Home > Endeared (The Accidental Billionaires #5)

Endeared (The Accidental Billionaires #5)
Author: J. S. Scott

PROLOGUE

LAYLA

 

Over ten years ago . . .

“I’m really glad we could meet up,” I told my best friend, Owen Sinclair, earnestly. “It seems like you’ve been avoiding me for the last few weeks.”

I put my foot on the ground and pushed the playground swing I was sitting in to make it start moving again. Owen was gently swaying back and forth right next to me.

I wasn’t sure how we’d gotten into the habit of meeting up at the local park after dark, but it had been our hideout for a couple of years now. There wasn’t another soul around in this area after the sun went down in Citrus Beach, so it made sense. We definitely had our privacy here, so Owen and I talked about anything and everything while we mindlessly kept our swings in motion the entire time.

“I wasn’t avoiding you, exactly,” Owen said hesitantly. “I’ve just been busy.”

I turned my head, but I couldn’t really see his eyes. I could only make out his body and face in the moonlight.

I sighed as I gripped the metal chain on the swing. “I know. It’s crazy. We’re actually graduating in a few months, and you and Andie will be off to Boston for college.”

My heart clenched at the thought of not seeing Owen and Andie every day. The three of us had been tightly bonded like we were superglued together all through high school. I had other friends, but none of them could replace the two who were leaving Citrus Beach for college on the East Coast. Unfortunately, Boston wasn’t in my plans.

“I wish you were coming, too,” Owen answered in a grim tone.

I smiled. He sounded so grown up for a guy who was just finishing high school, but Owen had always been ultraresponsible, even at the beginning of our journey through high school.

Although I had to admit, he was a goofball sometimes. If things got too heavy, he’d be the first one to try to lighten the conversation or make me smile.

“I can’t,” I told him, my heart aching. I didn’t have the funds to finance school out of state. Owen had gotten some large scholarships, which were well deserved, and he had family willing to help as much as they could. Andie had absolutely no shortage of funds, so she could well afford to go to school wherever she wanted.

I had . . . nobody.

Even if I got the scholarship I was hoping to be awarded, it would still make more sense for me to stay in California to lessen the financial burden.

“We can still talk,” Owen commented. “Sometimes I wish I had stayed here for at least a bachelor’s degree. It would probably be cheaper.”

I snorted. “No, it wouldn’t. You got good scholarships, and you need the prestige of graduating top of your class from a good school so you can get accepted to med school.”

I knew Owen was worried about money. My situation had never been as dire as his was, but sometimes I wished I had his tight-knit family.

Owen released a long breath. “I guess I just feel guilty. My brothers and sisters have already done so much for me. Noah, Aiden, and Seth kept our whole family together. Noah took on the responsibility of raising us when he was barely older than I am. He should be free of that burden now, but he isn’t. My sisters are still in college, and I’m just starting. I’ll pay him back for all this once I’m a doctor, but that isn’t going to help his financial squeeze over the next several years.”

I didn’t know Owen’s brothers all that well. I wasn’t as free to hang out at Owen’s house as Andie was, but I knew Noah well enough to realize he wanted his younger brother to go to college. He’d be damn proud to see Owen become a physician. “He wants this for you,” I said emphatically. “Your whole family is cheering you on. You know that.”

“I know. I just wish I didn’t feel so damn guilty about being the youngest and wanting to go to med school,” he said, sounding frustrated.

“It will be okay, Owen,” I said softly.

He chuckled. “What will I do without you to keep my spirits up, Layla?”

“You’ll survive,” I teased. “I think you’re already practicing a life without me as your friend, since I hardly see you anymore.”

I was joking, but in a way, I wasn’t. I had to admit that it hurt that Owen had kind of been avoiding me lately.

He was busy, but there was something else going on. I just wasn’t sure why he’d been backing away from me, even before he left for college.

“I’m not avoiding you, Layla. Not really. I just . . .” Owen stopped talking abruptly, like he’d thought better of saying what he’d planned to say.

“It’s okay,” I said hastily. It wasn’t like he owed me an explanation. We were friends, not intimate boyfriend and girlfriend. As good friends, we’d never had expectations, and it wasn’t fair for me to want more than he wanted to give. “We’re both busy. I get it. There’s so much going on right now with senior activities, graduation, and all that stuff.”

Problem was, somewhere in the middle of our senior year, I’d realized that my feelings for Owen had shifted.

I’d started to want more than just friendship, even though I’d known that could never happen.

“I value every minute we spend together, Layla. If you don’t believe anything else, believe that,” he insisted. “You’ve always been there for me.”

“You’ve been there for me, too,” I said, and I meant it. I didn’t share everything with Owen, because some things were just too embarrassing to tell, but he knew more about me than any other person on earth. There had never been a time when I really needed him that Owen hadn’t been there to listen and help.

“Growing up sucks,” he answered. “I thought I really wanted to be an adult, but leaving home and everybody I care about is so damn hard.”

“And everyone I care about is leaving me,” I commiserated. “I get it.”

“Is everything okay with your mom right now?” Owen asked carefully.

I shrugged, even though he couldn’t really see me. “As good as it’s ever going to be,” I said with a lightness I didn’t feel. “I’ll be fine.”

I did a good job of hiding my situation at home, but I knew that Owen and Andie had always suspected things weren’t good between my mother and me.

They have no idea what my life is really like . . .

“You always say that, and I don’t think you’re fine,” Owen said, his tone concerned. “Is she even home right now?”

Thankfully, I hadn’t seen my parent in over a week, which was why I was comfortable hanging out in the park. But she’d come back. She always did, eventually.

“She’s gone,” I admitted. “But I don’t mind.”

Having my mother out of the house was actually a relief for me. I didn’t have to walk on eggshells, but I was always dreading the day that she’d return.

“You do mind, Layla,” Owen argued. “Hell, you never see your father, so she’s all you have.”

“At least he pays his child support,” I said brightly. “He’s not a total deadbeat.”

“I call bullshit. You need more than just a check,” Owen grumbled. “When’s the last time you saw him? A couple of years ago for dinner or something? You’ve basically raised yourself. Neither of your parents are ever around. I know they aren’t, so don’t try to tell me you’re fine.”

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