Wow. I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe it. A month ago, I would never have dreamed that more than 1,300 people would have marked NATURAL LOVE as “To Read” on Goodreads before the book even hit shelves. That’s amazing and overwhelming to me. I am so grateful for all of the interest and excitement about this book. Not only is it up on Goodreads, but the Kindle edition of the book is also up for pre-order on Amazon’s site. I’ve been thrilled about the response there, too. You guys rock my world.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
And now, it is my pleasure to fulfill my end of the agreement. I promised that when the book reached 1300 TBRs I would post the longest teaser yet, chapters 1-3 of the book.
Here it is.
Read and enjoy.
“YOU LOOK BEAUTIFUL tonight,” I said.
“Thank you. I hoped you’d like this dress.”
We stopped walking just under the trellis, next to a corner of the house. From here, we couldn’t see the rest of the party, but we could hear everything. Hundreds of people stood just a few feet away from us, and they’d come looking for us soon. We had commitments and expectations to fulfill, but at that moment, my eyes and my attention were on her.
“Did you wear it just for me?”
“Yes,” she said under her breath. “Just for you. I do everything just for you.”
My mouth covered hers in a rough, intense kiss. I gripped her face with one hand and the small of her back with the other, crushing her to me in a split second of passion that didn’t have any boundaries, a passion that broke every rule and defied everything that made sense in my life. My tongue twisted and shoved against hers, and she opened her body beneath me as our kisses deepened. Before long, I forced us against the ivy wall of the house, and there we were, locked together in a moment that somehow we’d claimed as ours and ours alone.
I only broke the kiss when she moaned against my mouth. Something about the sound made me remember where we were. Who I was. What we were doing. How wrong it all was from the standpoint of everything I had ever been taught.
No. We couldn’t do this. No. No. No.
Someone might see.
Above us, inside the house, a light in the study flipped on and I heard two voices. Had they seen us already?
“I’m sorry,” I said as I forced our lips apart. I took an immediate step away from her, but it did little to calm us both. Her breath came out hard and fast, a series of quick pants, as if she hadn’t wanted to breathe while we kissed.
And I don’t know what unsettled me more: the kissing, or the look of extreme pleasure she had on her face.
“I am . . . I’m . . . I should go.” I said.
Without another word, I turned and disappeared down the pathway, leaving her alone against the ivy.
THE HOUSE WHERE I grew up sat at the end of a long, gravel driveway.
Chadwick Gardens had an iron gate at the entrance to the property, a large nameplate, and two long rows of hedges that guided cars up the road and to a circular drive that wrapped around a large fountain. Behind the fountain stood one of the largest homes in Hamilton County. A home that, over the years, had reminded every photographer who came to the house of a large estate somewhere on the moors of England, not a mansion on the outskirts of a mid-size Midwestern city like Cincinnati.
Money. My family had money. A lot of it.
We’d never lacked for material things, and the house always proved that to everyone. The land alone cost one million. In Cincinnati, the Chadwick name came decorated in cash, real estate, access, club memberships, exclusive invitations, and antiques. That summer, I stood poised to make my first of many claims to the fortune. After 24 years of just living in the shadows of Chadwick Gardens, the time had come to take a piece of what I had always known would be mine.
I just needed to hold it together long enough to prove to everyone in the family that I could handle it. I knew I could. Would. I would hold it together, get my hands on the fortune, and not let anything—or anyone—stop that.
“Here we are, Mr. Chadwick,” said Henry, our longtime house manager. He sat in the driver’s seat of my father’s 1990 vintage Mercedes, and his clammy, liver-spotted hands gripped the wheel as he carried the worry he’d return it to the garage with a scratch or, worse, a dent. After all this time, that car had only 15,000 miles on it, and the interior leather had never cracked. My father only allowed it to come out for special occasions; he loved that car more than he loved his children.
“Home,” I said from the back seat. “Home, sweet home.”
Chadwick Gardens never failed to impress as the piece de resistance of a family fortune that hit $175 million in the last decade. People who drove to the front of the house for the first time always had the same expression when they saw it—open mouths and wide eyes. Some of them struggled with what to say. Plenty of homes in Greater Cincinnati qualified as mansions, but few could be called “estates.” Chadwick Gardens left no doubt about its rightful place. And without a doubt, my dad loved playing Lord of the Manor on this expansive property. Dad relished the idea of a dynasty, and he let everyone know that Chadwick Gardens was the right place to grow one.
Now that I had returned home, I could resume my role as Crown Prince. As long as things went my way.
They would. There was no other way.
“We’re happy to have you back,” Henry said. He still had his hands on the steering wheel.
“You are?” I glanced at the clock on my iPhone. 5:33PM. Saturday. June 15th. Back on U.S. soil for the first time in 24 months, and back home after a day and a half of travel. Whatever home meant now, of course.
“Yes, we are. Thrilled, really. It’s been so long since you’ve been here.” He swallowed, considering his words. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick were sorry they’re still in Europe for your big homecoming.”
I scoffed. “They’re in Tuscany still, right?”
They’d emailed me an itinerary, but like most emails from them over the last couple of years, I had only skimmed it.
“Yes, they’re in Tuscany until tomorrow. Then on to Lake Como. And Mrs. Chadwick says they miss you.”
I caught Henry’s eyes in the reflection of the rearview mirror as the car pulled into the circle of the drive. “We both know they don’t miss me, Henry.”
“Mrs. Chadwick does. She told me last night over the phone.”
“But not my father. He hasn’t missed me a day in his life. And certainly not for the last few years.”
Henry sighed. “You know how your father is. He’s very particular.”
“That’s an understatement,” I said as Henry parked the Mercedes. “More like unforgiving.”
“He’ll come around, son.” Henry pushed open his car door and I opened mine. “I promise. He’ll come around. Two years is long enough for things to change.”
“You’re telling me.”
“You could have come home some and tried to talk to him,” Henry said, once we both got out of the car and slammed shut the doors.
I shook my head. “Wouldn’t have worked.”
“But traveling around Europe on your off-time from the Peace Corps did?”
“It was only a few weeks,” I said, flinching. “Amsterdam, in particular, was very helpful.”
Henry chose to not press me on the implications of that comment, which would have launched me into a couple of watered-down stories about the Venice of the North that didn’t include the red light district or the sweet taste of pot.
“You could have timed your return so that Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick wouldn’t have been out of town.”
“No, I couldn’t have,” I said. “Too much at once.”
I tasted disgust in the back of my mouth. If I wanted to succeed, then I had to reenter life at Chadwick Gardens on my terms, and not my father’s. I’d only win this poker game by keeping my cards against my chest.
“But I still think—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I folded my arms across my chest. Conversation over.
“You know, I’ve been with this family for twenty years. And I see things.”
“This is the way I wanted it,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Have it your way, son.” Henry sounded defeated.
Good. Maybe he’d realize just how I’d felt during the last few years. Time might have moved on, but I hadn’t. Grudges had always been my strength, and during the last 24 months, I had nursed one the size of a boulder.
Henry opened the trunk.
“I know,” I said. “Not much to show for my life, huh?”
Banishment to a life with the Peace Corps hadn’t left me with much. Two years in South Africa gave me one large bag, one small one, and two suitcases. All the stuff inside added up to less than $500 in value, and I wouldn’t have cared if I had lost it all. In the Peace Corps, I’d had a life with meaning but few material possessions, a life that differed in every way from being an undergrad at Wharton. At college, I lived in a house with three other guys, and my greatest challenge was figuring out how to balance an expensive vodka habit, an endless parade of college girls and the desire to get straight A’s so my father would keep paying for my education.
“Let me get that, Mr. Chadwick,” Henry said when I picked up my green soft-shell bag that doubled as a backpack.
“No. Please don’t.” I eyed him. Two years hadn’t been kind to Henry. Deep wrinkles and a sallow complexion told me that. “This is heavy. It’ll hurt your back.”
“This is my job.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said, and hoisted the bag over my own shoulders. “You’ve always done too much, Henry.”
“This is my job.”
I shifted the bag so the weight distributed across my back. “It’s okay. I’ve got it.”
Still, he stared at me with a funny look I couldn’t place. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” I grabbed for one of the suitcases in the trunk and pulled it out. “Why do you sound so surprised?”
“You just . . . back before you left . . . you never did things around here, Mr. Chadwick. You let everyone else do it.”
“People change.” I grinned at him. “And please, stop calling me Mr. Chadwick. I’m Spencer. I was Spencer when I left. I’m still Spencer. I’ll be Spencer until I die.”
“I mean that, Henry,” I said. “You’ve known me since I was ten.”
“You used to take care of me when I got sick, and one time I threw up on you.”
He smiled at the memory. “I’ll never forget that stomach bug. Hit this whole house.”
“So stop calling me Mr. Chadwick, okay?”
“If you say so.”
Henry took the handle of my black roller board suitcase. I only let him do it because it had wheels. Then I pulled out the small bag and he slammed the trunk shut.
“And since we’re talking about it,” I said. “What else has changed?”
“PLENTY,” HENRY SAID as he walked up the slate steps to the dark wood double door with a lion’s head knocker. He pushed it open and I followed him into the house that my father treated as the crown jewel of his fortune. He had a good reason for this. For all the beauty of its exterior, Chadwick Gardens had twice that elegance on the inside.
The foyer of Chadwick Gardens opened out into two wings of the house. On the left, a few doors and twisted hallways led to a study, library, den, master’s suite, and ancient ballroom we never used. On the right, a dining room that seated sixteen backed up to a butler’s pantry, kitchen, breakfast nook, and basement entrance. Next to the entrance for the dining room, a grand staircase carpeted in maroon brocade opened to a catwalk, office, and five bedroom suites, including mine.
And at the top of those stairs stood my luminous, effervescent, and stunning stepsister, Avery Jackson.
“Spencer!” she called to me. “You’re finally home!”
I eyed her for a second, looking for clues. Had she lost weight? Did she get enough sleep these days? Did the past still haunt her? What about the scars and the cuts?
“Hello Avery,” I said.
She bounded down the long staircase and came toward me, a tall vision in white jean shorts and a black, knit, vintage-looking V-neck top. When it came to Avery, I always noticed the little things. She had blue nail polish on her toenails, blue and red on her fingernails, and the messy ponytail that held her blonde hair threatened to come undone at any moment. When she crashed into me for a hug, she knocked me off balance, and the backpack swung off my shoulders.
“Asshole,” she whispered in my ear.
“Nice to see you, too, dear stepsister.”
A few days before, I’d told her not to come to the airport when the plane arrived. I didn’t want the first time I saw her after so long to happen in the clinical, cavernous baggage claim terminal of CVG. That wouldn’t be right—not warm enough. She’d argued with me, I’d insisted, and for once I won the fight.
And as she hugged me, I knew I’d made the right decision about our reunion.
“You’re too thin,” she said after we broke away from each other. “Didn’t they feed you there?”
“Have they been feeding you here?”
She sighed. “Already?”
My eyes fell on her collarbone, visible underneath the neckline of her shirt. “Yes. Already.”
“I’m eating,” she said in a low voice. “I’m just fine.”
“It’s nothing, okay? You’ve been gone for two years,” my 21-year-old stepsister said, still so close to me that I smelled her expensive perfume. “Things change. Hopefully.”
I knew just what she meant. God willing, things had changed. Me. Her. Our life. This family. And the secrets.
Guess I was about to find out.
“You could have kept in touch better,” she said, poking me in the chest.
“We both know I couldn’t do that.”
“Yes, I know. I know all too well.” She sighed. “But it’s nice to see you. More than nice.”
“You’re telling me,” I said, still admiring her. God, she was hot. Not just hot. Gorgeous. Maybe the most beautiful person I knew.
Stop it, Spencer. Stop. You can’t think that way about her. You know this.
Everyone knows you can’t fuck your stepsister. Everyone.
Back before I left for South Africa, people at cocktail parties used to tell Linda and my dad all the time that they thought Avery should go to Hollywood as an actress or New York City as a model. Our parents always dismissed this, saying Avery needed an education more than she needed fame. But now, two years later, Avery’s beauty had amplified. It radiated. It made me speechless.
You can’t think that way, Spencer.
“Wow,” I managed. “Two years. Longer than I thought.”
“Your old room’s still the same, though.” She hooked her arm through mine and pulled me up the stairs. “Come on. Let me show you.”
MY BEDROOM STILL had the same green plaid wallpaper and blue comforter. Spotless, dusted and stale, nothing about it was different, from the pictures on the shelf above my desk to the light blue towels on the rack in my bathroom. Even the toothpaste looked like the same tube I’d used when I’d visited Chadwick Gardens for the last time, right after graduation from Wharton.
“I wouldn’t let them change anything,” Avery said as we walked into the room. I threw my backpack onto the queen-size bed, and it landed with a thud. “They wanted to remodel it, but I stopped them.”
“Maybe they should have.” An Omega Tau Epsilon fraternity paddle still hung on the wall next to my desk. I shivered.
“What can I say?” Avery said. “I’m sentimental.”
“I see Dad left marching orders.”
A thick black binder sat on my desk, the only thing different since I’d left. I knew what it held, and I both dreaded and desired it. That binder held the next steps in my journey back into my father’s good graces. I didn’t really need it, but it’s not like he could be convinced of that. For years, I’d known more about Chadwick Properties and Construction than my dad thought I did. Maybe now I’d have the opportunity to convince him of that. Maybe now I’d get to show him what an asset I could be the company.
“You really wouldn’t let them do anything to my room?” I said, bringing my attention back to Avery.
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Dad and Linda never told me they wanted to change it.” I scratched the side of my neck, right behind my ear as I surveyed the rest of the space. With a room like this, no wonder they still thought of me the same way. That had to change, and fast. I wasn’t the same. Not even close. More than that, I hadn’t come home to revert back to the role I’d had when I left this family. Oh, no. I wouldn’t let guilt get in the way of my future any more.
I came home for one big thing, something I decided in South Africa after months of helping villages get clean water, like some goddamn social missionary. I came home in order to take my rightful place as heir to my father’s fortune and his multi-million dollar company. By the end of the summer, I’d join the staff, move out, and start over in Cincinnati with a new slate, a new future. And I’d be damned if anything, or anyone, got in the way of that.
And especially not the past.
“They talked about redecorating your room a few times, but I wouldn’t let them go through with it.” Avery flopped onto her stomach next to my backpack and looked at me from the bed. She smiled at me and ran her hand across the flap of my bag. “So, did you bring me any presents?”
I stood above her on the left-hand side of the bed, my hands shoved into the back pockets of my jeans as I watched her. I had predicted she would ask this; Avery always wanted gifts whenever anyone in the family went on vacation or took a trip that lasted longer than two days. As a kid, I’d indulged this, making her stupid bracelets and key chains at summer camp out of plastic lanyards. Now, she lay diagonally on the bed, legs bent, feet dangling in the air, and the side of her face resting on the shoulder of her extended right arm. The hem of her shirt pulled away from her shorts and exposed part of her back. I shook my head because I’d started staring at her again. That wouldn’t do.
“I know you got me something,” she said.
“Hmm. I don’t know if anyone in this room deserves presents.”
“Oh, really?” She raised herself up on her arm and turned her body toward the bag. “I do. I definitely do. Especially after the way you ignored me for the last two years.”
“Ignore. Such a strong word.”
“A monthly email from you with five lines counts as ignoring me.”
I gulped. Those emails had been excruciating to write, and I’d agonized over how to phrase each sentence. Most of the time, I wrote them with a glass of cheap beer in one hand, the kind that had just enough alcohol content to take the edge off, but not enough to get me drunk. Avery didn’t need to know about the drinking, though.
Better to make a joke. Keep things light.
I raised a finger to my lips as if deep in thought. “You know, I came home expecting a warm, sisterly welcome, but if this is going to be how I’m treated . . .”
She laughed. Avery had one hell of a memorable laugh. It always filled the room and came from the deepest part of her stomach. When she laughed, the rest of the world laughed with her. “Sisterly welcome. What’s that?”
“Not what you’re giving me.” I raised one eyebrow at her. “And by the way, just so you know, I have strict instructions to keep you in line until our parents get home.”
“Yep. Because, you know, I’m the one they trust.”
She laughed again, I and knew she heard my sarcasm. “God, whatever. They’ve already been gone a week and everything is fine. Just ask Henry.”
“I don’t know, Avery. You did throw that party over spring break.” I paused and gave her a half-smile. “And wasn’t there something about a $35,000 Rookwood vase that you used as a bong?”
“Henry told you?”
Avery sighed and turned her body so that her back lay flush against the bed. “That wasn’t me. Mitchell smoked the pot.”
“Well, yeah, but you let him do it on the terrace. You didn’t stop him.”
She turned, craned her neck, and when her eyes met mine, she pouted. “If you knew Mitchell, you wouldn’t have stopped him, either.”
“I wouldn’t have?”
“No.” She flipped over and narrowed her eyes. “And you know, I think I’m still mad at you. You should have stayed in touch better while you were gone.”
I closed my eyes and my jaw tightened as I fought to keep the memories from surfacing. “Do we have to keep on doing this? I stayed in touch.”
She sighed. “It wasn’t the same. Facebook statuses and those vague emails sucked. I liked the Instagram pics, though.”
“Africa’s a good place to take photos.”
“You should have done better. We’re your family, for God’s sake.” She stared at me. “You’re my family.”
“I needed you.”
“You have no idea how many times I wanted to call you.” I shook my head. “But it hurt too much. Besides, I was exiled.”
“Yep. Like the black sheep of this family. Exiled.”
Exiled could be such a disgusting word. Such a loaded word. And yet, that’s just what my father did to me. He exiled me for my secrets, my attitude, and my mistakes. Chadwicks didn’t make mistakes, at least not public ones. Somewhere along the line, I’d become the family liability.
But I wouldn’t go back to that role again. Ever.
“You weren’t exiled.” Avery paused. “Well, maybe you were. I guess you could call it that.
“Sure felt like it,” I muttered. “And besides, I did call you a few times on top of those emails.”
“Four times. Wasn’t the same.”
“I know,” I said, feeling the start of a headache. “It was hard.”
“That’s an understatement. And after everything that happened. Four times. Four.” She frowned at me. “Really? That was it?”
“Calling you all the time would have sucked worse. Trust me.”
“Life here sucked, too,” she said. “You have no idea.”
“I know it did. I know it sucked. Really sucked.” I closed my eyes for a moment, then pushed the past away and opened them again. “But you look good. You do.”
“I’m a survivor. That’s what survivors do. We move on, no matter what,” she said with finality, and then waved away whatever feelings still bothered her. Her hand returned to the zipper on my bag, and I knew she wanted to change the subject. “Now, about those presents you got me?”
I laughed and reached over to the bag. When I did, my hand brushed hers and a tingle raced up my arm. “Let me look. I’m not sure there’s anything in here worth giving.”
“So there is something in there.”
“I hope it’s good.”
I winked at her. “Would I get you anything less?”
“I don’t know. You are my stepbrother.”
“Oh, I see.” I unzipped the front pocket of the bag. “So now I’m just your stepbrother. Maybe this present isn’t for you.” My hand hovered over the pocket. “It’s for someone who appreciates me.”
“I appreciate you.”
“Do you?” My hand still hovered. “I’m not so sure.”
“You know everything about me,” she said. “And you know that.”
“Do I? Do I know everything about you?”
“Everything,” Avery said as she held out her waiting hand. Her tone of voice told me she knew I was joking. “Now. Where is that present of mine?”
“Well, you have to understand, AJ. I was in South Africa for two years. And I wasn’t near a big city.” My hand closed over a small square box. “They also paid me shit. So you have to temper your expectations.”
She laughed one more time. “I promise.”
I pulled the black box out of the bag and handed it to her after another second passed. When I did, my hand touched hers again, and I had the urge to grab it and yank her closer. But I didn’t.
Two years earlier, on the night before I left for the Peace Corps, she came into my room, slipped between the sheets of the bed, wrapped her arms around me, and begged me not to leave. Instead of listening, I tried to laugh it off, and she cried for a long time before she fell asleep around 4AM. When I woke at 7:15, she still slept beside me, and I had the worst hard-on I’d ever had. God, I’d never wanted to have sex with anyone so much, and I’d stared at her for what could have been forever thinking about Avery’s breasts, her body, and the way it would feel to be inside her.
I never told anyone about that.
Damn it. Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it.
“What do you think is in there?” I asked as Avery fingered the box.
She grinned and pulled it open without answering me. Her eyes widened as she peered inside and then took a bracelet out of the box, a colorful mix of glass and wooden beads hung on a strand of wire. “Wow.”
“It’s handmade,” I said. “One of a kind. The women in the village where I worked make these and sell them.”
“I love it.” She slipped it around her wrist next to her watch, a silver link bracelet, and the pearls Linda gave her for her sixteenth birthday. “I’ve never had anything from Africa before.”
“Well, there’s always a first time.” I reached out to finger the beads and my hand stopped short above her wrist. There, wedged between two freckles, lay a short, red line, a cut trying to heal into a scar. Next to it, I saw a diagonal one already at the scarring stage.
I looked at Avery and her eyes met mine. “What’s this?”
“That’s not nothing. How’d you get that cut?”
She shrugged and pulled her arm next to her body. “Last week, I was cutting a few carrots in the kitchen and the knife slipped.”
“Seriously. I wasn’t watching what I was doing.”
“Avery,” I said. “That cut is too high up on your arm for the knife to slip.”
Her gaze floated to my fraternity paddle. “It’s nothing, okay?”
I would have replied, but Henry’s voice came on the intercom we had in every room of the house, a relic from the 1980s.
Time for dinner.