Trials and Tiaras
It’s not true.
It can’t be.
Four DNA tests.
Only one positive.
The man claiming to be my father is quite literally the worst option imaginable. This isn’t happening to me. For the first time in my life, I know who I am and where I want to be and, in the blink of an eye, everything is spinning so utterly out of control.
I thought the fight with Maddy was the worst thing I faced.
It’s not. I’ve grown up in a house of lies and it’s all crashing down on the five of us, and I have no idea how to protect the ones I love best from the fallout. They’ve all made it clear, they’re not going anywhere.
Worse, I don’t know how to keep them from wading into this fight. I can’t imagine my life without all four of them. I don’t want to.
We can survive this, right?
*Please note this is a reverse harem and the author suggests you always read the forward in her books. Contains some bullying elements, mature situations, and is recommended for 17+. This is the seventh in a series and the story will continue through future books.
Living with Lies
As soon as the car came to a halt, I slid over and opened the door without waiting for the driver. Jake exhaled as he followed me. I’d told him he didn’t have to come with, but he’d just glared at me. Two plane tickets later, we were on our way to New York. With both of us gone, that left Bubba and Coop to keep an eye on Frankie.
My heart fisted as I headed for the main doors. I couldn’t focus on Frankie too closely right now. My temper was still on edge, and if Bubba and Jake hadn’t sat on me, I’d probably be in jail for murder. I had a plan. I just needed to stick with it.
Phillip, the doorman, gave me a nod as he opened the doors to let us in out of the frigid February air. Instead of spending Valentine’s weekend with our girl, we were here in New York on a Sunday morning to track down my mother. Inside, I pulled a keycard out of my pocket and swiped it at the elevator before pressing the call button.
Jake let out a low whistle as the doors slid open to reveal a comfortably appointed elevator where no expense had been spared to make it appear as opulent as the building it served in. Inside, I pressed the penthouse button, then ran my swipe card again and entered the code. Only then did the doors close.
“You didn’t have to come,” I reminded him.
Arms folded, Jake shot me a smirk. “Fuck off.”
“Right. So what?”
“Nothing, just forget how much money your family has sometimes.”
“Good,” I said. “I don’t want to be known for the money.”
“But you’re more than willing to use it.”
I shrugged. “It’s an asset. Right now, it’s a powerful one we have to protect her. You really complaining?”
“Fuck no,” Jake said. “Just makes me think about our plans and I’m glad you’re on my side.”
I nodded. “Ditto.”
Then the elevator doors opened to the penthouse. Express access never took long. The interior was lit from all the windows facing out over the city. Unsurprisingly, a butler greeted us.
“Mrs. Standish is still in her room, Mr. Standish…”
“Is she alone?”
“Is she alone or does she have a guest over?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t—”
“That’s fine, I know where it is,” I said, waving him off. Whatever, if she had someone in there, Jake would help me throw him out so I could talk to her. “You should probably make coffee and get the vodka out if she needs a shot after this conversation.”
Across the living room to one of the halls tucked just out of sight, I followed it to the master suite. I knocked twice and then gripped the handle. Deep breath. It would hardly be the first time I walked in one of their dalliances.
It was how I’d figured out the Maddy equation in the first place. Not that they’d seen me.
The interior of the master was much darker, with only one window offering partial light through the drapes. Jake paused at the doorway.
“Archibald,” Muriel said with an aggrieved sigh. “What is so urgent you can’t even wait a polite fifteen minutes for me to make myself presentable?”
Robe on with her hair already coiffed, she held her phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
“This isn’t a social call, Muriel, and I couldn’t care less if you are presentable.”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” she began, and I sliced a hand through the air to cut her off.
“Not in the mood, Muriel. We need to talk, and I have questions. You’re going to answer them.”
She arched a plucked eyebrow. “And if I refuse?”
“I can make life very unpleasant for you. I’m sure you want those accounts to stay accessible, but since they are part of a larger Standish estate funding, I can redirect that entirely or tie it up in enough paperwork, you’ll have to jump through hoops to order a cup of coffee.”
I’d come prepared.
She lowered her cup and eyed me. “You’re serious.”
“Yes, Muriel, contrary to your opinion, I’m quite often serious. But right now, what I want are answers and you have them. So the only thing you need to decide is whether we’re doing it in here or out there.”
“Let me get my coat and my shoes.”
With that, she turned back into her closet, and I walked out to the hall to wait with Jake.
“Coat and shoes?” he asked.
I shrugged. “It’s gotta be bad. She wants a cigarette.”
Muriel didn’t keep us waiting, surprise. She had indeed pulled on a heavy coat and warm shoes. I motioned for her to go past, and she barely even glanced at Jake. He mouthed ‘Wow’ to me, and I shook my head.
Sometimes, I forgot the guys didn’t have as much experience with my parents as Frankie did. They were so rarely around. Just thinking of her sent a muscle twitching at the corner of my eye.
“…bring coffee out for all of us,” Muriel said. “And do turn on the heating lamps for me.”
She had a thin silver case in her hand—a hand that now wore gloves. The wind outside might threaten her hair, but that was the price we would pay. Her butler was already carrying out a tray with large mugs of coffee. Jake grabbed two when I would have left it, but I took the second one from him when he glared.
Seriously, if he came to be my babysitter, I was gonna give him a black eye the next time we boxed. Once Muriel had her mug, the butler opened the doors to the patio. The wind was definitely brisk, but the alcove off this side of the building offered us a bit of shelter.
The heating lamps did the rest. Someone had already cleared away the snow and any ice accumulation. We paid people to take care of everything. For the first time in my life, it really seemed like a fucking waste.
At Frankie’s, we all had chores and they sucked. But we did it, and I kind of liked the fact we all split up the work. It had kind of turned her apartment into our apartment. It had taken us a long time to get here, and I wasn’t going to let anyone…
Fuck. I shook off the wandering thoughts, even as my gut bottomed out. No. Just fucking no. It was not all going to hell because Edward couldn’t keep his dick in his pants.
Muriel lit a cigarette and then took a seat on the padded chair just below the patio heater, looking for all the world like we were on vacation and having the most pleasant time. “Well, are you going to send your friend away?”
“I would prefer to keep private matters private.”
“Trust me,” I told her as I set my cup down on the table and then braced my hands on the green marble monstrosity, “I would prefer if you’d all kept your fucking private matters private. But guess what, they aren’t anymore…”
“Save it, you were a womb with a view and a name on my birth certificate. I spent more time with my nannies and my boarding schools than I ever did with you. So sit there, lose the attitude, and answer my questions. Believe me, when I’m done, you’ll never have to see me again. I know what a chore that’s always been.”
Her lips compressed, and her expression turned icy.
I took her silence for compliance and began. “Why did Edward marry you?”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Why. Did. Edward. Marry. You?” I ground out each word. “The truth.”
Exhaling a stream of blue smoke, she eyed me and then said, “Because I was pregnant. We had a brief relationship, I got pregnant, we got married. It’s what you do.”
“Brief relationship is that what we call his flings?”
Another puff of her cigarette. “If you wish. I don’t call them anything but inconvenient these days. And very shortly, they won’t be my problem at all.”
“You’re divorcing now, why?”
“Are you seriously…”
“Muriel, don’t make me repeat myself. I am asking the questions. You’re divorcing now, why?”
I could practically feel Jake’s gaze boring into me. I hadn’t moved from where I’d braced my hands on the table. I’d done it as much to keep from throttling her as I had for effect.
Another drag and exhale. “The terms of the prenuptial are no longer in effect.”
I frowned. Then… “Because I turned eighteen.”
For a split second, something resembling regret seemed to pass over her features. Or maybe she had gas.
“Yes. When I got pregnant, I told your father. Three days later, he proposed. We were married a week after that in a quick civil ceremony and then a reception for the couple who eloped.”
So that part of Edward’s story checked out. I thought I’d feel something at the admission, but it barely even registered.
“You were a fling?”
She met my gaze evenly. “I was available and interested. He wanted to punish his girlfriend—he was quite honest about his intentions, and I was quite amenable to it. We were well-matched in that regard.”
“Save me the gory details. What about the girlfriend?”
Her smile turned almost pitying. “I wondered if he would ever tell you.”
“He didn’t tell me,” I informed her. “He told Frankie.”
“Why would he tell that—”
“Choose your next words carefully.”
Extinguishing her cigarette, she studied me. “Madeline Grayson, now known as Curtis, was engaged to your father for three years. The relationship blew very hot, and they were prone to their…mutual indiscretions. He was rather put out with her over something she’d done, and honestly, I didn’t care. He was handsome and interested.” After lighting another, she exhaled, then shook her head. “I didn’t break them up, but I also wasn’t opposed to the pregnancy tying Edward and I together…”
“Because you had your meal ticket.”
“What? You want me to apologize for securing my future and, may I remind you, yours?”
“I wouldn’t dream of asking you for an apology, Muriel. What I want to know is if you knew he and his ex-girlfriend hooked up after you and he were together?”
“He could have,” she admitted with a shrug. “He had several affairs in the early years, and that didn’t change. When I chose to move to Texas to get away from the city and your interfering grandfather, I did it because I’d found her and I wanted to put her in Edward’s path.” She flicked some ash away and then took a drink of her coffee.
“You moved there specifically so he’d run into her?” Who did that?
“Yes,” she told me simply. “The prenuptial was quite clear, the marriage a contract for your father and for me. If he asked for the divorce, I got to keep my assets, or I simply had to maintain the marriage until your eighteenth birthday. I think we were all tired of the farce, yourself included. So I had to give him incentive.”
My stomach curdled, and even the cold wind didn’t register against the heat racing through me. I’d met Frankie because Muriel wanted to get a divorce.
Fuck, the world was twisted.
“But he didn’t ask for a divorce.”
“She put him through his paces. Played hard to get. I told you, they blew very hot back in the day. Considering she lives in that shitty little apartment with her—”
“Muriel. Not one word about her. I mean it.”
“Archibald, you need to get over your crush on your little friend. She’s—”
“Lady,” Jake said in a clipped tone as I curled my fingers into fists. “He wasn’t kidding, watch your fucking mouth where she’s concerned.”
“Fine, I won’t warn you against her. But you have too much of your father in you.”
“Thanks for the insult.”
“Oh, grow up, Archibald. The world is an unpleasant place at times. Everything in this world is very practical. Business transactions. Investments. Allies. But the thing your father—even your grandfather—does is fixate, obsess over one person. That person for your grandfather was your grandmother. For your father, it was always Madeline. What does it matter if they’re back together now?”
“It doesn’t. It doesn’t even matter that their affair has gone on for years. You always knew when he had a fling. We always knew. So if you always knew, did you know he and Maddy were together roughly four and a half months after you were married?”
I’d done the math. I had the window of time we needed to eliminate.
“Probably, I had a bit of a difficult pregnancy and it required rest. He grew bored with that, and for about three weeks, he was very busy. Then one day, he returned home and recommitted himself to you and I. He was very devoted for the next few months…”
How he always behaved following the end of one of his flings.
“I assume she threw him back out… Maybe she punished him by giving him another taste before taking it away. She begged him not to marry me, and he told her he had no choice. Which he didn’t…your grandfather would have disowned him if he’d refused. Your grandmother expressed her own wishes and desires, but they wanted you to be born a Standish…”
“It’s a fucking piece of paper,” I reminded her. “Not some love story. They had the affair when?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. You hate her. Because he wanted her when he had you, and even if he was just a meal ticket, you also loved him. So every single affair was another nail being beaten into you, and you retaliated over and over, but he never cared.”
I was so fucking tired of this.
“But you hate Frankie,” I pushed out. “Because she looks like her mother.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Though I was grateful to her for a long time.”
After extinguishing the cigarette, she licked her lips, and for the barest moment, she seemed almost human. Then she gave a bitter little laugh. A scoff at herself. “Because you’d barely been at that school a week before she came home with you one day when your father and I had to leave for that trip.”
My stomach sank.
“He found Maddy because I found Frankie.” I almost didn’t want to wrap my mind around it. It was sick and a little…
“Yes. I’d intended to make other arrangements, but that was the most natural and I could even feign the most mild of shocks when we met her.”
And yet none of them revealed anything.
“The dates, Mrs. Standish?” Jake said, before handing me the rapidly cooling mug of coffee. I downed it.
“The first three weeks of July, he left just before the fourth and didn’t come back until the twenty-seventh or thereabouts. He told me he had been on a business trip, but he was not in the office nor was he out on business. He’d told his father some lie and had taken the time off. I was feeling too poorly to care then, and I was actually relieved I didn’t have to pretend around him.” She gave another shrug.
The dates lined up.
“What is this about, Archie?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I thought you preferred that…”
“I prefer my friends call me that. You’re not my friend.”
“Very well. What is this about?”
“None of your business.” She didn’t know, and based on her reactions, she would have spit it out just to get the dig in. But I had one more test…
“I would think it is my business, since it’s my life you’re asking about.”
“Actually, Muriel, I’m asking about the components to a deal you negotiated that provided the tangible return of me. I was a means to an end and an investment. So let’s not pretend there’s some great emotion there. You may have loved Edward for all I know, but I don’t care about that anymore.”
“Fine. Then are we done? Do you know everything you need?” She rose then. “Because I will definitely have to adjust my plans to deal with this stress you’ve decided to throw at me.”
The scuff of Jake’s shoes sliding as he let out what had to be a swear word in a hissed breath filled the silence, I just shook my head.
“No, consider this information, not a question.” I paused for a moment and felt the weight of Jake’s gaze as he swung his head back toward me. We hadn’t discussed this part.
But I needed a genuine reaction.
“Frankie and I are getting married.”
Surprise flickered across her face. “Did you get her pregnant?”
“Getting married at eighteen? Asking me these questions? Your father has informed you that you have to get married if you were so indiscreet you impregnated her.”
“There are more reasons to get married than the mercenary ones.”
“Fine, please tell me you’re not having some huge ceremony where I would have to attend with that…”
No, she had no idea.
“Trust me. You would be the third last person I’d invite to my wedding.” With that, I turned and headed for the door. I pulled out my phone to text the driver to be back at the doors to get us.
“That’s it?” Muriel said as she followed us. The heat from inside slapped against my face as we crossed the living room to the elevator.
We were already inside when she caught up with us. Thankfully, the doors closed on her glare, and then we were descending. Jake said nothing until we got outside and slid into the car. We had roughly an hour to get to LaGuardia to check in for our flight.
“Man…” Jake began, but I shook my head.
“It’s fine Jake. It’s not a surprise.”
“I don’t care, Arch, that’s some fucked up shit. My dad’s an asshole, and I’ll never forgive him for choosing someone over my sisters and me. It’s not even just about Mom, though it is about her too. Thing is, I get how complicated that whole situation must have been…but I didn’t get it then, and I sure as shit shouldn’t have had to. And that shit back there…”
He made a disgusted sound and fell back in the seat.
“Jake, they aren’t my family.”
“That doesn’t make it better.”
“Sure it does,” I said as I pulled my phone out again and sent a message to Jeremy, asking him to put together a list of the best labs with the speediest turnaround times.
I needed the answer in hand when we got off that plane and drove back to the apartment. I couldn’t take seeing that shocked and horrified look on her face again. Or how she’d recited what Edward had said in such a stunned and broken tone.
Ambushing her like that?
That alone made me want to kill him, but that whole story he’d dropped on her? The DNA tests made sense, but I still had more questions than answers.
“We’re going to figure this out,” Jake said quietly.
“I already figured it out,” I informed him. “I figured it out that first day of ninth grade and every day since. I just want the answer for her.”
“Yeah and for you. You need to know…”
“She’s not my sister,” I told him as I glared at him. “She’s not my sister. Even if Edward contributed to her DNA, that wouldn’t make her my sister. The only thing that affects is if we decided to have kids together or not. I can always pass on that. She’s got you three. But let’s be explicitly clear here—she’s not and never will be my sister.”
I didn’t care.
I should have hit Edward a hell of a lot harder.
“For what it’s worth,” Jake said quietly. “You know we’re on your side.”
“It’s worth a lot. Just tell me you’re still on my side no matter what we prove.”
He exhaled, and then he let out a grunt. “Arch, what’s between you two, that’s for you two to decide. We all made a commitment. Nothing’s changed for me…well, except I always thought I’d be the one going to jail for violence. But man, you want to just keep one-upping me.”
The silence stretched for a moment, and then a soft huff of laughter escaped from me. “I’m always the best, don’t you know?”
“Yeah,” Jake said easily, then knocked my foot with his. “Nothing’s changed.”
At the airport, we got out and headed straight in. We didn’t have suitcases or anything else, and as we breezed through security as we neared the gate, I said “Huh.”
“I never thought you’d be the sappy one. That’s always been Coop.”
He laughed. “What can I say, I’m very in touch with my feelings these days.”
Another laugh escaped me, not a big one but definitely there.
My phone buzzed, and I turned it over to see the message from Frankie.
Frankie: If you need me, I’m here.
I let out a breath. How the hell did she always know?
Me: Always need you. Getting ready to board. Be home in a few hours.
Frankie: How did it go?
Me: We’re gonna need plan B.
Me: Soon as I get there.
The corners of my lips twitched. I could picture her face. When another couple of seconds went by, I typed another message.
Me: Too soon?
The middle finger emoji appeared, and I grinned for real.
Me: Love you, babe. See you soon.
Frankie: I love you too.
That really helped.