New Haven, Connecticut, Spring 1994
Alexandra Castle’s destiny was written the day she was born—a path from private school to prep school to Ivy League university. Before this week, she had welcomed the family legacy and the expectations of her to live up to it. One day it would all be worth it. It was all written in stone. She and her two siblings would take the Castle empire of luxury hotels over from their father, William Castle, a man who was loving in his own way but controlling.
Her father wasn’t always that way. Her earliest memories of him, following her mother’s death, were marked by sadness. He’d spend hours alone in his study, playing the same Platters’ song over and over again. But when he’d come out, he’d hug and kiss her good night. When she was fifteen, he changed. She thought perhaps his Parkinson’s diagnosis then and the prospect of facing a lifelong debilitating disease was the cause, but his transformation went beyond self-pity. She had yet to discover why he suddenly began rationing out love to her, Andrew, and their much older half sister, acting as if they were lost in a desert and he had but a single precious canteen of water to offer them.
As his disease progressed, meeting his standards had become the only way to earn his approval. This was easier said than done. It was a lesson she learned through her twin brother, Andrew. His risk-taking, corner-cutting personality flew in the face of everything their father expected of them. Andrew would blow it off as if he didn’t care, but as his twin, she knew better and felt it was her job to give him the love their father wouldn’t. Protecting her brother had become second nature.
Since setting foot onto Yale’s sacred grounds a year and a half ago, Alex had stayed the course expected of a Castle, maintaining a rigorous schedule of studies and athletics. Equally gifted academically, she and her brother had seesawed for the top two grades in each class they had in common. The only edge she had over Andrew when it came to earning their father’s hard-earned approval was running track. She was faster in comparison to her female contemporaries than he was to his male ones.
All of that didn’t matter as much as it once did, though. Not after she fell prey to an unexpected yet welcomed temptation—a liaison that her father would never condone because of the whispers it might generate in his Manhattan social circles.
Inhaling the fresh spring air, Alex extended a hamstring to its maximum against the plush infield grass of Yale’s running track. The shorts of her track team uniform inched up, no doubt exposing the faint tan line on her warm, beige-toned skin. She’d been self-conscious about that, but a few more hours poolside in a bathing suit and that line would be invisible. Between stretches, she tightened her long brown ponytail. Then, unable to resist, she stared not at the coach directing their pre-meet warm-up but at her teammate, Kelly Thatcher. Eyeing the tall, athletic, and smart blonde had become a guilty pleasure, one Alex couldn’t bring herself to regret even if her father learned of it. For weeks, Kelly had increasingly regarded her as if she were a fine cut at Wolfgang’s Midtown. Her attention had brought to the surface a craving within Alex which previous male suitors had never inspired. For the first time, she felt downright sexy.
On and off the track, Kelly had become a distraction that William Castle wouldn’t approve of on any level. For starters, she was a scholarship student, unable to afford the hefty Yale price tag. According to William, anyone with South Philly roots was beneath any Castle with an ounce of self-respect. Then there was the bigger issue. Her brother’s daily lusting after Kelly’s long legs was terrible enough, but in her father’s world, Alex doing the same was an unforgivable sin—an attitude she never fully understood, considering his longstanding support of progressive charities like the ACLU and Habitat for Humanity.
“Thinking about taking a dip into the lady pond?” Andrew plopped down next to Alex, his gaze dissecting Kelly’s features from head to toe with the thoroughness of a surgeon.
“And if I were?” Alex glanced at him. Andrew used to be her mirror image. He was taller than her now with a stronger chin, slightly thicker nose, and more pronounced brow.
“Considering how you fixate on Madonna and the Divine Miss M, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
She gave him a sturdy shoulder shove. Andrew had a finely honed sixth sense about her. He was often sure of Alex’s feelings before she was, which made keeping secrets from him a monumental task. He could ferret out deception like a police dog alerting to the scent of a drug mule.
“I don’t know, Andrew.” She cocked her head, studying Kelly’s teasing form. “I’ve only dated men.” If she were honest, she’d tell him she was questioning why Kelly’s seductive gazes made her breath hitch and why a bend at the waist made her heart beat wildly out of control. Since sophomore year in high school, Alex had found herself drawn to girls, but she had yet to explore the likelihood she might not be straight. As a Castle, being open about such an indulgence was not only stupid but dangerous. Her father would never accept it.
“And the men you date are either vacuous or more feminine than you.”
“They are not.” Although his assessment of her last two failed dating escapades was spot-on, she shot her brother a mind-your-own-business stare.
“Other than Father finding out, what does it matter?”
“You have a point.” Alex tossed her hesitation—and the witless and effeminate men she’d been drawn to—in the trash heap of regrets for not taking this leap sooner. Harley Spencer, her only confidant on the topic since high school, would say, “It’s about damn time. Welcome to the sapphic club.”
“It appears we have another competition on our hands,” he said.
Alex followed his stare. Deep into a hamstring stretch, Kelly had dipped deep enough that her college track uniform precisely accentuated every curve, revving Alex’s pulse. A rush of warmth radiated up her cheeks, setting off a three-alarm fire. “You’re on.”
“Then I better up my game.” Andrew bounced to his knees to engage in a vigorous hip-flexor stretch.
Alex joined him, but her stretching effort was half-hearted. “Game? Brother, you have no game.”
“Don’t look now, but Father is here. If you expect to win the 5K today like I’m going to”—Andrew waved a disparaging finger at Alex and her lack of effort—“you better do a better job of warming up.”
Alex shook her head. Her brother had yet to figure out their father. William Castle was not capable of showing unconditional love, only praise when his conditions were met. “Haven’t you learned by now that you can’t win his approval by winning races?”
“That’s rich coming from you. You always win, and you’ve always been Father’s favorite.” Andrew’s expression matched his bitter words.
“My winning has nothing to do with it. I’ve learned what he respects.”
“Public conformity. Father cares foremost about image. You getting busted by the campus police for gambling and binge drinking didn’t exactly meet the William Castle standard of behavior.”
“It seems you are considering a rebellion of your own.” He jutted his chin toward Kelly, the one person who made her want to do anything but conform.
She focused on the body that made her want to buck everything Castle. To forget the pile of academic awards and trophies in her bedroom that rivaled the collection compiled by Syd, her older half sister. To follow her brother’s example of taking chances and living on the edge.
Wanting to break her father’s rules, though, didn’t mean she was ready for the consequences. If he discovered her secret revolt, he’d react in authentic Castle form—dignified yet sure and swift. He’d say the entire Castle legacy rested on what she did in public, and if she chose not to live up to it, she was not a true Castle. Some days, she longed for the father she had before his diagnosis, the one who cared more about making her happy than about what others thought.
Alex’s stare followed Kelly as she sprang from the turf and made her way toward the water cooler. Her brief contemplation of defiance evaporated when her father, looking every bit the part of a Manhattan business mogul, came into view in the stands. Not even a weekend athletic event could persuade him to dress informally. He stood out in the casual crowd with his distinctive, tailored double-breasted navy-blue suit and the crisp white collar contrasting against his golden-toned skin. She attributed his devotion to proper attire, at least in part, to his compensating for his disease. “The correct blazer,” he’d noted, “can hide the most noticeable flaw.”
“Of course, she would come.” Andrew’s taut tone snapped Alex out of an internal battle between daring and cowardice. She followed his gaze into the grandstands, focusing on Harley Spencer, her best friend, who was standing to her father’s left as a buffer between him and Harley’s mother.
At forty-four, Abigail Spencer, New York City philanthropist, epitomized elegance. Thick, wavy auburn hair, immaculately trimmed to the trailing edge of the collar on her tailored suit jacket, framed prominent cheekbones, highlighting skin the color of pale linen. Unlike William, she was dressed for the outdoors, pairing her silk blouse and floral scarf with formfitting jeans and sensible yet chic walking shoes. Abby could make any pair of Levi’s look like they had cost a thousand dollars.
“She made it.” Alex waved until she received a reciprocal gesture. She grinned so hard her cheeks hurt. “Abby!”
“Always Abby. Sometimes I think you’re more of a Spencer than a Castle.” Andrew’s disapproving tone on the topic of Abigail Spencer had escalated along with their father’s, reaching a tiresome level by their final year in high school.
“Not this again.”
“Can you blame me?”
“Yes, I can. Abby has been our surrogate mother since we were six.”
If not for Abby, the cancer that took their mother would’ve also taken Alex’s spirit, especially after her father’s diagnosis and transformation for the worse. Abby offered Alex the same love she showed her own daughter, Harley. She showed the same to Andrew, but he had shied away from it as he grew older.
“To you, but not to me.” Andrew’s habitual sneer was pronounced today.
“Abby treated you the same. Her standing invitation was for both of us. You’re the one who stopped coming.”
“What did you expect? Father made it clear when we were fifteen that he didn’t like her, but you continued going. That’s when you stopped being my best friend. Sometimes I think Harley is more your twin than I am.”
“You know that’s not true.” Though Andrew had a point, Alex gave him a playful shoulder shove. Three months older than them, Harley shared more in common with Alex, but she lacked one fundamental attribute—Castle blood. Blood trumped friendship. “You’re my twin. We may not have played together every day of our lives, but you’ve been my bestest friend since we were in a crib.”
Behind those brown eyes, identical to her own, his cocky sparkle had faded, replaced by a look of defeat. “I may be your twin, but I’ve never been your equal in Father’s eyes. You’ll always be his favorite.” Before she could respond, he bounced to his feet and took off down the track in a slow jog.
Students, friends, family, and alumni cheered on athletes from Yale for the next three hours as they battled Harvard in an evenly matched event. Tradition and pride, rather than setting records, marked the day. William Castle beamed when he joined the other parents and competitors on the infield. He still walked strongly, though more slowly than he had at her high school graduation two years ago.
“There are my stellar athletes.” William gave Alex a hearty hug before shaking Andrew’s hand. His hand twitched ever so slightly. Her father could still hide the effects of his Parkinson’s to most, but not to Alex, who looked for it regularly. “You two gave Harvard a good trouncing, just like your old man did back in the day.”
Andrew’s face lit up. “Yes, sir, we sure did. Those pilgrims didn’t stand a chance.”
“Well, Andrew, that Harvard man was right on your tail. If not for his slight stumble at the end, you might have come in a sad second.” Andrew’s shoulders slumped, making his disappointment palpable. William turned toward Alex, his grin increasing twofold. “But, Alexandra. Now that’s how to win a race, a full ten seconds ahead. You must have trained hard, young lady.”
Despite Andrew’s earlier digs, he still deserved her backing, especially following their father’s not-so-subtle jab. “Thank you, Father, but Andrew—”
“But nothing.” William dismissively swept his hand. “You did the Castles proud.”
Abby joined the group, a disarming smile highlighting her face’s fine lines. She said, “They both did,” essentially settling the argument. William returned her polite nod with the contemptuous cast of his chin that he had resorted to every time she’d entered his orbit for the last five years. Their previously cordial friendship had turned into a cold war, a transition Alex never understood and one neither Abby nor her father had cared to explain.
Harley followed behind her mother. Her hair, dark and flowing, differed from Abby’s short and graying blond strands, but she looked and carried herself like her mother—polished and sophisticated. They both gave Andrew and Alex kisses on the cheek. Andrew rolled his eyes as he did every time they showed him affection, while Alex returned Abby’s kiss and whispered into her ear, “Thank you. Andrew needed a pick-me-up.”
“I could tell,” Abby whispered before pulling away.
“I thought you had business in New York today,” Alex said.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, dear. Family tradition and all hanging in the balance.”
“A Castle family tradition.” William followed his retort with a brief but stern glare at Abby. His disapproving eyes were the least frightening part of his expression.
“Father.” Alex sharpened her response enough to make her disappointment in him clear but not so much as to earn his ire.
“It’s all right, Alex. William is right. It is a wonderful Castle tradition.” Abby smiled as only she could, gently brushing a hand down Alex’s forearm. Her trademark charm put the gruffest of Manhattan’s elite at ease at lightning speed. William Castle, one of those self-made elites, had been immune since his diagnosis. “I believe today is cause for celebration.”
“I agree, Mother. The entire team made a wonderful showing,” Harley said. “We should invite them all to our beach house tonight to celebrate.”
“Really, Harley?” Abby raised an eyebrow. “A college party in the Hamptons? What kind of mischief do you have in mind?”
“I’m hurt.” Harley’s movie star dramatics, while humorous, couldn’t offset their memories of her rich history of misbehavior. “You should come too, Mother.”
“Oh, no.” She shook a reproving finger Harley’s way. “I’m much too old to chaperone a bunch of wild Ivy Leaguers. I’ll alert Sonja to expect you. She has a standing order to report back to me if anything gets too out of hand.”
“Thank you, Mother.” Harley kissed her on the cheek before turning toward the twins. “Alex. Andrew. Both of you are coming to the party, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Harley.” Alex weighed her academic responsibilities against the prospect of watching her best friend engage in another weekend of debauchery. The last Spencer beach house party, while epic, had put her days behind in her studies.
“Did I hear ‘party’?” Kelly halted on her way to the locker rooms, her ponytail slowing its sway. Her body drew Alex’s undivided attention instantly.
Harley turned. “Yes, the entire team is invited to our beach house tonight.”
“Are you going?” Kelly turned her gaze on Alex, starting at her toes and settling on her eyes. If not for her father standing five feet away, Alex would’ve let the spark of desire she felt build into an illicit fantasy.
Harley stepped beside Alex, shoulder to shoulder, and linked an arm with hers. “Of course, she’s going. As is Andrew.”
“Well, I’ll definitely be there then.” Kelly gave Alex a suggestive wink, then continued on her way.
“It’s settled,” Harley said.
Nothing on earth could make Alex say no if Kelly was going. “Yes, settled.” Alex’s head tilted as her eyes followed the progression of Kelly’s mesmerizing backside.
“I guess we’re going to a party.” Andrew’s shrug earned William’s disapproving gaze again. Her brother was right. She was “daddy’s favorite.”
* * *
The quarter-mile buffer between Southampton estates made the Spencer beach house the ideal location for one of Harley’s legendary parties. Tonight, a light breeze whisked fresh salt air into the lush, well-lit seaside yard, providing the perfect setting. Blood-pumping music and free-flowing beer and mojitos fueled the loud mischief of a hundred drunk Ivy Leaguers and their friends.
Alex stood alone poolside, engaging in people-watching and concluding that she was one of the few sober people there. Though tequila was more to her liking, she’d settled on beer. In order to appear to be keeping up with the other partygoers, she took a micro-sip from a bottle that had lost its chill half an hour ago. She had decided at Harley’s first wild party in the fall that losing control in a rowdy crowd where the ratio of men to women was about even had no appeal. The only fascinating thing at this party was the tall, mini-skirted blonde from the wrong side of Philly. The one that Alex had been eyeing all night.
“Ready to trade that swill for tequila?” Andrew appeared from behind her and extended hands filled with what seemed to be shot glass peace offerings. He knew her all too well.
“I’m good.” Alex raised her half-full bottle. She returned her stare to where she last had spied Kelly, but she had disappeared.
Despite the ensuing silence between them, so deafening that it drowned out the music and poolside chatter, Alex was having difficulty reading Andrew. Before today, she would’ve said she knew her twin as well as she knew herself. Sadly, their earlier argument over Abby made her wonder if the symbiotic connection she thought they shared—in sync with every childhood need, want, and emotion—had lost its potency.
“I’m sorry about earlier today.” He withdrew his offering, chugging the clear liquid in each of the glasses before placing them on the nearby stone retaining wall.
“I’m sorry, too.” Alex turned toward him. She’d made it her job to make him feel loved and wanted, but she’d failed. The hardest thing to swallow now was that she had no do-overs. “Are you still pissed?”
“When am I not pissed about how Father favors you? That will never change. Because he won’t.” Regrettably, Andrew was correct. Alex couldn’t envision a day when their father would stop putting conditions on his favor. Instead, she saw him getting more controlling as time and his disease marched on. He’d continue to ride Andrew harder for not meeting his expectations.
Andrew scanned the crowd. “I’m off to find Kelly. That’s one competition I still have a chance of winning.” He walked away, blending into the drunken crowd.
You’ve already lost, Brother, she thought. His defeatism about their father was providing the final push she needed to take chances of her own.
Minutes later, the voice that had seduced Alex the first time she heard it floated behind her. “You were wonderful out there today.”
Alex didn’t have to turn to know who had paid her the compliment. That sultry tone, despite being expressed at high volume in order to pierce through the loud music, had become a drug, intoxicating her. She twisted to face the speaker.
“Thanks, Kelly. You did well yourself, placing third in the mile. If memory serves, that was your best time.”
“It was. Thanks for noticing.” Kelly’s penetrating stare raised the heat. The desire that had simmered in Alex for weeks came to a boil.
Without breaking her stare, Alex lowered her voice to a tantalizing tone. “That pool looks especially inviting tonight. Would you like to swim?”
“Do you have anything to wear? I didn’t bring anything.”
“I spend a lot of time here.” Alex inspected every curve from thigh to chest, mentally salivating about everything in between. “We’re about the same size. I’m sure I can find something.”
“Great, let’s go.” Without a moment of hesitation, Kelly grabbed Alex’s hand and dragged her toward the main house at a brisk pace.
Inside, Alex took the lead, guiding Kelly toward the guest room Abby had set aside for her years ago. Not one of the young men she’d led down this hallway before had had her heart beating as fast as it was doing now. Debating whether she was straight, gay, or bi seemed unnecessary at the moment. If she’d correctly read Kelly’s flirting all these weeks, Alex would soon determine which labels to rule out.
Alex rummaged through a dresser drawer, keeping one eye on the mouthwatering distraction standing near the bed. Her breath turned ragged at the sight of Kelly undoing one blouse button and then a second to reveal an exquisite gap between her breasts. Father definitely wouldn’t approve. Not at all.
“Red or black?” Alex held up two skimpy selections, hoping she’d choose neither.
“Which one would you like to see me in?” Kelly’s tone turned low, and its cadence slowed to a seductive pace. Unhurriedly, she removed her cotton blouse and skirt, exposing sheer black lace, top and bottom.
“Definitely black.” From toned legs to curved hips to flat stomach to appetizing breasts, every inch of Kelly boosted Alex’s craving to an unfamiliar level. Not even Todd Hamilton, the boy who took her virginity, had had her this revved.
“Are bathing suits necessary?” Kelly reached behind her back and loosened her bra, causing each strap to inch lower. The garment fell to the wood floor without fanfare, turning Alex’s legs into Jell-O.
Weeks of dressing in front of each other in Yale’s field house among a flock of other team members hadn’t prepared Alex for this moment. She’d stolen a few glimpses in the crowded locker room, but she hadn’t the courage before now to soak in the allure of Kelly’s naked, addictive shape. And what a fool she was for wasting every opportunity to send her pulse into overdrive.
“Only if we want to go swimming.” Alex licked her lips, hoping Kelly had changed her mind.
“I’m not sure I want to spend our time together doing that.” Kelly ran a fingertip from a clavicle to the top of a breast. A pulse pounded in Alex’s folds faster than in every previous encounter she had with a man. “Would you like to kiss me, Alex?”
“God, yes.” Alex’s chest heaved as she gulped in a robust breath. The prospect of losing an inheritance she didn’t particularly care about seemed like a small price to pay to make weeks of fantasizing come true.
Kelly took several long, sexy strides toward Alex, stopping when her bare breasts pushed against the thin fabric of Alex’s top and bra. A touch never felt so good. So erotic. So dizzying. Kelly wrapped her arms around Alex’s neck and pressed their lips together in a fiery kiss. Endorphins must’ve kicked in because a runner’s high swept through Alex. This was how a kiss was supposed to feel—soft lips with the taste of cherry.
Self-control evaporating, Alex tossed the Castle standard of behavior to the wayside. Unable to stop herself, she let her hands roam the taut back muscles lying beneath Kelly’s soft skin. Strong yet feminine. It was a combination she never knew she craved. Her center clenched with the force of a vise when she moved her hands forward and her fingertips grazed the swell of an ample breast.
Coherent thought left in a whirlwind as a carnal instinct took over. The need to touch and be touched hit Alex like a loaded eighteen-wheeler careening out of control. She shifted into high gear and hurried Kelly back toward the bed until they bounced on the mattress. Clothing flew in random directions until not a stitch remained. Their bodies entwined. Hands roamed patches of exposed smooth, sweaty flesh. Never had she responded so quickly, so intensely. She understood why. Straight or bi would never again be in her lexicon.
…I’ll just say that I really liked this book and I’ll be starting the next one shortly. Definitely recommend. I give this a 4 and a half stars.