Evil Queen by Rebel Hart

1

Nathan

The blaring of my alarm in my ear was a wholly unwelcome sound. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed my winter break, but regardless of the constant headaches, frequent upset stomach, and generally being on the verge of a mental breakdown, not having to think about school for a whole two weeks was a nice escape from at least some of my problems.

Just getting to winter break had been intense. No one said much about what happened, and Cherri dropped off the face of the earth. When The Royal Court met for lunch, we sat in total silence, and we didn't speak much in class either. They were all still upset with me, and I deserved it, so I didn't push them. By the time the holidays and the two-week break came around, it was a double-edged sword. We all needed the break, but the weight of everything that had happened dropped on us like atomic bombs, and the wreckage was difficult to sift through.

With my arms stretched above my head, I cracked my neck to the left, then to the right, then reached out to my right and put my arm down. I expected it to find purchase on another body there, but I found only the comforter of my bed. Glancing over, I noticed that there was no one there. I’d be lying if I said I was surprised, but midnight slip-outs were something I was increasingly becoming used to. To be safe, I flipped back the covers, climbed out of bed, and padded my way out of my bedroom and down the spiral staircase to my kitchen and living room. I glanced into the kitchen, and though there was no one there, there was a fresh pot of coffee steaming in the coffee maker.

I walked over and lifted the pot from the machine, then whispered, “Thanks, Nikki.”

With a small smile on my face, I poured myself a cup of coffee, only mixed in a small amount of cream, and then carried it back upstairs with me so that I could get ready for school. Ordinarily, I would spend an insane amount of time picking out a carefully coordinated outfit to wear, probably even messaging Kyle and even Brayden to tell them to wear something similar, but the fact of the matter was, I didn’t have that energy in me. Though I would likely catch a glance of myself in a mirror at some point throughout the day and be disappointed with what I had on, I couldn’t be bothered about that for the time being.

Instead, I grabbed the first respectful top and pants I could find and carried them into the bathroom with me. I started the shower, ripped off the pajama pants I was wearing, and climbed in. An involuntary sigh came out of my mouth as the heated water blasted the top of my head. Showering was my least favorite task as of late because I didn’t want to get in, and then once I was in, I didn’t want to get out. I’d found that, ever since my mom died, my dad disappeared, and my estranged half-brother went on the chase, it was the base-minimum, keep yourself alive and kicking tasks that I struggled with the most.

Thank God that Nikita had been with me most of the winter break to see to it that I ate and bathed.

After about twenty minutes in the shower, my head started to hurt. It was something that had been happening as of late, likely because before my dad left, if I spent more than about ten minutes in the shower, he’d be in the bathroom, screaming about the amount of time I was wasting away. Nikita had slowly worked with me to try and break me out of my ingrained habits, but they weren’t dying easily. Sometimes, I still felt like I could hear my dad’s loud, demanding voice, screaming at me, telling me I was a disappointment to him.

Who was the disappointment now?

It only took another two minutes for my headache to overwhelm my sense of pride, and I washed my body free of the soap I’d lathered onto it and then turned the water off and climbed out. The digital clock that was built into the mirror on the wall opposite the shower read that the time was four-fifteen in the morning. School didn’t officially start until eight o’clock, and during the break, if I woke up too early, I could just go back to sleep, but if I tried that now, I’d oversleep and miss the first day back. I wasn’t being forced to study business, practice my languages, or listen to lectures about being a man.

What did normal students do in the four hours before school?

I got dressed at as slow a pace as I could justify and then walked back into my bedroom. With a slump, I dropped down onto my bed and stared at the wall. Part of me told myself to go to sleep, part of me told myself to grab my laptop and work on business matters, and part of me told myself to just leave and drive until I got somewhere interesting. Nothing sounded good, and nothing had for a while, but only one of the options I came up with made any real sense, so I stood up, grabbed my backpack, slung it over my back, snagged my coffee, and made my way back downstairs.

I stepped down into the sunken living room couch and fished my laptop out of my backpack. It whirred to life as soon as I lifted the lid, but then I was met with the infamous updates screen. A sigh blew out of me, but it wasn’t all bad. I set the computer down on the couch, stepped back onto the main level, and walked into the kitchen. I wasn’t a chef, so I kept my fridge stocked with quick-grab items that I could eat without any preparation. When my parents were still around, they used to have a world-class chef prepare me breakfast every day, but about a week after they were gone, I caught him celebrating their absence and fired him. I grabbed a banana and topped off my coffee before walking back into the living room and sitting down next to my computer to eat while I waited.

Eventually, the updates finished, so I opened up my emails and let out a hiss of frustration. “Shit.”

The inbox was jam-packed with people contacting me from my father’s company, wondering what they should do next with my dad MIA. He was the president, sure, but weren’t Fortune 500 companies supposed to have an entire hierarchy so that they could continue to function if the head got lobbed off? Hell, knowing my dad, there had to be more than one person waiting for him to keel over one day so that they could rise up and take his spot.

Were they really so useless without him?

It wasn’t like medical supplies needed active selling. All hospitals, prisons, and schools were in the market for them, not to mention the department stores and insurance companies with whom we had multi-billion-dollar contracts to be their go-to supplier. All they had to do was keep showing up and doing things as they always had been. How hard was that?

I started to type a thorough, extravagant email to the president of the board of directors, who was the main person contacting me, but after about six paragraphs, I just picked up my phone and called. It was still early in the morning, but I didn’t care. If a group of grown adults was going to bug a high-school student non-stop about how to run a business, they were going to get advice on my schedule.

“Mr. Loche?” Arden Taft, the president of the board, greeted. His voice was groggy as if he was just waking up, and I could hear a second voice grumbling in the background. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. Also, call me Nathan.”

“Yes, sir.” There was some shifting, and then I could hear Arden moving, likely climbing out of bed. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Arden, I realize my dad is MIA, but I cannot wake up to fifty emails from you guys. I’m still in high school. I start school again today. Why is it so difficult to continue operations with just one man missing?” I was snippier than I wanted to be, but I was also irritated.

“Sir, you have to understand, your father didn’t allow anyone other than himself to make decisions. He doesn’t have any protocol for what to do if he isn’t around, only to defer to you. Now, we can both imagine that he assumed that wouldn’t come into play as early in your life as it has, but it’s where we are.”

My neck cracked as I twisted my head to the left and then the right. Nikita’s voice skated across my mind, telling me not to crack my bones, but what else was I supposed to do if I was stressed and felt tight?

“Listen,” I started. “I get that my dad isn’t a very trusting guy, and believe me when I say I am aware of the fact that he forced all channels through him because he’s paranoid, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t at least one person there who was listening when he talked.”

“N-no, there are, of course, many of us who know your father’s plans for the company well, but what of the open contracts? Many of the emails you received contained contracts that need approval.”

With that, I pulled my computer onto my lap and started to sift through for anything with an attachment. “Okay, this QILR contract looks good. I know my dad has a signature stamp, so tell his assistant to use it to sign the contract and return it. If it’s an e-signature, she has my permission to sign his name.” I flipped to the next one. “Hertfeld County is trying to low-ball us, so I’m sending this one back. Please have Caitlyn call their purchasing manager—I believe his name is Doug—and tell him that for a county supply, the complete package that they’re looking for runs a two million minimum. Our machines don’t even fire up for less than one and a half, but I want five.”

“Yes, sir,” Arden replied.

Clicking through the rest of the contracts, they all seemed pretty reasonable. “The rest of these look good and can be signed. Please ensure they’re added to the quarterly numbers and review them at the February board meeting. As long as we’re trending up or maintaining, I’m fine.”

“Well, sir, with all due respect, I really do think you should be at the meeting,” Arden said. “Our board is desperate to get some face time with the next person in line.”

I rubbed my temples. “I’m not the next in line. Connor will be back soon. It’s just a matter of holding until he returns. Do you think you can manage that?”

Arden was silent for a long time and then sighed. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. I’ll be in touch, but for now, please have people route their concerns and questions through the CFO. I still want signing power, but he should have the prowess to handle anything else.”

“Oh,” Arden said, and there was a heightened relief in his voice. “I can do that. Thank you, sir.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

“Bye.”

The line went dead, but no longer being on the phone didn’t help ease any stress I had. For as long as I had no idea where my dad was, I could continue to lie and say that he’d be returning, but the truth was, my half-brother Deon was searching for him, and we were both hoping to end his life. It was either him or the people we loved, and we’d fight to protect them, regardless. It probably made sense that Deon was doing the dirty work while I was attempting to keep the company afloat, but I still wished I knew more.

I lifted my phone again and navigated to Deon’s phone number. We finally exchanged phone numbers when everything went wrong in the fall, but I hadn’t used it once. Deon would definitely contact me if there was a development in his hunt, but I often found myself wanting to talk to him, hopefully, in a way that wasn’t nasty or aggressive. Our father-induced differences aside, I always cared about my brother. When I first learned that I had a brother, I was over the moon, and that year he lived with us was one of the best of my life. After everything that happened, would we be able to salvage our relationship now?

Maybe I should call?

My phone rang in my hand before I could make a decision. I fumbled around and nearly dropped it from shock, but I caught it and answered without checking who it was.

“Hello?”

“Hey, man,” Kyle’s deep, bass-filled voice responded. “I was kind of hoping you were still asleep.”

I snapped my laptop shut and tossed it over to the couch cushion next to me. “Nah, still waking up around four these days.”

“Well, let’s make the most of it, then. Want to meet me for breakfast? I know this awesome diner. I always wanted to take you, but I don’t know, it felt like it might be below you.”

A different person might have been offended, but I just laughed. “Yeah, I get that. Sure. Text me the address.”

“Cool. See ya soon.”

“Bye.”

I ended the call, then stood up, collected all of my things, and made my way toward the door. I grabbed the keys and was just about to head out when I remembered something and turned around. Taking the steps two at a time, I made my way back upstairs, went into my closet, pushed aside some of my piled clothes, and grabbed the box of Cherri’s things that I’d been hiding from Nikita.

Cherri was a bit of a sore subject between us.

My hope was that I could get the box back to Cherri without causing too many issues with either woman. With the box in my hand and nervousness sizzling through me at the thought of returning to school after everything that happened, I left.