Chapter One

Akemi Morisato's life was a series of routines.

Every morning at six, even without an alarm clock, she would wake up and get ready for school. At exactly seven she would already be out of the house, where sometimes her best friend Makoto would be waiting by their gate; ready to accompany her on their ten-minute walk to school.

But today was a Monday, and naturally, Makoto would be running late. She was already certain of it the moment she opened the front door.

Instead Makoto stood waiting out on the street, his dyed, sandy brown hair looking almost blonde in the sunlight. He looked up from his phone and promptly slipped it in his pocket the moment he saw her.

"Did I get the day wrong?" she asked, closing the gate behind her. "Today is a Monday, isn't it?"

"Very funny." Makoto snorted. "I can be early if I want to be."

"You're not early. You're on time."

"I could've been standing here since an hour ago."

"Impossible. I looked out the window when I woke up."

"I could've been hiding."

Akemi gave up with a laugh. They could go on and on, but Makoto would never back down.

They stopped at an intersection, waiting by the pedestrian lane along with the other commuters. On Mondays everything seemed busier and more crowded everywhere in Tokyo, even in the suburbs where she and Makoto lived. Her idle gaze fell on the headlines from a nearby newspaper stand, the large, bold text reading, Major construction firm CEO found dead in parking lot.

She promptly looked away. Not exactly a pick-me-upper.

The pedestrian light turned green as they resumed walking.

"Soccer practice should end early today," Makoto said beside her. "Wanna go somewhere after class?"

"Sorry, I promised Dad I'd help him find something for Mom's birthday."

"Daddy's girl," he teased.

"Whatever." She rolled her eyes. Their school finally came into view as cherry blossom trees lined the road and showered petals past them.

"Hold on," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. He picked on something in her hair—a petal most likely—and slowly let it travel down a strand of her long, brown hair before taking it out.

"Thanks," she murmured, suddenly feeling sheepish at the way Makoto's gaze lingered on her face. Sometimes he did that, and it would make her feel self-conscious.

"Next time I'll be picking lice on your head," he said, and all at once he returned to being the same old, annoying jokester.

They entered campus and headed for the main building, only parting to head to their separate classrooms. He was about to do the one move that annoyed her, and even after eighteen years she was yet to be able to dodge it.

Makoto reached out his hand, ready to attack. She'd tried running away, ducking, kicking, but to no avail. Today she grabbed his arm in an attempt to stop him, but he was too strong.

He ruffled her hair into a wild mess and laughed all the way down the corridor. "See you around!"

"Damn it!" she groaned, quickly fixing her hair before entering her classroom.

It was bustling with conversation when she arrived. She returned everyone's greetings on her way to her desk, where she promptly placed her bag and overheard a small group of girls huddled and giggling the next table over.

"Wow, he's cute! No wonder he's on the list!"

"This one's cute too! I don't know who to pick…"

"They're all hot! I wish I could have them all…"

Curious, Akemi craned her neck to see what they were fussing over. "Hey, guys. What's going on?"

"Morning, Akemi," one of the girls said. "Tsubame here just bought Layla magazine's latest issue. They're featuring a ranking of all the hot, single celebrities this month!"

Akemi didn't particularly care for famous people, but she politely accepted the magazine thrust into her hands as more girls gathered around her.

"Um, cool." She nodded, mindlessly flipping over page after page of men. "So who got number one?"

"That's the thing. We have no idea who he is."

That piqued Akemi's interest. She ran through the pages before stopping at the centerfold dedicated to the chart-topper. Takeshi Ryuzaki, 27, the bold captions read.

The photograph seemed taken by paparazzi, showing a dark-haired man with light brown eyes. He had a well-defined jaw and high cheekbones; his lean frame embraced by the tailored suit he was wearing. In the shot his eyes were narrowed, giving him an arrogant, self-entitled vibe.

"Oh, I think I recognize him now. He looks like the guy that model Mika Matsumoto went out with," the girl beside her said.

"Really? He looks more like the guy I saw with that primetime soap actress…"

Akemi skimmed through the article. "It says here he's the heir to a multimillion-dollar real estate conglomerate."

"Then no wonder he got number one!" someone commented as everyone laughed.

Akemi handed the magazine to someone else and was able to leave the group unscathed.

Takeshi Ryuzaki was, for the most part, a punctual person.

On most Mondays he was already in the office before ten. Most days, his punctuality went without regard.

But today, one naked, raven-haired Russian model proved difficult to part with. Still, there was nothing to regret from that amazing shower sex this morning, which caused him to be almost two hours late.

The elevator doors to the 38th floor of the Ryuzaki Corporate Tower parted for him. His secretary at the front desk looked at him like a deer caught in headlights.

"Good morning," she swallowed. "Mr. Hanada's in your office."

Several feet away, Chief Operations Officer Masayoshi Hanada visibly paced back and forth from the glass doors of Takeshi's office. Almost as if telepathic, Hanada stopped and looked straight at him, his lip curling with utmost disapproval.

"Of all days," Takeshi muttered under his breath before plastering a ready, cordial smile and straightening his suit.

"It's almost noon," Hanada bit out without preamble as soon as Takeshi opened the door.

"Yes, my watch agrees with you," Takeshi replied, noticing his cousin cross-legged with a cup of tea at the receiving end of the room.

You're dead, the barely concealed smirk at the corner of his cousin's lips seemed to say.

Enjoy the slaughter, Takeshi returned with a nod.

"Where the hell have you been, boy?" Hanada snapped him back to attention. "How could you skip out on yesterday's meeting? I've practically humiliated myself apologizing on your behalf!"

"Forgive me, Mr. Hanada. I was feeling a bit under the weather."

Hanada scrutinized his face with narrowed eyes. "Yes, and look at you now. You look like you've never been sick at all!"

"A good night's sleep was all I needed." And a very good night it was indeed, Takeshi added to himself.

"Well, since you're looking to be in the peak of health, I'm sure you won't mind meeting up with Mr. Suzuki today. I need that merger signed before the end of this month! Don't stand this one up!"

"Yes, sir."

"You better mean that, boy! God, if only your father were here." Hanada raised his hands in acquiescence before shooting a glare at Takeshi's cousin at the other end of the room. "And you! Keep him in line, won't you? The two of you will be the death of me!"

His cousin Hiroshi nearly scalded himself with his tea. "Yes, sir."

Hanada turned on his heel with a huff and left without another word.

Marketing division head Hiroshi Katsuragi gingerly placed his tea down and folded his hands on his lap. "Well, that was certainly an invigorating way to start the week."

"Not quite," Takeshi said, undoing the button off his suit and sitting before his desk. "I've already had my morning start."

"Oh?" Hiroshi's almond brown eyes twinkled with amusement. "Who was it this time?"

Takeshi flipped open his laptop. "Katarina."

Hiroshi released a low whistle and stood up. "Stronger than the finest coffee, indeed."

Takeshi simply smirked as his cousin left the room.

After class, Akemi took the train and arrived at the Regent Hotel Tokyo that afternoon. As soon as she entered past the golden, revolving doors, she stood admiring the grand, lavish interiors of the lobby; feeling out of place in her high school uniform while everyone walked past her in suits and dresses.

"Look at you. You look like you've never been in a hotel before."

Akemi rolled her eyes at the voice behind her and turned around, facing her father with a smile. "Not in a hotel this fancy. Must've been a pretty important client for you to have your meeting here."

"Yes, with a just as pretty important deal I managed to seal."

She laughed with delight. "Congratulations! I guess that means we're going all out for Mom's birthday present?"

"Not too all out I hope, otherwise I won't have any budget left for you and your sister's Christmas presents."

Akemi shook her head. "Oh, no. We definitely don't want that."

"Very well. Let's get going then." Her father chuckled in amusement as he began feeling for his pockets. "Hold on, I might've left my phone in the lounge. Go on ahead."

She nodded, walking towards the elevators at the other end of the lobby to head for basement parking.

Takeshi rose from his seat, shaking hands with three gentlemen in a private section of the hotel lounge. Suzuki, his guest for the afternoon, gave his arm a friendly squeeze.

"It's always a pleasure working with you, my boy. I look forward to finalizing that deal with you soon."

"And I as well, sir." Takeshi smiled, exchanging cordial bows with them. His cheeks almost hurt from smiling for too long, but at least the agony that was the droll, two-hour meeting with the septuagenarians was finally over.

When the three men were finally out of sight, Takeshi downed the last of his brandy before buttoning his suit jacket close.

He walked across the lobby to head to the elevators, paying no heed to the stares and whispers following him. Being ogled at was something he was long used to, especially in one of the hotels his family owned. Well, he pretty much bid farewell to his private life after he agreed to become the company's official spokesperson two years ago. The moment his face first appeared on the evening news to deliver a press release, he became a celebrity overnight. The paparazzi became frequent companions after that.

Takeshi stepped inside the elevator. He pressed for the basement parking, massaging the bridge of his nose. He couldn't wait for this day to be over.