Home > The Sham

The Sham
Author: Stella Gray

Prologue

 

 

Luka

 

 

My brother is hiding something.

I look across the dining table just in time to catch him exchange yet another covert glance with his wife Tori and can’t help feeling like another huge bombshell is about to drop. Maybe it’s the recent scandal hanging over my family, but I’ve had this nagging sensation of impending disaster for months now.

Finding out your father was the mastermind behind an elicit, multimillion-dollar prostitution ring will do that, I guess.

Still, this isn’t just paranoia. I knew something was up from the moment Stefan and Tori invited me over—family dinners are my brother’s usual M.O. when he has something serious to discuss. I’ve noticed more than one thoughtful pause from him tonight, but each time he opens his mouth, it’s nothing but small talk, punctuated here and there by Tori’s typical rambling about her linguistics classes at UChicago.

So now here we are, finishing up the last of the world’s most perfect duck in red wine sauce, and I’m still waiting for them to tell me the real reason behind this whole evening.

“Best meal I’ve ever had,” I say, setting my cloth napkin over my plate. “Please tell Gretna that whenever she’s ready to accept my shameless bribery, I’ll be happy to welcome her into my service.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Stefan says.

He knows I’ve tried countless times to woo his personal chef, but so far, I haven’t been successful. Seems like my charms are more effective on women in the 18–35 age bracket. Not that I’m complaining.

“We’re so glad you liked it,” Tori says sweetly. “And I know Stefan appreciates seeing you outside the office. But there’s actually another reason we invited you over.”

And there it is.

“We’ll discuss it shortly in the living room,” Stefan says. It’s more of a command than an invitation. Typical. My brother is what you might call a control freak.

“Sounds great,” I say, trying my best to mean it. “I’ll meet you in there.”

Tori flashes a little smile as she and Stefan rise and begin gathering up the dishes.

My sister-in-law and I had friction when we first met—which I admit was mostly on me. I was too caught up in my manwhoring ways to respect Stefan’s arranged marriage, and I crossed the line with Tori more than once, figuring I’d have a taste of her just like any other woman I set my sights on. In hindsight, I regret how I acted. Tori isn’t just good for my brother, she’s great.

While they clear the table, I move to the couch and mull over the last few months. What could Stefan have to talk to me about? Ever since our father went to jail and Stefan took over KZ Modeling—now renamed Danica Rose Management, in memory of our mother—I’ve shown up every day at the agency, on time and with a can-do attitude, quote unquote.

I still go out to the clubs, but after a brief stint at AA—where I realized that as much as I was using alcohol as a crutch, I didn’t actually need it to survive—my drinking is under control. Hell, I haven’t even been sleeping with that many women. The fact is, the more energy I’ve put into my job, the less I’ve been able to put into all my former bad habits. I’m practically a new man—and it’s been pretty fucking boring.

But I know it’s for the best.

In my new executive role, I audition, sign, and manage talent. On top of that, I also unofficially maintain our client roster, aka schmooze my ass off. Phone calls, dinners, drinks, networking events—I’ve been there every step of the way, reassuring everyone of DRM’s commitment to integrity and transparency, making sure our models keep getting booked.

After a very public fall from grace, I’ve fought tooth and nail to get the agency—and myself—back on track. So if Stefan thinks he’s about to fire me or demote me so he can fill my executive position with someone more experienced, he’s got another thing coming.

He and Tori suddenly bustle back out with overly toothy smiles, Tori carrying a black and gold inlaid tray that holds a glass carafe of coffee, sugar and cream, and three mugs.

“Should we have an after-dinner coffee?” she chirps. “It’s decaf Ospina, ground fresh. Stefan said it’s your favorite.”

“Three-hundred-dollar coffee beans?” I say. “Now I know you two are up to no good.”

“It’s not a bribe,” Stefan says, but judging by the clench of his jaw and the stress lines on his forehead, it isn’t safe for me to relax just yet.

I savor the aroma after Tori passes me a cup and then take a long, satisfying sip. To be honest, I’d prefer the standard after-dinner brandy, but I appreciate them respecting my new limit of two drinks per week—and I’d rather be 100% sober if this conversation goes sour.

“All right, out with it,” I say, eyeing them as they sit across from me in their matching leather chairs. “I’ve been expecting the worst since you two invited me over. Just say it.”

They exchange another glance, and Tori gives my brother a slight nod.

“Fair enough.” Stefan leans forward, clears his throat, and says, “The truth is, the business is…frankly, in an unstable position.”

“I’m aware,” I say coolly. “Dad’s in jail for trafficking, half our models will be testifying against him, and the whole world knows he used the agency as a cover to pimp them out. That’s why I’ve been putting in so much overtime to right the ship. I assume you’ve noticed—”

“You’ve done amazing work for DRM,” he says, cutting me off. “That’s not the issue.”

I frown. “Then what is it?”

“I’ll just give it to you straight, Luka. Our first quarter P&L was ugly, and this quarter looks worse. We’re in the red. I’ve been paying employee salaries out of my own pocket.”

“What?” I sputter.

“I’m trying to tell you, the business isn’t sustainable,” Stefan goes on. “If the company can’t improve its reputation—and fast—we’re going to sink.”

I let out a breath, my mind blown. This job was supposed to be the start of my new life. A chance to finally prove myself. And now it’s all about to crumble.

Finally, I say, “How do we keep Danica Rose from shutting down?”

By now, Stefan has calmed himself. He’s back in his chair with Tori holding his hand.

“It’s going to take a huge act of goodwill to convince the public we’re not monsters,” he muses. “We can’t erase the past.”

It’s no secret that the reason the press and social media have condemned us is because of what our father did. I’ve done my best to combat that, but even with all my schmoozing and my fancy MBA, rescuing a business from a major public downfall is a huge mountain to climb—and I’m still learning as I go. I’d never been involved in running the agency like Stefan was.

But after Dad’s arrest, I told my brother I was committed to the family business. Since then, Stefan has made it clear that co-CEO is in my future if I roll up my sleeves and work hard, quit drinking, and stop fucking around. So that’s what I’ve done. Apparently, it wasn’t enough.

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