Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Systems. But when he makes an offhand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.
To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.
But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart...but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.
“What a fantastic book. I don't know where to even start with the raving. The dialogue is so good that I have to resist the temptation to just quote the whole book.”
—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“This whole story's fantastic. I really enjoyed the dynamics and the passion and, of course, the writing. If you're looking for a great read, pick up Courtney Milan's Trade Me.”
—The Book Swarm
“This is a New Adult billionaire story Milan-style, which means she crafts this story with her personal style of awesomeness and knocks it so far out of the park it's 200 miles away. Seriously, stop reading this review and just go buy the book right now. You can thank me later.”
All of my books get code names. I’ve had the idea for Trade Me bopping around my head for over a year. I started writing it sometime in 2013, but have always prioritized the historicals. I don’t recall when I first got the idea for the book, but I always knew that if I ever wrote a book about a billionaire college student, he would get his billions the old-fashioned way: through nepotism and trust funds.
Which is why the code name for the book is Inheritance.
I used to say here that the series name is Inheritance, but nope. It’s the Cyclone series. Because until you get to that point in the book, you don’t always know how much of a character a company (or a watch) might end up being.
About this Book
If you’ve read some of my books before, you may notice this is a bit of a departure for me. It's a contemporary New Adult romance, written in alternating first person points of view. You might be wondering: How much of a departure is it?
In some ways, it's a huge departure. In other ways, not so much. For instance, is Blake really a billionaire? Yes, but he's not a self-made one. His father is the CEO of Cyclone; between Blake, his father, and his grandparents, they own more than 50% of Cyclone stock. And Cyclone is a company that is modeled after the tech firms that took prominence starting in the late twentieth century—Microsoft, Google, Apple, Oracle—which means that the 1.2% of Cyclone stock that Blake owns is worth in the billions. You'll find out exactly how Blake got his 1.2% of Cyclone stock. It wasn't precisely a gift, but it wasn't exactly the sort of thing that anyone could do. It was a right place, right time kind of thing—and some people are always in the right place.
How is it not so much of a departure? Well, oddly enough, I've had to do more research to write this book than any other book I've written to date.
I suspect that some people who read this book will hate it. I also suspect that some people will love it. It's very much a New Adult romance, Courtney Milan style.
Today is going to be a good day.
There is little outward evidence of this. Ragged, gray clouds skittered in overhead during my morning bus ride. By the time I got to my stop a few blocks from the edge of campus, rain was coming down in earnest. Now, passing cars send up a fine spray of droplets. The umbrella in my backpack gave up the ghost as soon as I pulled it out, and I haven’t had a chance to duct tape the fabric to the spines yet, because I’m about fourteen minutes away from a class that starts in eleven minutes and twenty-nine seconds.
Today hasn’t started particularly well, and my schedule only forecasts worse. I have five hours of work this afternoon and several projects due in the next two days. Before I can tackle any of that, there’s the pesky issue of three hours of morning classes. I’ll be lucky to sleep before midnight.
But counterbalancing that undoubtedly depressing list is one bright beacon: I’m wearing my favorite sweater.
I know. It doesn’t sound like much. But here are the facts: My favorite sweater is white cashmere. It’s soft and warm. I found it in a Salvation Army in Alhambra when I was buying clothes for college two and a half years ago, tagged with the ridiculously low price of $3.79 even though it looked like it had never been worn.
I argued with myself—and my mom—for twenty minutes about buying it. On the one hand, it was a mint-condition cashmere sweater for under five bucks. On the other hand, it was cashmere. And white.
And that’s why I’m positive that today will be a good day. Twenty-nine months after that purchase, I still have that sweater and it’s still unstained. And let me tell you, Tina Chen is not usually that graceful on her own. That’s two and a half years of no dropped coffee cups or sliding spaghetti strands. It’s twenty-nine months of no toner spills at work, of nobody bumping into me holding a slice of pizza at the wrong time.
My life usually feels like a living illustration of Murphy’s Law. But when I wear my favorite sweater, somehow everything that can go wrong magically doesn’t.
So yes, today is going to be a good day. I’m not generally a superstitious person, but I don’t have to imagine my stars aligning. The rain slows and the clouds begin to thin as I make my way to the forested edge of campus. The pedestrian signal magically changes at the exact moment I come to the intersection. The campus bell tower is playing an arrangement of “Take Me to the River,” and even though I’m breathing fast by the time I make it to Dwinelle, where my class is, I’ve made up for lost time. All I have to do is cross one last expanse of wet asphalt and painted white lines.
The lot is filled with gleaming wet cars, and I pick my way through it, navigating around dirty puddles of rainbow-hued water. I check my watch one last time. Three minutes to go. One minute to get to the building, two to dash up the stairs. I’m going to make it.
One minute, I’m stepping out from between two cars, looking at my wrist. The next, a silent blur of glistening black engineering going way too fast for a parking lot cuts by. The car sweeps beside me and muddy, oily water sheets up in a wave. I don’t have time to move away. I barely even have time to turn my head. Water flies everywhere, drenching me.
The wind picks up—or maybe I only feel its chilled fingers against my arm because I’m wet through. I wipe my face, glaring at the car ahead of me. It takes me a moment standing frozen in the parking lot to understand what just happened. I’m cold. I’m wet. And that means…
I look down, and it’s not just my arm that feels cold. The whole world seems to turn to ice around me, shivering and shaking.
That asshole just splashed muddy water all over my sweater. Dark flecks mark the once-bright white sleeve.
For a moment, I can’t even believe it. It’s not possible.
Oh, trust me. This kind of thing happens all the time. But it’s not supposed to happen to my sweater.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck.
I glare at the car. It turns smoothly and pulls into a space marked with a sign proclaiming that the spot is reserved for visitors of the chancellor’s office. Whoever’s inside, whoever is driving, is already off-limits. My fists clench, but what am I supposed to do? Yell at some visiting official?
Then the car door opens and the driver gets out. He’s tall and thin with sandy-blond hair. He reaches back into the car for a messenger bag and then slams the door.
He’s not the chancellor. He’s not even a visitor to the chancellor’s office. And I don’t need to be psychic to know that, because I recognize this driver. For one, he’s in my next class.
For another, he’s Blake Reynolds. Yes, the Blake Reynolds—he of the adorable childhood commercials, of Cyclone Systems fame.
Until now, I have had nothing against Blake Reynolds. He sits one aisle over in class. Our discussion section started two weeks ago, and we’ve made eye contact once or twice during class. He has a nice smile.
When I’m eighty, and I don’t care about the truth anymore, I’ll tell all the kids who will listen that yes, I knew Blake Reynolds, and you know, he kind of had a thing for me. You should have seen me back then. I was so cute!
But I’m twenty now and I don’t have the luxury of lying to myself. So right now, watching him stride across the parking lot, the memory of his smile turns my stomach. Blake’s smile is like a lottery ticket: It’s the smile that a thousand people will use to construct impossible dreams. In reality, it’s as indifferent as the weather. Good fortune; bad fortune. It doesn’t matter. He’s never really noticed I’m there.
I have nothing against Blake Reynolds, except that he nearly ran me over. Except that every time he’s smiled at me, I’ve felt a little tickle of something in the pit of my stomach, and I don’t have time for something, let alone harboring that something for Blake Reynolds. I have nothing against Blake, even though he’s apparently been told he can park in the chancellor’s spot, for God’s sake. I have nothing against the fact that the Graduate Student Instructor who leads our section practically fawns over him, hanging on every word he says as if it were chiseled on stone tablets.
I have nothing against Blake except that I’m going to spend the next few hours freezing because of him. And he got oil stains on my lucky sweater.
Fine. I admit it. I have something against Blake Reynolds.
He lopes up to the building as I squeeze water out of my sleeve. He has an easy, smooth gait, and he disappears between the glass doors before I can say anything. I follow behind, grimly strangling the straps of my backpack and pretending it’s his neck. But I don’t have time to do anything except follow him into the building, dash up a few flights of stairs, find a bathroom, and rub hopelessly at my sleeve with whatever I can find. Thirty seconds convinces me that water and a swiftly eroding paper towel aren’t going to solve the problem.
I’m two minutes late when I slide into my seat. The instructor—he’s told us to call him Fred—gives me a dirty look. The girl behind me gives me an understanding smile as I sit down and brush at my sweater.
“Shitty weather, isn’t it?” she whispers.
Beside me, just two feet away, Blake glances my way. For a second, our eyes meet, and I imagine myself throwing my backpack at him. But he just smiles at me—that goddamned lottery ticket of a smile—as if nothing is wrong.
I gave him a dirty look, but he’s already looked away.
Of course. He still doesn’t notice.
I take my folder out of my backpack, set the week’s reading on the desk next to it, and sit back.
This is not like my programming languages class, where I take notes constantly. This is a class for freshmen, a survey course where people just…talk about the reading. I have two majors, both with a huge slate of prerequisites. For scheduling reasons, I didn’t end up getting all my required classes out of the way my first two years of college. Consequently, Blake and I are the oldest ones in the class.
This is just a discussion section, which means that people—freshmen people, to be exact—spend time expounding on their theory of the world. Since almost none of them have any experience to speak of, the discussions tend to be both heated and naïve. I’m not a big talker, so I normally don’t say anything unless I’m prodded.
We’ve been talking about the politics of the safety net for the last week and a half. Today, we’re talking about food stamps. Everyone speaks earnestly and academically about topics that have no effect on their daily lives. I don’t know if I’m alone in my experience—I can’t be the only one in here who doesn’t come from money—but from the conversation, it sure sounds like it. I nod and pretend that these things don’t matter to me, either.
I pretend it doesn’t matter when the girl at the front of the class says that people on food stamps are lazy. I pretend I don’t care when someone talks about how they saw someone buying a fifth of vodka and a bag of candy with EBT. I nod and I smile and I try not to shiver. I tell myself it’s the draft, that it’s my drenched, mud-stained, no-longer-lucky sweater.
And don’t get me wrong. This is Cal, and the students here are not exactly known for their staunch conservatism, so there are even more people defending the concept of food stamps. Somehow, they still manage to imply that people on food stamps are an endangered species and that the smarter, better parts of society should extend a helping hand to those less-fortunate primates who can’t take care of themselves. God save me from college students who think they can save a world they don’t really inhabit.
I grind my pen into the desk and keep my mouth shut.
And then Blake raises his hand.
I’ve been trying not to look at him since class started. I’ve been trying not to think about him, because I’m already pissed off and I don’t need to feel more pissed off. But he’s the golden boy of the class, and when Fred gestures to him and he leans back in his seat, I can’t not look at him.
Blake is tall and blond. He has a light dusting of facial hair—more than scruff, less than a full beard—that would look unkempt on just about any other student. On him, it looks distinguished. He started college a little later than most students would, and before he came here, he had a high-level position in his father’s company. He glances around the room, smiling, supremely confident that whatever he’s going to say will be brilliant. Everyone else seems to hold their breath, already believing the same thing.
Blake also wears a suit and tie to class. Let me be honest: Most college students who dress up look like douchebags playing at being adults. They look like they care so much about their appearance that they’re afraid to relax. By contrast, Blake looks like he’s got the money to dress well and then another million bucks on top of that. He doesn’t have to give a shit about what anyone thinks of him.
I suppose he’s good-looking, if you like the juxtaposition of sharp with slightly disheveled.
Which I definitely don’t. Not today.
“Here’s how I see things,” Blake says. At the front of the class, Fred sets his hand on his chin and nods.
“We can discuss the effect that food stamps have.” Blake has a trillion-watt smile, one that could power every computer that his father’s company has ever produced. “We can argue whether policies like food stamps make people lazy. We can talk about incentives, and we can talk about money. And I understand those who say that all our good intentions do is create a permanent underclass that perpetuates the cycle of poverty, that people need to work for the benefits they’re given, not just have them handed to them for doing nothing.”
A tide of red anger fills me. My pen gouges the paper.
“But,” Blake says, “let’s say we grant all that is true for the sake of argument. What are the real alternatives? We’ve tried doing nothing, Dickens-style, and we know how that turned out. No matter what we do, we will have a permanent underclass. The only question we have is how we treat them, and what that says about us.”
Oh, that’s the only question, is it? Funny. I have other questions.
Shut up, I tell myself desperately, but it’s too late. My mouth seems to work of its own accord.
“I see,” I hear myself say. “So poor people are lazy and doomed, but we should help them anyway so that you can take the credit?” My face flushes as I speak.
Blake’s eyes widen. Slowly—every second seems slow right now, drowned by the beat of my heart—he turns to me. He sits right across from me; our eyes meet, and I can see the astonishment in his gaze. I can almost feel him taking in my stained sweater, my fading jeans. I’m nothing to him.
“I’m sorry.” He sounds honestly surprised, as if he can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with him, let alone a nothing like me. “What did you say?”
I should put my head back down. I should go back to holding my tongue, watching other people talk about my life. But I can’t. The only thing I’ve ever had to stave off the direst consequences of Murphy’s Law was a sweater and superstition, and Blake destroyed my faith in both today.
“You heard what I said.” My voice is shaking. “When have you ever been on food stamps? When have you ever had to work for anything? Who gave you the right to grant that poor people are lesser beings for the sake of argument? And who the hell are you to say that the only important thing is not whether people actually starve to death, but how the world will judge the wealthy?”
His face goes white. “I work,” he says. “I work really hard. It’s not easy—”
“It’s not easy being Adam Reynolds’s son,” I finish for him. “We all know how hard you work. Your dad told the entire world when he put you in charge of his interface division at the age of fourteen. I’m sure you’ve worked a lot of hours, sitting at a desk and taking credit for what other people do. It must be really hard holding down the part-time job that your father gave you. I bet it leaves you almost no time to spend your millions of dollars in stock options. Hey, I guess I was wrong. You do know what it’s like to get something in exchange for nothing. You’re an expert at it.”
His lips press together.
“But it doesn’t make you an expert on poverty,” I tell him. “I was up until midnight last night. I live five miles away, because I can’t afford to live in Berkeley. It takes me forty-five minutes to get to class. How long did it take you to park your BMW in the chancellor’s spot?”
He looks at me, his eyes wide. “It’s…” He shakes his head. “It’s not a BMW.” As if that were the one salient fact in our prior discussion.
At the front of the class, Fred, the hapless instructor, is rummaging through his papers for the seating chart.
“It’s really big of you to say it doesn’t matter if people think my parents are lazy,” I tell him. “But they’re not your parents, and starting off your charitable statement by assuming that my family is subhuman is really, really crappy.”
“Hey,” Fred says. “Hey, uh…” He peers at the paper. “We don’t need to engage in personal attacks, uh…” He squints. “Uh.” Fred calls all the students by their first name, but my legal name has obviously stymied him. He shrugs and bulls on. “Let’s keep this about the issues, Miss Chen.”
“He got personal first.” My voice trembles. “I am this issue. My dad lost his job when I first started college. If my family hadn’t had food stamps then, I would have had to drop out.” I’m not going to cry. Not in front of everyone, and especially not in front of Blake. “None of you have any idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know what it’s like to go into a store and use EBT. You don’t know what it’s like to slink into a Salvation Army and hope that there will be something that will let you fit in with classmates whose weekly allowance would feed your family for two months.” I glare at Blake again.
Blake looks away. On the plus side—and this is not a huge plus—it looks like I won’t have to worry about Blake smiling at me anymore.
“And that’s why this issue is personal,” I say. “We’re invisible to you, except when you want to tell us what to do. You know what, Blake? Nobody here would care about a word you said if your family was on food stamps. Try trading lives with me. You couldn’t manage it, not for two weeks.”
He looks away from me. The tips of his ears turn pink, though, and his lips press into an angry line.
Nobody is looking at me, for that matter. They’re avoiding eye contact like I’m some kind of feral dog that needs to be put down. And that’s when I realize precisely how many people are witnessing this. How many of my fellow students are tapping out distress signals on the phones they’re cradling surreptitiously on their laps.
I can almost feel the Facebook posts springing up around me.
ZOMG. Some nobody just bitched out Blake Reynolds.
LOL did u hear she was on food stamps?
I look down at my stained sweater. She was dressed like a homeless person. I shit you not.
It’s going to be all over the internet in a matter of minutes.
“Are you done, Miss Chen?” Fred asks sarcastically.
I’m almost hyperventilating in panic, but then I realize how ridiculous I’m being. The one good thing about being a Tina Chen at Berkeley is that I’m indistinguishable from any of the other dozens of Tina Chens around. I can be as inappropriate as I want. I’m not googleable. I bow my head, letting my hair fall around my face like a curtain.
Someone else’s hand is in the air. “I think that’s really unfair to Blake,” someone in front pipes up. “We all know how hard he works, and how hard his dad works. They’ve definitely earned everything they have.”
Fine. They don’t want to acknowledge me as a person. Nothing’s really changed. I don’t have the time or the energy to care. But apparently, the class has turned into a referendum on Blake, and now everyone has to have their say.
“I really like the tap-to-call feature on my Tempest,” another girl puts in. “It’s genius. Blake deserves everything he has.”
It goes on like that for a few minutes. I take copious notes throughout the entire debacle. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck shit shit shit shit fuck fuck fuck, I write in my notebook in my neatest cursive. Everyone—Fred included—falls all over themselves to say how great Blake is. And then the tone shifts.
“I think some people need to stop blaming others for where they are. If some people stopped wasting energy on playing the victim, and started doing something instead, they’d get a lot further in life.”
I hunch in on myself, preparing for even worse.
“Hey,” Blake says sharply.
He’s just two feet away from me. I’m not going to look at him.
But his tone is icy. “This has gone on long enough. Come on, guys. Enough of this crap. She’s right. We all know I won the nepotism lottery. I’m not an expert, and if I said something stupid, I’m glad she was willing to point it out.”
Silence falls in response. At the front of the class, Fred clears his throat, maybe now remembering that he has a job besides savaging students. “Right. Let’s…uh, let’s move on.”
And I? I do not want to feel grateful to Blake. I hate that nobody even recognized me as a person until Blake spoke up. And when I tilt my head to the side… I hate that he looks at me, that he gives me a silent nod, like he’s granted me his permission to criticize him.
I didn’t need his permission.
After class lets out, I take my time leaving so I don’t have to fake nonchalance on my way out.
The girl in front of me stands and then turns to me. “You know,” she murmurs in a low, furtive voice, as if wanting to make sure nobody else hears her, “I thought you had a good point. I’m glad you said it. I didn’t want to.”
But I don’t want to talk, so I wait until she goes. I consider whether my pen belongs in the front pocket or the side pocket of my backpack. I make sure my notebook is securely placed next to my textbooks. I check the zipper. Twice.
By the time I leave, the classroom is empty.
The hallway outside isn’t, though. There’s one person from class still there, and he’s the last person—the very last person in the world—that I want to talk to at the moment. He’s leaning against the wall, looking even more like a businessman than a student. He looks at me now. His eyes are the ridiculous blue of ocean waters on some tropical beach. They make me think of a spring break that I will never be able to afford.
“Hey,” he says.
I’m not sure how to respond. My hands are still shaking. I don’t think I can keep it together through a longer spat with him. I should have kept my mouth shut in the first place.
I give him the barest of nods and keep walking.
“Hey,” he repeats. “Tina.”
That does stop me. Fred didn’t know what to call me. How does Blake Reynolds know my name?
Slowly, I turn to him. I’ve never talked to him before today. Maybe he emailed someone while we were in class? One of his…people. Someone like Blake has to have people, right? He parked in an official visitor’s spot with impunity. Getting a class roster would hardly pose a problem.
But wait. Even if he got my name off the official class roster, he wouldn’t know I go by Tina. He’d only know my legal name—Xingjuan Chen.
And then he does something I’m not expecting. He gives me a sheepish smile. It’s so different from the cocky grin that he normally wears that I take a step back.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
He shrugs. “You’re right. It’s not my place to say it doesn’t matter what people say about you. And I should have stopped that before it turned into a pile-on.” He indicates the room we just came from with a tilt of his head. “I was just taken aback.”
He looks at me like he expects me to shrug it all off, like I’m supposed to pat him on the shoulder and say that it’s okay.
But it’s not. And the fact that he thinks it can be just makes me feel worse. Nothing about my life is okay right now, and he can’t change that.
“Can I…” He takes a deep breath, and then that cocky smile is back on his face, like he’s sure of himself again. “Can I get you coffee or something as an apology?”
He holds his hand out to me, like I’m supposed to shake it. When he does, his coat—impeccably tailored gray wool—pulls back from his sleeve. For a second, with his hand outstretched, I see dark ink against his wrist, the edge of a tattoo that seems completely at odds with everything I know about him.
For just that second, I wonder if I’m imagining it. His life has been an open book to the world ever since his father first put him in a television commercial at the tender age of twenty months.
Everyone knows everything about Blake Reynolds, boy prodigy, certain successor to Cyclone Systems. Everything…except I’ve never heard of that tattoo.
I take another step away from him, putting my hands behind my back.
“Let me explain something,” I say. “You get to park in a spot reserved for the chancellor’s office.”
He grimaces. “Yeah. I usually don’t. But when I started school, he…um.” He trails off, as if realizing that now is not the time to remind me that the entire university administration is no doubt slavering over the potential endowment boost his attendance represents.
“By contrast,” I say, “I have an hour between this class and my next one. If I can’t knock off one of my assignments in that time, I will be up until two tonight.”
His smile fades.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re probably a legitimately decent person. But I don’t have time for your apology.”
“Two-second version, then. I’m sorry I was clueless. I’ll try to do better.”
He looks at me, his eyes serious, and that damned something, that coiling awareness in my stomach, starts up again. It almost makes me mad that he won’t let me walk off steeping in my anger. No; he has to take that away from me, too.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper,” I say, and I start to leave.
I turn back reluctantly.
“You were right about almost everything you said,” he says. “But there was one thing you were really wrong about.”
He gives me another one of his smiles, and this one seems to curl around me, catching me up in a wave of warmth. “You said that I didn’t notice people like you.” His voice lowers. His eyes are relentlessly blue, and they cut into me. “That’s completely false. You’ve never been invisible to me. I saw you the first day we crossed paths, and I’ve been seeing you ever since.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to think. Against my better judgment, that little spark of something ignites in my stomach. A flame dances, ready to catch fire.
But I have to be vigilant.
“On the contrary,” I hear myself say. “This morning, you cut in front of me in the parking lot. You were three inches from me. And…” I hold up my sleeve, showing the damage.
“So when I said you didn’t see me, I meant it. Literally.”
His eyes shut. “Shit.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I’m used to it.”
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