BOOK TWO: THE BILLION-DOLLAR BACHELORS
Dreamy art curator to the stars, Petra Gilpin has loved Sawyer Mahoney - her brother Finn’s best friend - since she was knee high to a butterfly. Only, since Finn's death, the ex-football star turned billionaire philanthropist took it upon himself to take Finn's place.
After Petra is called back home to save a beloved old art gallery, in a blip of serendipitous magic she and Sawyer bump into one another at a club. A little too much tequila later, compromising photos emerge, and Petra and Sawyer, who can both ill afford the tar of a scandal, agree to a fake engagement till interest dies down.
Only, as the more they fake their hearts out,
the more both realise their hearts aren't faking it at all...
Petra Gilpin had made a huge mistake.
Since she was knee high to a butterfly, Petra’s intuition had been her navigation system; bewildering her highly-successful, type-A parents, and delighting her older brother Finn.
It had sent her meandering down garden paths in search of soft pink feathers and sparkly pink stones to add to her collections. To art school, where she’d discovered her skills were more in the appreciation than the doing. And it was entirely to blame for her losing her heart to the first boy who’d found a pink feather on the ground one day and saved it for her.
Petra’s instinct was not infallible, by any means. It had gotten her lost more times than she could count. But only in the best ways.
Now, sitting in the swanky Gilded Cage nightclub, the deeply-luxurious purple velvet couch making the backs of her knees itch, that same intuition buzzed at her like crazy.
Petra glanced at her bag; the tip of her flamingo phone case in particular.
Read it, her intuition whispered, referring to the email that had lured her back home to Melbourne for the first time in over a decade. Read it one more time. There’s got to be a loophole, a way out –
“This place is insane!” said Deena - a rare friend from her weekly boarding school days she’d actually kept in touch with; climbing through the actual cage curving around their private booth, huge bottle of bubbly in hand. “Did you see the disco ball over the dancefloor? It’s bigger than my office. And I made partner last year. Having fun?”
Petra twinkled a smile her way. And wondered at what point she could call it a night.
Deena refilled their glasses, generously, before lifting hers in the air. “What shall we toast to?”
Petra always raised a glass to the same thing – her big brother Finn. But Deena hadn’t met him, which would be a little weird.
“You choose,” Petra said.
“Your welcome home?”
Petra felt her nose twitch.
Deena laughed. “Okay, not that. How about beauty, love, art, and…hot men with roping arm veins?”
Petra perked up, and clinked glasses, and said, “To favourite things!”
As the excellent bubbles dove deliciously down her throat, Petra pondered if huge mistake might be pushing it. For Deena was good value. And the club’s design elements were exquisitely brassy and bold. It was just that Petra was more a behind-the-scenes, get it done, then head home for a glass of red, kinda girl.
A burst of joyful noise saw Deena on her knees on the couch, leaning through the bars, making friends with the hen’s night party in the private cage next door.
Petra took her chance; grabbing her phone.
DARLING, the email in question began.
‘Darling’ because that was her mother’s way of showing she felt fondness towards her daughter, even though she’d spent Petra’s entire childhood acting as if she’d found Petra fully-formed in a pumpkin patch and had decided that raising her as their own was the civilised thing to do.
And caps lock, because her mother had read that it expressed urgency, and deemed every message she ever sent out into the world to be of great import.
Petra nibbled at her thumbnail, as she read on.
YOU MIGHT REMEMBER THAT YOUR FATHER AND I ARE ON THE BOARD OF THE OLD GALLERY OF MELBOURNE.
THE GOM HAS FOUND ITSELF IN A BIT OF A FIX, AND IN NEED OF SOMEONE WITH YOUR UNCOMMONLY SPECIFIC SKILL SET. AS WELL AS A NAME THAT WILL INSPIRE TRUST IN THOSE BEST ABLE TO DONATE THE FUNDS THAT IT NOW RATHER DESPERATELY REQUIRES IN ORDER TO KEEP ITS DOORS OPEN.
I MUST INSIST ON ASKING FOR YOUR DISCRETION ON THIS POINT - AFTER SOME YEARS OF MISMANAGEMENT, THE SITUATION IS DIRE. WE’VE THUS FAR HELD OFF THE WHIFF OF SCANDAL, AND WISH FOR IT TO REMAIN THAT WAY.
YOUR FATHER AND I REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU ENJOYED TIME SPENT IN THE GALLERY AS A CHILD, AND HOPE THIS MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO DO WHAT MUST BE DONE.
ARE YOU UP FOR THE CHALLENGE?
Petra’s response; lots of wows, and exclamation marks, and, some of the best memories of my childhood, and a final challenge accepted! All typed in a shocked flurry as if it was the best news ever.
Yes, art was her field, but not the business side; the enchantment that came with stumbling on a work that made a person feel something. An affinity that had led to her procuring private collections for princes and pop stars, curating modern art collections for the Smithsonian, and cooking up the infamous On-Fire Sale that had broken records on sales of NFTs and digital art.
All of which she’d put on hold so that she might help her parents save the august Gallery of Melbourne.
The sounds of the club whumped back to her, and Petra lifted her glass to find it empty.
“Phone down!” said Deena, literally yanking it out of Petra’s hand and tossing it up the other end of the couch. “No work. Or cat memes. Or whatever your kink is these days. And no photos. What happens at the Gilded Cage stays at the Gilded Cage.”
Petra held out her glass and Deena happily refilled it. “What exactly do you imagine happening tonight?”
Deena reared back, hand to her throat. “I am happily married! It’s my mission to see you hooked up.”
Petra flinched. “You’re meant to be giving me a rundown on who the movers and shakers are in Melbourne these days. Hooking was not on the agenda.” Or bubbly, for that matter, but there she was, glass in hand.
“It can be!” said Deena. “Unless you have a man back in London?”
Petra shook her head, rather more vociferously that was probably necessary. It wasn’t as if she didn’t date, it was just another normal-person thing that didn’t come naturally to her.
She had thought herself on the way to falling in love a couple of years back, with a soft-spoken, junior taxidermist at the American Museum of Natural History. It had taken her longer than it ought to realise that rather than being a strong silent type - her catnip - he was pathologically shy. And what she’d liked most about him was that he didn’t make her feel as if she had to work to impress him.
Had she imagined she’d still feel the sting of her parents’ lack of insight into who she was at thirty? Heck, no. Then again, she had imagined she’d be married to her favourite football player and living in some beautiful, gloriously eclectic, hideaway in the Dandenong mountains by now.
“Humour me,” Deena begged, then poked her head through the bars of their cage as she looked down on the dancefloor. “Nope. Not him. Wait a minute… Ding! Ding! Ding! I do believe we’ve found a winner! And – holy mother of Thor - he might just be the most beautiful man who ever lived.”
“Big call,” said Petra, snuggling deeper into the chair as she sipped on her bubbly.
“Big’s the word,” said Deena. “This guy is huge. Rugged. Beastly. Smells like summer rain.”
Petra laughed, the sound now bubbly too. She spun, fluffing her long dusky pink tulle skirt behind her so she could hop up onto her knees, and see what the fuss was about. Only for the lights bouncing off the glassy mosaic ceiling to do funny things to her balance, making her wonder exactly how many times Deena had refilled her glass.
“How can you possibly tell what he smells like from here?” Petra asked.
“It’s a skill. Hang on, I’ve lost him. How could I lose him? Dark curls, the build of a giant, brown leather jacket - There!” Deena called, finger pointing madly.
Petra followed the line of the finger. And before she could mouth the words, which one? a voice inside her head said;
The seething Saturday night crowd seemed to pause, and take a breath, clearing a path to where a hulking, dark-haired man leant his heft against the circular neon bar in the centre of the room. Even from that distance Petra could sense the slow roll of a meaty shoulder before the guy lifted a glass to his mouth. The dark hair curling wildly and overlong over the collar of hid beaten-up brown leather jacket.
It was enough for Petra to plonk her backside back into the seat, the tulle crinkling as it settled around her.
It couldn’t be him, could it?
He was always travelling, from country to country, city to city, even village to village, spreading Big Think Corp fairy dust - aka tech, or insight, or provisions – on whomever needed it. It had been years since they’d been in the same time zone, much less the same city.
If her intuition had been humming before, now it filled her head with a delirious, high-pitched scream.
“Hey!” Deena cried, “why are you not down there, shoving people out of the way to get to him. I would, if I wasn’t, you know, happily married.”
“Too broody for my taste,” Petra lied as she downed the remains of her bubbly in one mighty gulp. But rather than it loosening her up, her insides tightened, like the squeeze of a rubber band.
Deena settled her chin against her hand and sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right. All that testosterone must be a lot to handle. A guy who knows how to rock cycling gear, and brings you coffee in bed every morning, that’s the ticket. That’s my man and I’m…”
“Happily married.” Petra shot Deena a smile.
Deena smiled back. “Now, I have to take a quick trip to the ladies’ room. Then I might find someone to dance with me. Platonically. Wanna come with?”
Petra saw the bottom of yet another empty glass. “I might grab some water.”
Deena patted her on the knee, before climbing over her legs and out of the cage. “See you in a bit, then.”
“Here goes,” Petra said, ducking under the arch of their twirling gilt cocoon, strappy high heels carefully navigating the small steps down to the dance floor below. The music felt as if it was rising from the floor, through her knees and into her spine.
Once she reached the other side, she ducked into a spare slot at the busy bar, then lifted onto her toes, and glanced along the bar. Finding no familiar faces at all, she slumped back to her heels in disappointment.
Then stared dreamily at the pink lights dappling her skin, reflected off a thousand tiny mirrors embedded in the roof above, wishing she could bottle it somehow.
“What can I get you?”
Petra looked up to find a bartender smiling her way. The word water danced on her tongue before it was somehow replaced with, “Tequila. Slammer.”
The bartender clocked her fob; their private booth coming with its own eye-watering bar tab.
The moment the bartender put the ingredients in front of her she dabbed salt on her wrist, licked it off with a quick determined swipe of her tongue, and downed the clear spirit in one go.
Wincing as she bit down on the sliver of lemon, she reached up into her hair, fluffed the roots, till her auburn waves settled around her face like a cage of their own. And she let the tequila do what the bubbly had not, sear her fluctuating intuition away.
“Good evening,” a male voice said beside her, the cloying scent of cologne following.
“Nope,” said Petra, not even turning.
“Let me buy you a – “
“Nope,” she said again. Eyes now closed, she smiled as she felt the space beside her cool as the interloper moved away.
But it was short-lived, as soon a wall of heat filled the gap. A deeper male voice said, “Of all the gin joints in all the world.”
Only this time the rusty tone made her skin prickle, her breath catch, and her instincts rise within her like a hurricane.
Eyes fluttering open, Petra braced herself, and turned. But there was no amount of bracing to combat the rush of heat swooping her insides as she came face to face with the man in the battered leather jacket.
“Sawyer,” she said, on a heady outshot of breath.
Sawyer Mahoney. Her late brother Finn’s best friend. The one who’d gifted her a found feather all those years ago. The most beautiful man who had ever lived.
The last time she’d seem him in the flesh, had been a year or so after Finn died. At her eighteenth birthday party. Where they’d made one of those rom com movie pacts, promising to marry if neither was hitched by her thirtieth birthday. Not that that’s why she hadn't seen him since. She didn’t think.
Sawyer looked just the same, only different, if that made any sense. His lashes were still impossibly long, though creases now branched from the edges of his clear blue eyes. While sparks of grey glinted within the curls, and the thick scruff covering his hard jaw.
It suited him. Boy did it suit him.
As she stood there, cataloguing every part of him, his mouth cocked at the corner, his expression questioning.
And finally, the very fact of him, there, right there, overwhelmed her completely, and Petra threw herself into his arms.
“Whoa,” he said, his voice muffled by her hair.
Then, after the merest hesitation, his arms closed around her too. Strong arms, thick, like tree branches. Tightening. As if he too was more than merely glad to see her.