C H A P T E R O N E
“An idea? You want a goddamn idea?” I can't believe what I just heard. “Why don't you go and fuck a starving Venus flytrap? Then, when you're done, call me never.”
I end the call and throw my phone on the floor. It bounces, flips over, and narrowly misses hitting the leg of my desk chair.
I throw myself onto my bed, bury my face in my pillow, and scream. Men. I'm literally this close to becoming celibate and purchasing twenty-eight cats. Why twenty-eight? I have no idea. It seems like a well-rounded number.
Yes—there it is. I'm going to buy a cat. I bet a cat wouldn't lie to me or use me simply because I'm the sister of all four parts of one of the world's biggest boy bands.
Maybe I need to update my Facebook. No, I won't introduce you to my brothers right away. No, I don't have Simon Cowell on speed dial, because he isn't their manager. No, I can't introduce you to their manager, because I don't know them. And, no, I'm not going to make a sex tape with you just so you can ride my surname to get a record deal.
Go on American Idol or something, fuckhead.
“Anny Lei Lei. Why you scream?”
I turn my head to the side and peer up. Mila is standing next to my bed, her bright-blue eyes wide and just visible beneath the thick mound of dark, curly hair that flops over her forehead. Poor girl needs a hairclip. Not that she'll keep it in, mind you.
“Because boys are very silly,” I answer.
She pats my cheek with her soft hand. “Uh-huh.” She purses her little lips and shakes her head when a curl falls into her eye. “Two dollars, pwease.”
“Two dollars? I only cussed once.”
“No. Two.” She makes a gimme motion with her hand, flapping her fingers back and forth, and then puts her other hand on her hip. “Fuh and duh.”
“Damn,” Sofie says from my doorway. “It's a cuss word now.”
I sit up and stare at her. “Since when?”
“Since Tate got cocky and tried to bypass the Cussword Police.” She nods toward Mila. “She's smarter than he is and sussed him out. So, now, we're all screwed. You can bill him after. She'll give you a receipt now if you ask.”
“Is that tax deductible?” I mutter, opening the drawer of my nightstand while Mila watches me like a hawk.
Jesus. Three-year-olds are creepy little things.
“Here.” I pull two dollar bills from the pile I keep stashed for this reason. Honestly, if anyone doesn't know about Mila and her odd little business, they'd probably think I moonlight as a stripper. “One, two.” I show them to her.
She plucks them from my grip and grabs them so tight that they crinkle up. “Tankoo.” She spins on her toes and runs out of the room.
“You're very welcome,” I lie, watching as she disappears. My eyes travel to Sof's. “You know how people have a gaydar? I think your kid has a cuss-dar.”
She nods in agreement. “Yes. I think she's actually richer than I am. Apart from the talking Pinkie Pie she was determined to buy, she's saved every one since Christmas.”
“What's a Pinkie Pie?” I frown.
“My Little Pony?”
“Was that a pony when we were kids?”
“No, they're all new now. Like Twilight Sparkle and Princess Celestia.”
I snort. “Sound like slang names for STDs.”
She rolls her eyes, comes into my room, then sits on my bed. “Why are you throwing a tantrum?” She tucks her blond hair behind her ear.
“I'm not throwing a tantrum,” I argue. “Can't a girl break up with a guy and scream without the whole world thinking she's falling to pieces?”
“Ah. I see. What did he do?”
“The usual.” I grab my pillow and hug it. “Wanted to know when I was going to introduce him to my family.”
“So...Conner, Tate, Aidan, and Kye,” she summarizes, unscrewing the top of a water bottle I didn't notice she was holding. “Yeah. Now, the Venus flytrap thing makes a lot more sense.”
I fight my smile. “Exactly! And, if we want to get right down to the point, I've only met the guy a handful of times, and he was nowhere near good enough in bed to be with me for long enough to meet my family.”
Sofie spits water across my bedroom in a spray.
“Sorry,” she mutters, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “He was that bad, huh?”
“He is a man. He wouldn't take directions. That's not my fault.”
She looks at me and blinks harshly. “I can't imagine why you're this single.”
“I'm not single. I'm entering into a very dedicated relationship with a vibrator I'm going to order on next day delivery at the earliest opportunity, and I'm going to call the local shelter about a pussy.”
Again with the blinking. “It's not that bad, Lei.” She sips her water and puts the cap back on. She puts it down on the bed, and a tiny bit of liquid seeps out onto my sheets, so I grab the bottle and put it on my nightstand.
“Leaking,” I mutter, rubbing at the small wet spot.
“Whatever. It's not that bad. Maybe you're just looking for love in the wrong place.”
“Whoa, now. Who said anything about love? I just want a half-decent orgasm. It doesn't even have to rock my world. Just nudge it a little bit.”
“All right, all right. Then maybe you're looking in the wrong place full stop. Clearly the guys who approach you are not the ones you should be giving the time of day.”
I sigh heavily and lean forward, hugging my pillow tight. She has a point—I know that. And maybe I am being a little bit of a dirty liar when I say I'm not looking for love. I wouldn't mind if it found me, admittedly, and I am kinda peeking around for it, but I'm unlucky.
All the guys I find want me for my brothers. Like they think I'm the key to a record deal.
Please. I can't even sing “Twinkle Twinkle” in freaking tune.
“What am I supposed to do, Sof? I'm twenty-three years old, I'm living with my parents with no chance of moving out any time soon, I just got let go from my job, and my best dating prospects are lying at the bottom of a tub of Ben and Jerry's.”
She chews on her lower lip and looks down. I can see her brain working as she thinks it over, but I'm not sure what ideas she's going to be able to come up with.
Hell, I'll be lucky to afford Ben and Jerry's next week without breaking into my savings, and I don’t want to do that.
I guess that puts an end to my plan of a battery-operated boyfriend and a bunch of pussies to pet.
“Why don't you come to Europe?” she asks, looking up quickly. “With us. We go in two days, and we're going on the plane, so it's not like you need a ticket.”
“And where am I going to sleep when we get there? On the sofa of one of y’all’s suites?”
“In your own room. That's what they have their business accounts for. Plus, they’re Dirty B. Who’s gonna refuse them an extra room?” She waves her hand dismissively as a grin forms on her face. “Come on, please? Ella, Chels, and Jessie are all coming. It's just the second leg of the tour, so it's Paris and then the UK. And we're in London for two weeks of it.”
Tempting. Very tempting. “I do love Paris. And London.”
“Right? And you're never gonna get a better opportunity to go back than this.”
“Go back where?” Tate pokes his head in my bedroom door.
“To London,” Sofie answers without turning around.
“Aw, hell no. I don't want my little sister taggin' along!”
I throw my pillow across the room at his head. “Fuck off! Why are you even here? You don't live here.”
He chuckles and grabs the pillow from the floor. I wasn't even close to hitting him.
“I know,” he says, “but Mom promised to make chicken pot pie, and who am I to argue with my stomach?”
I glare at him. “So, you're here all evening? Great. That's just what I want when I'm recovering from a breakup.”
“Leila, the last breakup you needed to recover from was when your credit card was suspended.”
“One payment. I forgot one payment.” Maybe three. Or four. I paid it in one go in the end.
Tate raises his eyebrows. “Whatever. But the fact remains: You're not emotionally traumatized. You don't need to recover from anythin’.”
“Seriously,” I say to Sofie. “He's in a relationship for a year and he think he's an expert.”
“Actually, it's almost two years,” he says, leaning against the doorframe. “So I'm more of an expert than you.”
“Actually, it's almost two years.” Does he want a medal? Gold star?
I snort. “Hardly. Are you an expert on romance novels if you only read one or two books?”
“I'm not likely to ever read a book, let alone a fucking romance.”
“Y'all are way off topic,” Sofie butts in. “And, if you're not careful, Mila will be back when her F-bomb radar starts beeping.”
I roll my eyes. I'm not the one throwing the F-bombs around. He is. Not that Tate Burke’s swearing is surprising to anyone at all.
“True,” I say. “We were talking about London and Paris.”
“You're not coming to London and Paris with us.” Tate shakes his head and throws my pillow back at me. “Sorry, Lei. I'm not babysittin' your ass.”
“Why would you need to babysit me?”
“Single woman in foreign countries?”
“I backpacked Europe last year. Alone. And they're civilized countries, thank you very much. Plus, I don't talk to strangers.”
“You screwed your way around the continent,” he reminds me.
“Precisely. I don't talk to strangers. I screw them. Big difference.” I grin.
“I don't know if I'm proud or not,” he mutters, turning around. “You're still not coming!” he yells over his shoulder.
“If you were a guy, he'd be proud,” Sofie says, reaching forward and grabbing her water bottle.
That's what I keep saying. If I had meat and two veg instead of a genital taco, he'd have patted me on the back and bought me a pint of beer.
“You're going to come to Europe, aren't you?” She pauses with her water in front of her mouth.
I nod. I have no job, no boyfriend or even prospective boyfriend now, and all of my best friends are going. “Damn right I'm going to come.”
“You're not fucking coming!” Tate yells.
“I can't believe you came,” Tate mutters, hauling his bag out of the back of the car.
The bellboy takes it from him and hangs it on a hook on the cart. “I'll get those for you, sir,” he says in a lilting French accent, stepping around my brother to get to the trunk.
“I told you I was coming,” I reply, then quickly throw a “thank you” to the man who pulls my case from the back of our car before turning my attention back to Tate. “You were the only person who had a problem with it.”
“That's because I don't trust you alone in a foreign city.”
“I don't trust you alone in a local city.” I snort, folding my arms and leaning against the car.
“Oh, y'all need to shut up already,” Jessie snaps, tying her long, scarlet hair back. She winds the ponytail around and twists another hair tie around it so it's a loose bun. “It's been at least twelve hours since you started. Tate, she's here—deal with it. Lei, stop bitchin' at him, for the love of god, or my jet lag is gonna be responsible for my actions.”
Aidan claps his hand over her mouth from behind. “Maybe your jet lag should make you shut up, sunshine.”
“Or oodin' ah,” she mumbles against his palm, elbowing him as he laughs.
“Give her a break, Tate,” Conner says, lifting Mila out of the car. “It's just one three-week trip. Not even Leila can cause that much trouble in such a short space of time.”
Well... That sounds an awful lot like a challenge I shouldn't take up.
“No.” He points his finger at me. “That wasn't a dare.”
I jut my bottom lip out Mila-style, and the kid in question giggles but quickly follows it up with a yawn. “I never assumed it was.”
“Liar,” Sofie mutters.
Why aren't our bags loaded yet? Can't we just check in? When did a work trip to Paris devolve into kicking Leila's ass outside a hotel after a long-ass flight?
I'd like to call unfairness. And a severe case of sibling-assholery-itis.
Kye and Chelsey finally get out of the car, and Kye rubs his hand through his messy, dark hair. “Are y'all still fightin’?”
Tate holds his hands up and darts to the side as Ella makes an attempt to cover his mouth with her hand. “Look, all I'm sayin' is that there's a good chance she”—he pauses to point at me—“will find someone to spend some quality time with, and I'm gonna have to break his neck for messin' with my little sister.”
My other three brothers stop and stare at Tate. I frantically shake my head in defiance as that thought passes through their tiny little pea brains. That is a thought they do not need to think. At any point. Ever.
Nobody needs their neck breaking.
Except perhaps the four idiots standing in front of me.
“He has a point,” Kye and Aidan simultaneously mutter, twin-style.
I stare at them all flatly. “What if I promise to put my vagina on lockdown? And I'm talking, like, metal bolt, lock and key, guarded by snakes and giant, penis-eating puppies?”
“That makes me a feel a little better,” Tate acquiesces.
“Entrance only by marriage proposal,” I add.
“What?” all four of them exclaim, horror flitting across their faces.
I grin widely. “Gotcha.”
Sofie giggles, taking Mila out of Conner's arms. “Burke males: zero. Leila: one.”
“Screw one,” Chelsey says, slamming the trunk of the car after the final case has been removed. “The looks on their faces means she gets a point each. That was amazing.”
“Anyone else think we should have dated girls who hate our sister?” Kye asks, watching as Ella, Sofie, Chelsey, and Jessie walk into the hotel lobby, Mila now trailing behind them, clutching Bunna's ears tight.
I sidle up to Kye's side and smile even wider. “Yeah. But then that would be no fun at all for me, would it?”
“Yes, it would,” Tate argues. “You'd just piss them off all the time.”
I purse my lips and consider this, slipping my arm through his as we enter the lobby of the fancy-schmancy hotel. “I suppose you're right. I would. Then again, there's no saying I can't piss my best friends off, either, is there?”
He cuts his eyes down to me, skepticism glimmering back at me. “When we're settled, before dinner, we're going over ground rules.”
“Ground rules?” I gape, stopping just past the doors and unlinking my arm from his. “What the hell do you mean, ground rules?”
“Ground rules. It is what it says on the label, Lei. It's not Morse code.”
“I'm also a twenty-three-year-old woman who doesn't need babysitting,” I hiss when he walks away.
“We'll see.” He throws a smirk over his shoulder, holds eye contact for a moment, then disappears.
I narrow my eyes.
Fuck off, Tate.
I feel like I'm walking into a government interrogation. Not that I have any idea what that feels like, of course, but if I had to imagine, it would be like this.
Four famous, tattooed guys who work out a lot.
I refuse to say muscular or fit, because muscular, fit, or not, they're still my older brothers. Their fitness could eclipse Usain Bolt's and I'd still say no, thank you.
So. I'm going with four famous, tattooed guys who have a serious thing with intimidation are sitting around a table.
Ha. Sounds like I'm starting a joke.
What's the punchline, you say?
Well. That's the line I'll use to punch them in the heads.
I sit back in my chair, putting my hands together in front of me on the table. Honestly, I'm not sure if I'm ready for ground rules or a jail sentence. All four of them look kinda serious. And by kinda, I mean really.
Still, I take a deep breath and slowly meet their eyes, one after the other. It strikes me that I'm probably the only female on this world—except for my mom, but she doesn't count—who can look each of the boys of Dirty B. in the eye and not be intimidated in the slightest.
“You're all full of shit,” I tell them. “I don't need ground rules.”
Aidan holds one finger up. “One: no unchaperoned dates.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Two,” Kye adds, holding a finger up in the exact same manner Ads just did. “No dates with a guy we haven't met yet.”
“Seriously. For real?”
Conner leans forward, this time holding three fingers up. “No dates with a guy you just met at the Louvre or any museum anywhere in Europe. Or national landmark. Or café. Or restaurant. Or randomly in the street.”
“You're eleven months older than I am. Kiss my ass.”
“Four,” Tate growls, standing. He leans forward, his arms tensing as he slams both of his hands on the table.
I guess he's the one who worked out I don't need to use fingers to count to four any longer.
“Absolutely no hitting on anyone within five hundred yards of us, because we'll know.”
“Can they hit on me?”
“No, because we won't know.”
“That's the idea.”
“Leila,” Conner groans, slumping forward. “Come on. We love you. We've seen you get screwed around a hundred times this year alone, and it's just past Easter. Let us be protective assholes, okay?”
“Only if I can refer to you as human condoms,” I retort, raising an eyebrow.
What? Essentially, that's what they are. Giant, rubber compressants and libido killers.
“Whatever,” Aidan butts in, slapping his hands on the table. “Now I'm pretty sure it's dinnertime because I'm hungry as fuck, so can we please get food now?”
I glance at my phone, which has switched over to Paris time, whatever that is. “No!” I exclaim. “In fact, it's only lunch.”
“Fuck off,” he and Kye say together, standing.
“Seriously!” Conner snaps, shoving between them. “Freaky!”
And that's what happens when twins don't live together and get their freak out, my friends. You slip them together and they morph into one even freakier, verbal person.
“For real,” I mutter, pushing off the chair myself.
Do they really think their rules are going to last long? I mean, don't get me wrong. I understand. They like to protect me. They need to, almost. Require themselves to. If you ask them, it's part of their kick-ass, alpha personalities.
If being Leila Burke has taught me anything, it's that being alpha isn't a quality simply applied to males. Women can be alpha too, and I've had to be. While they're not living at home, off doing tours and appearances and radio shows, this little lady is fending for her own vagina.
I think the next three weeks will be a show of defiance to my brothers. And that's before they get a slap upside the head for being pigs.
They can enforce their rules. Hell—they can try. But they'll fail before they've even touched base because, unfortunately for them, I'm exactly like they are.
Strong-willed. Pigheaded. Stubborn-hearted.
And it's gonna take one hell of a man to break my walls down.
It's not like I haven't been around the block and figured my way out of the maze, after all. I know what they want.
“All right, fine,” Tate gives in. “Let's get lunch. We can get a big-ass burger here right, Lei?”
I shrug and open the door. “How do I know? I haven't been here for a year. The French might not like burgers anymore. Wait, can you even order a burger in French?”
“Un burger, s'il vous plaît,” Kye spurts out. “Close enough?”
“Nowhere near,” I say.
Dear Lord. And they were worried about me coming to Paris? I'm the one who can speak French.
Tate's phone beeps as we wait for the elevator. “The girls already got an elevator, and Els says Jase is here already.”
I frown. “Jase?”
“Jase Masters. Our supportin' act,” Aidan answers, jabbing his fingertip against the down button. “Some British guy the world is silently ravin' about.”
“How can the world silently rave? Are they using headphones?” I question, stepping into the metal box and scanning the four of them.
They all shrug.
Almost at the same time.
Shit. They're weird as fuck. How did I never notice that?
I side-eye them as I push the button that'll take us to the lobby. I'm almost a little tempted to, you know, push a button and skirt right on outta here. Maybe go back to bed. Yeah—a nap sounds real dang good right about now.
“Hold it.” Kye snatches me back by grabbing the back of my shirt. “You need to eat. You need to get on European time.”
“I'm tired,” I whine, although I know the real reason why I have the urge to get away.
Jase Masters. I feel like I know that name. I don't know why. If he's an up-and-coming talent, it makes sense that I'd know him right? My finger is on the pulse of the music world. I spend an unhealthy amount of time online.
Which is why I know that you don't so much as whisper the two words One Direction in the presence of my brothers.
The one—and only—time I did it, I got a crusty bread roll thrown at my head.
The elevator doors ping open, and I run out before my brothers can. The hotel allows us a considerable amount of privacy, I noticed when we arrived earlier, and as I look at the frosted glass windows that line the lobby, I'm thankful for it.
Not for my brothers. But for Mila. They've chosen this life—she hasn't. My poor baby niece is assaulted by bright flashes on a regular basis.
Despite being the first to leave the elevator, I hang back as Tate, Kye, and Ads step ahead of me. Here, I grab Con's hand and squeeze his fingers tight in gratitude. Even without Mila, I know that my friends haven't quite adjusted, despite the time that's passed.
Con squeezes my hand right back. Then he looks at me and winks. He tugs me against his side and whispers, “Love you, Lei.”
“I know,” I whisper back. “You overprotective little fuckhead.”
He pauses then laughs. He wraps his arm around my shoulders, a low chuckle escaping him. “Just don't want you jumping on top of the supporting guy,” he mutters, amused, as we enter the restaurant.
“I'm not going to...” I catch sight of the guy sitting with my friends.
His name was familiar for a reason.
I know him.
And there's no worry about me jumping on top of the supporting guy, because I already did.
What kind of sick coincidence is this? The guy I met in London when I backpacked is the guy supporting my brothers on the final leg of their tour? Karma, you really are a bitch, and I didn't even do anything bad this time.
“What's up?” Con asks, stopping and turning back to me.
Apparently, I've stopped walking. “Nothing,” I lie. “Nothing at all.”
Nope. Nothing is wrong with the fact that I'm just feet away from Jase Masters. All six feet of him. Six feet that comes complete with dark-brown hair, piercing, green eyes, and a smile that could win over even the most coldhearted person.
I'm not even going to mention the dangerously tattooed arms or the body so chiseled that it could cut diamond. Especially since he looks hotter and more toned than he did when we first met.
Totally, completely, totally, utterly, totally fucking fucked.