Kayla didn’t know why her stepfather was acting so put out. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been awake, anyway. Part of being a billionaire was hard work, contrary to popular belief, and she knew Carter was up until the wee hours of the morning most nights. She could tell it was beginning to wear on him, too. The dark circles under his eyes easily betrayed that.
She got the feeling there was more to it than that, however. Lately, her stepfather had seemed more aloof and stressed out than usual. While normally calm and collected, she’d been on the receiving end of a few uncharacteristic tantrums the past few weeks. She’d often wondered if it had something to do with her mom.
Thankfully, her stepfather seemed too tired to devolve into theatrics right now.
“I don’t know why you can’t u
nderstand how important it is not to tarnish your public image,” he said, gripping the leather steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. “When I eventually turn my company over to you, it will be imperative for your reputation to remain as unsullied as possible.”
“What if I don’t want the company?” Kayla said, startling as her stepfather made a sudden stop at a traffic light. The red glow washed over his face, turning his stormy eyes a strange shade of maroon.
“You don’t have much of a choice in the matter,” he told her. “I have no other heir to give it to.”
“So make another one,” Kayla huffed, adjusting her seatbelt to get the strap off of her throat. “You’re still young… ish. It can’t possibly be that hard.”
Carter chuckled ruefully, shaking his head as the light turned green. “You’d be surprised,” he murmured at a volume Kayla was sure he’d meant to be inaudible, and yet she’d heard every word of it.
She frowned, looking over at her stepfather as he drove through the desolate streets. Every time they left the warm glow of a streetlamp, the shadows that passed over his face seemed to grow darker and darker. Is this why he’s been so distant? she wondered. Mom has been gone a lot, lately. And if they were trying for a baby…
She shook her head, trying hard not to imagine her stepfather engaged in the throes of passion with her mother. But it was no use. Kayla couldn’t help but to envision Carter’s strong, hard body stripped down to his naked flesh, each powerful, coiled muscle rippling as he threw her mother onto his bed.
A little shudder coursed through her. She’d never had those thoughts before—or at least, not in such detail—but she knew that overall, they were normal. It wasn’t all that odd that she should be curious about his physique. He was an objectively attractive man, after all, and closer to her age than he was her mother’s.
Still, this had to be the liquor’s doing, and she did her best not to think on Carter’s body any further as he pulled into the driveway of his manor.
“You could’ve just sent your driver,” she told him, fumbling with the door handle. “If coming to get me was such an imposition, I mean.”
Carter sighed deeply and shook his head, unbuckling his seatbelt. “You’re still my daughter, Kayla,” he told her, and now she could really hear the weariness in his voice. “Family matters should be attended to on a personal level, don’t you think?”
“Stepdaughter,” she reminded him, though she wasn’t sure if she was saying it for his benefit or her own. “But anyway… thanks. I guess.” She just couldn’t resist adding in that last bit. She didn’t want to seem like she was getting mushy all of a sudden.
With her stepfather’s help, she stumbled into their home, her heels clacking noisily on the marble floor of the foyer. She kicked off her shoes as soon as she was able, sighing with relief as her arches relaxed. Then, knowing she could go no further, she shuffled into the sitting room and threw herself down on the long sofa near the fireplace, moaning in pain as the feeling returned to her feet.
“You shouldn’t be wearing shoes like that,” her stepfather scolded. She’d expected him to retreat upstairs to his office or bedroom, but he surprised her by sitting down on the opposite end of the couch and pulling her to him by her ankles. “They aren’t good for you.”
Kayla lifted her head and was just about to turn to look at him over her shoulder when Carter pressed both his thumbs into the pads of her right foot. She bit her lip and groaned, pressing her face into the plush cushion as he massaged her aching toes.
“Men always say that,” she began, squirming under her stepfather’s unexpectedly pleasant touch, “but they don’t really believe it.”
Carter arched a jet black brow. “I certainly do.”
“Bullshit,” Kayla replied, carefully turning onto her back with a slow, gradual motion she hoped wouldn’t send her flying off the edge of the couch. “I’ve seen your secretary. She wears heels.”
“That’s her choice,” Carter said, but Kayla shook her head.
“No. It’s what you expect of her. And that’s the problem. Heels aren’t just considered ‘classy’ or ‘sexy.’ They’re also considered professional, which is why you have a bunch of execs in pencil skirts and pumps wincing with every step. They don’t perceive that they’ll be taken as seriously if they wear flats or more ‘sensible’ shoes.”
Carter chuckled softly, now kneading into his stepdaughter’s tender arches. “That’s awfully insightful of you. I suppose you must be getting something out of college, after all. But, to make a point, I’m telling you now that I don’t expect you to do things that hurt or make you uncomfortable without any tangible benefit. Perhaps I should extend that same courtesy to my staff, as well.”
“Maybe,” Kayla murmured, her voice muffled against the couch. She sighed softly, curling her toes as Carter began to massaging her heels, then her ankles. “God, Daddy. That feels good.”
It felt so weird to call him that. She didn’t make a habit of it, but somehow, the title had spilled from her lips—most likely again the fault of all that liquor she’d drank down. Carter seemed uncomfortable with it, too, though she couldn’t tell exactly why that was. He shifted beneath her, clearing his throat as his strong fingers danced along her skin.
“Good,” he said simply, though his tone seemed strained. She looked over at him, wondering how long it had been since he and her mother had been intimate.
As much as she loved her mom, Kayla had to admit that she was a rather cold person. She was almost as much of a shark as Carter was. That should have brought them together, but it was easy to see that their similarity was tearing them apart. They both tended to prioritize their careers over all other aspects of their lives, which meant that having a baby wouldn’t be easy. Carter would expect her mother to quit or cut back during her pregnancy, and that was just something her mother wasn’t capable of.
Kayla knew this all too well. She had firsthand experience with how her mother raised her. She didn’t recall her as nurturing, or even particularly attentive, though she had always managed to be there when Kayla needed her most. She supposed she couldn’t complain too much about her upbringing, although she had always secretly desired the type of mothers her friends had all had, something she made sure never to admit out loud, no matter how angry she sometimes got with her mom.
She knew that kind of information would destroy her. No matter how guarded her mother seemed, Kayla knew that inside was a warm, beating heart, and the last thing she wanted to do was break it.
Still, this all posed a problem for her and Carter. Carter was a younger man with a younger man’s wants and needs. She couldn’t imagine he’d hang on too long if they weren’t able to reconcile what they both wanted in life, especially if Carter really wanted a child. She knew he cared for her, but she also got the impression that he would like a chance to father his own flesh and blood. It must have been tearing him apart that things weren’t working out that way as of yet.
Kayla let out a long sigh as she gazed up at her handsome stepfather, shaking her head. It’s not fair…
“What’s not fair?” he asked with a frown.
Kayla felt a scorching heat rise in her cheeks. Had she really just said that out loud?
“I… uh…” she began, desperately searching for the right words to explain herself. Her head was fuzzy with drunkenness, and she found the task even more difficult to accomplish than usual. “I was just thinking… um…”
Carter frowned at her, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “About what? We’re not really going to have this conversation about the company and your behavior again, are we?”
“No,” Kayla said. “No, really. It’s nothing like that. I was thinking about something else.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” Carter said, smiling faintly as he trailed his fingers over her bare calves. He looked so weary. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Kayla hesitated just a moment more, but she knew it was no use.
As tipsy as she was, she was practically a fountain of truth. The words came bubbling up past her lips as she sighed, powerless to stop them.
“I feel bad that… that Mom doesn’t pay more attention to you,” she said slowly, trying to carefully choose her words despite the fog shrouding her brain. “I feel bad that she’s gone so much of the time, and that even when she’s here, it’s like she’s… not really here. You know?”
Her stepfather nodded solemnly. “I know,” he said, “but it isn’t that simple. Your mother is as dedicated to her job as I am, and…”
“But she doesn’t need to work, does she?” Kayla interrupted. “Not with you taking care of her.”
Carter took a breath. “Well, that’s not the only reason she works, sweetheart. She has a… drive. A desire to do something more.”