Prologue

 

 

Concurrent with the end of Tipping the Balance

 

 

RANDALL SUNDSTROM’S trial proved to be every bit as grotesque as Philip thought it would be when he’d set his plan in motion. Not that Philip intended to let the Grand Guignol that was Randall in high dudgeon stop him.

Randall had tried to make a mockery of the justice system, ensuring he’d be enjoying the dubious hospitality of the California Department of Corrections for a long, long time. Philip supposed he was lucky that they had room for him at Folsom, because otherwise he’d be driving up to Susanville, or worse, down to Corcoran. Randall was an asshole, but not actually the kind of hardened criminal who ended up on death row, which ruled out San Quentin or Pelican Bay. Through his long-suffering lawyers—his third legal team, since he’d fired the first and the second had quit in frustration—Randall had fought every bit of evidence presented against him, even when it overwhelmingly pointed to him.

Even when Alex Beltran, the man Brad referred to as their father’s evil henchman—and really, were there ever good henchmen?—took the stand and laid it all out in sickening detail, Randall blustered and argued and protested. Even when Beltran confessed to ordering several of his less seemly builders to maul Drew St. Charles in an attempt to permanently shutter his efforts to renovate the Bayard House. Philip’s jaw clenched at that. They’d almost succeeded in shuttering Drew permanently, all to get Brad to toe the family line and come to work the job with the family firm that was killing him.

For Philip that was the last straw, the absolute last fucking straw. Randall was a monster and a loose cannon, and this sort of thing could destroy Sundstrom Homes, if only because Randall was the sort to take SunHo down with him, and that Philip would never allow. He had endured far too much at Randall’s hands to let Randall destroy his inheritance, and if Philip had to remove his father from the company Randall had created out of nothing, then Philip would do exactly that.

He had another, purer motive, too.

The thought of Brad’s boyfriend dying in a pool of his own blood because their own father, like some third-rate mafioso, ordered him beaten to a pulp, filled Philip with quiet rage. Age separated the two brothers, along with the lack of a real sibling relationship, but this much Philip could do for his little brother and the man Brad was making his life with. He could make sure Randall paid for his homophobic arrogance.

What Randall didn’t know, what Alex Beltran didn’t know, was that he, Philip, Randall’s quiet, dutiful eldest son, ever the loyal lieutenant, groomed to take over Sundstrom Homes, had set this all in motion.

He had located Beltran’s daughter, a lesbian, and told her what their fathers had done. He had struck a bargain with her, too. If she made sure her father turned state’s evidence and testified against his, he’d pay Beltran’s legal costs and do everything possible to keep him out of prison. Packaged right, it would look like Beltran, stricken by a crisis of conscience, had come forward on his own.

When Serena Beltran asked him why he was doing this to his own father, all Philip had to say was his brother was gay and the man attacked was his brother’s boyfriend.

“Damn, that’s messed up,” she’d said.

But that was all it took.

Philip funneled money to Serena from his personal account, and she in turn made sure Alex sang like a canary. That was enough to crack the case against Randall wide open, because his hands were far from clean, from shady land deals to labor abuses to bribery and fraud with building departments all around the state. There was more, far more, but Philip had limited the evidence the investigators found to SunHo’s operations inside California and Randall knew it. No one suspected the straight-laced, by the book, boring heir to the SunHo fortune of chicanery.

The District Attorney had informed her counterparts in those states where SunHo operated. Philip knew Randall kept a double set of files. He suspected Randall kept more files beyond those, even if he couldn’t find them. Investigations were ongoing, and Philip cooperated fully.

Or appeared to, and Randall knew that, too.

Philip visited Randall in prison every week where he rotted between phases of his trial. Randall somehow thought he would be vindicated. Philip knew better.

Every week, Philip brought a stack of routine but seemingly necessary documents, and acted as if he thought they were vital for the continued operation of Sundstrom Homes. In truth, they were nothing but tiresome busywork.

“Why’re you bothering me with this crap?”

“Because you’re still the president and CEO of SunHo,” Philip replied calmly. He was always calm. It was part of why he was effective. He also knew it bugged the snot out of his father, the main reason he cultivated the trait. “You may have turned over daily operations to me, but the way you’ve structured it, I might—might—be able to choose which brand of tissue I use to blow my nose. Which is fine, but it means you have to check the grocery lists and read over my homework.”

Randall jerked the stack of papers out of his hand. “Don’t fucking call it SunHo. You make the company I built from the ground up sound like a sunburned whore. Pen?”

Philip handed over a cheap ballpoint pen. He certainly wasn’t bringing his favorite Montblanc pen into the poky.

Randall looked at it as if his son had handed him a dildo. But he set to signing. “So. How’s your useless brother? Would it kill him to visit me once in a while?”

“He seems to be doing very well now that his boyfriend’s healed and out of the hospital,” Philip said. He added the slightest emphasis to the word “boyfriend.” “They’ve moved in together, you know.” He paused. “He’s using his trust fund to buy into St. Charles Renovations.”

Randall rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything. “Damn, there’s a lot of this shit.”

“It does tend to pile up,” Philip said dryly.

“Why can’t you deal with it? It’s time for you to stand on your own two feet since I’m apparently going to be sitting around on my ass, thanks to my useless lawyers,” Randall snarled.

“Speaking of which, there’s an authorization for paying them in there somewhere.”

“Goddammit, we just paid them, didn’t we?”

“Apparently they want to be paid again,” Philip replied, “and you didn’t teach me to stand on my own two feet, you taught me to obey.”

Philip noted that Randall pressed harder and harder as he signed document after document, the most trivial things Philip and Jyoti, his assistant, could devise. With two notable exceptions: one the entire reason for Philip’s visit and the other to cover his tracks when he was done.

“What’s this?” Randy asked, frowning at the next document, printed on thicker linen paper than the preceding documents.

“More documents, Randall. This one’s about selling off furniture from model homes in South Florida subdivisions, which, by the way, are tanking left and right due to the mortgage crisis. Whose idiotic idea was it to expand so rapidly in a single market?” Philip said. He knew, actually. The culprit sat right in front of him.

Randall shot him a look of pure malice and quickly scribbled his name on every line indicated by a yellow “sign here” arrow.

Philip couldn’t have cared less about any of the subsequent documents. Or any of the preceding documents, for that matter. They were nothing but smoke and mirrors. “The next is a letter of congratulations to Brad and Drew St. Charles on the successful renovation of the Bayard House. I knew you’d want to bury the hatchet.”

“Goddamn you, Philip!” Randall roared. Other prisoners stared as he swept the stack of documents from the table, his chest heaving.

Philip signaled to the guards, who were already on their way, as he gathered the documents. So long as that one document was relatively intact, the others were irrelevant and he would send the note of congratulations to Brad and Drew himself, handwritten on his favorite handmade stationary.

Once Philip had the documents in order, he walked out the way he’d come in, allowing the guards to search him and the papers once again. Then he retrieved his cellphone and wallet along with his other personal effects. All he allowed himself on the way to his car was a slight smile.

He waited until he had cleared the final search of his car and was outside the prison walls before he cranked up the sound system on his Mercedes coupe, a thudding alt rock beat, and slipped on his mirrored sunglasses. Dropping the pedal, he went from zero to ticket bait in seconds as he sped to the attorney he used for this latest ploy. He was still new enough in the corporate suite that he didn’t trust SunHo’s lawyers, so he hired outside counsel for his games, a young lawyer every bit as hungry as he was.

Philip laughed long and hard, for he had lied to Randall. His father hadn’t taught him to obey, although not for lack of trying. Instead, Philip had learned to play the long game.

“Congratulations, old man. You just fell for the oldest trick in the book.”

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

One year later

 

THE WAITER held Philip’s eye a moment too long. Philip knew what that meant and flushed from the starched collar of his shirt all the way up to the gelled magnificence of his golden bangs. Left to its own devices, his hair flopped down to cover his eyes, and right then, Philip kind of wished it could. Instead, he’d styled his hair like he always did, parting it on the left and then the bulk of the bangs were up up and away! in a truly stupendous flight of fancy that was probably on the wrong side of metrosexual for a corporate CEO. When he was by himself, he played the game, but c’mon, dude. He was here with his girlfriend. What kind of trash did he think Philip was? It meant he had to cut the waiter. The cut direct wasn’t his style, but Philip felt like he didn’t have a choice. Angie was his priority.

“The waiter’s certainly attentive this evening,” Angie commented.

Philip cocked one eyebrow. “Sweetheart, did you get a good look at yourself? You’re stunning.”

“You think so?” she said, smiling sweetly. “Thank you, Philip. It’s always nice to be noticed.”

“I always notice you,” he said, smiling back. He raised his wine glass in a salute. “Notice and appreciate.”

Angie touched her glass to his in an almost-silent toast. “Charmer. Half the time I feel upstaged by you. Is that a new suit? You look amazing.” Then she glanced at the waiter. “I get the feeling I’m not the only one who thinks your tailor is a god among men.”

“Boy, you buy one new sport suit—”

“A week,” Angie interrupted, her eyes merry. She was enjoying herself.

“—one new suit, and people accuse you of being a dandy.” Philip sighed theatrically. “Memo to self: return the ascot and waistcoat ASAP,” he said in a stage whisper.

They shared a quiet laugh. Philip reached across the table to caress her cheek, and Angie leaned into his touch. Her beauty struck him once again, and that evening, she’d gone all out, every bit his match in an ivory satin gown with the back down to here and her auburn hair done with seed pearls as it cascaded down her back. She even wore a simple cameo around her neck, an antique Wedgwood piece that he’d given her for Valentine’s Day the year before. Then he noticed that she’d mounted it on a mauve ribbon that clashed horribly with her auburn hair. What on earth had she been thinking? He’d given it to her on a cream ribbon for a reason—

Dinner arrived and Philip dropped his hand.

He tried to ignore the argument going in his mind about the colors, but it was hard. He’d always had an overdeveloped sense of aesthetics, and at times growing up with Brad and Randall had been nothing but torment. Builders’ houses were always one of two types: ramshackle and about to fall over, or palatial monuments to every architectural innovation, and new concept to show up in the design rags. The Sundstrom home was one of the latter type, if poorly decorated, and no sooner had he shoved Randall off stage and into the hands of the police than he called in the cavalry to remove the worst of his father’s excesses and atrocities. Gone were the putti pissing into fountains and faux-antique tapestries and superfluous televisions, and there were no more—Philip jerked his thoughts back to the here and now. He sat across the table from a beautiful woman at a posh restaurant. His aesthetic hang-ups could wait.

Philip genuinely enjoyed Angie’s company. They might not live together—yet—but they certainly spent a lot of time in each other’s company, mostly at her condo. She found his house “creepy, like a funeral home,” even with Randall out of there and every room but his mother’s old sitting room and her library redone. Not that he blamed her, it was large and foreboding, and maybe it was time to sell it. When he’d called to invite her out to dinner earlier in the week, she’d been overjoyed, even more so than usual. It made him wonder if he weren’t missing something, but a thorough search of his day planner by both himself and Jyoti revealed nothing.

After gnawing his guts out for a while, he’d finally given up, and when it came time to pick her up, he gave in and let himself enjoy the evening. “Are you ready to go home?”

“Yes, I think so,” Angie said. Was that a tightening around her eyes?

Philip signaled the waiter, who promptly brought him the check. When Philip put a black Amex card down, the man’s eyes widened. Philip would’ve found it comical, but he found it hard to believe no one at this restaurant had ever seen American Express’s Centurion Card before.

“Here you are, Mr. Sundstrom,” the waiter said when he returned, placing the receipt before Philip and then departing. Philip signed it, including a generous tip.

Philip held Angie’s chair for her and then waited patiently while she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. As they walked out of the restaurant, Philip smiled at their waiter. “Thank you. We had a lovely evening.”

But it was only as they waited for his car to be brought around that he noticed that the waiter had written a number—presumably his—on the back of the credit card slip, but lightly and in pencil so it didn’t show from the front. Classy. Philip crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.

“They’re staring at you out here, too,” Angie whispered.

Philip blushed. “I think you mean they’re looking at you.”

“Some of them, maybe,” she laughed. “A few, the straight ones.”

But they weren’t all straight, he could tell that right off the bat. Sorry, boys. He played, but never when he was in a committed relationship.

“Remind me not to come back here. This is very embarrassing.”

She hooked her arm on his. “I think it’s hilarious, and you blush very prettily.”

“Great.” He rolled his eyes.

It made him uncomfortable, that regard, even if he understood it. Thanks to the last year at SunHo, he knew how to project an air of authority, and a lot of people found that attractive. It wasn’t quite a matter of “do the opposite of Randall;” after all, his father had run SunHo with an air of power, but in Philip’s estimation, that power was based on fear. Employees in SunHo’s corporate offices had feared for their jobs, at least when Randall stomped and blustered. But authority? That was something different. Philip knew that when he spoke, he would be listened to. He might be young for a CEO, but by and large, he was respected. He wasn’t sure Randall could’ve said that, or even appreciated the difference.

In his early thirties, Philip was young, fit, and, based on the evidence at dinner, handsome; he was very well situated financially, and the waiter and valets could tell that from the credit card and his car. He loved his Merc, a sleek sports car, the six-figure kind with the spoiler to prevent it from taking flight. At least he assumed that’s why they stared. Or maybe he had spinach stuck between his teeth, he thought ruefully, the perils of being a vegetarian there to keep him humble.

They drove back to Angie’s condo in silence, insulated from the sounds of the city by the Merc, but what, Philip wondered, isolated them from each other? He bore responsibility for that, the lion’s share, at least. He felt bad for neglecting Angie in favor of SunHo. It’s not that he preferred SunHo per se, but it seemed so much more immediate to him. More… real, he realized guiltily, but that’s not how he wanted his life to be. Angie always understood, or acted as if she did. She got that he’d taken over the family business, even if she didn’t know the particulars of how that had come about. As far as he was concerned, she didn’t need to, either.

But simply because Philip had chosen this life, it didn’t stand to reason that Angie was happy with it. He knew she’d prefer to be living the high life, preferably in San Francisco. Angie cared for him, so no gold digger, she, but he didn’t fool himself on that score, either. She enjoyed the life his money afforded them. Buying Brad out a few years ago might’ve set him back, but SunHo grew and expanded, despite the recession and building slow-down. Philip was loaded, and Angie knew it.

He glanced over at Angie as he drove, her face turned away from him, inscrutable in the passing lights. He knew what he wanted from the next step in life, but was it what Angie wanted?

Unable to decipher his uncharacteristically enigmatic girlfriend, Philip retreated into his thoughts, pretending he was in the cockpit of a spaceship instead of a luxury car, because damn, the onboard computer was almost that complicated. He liked Mercedes for the same reason he liked Macs. They both embodied high performance and elegant design and didn’t bother him with a lot of irritating details. Sure, BMW made amazing cars, but they always seemed to want his input on some matter or other, and he got enough of that at work. As for PCs, Philip was sure there was an elegant and highly functional one somewhere, he’d just never heard of it. But really, they’d gone from a charming dinner together full of conversation and laughter to him retreating into his imagination. Again. He’d been doing that more and more lately.

If he were to be honest with himself, it couldn’t be a good sign, but they looked good together, and she was someone to hold on cold, dark nights. Angie was someone to cling to when he’d spent too much time reading the Existentialists and felt too alone in an uncaring universe. But was that really a reason to stay in a relationship with someone? On the whole, Philip reasoned, there were worse ones, but it would only be fair if she felt the same way, and he knew for a fact she had no patience for what she called his “navel gazing.” This raised the question of why on Earth he was with someone who so easily dismissed his interests and the things he valued. On the other hand, he didn’t remember his parents sharing that many interests. So many puzzles.

The keypad at the entrance to the parking lot under Angie’s condo tower saved Philip from further omphaloskepsis. After he parked in her designated guest space and opened the door for her, Angie again laughed and flirted in the elevator.

“Dinner was great, but tomorrow night I want to go clubbing in the city,” Angie said, moving in close, breathing in his ear, hand roaming south of his belt.

“What’re you doing?” Philip said, gasping at the sudden assault.

“What does it feel like I’m doing?” Angie said.

He looked down at her, amazed at her audacity. “Groping me. What if someone comes in?”

“Then I stop.”

He leaned back against the elevator’s wall. “Damn, you’re good. Yeah, you stop and leave me hot and bothered with a bulge in these tight pants.”

“That’d sure be a problem, all right,” Angie said, leaning into his neck, nibbling along his jaw until she reached the spot where his neck and his ear met, the one that made him shiver.

They were almost to her floor, but he caressed her anyway; he couldn’t not touch her, running one hand under her shawl to touch her smooth shoulder, trailing his fingers down, working them under her bodice to touch her breast.

When the elevator doors opened, they stumbled to her door. He pinned her against it, holding her there, kissing her hard, repaying her for her handiwork in the elevator.

“Inside?” she said at last.

He nodded. “Inside.”

They ran for her bedroom, shedding clothing as fast as they could.

Clad only in his underwear, Philip stopped to admire Angie as she unwound the surprisingly long strand of seed pearls from her hair. “You really are beautiful.”

“Thank you,” she said softly, as if somehow those four words made her more self-conscious than making out like horny teenagers in the hallway had.

He stood behind her and unhooked her bra. Then he lifted her hair, kissing her neck as she craned it to give him better access.

“Bed?” he suggested.

She nodded. “Bed.”

Philip pulled the covers back for her and then climbed in after. They held each other for long moments, taking pleasure in the physical closeness. But then he decided to move things along. He let go of Angie, resting on his side, her body before him, playground, smorgasbord, an oft-explored undiscovered country, its mysteries a continual surprise.

He gave himself free rein, exploring and playing, making sure her needs were met, and through that, his own. By the time Angie had her first orgasm, his cock was hard and leaking, leaving spots on her sheets.

Philip suited up and slowly pushed his way in, loving the way sensation flooded his body, starting with the top of his cock and radiating up and out in waves. Wave upon wave, growing in strength, faster and faster.

He was well on his way, when his kid brother’s description of pussy came inexplicably to mind.

It’s like fucking a bowl of pudding….

That thought really didn’t do anything for the current effort, and he felt his buzz waning. Maybe it just wasn’t happening tonight.

Dammit!

Ass. That always did it. Hot ass. Oh yeah. Ass like… some of those carhops at the restaurant, those valets he hadn’t let himself notice.

Only he had. There’d been one guy who’d paid him no attention at all. Jeez, he’d been fine. Black hair, diamond studs in his ear, maybe Latino, and the way his black pants encased his ass should’ve been illegal.

And he was back in business. Fucking Angie, fucking that ass, riding higher and higher.

“Philip!” Angie moaned.

A few more pumps, and he was right there with her. “Damn!”

Still breathing heavily, he rode the high for a few more moments before pulling out. He removed the condom and knotted it off, then wrapped it in a tissue from the nightstand before lobbing it into the trash. He rolled over and scooped Angie into his arms, cozying up to her.

He drifted, not asleep, but definitely enjoying that after-sex lethargy. Then he felt Angie tense up. “Philip?”

“Yeah?”

“What’re you thinking about?”

“Right now? Not a whole lot, why?”

Angie paused. “You seemed distracted while we were making love.”

That was just what he needed. She knew he was bi, she even joked about it sometimes, but he didn’t think she needed to know it took the thought of nailing a guy’s ass, something he’d never actually done for a variety of reasons, to seal the deal. He sighed. “There’s a lot going on at SunHo right now. This is going to sound paranoid, but I’m pretty sure at least one of the people at the C-level are trying to get rid of me.”

“But it’s your company!”

“Doesn’t mean they can’t force me out as CEO. I’d still own it, but I wouldn’t have any control over day-to-day operations. There are things I could do in response, like liquefy it so they’d have no company left to control, but that’d be a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Philip said. He didn’t want to think about it, not right then. He might hate Randall with the fiery heat of a thousand suns, but the company still had his last name on it, and that meant something to him.

Philip lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. “You ever think about more?”

“I thought guys had to rest before they could go again,” Angie said.

“Not that. I meant more between us.” He turned on his side to look at her.

Angie ran her hand along his sparsely haired chest. “What’re you getting at, Philip?”

Philip sighed. Now that he’d brought it up, the idea scared the crap out of him. But he and Angie? Something needed to change. “I thought… it’s time to move forward, don’t you think? It’s been three years. I’m not ready to get married, but I’m ready for more.”

Angie sat up, clutching the sheet to her chest. “Philip, what’re you saying?”

“Do you want to move in? With me, I mean.”

“Wow.” Angie sat back against the headboard. She exhaled noisily.

Philip felt like he’d been kicked in the guts. Not the answer he’d expected.

“I care about you a lot, Philip, but that’s not where I am. I mean, we’re not even exclusive and you’re talking about moving in together?” Angie shook her head. She looked everywhere, he noticed, but at him.

Philip stared at her. This couldn’t be happening. “I thought we were.” Without being aware of it, he sat up and swung his legs off the bed. “Hell, if I’d known that, I’d have kept the waiter’s phone number. Maybe I should go back to the restaurant and bone the parking valets. As you so helpfully pointed out, some of them were interested. You know, since we’re not exclusive.”

Angie flinched like he’d hit her, but his only weapons were his words and feelings. “I’m sorry! I thought—”

“Three years, Angie!” Philip thundered, searching for his underwear. “We’ve spent every moment, every holiday, you name it, together for three goddamn years, and that’s not exclusive?”

“No, not every moment, and you know it,” Angie spat back. “You’ve spent plenty of time during those three years at work. Did you hear yourself a few minutes ago? You say that a lot, Philip. You work all the time. You’re ready for more? What a laugh. You’re already committed to something. Hell, you’re already married, you know. You’re married to your job.”

“That’s not fair! I want more out of life. I’m looking for—”

Angie laughed, whether at him or the situation, Philip was never sure. “Why would I want to move in with you, let alone marry you? I love being with you, don’t get me wrong, but this way I see you and still have my own life.”

Philip snorted. “Apparently so. I had no idea that included a love life, however.”

“That’s not love, Philip, that’s sex,” Angie said.

Philip yanked his pants up. “Just like us? Or were we only about the money?”

“That’s beneath you,” she said.

He bit his tongue to hold back the vicious responses that sprang to mind. Instead he said, “But the money didn’t hurt, did it? If I’m so wedded to work, something tells me you’d have dumped me a long time ago without the money.”

Philip collected the rest of his clothing as he stormed through Angie’s condo, retracing his steps from earlier in the evening. He stopped in the living room to button his shirt and jam his shoes on. He glanced at his watch. It was a bit early for a truly stellar walk of shame, but it would do.

He looked up and Angie stood at the other end of the room, dressed, he noted with grim amusement, in a velvet robe he’d given her for some reason or other. “So is this it?” she said.

“Ya think?”

“I can’t believe you’re throwing away three years over a miscommunication,” Angie said, crossing her arms.

“Good-bye.” Philip placed his keys to her place on the mail table and closed the door behind him.

A miscommunication. He snorted as the elevator descended to the parking garage. A steak house when he had his heart set on Chinese, that was a miscommunication. Seeing other people behind his back? That’s what it was, too, because she’d certainly never mentioned it, and that was a big red flag if ever there were one. He also knew damn well what she’d have said if he’d tried to see other women. Or men.

Clearly, Philip thought as he drove home through a light spring rain, his question had not lived up to Angie’s excitement about dinner when he’d invited her. He wondered what she’d expected. Given her extracurricular activities, he doubted it had been a marriage proposal. He sighed. He wanted more from life than what he had. Was that asking too much? Apparently it was.

None of this changed the fact he was lonely.