In my group of friends, the last one to arrive wherever we were meeting that night had to foot the bill. Tonight, the unlucky SOB who would have to pay was me.
After hanging my raincoat on the hook at the door, I made my way through the packed sports bar to the booth in the corner. Jeremiah, Tanner, and Bart were already there, and every last one of the billionaire fuckers was smirking at me like he’d won something.
Which, I supposed, they all had. They’d won a free night out on the town, and I, the only one of us who didn’t have a bottomless bank account, was going to have to cough up for it.
“You better all be drinking cheap-ass beer,” I grumbled as I dropped into my seat beside Tanner, purposely shaking the last droplets of water out of my hair like a damn dog. It wouldn’t get them soaked, but the rain was freezing cold and maybe the icy drops would help them come to their senses. “This is bullshit. I should be exempted from our rule, or should I go get a bucket of ice to dump over your heads before you’ll realize it?”
Since he was directly in the line of fire—or ice, in this case—Tanner yelped and scooted to the other edge of the bench we were sharing before he turned to glare at me. “That was unnecessary. It’s not like I made up the rule. We all did and we’ve had it since high school. Why are your panties suddenly in a twist about it now?”
I waggled my brows at him. “My panties aren’t in a twist. Do you want to see? I can show you.”
He laughed, face scrunching up as he shook his head. “No, but thanks for the offer. Keep your panties where I can’t see them.”
“Just for that, I’m switching from cheap-ass beer to top-shelf bourbon,” Bart joked—or at least, I hoped he was fucking joking.
If he wasn’t, all bets were off. There was no way I could afford to pay for a night of all three of them drinking anything other than cheap beer. As it was, the tab for the beer was going to hurt me. These guys could put it away like it was nobody’s business.
They only looked like successful, fancy-schmancy businessmen. On the inside, they were still just liquor-guzzling frat boys with hollow legs.
Leveling Bart with a glare, I motioned to his full glass and pretended to reach for it. “Really? I guess you won’t mind if I have that, then. If I’m paying, we won’t be wasting a single drop tonight, gentlemen.”
Bart grabbed the glass carefully and cradled it to his chest like it was a precious baby—all without spilling any of it, which was impressive. “Hands off my beer, Ramirez. There’s a whole pitcher and we’ve already got a glass for you, so if you’re serious about not wasting anything, you might want to get into it before it goes flat.”
Jeremiah pushed the pitcher across the table to me before leaning back and spreading his arms out across the backrest of their bench, looking for all the world like he owned, well, the world. Which wasn’t entirely inaccurate, now that I was thinking about it.
Maybe the Williams family didn’t own the whole world, but they sure as fuck owned a lot of New York City. And now that Jeremiah Williams was the main honcho of said Williams family, he owned most of our beloved city. Effectively, anyway. He was in charge of his family company and technically it owned the properties but still.
He had a good reason to look like the king of the world as he relaxed back and looked at me. “Bart is right. We ordered that ages ago and it’s already not as fizzy as it should be. Which brings me to my next point. Why are you so late?”
I sighed but took their advice and reached for the pitcher to fill my glass. There were few things worse than flat beer as far as I was concerned. “My photoshoot ran over. We had to wrap it by today, so we had to stay until we were all done. Shouldn’t being late on account of work absolve me from having to pay?”
“Nope,” Bart said happily. “We’ve all been late because of work and we still had to pay. It’s your turn now. How was the shoot?”
I shrugged. “It was a shoot, but if any of you are interested in seeing my panties even if you’re pretending not to be, the new billboards of me in my skivvies will be going up within the next month at a subway station near you.”
“It was another underwear modeling campaign?” Tanner asked, frowning as he cocked his head at me. “I thought you said you were trying to break away from that.”
“It pays the bills,” I said before taking a long sip of my drink and winking at him. “You might’ve turned down my offer to see my underwear, but not a lot of other people would. I mean, how can you turn all this down?”
Rolling my hips and doing a joking little shimmy, I motioned to my torso and raised my brows at them. “Seriously, people go crazy for this. It’s what they want and you know me. I’m a real crowd pleaser.”
Jeremiah laughed, lifting his hand and pretending to hide behind it before peeking out from around his fingers like he was checking if it was safe to look yet. “I hope you’ve been making time between your photoshoots to see your sister before these two take off again.”
He motioned to Bart. “I heard he’s been planning another trip for them.”
I rolled my eyes at my friend, who was now also my brother-in-law. “Jesus. I thought the traveling thing would get old sooner or later, but you guys are really going for it. Aren’t you tired of private planes and adventuring in exotic locations yet?”
“Nope,” he said, grinning before getting more serious again. “I think we would’ve been getting tired of it if we weren’t going to all those exotic locations to help. Since that is why we’re going, it’s not getting old at all. We’re meeting lots of new people and getting to experience their cultures while also bringing technology to children who wouldn’t otherwise have had it. How are we supposed to get tired of that?”
“No, you’re right. You shouldn’t be getting tired of it,” I admitted—grudgingly. “I just miss you guys when you’re not here, and between your foundation and my sister’s touring, you’re away more often than you’re here these days.”
Bart wasn’t just a computer whiz who sold his company for billions after his dad died. He also started a charity that sponsored laptops to children in third world countries. He also didn’t stop at that, though. Since a laptop was no use to anyone who didn’t know how to use it, Bart had also been setting up training centers in underprivileged communities and working with others to help bring the internet to those destinations.
He smiled. “Serenity has been missing you, too. God knows, she deserved to finally get her big break but it’s been hard work. Her album is doing well, though. They’re talking about a nationwide tour for her next year.”
I whistled between my teeth. “Look at you two being the world’s most charitable power couple. The Popstar and the Geek. It could be a modern-day retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Is she still donating whatever the percentage was of her album sales to the charity?”
He nodded. “She’s also still performing at fundraisers for the organization. It’s going well. When was the last time you spoke to her? I thought you knew all this.”
“I do know all this, but with you two, things change so often that it always seems like a good idea to check. There’s always some new hit song, another trip, or another tournament you need to play at that wasn’t there before.”
“I’m actually taking a break from gaming again,” he said, and I noticed that Jeremiah and Tanner looked as surprised by this news as I was. When he saw the way we were looking at him, he laughed. “It’s nothing dramatic again. We’re just really busy, and since we’re traveling so much for the foundation right now, I keep missing stuff or having to cancel at the last minute. For now, it seems easier to take a step back than to try to force everything into our schedules.”
“That makes sense,” Tanner said, nodding as he glanced at me. “I would just like to point out for the record that Larisa and I are a charitable power couple as well. Since Serenity is your sister, it figures that you’d call her and Bart the world’s most charitable power couple, but our housing project is going really well, and Jeremiah’s having another auction, so he and Steph are in the running, too.”
Chuckling, I rolled my eyes. “Careful, your competitive asshole is showing. Point taken, though. The record will reflect that you’re all rich-as-fuck do-gooders. Happy now?”
“Happy.” He sat back and drained the last of his beer before pouring himself some more. While they started getting caught up on ways in which their foundations could support one another, all I could do was listen.
These guys had been my best friends since high school, but these days, they were leaving me in the dust. They were in a league of their own and I hadn’t done anything notable.
Jeremiah had been born into wealth, but since he’d taken over his family’s company and merged it with the one he’d started with his wife, their empire was growing by leaps and bounds. Under their leadership, the company was also more involved with the community than ever and they worked especially closely with the foundation Tanner had started.
A former pro-baseball player, he’d made it to the really big leagues with a crypto-currency investment. For a long time before he’d hit the proverbial jackpot, he’d been saying that playing professional ball had sucked the fun out of the game for him.
Once he had the money backing him, he quit the team and now, he was working on providing safe, affordable housing for the less fortunate with his interior-designer wife. As if he needed to do any more, he was also helping talented but underprivileged kids get into baseball as a sideline.
What it all boiled down to was that the guys I’d grown up with had really grown up now. They were actual billionaires who were changing the world while I was putting on pretty clothes—and underwear—and smiling for a camera for a living.
I loved the fuck out of them, their wives, and Tanner and Jeremiah’s kids, but lately, I’d been feeling left out. Like I should’ve been doing something bigger with my life by now.
They’d never done anything to make me feel that way, but we were all in our late twenties. The same age, yet no longer quite the same. I tuned back into their conversation just as Jeremiah was ordering another pitcher of beer, and Tanner shifted on the bench and took something out of his pocket. Thankfully Bart seemed to have forgotten about paying me back by ordering the top-shelf liquor, so I turned my attention to Tanner instead.
“What’s that?” I asked as he handed over a piece of glossy paper.
“It’s a flyer I found at the gym earlier,” he explained. “Quality Gentlemen Magazine is looking for a new billion-dollar man to be their face for the next five years. They’re having a competition that’s open to all male models and actors to try and find this new guy of theirs. As soon as I saw it, I thought you should enter.”
“No,” I said without even thinking about it. “There’s no way I’m doing something like that.”
Jeremiah snapped his fingers. “I’ve heard about this. QG’s CEO retired a couple months ago and whoever’s in charge over there now is really shaking things up. Word on the street is that they’re determined not to be next on the print magazine chopping block.”
He gave me a meaningful look. “You should really consider entering. From what I’ve heard, this competition is going to have the media crawling all over it. They’re making sure it’s highly publicized to get the public to buy in. According to what I know, their CEO is banking on the public buying and subscribing to their magazine more if they feel like they had a hand in choosing their next cover man. Even if you don’t win, it’ll still be great exposure and it could do amazing things for your career.”
I sighed. “I’m not interested in putting myself out there like that. It could be good for my career, but it could also be embarrassing as fuck.”
Even as I voiced my protests, though, there was a part of me wondering if they were right. Minutes ago, I’d been thinking about how they were leaving me in the dust, and if I didn’t want them to keep getting further and further ahead of me, then I had to do something to give me a chance to catch up.
This could be that something.
Tanner heaved out a disappointed breath. “Fine, but at least keep the flyer.”
He turned back to the others, and when their attention wasn’t on me anymore, I did what he’d suggested and pocketed the glossy ad. I didn’t know if I was going to go for it just yet, but keeping the flyer couldn’t hurt.
Depending on what this competition turned out to be all about, it could even be fun while simultaneously presenting me to the world as more than just a guy who looked good in his undies. It was a long shot, but it might just be worth it in the end.
Vowing to look into the competition later, I focused on my friends for the rest of the night. It’d been a while since it’d just been the four of us, and while my career was my main priority, I forgot about work just for this one night.
Soon, Bart and Serenity would be taking off again. Jeremiah, Steph, Tanner, and Larisa would get wrapped up in kids and work again, and then I’d have all the time in the world to figure out what the hell I was going to do to change my life. The only thing I knew for certain right now was that I was going to do something. I was over being left behind, and I refused to keep dragging my feet much longer.