He stopped right before a closed door and looked back at me. I remained by the French doors. When he didn’t say a word, I folded my arms. I meant business.
A short chuckle left him, and he jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the room. “We’re here.”
“Oh.” I unfolded my arms. My mind was scrambling. “I have to pee. Is there a bathroom close by?”
His head tilted to the side. He studied me and then sighed as he gestured to a door on his right. “You can use this one, but come here first.”
“Why?” My feet didn’t move.
“Because what I have to tell is top secret.” As he said that, he opened a cupboard on his left that was directly across the small hallway from the bathroom. As he opened it, he told me, “There’s a rule of no cell phones. You have to lock yours in here before hearing everything.”
Holy shitola, as Logan would say. I was about to be inducted into a secret cult.
Edging closer, there were a bunch of small drawers in the cupboard. Each of them had a key code in front of them.
Sebastian said, “Pick a drawer. Put your phone in there, and code in whatever you want. Same thing as a safe in a hotel. Only you have the code to get your phone, but that’s the rule.” He opened the door for the main room and stepped inside. “Take a piss, put your phone away, and come in.”
“Where are you going to be?”
A dry laugh came from him. “Making myself a strong drink. I need it after getting my asshole chewed off by my grandfather.”
I waited until he went in and closed the door. Then, I went and made sure the French doors were unlocked. They were, but to make sure nothing went wrong, I went into the bathroom. I hadn’t come to this party alone. Mason and Nate were waiting for me. Not far away, they pulled off the road.
I texted Mason now. Not only was it safe for him to come to the party, he was also invited. I said enough in the text to let him know that Sebastian’s grandfather was pro-Mason.
He texted back, I’m pro-grandpa, I guess.
I thumbed back, Ha-ha. French doors are left open. Go all the way to a second building. It’s all connected. In the room at the end of the hallway.
And with that last text, I had a dilemma. Actually put my cell phone away or not? If I didn’t, Sebastian could use it as an example to pat me down, making sure the phone was away. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I opened the door. Sebastian looked up from behind a bar. I waved my phone in the air and made a show of putting it into one of the drawers. Cupping my hand over my other hand, I put in a code and stepped back.
My phone was now locked away. It was just Sebastian and me—until Mason would join us. I didn’t know how long that would be, but okay, here I went.
Sebastian was watching me as I stepped inside. He slid a drink across the counter to me. “I’m surprised you actually put the phone away. After Logan and the board meeting, I would’ve assumed you wouldn’t trust me at all.”
Yes, a sane person would have that reaction.
I let out a shaky breath, rubbing the palms of my hands down my legs. “Yeah, well, as you apparently know, a little craziness runs in my blood.”
“Yeah, about that.” He stopped, waved me in, and said, “Shut the door, please.”
I did, a full knot forming in my gut. “I’m in. Now, start talking.”
He opened his mouth, started to lift his drink, and then paused. “No.” He put it back down. “You start talking.”
His eyes narrowed, and his nose crinkled up. His eyebrows furrowed together. “Why are you here? My friends and I beat the living shit out of Logan, someone who you call family and claim to love. What’s the plan? I’m protected here. There’s no way Mason can come in and punch me.” His lip curled up in contempt. “I doubt he’ll set fire to this house.”
Ah, fuck. We were doing truth talk, huh? Okay.
I nodded to myself, stepping forward. “Fine, yes, your sister told me that she was supposed to invite me to this party, but she wasn’t going to. She was honest about that—right before she left.” I pretended to check my invisible watch, tapping my wrist instead. “And right about now, she should already be in New York.”
He straightened from the bar. His face instantly dropped to an impassive mask. “Bullshit.”
“I see the word is a family favorite.”
“My sister wouldn’t go to New York.”
“She did, and she went with your mother.”
A savage curse slipped from him.
“And I can see that she told the truth about that. Your mother’s not a big fan of yours?”
“She’s inconsequential.” Anger was glaring back at me. His eyes were almost sparkling from the emotion. “What did you say to my sister? She never would’ve left otherwise.”
“Nope.” I clipped my head from side to side. “Not going there. You can’t put that blame on me. I liked your sister, even after she’d told me she was your sister. She went on her own free will. Apparently, when she saw what you did to Logan, that was the last straw for her. You know, because she actually liked us and liked Logan, too.”
His head lowered. He kept his eyes pinned on me. “I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t need you to. It’s the truth. She’s gone, Sebastian.”
“Then, why are you here?”
I countered with, “Why did you invite me? I didn’t see any of your fraternity buds out there.”
He smirked. “Because this has nothing to do with the fraternity. I used my fraternity to go against you guys. This party?” He indicated the door behind me. “All of that is completely separate from the fraternity—or the lack of a fraternity, thanks to your boyfriend. As for why you were invited?” He grunted, lifting a careless shoulder. “You heard my grandfather. I was given orders to invite you. Though I’m shocked as hell you came. I hoped you wouldn’t, and all my problems would have been solved.” He relaxed back against the bar and picked up his drink.
The small satisfaction that I had been feeling went away. “You mean, you didn’t think I would come?”
“I mean,” he gave me a chilling smile, “I was banking on the fact that you wouldn’t, but here you are. And whatever you have planned, it won’t work. What am I going to do with you now?”
It clicked with me. Whatever his grandfather wanted, Sebastian had his own agenda.
I said, “You’re not going to do what Gerald wanted, are you?”
He shook his head, finishing his drink. “Nope. How did you say that? ‘Not going there. You can’t put that blame on me.’” He laughed shortly to himself. “Yes, my grandfather will be upset, but there isn’t a thing they can do about it. For one, they never reach out to do their own bidding. It’s the grandchildren who reach out. The elders, and even my father—those guys all think it’s beneath them. You see, it’s during college. That’s when the bonding happens. That’s when people are supposed to become friends, do stupid shit together, and all for the main purpose of fucking up. You,” he fixed me with another glare, “are supposed to be brought into the fold, and we are supposed to become the best of buds. Well, Summer was supposed to be the best of buds with you.”
“What are you talking about? I thought you were the one who got Summer to befriend me?”
“I was, and here’s where everything goes sideways. Summer doesn’t even fully know what’s going on. She knows a little bit. She knows that your father is close to our family. She knows about your grandfather, but she doesn’t know everything. She was supposed to be initiated with you. And everything was supposed to be all happy, happy, joy, joy for the next four years until both of you learned the real truth.” He gestured around the room. “Look at this place. Look at the walls.”
Mason showed the photographs of Sebastian talking with his dad, his grandfather, and other men outside of a large house. “The private investigator found this.”
Logan shot forward from the couch, grabbing the photograph. “What the fuck? Is that a basketball
“Dude.” Nate leaned over to see.
Logan shouldered him back. “Space. I’ve got broken bones here.”
Nate scowled at him.
Logan rolled his eyes and handed the photo over. “It pains me to know that one of my basketball faves is a slimeball like Park Sebastian. Seriously,” he patted where his heart was, “it hurts me right here. He took away my healthy bones. He took away my, probably, deluded thought that I could take five fraternity assholes at once and walk away still swinging. And,” he shot a finger in the air, “if my ego hasn’t been wounded enough, I’m in pain from knowing that I will not be able to go to that house to see all those celebrities. Can you imagine? I could get everything autographed, sell it online, and use that money to buy a shit machine. I’m talking a literal shit machine—where it goes and then flings that shit at the target. That’d be my revenge against Sebastian. Mount that crap on his front lawn and put, like, circling tigers around it, so no one could remove it. Best plan ever.” He pretended his hands exploded like a bomb and fell back slowly against the couch cushion.
“Really?” Mason lifted an eyebrow. “That’s your plan for revenge?”
Logan didn’t care. He folded his arms over his chest, winced, and then let them drop back to his sides. “Whatever. I should trademark my ideas. I bet someone will do it. Hashtag revenge shit machine. That video would go viral.”
“Oh my god.” I groaned from next to Mason. “Can we please get back to all these people Sebastian is connected to? Because that’s really concerning.”
Sebastian wanted me to look at the walls, so I did. The entire room was set up in a circular layout. The room was square, but the couches were positioned to form a circle, and the walls were covered in portraits. I hadn’t considered them when I first came in. All eyes and focus had been on Sebastian, but now that he’d pointed them out, I started putting names to faces.
A celebrity—no, a couple of celebrities.
I recognized more and more of them. Actors. Producers. Singers.
My gaze fell on one in the back corner. My father. Garrett was smiling at the painter. My gaze slid over to the painting beside him. Sharon. And on the other side of her was my mother. This was how they knew Analise.
I murmured, “You said it all starts in college.”
“It does. You’re starting to figure it out, huh?”
“What happens in college?”
Sebastian chuckled. The sound sent chills down my back.
He said, “You do anything and everything. You screw each other. You don’t screw each other. You get drunk. You don’t get drunk. It’s a normal college experience, but that’s where you make the mistakes. And you’re supposed to make those mistakes with, who else? Your best friends. I mean, say, for example, if someone raped a girl, who else is going to have your back to cover it up?” He pointed at a portrait of a young man and then to another one of a well-known actor. “Your best friend gives you the alibi. There’s no way you could’ve raped that girl because your buddy is vouching that you were at his house. If you want to cheat on a test,” he crossed the room to a portrait of a singer and pointed to another portrait of a senator, “your best gal pal, who’s the teacher’s assistant, will either get the test for you or cover your back. If a professor gets suspicious, the teacher’s assistant will let you know to do a few wrong answers on purpose. And so on and so on. That’s what this all is. Connections.”
He swept his arm around the room. The walls were covered in the paintings. There was no empty space.
“No, we’re not some cult group or anything. It’s not blood in and blood out. It’s just…blackmail and IOUs. That’s what it is, and my family holds all the keys. My great-great-great grandfather started everything, so that’s how I’m in the unique position of knowing what the hell is going to happen after each class graduates.”
“So…” I frowned. “My mother…”
“No, no.” Sebastian shook his head. “Your mother is the mistake. She was considered to be inducted. She was initiated, so she knew of the connections. That’s what you’re told in the beginning. You and Summer would’ve gotten the same speech. We’re all here for each other. Everyone will support you. If you need money, we’ll give it to you. If you need a house, here’s a mansion. If you need a mistress, we’ll get you two who will do anything you want. The speech is custom-made. You and Summer are both girls, so you probably would’ve been promised success in whatever career you chose. If you wanted to be famous, they would’ve made you both famous. If you wanted a business, they would’ve had one ready and waiting for you once you graduated. Hell, if you wanted a husband, they would’ve introduced you to other members of The Network. And all of it would’ve been sold with the statement that we’re all family. We all love each other. We all take care of each other—along with our mistakes, too. We take care of those, so don’t hesitate to reach out if something happens. No matter how horrible the crime is, they’ll take care of it.”
As he kept talking, Sebastian was going from one painting to the next. A full glow radiated from him, while he was laughing. The effect had my insides turning into ice. I backed all the way to the door and reached behind me for the door handle. If I had to, I’d make a run for it. The nightmare he was promising wasn’t going to be given to me. But what else did he have in store then? I knew, without a doubt, that it would be much worse.
He kept on, “Families who started in are automatically chosen to be inducted, but we can choose others, too. My grandfather chose your grandfather to be inducted, so that meant that Garrett was inducted as well. He was an automatic, but your mother wasn’t. Garrett chose to induct her, and my guess is that was when they were screwing.”
“And Sharon? Her portrait is up there.”
“She was inducted later because Garrett broke it off with Analise. He went back to Sharon and eventually married her. After that year, a rule was made. No girlfriends. Only wives.”
“But you said my mother was the mistake somehow?”
“Yeah. She was initiated, but she skipped town. She never graduated. When you showed up two years ago, they all realized why. She was pregnant, and Garrett had already gone back to Sharon. Who the hell knows why your mother didn’t come clean? She knew she’d be taken care of, but she was a mess. They let her go. She’s up on the wall, but she hasn’t gotten any of the benefits. Then again,” his head moved forward, “she’s never shown up to claim any of the benefits either. If she did…I cringe at just wondering what the board would do to her. She’s considered a disgrace. All of these people help build The Network. They’ve all toed the line and used their power to help the others.”
“Where’s the other foot? When does that drop?”
He laughed again, pointing at me in the air. “It drops when, and if, you deem that you don’t need The Network. If you refuse to do something, you find out really quick that, fine, if you choose to go alone, whatever mistakes you’ve committed from college and onward are yours, too. Information gets released. Testimonies are taken back. You’re hung out to dry, and all because you might not have wanted to help a brother get his sister to be roommates with a certain Samantha Strattan at Cain University.”
He was staring at me hard now.
“That’s how you did that.” And that was the blackmail material Garrett said we must’ve had. That was what was on the flash drive. My fingers wrapped around the handle. I was ready to go at any second.
“What’s the plan? You’re going to upload all these photographs and e-mail them to the cops or something?”
Nate asked the question, but I was thinking it, too.
Logan added, “Not to be a dick, but if we did that, we would be dicks. We can’t narc on these assholes.”
Mason countered with, “Even if those assholes are going to hurt us someday?”
Nate nodded. “Mason’s right. We’re going to go against someone in this organization at some p
oint in our lives. We should let ’em get away with this?”
“Get away with what?” Logan argued. “We don’t know what they’ve done.”
“Because jumping all three of us at three different times isn’t enough? Or setting up his sister as a spy on Sam?” Nate gestured to me. His disgust was evident. “All of those are good enough reasons for us to go to the authorities with this.”
Mason shook his head. Logan was right. They didn’t narc to the authorities. It’d been their code for so long, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t narc at all.
“What about if we let them know?” I said.
“Let them know what?” Logan started to lean forward again, resting his elbows on his knees.
I frowned. “Are you completely forgetting the brace on your chest? Stop moving around so much.”
Logan shot me a grin. “Stop looking for ways to undress me, woman. You’re my brother’s mate.”
Mason covered my hand with his and said in a warning, “Logan.”
“Okay, okay.” Logan shot him a look. “We hear you loud and clear. Mason,” he indicated his brother, “what’s the plan?”
Mason held up the box with all the information we had with his free hand. “We’re going to upload all this information and e-mail it to them.”
That was the plan.
Logan snorted. “Genius.” He didn’t hold back his sarcasm.