I don’t care if you like me or not.
Insatiable lust for power and control runs thick in my veins. My father served as president of the United States of America—and his father before him. Montgomeries are born to lead and rule, to fear nothing and cower to no one, to make allegiances not friends.
But I digress.
With a senate campaign about to launch and presidential aspirations at fever pitch intensity, imagine my dismay when my strategist tells me I need to “settle down” with a “nice girl” in order to appeal to my constituents.
Enter Rowan Aldridge, a head-turning stunner with a charm school walk, Jackie O. refinement, and a well-connected family.
So I’ll do what I have to do, make her believe what I need her to believe, and as soon as the campaign’s over and I’ve secured my senatorial seat, I’ll release my pretty little butterfly back into the wild.
But this isn’t about all of that.
This is what happens a villain falls in love.
“There was a girl crying in the restroom,” she says. “I had to console her.”
“Let’s make rounds, shall we?” I ask, downing the rest of my champagne before leaning into her ear. “I’d like to get out of here while the night’s still young. You slinking around here in that dress and knowing I can’t touch you the way I want to is driving me fucking insane.”
Her chin tucks and her mouth slips into a smirk.
Rowan slips her hand into the bend of my elbow, and I lead her into the crowd. The ballroom is filling by the minute, guests still arriving, and the jazz band in the corner is playing some Frank Sinatra tune.
Everywhere we go, people stare, and I don’t blame them.
We look incredible together, but it isn’t just our outward appearance. It’s everything. We just mesh. We fit. She gets me. I get her.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” I tell her, squeezing her hand as we approach a bald man in a dark gray suit. “Senator Harvey.”
The senator turns, his eyes landing on Rowan first then lifting to me, and when he recognizes me, he extends his hand, grinning wide.
“Keir,” he says. “It’s been a long time. Look at you.”
“Rowan, I’d like you to meet Senator Bill Harvey,” I say. “He was one of my most influential professors at Dartmouth. Now he’s influencing millions. Congratulations on passing that reform bill last year. I know what a labor of love that was for you.”
He rolls back on his heels, nodding. “Almost lost hope for a second, but it pulled through at the last minute. How have you been? How are things going for you?”
I glance at Rowan before answering. “Never better.”
And I mean it.
Rising on the balls of his feet, he makes eye contact with someone in the distance. “Looks like my wife is trying to flag me down, Keir. It was nice talking to you. And great meeting you, Rowan.”
Moving on, I take her from senator to representative to ambassador to billionaire benefactor, all of this serving two purposes.
Primarily, I want these people to feel comfortable supporting me once I announce my candidacy, and in order for them to feel comfortable, I want them to see that I’m getting settled, calming my wild ways. And second, I want Rowan to feel at ease in this world. I want her to feel like a part of it, a part of me. If she stays with me, she’ll need to schmooze and smile and socialize while I get my career off the ground.
When we’ve spent a solid two hours making our rounds, I call the car around.
I want to get her home and I want her all to myself.
I’m done sharing her.
And tomorrow, when she makes her decision, it better be me. And if it isn’t, I’m going to do everything in my power to change her mind.
I can’t lose her. I can’t let her go. Not now, not ever.
I realize tonight, with complete certainty, that I’m falling madly in love with this woman.
So she sends him a reason to live. With that comes unforeseen difficulties.
Once again, Mackenzie sees firsthand how strong Hunter’s love and determination can really be. But is that enough? Will their lives ever be the same again?
On our way back to Camp Leatherneck, I sit in the back seat, looking out the window at the monotonous wasteland around us. Our mission at the COP is over, and I’ve completed my second deployment to Afghanistan. It’s back to Virginia for me.
I’m looking forward to going back to the States. Maybe I’ll manage to meet up Carey this time. The more time that passes since the thing with Mac, the easier it gets to live with it. I haven’t forgotten her, of course—and I never will—but it no longer hurts as much as it did in the beginning.
Suddenly, the front left of the car is yanked up off the ground. I hear screams and swearing as I try to steady myself in my seat. But our armored vehicle flips and lands on its side. All I can hear are shots, moans, and screams in Pashto, Dari, and English.
I can’t move. My leg is stuck. I try to say something, but nothing comes out. As I attempt to free my leg, the vehicle is hit and thrown up in the air again, throwing me through the window. I land on the ground a few feet away, disoriented and confused.
I want to get up and look for my buddies, make sure everybody’s okay, but I realize I can hardly hear anything. Then my field of vision shrinks, blackness creeping in around the edges. Before I can even lift an arm, I pass out.
I’m antsy throughout the entire flight, unable to focus on anything. Reading, watching a movie, distracting myself in any other way—forget about it.
I knew it all along. I was up all night, sure something had happened to Hunter, and the next morning, Carey and I heard Hunter had been injured in an attack and flown to Ramstein. By the time we were notified, he was in surgery. And that was all they could tell us.
I immediately got on a plane to go see him, even if it was tough for me to leave Hazel with Carey. I had to. I don’t know if Hunter is going to survive. I need to see him again, tell him how much I love him. I can’t let him go without that knowledge. Even if he can’t speak to me. He only needs to hear me. He needs to know I care.
I knead my hands until it feels like my skin’s going to fall off. I’m sitting beside the aisle, so I keep getting up to pace the length of the plane. How long can one flight last?
Twelve hours. Twelve long, agonizing hours later, we land in Frankfurt, and I board a shuttle bus Carey booked to take me to Ramstein Air Base. Carey also made sure I’ll get a visitor’s pass when I arrive.
The entire hour I’m on the van, I chew my nails, my thoughts going in circles. How is Hunter doing? Is he still alive? Am I too late?
Please, don’t let me be too late! I can’t imagine life without Hunter. Please, no! I don’t want to be without him.
When we get to the gates, I have to write my name on a form and show them my ID before they give me a pass and let the shuttle through. I go straight to the hospital and tell them at reception I’m here to see Hunter, but they ask me to have a seat in the waiting room. So I wait.
And keep waiting.
I call Carey to tell him I got here and ask about Hazel. Carey instructs me to hold the phone to Hunter’s ear as soon as possible he can hear him.
I swallow. “What if…” No. I can’t get the words out.
“No, Mac, no!” Carey snaps. “If it was that bad, somebody would have told me! I haven’t heard anything. We need to hope for the best.”
“You’re right. I’ll call you back later, okay?”
“Okay, wait a second. Hazel wants to talk to you.”
“Mommy! When you tummin bat?”
“Soon, angel. I’ll be back soon. You be good for Carey till then, okay?”
“Otay!” she squeals. “Ice tream!”
I smile. “Lots of ice cream, and then I’ll be back. I love you, honey.”
“Love you too!”
I didn’t cry on the plane, because I thought I simply had no tears left, but now they start rolling again.
“Mackenzie Hall?” somebody calls across the waiting room.
I turn and see a doctor in a doorway leading back into the hospital. With trembling legs, I get up. “Yes?”
“I’ll take you to your fiancé now. Sergeant Tilman’s brother told us you were authorized to see him. Obviously, Sergeant Tilman will need to confirm that when he wakes up from his coma.”
“Coma?” I repeat, shocked.
“Don’t worry. We thought it was best to induce a coma after surgery. We’re already reducing the meds, so he should wake up within the next few hours.”
“Can you tell me what’s wrong with him?”
“He suffered several non-lethal wounds, one to his shoulder, one to his arm, and a graze to his thigh. He has internal injuries, but we were able to stop the bleeding. The worst of it is that when he was ejected from the vehicle during the ambush, his leg suffered the greatest damage. We had to amputate below the knee.”
“Amputate?” I repeat dumbly. “He…He only has one leg now?”
The doctor nods gravely. “Yes. Amputating was the best option. He can wear a prosthetic, and if he’s lucky, he’ll be able to walk just like he used to.”
For a moment, I feel like I can’t breathe. But then relief wins out. “But…he’s going to make it?”
“There may be some other complications, but if everything heals like we think, then yes, he’ll make a full recovery. With some rehab and therapy, he’ll be able to lead a good life with his prosthetic.”
“Thank you,” I say, the words coming from the very depths of my heart. Everything is going to be okay, as long as Hunter lives. “Can I stay here with him?”
“Of course.” The doctor nods over his shoulder. “We’ll set up a cot for you in his room.”
“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.”
The doctor gives me a strict look. “Ma’am, you look like you haven’t slept in a long time. You breaking down with exhaustion is not going to help Sergeant Tilman. He needs you to be strong right now. Do you understand?”
I nod. “I’m a trauma therapist. I understand.”
“Okay. I’ll take you to him.”
I follow the doctor through the double doors of the waiting room and down a hallway, only stopping in front of the last door the doctor walks through. I have to work up all the strength I have left in me.
Hunter needs me to be strong, I repeat to myself.
When I finally step through the doorway and see him, I’m shocked. He looks so different than he did three years ago. Like I expected, he looks more masculine. He’s grown a beard, and his brown hair is still cropped short, but he has a ghastly tube in his mouth, and several others protruding from his body.
But the worst thing of all is seeing the place where his calf used to be. Because now there is…nothing.
I’m glad he’s not awake, because it gives me a chance to get used to the sight of him. This way, when he wakes up, I really can be strong for him. It’s good I’m getting this moment. I shed a few tears before reminding myself it could have been worse. People live with prosthetics every day, and an amputation below the knee is the best-case scenario. Everything will be okay. What matters is that he’s alive, that he’s going to recover. And that he’s finally going to listen to me. The stubborn ass.
Sliding a chair next to his bed, I sit down and take his hand without the port in it. Gently stroke his knuckles, I watch his beautiful face. He seems bigger—at least wider. He didn’t have shoulders like that three years ago, did he? Even though he’d already grown in width back then, he seems even bigger now. But my memory is surely a little blurred. I met him when he was seventeen and only saw him once at the age of twenty-one. What a history we have.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, Hunter,” I say, swallowing. “Some say people in comas can hear what’s going on around them. I’ll tell you all of this again once you’re better, but just in case you can hear me, I want to tell you right now that I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t take your hand without hesitating, even for a second. I can only blame a moment of derangement. I did not choose Carter, do you hear me? I chose you. I love you. So much! And you have given me the greatest present a man can give a woman. Her name is Hazel Claire. H for her daddy, C for her uncle. Carey is crazy about your daughter, Hunter. And I hope you will be, too. I’ve missed you so much. Carey has missed you so much. Hazel needs her dad. Please, Hunter, wake up and get well again. For me, for her. We need you.”
I tell him little stories about Hazel, like when she tried to eat the needles of the Christmas tree we bought last week. And how she learned to write the letter H and took her paintbrush to write Hs all over the hallway. That she’s a good eater but doesn’t like Brussels sprouts, even if you mash them together with potatoes. That she can say “Dad,” even if she never gets to use it. But she knows her daddy from pictures and videos.
At some point, I put my head down next to Hunter’s hand on the bed. I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept in three days, which gives me an idea of how he must have felt in boot camp—minus all the other types of torture he had to endure, of course.
A nurse wakes me up to measure Hunter’s vital signs, and I look around sleepily. It looks like morning. “Why don’t you lie down on the cot?” she suggests gently.
“I want to be with him,” I murmur.
She nods. “But you need to take care of yourself, too. And your little girl.”
“How do you…?”
She smiles. “You told him stories about your daughter for hours last night. Hazel.”
I nod. “She’s so precious.”
“And he doesn’t know about her?”
I bite my lip. How do I explain that he doesn’t know we have a child when I’m supposed to be his fiancé? “He hasn’t met her, no. He hasn’t been home.”
“It’s okay, love.” She pats my hand. “I don’t need details.” She winks at me before leaving the room.
I don’t want to leave Hunter, but I need coffee. So I scurry away to the cafeteria and get myself a cup before returning to his bedside. The doctor said he would be awake within the next few hours.
How many hours? I think miserably. Maybe he meant days…
“Hunter?” I rush forward. Fluttering—I saw his eyelids fluttering!
I squeeze his hand, and all of a sudden, he’s squeezing back.
“Hunter!” I put a hand on his cheek. His lashes twitch in unison with his eyelids. Oh my God! He’s waking up! “Hunter, it’s me!” I sob. “I’m here. Please wake up.”
He moves his head a little, and then suddenly his eyes fly open. There’s panic in them. He fights against the tube in his mouth.
“Hunter, calm down, it’s all right!” I put both hands on his face, forcing him to look at me. “Shhh. It’s okay. They’ll remove the tube in a second. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
He gives me a confused look but calms down a little. Releasing him for just a second, I press the button to call the nurse, and she comes in a moment later. She calls the doctor, who checks Hunter’s pupils and vital signs before removing the tube from his throat. Hunter gasps, coughs, and retches, but when he starts breathing again, tears run down my cheeks.
“Mac?” he asks hoarsely.
“I’m here, babe,” I say, taking his hand again.
He squeezes my fingers.
“Sergeant Tilman,” the doctor interrupts gently, “I’m Dr. Ferguson. I operated on you. You sustained injuries to your shoulder, arm, thigh, and leg. And there was internal bleeding from damage to your spleen. Do you remember the mission on which you were injured?”
Hunter squints. “Yeah. We were on the way back to Camp Leatherneck… Wait, what happened to Jax?”
“Corporal Jackson Halliwell,” Hunter clarifies with difficulty.
Dr. Ferguson shakes his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. I’ve never heard the name. He wasn’t brought here.”
Hunter swallows heavily.
“Do you remember what happened?” the doctor asks.
“We were ambushed.” It’s still difficult for him to speak, so the nurse hands him a glass of water with a straw. He carefully drinks a few small sips before continuing. “The vehicle was thrown up into the air, and I was ejected through the window.”
The doctor nods. “Ripping off your leg.”
Hunter’s eyes widen, his nostrils trembling. “My leg?” he repeats, like he doesn’t quite understand. He tries to sit up, squeezing my fingers so hard I hear a popping sound.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” the doctor says. “We had to amputate your left leg below the knee.”
The nurse presses a button that raises the head of Hunter’s bed. The panic in his eyes breaks my heart. And when he sees the blanket lying flat on the mattress where his leg should be, he sobs. I squeeze his fingers, not knowing how to help him process this. It must be surreal. The last time he was awake, he still had two legs. Now he only has one.
“Oh God,” he mumbles, again and again and again.
“Hunter, babe,” I murmur, putting an arm around his shoulders.
“Fuck, Mac!” He leans his head against my chest and cries. I reach around him with both arms, pulling him firmly to my chest.
“I’m so sorry.”
His tears soak my shirt. Somehow, it’s different to not just see his pain but feel it, too. I kiss his head, whispering calming words, even though I know they’re completely inadequate. His world is breaking down.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I murmur into his ear.
He pulls away, and there is madness in his eyes. “Nothing is going to be okay! I lost my leg!”
“I know, babe—”
“Don’t call me that! You chose him, you fucking whore!”
I know he doesn’t mean to hurt me. He’s just unable to deal with this situation. “Hunter—”
“I don’t want to see you.” He averts his eyes to the ceiling. “And I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“Get out, Mac! Be happy and forget about me,” he says bitterly.
I reach for his hand, but he pulls it away. “Don’t, Hunter, please… Listen to me!”
“Get out! Now!” He’s almost screaming by this point.
Though I don’t want to leave, the doctor and nurse escort me out of the room. Hunter’s not listening! He’s not interested in what I have to say. Not now.
“Ms. Hall, please go now,” Dr. Ferguson says. “You can talk to him later, when he’s had time to calm down. Right now, it’s best if you leave.”
“No, please,” I beg. “He needs me—”
“He does, but as long as he doesn’t understand that, he’ll just keep sending you away,” the nurse interrupts gently. “We’ll let you know when something changes. You can sit in the waiting room.”
“Okay,” I say defeated. “But please…d-don’t forget.” I walk down the hallway, my arms wrapped around myself. I haven’t felt this lonely in a very long time.
I don’t actually want to talk to anyone, but Carey must be worried, so I dial his number as I sit in an uncomfortable chair.
“Mac?” Carey answers. “How is he? Have you seen him? Can I talk to him?”
I sob the moment I hear his voice.
“No, Mac, no, no!” he desperately calls into the phone, his voice breaking.
“He’s alive, Carey, he’s alive,” I hurry to say, launching to my feet. His thoughts are taking him down the wrong track, and I can’t let him go there. “He’s awake.”
“Fuck! Mac!” Carey swears, relief evident in his voice. “What happened?”
“His convoy drove into an ambush. They were shot at, the vehicle was thrown up into the air, and he was ejected. His leg was ripped off.”
“Ripped off? What do you mean ripped…? Oh, no…”
“They amputated it.”
“Fuck! No! I… Oh my God!”
After a long moment in which neither of us know what to say, Carey asks, “How is he taking it?”
“Not great,” I admit. “And I didn’t make things any better. God, Carey, he hates me.” I lean against the wall, trying to control my tears.
“What did he say?”
“At first, he let me hug him, but then he sent me away and said he never wants to see me again because I chose Carter.”
“That was just the shock,” Carey says lamely.
I nod, even though he can’t see me. “Yes, I know, but I think he meant it, too.”
“Oh, Mac. Give him some time. He needs to sort himself out. After that, you’ll get your chance. I’m sure of it.”
I shake my head. “You didn’t see him. So cold and distant. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
“Give him time. Don’t rush things,” Carey insists, nearly begging. “You can’t leave him alone right now.”
“I’m not. I’ll stay here with him. Even if he doesn’t want me to.”
“Thank you, Mac.”
“How is Hazel?”
“She’s sleeping. She misses you.”
I smile a little. “My baby girl.”
“Mac, he loves you. I know he does. You just need to get through his hard shell. Don’t give up. He needs you.”
After we hang up, I wait there in the waiting room for hours. Every time I ask after Hunter, they tell me he still doesn’t want to see me. I curl up on one of the benches there, wrapping my sweater around myself for warmth. At some point, a nurse brings me a blanket. I fall asleep, but I’m restless the entire night.
My stories are all about love, but some are of the romantic kind, some of the sad kind and others of the very steamy kind. So if you can stand drama, foul language and sex, you came to the right place.
Eve, a beautiful young woman, was once in love with the charismatic Rick Forrest. But he disappeared from her life without any explanation. With no money, about to lose her home, and the added problem of her mother’s advancing dementia, her future looked bleak.
Chester Forrest, Rick’s father, offered her a way out. If she agreed to become his wife and mistress of Chanjori House, he would fund her mother’s medical bills. Why, she didn’t understand, but there were no other options, so she accepted, all those years ago.
Now, Rick Forrest has become a successful lawyer. He always hated his father, and even more so when the old man married Eve, the only woman Rick has ever truly loved. He vowed never to return, however, that all changes when he receives a phone call informing him his father is terminally ill.
Chanjori House has been bequeathed in Trust to Rick by his late mother, so he reluctantly returns after an absence of eleven years with the prime objective of ousting gold-digger, Eve as soon as his father takes his last breath. But a life-changing event occurs, forcing Rick to seek help from an unlikely source . . . will his nemesis continue to pull the strings from beyond the grave?
Daily, watching the tide turn, gave her the idea for her debut novel, For the Love of Emily. She would develop the characters in her head, and create the chapters on her laptop when she returned home. At various book signings, readers would ask Joy if she was the nurse they’d seen in the local newspapers, which gave her the idea that maybe readers would like a romance based around a nurse, so that’s where the idea for Knight & Dey initially came from, Chanjori House is her 3rd novel and she’s hoping readers enjoy it as much as the previous two
Aliza Anderson’s whole world imploded three years ago, in a devastating accident that took her entire family. Her life is now filled with the lingering pain and tearful memories that continue to haunt her day and night. She’s merely existing. Barely living. Barely breathing.
She picks up her semblance of a life and leaves a small town in Pennsylvania that holds nothing but painful memories and the excruciating weight of guilt for her past transgressions. With her pain like a black shadow lulling her into the darkness she finds herself more vulnerable than ever in a new city across the coast. San Diego, California.
In one of the most desirable cities in the world, she crossed paths with a man whose intensity frightened her and blue eyes captivated her. The alluring stranger was none other than the handsome, well- known playboy, Chase Roland. He’s irresistibly charming, and intensely domineering. Aliza doesn’t want to feel. She can’t. It’s safer that way.
Aliza’s already imperfect world is turned upside down when she finds herself drawn to Chase forcing her to reopen old wounds that haven’t properly healed. Through her chink of armor, Chase Roland finds a way into her cold heart, rekindling her ability to open up and love again. Soon enough, Aliza realizes she’s not the only one broken; hiding a past filled with guilt and secrets.
When a masked girl throws herself at Shawn Finch at a costume party, the hotshot football player assumes she’s just another girl trying to get his attention. Except she’s not just any girl. She’s his Cinderella, the nameless girl in the pale blue dress who got away.
Desperate to find her, Finch searches for his mystery girl with no luck. So, it must be fate when Finch’s grade point average drops and the school assigns him a tutor not knowing they just handed over his Cinderella.
After having a crush on Finch since the first time she spotted him on campus, one kiss was all she’d ever wanted. But Finch has other plans once he discovers the truth about his tutor.
Most days, my house feels like a prison.
Today is one of them. Ever since my father’s sudden death over two years ago, my stepmother and her annoying daughters have done everything in their power to make my life a living hell.
Locked away, like a family heirloom stored inside an old trunk, I see how much hatred these women breed. My father would roll over in his grave if he knew how I live, all because Clarissa is even more selfish and spoiled than her daughters. With only a few more months until the end of the school year, this is my life until I can make my escape.
Anastasia flings open my bedroom door and waltzes inside with a sour look on her face. She scans the floor and what’s left of my belongings, before her eyes eventually land on me. I don’t miss her scowl as she appraises my floral comforter, the one thing I have left from my mother.
“Get your lazy ass out of bed, Ella.” She says my name with such disdain that her words slice through me, cutting deep. “Mother says you have chores to do.”
“That’s no different than any other day,” I spit back. “Who else would clean up after you?”
She snickers, throwing her hands onto her wide hips. “At least you’re good for something other than taking up space. We can’t have you lounging around here all day doing nothing. You have to earn your keep.”
I get up from the bed, irritated and still half asleep. “This is my house, Anastasia. Not yours.”
She points a long, bony finger at me and digs it into my arm. Her French tip hurts as she presses it into my skin. “Now, that is where you are wrong. This is my mother’s house now, which makes it mine. If it were up to me, you would be out on your ass, but Mom likes having a maid.”
I let out an exaggerated sigh. How much more of this can I take? I can’t afford to live on my own. Clarissa pays my tuition at Strickland University, the one luxury I have left, and I wouldn’t dare do a thing to jeopardize getting far away from this torture.
Unlike my stepsisters, who drive Mercedes’s, I ride three buses to get to school. It takes me hours to get there, but at least I get to leave this hellhole a few times a week in hopes of making something of myself. I’m counting down the days until I graduate. As of today, I have one hundred days left.
Natasha strolls into my room with a bucket in hand and a mop in the other, dressed in vintage Chanel, of course.
My mother had worn plenty of it before these cows had ransacked this house and took every piece of clothing and jewelry she had of value. The only thing spared from my stepmother’s fire sale was a gold heart charm necklace my father had given me on my thirteenth birthday. One side of the heart had belonged to him and the other to me.
I’ve kept it hidden under a loose floorboard under my bed. It’s the one place none of them would ever bother to look. They’re too lazy to get on their hands and knees. Instead, they make me do all the work. Every morning, I wake to one of them screaming from the bottom of the stairs, Get down here and make us breakfast, Ella or Clean the dishes, Ella or Get the stain out of my Prada bag, Ella.
They always have some request, leaving me little time to study, which is why I spend my afternoons tutoring students in the library. I get extra financial aid for helping out, but I mostly do it to give myself a reprieve from my jailers.
“Get to work, Ella,” Natasha says, shoving the bucket and mop into my chest. “If you want that dress for the party tonight, you have to earn it.”
It takes every ounce of strength I have to hide my smile. Just thinking about the masquerade party at the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity house sets fire to my skin. Shawn Finch will be there. He’s gorgeous, the starting tight end for the Strickland Senators, and has big, strong arms that I want to touch every time I see him in the library.
He’s always failing at least one class because he’s too busy hooking up with girls and partying. From what I’d heard, he just manages to pass with the help of our tutoring staff. I would have killed to be his tutor last semester. Instead, I was stuck with some jerk from the hockey team. I even offered to trade Mandy, but she was too busy batting her eyelashes at Finch to consider my offer to switch. She practically had their wedding planned out in her head, and he didn’t even pay attention to her.
Guys like Finch are untouchable. You have to be part of the sport’s elite on campus to get anywhere near them. That’s why I jumped at the chance to go to this party tonight. I’m friends with Tori Reynolds, girlfriend of Sebastian Prince and the captain of the football team. He’s a big deal at our school. Tori invited me before I left class yesterday. She’s normal, like me, and nothing like most of the elitist snobs at Strick U. I guess we bonded over our mutual dislike for snooty people, and now, we’re acquaintances—maybe even friends.
Because of Anastasia and Natasha are always sticking their nose into my business, I have no friends other than Tori, no prospect of a boyfriend, and absolutely no life. I’m the house bitch, the girl who scrubs the floor, washes clothes, and cooks meals. This is my life for a little while longer. At least I get to go to the party tonight.
“Don’t look so excited,” Natasha yells, as I walk past her to deal with my chores. “Just remember we will be at the party, too.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I say, keeping my eyes focused on the long hallway in front of me with one goal in mind.
“And don’t you dare think of speaking to us. You don’t know us, and we don’t know you. Got it? You will never be one of us, no matter how hard you try,” Anastasia says in a harsh tone.
I stop at the top of the staircase and spin around to face them. “I don’t want to be like you or your friends. I just want to go to the party.”
Natasha clicks her tongue. “Figures you would make friends with someone like Tori. She’s another one who is way out of her league.”
“You’re just jealous because you want Bash and can’t have him.”
Anastasia snorts. “I’ll have you know we’ve already had him.”
Staring at Anastasia and then Natasha, I’m confused until I realize what she means and want to vomit.
“Being a whore isn’t exactly something to brag about, Sis,” I say, laughing to myself, as I turn around to go downstairs.
“You will pay for that! Just wait and see, Ella.”
I have no doubt my loving stepsisters and their equally bitchy sorority sisters will make this night harder for me. At least I get to wear a mask and pretend I am someone else for the night. If it were any other frat party, I probably would skip it. I get enough weird stares pointed in my direction because of the hand-me-downs I have to wear to school, let alone the looks I would get if I were to attend a party in the same clothes.
Tonight, I get to wear one of my mother’s dresses, as long as I finish my chores and homework. That was the deal I had made with Clarissa. Both of which were a given. I already have a perfect grade point average and cater to their every need.
One night. That’s all I want. One night to feel normal again. Maybe I’ll even get the kiss I think about when I see Shawn Finch on campus. Maybe, just maybe, I will get my wish.
* * *
As promised, Clarissa hands over one of my mother’s gowns. It’s floor length, made of white satin with a light pink chiffon overlay, and hugs my curves perfectly. I remember my mother wearing this dress to parties when I was younger. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be just like her. She reminded me of a princess the way she would spin around in her dresses and dance in the living room with my father.
My mother was so full of life until she’d gotten sick. Like me, she had long, blonde hair that curls at the ends and denim eyes. It wasn’t long after my mother’s passing that Dad met Clarissa. She was everything he needed her to be—until she wasn’t. I swear he died from a broken heart. Either that or my Bitch Mother poisoned him.
Staring in the mirror, I smile and think of my parents. I can almost see them here, standing at my sides, as they see me off. If my mother were here, she would have done my hair and makeup. Instead, I had to watch a few YouTube videos to learn how to create a smoky effect that makes my eyes pop, even with the mask on my face. With my hair already curled naturally, it didn’t take much to give my hair some extra volume.
For once, I feel pretty and worthy of a man like Shawn Finch. I only have to get him to notice me. This dress should do the trick. Or so I hope.
I take my time in these heels, careful not to fall down the stairs face first, keeping my fingers crossed that I will see Finch at the party. My jaw hurts from smiling so much, but one evil stare from Clarissa is enough to wipe it from my face.
Anastasia and Natasha stand at her sides decked out in black couture gowns they either stole from my mother or used my inheritance to buy.
“You have a curfew,” Clarissa says, folding her arms across her chest, giving me her best bitch face. “I want you in this house by midnight and not a second later. Do you understand?”
I hold my tongue and nod.
“Answer me, child,” she says, with anger in her voice.
She has hated me since the day she set foot inside this house. I was an inconvenience to her, another person in the way of my father’s money. He owned an investment firm before Clarissa sold his shares to some of the board members. Now, I have nothing. No parents. No money. And no way out of here.
“I will be home before curfew. I promise.”
She flashes a closed mouth smile and walks away without another word. Natasha steps toward me, followed by Anastasia, each of them now at my sides, making me uncomfortable.
Natasha tugs at the spaghetti strap on my right shoulder, while Anastasia clutches the other. Before I can stop them, I hear the sound of the fabric tear. The straps fall forward and hang loose, almost bringing tears to my eyes that I force back.
“What is wrong with you?” I shout so loud my voice echoes off the vaulted ceiling in the living room.
“Oops!” Natasha covers her mouth with her hand, her brown eyes wide in mock surprise.
“Our mistake,” Anastasia says, this time pulling at the pink overlay. One side rips and then the other, as Natasha helps her ruin my dress.
I’m defenseless against them. If I act out, my stepmother will punish me. She will lock me in my room and throw away the key, same as she does during winter and summer breaks from school. That’s why I have excelled so much in my studies. I spend countless hours a day with no TV, cell phone, or the Internet. Books are my only source of entertainment. So, I read a lot and take extra classes when I can afford to layer on the heavier course load.
As much as I want to cry, I have to stay strong and deal with whatever comes next.
“You think you’re so fucking smart, don’t you, Ella?” Natasha flicks her dark hair over her shoulder and grins like the Cheshire cat. “You think you can call us names and get away with it. Well, you are not getting anywhere near that party if we have anything to do with it. We don’t need you embarrassing us in front of our friends.”
Anastasia steps on the hem of my dress, holding me in place. I turn to walk away from them, but my plan backfires, the bottom of the dress tearing apart from Anastasia’s stiletto.
Staring down at the dress, I cover my mouth to stifle my sobs. But no tears follow. I never let them see me cry. I never have, and I never will. They don’t deserve my tears. It would only give them more power over me. Unlike their mother, mine was sweet and kind to everyone. She raised me to show people the same kindness, which is why I normally remain quiet around my stepsisters.
Lately, they have made it harder to control my anger toward them. Graduation is so close. Only one hundred more days before I can start living again.
“Looks like you can’t go to the party,” Natasha says, twirling a dark curl around her index finger with a satisfied smile.
“You can’t stop me from going,” I shoot back.
“Oh, we can and we will, Little Orphan Ella.” Natasha eyes me up and down, giving me her usual look of disapproval. “We have the Delta Sig guys wrapped around our fingers. They will do just about anything Kappa girls tell them. And, if that means keeping the help out of a party, then you can bet your ass they will listen.”
“You’re such a bitch, Natasha.” I pivot my body between them. “You, too, Anastasia. I have never done a thing to either of you to deserve this.”
My stepmother would slap me across the face if I ever spoke to her the way I do the girls.
“You exist. That’s enough for us,” Anastasia says, rolling her eyes at me.
We have a quick stare down before Anastasia turns on her heel and strolls toward the front door, beckoning Natasha to follow. For pretty girls, they have such foul attitudes that make them far less attractive. How they even manage to get the guys at our school to talk to them amazes me. But I guess money goes a lot farther than I think.
I had money. Well, my father had money. Now, I have nothing. Even so, I will never belong in the inner circles at the prestigious Strickland University. A former rich girl is not enough to become one of them.
The second the door slams behind my stepsisters, shaking the house in its wake, the first tear slides down my cheek. I wipe away a streak of wet mascara from my face. Even with the girls gone, I cannot risk Clarissa seeing me cry. She would point and laugh, all while enjoying every second of my humiliation.
I run out the front door, as fast as my feet will allow, through the garden on the right side of the mansion, the tears falling faster with each step toward the gazebo out back.
Once I reach the wooden structure, I stop to catch my breath and grab hold of the rail, as I step up and onto the platform. My father was good with his hands, despite being such a brainiac. He had built this for my mother for their wedding. I come here whenever I need a break from life. It reminds me that I once had a normal life, full of love and warmth. Not all people are as cruel and hurtful as my stepfamily.
I shake my head when I take in the sight of what Natasha and Anastasia have done. They trashed my dress. Pieces of fabric hang down at different places, the material tattered and frayed. After years of envisioning what it would be like to go to a party dressed as a princess, this is not even close to what I had imagined. There’s no way I can go to the party looking like I found this in a dumpster.
Sitting on the bench, I clutch my stomach from the pain that comes with each scream that escapes my throat. I’m never this emotional. I never let them get to me. But this night was important to me. It was my one shot at talking to the guy I have liked for as long as I can remember. All I want is one kiss from the man of my dreams. That’s enough to satisfy my craving for Shawn Finch. The mask would serve as my shield, my only way to protect my identity.
“What’s all the crying about?” I hear a woman say, scaring the life out of me. “Pretty girls like you shouldn’t be all alone and screaming to the high heavens.”
No one ever comes back here. My body goes into overdrive thinking about all the possibilities until I look over my shoulder and see an older woman. She’s in her sixties or seventies. It’s hard to tell with the dim light that washes over the dark property.
Wiping the water works from my cheeks with the back of my hands, I peek over at her. She steps up and into the gazebo, uninvited.
“Who are you?” I choke out, not the least bit frightened by a woman her age. She seems pleasant enough, even if she’s trespassing on private property.
“Your new next-door neighbor. I moved in last week.” There’s a Southern twang to her soft voice that reminds me of my father. My dad’s side of the family is from the Southern parts of the United States, and she sounds just like them, which puts me even more at ease with her.
“How did you get back here?”
She shrugs, unaffected, and leans her back against the wood. “I walked from my house. I’ve done it every night since I moved in. You have a lot more land on this side of the fence and a lot more to look at.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I say, sucking down the tears. “The garden is pretty barren now that my mother is gone and the landscapers are no longer around to keep up with the maintenance.”
Why would Clarissa hire someone when she has me to trim the rose bushes or mow the lawn? I am the maid, gardener, chef, and butler. If they can dream it, I can do it.
“Someone is keeping up with it,” she says, pointing out the obvious.
“Tending to the yard is one of my chores,” I admit.
She shakes her head in disapproval. Thankfully, she doesn’t go any further. I hate telling strangers about my situation, so I usually avoid conversations altogether. It’s also the reason I have no friends. How could I ever tell anyone about what goes on around here? It’s too humiliating to say aloud.
“What is your name, girl?” Her voice is soft, inviting.
“Ella,” I choke out, “Ella Fitzgerald. What’s yours?”
“Katherine Feighry, but everyone calls me Mrs. F. You never told me why you were out here crying.”
She reaches out to touch my arm, and for some reason, I let her. It’s nice to have someone comfort me. I sure as hell don’t get that at home and can use all the love and affection I can get—even if it’s from a stranger.
“There’s this guy…Well, I was supposed to go to this party, but my stepsisters ripped apart my dress. I was looking forward to going.”
“Then, go,” she says without hesitation. “Nothing is stopping you. Don’t let those girls get in the way of your plans.”
I frown at her words. “Easier said than done. I have nothing to wear, and there’s no way I will get in with what I have on.”
The woman releases her grip on me and stands, holding out her hand to me. “Come, darling, let me fix you up.”
I glance up at her, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“I have a dress for you to wear. You will love it.”
I narrow my eyes at her. “You do?”
She nods. “Yes, and it’s perfect for you.”
I set my hand in hers, nervous about where she’s about to take me. But I am desperate and in need of her random act of kindness. Maybe I will even make it to the masquerade party. Maybe I will get my kiss from Finch.
Jillian loves sports, bad boys, dirty talkers, strong females, and books with plenty of heat—all of which you will find in her books. As a lover of all things bookish, she has a serious book hoarding problem and runs a blog in her free time. When she’s not reading, writing, or blogging, she’s obsessively fangirling over hockey players and can be found wherever she can catch the next hockey game.
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-Barely, but, yes, more than anyone else. I remember even in preschool when the teacher would grab her hand, she’d stare at the spot where their skin connected as if it were an affront to her existence. Just stand there and glare like she wanted to hurt someone.
-Junipera suffers from a rare phobia.
-Please, what does June not suffer from?
-When did she start chasing storms?
-In third grade she started obsessing about the rain. Full blown? I’d say after hurricane Katrina she never looked back. And she didn’t just chase them, June became those wild storms.
Junipera and Gemini Jones, Irish twins born during the month of June, survive a childhood of neglect and poverty by looking out for one another. Destined for a group home, the girls are rescued by a rich aunt and uncle who move them from Northern Minnesota to Fairfield, Connecticut. One sister thrives while the other spins out of control. A violent assault leaves Gemini searching for clues, but what she finds might be questions that are better left unanswered.
June drove almost all night. The farthest south she’d ever been was Oklahoma, going after a tornado, and she’d flown past the Louisiana state line around four in the morning. She wasn’t exactly sure where she would stay since she’d heard on the radio that all of greater New Orleans had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order. Experience told her that there would be at least one hotel open downtown where reporters were holed up. She’d followed their lead before, pretending to be chasing the story and not the storm. They usually had the best intel and she would leech off of them if she could. The storm had been given a name when she turned into a hurricane—Katrina, they called her, and she’d become a category three when she hit land in Florida. But now she had free rein over warm open water. That meant her hunger would gain and when she touched Louisiana, she’d do it with a vengeance. She was expected to hit land around six in the morning, as a category five. June had never actually seen a five before, but she knew roofs, cars and trees would go flying through the air like paper dolls, sucked up into the vortex and spit out indiscriminately.
Traffic snaked away from the Gulf in impossibly long lines of chrome and glass, rubber tires packed full of momentum wishing they could go faster. June had the speed they wanted as hers was one of the very few cars racing in the opposite direction. She came down I-55, and when she hit the I-10 bypass, the seriousness of the evacuation became apparent. Anyone who could was getting the hell out of New Orleans.
Storm excitement felt very much like a hormone—tipsy, punch-drunk and out of control. June got high off the anticipation; she tuned out the radio and the long line of evacuees and listened to the storm. She spoke its language. June lowered the windows in the Beamer so she could feel the pressure in the air. Her blood surged in her body like the ocean tides do in response to its pull. Her extremities tingled; so did her nose. She could taste the storm on the tip of her tongue, like a spike, a live wire, a sharp blade laced with coppery blood. Katrina called to her and June’s thigh muscles quivered.
June laid into the gas. Sometimes municipal law enforcement would block incoming traffic as well. June knew how to pose as a news reporter, but she wasn’t the most convincing candidate. Stringy blonde baby hair, lithe body like a cattail reed, clothing that was two sizes too big for her. She looked more like a painter or a homeless person despite driving a BMW. But her passion was always convincing, and her hope was that if Katrina was as big as she promised to be, whoever was watching would be too distracted to waste precious energy on just one life when hundreds of thousands were at stake.
“You a chaser?” the man asked her. He was a plainclothes officer, or maybe a reporter? She couldn’t be sure. He was the third person to stop her since she’d made it into the abandoned city. Anyone left on the streets was in transit, looking for a way out. More than one person had flagged her down and asked for a ride to the Superdome.
“No, I report to the Weather Channel directly,” June snapped. She stuck her anemometer on top of her small rolling suitcase. “I’ve got a room at the Riverside Hilton,” she said. She’d parked Uncle Ben’s BMW in the closest parking garage, reserved the room with his Mastercard. The receptionist only asked her if she knew there was a city-wide mandatory evacuation in progress. June looked up at her as if she were insulted. She smacked a press card on the desk. It wasn’t hers and the receptionist didn’t check it.
The cop or reporter was sold with the card. He figured hustlers or chasers couldn’t afford digs like hers. She walked briskly past him and flashed him her key card. What was he going to do? Arrest her and take her to jail? They had bigger things to worry about. This city was about to get slammed and everyone who’d stayed knew their lives would be in danger.
There were maybe a hundred or so of them in the Hilton. June recognized all the chasers, and not just because she’d seen them at other storms. It was their wily nature, their eyes holding the spark instead of the dread that was written all over the faces of the real press in the crowd. Some were there for the historic record and others, like Junipera, were there for the fix.
The wind started to scream at around eleven that evening. June wrapped her camera and her meter tightly in Saran Wrap, then stuck them in Ziploc bags along with her paper and pens. She packed all of the tiny water bottles and soda, peanuts and pretzels from the mini fridge into her backpack. Rolled up her blue tarp, Swiss Army knife, extra pair of underwear, waterproof pants and windbreaker and stowed them alongside the food.
The rain lashed the windows and splashed against them in sheets as if her hotel window were the windshield and she was moving slowly through a vigorous carwash. June stepped outside onto the balcony around two in the morning; the rain seemed to have died down but the wind was picking up, the trees across the way bending and straining, at times leaning almost horizontally. Her anemometer picked up wind speeds over eighty miles per hour. It’s the eastern side of the hurricane that packs the power punch. When that came calling, the hotel would be bending like the trees.
The television in the room blared with the constant evacuation warnings. June watched the Doppler radar image on a loop, circling toward the city like a hanging jaw going from red to purple. Hungry, angry wind and water were coming. June filled the bath tub, reinforced the metal stopper with Saran Wrap, did the same to the sink. She plunked down on the bed, splayed her limbs wide and stared at the ceiling.
The demon bared its teeth, and the windsong progressed from scream to roar, drowning out the warnings on the television. The beast was in the room, she was everywhere, surrounding them. June flinched every time she heard glass pop and shatter.
The window shook with the ferocity of a King Kong tantrum. Junipera imagined the tall Hilton as a toy in a child’s diorama reproduction of the French Quarter. Her fingers dug in and she held tight to the edge of the mattress. The room went black and the television silent when the power failed. The roar got louder, filling up her ears to find a way inside her skull.
At six-thirty in the morning her windows finally burst; the shades flew into the room and danced a madcap jig, wrenching themselves from the sliding track. June watched, eyes wide, as the one on the left took flight, a flash of soaring white in the dark sky before it flew out of sight. She crawled along the carpeted floor that was now soaked in brackish water, rolled to her back and filmed the macabre sky. The center of the hurricane looked like the center of a starfish, opening and beckoning, then folding in on its own hungry embrace. If there were Gods they were angry, monsters immune to the rules of give and take. June’s ears popped with the pressure while debris flew over her head, sometimes inches from her face. Then the rain began to plop down again in enormous drops. She stuck her camera under her shirt.
No sun rose and daybreak came in without color. From white to grey to a drab blue, the subdued tones of pigeons colored the horizon. When the roar finally moved far enough west to quiet, her ears still buzzed with its scream as if it had taken up house in her head. June could hear the beating of propellers—Army, she assumed, and not meteorological. The sound of periodic gunfire she decided to tell herself was exploding transformers and not ruthless people taking advantage of a ghost city with only a weary skeleton crew to protect it. She washed her face and armpits in the water she’d saved in the sink. Brushed her teeth, spitting in the toilet. She drank from the bathwater as if it were a baptismal font. It tasted as warm as the humid air around her.
It was still a good storm raging outside but June figured she’d head to the command center and hang with the reporters, hear their assessment of the damage. Running her fingers through her tangled hair was the best she could do for appearances. Nobody would care. The room, which had probably been a continental breakfast concierge haven, was now buzzing with reporters using an antiquated form of dial-up to communicate with the greater world. With a crashed electrical grid, the means for direct communication were severed. Someone had made coffee from instant crystals and bathwater. June helped herself to two mugs full as she listened to their chatter and took notes. Analog reporting, they were relaying messages like it was 1984. June heard reports of levees breeched, ruptured, possible flooding, but no one seemed to know for certain. She left the command center and went back to her room, pulled on her waterproof pants and rain boots, and put a sweater on under her windbreaker even though the humidity was stifling. She walked out the door with nothing more than her equipment and tiny rations in a backpack.
“Which way is the ninth ward?” she asked the security guard standing by the sliding glass doors. He looked her up and down reproachfully and Junipera tried to stand even taller than her already generous five feet ten inches.
“To your left. It’s a long walk, and believe me, from what they’re saying you don’t want to go there. Head to the Convention Center instead.”
“Thanks,” June said. She stepped out into the dense fog and turned left.
“There’s still debris flying. Hurricane ain’t over yet!” the security guard shouted after her.
She disappeared from his view, swallowed up by the insatiable mouth that wasn’t yet finished feeding on New Orleans
From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author, Nicole Williams, comes a new standalone romance in the same vein as Roommates with Benefits.
It was the one relationship guarantee we could all expect. Whether it was death or circumstance, tragedy or choice, it was the only promise we were assured. Goodbye. It had been coming since the day we met, and now it was here. Sooner than I’d hoped. Even sooner than the sensible segment of me had predicted.
Still, it was later than maybe I should have expected out of a relationship with Canaan Ford.
I’d been waiting all night for his truck to rumble up the driveway when it finally did just past two a.m.. Before his footsteps echoed up the stairs, I shouldered the couple of bags I’d packed and waited in the shadows of the hallway. My paintbrushes were sticking out of one of my oversized totes, tickling the underside of my arm. I’d packed everything that seemed important at the time, but now, I wasn’t sure that what I’d stuffed in my bags mattered at all.
It was late, dark, and Canaan would be coming home exhausted, hurting, and some degree of drunk. He wouldn’t see me, and I could just slip away without him knowing.
Maybe I should have left before he made it back, but whenever I tried, my feet froze to the floor before I could make it to the door. I needed to wait for him to get home first—to make sure he was okay before I left him. That might have been a messed up model of morality, but most of Canaan’s and my relationship was messed up, from the beginning to now, the ending.
He struggled with the key in the lock before shoving the door open and clomping straight toward the couch. He’d stopped crawling into bed beside me after a night of fighting and drinking months ago, like he thought it would spare me the pain of seeing him bloodied and plastered. It never had. The black eyes, the swollen lips, the bruised ribs; they were that much worse in the light of morning.
Canaan had barely crashed onto the sofa before his breathing evened out. Still, I waited another minute in the hallway before moving into the living room.
Don’t look, Maggie. Don’t let yourself look at him.
I looked. Of course I looked. I never listened to what was best for me—if I had, my life would have wound up so much differently.
He was already passed out, sprawled across the couch we’d bought at a yard sale the summer before . . .
Before all of this.
One arm and one leg were hanging off the end, his face tipped far enough toward me I could gauge the type of fight he’d been in tonight. A good one by Canaan’s definition—the best kind. The type where his opponent got in as many hits as he did. The type of fight that made him almost question if it would be the first one he’d lose. Canaan loved the challenge, the fight. He thrived off of chaos, seeming to wilt when life was simple. I used to admire that about him, and maybe I still did. It just wasn’t the life for me. I couldn’t live life like it was a battle—not anymore.
He was passed out hard, but I still crept slowly toward the front door, my heart thundering as the boards creaked below me. Even though I was moving toward the door, my eyes stayed on him.
I couldn’t. Canaan was the best part of my life. And the worst. The best memories. And the worst. He was the high and the low and I was so damn tired of the sick cycle I thought would kill me one day.
As my hand cupped around the cool doorknob, my eyes burned. This was it. As resolved as I’d felt in the weeks leading up to this, I felt like I was being torn in half by walking away. I knew if I stayed, this relationship would be the end of me. But at the moment, leaving felt like the same.
Lying on that couch, he looked so vulnerable. Almost like he needed someone to protect him. From the world. From his demons. From himself. I’d tried. God, I’d been trying for what felt like forever, but the only thing I had to show for my efforts was scars and pain.
One of his eyes was swollen shut, his bottom lip three times its normal size, and he’d split the same eyebrow open again. It was going to need stiches. Six, I guessed. I’d gotten really good as estimating the number of stiches needed to seal a wound.
A sob rose from my chest, but I managed to swallow it back down. He was the only boy I’d ever loved—the only one I’d ever come close to loving. In some ways, he was perfect for me. But in more ways, especially lately, he was entirely wrong for me.
That was why I needed to leave. We might have been good together, but we weren’t good for each other. I knew that now.
I opened the door slowly, so it wouldn’t make a sound, then I let myself take one last look at the life I was leaving behind before I forced myself to walk away.
Now that I wasn’t looking at him, moving was easier. Each step down from our little apartment above the garage came quicker, so by the time I reached the ground, I was jogging.
Canaan’s truck was parked right beside my old car. Ancient was maybe a better description of how “mature” my car was. It was almost like he’d known I was going to leave tonight, because he’d parked his truck so close I could barely crack my door open half a foot. Getting my bags tossed into the backseat and managing to wiggle in through the door was a tight fit, but I made it work.
The moment I was inside, I jammed the key in the ignition and turned it over. I didn’t pause. I didn’t flinch. The hardest part was behind me, and now I needed to keep moving.
Easing my car around the truck, I noticed the one light burning inside the big house in my rearview mirror. Grandma knew what was happening tonight and was keeping her light on for me as her unique way of expressing that no matter what, she was here for me. She’d keep the light on—even when it felt like there was nothing but darkness around me.
My throat constricted as I kept backing down the long driveway. I’d tried saving him, but it had cost me almost everything. I was taking what I had left and saving myself.
As I rolled past Grandma’s front porch, my gaze shifted from the rearview mirror to that little garage apartment I’d lived the last eleven months in. The door was open, light was streaming from inside, and a dark, towering shadow loomed in the doorway.
My foot instinctively moved toward the brake. Canaan was too far away for me to determine the look on his face, but I could imagine it. It came easy since I’d known him as long as I had. Knowing his face was like second nature.
He stayed unmoving in that doorway for a moment, my car doing the same. It wasn’t until he started moving down the stairs that my foot flew back to the gas. If he got to me before I made it out of this driveway, I wouldn’t leave. I knew it. Walking away from someone I loved was hard enough, but Canaan wasn’t just someone I loved—he was someone I’d shared everything with. He’d walked with me through the hardest part of my life, and I’d walked with him through his. We’d been each other’s beacon, shelter, and compass through all of life’s shit . . .
So how had we gotten here? To this hopeless, dead end of a place?
He was charging down the stairs now, taking them two at a time. How was he able to move that nimbly when he’d just been comatose on the couch?
The windows were rolled up, but his shout broke through the glass, sounding so close it was almost like he was pressed against me, whispering it into my ear.
He sprinted the moment his feet touched the ground, his long arms pumping hard at his sides.
“Canaan, don’t,” I whispered inside the car, my lower lip trembling as I focused on the driveway behind me. “Please don’t.”
I didn’t miss the shadow that had appeared in that lit window. Grandma was watching me leave, witnessing Canaan trying to convince me to stay. Before, his attempts had been successful, but not this time. I couldn’t stay for him one more time—I had to leave for me.
Canaan’s shouts were so loud, they were going to wake up the neighbors a few acres over. Each word emanated like a blast inside the car.
“Let me go,” I whispered as I swung the car onto the street.
Right before I could punch it into drive and hit the gas, Canaan swooped in front of the car. His chest was moving hard from the exertion, his snug white tee stained with fresh and dried blood. His face was so messed up it was practically unrecognizable, but I couldn’t help seeing the young boy with a clip-on tie walk up to me when I was frozen on a porch step, appraising me with those wild gold eyes before holding out a tiny box. How had that boy, who’d saved me back then, become the ruin of me now?
When I revved the engine, he didn’t move. Instead, he slid closer so his legs were pushing against the bumper. He raised his arms like he was surrendering, his unswollen eye landing on me. “I’m not letting you leave. Not without a fight.”
A breath rolled past my lips—a fight. Everything was a fight with him. He couldn’t land enough hits or take enough. His guilt wouldn’t let him.
Cranking down the window, I made myself glare at him. It was harder to achieve than it should have been. “I’m not something you win or lose in a fight.”
His jaw moved as he pressed his hands into the hood of the car. “You fight for what’s important. That’s the way life is. And you are worth every fight I have in me.”
“You’re too busy fighting everyone else—including yourself—to fight for me.” My sight blurred as I stared at him. So little of the person I’d fallen in love with remained. So little of who he’d fallen in love with remained in me as well. “I can’t wait around, watching you kill yourself one fight and drink at a time.”
He wiped at his split-open brow, leaving a streak of blood on his forearm. “I can change.”
My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. How many times had I heard those words come from his lips? Those same lips that claimed ownership of my first kiss?
“Yeah, you can.” I steeled myself against him a little more. “That’s not your problem. Your problem is that you won’t change.”
“This time I will.” His head whipped side to side. “It’s taken this, you trying to leave me, to slap some sense into me.”
I’d tried leaving so many times. This was just the furthest I’d ever made it. “I’m not trying to leave you. I am leaving you.” I made myself look at him. I made myself appear strong when I felt so very opposite. “This is it.”
He slowly came around the side of the car toward me. I rolled up the window halfway, aiming my eyes at the road in front of me.
“One more chance.” Even from a few feet back, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I could smell the sweat and blood on him mixed with it, the trace of perfume that didn’t belong to me.
“You’ve had a thousand one more chances.” I studied him from the corners of my eyes, knowing better than to let them lock on his when he was this close. “This was your last one.”
“Maggie . . .” His hands formed around the lip of the window. His knuckles were split open and swollen, dried blood covering them. Still, I wasn’t sure I’d ever craved having them reach for me more. I wasn’t sure I’d ever needed him to pull me to his broken body and soul more than I did right then.
In that moment, I might have needed him more than I needed air, but I couldn’t give in. Kicking the habit was the only way to cure myself.
“Let me go, Canaan.” My legs were trembling as my foot moved back to the gas.
His head lowered so it was in line with mine. “You’re my wife.”
My left hand curled farther around the steering wheel, until I couldn’t see the gold band circling my finger. “No. I was your wife.”
His head dropped for half a second, his eyes flashing with defeat right before. “I love you.”
My chest ached. The man was the boy again, and I wanted to save him the way he’d saved me. But I couldn’t. The only person who could save Canaan Ford was Canaan Ford.
“I promised to love you forever, and I will.” My foot touched the accelerator. “But I can’t spend forever with you.”
His hands braced around the window harder when I rolled forward. “I made a promise. To you, and to myself. A promise to love you forever. To look after you as long.”
When I found my mind drifting to that overcast afternoon eleven months ago, my heart wringing when I remembered the way he’d stared at me as we repeated those phrases in the courthouse, I shook my head. Good memories weren’t enough. Hope wasn’t enough. Empty promises weren’t even close to enough.
“We exchanged vows.” My eyes focused on the road in front of me, letting go of the dead end beside me. “There’s a difference between saying them and meaning them.”
When my foot pushed down on the gas, Canaan moved with the car. “I’m not letting you go. I’m not giving up.” The car moved faster, his feet pounding the asphalt as he struggled to keep up.
“I know. But I’m giving in.” Breaking my own rule, I let my eyes meet his before punching the gas pedal as far down as it would go. “Goodbye.”
That was enough. Hearing that word shocked him just enough to still him. For one second. I didn’t ease up on the gas, not even when I heard his fists pounding the trunk as he struggled to keep up.
“I can change!” His footsteps were thundering after the car. “I will change.”
With him behind me, I let the tears I’d been fighting fall. Everything I’d ever known—my whole life—was getting smaller and smaller behind me. With every tick of the odometer.
“MAGGIE!!!” His voice pierced the air one last time before I was too far away to hear whatever came next.
It was morning by the time I stopped seeing his reflection in the rearview mirror, still chasing me into my new life.
The longer I remain trapped with him, the more I come to suspect that I’m not the only captive in his brother’s home. Andrés’ scars go deeper than the wicked furrows carved into his flesh, his pain reflected in the dark demands he imposes upon me. His obsession is twisted and wrong, but maybe I’m twisted, too.
Do I want to be rescued from him? Or is he the one who truly needs saving?
Toxic fear engulfed me, freezing the scream that had escaped me for mere seconds. Cristian stepped behind me so his brother’s camera could get clearer footage of the horror I was enduring. His big fist tangled in my hair, jerking my head back so I had no choice but to stare up into his cruel black eyes.
The cold tip of the knife scraped upward from the center of my throat, grazing over my skin as it traced a path under my chin. I stopped breathing when the flat of the blade swiped across the line of my lips. A high whimper slipped through them, the resultant vibration threatening to make the knife pierce my skin. As it was, the tightly packed nerve endings on my lips sparked as the cool metal kissed them.
The knife left my mouth, but I didn’t have time to suck in a panting breath before the frigid blade returned to my throat.
“You were in my territory today, watching my people. One of my men followed you home. Who are you working for?” he demanded.
“I’m FBI,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper. With the knife at my throat, I could scarcely draw the breath I needed to speak.
He frowned at me. “A sniper made an attempt on my life a few days ago. The feds wouldn’t assassinate me. Who are you really working for?” The blade sliced a thin, stinging line across my throat.
“I really am FBI,” I said in a rush, the truth spilling from my lips. If he knew I was a federal agent, he wouldn’t dare hurt me. “My name is Samantha Browning. I’m a tech analyst. Well, I was. I’m a field agent now. I’m not trying to kill you. We’re investigating you. You have to know you’re on our radar. Please, I swear I’m FBI.” I was aware that I was babbling, but I couldn’t stop pleading for my life.
He considered me for a long, terrifying moment, weighing my fate. “You’re a tech analyst? That means you have access to all the evidence the feds have on me. If you’re telling the truth about who you are.”
“I am,” I said quickly. “You can’t hurt me. If you do, my friends will come after you.”
“I think I’ll give you to my brother, after all,” he mused. “He’ll make sure you’re telling the truth. I’d rather not mutilate you, if you’re going to be useful to me. Andrés has more creative ways of breaking women. And I’ll keep our little video to ourselves. If you are who you say you are, I’d rather your friends at the FBI didn’t know I have you.”
The knifepoint pressed against my cheek, just below my left eye. The pressure increased slightly, and I felt warmth bead on my skin. It slid down my cheek like a crimson tear. My eyes watered, and Cristian’s handsome face wavered above me.
“Maybe I’ll give you a scar to match my brother’s first,” he mused.
A deep growl sounded from a few feet in front of me, and I knew it came from Andrés. I couldn’t so much as glance in his direction; Cristian’s long fingers in my hair kept me immobile.
A sharp grin lit his features with amusement. “Apparently, he wants you mostly intact. Should I give him what he wants?”
The fearsome growl sounded again, a wordless warning. I shuddered, equally as frightened of the prospect of his desire to have me as I was of the knife piercing my cheek.
“Not the face, then,” Cristian said decisively. “But I think I’ll let Andrés see what he’s getting to work with.”
The knife left my face, but the blade instantly hooked beneath the top button of my shirt. It gave way easily as the sharp steel tore through thread. He continued to move the blade downward, trailing a sickening path between my breasts, over my navel, down to the top of my slacks. The fabric fell open with a flick of the knife, leaving me exposed in my white cotton bra.
A plea for mercy locked in my throat. I couldn’t speak, could barely breathe. My mind began to shut down, the adrenaline created by fear clouding my brain.
Cristian’s fingers tightened in my hair, giving me a bite of pain. “Stay with us, Samantha,” he ordered smoothly.
The world sharpened around me with cruel clarity just before pain sliced into me. The tip of the knife grated a torturously slow line along my right collarbone. The cut was shallow, but blood welled up as the blade scraped bone. The scream that had been trapped inside me burst out as pain seared through me. He hooked the blade beneath the little strip of cotton at the middle of my bra, parting the fabric and exposing me.
My scream choked off on a sob as terror mingled with humiliation.
“What do you think, hermanito?” Cristian asked with mild interest. “Is she pretty enough for you? She’s not a great beauty, but her nipples stand out nicely against her pale skin.”
My skin turned frigid, my flesh pebbling as ice sank into my veins. I vaguely recognized that I was going into shock as my entire body began to shake violently.
“And her eyes are quite lovely,” he continued in detached observation. “So much fear there. You like when they’re frightened, don’t you, Andrés?”
His low grunt in reply rolled around my mind, but my capacity for conscious thought had been ripped to shreds. The knife left my breasts to slice through the ropes that bound my wrists behind me. I slumped forward, my watery muscles incapable of holding me upright.
Strong arms closed around my shoulders, bracing me before I slid to the floor. I was dimly aware of my body being lifted. My head lolled back, and the last thing I saw before my mind short-circuited was Andrés’ fearsome, scarred face looming over me.
Stinging pain on my chest yanked me back to awareness, and I bolted upright with a gasp. Panic blinded me, but firm hands gripped my upper arms, pressing me back down against something soft that cushioned my body. I was no longer sitting on the unyielding metal chair. I recognized the feel of a mattress beneath me, and my torso was pinned down against it by a strong, masculine hold.
I squirmed and kicked, instinctively trying to fight my way free. I became aware of cool air against my breasts, and I realized I was still exposed. My heart hammered against my ribcage, and I doubled my efforts to fight off the man holding me down, my fingers clawing blindly. His hands easily encircled my wrists, trapping them at either side of my hips.
“Calm down, cosita, or I’ll have to restrain you.” I recognized the soft Colombian accent.
Moreno had me. He’d hurt me, stripped me…
Oh god. He’d given me to his terrifying brother. Andrés.
And now I was half-naked and helpless in his steely hold.
I couldn’t stop thrashing, my muscles rippling with effort to break free. My stomach twisted, nausea rising as the full horror of my situation came down on me.
A low sound of disapproval grated against my mind. His grip instantly shifted, tugging my arms over my head. He secured them there with one big hand. Something cool and supple encircled my right wrist. Metal jingled against metal as he buckled the cuff into place.
I twisted my entire body, trying to angle myself so I could kick out at him. Desperation clawed at my insides, and all my training left my head as animal terror took hold. My awkward attempts to resist him made no effect, and he quickly secured my other wrist.
Working in silence, he caught my left ankle, pulling it diagonally toward the bottom corner of the bed. My eyes finally focused and I watched in helpless horror as he bound my legs to either side of the four-poster, spreading me wide. I still wore my slacks, but I felt terribly exposed and vulnerable.
I thrashed against the restraints, but he pressed his big palm against my bare abdomen, pinning me down against the mattress and effectively ending my struggles. All I could do was jerk uselessly against the cuffs. Fear coursed through me. My fight-or-flight instincts had settled on flight, but there was nowhere for me to go. That didn’t stop my body from twisting like a wild thing, panic beating against the inside of my chest.
His dark eyes watched me with calm certainty as he simply waited. I wasn’t sure how long it took for my muscles to burn with exertion, and I finally gave up, my limbs trembling where they were stretched above and below me, laying me out before him.
“Are you done?” he asked coolly.
“Fuck you,” I seethed, my acid tongue the only weapon left to me.
Keeping me pinned in place with one hand, his other swiftly came down and cracked across the outer swell of my breasts, one after the other in rapid succession. My sensitive flesh instantly began to burn, and I cried out. I couldn’t escape the pain; I was trapped in place for the harsh censure.
Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, and he finally stopped.
“I won’t tolerate insults,” he said, still unnervingly calm. It almost would have been less disconcerting if he’d shouted. “You will speak to me with respect. Do you understand?”
“No.” The refusal came out as a horrified moan.
“You will understand soon,” he said, utterly confident. “You’re frightened, but you will learn. For now, I’m warning you not to curse at me again. Tell me you’ll obey.”
The tears came faster, spilling down my temples and falling into my hair.
His face shifted to a forbidding mask. “Tell me.”
I couldn’t manage more than a fearful whimper, but I nodded shakily. I didn’t want him to slap me again, and I recognized that there was nothing I could do to prevent him from doing it if he decided he wanted to.
His countenance softened, his scar easing so it wasn’t as pronounced. “In the future, I will expect a verbal answer. You belong to me now, Samantha. Defiance will lead to punishment. Obedience will be rewarded. You choose whichever you want. I might seem like a harsh Master, but I’m fair. Your behavior has consequences, either painful or pleasurable for you.”
“Please,” I forced out past the lump in my throat. “I can’t… I don’t… Don’t…” I began to pant out the fragmented words as my breathing turned shallower, until I was gasping but not drawing in air.
His hands bracketed my face, shockingly gentle. “Breathe,” he ordered, his accented voice low and soft, as though trying to soothe a frightened animal.
I certainly felt like a panicked, primal thing; trapped and terrified.
His fingers threaded through my hair on either side of my head, massaging gently.
“Breathe with me,” he cajoled. He drew in a slow, deep breath and then blew it out on a long exhale. “Again,” he commanded, and I vaguely recognized that I’d obeyed and matched his breathing, my lungs too desperate for oxygen to resist. I sucked in another shaky breath, mirroring him. We repeated the process several more times, until I was able to breathe almost normally. I sank down into the mattress as my body went limp, all the fight going out of me as exhaustion sapped my mind.
“Better.” He nodded his approval. His gaze finally diverted from my face, and he reached for a damp cloth that he’d placed beside me on the bed. “You’re still bleeding,” he told me. “I’m going to clean you up. This will sting a little. Stay still.”
I couldn’t have moved away even if I still possessed any willpower to do so. One of his hands remained bracketed at the side of my face, his thumb hooking beneath my jaw to hold me steady.
The cool cloth gently touched my cheek, and I hissed in pain. Just as he’d warned me, the solution that soaked the cloth stung, and I knew it was more than water.
“Good girl,” he said, the warm praise in his tone fucking with my addled mind. I only recognized the comfort in it, unable to process the twisted nature of how he was manipulating me. Anything was preferable to the unrelenting terror that had utterly sapped my will and smothered all thought of resistance.
He continued his gentle ministrations, his dark eyes completely focused on his task as he cleaned the cut on my collarbone. Keening sounds eased up my throat, and he softly shushed me.
When he finished, he sat back and considered me for a long moment, his black eyes searching mine. Instinct urged me to look away, to escape his probing gaze. The intensity with which he watched me made it impossible for me to break eye contact. I shuddered violently, unable to bear his scrutiny.
His grip on my face shifted, and his calloused fingertips smoothed over the furrow in my brow.
“You’re hurting,” he remarked. “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
He reached for something else on the bed beside me, and I cringed when my gaze fixed on it: a syringe. I didn’t want to be unconscious again, helpless and unable to defend myself.
“My brother gave me this in case I needed to subdue you, but it will take away your pain. I told you, I’m a fair Master. I won’t hurt you if you don’t earn a punishment.”
“I don’t want it,” I managed to whisper.
“I decide what’s best for you from now on,” he declared calmly.
“Please,” I begged uselessly as he carefully slid the needle into my arm.
“Hush now, cosita,” he murmured. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
“No,” I slurred, the drugs making my tongue heavy within seconds.
His long fingers smoothed over my hair, petting me as I fell into darkness.
I did a really bad thing.
I’m not a bad person, I swear. I just made a few mistakes.
Mistake number one was agreeing to rent my hotel out to an insufferable a**hole, named Aden Smith.
Mistake number two was ignoring his threats to sue me when he handed over a list of items he deemed “unacceptable”.
Mistake number three was diving into the pool to save his life when he fell. It would have been less complicated to hide his body.
When the hospital refuses to let me know how he is, I panic.
Claiming to be his wife might be my biggest mistake yet—especially when he believes me!
He might have been the one drowning, but I’m sinking in a bed of lies, going down fast—and there’s not a rescue in sight.
“Is this the only hotel in Clancy?”
I look up in shock at the door. I could have sworn I locked that door. It’s like ten o’clock at night and my brain is going in circles. I’ve watched enough true crime television to know leaving my door unlocked in the middle of the night is a recipe for disaster.
“I believe so, yes.” I answer, looking around the counter for a weapon. He doesn’t look like an axe murderer, but then again, I’m not sure what one would look like. He’s got a beard, some crazy looking tattoos on his arm, and he’s tall and wide—kind of like my cousin White who plays football, only a little more dangerous and less good ole’ boy from Texas.
I see a box of paperclips. Can you kill someone with paperclips? They’re the large ones, maybe I could stab his eye out… God. I’m pathetic. What kind of idiot doesn’t have some kind of weapon in her desk?
“That’d be my luck,” he growls and his growl does sound dangerous. I frantically look one last time for a weapon and finally decide on the stapler. I know it’s pitiful, but it’s all I have.
“Is there a problem?” I ask, trying to nonchalantly pick up the stapler in my hand and grip it.
“I have a reservation,” he sighs out the words like they’re being ripped from his soul and steeped with regret—which kind of pisses me off. I mean the place doesn’t look great, but I’ve done a lot of work and it’s not open for another two weeks—thanks to the electrical inspector.
“I’m sorry I’m not open for two weeks. You must have the wrong place,” I tell him sweetly. My grip has eased on the stapler a little. He’s probably not an axe murderer, at least there’s that. He’s just someone who is afraid he’s here to stay in my hotel. Which is understandable. I’ve sunk every dime I have into the place and there’s times at night I cry because I’m here. Still, he’s kind of rude about it and that makes me want to hit him with my stapler.
“I’m early. It’s there if you look, Aden Mc—Aden Smith,” he says and I frown. Okay I realize there are reasons people check into hotels with the last name Smith. He doesn’t seem to have a woman with him however, so I doubt he’s hiding from jealous husbands. It’s not my problem though.
“I recognize the name, but it’s not until the twenty-sixth and as I said we’re not open yet,” I explain. I look down at the hotel registry as if there are a million bookings—which is laughable. There’s only this guy, and I doubt many people will be knocking down my doors to book this place in advance. Still, a girl has to have hope…the irony that my name is Hope, does not escape me. My mother had a twisted sense of humor when it came to naming her children.
“Well I’m early,” he replies.
“I see that. It’s just we’re not opening for—”
“For another two weeks, I heard you the first time. However, I’m early and I need a room. Since you’re the only hotel in the area, we’re stuck,” he answers, as if he is explaining things to a small child. I grip the stapler tight again. I wonder if it would hurt business if the owner gets arrested for hurling a stapler at the head of a would-be guest. I’m guessing it might…Damn it.
“I’m sorry. I can’t accept guests until after I pass inspection. That’s why when you called, I specifically informed you that I would not be open for—”
“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” he says abruptly, walking towards me. He struts, long stealthy strides, that look angry and I have no doubt are meant to intimidate—because they do.
“Stop!” I tell him, without taking a minute to think about it. He does stop, however, mid-step.
“Listen, why don’t you quit angling here, and name your price,” he says, and immediately starts walking toward me again.
I hold up the stapler as if it was a weapon that was about to save the world from mass destruction.
“I think you better leave.”
“The nearest hotel I’ve passed besides this shit-hole is about three hours away and I’m too damn tired. How about you be a nice little girl and hand me a room key and let me crash.”
“I think maybe we have a language barrier, so I need you to listen and I’ll speak slowly so you understand. We. Aren’t. Open.”
“Name your price.”
“I said name your price, lady. Everybody has one and from the looks of this place you definitely do. So how much to rent this place a week earlier?”
“I can’t—” I begin, but my mouth snaps shut quickly when he lays out a roll of hundreds on the counter. I actually drop the stapler. It crashes onto the counter with loud clanging noise causing me to jump. I can’t make myself look away to see if it’s destroyed.
“That’s twelve hundred dollars for your crappy room for one week. I doubt you’ll find that anywhere else, do you?”
“But we’re not ready for business. I haven’t had my final inspection,” I tell him again, trying to ignore his insults. The rooms aren’t great, but they’re much better than what they were. He’s just an asshole.
“I won’t tell if you don’t. So, do we have a deal?” he asks and he says it in a manner that I know he fully expects me to agree. I wish I could tell him to stuff his money, but the new air conditioning and wiring I have to get done before the inspection is a reality. This money and the money for the following week would pay for that. I can’t afford to say no…No matter how much I really want to.
“Twelve hundred for this week and twelve hundred for next?” I question him and I hate the look of victory that comes over his face.
“Fine. The rooms aren’t completely ready, but I’ll give you our best one. It’s mostly finished and the air conditioning works good in there,” I tell him, and okay I’m kind of lying. The air conditioning does work, but sometimes the breakers blow if you use the receptacles in the bathroom. This guy looks haggard as hell though. I doubt he knows what a blow dryer is and that’s really the only thing you use in the bathroom…Right?
“I’m sure it’s beautiful,” he mocks, as I grab the key to room number seven. Seven is supposed to be a lucky number, but considering I’m contemplating picking my stapler back up and bludgeoning my new tenant with it…I have a feeling it’s not lucky at all for me.
USA Today Best Selling Author Jordan Marie, is just a simple small town country girl who is haunted by Alpha Men who talk in her head 24 hours a day.
She currently has 14 books out including 2 that she wrote under the pen name Baylee Rose.
She likes to create a book that takes you on an emotional journey whether tears, laughter (or both) or just steamy hot fun (or all 3). She loves to connect with readers and interacting with them through social media, signings or even old fashioned email.
My prince was a Beast with blood on his hands and ice in his veins. My family offered to save me. The only price: leaving the tattered pieces of my heart behind.
Our love was irrational. Cruel. Unforgiving. Nothing like the storybooks said it should be—but it was perfect.
The longer we were apart, the more I lost myself. He was vicious and domineering, but I craved the submission. Together we were destructive, but I was addicted to the devastation. Still, I thought titles mattered. To my family I was princess, and to the Beast I was slave. I was too naïve to understand that even though he’d been my captor, he’d broken the shackles on my soul.
Once upon a time, I thought love meant happily ever after.
Now I know better.
My heart was in my throat as I hurriedly tried to wipe blood from my hands. The harder I tried to clean them, the more dirt and blood smeared the skin. With a shaky breath, I looked beyond the small copse of trees that shrouded me to the reason my palms were stained red, the reason I’d killed someone. Pacing back and forth, talking on a phone, his features blurred from the distance. Every few moments he paused and stared into the trees.
I sucked in a sharp breath—it was like he could see me even though I was cloaked in darkness. My hands stilled and I stopped trying to clean, paralyzed by his stare piercing the shadows. In the month since I’d escaped, the stubble on his jaw had grown to a beard. It made him wilder, more Beastly.
“What have I done?” I whispered, breaking the spell and putting my head in my hands. An instant later, I tore them away. The blood was like maple syrup against my cheeks. I quickly jumped up and moved as far away from the body as I could, resting against a thin tree. Anteros resumed pacing, though occasionally he looked back and I each time had me swallowing what felt like golf balls.
There was just one building around for miles and only the anemic glow of one faraway street lamp cast light on the empty lot. Windowless with one door, it looked like some kind of abandoned concrete factory, but inside all kinds of debauchery went on. It was a club owned by the Beast, but not like the one he’d taken me to, not mainstream. This was underground, a place for the dark and dirty.
A walkie-talkie blared static, angry, white noise next to the body and even knowing I should leave, knowing my minutes were numbered, I couldn’t. This was the closest I’d gotten to Anteros since I’d escaped. It had been so long since we’d been in the same vicinity that I’d nearly forgotten the carnal pull, the tug, the yearning. How I was utterly powerless, even before he spoke.
The first day I’d searched for him I went back to the penthouse and sat outside, hidden, waiting for him to come out. I did that for a week before I realized he didn’t live there anymore. I should have given up.
Instead I became obsessed.
A dark part of me hoped he couldn’t go back to the penthouse, the same way I couldn’t stop looking for him until I found him.
As I watched Anteros, I tried to ignore the throbbing between my thighs that matched the heartbeat thrumming in my ears. Leather pants curved around thick, muscular thighs. Weapons glimmered in the night and a muscle shirt dirtied with blood captivated me, glued me to the spot. It all somehow enhanced Anteros, made him sexier, more dangerous. I hadn’t thought it possible for him to be more dangerous.
I was transfixed by the way Anteros was only in a tank despite the bitter air, lingering on how his skin rolled with his muscles. Involuntarily, my tongue darted out to wet my lips. The Beast had always been lethal, but now…he was mythic.
I was so engrossed watching him I didn’t realize I was fingering the diamond rose pendant he gave me. I should have thrown it away the moment I was free. I thought about it. I thought about it every day for almost two weeks, but could never do it. Now the diamond was getting bloody as I rubbed it.
Bloody because I killed someone.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But then, I’d never really considered how it would happen. I’d just listened to the need tugging at my gut, the one that threatened to rip me apart if I didn’t follow. And when I’d finally found Anteros, someone had found me first. It was instinct. One minute there, the next gone.
I killed Big O.
It all happened so fast. I’d been in the trees, staring at the lone door, and then out of nowhere hands were around my neck. Before he could yell for help, my knife was in his side and blood ran down my palm, my wrist. It was so bright, but dark too. Like summer cherries. I could have left Big O. I could have run and he would have been alive and I wouldn’t have been a killer. I hadn’t even planned on using my knife; the only reason I kept it was because Anteros’s dried blood was still on the blade.
I could have left.
But a rush of adrenaline, like fire in my chest and buzzing, crackling electricity in my veins, had filled me when the blade broke his skin. So I slid the knife into Big O again. And again.
What does that say about me?
The weight of the memory was too much so I fell to the ground, hand scratching against the bark of the tree as I descended. I wasn’t about to throw Big O a funeral, but I was a good girl. I returned my library books. I was a good girl.
Anteros stopped talking on his phone and stared into the trees again, one hand clasped behind his neck pensively, bicep bulging. Even yards away, his gaze stripped me of my clothes. Just when I was certain he could see me, he looked down and pulled his cell back out. Long, tan fingers slid across the glass surface.
That thing happened—that uniquely Anteros thing—where my body got viciously warm and even in the winter I thought I would boil alive. His fingers had been one of the first things I noticed about him. Elegant. Rough. Dichotomous—like him. I couldn’t help but remember how they had curled inside me. A slight breeze tickled what little skin I had showing on the cold night and I rubbed my neck. When I brought my hand back, blood streaked the palm. My eyes flashed to Big O and I swallowed a rock.
I’m so fucking fucked up.
Snapping twigs echoed around me and I quickly got to my feet, eyes going to the patio—empty, only yellow light to make the cement glow. Hair flew into my face as the breeze kicked up and I quickly wiped it away as my hand went to my blade.
By the trees, where the street lamp couldn’t reach and the moon’s light was suffocated. At first, it was nothing more than a shadow, but my heartbeat stuttered and my breathing ratcheted. I wondered if he could sense me all the way by the door the way I felt him now. The air vibrated when we were in the same vicinity, like being too close to speakers at a concert.
I should have run away, but I was prisoner to my needs and only he held the key to set me free.
“Come out,” I said, voice shaking. I’d just killed someone but simply the phantom of the man had me trembling.
Anteros emerged, form made monstrous by the night, and I sucked in a breath that got lost in my lungs. His eyes gleamed, the same bluegreen that had haunted my dreams, except here it was real. Our eyes locked and for a brief moment, I felt him—felt everything. It was like quitting a drug and jumping back in at the full dosage; heady, unstable, dangerous. I had the urge to get on my knees. To beg for forgiveness for leaving him.
His gaze flicked to the dead, exsanguinated body of Big O. Surprise flashed in his bluegreen depths and vanished just as quickly to be replaced with something else: satisfaction. I wanted to tell him he had it all wrong—I didn’t plan this—but his red lips curved in a cruelly sensual way and when his eyes flashed back to mine, they were hard and merciless, making my core ache and weep.
I remembered reading about the prediction of a great earthquake that was going to shake California. It hadn’t happened yet, but everyone kept waiting for it. That was what I saw in his eyes: a cocksureness at my return, smug even as the earth shook beneath us.
Anteros walked over the stained red concrete, mouth twisting up in a deadly grin as he reached me. My heart thumped so fast, so heavy, I wondered if it would bruise my ribcage. The smell of pine in the air was suddenly too thick. The night too dark. The ground too wet. I couldn’t breathe. If I touched him, I was fucked. But as our stares collided, I realized I would never escape him, could never escape him, because my heart beat inside his chest.
I closed the distance, reaching for him.
Still with a wicked grin, Anteros reached for the pendant and lifted it from my neck. His touch was cataclysmic, the heat of his fingers at my collarbone tearing through me. My breath was sporadic, staccato, leaving my parted lips in short gasps.
“You’ve made me wait,” he said, gripping the silver chain of the necklace. “You’ll pay for that.”