“Are you sure you want to go through with this, Gemma?” my closest friend implored for the second time since stepping foot in my new apartment a couple minutes ago. Seated a few inches from me on the black leather ottoman with her elbows on her thighs, Pen sifted her fingers through her mess of thick brown hair before releasing it to fall around the brilliant peacock tattoos gracing her pale shoulders. “It’s not too late to back down.”
I shook my head. “This is something I have to do for myself.”
Besides, she was wrong—it was too late. It had been ever since I received the call six months ago. “Everything you know about your story, your father’s story, is a lie. It’s up to you to uncover it all.” That was the only thing the caller—a man—said to me. No name, no further explanation, nothing more before hanging up. At first I’d shrugged it off as a joke, one of my regulars that I’d provided with my personal number or a pissed-off former flame, but once the surprise dissipated enough for me to think clearly, I did a reverse lookup. The ominous caller had probably banked on me doing this; he wanted me to have the number, so I’d find out whom it belonged to.
That whom turned out to be Emerson & Taylor. The fashion company.
And once upon a time, before his death fourteen years ago, Emerson & Taylor belonged to my father.
My caller had gotten his wish because his words ignited something within me—that frenzied need for closure that I’d somehow shoved to the far corners of my mind. For days, weeks, the memory of his voice was a constant distraction, a weight on my body and mind. And although I’d promised myself long ago that I was over all things concerning my father, I soon found that nothing could stop me from digging around in my history … his history.
Not even Penelope Connelly.
Four months ago, when I finally broke down and told her about the call from Emerson & Taylor, I hadn’t planned to ask for her help or advice.
But then she pointed out what had happened the last time I attempted to contact my dad’s third, and final, wife Margaret. I was sixteen at the time, my father had been dead for close to nine years, and I’d just lost my mom. Maybe I’d hoped to have some semblance of normality with my stepmother—I was fragile and young and woefully ignorant—but I wasn’t given the opportunity to meet her. Instead, I faced a lawyer who told me three things that would stick with me for years and probably many more to come:
My name was nowhere in my father’s will, and I should’ve been well aware of the fact; I was more than welcome to contest that will, but I’d quickly feel the crushing reality of all the legal fees; and finally, Margaret wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.
Even seven years later, remembering those words had scorched a hole into my chest, but Pen had quickly pulled me from that dark place. “I think I have an idea,” she’d told me, her expression thoughtful as she leaned into me so nobody else in the crowded bar might hear. Her solution was simple—she would get me directly into Emerson & Taylor.
She would bypass their security system and add me as a new hire, taking care of everything from the background check to a squeaky-clean work history that didn’t include naked concierge. And she’d make me a temporary identity with a single purpose.
Uncover. Expose. And get the hell out of there.
Except now, I got the impression Pen was having second thoughts. Why else would she have made the three-hour trip from Sin City to LA first thing this morning?
“I understand if you can’t help me,” I spoke up, my voice barely audible. She’d already done so much for me that I’d be fucked up to shove my hand out for more. Scooting forward on the couch, I covered her fingers with mine and gave them a squeeze. “I know how angry Linc will be if he finds out you’re hacking again.”
At the mention of her older brother, Pen jerked out of my grip and narrowed her slate blue eyes in warning. “Don’t even go there, Gem. The only way Linc will find out anything is if you tell him. Trust me, I’m like Lisbeth Salander and Neal Caffrey mixed up in one big-boobed package. I’m not worried at all—at least not about myself.”
My eyebrow jerked up. “Neal Caffrey and Lisbeth Salander?” I purposely ignored addressing her worries. Combined with my own, they were probably enough to do me in.
“They’re— You know what? They don’t matter right now.” Hooking her hand around my toned upper arm, Pen drew us both to our full heights—mine just a couple inches shy of her five-foot-six. Since we became friends, it had been a running joke between us that she’s always two ahead of me—two months older, two cup sizes bigger, and two inches taller.
“What matters is that you need to pick up your badge from E&T’s security desk, then you need to march your ass to HR and—.”
I froze. “You hacked my email,” I groaned, palming the bridge of my nose for a few seconds. “Dammit, Pen, really?”
She took a step backwards, lifting her hands defensively, her thin silver bangles clanging together. “Calm your tits, woman. I just logged into the Lizzie email—I mean, I set it up, remember?” At my slow nod, she continued, “Look, I’m just staying in the loop … if you still want to go through with it, of course.”
“I knew that was coming again.” Darting around her, I strode around the couch and across my living room toward the front door, my black Michael Kors pumps a heavy drum on the laminate planks. Time was not on my side this morning, and arguing with Pen about privacy wouldn’t do a thing to help that.
Pausing in front of the wrought iron and glass table in the foyer, I gripped the edges for support and glanced up at the mirror hanging slightly lopsided directly in front of me. I caught Pen’s reflection—her arms crossed tightly over her chest and her red lips worked together in a frown—and plastered on a confident smile.
“Whenever you ask me if I’m still going through with working at E&T to get closer to Margaret, you must already know I’m going to counter with this: I have to get into that company. I haven’t gotten shit done since I received that call, and I won’t accomplish anything else until I get this out of my system.”
“Just wanted to make sure.” Resigned, she threw herself on the couch and grabbed the remote from the edge of the ottoman. “You can do this.”
“I can. It will be simple,” I said under my breath while I examined my appearance one final time. Though I looked nothing like the child my father essentially abandoned when he tired of my mom, nor the girl who’d gone searching for answers seven years ago, I still felt that Margaret would be able to spot me from a mile away. As if she’d immediately see through the bull to find the word IMPOSTOR scribbled all over me—from the blond waves that I’d worked into a sleek ponytail, to my heart-shaped face with its small nose and full cheeks, and finally my eyes. Amber brown and surrounded by darkness—liner and mascara and the smudges beneath them from lack of sleep—they betrayed me. My eyes look … terrified.
For good reason.
If this ended badly, if I was found out, so much ugly would be unleashed I couldn’t even stand to think about it.
Smoothing back a nonexistent stray wisp of platinum hair, I spun away from the mirror to face Pen, fisting my hands by my side. She glanced up from the early morning talk show. “You have this. Get in there—”
“And take that bitch down,” I finished breathlessly.
“That’s my girl. I’ll stick around for the day just in case you need me.” Nodding at my appreciative look, she began to return her attention to the TV, but then she stopped me just before I left the apartment, her words temporarily rooting me to my spot. “You’re not Gemma here. Don’t forget that. You’re Lizzie.”
My name is Lizzie Connelly, not Gemma Emerson.
Gemma Emerson doesn’t exist—at least not where Lizzie is concerned.
Clearing the lump of hysteria from the back of my throat, I bobbed my head briskly. “It’ll be simple.”
As I left the seaside apartment to find my leased Mini Cooper, I continued to tell myself that. It’ll be simple. I just need answers. Simple.
Scene Playlist Selection: "Three Wishes" by The Pierces