Home > The Final Gambit (The Inheritance Games #3)(3)

The Final Gambit (The Inheritance Games #3)(3)
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

“I should warn you, Heiress…” Jameson swung himself up onto the edge of the basket, landing in a crouch. “I am dangerously good at birthdays.”

Jameson Hawthorne was dangerously good at a lot of things.

He held his hand down to me. I took it, and I didn’t even try to pretend that I had grown used to this—all of it, any of it, him. In a million years, the life Tobias Hawthorne had left me would still take my breath away.

Oren climbed into the balloon after me and fixed his gaze on the horizon. Jameson cast off the ropes and hit the flame.

We surged upward.

Airborne, with my heart in my throat, I stared down at Hawthorne House. “How do you steer?” I asked Jameson as everything but the two of us and my very discreet bodyguard got smaller and farther away.

“You don’t.” Jameson’s arms curved around my torso. “Sometimes, Heiress, all you can do is recognize which way the wind is blowing and plot a course.”

 

 

The balloon was just the beginning. Jameson Hawthorne didn’t do anything halfway.

A hidden picnic.

A helicopter ride to the Gulf.

Speeding away from the paparazzi.

Slow dancing, barefoot, on the beach.

The ocean. A cliff. A wager. A race. A dare. I’m going to remember this. That was my overwhelming feeling on the helicopter ride home. I’m going to remember it all. Years from now, I’d still be able to feel it. The weight of the ball gown, the wind in my face. Sun-warmed sand on my skin and chocolate-covered strawberries melting on my tongue.

By sundown, we were almost home. It had been the perfect day. No crowds. No celebrities. No… “Party,” I said as the helicopter approached the Hawthorne estate, and I took in the view below. The topiary garden and adjacent lawn were lit by thousands of tiny lights—and that wasn’t even the worst of it.

“That had better not be a dance floor,” I told Jameson darkly.

Jameson took the helicopter in for a landing, threw his head back, and smiled. “You’re not going to comment on the Ferris wheel?”

No wonder he’d needed to get me out of the House. “You’re a dead man, Hawthorne.”

Jameson cut the engine. “Fortunately, Heiress, Hawthorne men have nine lives.”

As we disembarked and walked toward the topiary garden, I glanced at Oren and narrowed my eyes. “You knew about this,” I accused.

“I may have been presented with a guest list to vet for entrance onto the estate.” My head of security’s expression was absolutely unreadable… until the party came into full view. Then he almost smiled. “I also may have vetoed a few names on that list.”

And by a few, I realized a moment later, he meant almost all of them.

The dance floor was scattered with rose petals and lit by strings of delicate lights that crisscrossed overhead, softly glowing like fireflies in the night. A string quartet played to the left of the kind of cake I would have expected to see at a royal wedding. The Ferris wheel turned in the distance. Tuxedo-clad waiters carried trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvres.

But there were no guests.

“Do you like?” Libby appeared beside me. She was dressed like something out of a goth fairy tale and grinning from ear to ear. “I wanted black rose petals, but this is nice, too.”

“What is this?” I breathed.

My sister bumped her shoulder into mine. “We’re calling it the introvert’s ball.”

“There’s no one here.” I could feel my own smile building.

“Not true,” Libby replied cheerfully. “I’m here. Nash turned his nose up at the fancy food and put himself in charge of the grill. Mr. Laughlin’s running the Ferris wheel, under Mrs. Laughlin’s supervision. Thea and Rebecca are stealing a super-stolen moment back behind the ice sculptures. Xander’s keeping an eye on your surprise, and here’s Zara and Nan!”

I turned just in time to be poked with a cane. Jameson’s great-grandmother glowered at me while his aunt looked on, austerely amused.

“You, girl,” Nan said, which was basically her version of my name. “The neckline on that dress makes you look like a floozy.” She wagged her cane at me, then grunted. “I approve.”

“So do I,” a voice piped up from my left. “Happy faxing birthday, you beautiful beach.”

“Max?” I stared at my best friend, then glanced back at Libby.

“Surprise!”

Beside me, Jameson smirked. “Alisa may have been under the impression that there was going to be a much larger party.”

But there wasn’t. It was just… us.

Max threw an arm around me. “Ask me how college is!”

“How’s college?” I asked, still absolutely floored.

Max grinned. “Not nearly as entertaining as Ferris Wheel Leapfrog Death Match.”

“Ferris Wheel Leapfrog Death Match?” I repeated. That had Xander written all over it. I knew for a fact the two of them had stayed in touch.

“Who’s winning?” Jameson cocked his head to one side.

Max replied, but before I could process what she was saying, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye—or maybe I sensed it. Sensed him. Clad entirely in black, wearing a ten-thousand-dollar tuxedo the way other guys wore ratty sweatshirts, Grayson Hawthorne stepped onto the dance floor.

He came home. That thought was accompanied by a memory of the last time I’d seen him: Grayson, broken. Me, beside him. Back in the present, Grayson Hawthorne let his eyes linger on mine for just a moment, then swept them over the rest of the party. “Ferris Wheel Leapfrog Death Match,” he said calmly. “This never ends well.”

 

 

CHAPTER 5


The next morning, I woke to the sight of my ball gown strewn over the end of my bed. Jameson was asleep beside me. I pushed back the urge to trail my fingertips across his jawline, to lightly touch the scar that ran down his chest.

I’d asked him a dozen times how he’d gotten that scar, and he’d given me a dozen different answers. In some versions, the culprit was a jagged rock. A steel rod. A windshield.

Someday, I’d get the real answer.

I allowed myself one more moment beside Jameson, then slipped from my bed, picked up my Hawthorne pin, got dressed, and headed downstairs.

 

 

Grayson was in the dining room, alone.

“I didn’t think you would make it home,” I said, somehow managing to take the seat opposite his.

“Technically, it isn’t my home anymore.” Even at low volume, Grayson’s voice washed over the room like a tide coming in. “In a very short time, everything in this place will officially be yours.” That wasn’t a condemnation or a complaint. It was a fact.

“That doesn’t mean anything has to change,” I said.

“Avery.” Piercing pale eyes met mine. “It has to. You have to.” Before I’d come along, Grayson had been the heir apparent. He was practically an expert in what one had to do.

And I was the only one who knew: Beneath that invincible, controlled exterior, he was falling apart. I couldn’t say that, couldn’t let on I was even thinking it, so I stuck to the topic at hand. “What if I can’t do this on my own?” I asked.

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