hands steepled together, Justin watched the man on the other side of the executive desk. In his mid-forties, he looked starkly white against the dark, supple leather of his seat. His fish-like mouth moved, and words kept pouring out in an unrelenting stream, but Justin had tuned him out. It was too late for excuses.
“Have you heard anything I said?” the man said finally.
“Unfortunately, I have. Nothing you said can change my mind. The children’s hospital is no longer under your directive.”
The muscles in Justin’s jaw tightened. This was getting tiresome. “Furthermore, as of now, you are no longer employed at Sterling & Wilson.”
The construction manager’s eyes bulged. “What? You can’t do that!”
Justin gave him a bland look. “I just did.”
“Is no longer in charge.” Justin put some steel behind his voice. People kept looking for Barron even though he hadn’t been in the office in months. It was getting old. “He’s retired.”
Sweat beaded on the other man’s forehead. “Look. I know I made a few mistakes. He wouldn’t like you firing one of his longest-term managers over some minor errors.”
“Your ‘minor errors’ are going to cost the company at least five million dollars. You’re not worth anywhere near that much money.”
“I’ve managed hundreds of projects!”
“With an acceptable level of competence, for which you were compensated accordingly. But frankly, you aren’t as good as you think you are. If you don’t walk out of here in the next three minutes, I’ll have you thrown out. The choice is up to you.”
With that he dismissed the manager from his thoughts as he focused on the papers in front of him. The Ethel Sterling Children’s Hospital had been Barron’s pet project, something he wanted to build in his late wife’s name. It should’ve been completed two years earlier, but somehow it was still on-going. Barron hadn’t really given it the attention it required, what with the return of his granddaughter Kerri from self-imposed exile and her wedding, plus Barron’s own newly minted romance. And Justin had had other things demanding his attention since he’d taken over as well.
Justin glanced at the desktop clock. The round face was set in an elegant miniature silver statue featuring two swans with necks entwined. Their diamond eyes sparkled. Vanessa’s eyes had sparkled the same way when she’d given it to him as a birthday present six years ago. They’d been in Paris on a secret vacation. He’d even booked separate hotel rooms to maintain the ridiculous façade she’d wanted.
He kept thinking he should throw it out, especially after their nasty fight in November, but somehow in the ensuing three months he hadn’t been able to do so. He told himself the clock was useful, and it was true that it was the only timepiece in his office.
Almost six o’clock. He should have his assistant order him something quick to eat. It was going to be a long night.
His personal mobile rang, and he scowled at it. Fewer than twenty people had the number, and the last thing he needed was another problem. A frown creased his brow when Iain Pryce flashed on the screen. He was one of Justin’s closest friends and Vanessa’s older brother.
What could he want?
“Thank god. Are you in Chicago?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
Justin’s mood instantly darkened, then turned to something that felt suspiciously like worry. He cursed himself and kept his voice even. “What about her?”
“She’s on a flight to O’Hare.”
Justin pressed a finger against the spot between his eyebrows as his idiot heart thumped. She couldn’t possibly be coming to visit him. “On business?”
“No. Can you get her off the plane and keep her there until I can go get her?”
“Isn’t she flying private? Just have the pilot turn back to L.A.” Unlike three of her brothers, she didn’t have her own jet. She was probably on one of her brothers’ toys.
“She’s on United.” Iain rattled off the flight number and arrival info.
I should just say no. He wasn’t Vanessa’s keeper, and he really needed to forget her and move on. On the other hand, what was making her to come to Chicago? The moronic part of him spun a ridiculous fantasy: maybe she was coming to apologize and change her ways. Toxic hope. He didn’t buy it.
“Justin, can I count on you?” Iain was saying. “I’ll be there soon.”
“Don’t bother. It’s late, and I’m sure you have better things to do,” Justin said. “I’ll send her back to L.A. as soon as possible. If not, I’ll call. Is that cool?”
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
Justin hung up and leaned back in his seat. Yeah. You and everyone else.
* * * * *
Vanessa rubbed her temples as twin hammers pounded inside her head. Maybe she shouldn’t have had so much to drink on the flight, but this was a special situation. The cabin started to hum with activities as soon as the plane reached the gate.
The purser’s calm voice came through the PA system, saying the usual about thanking the passengers blah blah blah. Then there was something different. “Please resume your seats for a few moments until we’re cleared to deplane.”
There was a general murmuring, but the passengers slowly sat back down. Vanessa frowned, taking her seat again with her purse clutched in her lap. She wanted to get off as soon as possible and then…what? She closed her eyes. Coming to Chicago was a mistake. She and Justin didn’t have the kind of relationship where she could just show up unannounced for support. She’d systematically discouraged him from starting the type of deep conversation that she wanted right now. Her fingers tightened around her purse.
There’s probably another flight leaving for L.A. soon. O’Hare was a huge airport. If not, she’d just check into a hotel and catch the first flight out.
A few moments later, the cabin door swung open and three men in uniform entered. TSA or ICE, she thought, her tired eyes bleary and unable to focus. She should sleep and eat better, but she hadn’t been able to do either since November.
They came down the aisle and stopped at her seat. “Vanessa Pryce?” one of them asked.
“Would you mind coming with us?”
That had an instantly sobering effect. “What’s this about?”
“We can’t say.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Won’t say” would be more precise. The men’s expressions showed zero emotion, nothing she could use to figure out what was going on.
“Can I bring my purse and laptop bag?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.” They stepped back.
She pulled out her bag, her mouth set in a tight line. Curious stares from other passengers burned her like a brand, and she suppressed a sigh. The one time she flew on impulse, and this was what happened. She pushed down her irritation and embarrassment. It was probably a mix-up. They were probably looking for another Vanessa Pryce, one who was probably some sort of dangerous fugitive.
The men escorted her all the way through the concourse. Many people didn’t even pretend to look away. Why should they? It wasn’t every day you got to watch a woman get dragged away by a team of uniformed government men.
“Do I get a phone call?” she asked finally.
“You can call whoever you like.”
There was no one else to call except Rosenbaum, McCraken, Wagner and Associates. They were her family’s lawyers, and they’d know what to do. She didn’t feel comfortable representing herself, especially not while she was drunk and tired.
They led her to the other side of the security line. She was getting her phone out when they said, “Have a nice evening.”
She turned back toward them. “Wait. Aren’t I under arrest?”
One of them cracked a small smile. “What gave you that idea?”
She raised both of her eyebrows. They had to be kidding. All that humiliating display for this? “Can I have your names?” She’d sic the family lawyers on them.
She stilled at the familiar voice, then turned, the three men forgotten. Justin watched her, his eyes hooded. A long black coat covered his lean body, and his mouth was set in a tight line, not a hint of softness or welcome in his expression. It made her feel small and uncertain. Why had she thought it would be such a great idea to fly out to Chicago? It would’ve been better if she’d stayed in L.A. and gotten drunk with her friends instead.
Except she didn’t want to talk about her parents with anybody in L.A.
“What are you doing here?” Vanessa asked. “You aren’t…” She stopped, taking a quick glance around the arrival lounge. No one in Justin’s family flew commercial. The Sterlings had more money than they could spend in ten lifetimes.
“I’m here to pick you up.”
Then it hit her; he was the one who’d sent those men. She waited for anger to surge, but instead resignation pooled in her belly. He’d made it clear how furious he was with her. “You’re dead to me” was pretty final.
Now his gaze was raking over her. “If you were going to come to Chicago, you could’ve at least dressed for the weather.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her dark navy skirt suit and open-toe stilettos, perfect for February in L.A.
“Do you have anything warm in your luggage?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t really, you know. Pack.”
The muscles in his jaw bunched, but he came over and draped his own coat around her. It was toasty and smelled of winter and chocolate and Justin. In his Italian suit, Justin’s shoulders looked so wide and comforting. Before she could get a hold of herself, tears sprang to her eyes, and she blurted, “My parents are divorcing.”
Something shifted in his expression, and she could swear she’d glimpsed a hint of softness underneath the hard mask. And it only made her want to cry harder because he’d been such an amazing friend and support to her, and she’d pushed him away.
“I’m sorry.” She wiped the tears. “I shouldn’t have come.”
There was a long, agonizing moment, and she wondered which way it was going to go. “No, it’s okay,” he finally said. “We can talk in my car.”
“Where are we goi—?”
“Where else? To my place.”