Queen sits around for no man, especially Whitt.
Playing pretend by living in denial, I only take the strength from my conversation with Jamie, leaving behind everything else that will completely debilitate me. Dragging in a deep breath, the force filling my lungs so quickly they burn, I let it out in a rush as I escape the Zeitler private room at Restraint.
Conversation flows down the hallway to reach my ears, so I step softly when what I truly want to do is stomp as I march into battle.
I never got a good look at the dungeon since I was blindfolded, then I was in a state of emotional shock. The shock has worn off, taking Jamie’s words to heart.
What’s done is done. What I do next is all on me.
Taking another page from– don’t go there, Regina –Jamie’s playbook, I linger at the head of the hallway, taking it all in while forming a battle plan before charging forward.
An emotionless wasteland of gray upon gray upon gray, no doubt Ezra’s brainchild. The narcissistic, lunatic doctor is probably paying homage to the color of his own eyes. Cold, in both feel and temperature, the dungeon lives up to its name.
Radiating warmth in the cold with his darker skin and amber gaze, Marcus is so full of life, smiling blindingly at something his cousin says, but the humor doesn’t reach his eyes– he doesn’t belong in such a lifeless environment. I don’t know Dexter well, but my impression is that he’s a warm person whose tastes run even hotter. Tan and vivacious, Cortez is always the center of attention, and he deserves a better place to shine. Whitt– my sunshine shouldn’t even be in here.
The only inhabitants fit for this desolated wasteland are Ezra and Faith, both paler than death, with Ezra’s hair and eyes just as pale. Faith’s fury runs red hot, and I have a feeling the man had a hand in turning the adorable child into the faithless Syn. There is a balance between the pair, as if they are connected and communicating even with distance and silence separating them.
I was meant to be here, to bring life into this cesspit of self-created and self-inflicted misery.
“Niel was showing off his armpit hair during our ‘how to be a megalomaniac’ training yesterday afternoon, and I thought for sure Daniel would shit a brick.” Animated, Whitt is telling Ezra a story about my son in a voice filled with pride and affectionate humor.
My gut clenches, twisting in on itself, because not only does Whitt know Niel inside and out, I have a feeling Ezra knows my son almost as well.
Soon– I’ll give Whitt anything he wants as long as I get my son back.
Gracing us with a rare smile, Ezra goes from corpse to angel. “You don’t know Daniel very well, Pretty Boy.” Ezra shakes his head, white hair tumbling to brush along his forehead. “How is that even possible? Daniel is the one who helped tutor me through med school.”
Shocked, Whitt gasps, “My Daniel?”
“Yes, your Daniel.” Chuckling, Ezra sounds so much like Cortez, all heads whip in his direction. It’s obvious to all, Ezra truly enjoys Whitt’s company, almost as a centering force. Collectively, everyone relaxes and takes a deep breath, like Ezra’s mood influence theirs. “Pay attention to the man, Whitt. He’s a font of endless information, and a very good teacher.”
“Daniel is an arctic blast in my home,” Whitt mutters, expression glazing over with hurt. “Since it was Niel disrupting our lesson on the stock exchange to count his short-hairs, Daniel indulged him.” Handsome face turning away, I can barely make out, “I would have gotten my fingers swatted with a ruler.”
“Ah, good ol’ Hillbrook punishments, alive and well in Misery Castle.” Smiling broadly, Cortez insinuates himself into their conversation. “Does the carpet match the drapes?”
Head thrown back, Whitt is a glorious sight, but the sound of his laughter nearly brings me to my knees– Grant. Nodding his head up and down while laughing, he forces out, “Yes. The carpet is even redder than the drapes, and the dang kid announces every new hair on his body.”
“Ah– he’s just rubbing it in because you couldn’t even grow a partial beard until last spring.” Cort is being his usual snarky self.
“Ass,” Whitt murmurs while wearing a fond smirk. “Niel will have a full beard in the next two years or so, mark my words.”
“And you’ll still be baby smooth,” Cort taunts while patting Whitt’s flushed cheek, causing Ezra to laugh. “I have no room to talk, and neither does he.” Cort thrusts a finger in Ezra’s direction. “Baby smooth for life.”
“Whitney bought Niel a flannel shirt for his last birthday, and Prissy got him a shaving kit.” Face a brilliant shade of red, Whitt looks so much like his father, to the point I’m thankful his voice is all his own. “They even managed to get Daniel to call Niel Lumberjack for the day.”
Ezra and Cortez clasp their fists above their hearts, looking touched, and it confuses Whitt.
Deciding I’ve seen enough, I break away from my hidey hole. “The Ezes realize how Daniel meant it in a different way– Jackson,” I announce. “Wild and crazy Jack. My son inherited his manliness from both sides of the family, even if Grant was smoother than a baby,” I mutter wryly, realizing it doesn’t hurt as badly as I thought it would. “No doubt testosterone bleeds from my son’s pores.”
“Hi!” Whitt chirps, looking beyond embarrassed, either because he was caught gossiping about the family I was excommunicated from, or because an hour ago he ordered me to fuck his friends…
“Um… this is awkward, Reg.” Cortez has the decency to be ashamed of himself for earlier. “I– I don’t know what to say, or how to say it.”
“Bad position for a word-weaver to be,” Ezra adds in, but he doesn’t look ashamed or apologetic. Just business as usual for Dr. Ezra Holden Zeitler.
I ignore the billion elephants towering over us in the dungeon. “One question– does Daniel tutor Whitney and Prissy, or just you and my son?”
A collective breath is taken, almost as if they all thought I should punish them for my horrific initiation. I should– but I won’t. As Jamie said, no one held a gun to our children’s heads. I had a choice to stay and participate or leave, and I need to honor my choices’ consequences.
I’m not allowed to play the victim or the hypocrite.
“Daniel is an asshole,” Whitt snarls, lips curling aggressively to showcase his perfect teeth. The feral expression is at odds on his handsome face. “But he teaches us one-on-one, in groups, and all together. A Whittenhower is a Whittenhower is a Whittenhower. Katie said he had done the same with Grant, her, and Ade.”
“And that makes him an asshole, why?” I coax, knowing Daniel is an asshole because he can’t help himself, but I don’t know where this animosity is coming from.
“Because Niel, Whitney, and Prissy were taught from birth, and Daniel ignored me. I wasn’t taught lessons until he needed me to keep Niel focused, that’s why.”
“Grant didn’t want this life for you, Sunshine.” I reach for Whitt, but allow my hand to fall to my side. “That’s why.”
“And why should my dead brother get a say in my upbringing?” Whitt spits, causing all of us to jerk back, giving us the emotional equivalent of whiplash.
“About that– it’s time to talk.” This time when I reach for Whitt, he doesn’t allow my indecision. His warm hand wraps around mine, then gives a reassuring clench. “Breakfast? I’m starving.”
“I could eat.” Whitt nods his head, humming to himself.
Our fellow Masters of Restraint look around at each other with unease, wondering if they are invited, or maybe they feel the discomfort wafting in the air like I do.
“Regina?” Marcus walks toward me slowly, as if waiting for me to faint like a delicate flower after the night I’ve had. “The rest… the rest of your initiation? My room? You and Whitt?”
“Nope.” I pop the P. Eyes narrowing with defiance, I glare Marc’s way. “Not happening, and I feel more than insulted that you actually thought it would.”
“None of this was of my making,” Marcus snarls, amber fire blazing my way. “If you want to disobey, it’s not my problem.”
“Getting soft, old man?” Ezra’s words are light and humorous, but filled with barely suppressed rage. “Just because you’ve finally found a lover, doesn’t mean Regina shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the rest of us.”
“Standards? Don’t you mean warped perversions and cerebral torture?” I murmur, causing Cortez to snort.
“More like mind fucks,” my partner-in-crime adds in. “Mixed with literally fucks.”
“I didn’t say Regina was my lover, did I?” Marc’s careless words wound. “If I had, do you honestly think I would have allowed her to suck my cousin’s dick and fuck my adopted son?”
“Harsh,” Dexter breathes, sounding as pained as I feel. “Regina definitely owned it, though.”
Allowing myself a half-second pity party, I close my eyes in a slow blink and release the breath I was holding. By the time I’m drawing in a fresh breath, I pretend I’m not bothered by Marc’s dismissive attitude about the past eighteen months we’ve spent together.
“It’s true.” Marcus shrugs like it doesn’t matter. “I wouldn’t pass my lover around like a party favor.”
“Judgmental, much?” Cortez jumps to my defense. “I don’t know what game you fuckers are playing, but this dungeon is now neck-deep in bullshit. The stench is rank.”
“Marcus, Maître du Jeu placed you in charge of Restraint’s BDSM chapter, and it’s your job to make sure all rules are adhered to. If Whitt and you negotiated for Regina’s initiation, then all duties must be met.”
“Ezra!” Syn barks loudly, like she’s calling a dog to heel. “There is MdJ business, then there is family business–”
“Which is one in the same–”
“Ezra!” Syn stalks across the expanse of the dungeon to grip Ezra’s arm, nails biting in. “You made use of Regina’s body. I suggest you thank her for that and move on. She’s not fucking Whitt in your room this morning.”
“Then I’ll have Pretty Boy ink in that M on Regina’s hand, and we’ll be done with this bullshit.”
“Even you don’t have that authority,” Syn seethes, and Ezra’s skin actually blanches paler than usual. Impressive. I assume either Syn has the authority, or knows who does.
Another puzzle piece slides into place, and the elephants in the room get harder and harder to ignore.
“Fine, Master.” Ezra wrenches his arm out of Syn’s grip. “Judge, Jury, and Executioner, you have Whitt ink in Regina’s M. Then Marcus can go fuck his lover behind closed doors, just like our precious Grant always did. Let’s be realistic. Their love nest is the brownstone, so she’s probably fucking Jamie too, which means she knows who he is. Who here doesn’t know Alex is Roman Alexander? Regina’s bud from the hood? She’s probably fucking him too. What about Stanton Green? Is Regina still in contact with Stanton?”
“Cort?” Syn addresses the last person she’d ever speak to. “Is Ez off his meds again?”
Yanking his partner to his side, Cortez looks about ready to pass the hell out. In a low voice, he warns, “Shut the fuck up, Ezra, before Faith kills you.”
“Is Regina screwing Stanton too?” Ezra glares my way. “Let’s fill the brownstone so Regina can fuck her way through MdJ.”
“What?” Marcus and Dexter murmur slowly in unison, more confused than I am. If my brain wasn’t spinning its wheels, I’d be launching myself at Ezra and clawing his perfect face to shreds.
“Jesus Christ!” Whitt tries to dislodge his hand from mine, no doubt envisioning wrapping his fingers around Ezra’s throat. For a split-second, I almost allow it– I almost help. “Don’t speak of Queen like that, Ezra. I thought we were friends.”
“Daniel.” Ezra releases a resigned sigh. “We’ll be friends for life. What’s one more fuck in Regina’s long list of fucks?”
“Oh, my Lord.” I groan, with Syn growling in the background. “I’m a grown fucking woman! A mother of two, and a business owner. I’ve had sex with two people until tonight, asshole. It’s your fault I doubled that number because you can’t shit and get off the pot by screwing your own partner.”
“Way to take ownership in the state of your own vagina, Regina.” Ezra does not like me.
“Since you obviously know Roman, I’ll be sure to have him lecture you on the perils of slut-shaming, asshole. Your dick has been inside everyone in this room, or theirs inside your ass, except for Whitt. I bet given the chance, you’d bend over and beg him for it. Is that your problem? Are you jealous he’s waiting to do me first?” Lips twisted in disgust, “You can have my sloppy seconds.”
Whitt has the common decency not to comment on that, but his shudder speaks volumes.
“I’m not jealous.” I thought Cortez was the pouting champion, but Ezra… Ezra wins hands down. “Whitt deserves what Whitt wants. We’ve all had to endure and adhere to ridiculous machinations.” Ezra’s voice is as cold as ice, and just as sharp. He speaks at me, not to me. “Why should Regina be any different?”
“Because anything that happened after the M was inked on my hand had nothing to do with my initiation, and you know it, Ezra.” If he can use his asshole voice, then I can use my mom tone. “Because all of you warped motherfuckers may have thought Whitt and I were going to fuck, but Whitt and I knew it wasn’t going to happen.”
Facial expression twisted with indecision and confusion, Marcus gestures to Whitt. “You sure about that, Regina? All I’ve heard since young Daniel hit puberty was how you were going to be his first. I concealed your presence in the brownstone because I feared he’d cut my dick off for touching you first. He’s under the impression you’re Whittenhower property, but has since said I was okay since I was Grant’s best friend.”
A grumbling rolls through the dungeon, everyone in agreement, including the idiot holding my hand.
“Whitt was trying to humiliate me tonight, not get into my pants,” I admit the painful truth.
“What?” Marcus is taken aback. “Regina, I’ve been going insane with fear and worry for the past two months. This was not about humiliation.”
“Yeah, it was.” Whitt has the balls to admit it. “I know Queen will eventually give in, but I knew it wouldn’t be tonight, and I can’t believe you all thought it would be. You don’t know Regina very well if you thought differently.”
“Why?” Ezra and Marcus say in unison, with Cortez looking sad, Syn confused, and Dexter enthralled with the drama.
“Just as Whitt seems to be the only person in this dungeon who truly knows me, I’m the only one who truly gets him. Whitt wanted to humiliate me because I’m a goddamn liar and a hypocrite of the highest order. Which is why I want to speak to Whitt in private, to put it all on the table once and for all, and then to apologize.”
Whitt squeezes my hand, while every muscle in his body relaxes at once.
“All I know is if this is how this organization is run, by temper-tantrum-throwing children playacting adults, then it’s no wonder this place is a shithole.” I tug Whitt’s arm, pulling him toward the nearest door. “I’ll be back later tonight to get Restraint in working order, membership included.”
Whitt and Grant are not the same beast, and I’m unsure how to go forth, so I take Jamie’s sage advice. The watcher knows us all best.
“Um… Obviously we have no car.” I stumble over my words. “Unless you want to jack Ezra’s ridiculously expensive SUV.”
As we walk out the side door to Restraint and into the damp morning air, the rising sun casts an orange glow on the parking lot. Whitt turns to look at me with his eyebrow raised wryly. “I could call Albert, but…”
Whitt makes me feel uncomfortable, more so than when I was around Jackson and Daniel at the same time. I feel like a lost child again, one who knew nothing of the world, and I’ll never learn the knowledge the man at my side possesses. It’s the same feeling Marcus elicited in me when we first met. I hope this tension between Whitt and me dissolves quickly, before it gives him the advantage to bulldoze right over me.
“So… we can walk, or do you want to leave everyone stranded?
“Walk it is.” Whitt’s voice sounds like he holds all of my secrets and finds me cute. “Syn is a detail-oriented person, so I highly doubt she left Ezra’s keys in the car. Unless you learned to hotwire in the hood.”
This is so fucking bizarre on so many levels. Jesus Fuck, uncomfortable is an understatement. After fantasizing about our reunion for more than a decade, this is not how I envisioned it.
Feeling many eyes on me, I wonder who is hiding in the shadows. Ezra’s Aaron and Roarke? Who watches Faith’s back? I have no doubt Ezra and Faith are at the very top of Maître du Jeu’s food chain– founders’ council, not its BDSM front. Does Jamie have Roman and Kristal haunting our every step? Whitt is with me, so where is Albert, or even Martha? Is that how this enforcer business works?
Add paranoia to my discomfort.
“We could catch a cab and go home.” Hope lingers in Whitt’s voice, but I’m not ready.
“I can’t, Sunshine.” My stomach clenches as my feet take me to the sidewalk, with Whitt following at my side. “Daniel… I can’t go back there, not after how I left things.”
“Hey,” Whitt breathes softly. “We need to talk, and I could eat, remember? So let’s do breakfast and see where our conversation takes us. Plus, I long ago learned not to speak in public or private with so many listening ears, and I’ve often wondered when my private words were used against me in conversation when I uttered them when I was alone.”
“Yeah, the first time I was in Cort’s car, Marcus was listening to our every word, and I didn’t know until afterward.”
Marcus is one of the most intelligent creatures I’ve ever met, so I was a bit surprised at how shocked he appeared to be when I explained how easy it was to hijack his surveillance and use it against all of us.
Even our ears have ears, so maybe I’m not being paranoid after all.
“Fucking lovely,” Whitt hisses, hand clenching around mine. “There is some bizarre shit going down, even Niel has noticed. We’ve tried to talk to Daniel about it, but he brings Diane in, and the pair of them tell us to leave it alone.”
Testing the waters– always testing the waters… “Are they terrified or resigned when this happens?”
Whitt thinks about this for a block or two, and I have no idea where he’s leading me. “Terrified is not an emotion Daniel ever exhibits. But I guess frazzled would be the best way to describe it, which is major for that man.”
I mull that terrifying information over. “I doubt Daniel and Diane know exactly what’s going on then, just that they know shit is going down like we do.”
“I know more than most,” Whitt admits, causing my steps to falter.
“You hate me,” I blurt out. “I can tell you know the truth.”
Pace slowing, Whitt whispers, “Do you ever feel like everyone in your life is betraying you by omission?”
I can barely swallow around the ball of guilt threatening to suffocate me. “Yeah, I do, and that answered my question, didn’t it?”
Voice emotionless, “Yeah, it did,” Whitt replies without hesitation.
Whispering softly, because to speak louder would make me choke on the words. “I believe you’re the only person I know who has never betrayed me, Sunshine. Yet I betrayed you by omission, even if I didn’t want to.”
Swinging around, suddenly furious, Whitt drops my hand and faces me. I bite back laughter at how the Denny’s sign illuminates his blond hair like an angelic halo. Eyes narrowed, muscles taut and coiled for attack, fists clenched, Whitt asks the question I’ve been asking myself.
“Why did you?”
Body slumping in defeat, “I don’t know,” flows from my lips like a coward. “Because I’m a mother, and the thought of someone going against my wishes with my children kills me, and I know this firsthand. For that reason alone, I kept Grant’s wishes.”
“My father’s wishes?” Whitt challenges me.
“Yes, your father’s wishes.” Jamie’s words ring in my head. Own it. “I won’t apologize for not telling you when you were little. I was building a life with your father, trying to hold onto my own son with my fingertips, all the while trying to survive. I agreed with Grant’s reasons, and I still do, even seeing the formidable young man you’ve grown to be.”
“Why?” Whitt breathes, sounding just as defeated as I feel. “Why didn’t he think I deserved my legacy? Why don’t you think I deserve it?”
“No,” I cry, reaching for Whitt. Tugging him roughly into my arms, I hold him, rocking back and forth while I tell the truth. “Your father wanted you to have the life he wasn’t allowed to lead. A life of his own choosing.”
“Was it because I’m gay?” Whitt sniffles against my neck, rubbing his cheek along my jawline.
“Partially,” I admit, and Whitt jerks as if struck. “But not for the reasons you believe. His marriage to Cora, your conception, along with Niel’s, it was all forced on Grant, and he didn’t want you to live like that. Being gay, it would have made it even more of a nightmare, to be forced to marry, bed, and make children with a woman.”
“I could do it.” Pulling away, Whitt acts, sounds, and looks like the boy I’d grown to know and love. “I’m stronger than they think.”
“I know, but you shouldn’t have to do it.” Hand moving on its own accord to cup his cheek, for a moment, I’m confused by touching and looking at a man who is Grant’s doppelganger. It takes me ten seconds of blinking back tears to see Whitt instead of the man I lost.
“What your dad wanted for you, what your grandfathers wanted for you, your grandmother and your aunts and uncle, and what I wanted for you, is for you to grow into your own man, with your own passions, to find a man who will love this person we all love so dearly. That is why.”
Whitt looks away from me, hiding the tears staining his cheeks, and my hand falls back to my side. “Okay, that makes sense in regard to why Daniel didn’t shove his lessons down my throat before Niel and the girls were ready, but I guess it also explains why no one told me Grant was my dad.”
Eyes scrunched in confusion, I try to get Whitt to explain. “What are you reasoning out?”
“Over breakfast– c’mon.” Whitt grabs for my hand to tug me into Denny’s of all places. “I feel eyes on me. There’s a man over there by the bench watching us.”
As Whitt pulls me into the diner, I check out the guy acting disinterested in us. Blank. Nondescript. Closely cropped brown hair, jeans and a leather jacket, and a cellphone in hand as if he doesn’t even notice us. But I’ve seen him before– often.
“Have you seen Stanton Green recently?” I ask Whitt when we come to stop before the hostess station.
“No, why?” Whitt looks at me crosswise. “That’s twice Dominion’s lord of the underworld has been brought up, when I hadn’t heard his name in ages. The last I remember of him was having forced playdates with Toddler.”
“Toddler?” I snort at Whitt’s insulting nickname for Binks. “Well, people age, but they tend to still look similar. That guy out there, I’ve seen him before. I don’t know his name, but he was friends with Caleb Green before Stanton’s little brother was shipped away to military school.”
“That’s disturbing. If you’re one to keep tabs on people, you should know Caleb joined the Marines and is stationed somewhere playing GI Joe,” Whitt murmurs, then turns on the charm for the hostess. “Hello, darling.” The dimples pop and the crystalline blue eyes shine, and the fifty-something woman is about to swoon. “Could we have a booth with a front window, but away from the door? Please and thanks.”
As Whitt’s passenger, I trail behind him and the hostess, who has perfected the art of walking slowly, in case we get lost in the twenty feet from here to there. “Thank you.” Whitt’s charm is still turned up to swoon, but if he adds flirting to the mix, I’m out of here.
Eyeing the man who utterly terrifies me, yet makes me want to pull him into my arms and never let him go, I slide into the booth. Flipping the well-used coffee mug over to signal I want some, I wait the hostess out as she lingers and bats her eyelashes at Whitt.
“Dear God,” I groan. “There should be a warning label on your forehead.” Laughing to myself, I shake my head back and forth. “So, if you haven’t seen Stanton, then I guess you haven’t seen Binks, either.”
“Toddler?” Whitt visibly shudders. “Fuck no.”
So much for that segue. Uncomfortable in the extreme, I pretend to look at the menu. “Um… so I should probably tell you–”
“That she’s my sister?” Whitt fills in the blanks for me. Voice dry enough to catch fire, “I figured that out when I was six– thanks.”
Hands stilling, I drop the menu to the tabletop with a loud clank to my coffee cup. “Why did you wait to confront me?”
“I thought you’d tell me when you were ready, I guess.” Whitt’s finger goes line-by-line on the menu. “I figured out Grant was my dad because my sisters didn’t seem to take as much of an interest in me as he did. As my mother, Priscilla always deferred to Grant. If he wasn’t my dad, then why would she?”
“PedoBear– holy fuck!” Covering my mouth with the back of my hand, my conversation with Kristal rears its ugly head. Laughing, I decide Kristal is a cunt of the highest order, but one with a warped sense of humor.
“What?” Whitt’s eyebrows scrunch together in confusion, but his lips are twisted with amusement. “Grant was not like that. I mean, I always thought Jackson’s kissing on the mouth was a bit much, but I think that was to get a rise out of Daniel.”
“Nail. Head.” We’re interrupted by a gobsmacked waitress who can’t stop drooling over the young man seated across from me. Whitt, wearing expensive clothing like a second-skin, is a sight to behold in a diner of all places. “All-American Slam with white toast and coffee, please.”
“Fit Slam and grapefruit juice,” Pretty Boy requests, earning a sigh of pleasure from our waitress.
“For serious?” I volley across the table at the kid as soon as the girl shuffles away. “Fit Slam? Meanwhile, the middle-aged woman is eating enough to feed a horse.”
“Middle-aged?” Whitt has the good sense to roll his eyes. “You’re only thirty-one, right? Almost thirty-two? You seem to have forgotten that I’ve seen you naked, and even with being gay, I enjoyed the view.” Noticing the flaming blush on my cheeks, he changes the subject before my attitude turns dicey. “As for the caloric mindfulness, Daniel has me on a double course load.”
“So much for living your passions,” I mumble underneath my breath. “Grant would be pissed.” –I refuse to use present tense.
“Well, up until I reached the age of majority, Daniel was my governing authority.” Animosity replaced by a softening of his features, Whitt’s voice shifts to affectionate. “Double course load: business and art. Half for him, half for me.”
Angry at myself, I voice my private thoughts. “I want to hate him, but I can’t.” Thankfully the waitress passing out our beverages saves me from explaining.
“I spend my days at the university. When I return to Misery Castle, Daniel forces me to sit at his desk with him– the old bastard pretends it’s not for my company. Like I’m still in elementary school, he goes over my homework, while trying to override my professors. If the TA teaches one of my classes, Daniel calls up the Dean, saying he’s going to pull Whittenhower funding.”
“Good times?” I lift my coffee mug and clink Whitt’s juice glass in a toast. “Same Daniel, different decade.” Voice fond, but still holding a wealth of sadness, “At least you don’t have Jackson going livid crazy on your professors with Grant trying to play interference.”
“Daniel would embarrass you, too?” Whitt’s laughter is a sucker-punch to the throat. All is not lost forever. “I have no life. School. Daniel. Waiting for the kids to get home from school so Daniel can get his rocks off on teaching us whatever for the night. I sit on my ass, so that’s why I avoid fatty foods.”
“Jeesh. You’re nineteen, Whitt– live a little.” I wait a moment in the silence, then coax him to continue. “But don’t stop talking. Gimme more.”
All the charm Whitt had bestowed on the wait staff was pale in comparison to the high-wattage smile he flashes my way. Mouth drying up, breath hitching, all I can do is stare across the table as he indents his dimples.
“No one but the youngsters give a shit about what I’m doing unless I’m not doing as I was told.” The sadness makes a reappearance by lurking in the depths of his eyes. “My favorite part of the week is when Prissy’s trainer visits. Gymnastics. God, that guy is hotter than Hades. Straight. My gaydar is faulty, and I mistook his impressive bulge for a ‘happy to see me’ showing.”
Grinning, I chuckle underneath my breath at the crestfallen expression on our waitress’s face as she delivers our breakfast platters. She doesn’t even respond to Whitt’s, “Thank you, darling.”
“So much for Cinderella finding her Prince Charming at Denny’s,” I tease, doing my damnedest to hold back the laughter trying to escape.
“Prince?” Scoffing, Whitt looks more than mildly insulted. “Try KING, Queen.”
“King Whittenhower.” I try for teasing again, but it sounds like reality to me, which is terrifying. “So nothing fun besides ogling Prissy’s trainer? How are your art classes? Do you tattoo often? How did you end up at Restraint?”
“Teddy– the trainer’s name is Teddy. He is the highlight of my week for spank-bank material. Art class is still class, and I’m sick as fuck of formal education because I’ve been doing it since I was two, which is why I ended up tattooing in the first place. Not as often as I’d like, but Kristal and Syn humor me when I have a new design. Restraint–” Whitt’s wicked grin is so wide I fear his lips will split in the center.
“There’s a story behind that, I take it.” Amazed, I can’t look away from Whitt. Just sitting here, listening to him speak, is the highlight of my decade. I’m not even hungry, and I don’t care that my food is getting cold.
“Daniel is boring, as you know.” Whitt winks at me, the pisspot. “By the time I hit sixteen, I was getting angrier and angrier with every passing day. Daniel is also a weirdo, like he wasn’t put off on my being gay. He would hand me books on things I’d rather experience than read.” Voice warping until it’s a facsimile of his grandfather’s, “You have to be safe, Daniel, and don’t have sex with a woman unless you plan on procreating. Condoms are not infallible.”
In between chuckling, I nosh on a piece of bacon. “That is the Daniel I remember.”
“Yeah, well… it sucked having him quiz me on how I was feeling and why I was feeling it. Since I’ve never stopped chasing Ezra around–”
“Obviously,” I mutter dramatically for effect.
“Ha-ha! On a whim, I told Daniel I wanted to train with Ezra, and he actually said yes. I was flooooored,” Whitt draws out. “I ended up with Marcus, but Daniel was still proud of me, saying I was like Jackson.” Whitt leans across the table and whispers conspiratorially, “What does that even mean? Jack wasn’t gay, was he?”
“I would get so frustrated with Daniel and Jackson, where I’d war with myself over hating and loving them, to the point Grant would feed me juicy bits and pieces to keep me from killing the men. So unless you truly want to know, don’t ask.”
“Don’t be a bitch, Queen.” Smiling, Whitt points across the table at me. “I’m trying my damnedest not to be pissed at you, so if you’ve got the goods, you better produce ‘em.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I make Whitt suffer while I make a sandwich out of bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. After a few bites, where the poor guy is practically vibrating with anticipation, I put him out of his misery.
“Jackson was a hellraiser in his time. Naughty, bisexual, and without morals, the man’s worst nightmare was his heart meds, because they took away the use of his cock.”
Empathizing, Whitt grunts in pain.
“Before I go on, I need to know if you know who Grant’s father is.”
“Jackson? Daniel?” Whitt doesn’t even bat an eyelash at my question. “I was the little kid hiding in the draperies. If you don’t think I saw Jackson and Priscilla making out, or Jackson hugging Daniel, and Daniel looking confused, like he was being boiled alive… I’ve asked Daniel more than a hundred times, and I even went to the source– Priscilla. But I always get a different answer each time.”
“Really?” My wheels begin spinning again, giving me a migraine. “Grant always assumed it was Jackson. Anyway, since he couldn’t get it up, Jackson found more cerebral pursuits.”
“Yes, and I’m pretty sure Daniel’s boiled alive expression was due to the fact that if he had let him, Jackson would have been more than happy to live a life of incest because it was the most perverse thing the dying man could do. As I said, Jackson was a hellraiser, living every moment on the edge, and that’s about as far off the edge as one can get. Grant was always thankful Jack’s cock didn’t work, because he feared him manipulating Daniel in the bedroom.”
“Manipulating Daniel?” Whitt sounds incredulous as all get out. “Pfft… yeah, right.”
“Daniel is… a complicated man. A scholar thirsting for knowledge to make up for his lack in sex drive, which is why he asked the who/what/where/why/when/how about you being gay. Daniel is incapable of feeling arousal. While he loves Priscilla romantically, it’s not sexual. So he’s all mixed up in the head, finding affection to be a form of sexuality, which is how Jackson could have abused and manipulated him.”
“What?” Whitt’s jaw drops. “Come again?”
“Daniel is asexual.”
“Dammit!” Whitt’s fist hits the edge of the tabletop, never looking or sounding more like Jackson and Daniel. “Now it will be impossible to hate that man.”
“I warned you,” I remind Whitt, not even bothering to hide my smile at his befuddled reaction. “Grant told me via Jackson how a very bad man got a hold of Daniel when he was a boy, and it fucked him up. He had no sexual urges at all, and can’t distinguish between affection and sex, so he doesn’t do affection except with Priscilla because she’s his wife and that’s par for the course.”
“Daniel doesn’t like sex?” Poor kid looks faintly ill. “At all? I mean, that is life’s greatest gift.”
“No sex drive. No urge. No looking at a woman or man and getting hard. Daniel sees masturbation as another body function to be performed daily, and sex a duty you do with your wife. But Grant assured me that Daniel enjoys the act itself, just doesn’t have an on-switch to tell him to engage in it.”
“The only time Daniel has ever touched me was the one time he slapped me.” Whitt’s revelation hurts my heart. “But like clockwork, about ten minutes before Niel gets out of school, Daniel is practically vibrating with need. He greets Whitney and Prissy, and looks genuinely happy to see them, but he acts like I have the plague. Niel– I’ve never wanted to be jealous of the most important person in my life, but when Daniel takes Niel into a huge hug and kisses his forehead, I die a little bit on the inside each time.”
“Jesus,” I whisper, eyes slipping shut from the pain etched across Whitt’s Grant-like features, then realization strikes. “I don’t even need to see my son to know he’s growing up to look similar to Jackson. So while I find looking at you to be a comfort, I can’t imagine how Daniel feels to look at you, or to look in the mirror and see what he’s lost.”
“Regina,” Whitt cries out, and he hardly ever calls me by name. “That makes me feel worse. You suck in the comfort department.”
“I wasn’t finished.” I reach for his hand, both of us forgetting the pretense of eating breakfast. “Jackson was Daniel’s safe haven. But more so, the day Jackson died, Daniel and I had a conversation about good versus bad touch, and I taught him how to touch Niel. I had him hold Niel, using it to abate his grief. I gave Daniel permission to touch my son, and he took me at my word, and pushed all of the loneliness he must feel over Jackson and Grant into Niel.”
“How am I to continue hating him?” Whitt hangs his head, looking sadder by the second. “The injustice kept me going.”
“Hate Daniel on his actions, not for his inaction. As for you looking like Grant, it wasn’t until Grant turned twenty-one that Daniel began touching him, realizing he was old enough and big enough to tell him no. Daniel’s terrified he’ll inadvertently violate one of you. You’re not there yet, Whitt. So if you want Daniel’s affection, then you have to stop looking at him like he’s the Antichrist and just give him a hug.”
“I don’t… I don’t think my balls are big enough yet.” Whitt looks down at his hands. “Every day since you left, I’ve hated Daniel for making you leave. I was hiding in the draperies when Marcus told Daniel, and I was still in the study when you were told.”
“That’s–” sob lodged in my throat, I nearly suffocate until I choke it out. “That’s how you found out your dad died?”
“Yeah, but see…” Whitt closes his eyes, unable to look at me. “You lost Grant that day, and had to give up Niel, but I lost my dad… and you. Daniel broke after Adelaide dragged you out. We all lost you both, and he couldn’t handle it. He even begged Ade to bring you back, and had Albert looking all over Dominion for you. But you never came back, so I can’t forgive Daniel, no matter how fucked up in the head he may be.”
“Ade never– Fuck!” I suck in a large amount of air, filling my lungs to bursting, and then let the agony out with my exhalation. “I was in a bad place myself, truly believing Daniel was right about ‘a son for a son’, to the point I doubt I would have come back if Ade had asked. Some days, I still think I’m punishing myself. Other days, I feel like I was never enough. For a few seconds a day, I feel like I lost the life I was meant to lead, and I’m just wandering aimlessly.”
Whitt’s laughter has my eyelids popping open. Quickly drying the tears on my cheeks, I begin to wonder over his sanity.
“I was raised in a motherfucking castle as the throwaway son, watching my little brother be treated like a pampered prince. Overlooked, my birthright was torn from me, and I’m so enraged I can barely breathe most days. Whittenhower Estates and all its holdings should have been mine. Jackson to Grant. With Grant’s death, Daniel would have been a placeholder until I reached the age of majority. But with all these secrets and lies, my legacy is gone. Take that for aimless wandering.”
Breathing through the pain, I slide the plates in front of me out of the way and to the side, then I slump forward with my forearms on the tabletop. “Did you want it in the first place?”
“Yes, goddamnit!” Whitt states with great passion. “We always want what we’ve been denied, especially when it was ours in the first place. So what if I’m gay? I don’t need to make a kid when I can use the Whittenhower prince and princesses as my heirs. Jumping over me wasn’t a way to avoid the inevitable, but a slap to the fucking face. Just as it was Jackson’s decision to give the reigns to Daniel, it’s mine for when Niel gets control.”
“You need to ask yourself if you truly want the burden, if you’re capable of shouldering it, or if you’re just being spiteful because you were denied.”
“My roots were torn out of the family tree, Regina. Do you get that? Imagine Curtis and Ella Regal without your name beneath theirs.”
“Whitt, I understand that more than you could ever know.” Resting my head on my forearms, I speak to the tabletop. “My own son isn’t even in my family tree.”
“Bullshit,” Whitt spits. “I’m not going to do the ‘who has it worse game’ with you, but I can assure you Niel’s real birth certificate is in the safe in the study, and it has yours and Grant’s names on it. When I was snooping for it, I found my own birth records instead. So I’m not going to debate whether I want or deserve what’s mine, because it’s rightfully mine, and that’s all there is to say about it.”
“Agreed,” I mutter in defeat, unable to process all Whitt just said.
“As I said before, Niel is my favorite person on the planet, but it doesn’t lessen the hurt that I was somehow deemed unfit at the age of five for my own legacy, while the very thought of a baby yet to be conceived was. It negates all the good I remember from Jackson and Grant, and highlights the cold relationship I have with the man who is legally my father. I just–”
After several long moments, I ask, “What?” assuming Whitt is waiting for me to coax him to continue.
“It’s not about greed or power– I just want to prove I’m worthy. Then, when I’m ready, I’ll pass the torch to a Whittenhower who is ready and willing, and it doesn’t mean it has to be Niel, or my kid if I ever choose to have one. Hell, it could be Ella even. I don’t believe in the way our family has been run so far, and that is what I want the most.”
“The power to change our lives for the better?” I perk up, feeling the first stirrings of positivity in my belly, the addictive surge of power.
“Yes.” Whitt’s eyes glint as if succumbing to the same high I’m experiencing. “There is shit going on around us that I don’t understand. There are more skeletons in Misery Castle than we have closets. Everything in my world is built on secrets and lies, and I want to tear it down to the very foundation and rebuild it again. But I need help– your help, Queen.”
“What’s your game plan on the Whittenhower front? Because I can help with some of the secrets and lies and the shit going on around us we don’t understand.”
“Thank you!” Not only is relief etched across Whitt’s features, it’s prominent in his voice. “I’ve been going through life alone, Queen. Other. I see Niel, Whitney, Prissy, and Ella as a group together, and the rest of my family in neat little boxes. But then there is just me. All alone.”
Reaching across the table for Whitt’s hand, I assuage his fears. “You’re not alone anymore, Sunshine, and you never were. I promise.”
“The heir to the Whittenhower throne matures at the age of twenty-four. Daniel believes he has another decade to rule from his brother’s seat, not realizing I know who I am and where I came from. So that means I have a little over four years to take my legacy back, and I need your help.”
“I am the unknown heir apparent, and I need to become the guardian of the heir presumptive to ensure the welfare of every Whittenhower, those who are employed by us, and those who rely on us. I can’t sit back and allow Daniel to take control, or my baby brother who is not ready by any stretch of the imagination. So I need you to help me become the guardian to my own heirs.”
“What?” I slur. “I haven’t been schooled in the finer points of primogeniture since I was in utero.”
“You said Jackson, Daniel, and Grant bypassed me for your son because they wanted me to have a different sort of life. But what about what Prissy wants? Daniel is already looking at who to betroth to Whitney and Niel, and they’ve yet to reach fourteen. What about their lives and wants? What if Niel wants to sit in a dark room all day and write anime? Whitney is so serious, she could probably make a better politician than the asshat Daniel and Kent would try to marry her off to. She shouldn’t be the first lady of anything, but the lady.”
“I get that, and I’m on board with helping you so that every one of our family members can be who they should organically evolve into, not who they are predestined to become.”
“Good, then I hope you won’t tear my head off when you hear the solution.”
“Out with it,” I demand.
“By law of primogeniture, Jackson had three heirs: Me. Niel. Ella. If anything were to happen to us, the line moves to Daniel as Jackson’s only brother. With no sons, the line would fall to Katie, leaving Whitney and Prissy to be the heirs. But that’s neither here nor there since I still breathe, and I will fight to my last breath to make sure my brother and sister are healthy.”
“Whitt,” I warn. “Stop with the foreplay, and spit it out.”
“I need to be the guardian of my own heirs, Regina.” Eyes darting away, Whitt refuses to look at me. “If they were my children instead of my siblings… I found Niel’s birth certificate, and I have it on my person to give back to you, to give you your son back. You are in possession of Ella. Technically Daniel has no hold over Niel, except for the fact that he is his grandfather, and would probably die without him.”
“Daniel!” I use Whitt’s given name to get him to get to the point.
“There’s method to my madness as to why I said you needed to have sex with me– why I kept guaranteeing you would.” Taking a deep breath, Whitt finally drops the bombshell. “Because you’ll have to consummate our marriage to make it legal. After we marry, after you allow me to adopt my brother and sister– my heirs –we will be King and Queen of the Whittenhowers, and no one will ever be forced to marry, or make children, or go into a profession that isn’t their passion. We need to do this for the greater good of our family.”
Heart beating out of my chest, a cold sweat beads along my spine. “Now I understand why Marcus was petrified of you.” Slumping forward, I cover my face with my palms. “I… I’m at a loss for words, Whitt.”
Leaning over the table, Whitt whispers so softly I have to struggle to hear. “I know Grant loved you, and I know you’ve been beside yourself with grief and loss. But Grant was far from perfect. He never treated you how you deserved.”
“Whitt,” I mutter weakly, heart breaking for a billion and one reasons, but mostly for the lie I’ve told myself for the past eighteen months, only because it hurts less to lie to myself than to accept the truth.
“My father was a coward. If I had been in his position, with you loving me as a man does a woman, I would have married you before God Himself, and every person I’ve ever come into contact with.”
“Grant’s not you,” I try to remind him.
“I know– thank God. But I am not a coward, and I know you will never marry me as a woman does a man. But it doesn’t matter, because I wouldn’t be as proud to call you my wife as much as I would be to call myself your husband.”