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PROLOGUE

Margo watched Matt’s chest rise and fall as he lay sleeping on the living room floor of their just-rented home, the glow of her phone screen lighting up the dark room. Her eyes traveled from Matt up to the vaulted ceiling and its white beams. This house was their first move together as a couple. Her phone blinked 3:30 a.m. and her mind wandered back over their evening. 

“You two look mighty sharp. Big night out?” 

Margo turned to find the eyes of their Uber driver looking at her in the rearview mirror. 

“We had a party to go to,” she answered kindly. 

“Musta been fancy.” The driver turned, nodding toward her outfit. 

She smiled, as she smoothed the front of her vintage Halston jumpsuit. She looked back out the window of the car, watching Matt through the glass of the pizza shop, his head down looking at his phone screen. Her inbox dinged. They put ham on our pizzas. What are we, serial killers? Margo smiled, then typed, Do only serial killers get ham on their pizza? Cuz I kinda don’t hate it. Three dots appeared on her screen. Then, What kind of monster are you?!  She laughed out loud. 

“Your boyfriend seems like a wise guy.” 

Margo’s gaze returned to the rearview mirror and the crinkled corners of the driver’s eyes. “He’s okay,” she offered, warmly. 

“You two just got a place, huh?” he peeled off a Mento and offered her one as he popped his in his mouth. 

She shook her head no in polite decline, turning to see Matt exit the shop, pizzas in hand.

“Well, I’d tell you good luck,” the driver said, “but you don’t need it. I can always tell the ones who are gonna make it.” 

“Are you watching me sleep?” Matt whispered in the dark, startling her back to their empty living room. 

“No,” she denied, blushing at the recall of the driver’s words. “But, even if I were, isn’t it considered sweet for a girlfriend to watch her boyfriend sleeping?” 

Matt rolled toward her. He lay on the chevron wood floors, four feet away. She was atop a blow-up mattress, the only piece of furniture in the empty room. “I guess it could be considered sweet, but seeing as we’re actually strangers, I think it reads a bit like the start of my Lester Holt, ‘And Then He Vanished,’ Dateline episode.” 

Margo laughed out loud as she kicked at the scarf she was using as a makeshift blanket. “Seeing as I’ve only known you a day and a half, Lester’s not exactly on speed dial just yet.” 

“Well, that’s good,” Matt yawned. “I’m actually more a Katie Couric man, anyway.” 

CHAPTER 1: Matt 

“Run it again,” Matt said, hiding his annoyance behind a forced smile. “Please,” he tacked on to appear congenial. 

“I did. Twice. It says it’s been declined, Bud. If you want this beef jerky and Pedialyte, you’ll have to pay for it another way,” the cashier observed with obvious judgment.

Matt smiled, grabbed his card, and walked out of the shop dialing Rob Rolle as he did. He got his voicemail. “Rob on a Rolle,” Matt boomed over the line, using the nickname he’d given his father’s wunderkind of a CFO when Matt was 21 and Rob was 30. Rob on a Rolle hated that nickname, which is exactly why Matt kept calling him that. Matt hated Rob. “It’s me, Matt. I was just trying to buy some,” he paused grappling for a word other than “garbage at the 7-Eleven” and landed instead on, “groceries and my card got declined. Give me a quick call.”  

He hung up and told himself it was a fluke. The pit in his stomach said it was more than that.  The card in question was his debit card linked to his savings account, which drew directly from his trust fund. Each month money appeared there, and Matt vacationed, partied, and surfed his way through it. The thought that his father might finally have made good on a longstanding threat to freeze it made him dizzy, or was that hunger? He was starving, and still a little drunk, he thought. He reached in his pockets searching for cash. He didn’t even have enough to go back in and buy just that Slim Jim. I’m screwed, he decided.  

His phone rang. It wasn’t Rob. It was Leandra Jennings, the head of business services for his father’s company, Milles-Lade Enterprises. He thought about not answering, but knew it was Rob’s way of saying he wasn’t going to call back. Fuck you too, Rob, Matt thought vehemently.  

“Hey Lee, what’s new?” he said, forcing optimism into his voice and putting on all his charms, which wasn’t hard. Matt Milles-Lade was all charm.

“Rob just rang saying he wishes he had a moment to chat, but”—Matt and Rob both knew that was a lie—“he and your father are on their way to Zurich. He wanted me to pass along some updates. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, Matthew, but they’ve frozen your trust. Don’t worry though, they’ve instructed me to set up a stipend for you, $4,000 a month.” 

Matt grimaced in actual physical pain at the amount. How am I gonna live on that? he thought. 

“Rob said your father plans to reinstate your funds once you accomplish a few things on a checklist he’s emailed you….”

Matt pulled the phone away from his ear to look at the screen. Sure enough, his inbox blinked back at him. He opened the email.

“Son, I’ve frozen your trust. I’m happy to give you your access back, but first you’ll have to do the following, STOP BEING SUCH A FUCK-UP. Get a job. Drink less. Care more. Basically, be the sort of human that doesn’t have to be extorted by their own father to get their act together. Dad”

“Matt, can you hear me? Maaatttttt?” Leandra’s voice floated up from the phone in his hand. 

“Yeah, sorry, bad reception. I’m here,” Matt said putting the phone back to his ear.

“Right, like I said, I’ve funded the account. You’ll have to come in to get the card and pin.”  

Shit, Matt mouthed up to the sky as he wrung his shirt collar. A card and pin meant he’d have to wait until tomorrow to have any cash. 

“Rob thought you might need me to organize parking. He wasn’t sure if you’d have the cash flow, which I thought was nice of him to think about. You know Rob….”

Cutting her off, “Oh, I know Rob, he’s a real peach,” Matt said, saccharine sarcasm dripping from his words. “Listen Lee, I gotta go, I got some things going on over here,” he said as he stood in the middle of a gas station parking lot at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, latently drunk from the night before, having just gotten up 20 minutes ago. They hung up and Matt looked around, his plan of grabbing cash and snacks now derailed. He pulled up Uber and ordered a car. After a minute of searching Please update credit card on file, flashed on his screen. Matt forced all the air out of his lungs in frustration and pinched the bridge of his nose. He texted Charlie: Need a lift. Just down the hill. 

For 22 of his 26 years on this earth, Charlie, his dad’s driver, had driven Matt everywhere, including their first trip together, Safety Town when Matt was four. Other kids had beamed back at their moms and dads, Matt had gotten a solemn head nod from Charlie in his shiny, three-piece, polyester suit. When he’d failed to tell the difference between a yellow light and red light, it was Charlie who comforted him on the ride home. “No worries, Mr. Matt, I drive you wherever you need to go.” 

Just not today, Matt thought reading Charlie’s reply as he started to walk. Sorry, Mr. Matt. Mr. M says I’m not available to you

An hour later, dripping in sweat and filthy dirty from the dusty, dry canyon air, Matt rounded the final hill to his house an hour and a half later. No wonder no one walks in LA, he thought miserably.  Halfway up his phone had died. It was like a mini episode of Survivor, minus the low-level dysentery. He crashed through the gate and made a beeline to the garden hose. Despite its steady gush, it felt like the water couldn’t come fast enough for him to guzzle down. 

“Jeez, Matty, manners much?” Tiffany chided behind him, using the nickname she knew he hated.  

The only person allowed to call me Matty isn’t here, he thought crabbily as he raised the hose up above his head, letting the shockingly cold water drench him. 

She arched her eyebrow and pouted as he ignored her. “Don’t think for a second you’re walking into my house dripping water all over the place. I’m having the girls over in an hour.”

He shook off like a dog spraying water everywhere.

“Maatttyy,” Tiff screamed, jumping back to avoid the muddy spray. “I’m wearing white!”

From what Matt could tell, Tiff’s main goal in life was to wear white, specifically on the day she achieved trophy wife status. Landing Brooks Milles-Lade, Matt’s father, put that goal in sight. She knew it. Matt knew it. Hell, even Brooks knew it.

“Well, son, when the sex is this good, I’m happy to give the girl a trophy—you know what I mean?” Brooks smirked as Matt grimaced.

“Yeah, Dad, I got it, and I should remind you I’m your son.” 

For years, Matt had hoped his Dad would stop the endless stream of women parading through their home. 

“Don’t you want to have something real?”  

“No, son, I’ve had enough real life. I’m into escapism these days.”  

Matt added it to his already long list of things he and his father disagreed on, but this one was surprising, mostly because Matt was no monogamist. On more than one occasion he’d had Zinny, their housekeeper, hustle out a woman in his bed. He’d call her from the shower, hissing, “You have to come get her out of here, Zin. She hasn’t taken the hint. She thinks we’re going to brunch for Christ’s sake. What next, our wedding?”  

Zinny viewed it less as saving Matt and more as rescuing those helpless girls. She’d arrive to his room, a to-go cup of coffee, warm wash cloth, and breakfast sandwich in her hand. “Time to waaaake’yyy,” she’d trill in her Russian accent, throwing open the curtains. “Mr. Matt is in the shower. He’s a weak man. You are too good for him. I’m doing you a favor, saving you from falling for him. Because, you will. He is a doll, but he is also a dog. I should know, I raised him. So, let’s get you up before you get broken.” 

They’d protest, but Zinny—as she was known to Matt—was actually Zinaida Katerine Bobrova, a proper Russian woman who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain. These girls were no match for her blend of cold war charm. She could snap them like a twig, not physically—Zinny was petite, like the adorable tiny center of a Matryoshka nesting doll—but emotionally. She instinctively had the skills of the Russian secret police. She’d politely strong-arm them into a car, close the door, and lean into the window. Matt never knew what she said to them, but no girl ever called, so he didn’t question it. Then she’d head upstairs to change Matt’s sheets. 

“Make sure to wash your penis, you disgusting boy,” she’d always say as she gathered his clothes off the bathroom floor. “I’ll get rid of the evidence.”  

Over the years, Matt had become certain she’d delivered that line long before him.

“Did you hear what I said?” Tiff asked sharply, shaking him back to the front lawn

Matt looked at her briefly. Not that his dad had taken his advice, but Brooks Milles-Lade had allowed Tiff to move in. At first, Matt was relieved. No more random women, he’d thought. But then something worse happened: Tiff believed Brooks was faithful. After all, he’d given her the keys to the castle. Matt knew better. There were other girls. Despite himself, he felt bad for Tiff.  

“Yeah, I heard you. The real trophy wives of Beverly Hills are coming over. I’ve got things to do anyway,” Matt said, snaking the hose back onto its reel.

“I bet you do, like figuring out how to live without a trust fund?” Tiff smiled smugly as she swirled a strand of what Matt could only imagine was the fake portion of her hair.

Come to think of it, maybe I don’t feel so bad for Tiff, after all, he thought.

CHAPTER 2: Margo

“Kirby, when do you move in?” Maureen Melon shrieked as Margo walked into the kitchen. “Did you hear that M&M? Kirby bought a house!”

“Wow,” Margo said flatly, greeting the news with the same enthusiasm as dental work.

“I close next week. And then after that,” Kirby trailed off, lost in a haze of euphoria before exclaiming, “I’m gonna be a homeowner at 24! Can you believe it?” 

They both looked at Margo with stars in their eyes.

“I can’t,” Margo echoed dryly.

Timed to be born in September, because her mother had read that babies born in the ninth month were smarter and more successful, every move Margo Melon made had been a revelation for her parents. Kirby—her younger sister by two years, intended for September but born in November, “the month when most serial killers are born,” Margo had shared with her at age seven—wasn’t quite The One Minute Manager material Blanchard and Johnson had written about. In the Melon house, cerebral acrobatics reigned supreme. And Kirby just couldn’t quite keep up, something they’d all silently registered when at age 15 Kirby asked over a bucket of Costco chicken, “But, how did they know the rotisserie breed would be the delicious ones?” 

Margo had gone to Brown and been the editor in chief of the Brown Daily Herald. She’d graduated top of her class. Kirby had studied fashion merchandising and dropped out. “You know that’s not a real degree anyway, right?” Margo had asked as she watched her sister glue-gunning a fantastical wool and fiber installation as a final exam. “We’ll see,” Kirby had chirped sunnily. 

“It’s small,” Kirby continued, pulling Margo back to their little Castle Heights kitchen. “Tiny. Up in The Hills. I just…Blush & Bashful was, like, a side gig. I can’t believe how much it’s grown. It’s, like, I don’t even know what I’m doing. And, David, well, he’s courting investors who want to explode our platform into a channel!”

Margo sneered to herself as she turned with the stack of plates her mother had handed her. A side gig that landed you on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List, Margo thought jealously. 

“Set the table,” Maureen cheerily directed of her eldest daughter. “And you get the Champagne. We’re going to toast,” she said to Kirby.

“With tacos?” Margo grimaced. 

Margo had moved home as a stopover after a failed stint at Popler, the holy grail of fashion magazines, but that was four years ago now. She’d nabbed the position her senior year and crammed her entire world into two checkable duffel bags and flung herself across the country to a rundown studio in Harlem. In real life it was 246 square feet of worn walls and sloping floors. Perfection, Margo had thought the moment the door swung open. Her first day, she arrived ready to run the place. But, after eight weeks of only filing, running errands, and fetching coffee, she surmised she wasn’t being used to her fullest.  So, with an abundance of entitlement that she mistook for confidence, Margo marched into her boss’s office. Lennox Stanton sat before her picking apart a vegan burrito like a vulture clad in Balmain as Margo launched in: “People say you have to start at the bottom, but I don’t think that applies to everyone. Some of us are meant to start several rungs up. I’m happy to get your coffee every once and a while, Lennox, but I’d like to be given more challenging duties if I’m expected to remain in my position.”  

Five minutes later, Margo was on the corner of 45th and Times Square holding the contents of her desk, three packages of Little Debbie snacks, and a fake cactus. Lennox Stanton had fired her. 

Her parents had encouraged her to bootstrap a way to stay in New York. “I’m not just taking any job, Dad,” she’d protested. “I wanna write, not wait tables.” The next day, she bought a ticket home. “It’s fine. I’ll take this time to write,” she informed her parents as she hefted her suitcase off the baggage carousel. Their worried glances said they weren’t so sure.

Kirby, on the other hand, skyrocketed. While waiting in line for coffee in between her classes Kirby had met a coding student, David, from the technical school across the street. Together, the pair formed a resale fashion start-up, Blush & Bashful, selling Kirby’s vintage finds. Surprising even to them, it took off and took them with it. Kirby went from a girl with no professional drive to driving a Mercedes in two short years. As far as Margo was concerned, that ride, metaphorically and literally, was supposed to have been hers.

“Earth to Margo!” 

Margo shook free from the memory to find her mom passing Champagne flutes through the window that connected their dining room and kitchen and robotically grabbed them. She lapped the table placing one flute at each seat. 

“What do you mean a channel?” she asked as Kirby joined her relay team, falling in rank behind her, placing napkins at each stop.  

“I mean a channel, AN ACTUAL CHANNEL. I’ve already started shooting videos for the site, and we’re changing my title to editor in chief and style director. Can you believe…” 

Margo halted. Kirby smashed into her back. “What?” Margo asked indignantly. “You’re an editor in chief just because some coding school dropout gives you the title?” 

Kirby’s face crumpled. 

“MARGO!” her mother reprimanded. Silence stood like soup in the room. 

She knew she should stop but didn’t. Couldn’t. “I’m the writer. Not you. What have you ever done? I mean, really, Kirby? Seriously?” she asked, each word punctuated with accusation. “You made eyes with a guy in a coffee shop who wanted in your pants and somehow you parlay that into a self-professed editor in chief title. You’re such a fake. And….”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Hank Melon boomed from the doorway. “Margo Valentine Melon, you will not speak to your sister that way. What has happened to you? You’re the one who quit. Not me. Not your mother. Certainly not Kirby. You. You gave up. You threw in the towel. And yet here you are trying to hang all of us with it. I don’t think so, young lady.”

His words stung, mostly because they were true. Margo wanted to yell at them, like a child who drops their ice cream and then shouts at everyone standing around for what was their own mistake. She bit her lip to keep it from trembling, placed the remaining flutes on the table, and rushed out. 

“Margo?” Kirby started behind her. 

“Give her a minute.” Maureen grabbed Kirby’s arm.

The sliding door made a shushing sound as Margo closed it. She leaned her head into the cool glass as she felt her chest hitch. Shame washed over her. She turned and sat at their outdoor table. Melton, their yellow Lab, hefted himself up and lumbered over, placing his head in her lap. Margo leaned to kiss him as a full sob escaped her chest and tears flooded forward. “Oh, Melty, I don’t know what to do anymore.” She sat there for several minutes, resting her forehead to his, smelling the sun on his skin.  

She heard the door slide open but didn’t look up. Her sister placed a Topo Chico on the table and sat down across from her. 

After a pause, “Why do you think I’m so shocked about what’s happening with me?” Kirby asked as she took a sip from her own bottle of mineral water. 

Holding Melton’s head in her hands, her fingers under his jaw, Margo traced circles around his closed eyes with her thumbs. “I don’t know,” she said quietly.  

“I’m surprised, because none of this was supposed to be mine. Success was reserved for the amazing Margo,” Kirby began, almost hanging a cape on the word amazing.

“Whatever, Kirb,” Margo’s head shot up, defensively. 

“Whoa. Let me talk.” Kirby raised her hands and Topo Chico in surrender. Margo lowered her gaze back to Melton, absent-mindedly still tracing his face. “Success was always yours, Margo. I didn’t need it. I didn’t crave it. But, now that I have it, I see why you fell so hard when it went away. It’s…” Kirby searched for the right word. “Electric. It literally lights you up.”   

“I know,” Margo hushed, surprised by her sister’s understanding. “Why do you think I’m falling apart? I don’t know how to get it back, Kirbs.” She wiped away a tear before looking back down at Melton.  

Kirby stared out into the yard. “Well, I know one thing for sure, you’re not gonna find it here.” She gestured around their parents’ cinderblock backyard. “What you’re doing isn’t working, M. You’ve locked yourself away, waiting for success to what, find you? I know you never had to chase it before, but you have to now. You have to put yourself out there. You’re not meant to play safe. That’s not your story.”  

Margo raised her tear-filled eyes to Kirby’s searchingly. “Yeah, so what is?”

“I don’t know what it is, but I know where it begins. It begins with you standing on your own two feet again.” Kirby smiled. “You’re a boss, Margo. Start acting like it. Or fake it. I don’t care, but I need my sister back.” Kirby held her gaze until something dawned on her. “I think you should get your own place.” Kirby’s eyes darted back and forth as she considered what she was saying. “That’s exactly what you should do. Get your own place, Margo. It’ll force you to do whatever it takes to make it work.”  

Margo’s heart zinged at the thought of escaping her childhood bedroom for her own digs. “And how would I afford that?” 

Kirby sipped her drink. “Well, I need someone to help me move. I know we agreed living together would result in a double homicide, but we never said I couldn’t hire you—not full-time, but a freelancer. That would put money in your pocket for a deposit. From there, we’ll figure it out. You’ll figure it out.  You might have forgotten you’re brave Margo, but I haven’t. And, probably neither has Paul Schiffer, who you decked for trying to put his hand up my shirt in the fourth grade.” Kirby stood and walked over to Margo. She hoisted her up into a hug. At first Margo resisted, but then she leaned in. It felt good to lean on her little sister again. 

“Okay,” she said softly. 

“Okay?” Kirby pushed Margo back by the shoulders to search her face. 

Margo nodded.  

Kirby swept her back up into a hug. “Great, let’s go eat tacos, and definitely not tell Mom and Dad.”

 

Copyright © 2019 by Kristin Giese. All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


 

Can Matt and Margo get together—or at least get their sh*t together? Snag your copy of Unverified and find out.

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