The words “For Lila, forever” adorned the front of the envelope in blue ink, the handwriting all too familiar. But it didn’t matter what it said. I didn’t have the heart to open it.
We couldn’t be together.
Not after everything …
Leaving Rose Crossing, Maine was one of the most painful moments of my life—or at least it was until the day I came face-to-face with Thayer Ainsworth again.
After a decade of searching, he’s found me, and he wants to know why I quit my housemaid job and left his family’s island estate without so much as a goodbye. But I’m bound by a devastating secret much bigger than the two of us, and telling him the truth has consequences.
Looking into the eyes of the only man I’ve ever loved, I tell him the only thing I’m allowed to: never contact me again. And when he’s gone, I sit down and finally open his letter.
Only it isn’t a letter at all.
It changes everything.
Thayer“Where … are … they?” My lungs burn after sprinting from The Lila Cottage to my grandfather’s house where I stormed into his study, a man on a mission.
“Thayer.” He rises from his leather chair, a cordial smile on his face as he dog-ears his Architectural Digest magazine and rests it on a coffee table. “What a pleasant surprise. Wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Come on in. Have a seat.”
He waves me over, but I remain planted. I won’t rest, I won’t make myself at home until I know why the Hilliards are nowhere to be found.
The boat dropped me off at the dock a half hour ago, and as I made my way to the main house, I couldn’t help but notice from a distance that The Hilliard Cottage looked … off. And then I realized there were no flowers. Junie always plants flowers at the end of April, and it’s the middle of May. Also there were weeds growing out of the old flower beds. Ed never would’ve allowed that to happen. Curious—and concerned—I made my way to their cottage, only to find the front door unlocked and the place looking different from the last time I was there.
I made my way from room to room, and it only took me a minute to realize all the family photos that Ed and Junie had were gone. In their place were the faces of smiling and posing strangers. I went to the main bedroom next, only to find the closet half-filled with women’s clothes, not so much as a hint of anything a man would wear. When I went to Lila’s old room next, I found it stripped to the bones. Not a picture. Not a book. Not a single article of clothing on the dresser.
The Hilliards were gone.
I left their cottage and sprinted to the abandoned cottage. I know Lila—she wouldn’t have left without an explanation. I was positive I’d find a note somewhere in the house, and I tore the place up looking for it only to come up empty handed—except for the notes I’d written and hidden for her before I left.
She didn’t find a single one, never had a chance to read them.
Granddad rises from his chair, the corners of his lips turning down. “I’m not sure why that’s any of your business.” And then he chuckles. “Or why you’re so visibly upset.” Walking toward me, he places a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s head to the kitchen. I’ll have Bernice prepare a snack for you. I’m sure you’re hungry after your travels.”
He ushers me out of his study. “The new help.”
“Where are the Hilliards?” I ask as we walk.
He chuffs through his nose, taking his time answering. “They retired, Thayer. That’s what people do when they reach a certain age.”
I exhale, the tension in my shoulders dissipating in small increments. Retirement makes sense. They were in their early sixties last I knew, and they’d been caring for the family’s island off the coast of Maine since before I was born. Junie did the cooking and the cleaning and Ed tended the garden, maintained the landscaping, combed the private beaches, and kept up the boats and three main houses all twelve months of the year.
“They moved to the mainland then?” I ask.
“I haven’t the slightest. I sent them on their way last fall and haven’t heard from them since. For all I know they’re living their golden years in sunny Florida, or perhaps they made their way to Arizona. I believe Junie has a sister there. Either way, they’re having themselves a time, I’m sure of it.”
His nonchalance is nothing short of concerning.
Ed and Junie were like family. They’d been around for decades. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t stay in touch—or that my know-it-all grandfather wouldn’t have so much as a clue as to where they went. That coupled with the fact that Lila didn’t so much as leave a goodbye letter tells me that he’s not giving me all the facts.
I follow him to the kitchen where a middle-aged woman with gray-brown hair stands at the sink, washing dishes by hand. She’s shorter and thinner than Junie, her hair straight and cut blunt at her shoulders. There’s a permanent scowl etched on her face. She doesn’t light the room like Junie did.
“Bernice, this is my eldest grandson, Thayer,” Grandfather says.
The woman glances over her shoulder, offering a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it half-smile and a nod, her yellow-gloved hands still deep in the dirty dishwater.
“Very nice to meet you,” she says, her back toward us. “I’ve heard so much about you. Your grandfather tells me you’re pre-law at Yale?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“Just finished his second year.” Grandfather beams from ear to ear. It thrills him to no end that I’ve chosen to follow in his collegiate footsteps. “Anyway, he’s made quite the jaunt today and my boy is starving. Would you mind preparing him a sandwich?”
“It’s fine. I’m not hungry,” I say.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He puffs his chest and follows with a pompous chuff. “You just drove several hours and then you ferried in.”
I drove four straight hours from New Haven, not stopping once, because all I could think about was getting here—to Lila, Ed and Junie’s granddaughter. And then I waited two hours for a ferry that took three hours to get me here because of all the other island stops we made.
Mile after mile, the thought of seeing Lila kept me going. The sheer excitement and anticipation of being together again was all the distraction I needed.
I daydreamed about sneaking up behind her and wrapping my arms around her waist.
I pictured her sweet smile and her sparkling amber-green eyes.
I felt her hands on my face and her hair between my fingers as I stole her away and claimed her pink lips with a kiss behind the boathouse.
“How can I find them?” I ask my grandfather.
His thick brows knit. “Who, Thayer? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
He’s playing dumb. I know better than to buy into his act.
“The Hilliards,” I say, without naming Lila specifically.
“And what reason on God’s green earth would you have to contact them?” my grandfather asks. “They’re retired. I’m sure we’re the last people they want to hear from.”
“They were a big part of my childhood. I considered them family,” I say. “It’d just be nice to be able to keep in touch is all. Would’ve been nice to know the last time I saw them was going to be … the last time.”
Granddad hooks a hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
“You’re too sentimental, boy. Just like your mother. Speaking of which, she’ll be here in two days. The rest of the crew should be here by the weekend. Say, I was going to get the ol’ ketch out and go for a sail this afternoon. You’ll join me.” In true Howard Bertram fashion, he isn’t asking.
“If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to pass. Not in a sailing mood today.”
His cheery disposition fades and he studies me for a moment. “This isn’t about the Hilliards, is it? If you’d like to write them a letter, I’d be happy to have my attorney work on locating them and sending it on.”
I consider his offer. “And how long do you think that would take?”
He squints. “Is this an urgent matter? I was under the assumption you were simply wanting to keep in touch.”
Yes, it’s urgent.
The woman I love—the only woman I’ve ever loved and will ever love—is out there somewhere and I haven’t the slightest idea as to where she is, how to contact her …
… or why she would’ve left without saying goodbye.
Lila had my address at school—before I left, I gave it to her for emergency purposes as well as my number and email address. She could’ve written me a letter. The Hilliards didn’t own a personal computer of any kind, but there was a lab at the public library in Rose Crossing—she could’ve easily looked me up and emailed me.
The last thing I told Lila when I left here last August was that I loved her more than anything in the world. She kissed me hard as the ocean breeze played with her sun-bleached waves, and then she whispered, “Two hundred and sixty-three days…”
We didn’t do the long-distance relationship thing. Not in the traditional sense. During the school year I focused on studies and extra-curriculars, and she planned to stick around Rose Crossing Island and help her grandparents whittle away at their never-ending To-Do List. When I left, we agreed that we didn’t have to spend hours on the phone talking about nothing to keep that flame flickering. We agreed we didn’t have to wait by mailboxes for handwritten letters every week as proof that our unwavering devotion was still received and reciprocated. Not that either of those things were options, but we both just knew. We knew that the other was always going to be there no matter what.
I believe that the Hilliards retired, but I don’t believe that Lila would have left here without so much as leaving a letter in the cottage.
Something isn’t adding up here.
“Thayer.” My grandfather clears his throat. “I’m speaking to you. Are you all right?”
I realize now that I’m sitting at the base of the grand staircase in my grandfather’s foyer. I don’t remember walking here. I don’t remember sitting down and placing my hands in my hair, tugging until my scalp throbs.
Coming to, I pull in a deep breath and force myself to stand. “I’m fine. Think I just need to lie down for a bit.”
His mouth flattens. He’s disappointed I won’t be sailing with him this afternoon, but he’s not going to push it. The summer is young, I’m sure he’s thinking.
“All right. I’ll have Bernice get you the key to Ainsworth,” he says. “We weren’t expecting you home this early, but everything should be in order. If it isn’t, let me know. This is her first time opening the island for the summer.”
Opening the island …
He opened the island the way other people open their pools for the summer: with checklists and procedures and quiet fanfare. “Opening the island” was always his expression for this time of year, when our entire extended family would abandon their modern lives, their work and school in favor of sun, sand, and sailing off the coast of a New England island hideaway. It was always Ed and Junie who would prepare for our arrivals. All the linens would be freshly washed, beds made. Junie used to fold our towels into little animal shapes, like we were at some resort, and Ed would shine up the boats and hose off the dock. Junie would place freshly picked and trimmed flowers in vases in every living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom—that alone must have taken her hours if not days considering each home had at least five bedrooms and six baths. But she always loved to go the extra mile to make our annual homecoming a splendid affair.
My grandfather disappears into the kitchen, returning with a set of keys to my family’s designated house just a few hundred yards down the drive.
“Dinner will be at six,” he says, dropping the key ring in my hand. “Get some rest, but don’t be late. We have much catching up to do.”
As soon as he’s gone, I realize I’m squeezing the set so hard, the metal teeth are leaving indentations in my palm. Relaxing, I show myself out and head down the path to Ainsworth, gaze locked on the cedar shake siding that covers the backside. Last summer, I stole a kiss from Lila next to the white peony bushes on the north side of the house.
The bushes are lackluster now, appearing as if they hardly intend to bloom this year.
Once I get to the house, I unlock a side door and head in. My lungs fill with stuffy, slightly damp air. Apparently Bernice didn’t air out the house the way Junie always did in anticipation of our arrival, but I know she’s new so I won’t fault her for it.
Passing down the hall, I make my way to the living room before cutting through the foyer to get to the kitchen. There’s no bowl of fresh fruit waiting on the counter. Not a single vase filled with picked hydrangeas or lilacs as per tradition.
A moment later, I climb the stairs to the second floor and find my room at the end of the hall.
No folded swan towels.
No welcome note in Junie’s whimsical handwriting.
No secret welcome note from Lila tucked into my pillowcase.
I head to the windows first, sliding up the sashes and letting some much needed fresh air fill the space.
Collapsing on the bed next, I slide my hands under my neck and stare at the lifeless ceiling fan above. Everything … and I mean everything … has taken on an empty quality.
It’s like a substantial part of me is missing—and that part of me is her.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I try to rest despite knowing damn well my head isn’t going to stop spinning long enough to make that possible. But I need to calm down so I can come up with a game plan.
There’s no internet access on the island—my grandfather contacted the local phone company once, and they were told there was not enough infrastructure to support running cable or DSL lines to Rose Crossing at the time, and then they said that running those lines to the island would’ve been humanly impossible. The only options he was given were satellite or dial up. My grandfather made the executive decision to forgo both—deciding that the island was better off with as minimal technology as possible because family time was too priceless to sacrifice for “computers and video games and the like.”
I grab my cell from my pocket and check the service. It’s always been spotty out here, even at the highest point, which happens to be the attic of my grandparents’ house, so I don’t hold my breath.
One bar is enough to make phone calls if you’re okay with the sound cutting in and out, but it makes any internet capabilities virtually useless.
I try to refresh my email inbox as a test … my point proven in under two minutes when the app times out before it has a chance to load.
I’ll have to try and sneak away to town in the next day and use the computers at the library.
I’m sure a quick online search will tell me exactly where she is …
Placing my phone aside, I close my eyes once more and listen to the crash of the ocean outside my windows.
It doesn’t sound the same without her here.
And it sure as hell doesn’t feel the same.
I close my eyes and try to get some rest.
I’ll look for Lila forever if I have to.
I’ll start first thing tomorrow, and I won’t stop until I find her.
He is Savage. Dominant. Primitive. I am slave to his instinct.
In the year 10,442, humanity is a space faring race.
We do not have sex, and we certainly do not breed.
I am an observer, a young woman alone in space, being punished for her sins. My sentence is to observe a remote planet where it is rumored an old Earth ship crashed thousands of years ago. According to records, there were no survivors.
The records were wrong.
While in orbit around the planet, I am hit. My shuttle crashes.
Zion, the beast of a man who pulls me from the wreckage and sets about making me his own does not know that my people do not engage in sexual activity. He doesn’t understand that reproduction is expressly forbidden. All he knows is that he wants me.
My untouched body will be his in every way imaginable. He will mate me over and over. He will fill me with his seed until my belly swells. When I defy him, I will be punished shamefully and thoroughly until I give him the submission he demands.
But there are even more dangerous things in the universe than Zion. My people will come for me, and when they do, even my primitive beast of a man might not be enough to save me from their wrath.
Earth Year 10,442 CE
“You’re not going to interfere with this planet. No matter what. Tselia. Repeat after me.”
It sounds like the Patron is right here next to me, though in truth he is speaking in low, slow tones over the holotalk system. He is in Andromeda Delta, a little over three light years away. I have taken a hard left past Zubenelgenubi, and am skimming my way toward a little planet on the outskirts of Ophiuchus.
“Tselia?” He prompts me when I don’t immediately reply.
“I am not going to interfere, no matter what, I promise.” I roll my eyes. He can’t see me like I can see him, and that is a very good thing. If he detected any attitude at all, I’d be recalled so fast my head would spin.
His warnings are unnecessary. I know what the protocols are. But you leap into one tiny little armed conflict and the exploration league puts you on probation for the rest of your natural born life.
My people have been mapping and cataloging the conscious contents of the solar system for well over a thousand years now, and we’ve barely made a dent in it. Turns out, there’s all sorts of weirdness in creation, but it all follows more or less the same rules: eat stuff, fuck stuff – except for plants. I’ve never trusted plants, and I’m not about to start now.
“You will find this a challenging assignment,” he continues.
That’s not likely to be true. It does have some potential to be interesting, but we both know I am being punished for what happened the last time I made contact with a sentient species. I’d put money on it that they’re not going to allow me near another civilization for the rest of my career. I’m basically being posted to watch grass grow.
It’s going to be a lonely assignment, but I’m ready for that. All explorers are temperament tested. We have to be able to withstand solitude, the true curse of the stars.
“I don’t need to remind you that this is your last chance,” the patron says. “If you breach protocol, you will be terminated and returned to Primary Colony Gamma. I recommend you stay inside your craft unless in case of extreme emergency.”
I do not want that. Primary Colony Gamma is basically a rock with most of the colony in stasis pods. I’d either end up in one, or cleaning them out when one of the occupants dies. Not exactly a fate I’d wish on anyone.
“You’ll be in orbit around Hades Exile soon,” the Patron continues, repeating the briefing he gave me three months ago when I set off after the disciplinary hearing. “We expect the length of your observation period to be three years as determined by the solar cycle of this particular planet. I don’t need to remind you that breaching the atmosphere will be grounds for immediate recall. If you do encounter life, report it immediately.”
“Immediately? You want an urgent report if I find a frog or something?”
I hear him sigh. “There is a small chance of human life on this planet. If there is, you will be reassigned. We don’t want a repeat of the last set of events, do we?”
I bite my lower lip. Yeah. There it is. If there is anything interesting to see, they don’t want me to see it. They want to bore me out of existence, that’s what they want.
“Alright sounds good. See you in three years then.”
His stern tone softens a hint. “Be good, Tselia.”
With that, the connection is severed. I am alone. Properly alone.
“Bye, Dad.” I wait until he can’t hear me to say my goodbyes. He prefers I think of him as the Patron, just like everyone else. Can’t have him showing me favoritism, even though he already has a dozen times. Anyone else would be a pod person by now. I’ve been given chance after chance. I hope I don’t mess this one up.
The last couple hours of my journey tick by uneventfully. My ship seems to hang in dark space, and it’s as if I don’t even move as a big gold and blue ball slowly rolls toward me, a massive marble which swallows the sky until my ship is caught in the outer tendrils of the gravity field.
I’m in awe. Slipping up to a new planet is always an incredible moment. No two are the same. Most of them are hostile to life, but every now and then you find a place like this, somewhere the rules for existence have been followed. Not too hot. Not too cold. Carbon dominant. Beautiful.
They call this planet Hades Exile. It’s not a fitting name for a paradise planet. There are plenty of places where the surface boils at millions of degrees kelvin, where the air is pure sulfur, where nothing has ever been able to bloom into existence.
Places like HE are rare, and evoke a yearning deep in my soul. This is the world as it once was, I imagine. This is how our genesis planet, Earth must have looked when it was still pure.
I give myself a few moments just to take it all in. Emotion is welling in me, excitement, joy, hope. The brief of this planet is an interesting one. A very long time ago, humans landed here. It was an accident and they were not expected to have survived, but if there’s still a trace of them, I will find it.
Now I’m in orbit, things will start to get interesting – even if they’re not meant to. Hopefully I can get some useful information, impress the Patron and his council with not just my observations and discoveries, but interpretations. Raw data means nothing. It has to tell a story. Some of the best explorers didn’t really see anything. They just tore meaning from chaos, reassured those who keep our species in stasis that it is worthwhile to keep doing so. When most of your population is on ice, things can start feeling a bit meaningless.
I am one of the very few who get to see, to search, to bring home knowledge. It’s a privilege, and in spite of what the Patron thinks, I haven’t forgotten that.
I move to the observation deck and sit down in the comfiest chair in the ship. It has to be. I’m going to spend many, many hours here just watching the world below unfold.
Once comfortable, I set about calibrating the instruments. They’re incredibly sensitive, and even from a relatively high orbit, they can pick out life forms on a broad taxonomic level. I might not be able to tell from here if there are humans, which there very likely aren’t. But I will probably be able to tell if there are mammals in the same order.
A planet, any planet with life, is a gene swarm. When the instruments first lock on, they find a buzzing confusion of data which takes hours and hours to sort into discrete life forms.
That’s why I turn the cameras on and that’s why I like to look. A human eye and mind can perform that task in a fraction of the time. We generally know when we’re looking at something that is or has been alive.
My stomach growls, so I grab some noodles from the ration generator, and settle back down. This is a punishment, to be sure, but an exciting one. I am sure the patron is interested in what I am able to gather here. If I send back some decent reports, I might even be allowed back to Base Eden, the place where I grew up, sometime in the next century.
I hit buttons, put the camera feeds up on the big screen in front of me. Out the window, I see the mass of it, the edge tapering into darkness.
The cameras reveal a beautiful planet. Its land mass is largely one big continent, with several smaller islands at the verge. The sea level is fairly low, no more than ten thousand feet in any given part. Unlikely to be home to leviathan creatures then. But the lands, they are a different matter. There are multiple large inland lakes where I focus my search. Life loves water.
For the first few hours, all I do is stare, chewing the occasional noodle. I think this might be the most stunning place I’ve ever seen. There are massive plains and towering mountains, forests through which great rivers flow. The polar regions are minimal, and the humidity seems to be high throughout most of the territory.
Suddenly, being stuck on this ship is more punishment than ever, and I realize just how devious the Patron has been. If I was staring into the void of space, or looking down at a burning planet, I would be perfectly content in my nice oxygen rich little star home. But now I am seeing this world laid out before me, and I can imagine what it would be to swim in those lakes, or stand atop those mountains, feel the rain which is falling across parts of the world, or bask in the sunshine of the great star beyond.
I miss being planetside. I wish being part of a system of life. As an explorer, I am nothing more than a speck of existence floating about space so infinite sometimes I wonder if I exist anymore, or if I’m just a wandering thought lost to the void.
I need ground beneath my feet. I need to be part of something. The connections between humans are so distant and tenuous now it almost feels as though we are already dead.
“Snap out of it,” I lecture myself as my thoughts drift toward the maudlin. It’s far too easy to slip into self-pity out here. “Look for the humans,” I tell myself. “They’re here. We survive. It’s what we do.”
I have hope, even though hope seems futile. Most planets evolve some form of life. Intellect is not guaranteed, but brutal animal instinct is.
The humans who came out here were originals, direct from Earth. Records show that a small colony may have been established here, largely by accident. They decided to explore instead of going directly to the next waypoint. When they tried to return to course, their heading was off by a few degrees and it took them into deeper space than any other ship could reach and also expect to survive.
It’s been ten thousand years since anyone made contact with this offshoot of the species. In all likelihood, they are all dead. That’s why the patron sent me here. To see what happens when orders are disobeyed, and protocols not followed.
He wants me to see the desolation of a species consumed by the wild. He wants me to understand how fragile life is, and how disobedience leads to inevitable suffering. I know these things already, even if I don’t entirely believe them. The humans who headed out this way were ill-fated explorers, and they almost certainly died so far from home they would never be found, but I see this mission a different way. I’ve come for them. Even if it’s just for the smallest hints of remains, some long lost wreckage, even if they had to wait ten thousand years, I have come. We do not abandon our own. Not forever.
BEEEP BEEEP BEEEP
Either I’ve forgotten that I put a second set of noodles on, and the ship is reminding me that they’re ready, or the scanners have found something. Noodles are more likely, so I slip out of the chair and check the generator first. No noodles. Back to the scanners, which have started spitting out data so aggressively I can hardly keep up with it as is scrolls across the screen.
I’m seeing signs of life. And not just any life. Humanoid life.
The scanners are showing a settlement at the base of a mountain range. It’s hard to pick out details at this range, so there are no pictures right now, but according to the data feed, hominid patterns of behavior have been detected. Primitive, but present.
“Wow,” I breathe to myself, watching as the data pours across the screens. I am going to need more than numbers and reports. I want to see these people with my own eyes. They have been here for ten thousand years existing entirely on their own. What are they like? Do they retain any of the old culture? I am excited at the prospect of seeing people who live as humans did at the turn of the thirtieth century.
This is so exciting I almost call a report into the Patron’s office, but something stops me. If there are people down there, I will be recalled and sent off to some other backwater. I will be denied what is mine: the rescue of the remnants of humanity.
I know what he would say: they are not to be interfered with. Life on other planets is not something for us to toy with. But I don’t see why. The Patron is always so concerned with contamination, saying that our mere presence can destroy what would otherwise exist. And maybe that’s true. But maybe it doesn’t matter. If the scanners are right, those are people down there. So how can I mess with them? I am a people too, after all.
The Patron might disagree. He has been saying for a long time that we are not human. We are superhuman. We are an offshoot of the original Earth species who decided not to keep falling prey to the cycle of brith and death. We long ago cured our ailments. Colds. Warts. Cancers. Coronary Disease. Each one was systematically eradicated until only our traitorous bodies with their cellular aging held us back – and then we solved that too. Some say the Patron is over a thousand years old. He has earned his immortality by guiding us to a place of pure power. To him, the rest of creation is nothing but a zoo to be curated. But I am only eighteen years old. I am a late birth, the product of illicit copulation. I am lucky the Patron didn’t have me removed from existence as an embarrassment.
Most of my people are not technically alive to shame him anyway. At any given time, most of our living members are in stasis, frozen in time. There are fields of people frozen, waiting for there to be a reason to exist again. It turns out, a perfect existence without pain or suffering is incredibly boring – and it also turns out that it is a lot more sustainable to keep a million or so people on ice than it is to have them walking around eating and excreting.
I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree with most things the Patron says and does. I am his youngest and most rebellious child, and he will never quite forgive me for existing.
But that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that I am here in orbit around the remnants of old human civilization.
I start to mess with the controls. The ship put itself into ideal orbit, but I’m not satisfied. I want to get lower. I want to see more. I want to get eyes on what’s going on below.
Hours pass as I hunt for humanity. Maybe days. I lose track of time as I scour the lands for views of what I know must be down there. I am almost asleep my in my chair when the grainy image of several bipeds flashes across the lower corner of the screen.
Bolting upright in my chair, I work to get a better view. It’s not great. I am limited to a top down view, and it is in such low resolution I can’t tell if these are the descendants of the lost humans, or some coincidental bipedal analogue.
I have to get closer.
The ship can’t go any lower without coming out of orbit, but there’s a shuttle I can take down quite a lot lower. It’s built for atmospheric entry, and it will allow me to observe these creatures with a much better resolution and degree of accuracy. But I’m not supposed to take the shuttle. I’m supposed to stay on the ship.
Tapping impatiently, I try to get a better view of the action below, already knowing I can’t get a closer shot.
The order I was given about reporting any signs of life has long been forgotten. This is my discovery, and the thrill of it makes me forget petty things like protocol and orders. I push up from my chair and I start getting ready.
I have to prepare the machine, and myself. Leaving the ship means getting protective gear on, a slick suit which conforms tightly to my body enough that no external atmosphere has a chance of penetrating if I choose to wear the hood. I almost never do. It gets sweaty in there and it makes me look like I’m wearing a full body swim condom. Not a cute look, even if I am all alone out in space.
The shuttle is powered up and ready. Its observation tools aren’t as powerful as the ship’s, but I will be able to get so close it won’t matter. I set the co-ordinates in the navigation panel to to the ones I saw the bipeds at, and I set off, detaching from my ship and dropping down into the atmosphere of Hades Exile.
The world rises up to swallow me. I find myself flirting with the sky, zooming over the rolling planet below. The subjects I located on the ship come into view. They are blissfully unaware of me above them as I set my devices to record and start to observe what seems to be mating behavior.
A pack of large males appear to be courting a female. By courting, I mean chasing her about in a field. I zoom in to make sure she is alright – not that I’m allowed to do anything if she isn’t.
There is a big smile plastered across her face as she leads the males on a chase. She is more nimble than they, and perhaps a little faster. Either that, or they are humoring her in her attempts at escape.
The female has long dark hair which flows from her head and she is entirely naked aside from a strip of clothing which covers her sex. It’s hard to tell what she looks like exactly, but my heart is beating faster because she really does look quite human. Not like me, precisely, but close.
The males have overtaken her and are surrounding her. She turns to face each of them, spinning around in place. They seem to be communicating. Are they speaking?
I want to get closer. I hope they don’t move from this field. Mating has always been a fascination of mine but it rarely takes place where I can see it. The resolution on my optics is good for what it is, but I’m still obscured by things like trees and caves, so unless they all start fucking in the open…. oh. There they go.
As I look on from my perch in the sky, the female is taken between them. Though she likely only has a single vaginal canal, they seem to be too impatient to wait for that cavity, so they make liberal use of her mouth and her hands, and very possibly her anus as well.
The smaller shuttle has much better optics for being closer. I can zoom right in to the point I can almost see the male members. They are very much like the male anatomy of our own species. Evolution is a mistress of habit. She likes a four limbed base model, with alternate wings if you insist on them, or flippers if you want to go in the water. Two eyes, for the most part, if you’re going to bear live young. She has rules. Rules that haven’t been challenged for a long time. Our scientists used to try. Why not four arms and no legs? It turned out two arms were re-purposed as legs fairly quickly. Why not three eyes and no nose? Also had its disadvantages.
There are ways things are done, even on far flung planet like this one. One of the rules I’ve yet to see broken is crude, but simple: females get fucked.
Genital configuration is also one of Mistress Evolution’s sticking points. One has an out bit. One has an in bit. Sometimes the out bit will break off and stay in the in bit, as in the case of the Rectari, who mate via the anal canal, but the basic formula is usually the same.
I have seen a lot of mating in my time. I am yet to experience it myself. Reproduction is a classified and restricted activity. If I had been chosen for one of the very rare breeding position, I would have had any number of offspring now – not that I would have known them. We don’t tolerate tedious “parenting”. Our small ones soon work out which tube of their personal pod is for nutrition and which is for waste, and we have many instructive and educational videos for them to watch as they grow to full size.
I ease the ship a little lower in orbit. There is decent cloud cover. I’ll be fine. They won’t see me. These creatures show little in the way of human intelligence. I imagine they are no different mentally to many of the other automaton-like creatures I observe, going along predetermined patterns of behavior without much in the way of thought or concern.
The audio isn’t good from this distance, even if the view is better. It would be nice to see from an angle other than top down though, there’s only so much I can glean from the top of a bobbing head. I need to see expression, I need to hear reactions.
At this distance, it is impossible to tell if the female is in ecstasy, or if the males are taking their pleasure at her cost.
I should get just a little closer. Another few thousand feet and I will be in audio range. I’ll also be close enough to have to use the thrusters to avoid gravity. Out of orbit and into range I go, barely thinking about the additional risks I’m incurring.
Wet slapping and animal grunts suddenly burst over the speakers. Oh yes. Those are the sounds of a vigorous mating in progress. There is no way these creatures speak Intergalactic English, but by sheer coincidence some of their vocalizations sound familiar. The noises they make are deep, rough and gritty. Wait. Am I imagining it, or are those words I recognize from old language classes? The ones the Patron said were a waste of time because nobody spoke twentieth century English anymore, nor would they ever again.
“Bend over. Pussy up. Now.”
The words rumble through my speakers and I feel excitement slice through me. Those words hold a power, a raw intensity. I know they’re not really words in the way I might use them. They’re mating calls. I can tell, because I am an experienced observer of animal life and also, in all the years we have been observing other planets and systems, we have never found a species as sentient as our own.
These aren’t people, I have to remind myself. Even if they look like people, and sound like people, I have to avoid anthropomorphizing them.
Something impacts the left engine of the shuttle. My eyes are locked on the scene below, the carnal viciousness of the male’s actions so utterly spell binding that I am halfway across the shuttle, thrown by the impact, before I even know it has happened.
WARNING: PROJECTILE LODGED IN ENGINE the ship grates in my ear. LOSING ALTITUDE.
I crash into the far wall, then into the ceiling, then into the floor again as the shuttle spins. We’re close enough to the planet that there’s gravity. Goddamit. I hate gravity.
In seconds, I am in free-fall. Whatever hit me knocked my flight systems offline and that means I’m no longer in a shuttle. I am now in a big hunk of metal hurtling toward the ground, fighting controls which are calibrated for the seamless resistance of space and which barely respond in the thick, oxygen rich atmosphere of the planet.
The best I can do is slow my descent enough to the point when I impact the ground, I hopefully don’t die immediately. I manage to strap into the chair tight enough that my body is held securely, the emergency systems doing their best to cushion the shock of a terminal speed impact.
There is noise and rumbling and motion, a sense of intense speed even though I am actually moving slower than I have moved in months. Hitting the ground is like being knocked out of my body. I have never felt anything like it. I feel as though I have been crushed out of existence.
Dying to experience life, I cross an ocean to get away from my fears. I find my safe haven in the form of Detective Aiden Holden. He shows me what love is, but then our lives collide. Our little world shatters, and I’m caught in the crossfire.
I’m forced to return home, to let go of the only person who has made me feel like I could be more.
How do you return to a cage once you’ve tasted freedom?
My only hope is that Aiden will cross an ocean for me.
Michelle Heard is a Bestselling Romance Author who likes her books hot, dirty, and with a touch of darkness. She loves an alpha hero who is not scared to fight for his woman.
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TRICK by HJ Bellus releases June 5th! Pre-Order your copy today!
Diablo’s Throne MMA #3 / Sports Contemporary Romance
“If it’s what you want to do, then go, son.” Mom dusts off the speckles of flour from the front of her apron. “If it’s what your heart wants, you have to follow it.”
I drop my head into the palms of my hands. My elbows grate against the worn grains of our dinner table. He’s going to hate me. This farm symbolizes everything he wants. I’m the one to take it over. My heart isn’t in it.
“Trenton.” Mom’s hand comes down on my shoulder. Her gentle, loving lips graze my cheek. “Follow your dreams. Your dad will be pissed. Shit, he’ll be livid, tearing the house apart once he finds out. He’s going to cuss, calling you every name in the book.”
Mom pauses, steadying her breathing. Her loving arms never leave my trembling shoulders. This shit is ridiculous. Fuck, I just graduated high school. I’m an adult by all means, yet a terrified child.
“Go, Trenton, leave this ranch and go explore the world. Your dad will come to grips with it. Just never forget your momma.”
Mom cuts me off and ushers me to the door. She slings my duffle bag over my shoulder and places my truck keys in my hand. Mom gifts me with one loving kiss on my cheek before she pushes me out the door.
I left home forever that day and never looked back. The pain of disappointing Dad wasn’t lost on me.
MEET THE AUTHOR:
HJ Bellus is a small town girl who loves the art of storytelling. When not making readers laugh or cry, she’s a part-time livestock wrangler that can be found in the middle of Idaho, shotgunning a beer while listening to some Miranda Lambert on her Beats and rocking out in her boots.
From the author who brought you A Thousand Boy Kisses comes the new emotional novel, A Wish For Us.
A story of music. A story of healing. A story of love conquering all.
Nineteen-year-old Cromwell Dean is the rising star of electronic dance music. Thousands of people adore him. But no one knows him. No one sees the color of his heart.
Until the girl in the purple dress. She sees through the walls he has built to the empty darkness within.
When Cromwell leaves behind the gray skies of England to study music in the South Carolina heat, the last thing he expects is to see her again. And he certainly doesn’t expect that she’ll stay in his head like a song on repeat.
Bonnie Farraday lives for music. She lets every note into her heart, and she doesn’t understand how someone as talented as Cromwell can avoid doing the same. He’s hiding from his past, and she knows it. She tries to stay away from him, but something keeps calling her back.
Bonnie is the burst of color in Cromwell’s darkness. He’s the beat that makes her heart skip.
But when a shadow falls over Bonnie, it’s up to Cromwell to be her light, in the only way he knows how. He must help her find the lost song in her fragile heart. He must keep her strong with a symphony only he can compose.
A symphony of hope.
A symphony of love.
A symphony of them.
The club pulsed as the beat I was pouring into the crowd took over their bodies. Arms in the air, hips swaying, eyes wide and glazed as my music slammed into their ears, the rhythmic beats controlling their every move. The air was thick and sticky, clothes slick to people’s skins as they crammed into the full club to hear me.
I watched them light up with color. Watched them get lost to the sound. Watched them shed whoever they’d been that day—an office worker, a student, a copper, a call-center worker—what the hell ever. Right now, in this club, most probably high off their faces, they were slaves to my tunes. Right here, in this moment, my music was their life. It was all that mattered as their heads flew back and they chased the high, the near nirvana I gave them from my place on the podium.
I, however, felt nothing. Nothing but the numbness the booze beside me was gifting me.
Two arms slipped around my waist. Hot breath blew past my ear as full lips kissed my neck. Spinning my final beat, I grabbed the Jack Daniels beside me and took a shot straight from the bottle. I slammed the bottle down and moved back to my laptop to mix in the next tune. Hands with sharp fingernails ran through my hair, pulling on the black strands. I tapped on the keys, bringing the music down low, slowing the beat.
My breaths lengthened as the crowd waited, lungs frozen as I brought them to a slow sway, readying for the crescendo. The epic surge of beats and drums, the insanity of the mix that I would deliver. I looked up from my laptop and scanned the crowd, smirking at seeing them on the precipice, waiting . . . waiting . . . just waiting . . .
I slammed my hand down, holding my headphones to my left ear. A surge, a thundercloud of electronic dance music plowed into the crowd. Bursts of neon colors filled the air. Greens and blues and reds filled my eyes as they clung to each person like neon shields.
The hands around my waist tightened, but I ignored them, instead listening to the bottle of Jack as it called my name. I took another shot, my muscles starting to loosen. My hands danced over the laptop’s keys, over my mix boards.
I looked up, the crowd still in the palm of my hand.
They always were.
A girl in the center of the club drew my attention. Long brown hair pulled back off her face. Purple dress, high necked—she was dressed nothing like everyone else. The color surrounding her was different to the other clubbers—pale pink and lavender. Calmer. More serene. My eyebrows pulled down as I watched her. Her eyes were closed, but she wasn’t moving. She was still, and she looked to be completely alone as people crashed and pushed around her. Her head was tipped up, a look of concentration on her face.
I built up the pace, pushing the rhythm and the crowd as far as they could go. But the girl didn’t move. That wasn’t normal for me. I always had these clubbers wrapped around my finger. I controlled them, in every place I spun. In this arena, I was the puppet master. They were the dolls.
Another shot of Jack burned down my throat. And through another five songs, she stayed there, on the spot, just drinking in the beats like water. But her face never changed. No smile. No euphoric high. Just . . . eyes closed, that damn pinched look on her face.
And that pink and lavender still surrounding her like a shield.
“Cromwell,” the blonde who was all over me like a rash said into my ear. Her fingers lifted up my shirt and tucked into the waistband of my jeans. Her long nails dipped low. But I refused to tear my eyes away from the girl in the purple dress.
Her brown hair was starting to curl, sweat from being sandwiched by clubbers taking its effect. The blonde who was one step from wanking me off in full view of the club snapped my fly. I keyed in my next mix, then grabbed her hand and threw it away from me, snapping my fly closed. I groaned when her hands slid back into my hair. I looked at my mate who had spun before me. “Nick!” I pointed to my decks. “Watch this. And don’t mess it up.”
Nick frowned in confusion, then saw the girl behind me and smiled. He took my headphones from me and moved to make sure the playlist I’d set up played on cue. Steve, the club’s owner, always let a few girls backstage. I never asked for it, but I never turned them down either. Why would I refuse a hot bird who was up for anything?
I swiped my Jack off my podium as the blonde smashed her lips to mine, pulling me back by my sleeveless Creamfields shirt. I wrenched my mouth from hers, replacing it with the Jack bottle. The blonde dragged me into a dark spot backstage. She dropped to her knees and started again on my fly. I closed my eyes as she went to work.
I sucked on the Jack as my head hit the wall behind me. I forced myself to feel something. I glanced down, watching blond hair bounce below me. But the numbness I lived with every damn day made me feel virtually nothing inside. Pressure built at the base of my spine. My thighs tightened, and then it was over.
The blonde got up. I could see the stars in her eyes as she looked at me. “Your eyes.” She reached out a finger to trace around my eye. “The strangest color. Such dark blue.”
They were. Coupled with my black hair, they always drew attention. That and the fact that I was one of the hottest new DJs in Europe, of course. Okay, maybe it was less to do with my eyes and more to do with my name, Cromwell Dean, gracing the headline spot on most of the biggest music festivals and clubs this summer.
I zipped up my fly and turned to see Nick spinning my next mix. I cringed when he failed to transition the beats like I would have. Navy blue was the backdrop to the smoke on the dancefloor.
I never hit navy blue.
I brushed past the girl with a “Thanks, love,” ignoring her hiss of “Prick” in response. I took my headphones off Nick’s head and put them on my own. A few taps of the keyboard later, the crowd was back in the palm of my hand.
Without conscious thought, my eyes found their way to the spot where the girl in the purple dress had stood.
But she’d gone. So had the pale pink and lavender.
I threw back another shot of Jack. Mixed another tune. Then zoned the fuck out.
The sand was cold under my feet. It may well have been the start of summer here in the UK, but that didn’t mean the night wind didn’t freeze your balls off the minute you stepped outside. Clutching my bottle of booze and my cigarettes, I dropped down to the sand. I lit up and stared at the dark sky. My phone buzzed in my pocket . . . again. It’d been going off all night.
Pissed off that I actually had to move my arm, I pulled out my mobile. I had three missed calls from Professor Lewis. Two from my mum, and finally, a couple of texts.
Mum: Professor Lewis has been trying to get hold of you again. What are you going to do? Please just call me. I know you’re upset, but this is your future. You have a gift, son. Maybe it’s time for a fresh start this year. Don’t waste it because you’re angry at me.
Red-hot fury shot through me. I wanted to throw my phone in the damn sea and watch it sink to the bottom along with all this messed-up shit in my head, but I saw Professor Lewis had texted too.
Lewis: The offer still stands but I need an answer by next week. I have all I need for the transfer except your answer. You have an exceptional talent, Cromwell. Don’t waste it. I can help.
This time I did drop my phone beside me and sank back into the sand. I let the rush of nicotine fill my lungs and closed my eyes. As my eyelids shut, I heard quiet music playing somewhere nearby. Classical. Mozart.
My drunken mind immediately drifted off to when I was a little kid . . .
“What do you hear, Cromwell?” my father asked.
I closed my eyes and listened to the piece of music. Colors danced before my eyes. “Piano. Violins. Cellos . . .” I took a deep breath. “I can hear reds and greens and pinks.”
I opened my eyes and looked up at my father as he sat on my bed. He was staring down at me. There was a funny expression on his face. “You hear colors?” he said. But he didn’t sound surprised. My face set on fire. I ducked my head under my duvet. My father pulled it down from my eyes. He stroked my hair. “That’s good,” he said, his voice kind of deep. “That’s very good . . .”
My eyes snapped open. My hand started to ache. I looked at the bottle in my hand; my fingers were white as they gripped the neck. I sat up, my head spinning from the mass of whiskey in my body. My temples throbbed. I realized it wasn’t from the Jack, but from the music coming from further down the beach. I pushed my hair back from my face then looked to my right.
Someone was only a few feet away. I squinted into the lightening night, summer’s early rising sun making it possible to make out the features of whoever the hell it was. It was a girl. A girl wrapped in a blanket. Her phone sat beside her, a Mozart piano concerto drifting quietly from the speaker.
She must have felt me looking at her, because she turned her head. I frowned, wondering why I knew her face, but then—
“You’re the DJ,” she said.
Recognition dawned. It was the girl in the purple dress.
She clutched her blanket closer around her as I replayed her accent in my head. American. Bible Belt was my guess, by her thick twang.
She sounded like my mum.
A smile tugged at her lips as I stayed mute. I wasn’t much of a talker. Especially when my gut was full of Jack and I had zero interest in making small talk with some girl I didn’t know at four in the morning on a cold beach in Brighton.
“I’d heard of you,” she said. I stared back out over the sea. Ships sailed in the distance, their lights like tiny fireflies, bobbing up and down. I huffed a humorless laugh. Great. Another girl who wanted to screw the DJ.
“Good for you,” I muttered and took a drink of my Jack, feeling the addictive burn slide down my throat. I hoped she’d piss off, or at least stop trying to talk to me. My head couldn’t take any more noise.
“Not really,” she shot back. I looked over at her, eyebrows pulled down in confusion. She was looking out over the sea, her chin resting on her folded arms that lay over her bent knees. The blanket had fallen off her shoulders, revealing the purple dress I’d noticed from the podium. She turned to face me, cheek now on her arms. Heat zipped through me. She was pretty. “I’ve heard of you, Cromwell Dean.” She shrugged. “Decided to get a ticket to see you before I left for home tomorrow.”
I lit up another cigarette. Her nose wrinkled. She clearly didn’t like the smell.
Tough luck. She could move. Last time I checked, England was a free country. She went quiet.
I caught her looking at me. Her brown eyes were narrowed, like she was scrutinizing me. Reading something in me that I didn’t want anyone to see.
No one ever looked at me closely. I never gave them the chance. I thrived on the podium at clubs because it kept everyone far away, down on the dancefloor where no one ever saw the real me. The way she was looking at me now made nervous shivers break out over my skin.
I didn’t need this kind of crap.
“Already had my dick sucked tonight, love. Not looking for a second round.”
She blinked, and even in the rising sun, I could see her cheeks redden.
“Your music has no soul,” she blurted. My cigarette paused halfway to my mouth. Something managed to stab through my stomach at her words. I shoved it back down until I felt my usual sensation of numbness.
I sucked on my cigarette. “Yeah? Well, them’s the breaks.”
“I’d heard you were some messiah or something on that podium. But all your music comprised was synthetic beats and forced repetitive bursts of unoriginal tempo.”
I laughed and shook my head. The girl met my eyes head-on. “It’s called electronic dance music. Not a fifty-piece orchestra.” I held out my arms. “You’ve heard of me. Said so yourself. You know what tunes I spin. What were you expecting? Mozart?” I glared at her phone, which was still playing that damn concerto.
I sat back, surprised at myself. I hadn’t talked that much to anyone in . . . I didn’t know how long. I took in a drag, breathing out the smoke that was trapped in my chest. “And turn that thing off, will you? Who the hell goes to hear a dance DJ spin, then comes to a beach to listen to classical music?”
The girl frowned but turned off the music. I lay back on the cold sand, closing my eyes. I heard the soft waves lapping the shore. My head filled with pale green. I heard the girl moving. I prayed she was leaving. But I felt her drop beside me. My world darkened as the whiskey and the usual lack of sleep started to pull me under.
“What do you feel when you mix your music?” she asked. How the hell she thought her little interview was a good idea right now was beyond me.
Yet, surprisingly, I found myself answering her question. “I don’t feel.” I cracked one eye open when she didn’t say anything. She was looking down at me. She had the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen. Dark hair pulled off her face in a ponytail. Full lips and smooth skin.
“Then that’s the problem.” She smiled, but the smile looked nothing but sad. Pitying. “The best music must be felt. By the creator. By the listener. Every part of it from creation to ear must be wrapped in nothing but feelings.” Some weird expression crossed over her face, but hell if I knew what it meant.
Her words were a blade to my chest. I hadn’t expected her harsh comment. And I hadn’t expected the blunt trauma that she seemed to deliver right to my heart. Like she’d taken a butcher’s knife and sliced her way through my soul.
My body itched to get up and run. To pluck out her assessment of my music from my memory. But instead I forced a laugh, and spat, “Go back home, little Dorothy. Back to where music means something. Where it’s felt.”
“Dorothy was from Kansas.” She glanced away. “I’m not.”
“Then go back to wherever the hell you’re from,” I snapped. Crossing my arms over my chest, I hunkered down into the sand and shut my eyes, trying to block out the cold wind that was picking up and slapping my skin, and her words that were still stabbing at my heart.
I never let anything get to me like this. Not anymore. I just needed some sleep. I didn’t want to go back to my mum’s house here in Brighton, and my flat in London was too far away. So hopefully the cops wouldn’t find me here and kick me off the beach.
With my eyes closed, I said, “Thanks for the midnight critique, but as the fastest-rising DJ in Europe, with the best clubs in the world begging for me to spin at their decks—all at nineteen—I think I’ll ignore your extensive notes and just keep on living my sweet as fuck life.”
The girl sighed, but she didn’t say anything else.
The next thing I knew, the sun was burning its light into my eyes. I flinched when I opened them. The screech of swarming seagulls slammed into my head. I sat up, seeing an empty beach and the sun high in the sky. I ran my hands down my face and groaned at the hangover that was kicking in. My stomach growled, desperate for a full English breakfast with copious cups of black tea.
As I stood, something fell from my lap. A blanket lay on the sand at my feet. The blanket I’d seen beside the American girl in the purple dress.
The one she’d been wrapped in last night.
I picked it up, a light fragrance drifted into my nose. Sweet. Addictive. I glanced around me. The girl was gone.
She’d left her blanket. No. She’d covered me with it. “Your music has no soul.” A hard clenching feeling pulled in my stomach at the memory of her words. So I chased it away like I did anything that made me feel. Caging it deep inside.
Then I took my arse home.
Tillie Cole hails from a small town in the North-East of England. She grew up on a farm with her English mother, Scottish father and older sister and a multitude of rescue animals. As soon as she could, Tillie left her rural roots for the bright lights of the big city.
After graduating from Newcastle University with a BA Hons in Religious Studies, Tillie followed her Professional Rugby player husband around the world for a decade, becoming a teacher in between and thoroughly enjoyed teaching High School students Social Studies before putting pen to paper, and finishing her first novel.
Tillie has now settled in Austin, Texas, where she is finally able to sit down and write, throwing herself into fantasy worlds and the fabulous minds of her characters.
Tillie is both an independent and traditionally published author, and writes many genres including: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Young Adult and New Adult novels.
When she is not writing, Tillie enjoys nothing more than curling up on her couch watching movies, drinking far too much coffee, while convincing herself that she really doesn’t need that extra square of chocolate.
Fans of Sarah Dessen, Stephanie Perkins, and Jenny Han will delight as the fireworks spark and the secrets fly in this delicious summer romance from a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author.
When Jade decided to spend the summer with her aunt in California, she thought she knew what she was getting into. But nothing could have prepared her for Quentin. Jade hasn’t been in suburbia long and even she knows her annoying (and annoyingly cute) next-door neighbor spells T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
And when Quentin learns Jade plans to spend her first American summer hiding out reading books, he refuses to be ignored. Sneaking out, staying up, and even a midnight swim, Quentin is determined to give Jade days–and nights–worth remembering.
But despite their storybook-perfect romance, every time Jade moves closer, Quentin pulls away. And when rumors of a jilted ex-girlfriend come to light, Jade knows Quentin is hiding a secret–and she’s determined to find out what it is.
Anything was possible. At least that’s what it felt like.
Summer seventeen was going to be one for the record books. I already knew it. I could feel it—from the nervous-excited swirl in my stomach to the buzz in the air around me. This was going to be the summer—my summer.
“Last chance to cry uncle or forever hold your peace,” Mom sang beside me in the backseat of the cab we’d caught at the airport. Her hand managed to tighten around mine even more, cutting off the last bit of my circulation. If there
was any left.
I tried to look the precise amount of unsure before answering. “So long, last chance,” I said, waving out the window.
Mom sighed, squeezing my hand harder still. It was starting to go numb now. Summer seventeen might find me one hand short if Mom didn’t ease up on the death grip.
She and her band, the Shrinking Violets, were going to be touring internationally after finally hitting it big, but she was moping because this was the first summer we wouldn’t be together. Actually, it would be the first time we’d been apart ever.
I’d sold her on the idea of me staying in the States with her sister and family by going on about how badly I wanted to experience one summer as a normal, everyday American teenager before graduating from high school. One chance to
see what it was like to stay in the same place, with the same people, before I left for college. One last chance to see what life as an American teen was really like.
She bought it . . . eventually.
She’d have her bandmates and tens of thousands of adoring fans to keep her company—she could do without me for a couple of months. I hoped.
It had always been just Mom and me from day one. She had me when she was young—like young young—and even though her boyfriend pretty much bailed before the line turned pink, she’d done just fine on her own.
We’d both kind of grown up together, and I knew she’d missed out on a lot by raising me. I wanted this to be a summer for the record books for her, too. One she could really live up, not having to worry about taking care of her teenage
daughter. Plus, I wanted to give her a chance to experience what life without me would be like. Soon I’d be off to college somewhere, and I figured easing her into the empty-nester phase was a better approach than going cold turkey.
“You packed sunscreen, right?” Mom’s bracelets jingled as she leaned to look out her window, staring at the bright blue sky like it was suspect.
“SPF seventy for hot days, fifty for warm days, and thirty for overcast ones.” I toed the trusty duffel resting at my feet.It had traveled the globe with me for the past decade and had the wear to prove it.
“That’s my fair-skinned girl.” When Mom looked over at me, the crease between her eyebrows carved deeper with worry.
“You might want to check into SPF yourself. You’re not going to be in your mid thirties forever, you know?”
Mom groaned. “Don’t remind me. But I’m already beyond SPF’s help at this point. Unless it can help fix a saggy butt and crow’s-feet.” She pinched invisible wrinkles and wiggled her butt against the seat.
It was my turn to groan. It was annoying enough that people mistook us for sisters all the time, but it was worse that she could (and did) wear the same jeans as me. There should be some rule that moms aren’t allowed to takes clothes from the closets of their teenage daughters.
When the cab turned down Providence Avenue, I felt a sudden streak of panic. Not for myself, but for my mom.
Could she survive a summer when I wasn’t at her side, reminding her when the cell phone bill was due or updating her calendar so she knew where to be and when to be there? Would she be okay without me reminding her that fruits and vegetables were part of the food pyramid for a reason and
making sure everything was all set backstage?
“Hey.” Mom gave me a look, her eyes suggesting she could read my thoughts. “I’ll be okay. I’m a strong, empowered thirty-four-year-old woman.”
“Cell phone charger.” I yanked the one dangling from her oversized, metal-studded purse, which I’d wrapped in hot pink tape so it stood out. “I’ve packed you two extras to get you through the summer. When you get down to your last
one, make sure to pick up two more so you’re covered—”
“Jade, please,” she interrupted. “I’ve only lost a few. It’s not like I’ve misplaced . . .”
“Thirty-two phone chargers in the past five years?” When she opened her mouth to protest, I added, “I’ve got the receipts to prove it, too.”
Her mouth clamped closed as the cab rolled up to my aunt’s house.
“What am I going to do without you?” Mom swallowed, dropping her big black retro sunglasses over her eyes to hide the tears starting to form, to my surprise.
I was better at keeping my emotions hidden, so I didn’t dig around in my purse for sunglasses. “Um, I don’t know? Maybe rock a sold-out international tour? Six continents in three months? Fifty concerts in ninety days? That kind of
Mom started to smile. She loved music—writing it, listening to it, playing it—and was a true musician. She hadn’t gotten into it to become famous or make the Top 40 or anything like that; she’d done it because it was who she was. She was the same person playing to a dozen people in a crowded café as she was now, the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world playing to an arena of thousands.
“Sounds pretty killer. All of those countries. All of that adventure.” Mom’s hand was on the door handle, but it looked more like she was trying to keep the taxi door closed than to open it. “Sure you don’t want to be a part of it?”
I smiled thinly back at my mom, her wild brown hair spilling over giant glasses. She had this boundless sense of adventure—always had and always would—so it was hard for her to comprehend how her own offspring could feel any different.
“Promise to call me every day and send me pictures?” I said, feeling the driver lingering outside my door with luggage in hand. This was it. Mom exhaled, lifting her pinkie toward me. “Promise.”
I curled my pinkie around hers and forced a smile. “Love
Her finger wound around mine as tightly as she had clenched my other hand on the ride here. “Love you no matter what.” Then she shoved her door open and crawled out, but not before I noticed one tiny tear escape her sunglasses.
By the time I’d stepped out of the cab, all signs of that tear or any others were gone. Mom did tears as often as she wrote moving love songs. In other words, never.
As she dug around in her purse for her wallet to pay the driver, I took a minute to inspect the house in front of me.
The last time we’d been here was for Thanksgiving three years ago. Or was it four? I couldn’t remember, but it was long enough to have forgotten how bright white my aunt and uncle’s house was, how the windows glowed from being so
clean and the landscaping looked almost fake it was so well kept.
It was pretty much the total opposite of the tour buses and extended-stay hotels I’d spent most of my life in. My mother, Meg Abbott, did not do tidy.
“Back zipper pocket,” I said as she struggled to find the money in her wallet.
“Aha,” she announced, freeing a few bills to hand to the driver, whose patience was wilting. After taking her luggage, she shouldered up beside me.
“So the neat-freak thing gets worse with time.” Mom gaped at the walkway leading up to the cobalt-blue front door, where a Davenport nameplate sparkled in the sunlight.
It wasn’t an exaggeration to say most of the surfaces I’d eaten off of weren’t as clean as the stretch of concrete in front of me.
“Mom . . . ,” I warned, when she shuddered after she roamed to inspect the window boxes bursting with scarlet geraniums.
“I’m not being mean,” she replied as we started down the walkway. “I’m appreciating my sister’s and my differences.
Right then, the front door whisked open and my aunt seemed to float from it, a measured smile in place, not a single hair out of place.
“Appreciating our differences,” Mom muttered under her breath as we moved closer.
I bit my lip to keep from laughing as the two sisters embraced.
Mom had long dark hair and fell just under the average-height bar like me. Aunt Julie, conversely, had light hair she kept swishing above her shoulders, and she was tall and thin. Her eyes were almost as light blue as mine, compared to Mom’s, which were almost as dark as her hair. It wasn’t only their physical differences that set them apart; it was everything. From the way they dressed Mom in some shade of dark, whereas the darkest color I’d ever seen Aunt Julie wear was periwinkle—to their taste in food, Mom was on the spicy end of the spectrum and Aunt Julie was on the mild.
Mom stared at Aunt Julie.
Aunt Julie stared back at Mom.
This went on for twenty-one seconds. I counted. The last stare-down four years ago had gone forty-nine. So this was progress.
Finally, Aunt Julie folded her hands together, her rounded nails shining from a fresh manicure. “Hello, Jade. Hello, Megan.”
Mom’s back went ramrod straight when Aunt Julie referred to her by her given name. Aunt Julie was eight years older but acted more like her mother than her sister.
“How’s it hangin’, Jules?”
Aunt Julie’s lips pursed hearing her little sister’s nickname for her. Then she stepped back and motioned inside. “Well?”
That was my cue to pick up my luggage and follow after Mom, who was tromping up the front steps. “Are we done already? Really?” she asked, nudging Aunt Julie as she passed.
“I’m taking the higher road,” Aunt Julie replied.
“What you call taking the higher road I call getting soft in your old age.” Mom hustled through the door after that, like she was afraid Aunt Julie would kick her butt or something.
The image of Aunt Julie kicking anything made me giggle to myself.
“Jade.” Aunt Julie’s smile was of the real variety this time as she took my duffel from me. “You were a girl the last time we saw you, and look at you now. All grown up.”
“Hey, Aunt Julie. Thanks again for letting me spend the summer with you guys,” I said, pausing beside her, not sure whether to hug her or keep moving. A moment of awkwardness passed before she made the decision for me by reaching out and patting my back. I continued on after that.
Aunt Julie wasn’t cold or removed; she just showed her affection differently. But I knew she cared about me and my mom. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t pick up the phone on the first ring whenever we did call every few months. She also wouldn’t have immediately said yes when Mom asked her a few months ago if I could spend the summer here.
“Let me show you to your room.” She pulled the door shut behind her and led us through the living room. “Paul and I had the guest room redone to make it more fitting for a teenage girl.”
“Instead of an eighty-year-old nun who had a thing for quilts and angel figurines?” Mom said, biting at her chipped black nail polish.
“I wouldn’t expect someone whose idea of a feng shui living space is kicking the dirty clothes under their bed to appreciate my sense of style,” Aunt Julie fired back, like she’d been anticipating Mom’s dig.
I cut in before they could get into it. “You didn’t have to do that, Aunt Julie. The guest room exactly the way it was would have been great.”
“Speaking of the saint also known as my brother-in-law, where is Paul?” Mom spun around, moving down the hall backward.
“At work.” Aunt Julie stopped outside of a room. “He wanted to be here, but his job’s been crazy lately.”
Aunt Julie snatched the porcelain angel Mom had picked up from the hall table. She carefully returned it to the exact same spot, adjusting it a hair after a moment’s consideration.
“Where are the twins?” I asked, scanning the hallway for Hannah and Hailey. The last time I’d seen them, they were in preschool but acted like they were in grad school or something. They were nice kids, just kind of freakishly well
behaved and brainy.
“At Chinese camp,” Aunt Julie answered.
“Getting to eat dim sum and make paper dragons?” Mom asked, sounding almost surprised.
Aunt Julie sighed. “Learning the Chinese language.” Aunt Julie opened a door and motioned me inside. I’d barely set one foot into the room before my eyes almost crossed from what I found.
Hot pink, light pink, glittery pink, Pepto-Bismol pink—every shade, texture, and variety of pink seemed to be represented inside this square of space.
“What do you think?” Aunt Julie gushed, moving up
beside me with a giant smile.
“I love it,” I said, working up a smile. “It’s great. So great.
And so . . . pink.”
“I know, right?” Aunt Julie practically squealed. I didn’t know she was capable of anything close to that high-pitched.
“We hired a designer and everything. I told her you were a girly seventeen-year-old and let her do the rest.”
Glancing over at the full-length mirror framed in, you bet, fuchsia rhinestones, I wondered what about me led my aunt to classify me as “girly.” I shopped at vintage thrift stores, lived in faded denim and colors found in nature, not ones manufactured in the land of Oz. I was wearing sneakers, cut-offs, and a flowy olive-colored blouse, pretty much the other end of the spectrum. The last girly thing I’d done was wear makeup on Halloween. I was a zombie.
Beside me, Mom was gaping at the room like she’d walked in on a crime scene. A gruesome crime scene.
“What the . . . pink?” she edited after I dug an elbow
“You shouldn’t have.” I smiled at Aunt Julie when she turned toward me, still beaming.
“Yeah, Jules. You really shouldn’t have.” Mom shook her head, flinching when she noticed the furry pink stool tucked beneath the vanity that was resting beneath a huge cotton-candy-pink chandelier.
“It’s the first real bedroom this girl’s ever had. Of course I should have. I couldn’t not.” Aunt Julie moved toward the bed, fixing the smallest fold in the comforter.
“Jade’s had plenty of bedrooms.” Mom nudged me, glancing at the window. She was giving me an out. She had no idea how much more it would take than a horrendously pink room for me to want to take it.
“Oh, please. Harry Potter had a more suitable bedroom in that closet under the stairs than Jade’s ever had. You can’t consider something that either rolls down a highway or is bolted to a hotel floor an appropriate room for a young
woman.” Aunt Julie wasn’t in dig mode; she was in honest mode.
That put Mom in unleash-the-beast mode.
Her face flashed red, but before she could spew whatever
comeback she had stewing inside, I cut in front of her. “Aunt Julie, would you mind if Mom and I had a few minutes alone?
You know, to say good-bye and everything?”
As infrequently as we visited the house on Providence Avenue, I fell into my role of referee like it was second nature.
“Of course not. We’ll have lots of time to catch up.” Aunt Julie gave me another pat on the shoulder as she headed for the door. “We’ll have all summer.” She’d just disappeared when her head popped back in the doorway. “Meg, can I get you anything to drink before you have to dash?”
“Whiskey,” Mom answered intently.
Aunt Julie chuckled like she’d made a joke, continuing down the hall.
I dropped my duffel on the pink zebra-striped throw rug.
“You grew up seeing the world. Experiencing things most people will never get to in their whole lives.” Her voice was getting louder with every word. “You’ve got a million times the perspective of kids your age. A billion times more compassion and an understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Who is she to make me out to be some inadequate parent when all she cares about is raising obedient, genius robots? She doesn’t know what it was like for me. How hard it was.”
“Mom,” I repeated, dropping my hands onto her shoulders as I looked her in the eye. “You did great.”
It took a minute for the red to fade from her face, then another for her posture to relax. “You’re great. I just tried not to get in the way too much and screw all that greatness up.”
“And if you must know, I’d take any of the hundreds of rooms we’ve shared over this pinktastrophe.” So it was kind of a lie, the littlest of ones. Sure, pink was on my offensive list, but the room was clean and had a door, and I would get to stay in the same place at least for the next few months. After living out of suitcases and overnight bags for most of my life, I was looking forward to discovering what drawer-and-closet living was like.
Mom threw her arms around me, pulling me in for one of those final-feeling hugs. Except this time, it kind of wasa final one. Realizing that made me feel like someone had stuffed a tennis ball down my throat.
“I love you no matter what,” she whispered into my ear again, the same words she’d sang, said, or on occasion shouted at me. Mom never just said I love you. She had something
against those three words on their own. They were too open,
too loosely defined, too easy to take back when something
I love you no matter what had always been her way of telling me she loved me forever and for always. Unconditionally. She said that, before me, she’d never felt that type of love for anyone. What I’d picked up along the way on my own
was that I was the only one she felt loved her back in the
Squeezing my arms around my mom a little harder, I returned her final kind of hug. “I love you no matter what, too.”
Sabrina: Good guys save the day and criminals go to jail. It’s not rocket science, people.
But then my father’s killed, I’m rescued by a thief, and my worldview is shattered. He takes me to his penthouse. His bed. I don’t have to like it but I can’t help it. His touch is everything a good girl like me shouldn’t want.
Anson: Good and bad mean nothing to a master thief. I take what I want, and what I want is vengeance. No more, no less.
Maybe the girl can help, so I’ll hide her. Protect her. And if I have to manhandle her to keep her quiet, she’ll deal. Hell, she might even like it. But she’ll learn fast that I make the rules.
“3, 2, 1… And, security systems are down,” Walker said, his voice with its lilting accent magnified over the tiny communication device in my ear, so that it sounded like he was sitting right next to me. “Daly, you’re up.”
No shit. I rolled my eyes as I employed the tiny laser cutting tool to make a hole in the glass window just large enough for me to slip through. Dangling from a cable four stories above the ground in the middle of a bright, moonlit night was not the best time to start contemplating your life choices, but it seemed to happen every time I worked with these guys; which was to say, twenty-four-seven for the past six months.
“I’m in,” I whispered, pushing the suction holder I’d clamped to the freshly-cut glass disk and reaching my arm into the cooler, drier air of the office. With practiced ease, I levered myself headfirst through the hole, twisting to land lightly on my feet. I set the now useless glass gently on the floor, removed the rappelling cable that tethered me to the roof, and stood silently in the empty office, taking a second to get my bearings, to let my eyes adjust to the relative darkness, and to let my body, sweating from the humid night outside, cool for a second.
“Daly, report.” As always, Xavier’s cool, imperious voice drove me bonkers.
“Report,” I muttered. “Because I’m your freakin’ minion, X.” The comm device, created by Walker to detect the slightest sound, obviously caught my words, but other than Caelan’s reproachful sigh, nobody replied.
Six months, the five of us had been living and working together, and I couldn’t say it had made much difference in my attitude. I still preferred to work alone, and it still bugged the crap out of me that I had four other voices in my head while I was on a job, but I had no one to blame for the situation but myself. I’d answered the invitation that January night, after all, and I’d agreed to stay even after Eugenia Carmichael’s videotaped last will and testament had thrown my life into a tailspin.
“Office is empty,” I said, after a beat or two of silence where I glanced around the empty surfaces of the desk and bookcase behind me. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been working here. I was able to cut the window in a low visibility location. No direct views from inside or outside, thanks to the Rosenberg building next door being under renovation. Ethan’s intel was good.”
This would buy us crucial time before the office staff of Stuart Fowler Real Estate, LLC, caught on to the fact that they’d been the victims of a break-in.
“Of course it’s good,” Ethan huffed. “I didn’t spend two whole days in that place as the world’s most overqualified temp just to provide you bad information.”
I had to smirk at his little snit, mostly because nobody could see me. Ethan was every bit as good at his job—a cross between reconnaissance and high-key scamming—as I was at mine, but where my role in our little gang involved dressing in black gear and a full-coverage face mask like the one I wore tonight, Ethan’s usually involved wearing an expensive suit and an overly-friendly smile.
“Still wish it didn’t have to happen when the moon was this high,” I grumbled to no one in particular, repeating an argument I’d already made earlier in the week. “Moonlit night in July makes people want to take a walk and look around.”
“And like I told you, the phases of the moon refuse to change no matter how much I try to persuade them to,” Ethan said with an affected sigh. “But if we don’t get the information from the safe tonight, it’s gonna be too late. Now that Fowler’s dead, his attorney’s going to be cleaning out his office and opening the safe to disburse his assets, likely as soon as tomorrow.”
I knew Ethan was right, but I’d be damned before I’d admit it.
“I’m heading to the outer office,” I said instead, moving toward the door. “We’re sure internal door alarms are off?” I was already betting my life on Walker knowing his shit, a pretty safe bet considering he was probably the best hacker on the planet, but old habits died hard, and I really didn’t like relying on anyone but myself.
“I already told you I own the system. You doubting my prowess with the keyboard?” Walker grumbled, his accent thickening when he was put out. “It hurts, man. Just for that, I’m disabling the WiFi in your room and cutting your free premium cable channels.”
“Jesus,” I muttered, placing my hand on the door handle and turning it. Like I gave the first shit about getting free premium cable and WiFi. Thanks to Eugenia Carmichael and her billions, all five of us were now the joint owners of Manhattan’s swankiest penthouse and financially set for life… just as long as we managed to complete the task she’d left us. A task which seemed more and more like the labors of Hercules as the months passed.
I silently eased the door open a crack and stood still again, taking the measure of the room. I didn’t just listen for sounds or heavy breathing, despite the wisecracks Ethan and Walker liked to make, but tried to sense disturbances, picking up on the vibrations that people (and even unforeseen security measures) sometimes gave off. It was a crucial task for any thief who planned to spend his golden years anywhere but a six-by-eight cell.
The room smelled like strawberry candies, and cheap cologne so strong I almost sneezed.
“Daly, you’re on a clock here,” Xavier reminded me needlessly, and my nostrils instinctively flared as I fought the urge to tell him exactly where he could shove his clock. Walker’s jokes were annoying, Ethan’s overly-perceptive friendliness grated, and Caelan’s silent watchfulness made me uncomfortable, but all of them had earned my loyalty over the past six months. The only person in our quintet that I hadn’t warmed to even a fraction was Xavier Malone, heir apparent of the Madison Avenue Malones and douchebag extraordinaire. Walker, Ethan, and Caelan—a former MMA fighter and personal security guard—had all proved their usefulness to our team, as had I, but somehow Xavier’s useless ass had appointed himself our leader.
I wasn’t sure why nobody else minded this as much as I did.
“Shut the fuck up and let me do my job, X,” I retorted.
“X-av-ier. Three syllables, Daly,” he corrected in the fake-bored voice he used when he was all pissed off, and I smiled in satisfaction before I stopped myself.
Legit, was this my life, where calling a high-profile venture capitalist by a hated nickname was how I got my kicks in the middle of a job that could land me in prison?
But even so, I couldn’t resist adding in a whisper, “Did I hurt your feels, honey?”
“I’m gonna hurt both of you if you don’t shut the fuck up and get this done,” Caelan interjected, silencing both of us immediately. Caelan, despite all his bulk and some formidable fighting skills I’d seen in action, had the longest fuse of anyone I’d ever met. When he was finally pushed to the breaking point, it was as effective as an ice bath.
“Reception area is clear,” I said, stepping forward. “I’m going down the hall to Fowler’s office.”
“Remember, code for the office door is 0-0-7-0-1. The safe is on the wall behind the God-awful nude,” Ethan said. “You’re gonna have to use the digital code device…”
“Walker prepped me on the device,” I interrupted, my voice a bare breath of sound as I tread noiselessly down the hall. And I hadn’t needed much of a tutorial to begin with. My memory was nearly photographic, and I’d used similar devices a number of times in the past, for God’s –
“What’s that?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure the sound was audible to anyone else. For a split second, my pulse pounded, and I froze in place, worried there was someone moving in Fowler’s office at the end of the corridor, but then the HVAC system hummed to life, blanketing the room with recycled air. I took a deep breath.
“Daly, report,” Xavier demanded, and for once I wasn’t pissed off about it.
“False alarm, just the A/C kicking in,” I whispered, pressing a hand to my chest.
“Caelan, you’ve got the van in place?” Xavier asked. His voice sounded strained, and for just one second, I let myself wonder what it must be like to feel like you were in charge of a job and know that there was almost nothing you could do to control the outcome, once the game was in play. Huh. For a control freak like Xavier, that had to be a bitch.
“Yep. Got the van parked in the loading zone with a cold lemonade once Daly’s got the documents,” Caelan replied. “Gotta get this beast in for service,” he said fondly, and I could almost hear him petting the steering wheel as he spoke.
The surveillance van was Caelan’s baby, one of the first things he’d purchased on behalf of Masters’ Security Systems, Inc., the security company Xavier had ‘founded’ as a handy cover for our after-hours jobs, and he refused to let any of us even sit behind the wheel.
In some ways, that van and the company it represented were like the sixth member of our band—the one that gave us the respectable façade necessary to hack systems, break and enter locked buildings, and indulge in a little espionage. People actually paid us to test their security systems—both physical and technological—for weaknesses. We were officially known as white-hat thieves and hackers, and our company had quickly earned a reputation for providing the best personal and corporate security money could buy.
No one seemed to suspect that we spent our free time in similar, unsanctioned pursuits.
I crept down the hallway, listening outside each office as I passed, but all was silent. I took a second to curse the air conditioner, which blew strong enough to rustle papers on desks, and was totally throwing me off my game.
Not that any of this was a game—not since Eugenia Carmichael, widow of Federal Judge Trevor Carmichael, stared down at us from that television screen and calmly discussed her own impending murder.
“I’m about to die, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it, gentlemen. The people who’ll kill me don’t care that I’m old or rich. They don’t care that I haven’t long to live in any case, or that the only reason I’ve hung on this long is to get justice for my sweet husband. They’ll make my death seem like the simplest accident or the most natural death imaginable, just like they did for my Trevor. Just like they did for your mother, Anson Daly. Your brother, Ethan Warner. Your fiancée, Caelan Jamison. Your best friend, Walker Smith. And your sister, Xavier Malone.
“They’re soulless bastards, and their greedy tentacles reach into every branch of law enforcement, every institution meant to protect the population from evil men. But when the good folks can’t be trusted, what’s a woman like me to do? I’ll tell you, gents. You gather together a team of criminals. A cat burglar, a computer expert, a bodyguard who’s not afraid to fight, a con-artist… and the greatest criminal of all, a Wall Street investor to lead them.”
I shook my head as I checked the last office on the right and wished I could have known Eugenia Carmichael. Rich as fuck, batty as hell, and the kind of person I’d have liked to have on my team.
“All the other offices are empty,” I whispered. “Entering Fowler’s office.”
I stared down at the keypad and blinked. “Uh, Ethan, what’s it mean if the door is open?” I demanded.
“Impossible. Security system won’t set unless his door is closed,” Ethan said confidently. “Had to stick my tongue down Becca the receptionist’s throat and practically propose marriage to learn that little tidbit, but you know me. Anything for the Masters.”
“Didn’t ask if it was possible,” I retorted, backing away from the door. “Asked what it meant if the impossible was already happening.”
“What? No,” Ethan said, sounding truly concerned. “I don’t know how… Walker, the systems were booted before you shut them down?”
“Definitely,” Walker said. I could hear keys clacking frantically in the background as he no doubt pored over information on the many screens he had set up all over the office we’d created on the second floor of what used to be the Carmichaels’ penthouse. “External system was shut down by me, and the internal system was… Oh.”
“Oh?” I demanded. “What, oh?”
“Well, Jesus, it looks like the internal security wasn’t reset the last time the external security was engaged.”
“In English, geek. My ass is in the wind here!” I fumed, pressing my back into an alcove in the hall.
“Means that someone shut off the security after the building manager closed up. Probably somebody forgot something and had to come back. When they left, they only set the external security, none of the motion sensors inside.”
His voice was apologetic, and honestly, it was something even I wouldn’t have thought to check for, but it was still my ass on the line. “Probably? What’s probably mean, Walker? Like I’ll probably get twenty to life?”
“I’m pulling up the camera feeds now,” he said, the clicking of his fingers on the keyboard sounding like buzzing wasps in my ear.
“Daly, it’s your call,” X said. “If you haven’t seen anyone, Walker’s probably right. System confirms that the external security was restarted an hour ago and wasn’t shut down again until Walker shut it down. Either someone’s been sitting there silently for an hour, or the person who reset the system did a shit job. You know we need those papers, you know the stakes, but it’s your call,” he repeated.
Shit shit shit. I smoothed my hand down the mask that covered my face. My call, but not really.
Last week, the program Walker had set up to cross reference the names of our dead loved ones against the parties involved in cases Eugenia’s dead husband, Judge Trevor Carmichael, had presided over had finally found a match. A year or so ago, Judge Carmichael had ruled on a racketeering case against mid-level real estate owner Stuart Fowler. It just so happened that Stuart Fowler handled the business dealings for Silver, a seedy bar in Vinegar Hill, and the last place my mom had worked before the overdose that killed her. We needed to find out more about who Fowler was working with, who he was working for, and who was behind the dummy corporation Fowler had set up as the owner of Silver, if we wanted to figure out how and why my mother had died.
But clearly we weren’t the only ones who’d cottoned on to this idea, since Fowler, who’d been offered a plea deal in exchange for a reduced sentence, had been killed in prison before he could decide to start naming names.
Chalk another body up to the bad guys.
“Fine. I’m going in,” I told Xavier, pushing the door open with my heart in my throat.
The scent of cologne I’d smelled in the reception area was even more powerful here, and I froze again, listening for any sound, but the room seemed to be holding its breath.
I threw the door wide, making sure no one was hiding behind it, before cautiously creeping forward. Nothing seemed out of place, and the humming of the HVAC was the only sound.
“Clear,” I breathed, stepping forward to finish my mission.
Any thief who claimed he wasn’t superstitious was a liar. Every thief had a tell—a lucky pair of socks, a nervous tic—and I was no different. I cracked the knuckles of my right hand, and then my left, clenching and unclenching my hands exactly twelve times as I walked over to the desk, my eyes fixed on the ugliest nude I’d ever seen. Jesus, her breasts looked like purple apples. I shook my head in disgust as I opened the painting, handily attached to the wall by a hinge, and put my hand in my pocket to extract the digital code device.
“Christ on a cracker,” I breathed, letting the device fall back into my pocket. I wouldn’t need it now. “Someone got here before us. Safe is empty.”
A chorus of curses echoed through my ear.
“What do we do now?” I demanded, taking a step back and pulling the mask up off my face. “This shit show can’t get much worse.”
My heel hit something on the floor with a dull thud, something I couldn’t see from the thin shafts of moonlight coming through the tinted windows. I crouched down to examine it more closely.
“Oh, my God,” I breathed. “I lied. It’s worse. Dead body. Mother fucker, there’s a dead body in here.” I stood up abruptly.
“Who is it?” Xavier demanded, ever practical.
“He’s not exactly introducing himself, X!” I said. I could hear the panic in my own voice, but dead bodies and I did not get along. “I’m outta here.”
“Check his wallet,” Caelan argued.
“No way! You come do it!”
“You said yourself, it can’t get worse. Just keep your head and check the wallet. We need to know who we’re dealing with here!” Caelan soothed.
And that’s how I found myself, against my better judgment, touching the corpse on the floor of Stuart Fowler’s office, and rolling him over to pick his pocket. Yes, this was really my life.
“Got the wallet,” I said, pocketing the thing and letting the body fall back down.
“You sure he’s dead?” Ethan wanted to know.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Before Caelan could get all reasonable or X could get all imperious, I held my breath, stripped my glove, and put my fingers to the guy’s throat. He was still warm, but there was no pulse. I leaned closer in case I could hear a breath.
I jumped three feet. My instincts had saved my life more times than I could count, and for just one second, I swear I thought the man on the floor, the body on the floor, had sneezed, but then I realized where the sound had come from.
“What the hell is that?” Xavier demanded.
“A sneeze,” I said, standing up and getting my wits about me once more. I crept along the floor towards a small coat closet next to the office door, and threw the door open wide.
“Guys?” I said, as I looked down at the small, wide-eyed redhead huddled there. “Things got worse again.”
Jane has been writing since her early teens, dabbling in short stories and poetry. When she married and began having children, her pen was laid to rest for several years, until the National Novel Writing Challenge (NaNoWriMo) in 2010 awakened in her the desire to write again. That year, she wrote her first novel, and has been writing ever since. With a houseful of children, she finds time to write in the early hours of the morning, squirreled away with a laptop, blanket, and cup of hot coffee. Years ago, she heard the wise advice, “Write the book you want to read,” and has taken it to heart. She sincerely hopes you also enjoy the books she likes to read.
Maisy is an unabashed book nerd who has been in love with romance since reading her first Julie Garwood novel at the tender age of 12. After a decade as a technical writer, she finally made the leap into writing fiction several years ago and has never looked back. Like her other great loves – coffee, caramel, beach vacations, yoga pants, and her amazing family – her love of words has only continued to grow… in a manner inversely proportional to her love of exercise, house cleaning, and large social gatherings. She loves to hear from fellow romance lovers, and is always on the hunt for her next great read.
“I had to constantly remind myself to breathe. Shelly Bell packs a powerful punch with her flawless writing and suspenseful, passionate love story.” — #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Ellen Malpas on At His Mercy
Fate brought them together. Family could tear them apart.
Ryder McKay may be a playboy, but he’s never been a fool. Not until he met the woman he simply knew as Jane. For one night, he dropped his guard, but in the morning she disappeared—along with a copy of his top secret technology.
When it ends up in the hands of his biggest enemy—his father—Ryder knows without a doubt he’s been betrayed. And when he finds Jane again, a year later, he can’t decide what’s worse—that her mother is marrying his brother, or that he still finds Jane irresistible, despite the fact that she’s a liar, a thief, and his father’s latest protégé.
Jane Cooper does have a secret, but it’s not the one Ryder thinks. As their rekindled passion changes into something deeper, they’ll have to work together to untangle a web of lies and corruption that will shatter everything they thought they knew about their pasts. Because Jane’s not the only one with a secret—and this secret is getting people killed.
Ryder McKay knocked back a shot of Jameson, slammed the glass down on the bar, and grabbed the next one, relishing the smooth burn sliding down his throat. It wasn’t every day your brother was about to marry the daughter of the country’s most powerful man.
The press was calling the union a “marriage made in heaven.”
More like a deal with the devil.
Only in this case, it had been a deal between two devils. Two criminals posing as legitimate business men who were likely using their offspring to solidify some kind of pact between the two families. If Keane McKay and Ian Sinclair joined forces instead of working against each other, they’d have the potential to be largest crime syndicate in North America.
It had been years since Ryder had turned his back on Keane and that life. After he’d graduated high school, he’d made good on his lifelong promise to himself. He’d moved out and never returned.
Any conversation with Keane over the past decade had been limited to Ryder’s insistence that his father not contact him again. It had taken several years, but he had eventually gotten the hint and stopped calling.
To maintain his distance from Keane, Ryder hadn’t planned on attending his brother Finn’s wedding.
Then last week, he’d come across a photograph that had changed his mind.
A photo of Jane.
Recalling the vixen he’d spent one wild night with almost a year ago, he licked remnants of the whiskey from his lips and swirled his finger along the rim of the glass. Before falling asleep that night, he’d realized one time inside of Jane hadn’t been enough for him.
He’d wanted more.
Not just sex, but the chance to get to know her.
Crazy thoughts for a man who’d spent his adult life never having sex with the same woman twice.
But she’d pulled a Cinderella on him, fleeing his hotel room in the middle of the night. Other than her first name, he’d known nothing about her.
Obsessed with finding the woman he couldn’t forget, he’d wasted months searching for her. He’d checked with the organization that had sponsored the conference where they’d met. Called other attendees. Combed through photos of the conference. Hell, at one point, he’d been so desperate, he’d hired a private detective.
And what had he found?
It was as if she’d never existed.
His fingers tightened around his glass.
He’d been a fool.
Because now he knew the truth.
Shortly after their night together, he’d realized someone had copied design and software files from his computer. He hadn’t wanted to believe that Jane had been the one to do it—the time stamp didn’t match—but last week, Ryder stumbled upon a recent article online about his father’s foray into the automated commercial kitchen business, the same business as Ryder’s company Novateur.
Then the photo accompanying the article caught his attention.
It was a photo of the company’s vice -president of innovation standing beside Keane.
A muscle popped in his jaw as he acknowledged once again what an idiot he’d been that night.
He’d played right into her hands, lowering his guard when he brought her to his hotel room, not suspecting she would stab him in the back while he slept.
Novateur was one of the first in the world to bring “smart kitchen” technology to restaurants and bakeries. Already in business together providing productivity consultations to restaurants, Ryder and his best friend Tristan had formed the company shortly after their discussion that automation was an effective way to cut costs and increase efficiency in restaurant kitchens. Voice-activated appliances, robotic arms, and conveyor belts for restaurants and bakeries—even the smaller, family-owned ones—were now an affordable reality.
Novateur was the only restaurant automation company to custom design and install the technology per the customer’s specific needs—until McKay Industries.
The evidence was indisputable. Jane had been the one to steal the designs for his father.
Had she thought Ryder wouldn’t find out? Or had she thought that changing the time stamp would save her?
In the end, the joke was on her. Because anything she copied was worthless without key pieces of code. That alone should have given him the satisfaction to move on.
And yet he couldn’t. Something about her didn’t add up. He couldn’t equate the woman he’d met that night with the woman he now knew her to be. She’d acted so innocent in his bed, her eyes widening in something that looked like awe as he’d removed his clothes and given her the first glimpse of his cock.
Not that it wasn’t awe worthy. He didn’t bother with false modesty.
But Jane’s response had seemed…honest. She’d actually flinched when he’d first entered her. Even now, he could hear her husky voice in his head and the way she whispered his name as he brought her to climax. He remembered the sensation of her silky thighs against his cheeks and how tight her pussy had clamped around him when she came.
He rubbed the stubble on his chin with his knuckles.
Since that night, every time it came down to sealing the deal with a woman, thoughts of Jane popped into his head.
And while he could admit he was bit of an asshole when it came to the opposite sex, he wouldn’t fuck one woman while thinking of another.
She hadn’t only stolen his technology.
She’d stolen his fucking mojo.
He should hate her, and yet there were nights he’d roll over in bed and reach for her, only to find the sheets cold.
According to Finn, all of McKay’s essential employees had been invited to the wedding.
Which was why Ryder was here.
Tonight, he was on a mission.
And get her out of his system, once and for all.
Whatever it took.
Even if whatever it took meant him having to dress in a monkey suit, smile at people he detested, and kiss up to his father. If he’d shown up at McKay Industries, no doubt Keane would have had security toss Ryder out of the building.
But he couldn’t keep Ryder from the wedding.
And Jane wouldn’t be expecting him.
Ryder gulped down his next shot, not even bothering to enjoy it, and returned it bottom side up to the white-satin-covered bar top. Thank fuck his brother and his fiancée had chosen to get married in the city’s only five-star hotel instead of having the traditional church wedding. He’d never make it through the next couple of hours if he had to do it sober.
“Make the next one a double and keep ’em coming,” he told the bartender.
A hard slap on his tuxedoed-clad back had his teeth rattling. He didn’t need to turn around to know who had smacked the shit out of him. Finn may be ten years older but he’d never gone easy on him.
“Save some of the good shit for the other guests,” his brother said.
Ryder turned around, relieved that Finn was alone. He definitely needed more whiskey before dealing with the rest of the family. “Thought you’d be getting ready with Keane and all the other groomsmen.”
Although they shared a father, they looked nothing alike. The only thing they had in common were their gray eyes, a trait shared by all the McKay men. Otherwise, Ryder took after his Mexican mother with his dark brown hair and tanned skin while Finn was a younger version of their Irish father with reddish-blond hair. Not to mention, Ryder towered over Finn by a good five inches, something he never let his older brother forget.
Smooth shaven and with his hair cut short, Ryder barely recognized his brother. Where was the beard? His trademark long hair? This guy was a carbon copy of their father. Of course, it had been a couple years since Ryder had last seen Finn. It had killed Ryder to do it, but once his brother had chosen to take a position at McKay Industries, Ryder had been forced to put some space between them.
Finn gave him a wink. “Wanted to make sure my best man hadn’t taken off with some random chick to get his pre-wedding ceremony blow job.”
More like Finn was worried Ryder had again changed his mind about attending the wedding and wouldn’t show. Understandable, since Ryder had questioned his brother more than once as to why Finn was marrying Ciara.
Bad enough Finn had left the attorney general’s office to work at McKay Industries, but to marry into a family possibly even more corrupt than theirs? Finn must have lost his damned mind.
Ryder scratched his head. He had to try one last time to convince Finn he was making the wrong decision. “Listen, I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, but—”
“I’m marrying Ciara.” Finn held up his hand, effectively stopping Ryder from continuing. “I appreciate that you’re concerned for me, but I assure you, I know what I’m doing.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Ryder snorted and leaned his back against the bar. “Yeah, because after all, your first marriage went so well.”
His brother shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Marriage is complicated.”
Complicated was something Ryder didn’t need in his life. That’s why he was never getting married. “Especially when your wife tries to kill you.”
“She wasn’t trying to kill me,” Finn mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Greta was an expert marksman. Got me exactly where she wanted to.”
Ryder would never forget the night he’d gotten the phone call that his brother had been shot. Nearly ran off the road trying to get to the hospital, only to arrive and find his brother resting comfortably on his stomach as he watched the Tigers’ game on his iPhone.
“What does your new woman think of the scar on your ass?” Ryder asked Finn.
Finn grinned. “She thinks it’s sexy.”
“Only the daughter of a criminal would find a bullet to the ass sexy.”
His brother shushed him and stepped closer, looking around the empty room in a move that hinted at paranoia. “Keep your voice down, would you?”
Ryder tamped down his urge to chuckle. Fucking with his brother rated high on his list of favorite things to do. “What are you worried about? Someone finding out that your future father-in-law is a criminal or that your ex shot you in the ass when you asked for a divorce?” he asked loud enough for anyone close by to overhear, including the bartender, who stopped his cleaning at Ryder’s words and let out a snort.
Finn only shook his head. “You’re an asshole. Do you know that?” He clamped a hand on Ryder’s shoulder and squeezed. Hard. “But you’re also the best brother any guy could ask for. I’m thankful every day that Dad boinked the maid and fathered you. Which is why I’m going to tell you that when it comes to Ciara and her family, I know what I’m getting into.”
“I thought we agreed we were both getting out of the family business. Me with Novateur and you by becoming some hotshot lawyer. We don’t need Dad’s money and we certainly don’t need his connections.”
His brother clenched his jaw and looked away, almost guiltily. “As long as Dad is still in charge of McKay Industries, we’ll never be free of him. Don’t you get it by now?”
“So you just gave up and figured you’d make him even more powerful by marrying a rival’s daughter?”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Finn sighed. “I told you. I love—”
“You love Ciara.” He rolled his eyes. Childish, but appropriate. “I heard you the first twenty times. But I still don’t believe you.”
Ryder wasn’t completely dead inside. He had the ability to love. He loved his brother, Tristan, and an ice-cold beer at a ball game, but as for the so-called everlasting romantic kind of love?
Not in his genetic makeup.
His father was on marriage number four—no, five—and his brother’s first marriage had ended in gun play.
The odds were definitely not in Ryder’s favor…or his brother’s.
Long ago, Ryder had made the decision never to get married or have children. Both a wife and a kid would be a vulnerability he couldn’t afford. Look at what Keane had done by stealing Ryder’s designs and competing against him. No, Ryder could never give Keane that kind of power over him.
Finn shot him a look of disappointment. “I know you don’t, but I wish you had at least a little faith that I know what I’m doing.” He puffed out his chest and straightened his bow tie, cutting the awkward tension with his smirk. “After all, I’m the big brother. You’re supposed to look up to me.”
“And I would if you weren’t such a midget,” Ryder deadpanned.
His brother grabbed his crotch. “Yeah, well, unlike you, I’m large where it counts.”
Ryder was about to challenge that comment when his brother’s smirk slid off his face and all the joy was sucked out of the room. He didn’t have to turn around to know the source of the sucking.
“Pop,” Ryder said in greeting.
A firm hand clasped his shoulder and a raspy voice, created by a two-pack- a- day cigarette habit, came from behind him. “Ryder. Good to see you, son.”
Too bad he couldn’t say the same.
He waited for the scent of cigarettes to assault his nose and was surprised when it didn’t happen. Had the old man finally quit?
His father moved to his side, giving Ryder a glimpse of the man he hadn’t seen in years.
Always robust and thick around the waist, his father had shrunk to half his old size. Still not skinny, but to Ryder, the difference was jarring. His white hair had thinned on top, showing off the reddened scalp underneath it, and his wrinkled skin seemed especially pronounced because of his weight loss.
He looked…tired. Old. Too old for seventy-one.
For a moment, Ryder experienced a rush of compassion for his father, until he remembered that his father had never once had any compassion for anyone else.
He expected a lecture. A snide remark. Something.
But his father simply gave him a nod of regard and focused his attention on Finn. “There’s been a slight delay with the wedding ceremony. Apparently, Jane has had an incident with her bridesmaid dress and had to run to the bridal shop to have it repaired. She’s on her way now.”
Ryder froze mid-breath. Although he tried to keep his voice disinterested, he was anything but. “Jane?”
His father’s eyes twinkled with something resembling pride. “My step-granddaughter. Or soon-to-be step-granddaughter.”
It had to be a different Jane.
“Ciara has a child?” he asked his brother, surprised that fact hadn’t come up before.
“Jane’s an adult now. Ciara had her at fifteen,” Finn said quietly. “Jane was raised by Ciara’s aunt and uncle down in Florida. Even now, not a lot of people in our circle know Ciara has a daughter, so I’d appreciate it if you kept the information to yourself.”
Whoever this Jane was, anger flared hot in his gut on her behalf.
They wanted to keep the girl a secret as if she had a reason to be ashamed. Why even bother inviting her to the wedding?
Mumbled curses and frantic footsteps echoed from down the hall, growing louder as someone approached.
Ryder’s mouth went dry.
Even mumbled, he’d recognize that silken voice anywhere.
Like a tornado, she whirled into the room, every part of her in disarray, from her long dark brown curls to the thick black-framed glasses tilted on her nose.
She was as beautiful as he’d remembered.
It made it difficult to remember she was the enemy.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, gripping the sides of her dress in her hands to keep it off the floor and looking down at her feet as if worried she’d trip. “As I was leaving my apartment, the hem of my dress got caught in the…”—she looked up and her eyes widened as she caught sight of Ryder—“…door.”
This wasn’t the plan. He’d wanted to surprise her.
But he hadn’t expected to be just as shocked.
If Ciara was Jane’s mother, that made Jane his…
He couldn’t even finish the thought.
Finn kissed her warmly on the cheek. “Jane. This is my brother, Ryder. Ryder, this is—”
“Jane,” she said, smiling tightly while her swan-like throat worked over a swallow. “Your soon-to-be step-niece.”
Shelly Bell is the author of the popular Benediction and Forbidden Lovers series. Her book, Blue Blooded, received a Top Pick from Romantic Times Book Reviews and was nominated for an RT Award. At His Mercy, the first in her Forbidden Lovers series, has been nominated for an RT Award in Erotic Romance and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
When she’s not working her day job, taking care of her family, or writing, you’ll find her reading the latest romance or thriller. Shelly is a member of Romance Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.
We’re less than a week away from the release of FALLEN INK by Carrie Ann Ryan – and you can read the first chapter now! Read it below!
About FALLEN INK
Releases April 17, 2018
The Montgomery Ink series continues with a spin-off in Colorado Springs, where a familiar Montgomery finds her place in a new tattoo shop, and in the arms of her best friend.
Adrienne Montgomery is finally living her dreams. She’s opened a tattoo shop with her brother, Shep, and two of her cousins from Denver and she’s ready to take the city by storm with her art—as long as she can handle the pressure. When her new neighbors decide her shop isn’t a great fit for the community, however, she’ll have to lean on the one person she didn’t expect to fall for along the way…her best friend.
Mace Knight takes pride in two things: his art and his daughter. He knows he’s taking a risk by starting over in a new shop with the Montgomerys, but the stakes are even higher when he finds himself wanting Adrienne more than he thought possible.
The two fall fast and hard but they know the rules; they can’t risk their friendship, no matter how hot it is between the sheets and how many people try to stand in their way.
FALLEN INK releases April 17th, 2018 – preorder your copy now!
Read the First Chapter of FALLEN INK
Adrienne Montgomery wasn’t going to throw up, but it would probably be a close call. It wasn’t that she was a nervous person, but today of all days was bound to test her patience and nerves, and she wasn’t sure if all those years of growing a spine of steel would be enough.
Maybe she should have worked on forming a steel-lined gut while she was at it—perhaps even a platinum one.
“You’re looking pretty pale over there,” Mace said, leaning down low to whisper in her ear.
She shivered involuntarily as his breath slid across her neck, and she looked up into her best friend’s hazel gaze. The damn man was far too handsome for his own good, and he knew she was ticklish, so he constantly spoke in her ear so she shivered like that.
She figured he’d gotten a haircut the day before because the sides were close-cut so you could see the white in his salt-and-pepper hair. He’d let the top grow out, and he had it brushed to the side so it actually looked a little fashionable rather than messy and just hanging in his eyes like most days. Knowing Mace, he’d done it by accident that morning, rather than making it a point to do so. Her best friend was around her age, in his thirties, but had gone salt-and-pepper in his late twenties. While some men might have started dying their hair, Mace had made it work with his ink and piercings—and the ladies liked it.
Well, at least that’s what Adrienne figured. It wasn’t as if she were one of his following. Not in that way, at least.
“Yo, Adrienne, you okay?”
She glowered, hearing the familiar refrain that had been the bane of her existence since she was in kindergarten and one of the fathers there had shouted it like the boxer from that movie she now hated.
“What did I say about using that phrase?” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. She was at least six inches shorter than her best friend, but since she was wearing her heeled boots, she could at least try to look intimidating.
Mace being Mace just shrugged and winked, giving her that smolder that he’d practiced in the mirror after seeing Tangled with her years ago. Yeah, he was that guy, the one who liked to make her smile and knew she had a crush on the animated Flynn Rider.
“You know you like it.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave her a tight squeeze. “Now, are you okay? Really? Because you honestly look like you’re about to throw up, and with the place all new and shiny, I don’t know if vomit really sets the tone.”
Thinking about the reason the place—her place—was all new and shiny sent her stomach into another roll, and she let out a long breath.
Mace just stared at her, and she kicked his shoe. Mature, that was her name. “Try it with a little more enthusiasm, because while I’d like to believe you, the panic in your eyes doesn’t really portray the right confidence.”
“I’ll be fine. How’s that?” she asked and gave him a wide smile. It must have looked a little manic, though, since he winced. But he gave her a thumbs up.
“Okay, then. Let’s get out of this office and go out into your brand new tattoo shop to meet the horde.”
There went her stomach again.
Her tattoo shop.
She couldn’t quite believe it. After years of working for others in Colorado Springs instead of going up north to Denver to work at her cousins’ shop, or even south to New Orleans and her brother’s former shop, she was now part-owner of Montgomery Ink Too, the first offshoot of the main shop in downtown Denver.
Yep, she was going to be sick.
“It’s mostly family. Not quite a horde.” Sort of, at least. Even three people felt like a lot at this point since they’d all be there…waiting for her to say something, do something, be someone. And that was enough of that, or she really wouldn’t make it out of the office that day.
“True, since most of your family didn’t come. The entire Montgomery clan would probably fill four buildings at this point.”
“You’re not wrong. Only Austin and Maya came down from Denver since Shep and I asked the others to stay home. It would be a little too much for our small building if everyone showed up.”
“But your sisters and parents are here, plus Shep and his wife, of course, and I’m pretty sure I saw their baby Livvy out there, too. And then Ryan, since you hired him.” Mace stuffed his hands into his pockets. “It’s one big, happy family, who happen to be waiting for you to go out there and possibly start a tattoo a bit later for your first client.”
After what had seemed like months of paperwork and construction, today was opening day for Montgomery Ink Too—MIT for short. Ryan and Mace had called it that one day, and the nickname had stuck. There was nothing she could do now but go with it, weirdness and all. There had been delays and weather issues, but finally, the shop was open. Now, she needed to be an adult and go out into the main room to socialize.
And there went her stomach again.
Mace’s strong arms came around her, and she rested her head on his chest, tucking herself under his chin. He had to lift his head a bit so she could fit since she wasn’t that short, but it was a familiar position for them. No matter what anyone said about Mace, he gave great hugs.
“You’re going to be fine.” His voice rumbled over her, and she could feel the vibrations through his chest and against her cheek.
“You say that now, but what if everything tumbles down and I end up with no clients and ruin the fact that Austin and Maya trusted me with their first satellite shop.”
Austin and Maya were two of her numerous Denver cousins. There were eight freaking siblings in that family, and all of them had married off—with Maya having two husbands even—so it added up to way too many people for her to count. Maya and Austin owned and operated Montgomery Ink in downtown Denver—what was now the flagship shop it seemed.
Her cousins had come to her over a year ago, saying they were interested in expanding the business. Since real estate was sparse off the 16th Street Mall where Montgomery Ink was located, they’d come up with the idea of opening a new tattoo shop in a different city. And wasn’t it nice that they had two other artists in the family so close? Well, Shep hadn’t actually been close at the time since he was still living in New Orleans where he’d met his wife and started his family, but now her big brother was back in Colorado Springs and was here to stay.
Maya and Austin were still the main owners of the business and CEOs of the corporation they’d formed in order to add on, but Shep and Adrienne had bought into the franchise and were now partial owners and managers of Montgomery Ink Too.
That was a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, but she knew she could do it. She just had to buck up and actually walk into the tattoo shop.
“Stop freaking out, Addi. I wouldn’t have come with you on this journey if I didn’t believe in you.” He pulled away and met her gaze, the intensity so great that she had to blink a few times so she could catch her breath.
He was right. He’d given up a lot for her. Though, in the end, the whole arrangement might work out better for him. Hopefully. He’d left a steady job at their old shop to come and work with her. The trust in that action was staggering, and it gave Adrienne the final bit of strength she needed to do this—whatever this was.
“Okay, let’s do this.”
He held out his hand, and she took it, giving it a squeeze before letting go. It wasn’t as if she needed to brace herself against him again or hold his hand as they made their way into the shop. Enough people already wondered just what went on behind closed doors between the two of them. She didn’t need to add fuel to the fire.
Mace was just her best friend, nothing more—though certainly nothing less.
He was at her back as she walked through her office door and into the main room, the heat of him keeping her steady. The shop in Colorado Springs matched the one up north in layout, with only a few minor changes. Each station had its own cubicle area, but once people made it past the front section of the shop where onlookers couldn’t peep in, it was almost all open. There were two private rooms in the back for those who wanted tattoos that required a little less clothing, as well as folding panels that could be placed in each of the artist’s areas so they could be sectioned off easily. Most people didn’t mind having other artists and clients watch them while they got a tattoo, and it usually added to the overall experience. As the licensed piercer in residence, Adrienne could do that part of her job in either of the rooms in the back, as well.
While some shops had closed-off rooms for each artist because the building was a converted home or office building, the Montgomerys hadn’t wanted that. There was privacy when needed and socialization when desired. It was a great setup, and one Adrienne had been jealous of when she was working at her old place on the other side of the city.
“About time you made your way back here,” Maya said dryly, her eyebrow ring glinting under the overhead light.
Adrienne flipped her cousin off then grinned as Maya did the same back. Of all her cousins, she and Maya looked the most alike. They each had long, dark hair, were average height, and had just the right amount of curves to make finding jeans difficult. Of course, Maya had birthed two kids, while Adrienne’s butt came from her love of cookies…but that was neither here nor there.
Everyone stood around talking to one another, cups of water or coffee or tea in their hands as they looked around the place. As they weren’t opening up for tattoos until later in the day, they were able to easily socialize in the main entry area. Their new hire, Ryan, stood off to the side, and Mace went over to him so they would be out of the way. They were really the only two non-Montgomerys, and she could only imagine how they felt.
“The location is pretty damn perfect,” Shep said with a grin. His wife Shea stood by his side, their daughter Livvy bouncing between them. How her niece had gotten so big, Adrienne had no idea. Apparently, time flew when you had your head down, working. “We’re the only tattoo shop around here, which will be good for business.” They were located in a strip mall off the busiest road in their area—other than I-25, of course. That’s how most of the businesses around were set up, with only the large market chains and restaurants having actual acreage behind them.
Adrienne nodded, though her stomach didn’t quite agree. Most of the shops like hers were farther south, near the older parts of downtown. There were trendier places there, and a lot more people who looked like they did with ink and piercings. Up north, on North Academy Blvd, every building was the same: cream or tan-colored, and fit in almost like a bedroom community around the Air Force Academy.
Shep and Adrienne wanted not only the cadets but also everyone who lived in the sprawling neighborhood who wanted ink to find them and come back for more. Beginning something new was always difficult, but starting something new in an area of town that, from the outside at least, didn’t look as if they’d fit in wouldn’t make it any easier.
She knew that a lot of the prejudices about tattoo shops had faded away over time as the art became far more popular and almost normal, but she could still feel people’s eyes on her when they noticed her ink.
“It’s right next to a tea shop, a deli, a spice shop, Thea’s bakery, and a few fancy shopping areas. I think you fit in nicely,” Austin said, his arms folded over his chest as he looked around the place. “You almost have a little version of what we have up north. You just need a bookstore and a café where you can hang out.”
“You’re just spoiled because you don’t even have to walk outside into the cold to get coffee or baked goods,” Adrienne said dryly.
“That is true,” Austin said with a laugh. “Adding in that side door that connects the two businesses was the best decision I ever made.”
“I’ll be sure to mention that to your wife,” Shep said and ducked as Austin’s arm shot out. The two men were nearly forty years old but fought like they were teens. Shea picked up Livvy and laughed before heading over to Maya. Adrienne didn’t actually know her sister-in-law all that well since she hadn’t seen her much, but now that the family had relocated, she knew that would change.
“They’re going to break something,” Thea said with a small laugh as she watched the two play-fight. She was the middle girl of the family but tended to act as if she were the eldest. When the retail spot three doors down from Thea’s bakery had opened up, her sister had stopped at nothing to make sure Adrienne could move in. That was Thea, taking care of her family no matter what.
“Then they’ll deserve it,” Roxie, Adrienne’s other sister said, shaking her head. “As long as they don’t ruin something in the shop, of course,” she added quickly after Adrienne shot her a look. “I meant break something on themselves.” Roxie was the youngest of their immediate family, and often the quietest. None of them were truly quiet since they were Montgomerys, but Roxie sometimes fit the bill.
“Thanks for thinking of my shop that hasn’t even had its first client yet.” Adrienne wrapped her arm around Roxie’s waist for a hug. “Where’s Carter? I thought he said he’d be here.”
Roxie and Carter had gotten married a few months ago, and Adrienne loved her brother-in-law, though she didn’t know him all that well either. He worked long hours, and the couple tended to be very insular since they were still newlyweds.
Roxie’s mouth twisted into a grimace before she schooled her features. “He couldn’t get off work. He tried, but two guys called in, and he was up to his neck in carburetors.”
Adrienne kissed her sister’s temple and squeezed her tightly. “It’s okay. It is the middle of the day, after all. I’m surprised any of you were able to take time off for this.”
Tears formed at the backs of her eyes at the fact that everyone had taken the time to be there for her and Shep. She blinked. She looked up from her sisters and tried not to let her emotions get to her, but then she met Mace’s eyes. He gave her a curious look, and she smiled at him, trying to let him know that she was okay—just a little overwhelmed. Mace had a way of knowing what she felt without her saying it, and she didn’t want him to worry. That’s what happened when you were friends with someone as long as they had been.
“I just wish he would have come,” Roxie said with a shrug. “It’s fine. Everything is fine.”
Adrienne met Thea’s gaze, but the two sisters didn’t say anything. If Roxie had something she wanted to share, she would. For now, everyone had other things on their minds. Namely, opening day.
“Shep punched Austin in the shoulder one more time before backing away and grinning. “Okay, okay, I’m too old for this shit.”
“True, you are too old.” Austin winked, and Adrienne pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Great way to show everyone that we’re all so professional and ready to lead with our own shop,” she said, no bite to her tone. This was her family, and she was used to it all. If they weren’t joking around and being loveable, adorable dorks, she’d have thought something was wrong.
“It’s sort of what we signed on for,” Ryan said with a wink. “Right, Mace? I mean, the legendary Montgomery antics are why any tattoo artist worth their salt wants to join up with them.”
Mace gave them all a solemn nod, laughter dancing in his eyes. “It wouldn’t be a Montgomery gathering without someone getting punched. Isn’t that what you taught me, Adrienne?”
She flipped him off, knowing that Livvy’s head was down so she wouldn’t see. She tried not to be too bad of an influence on her niece.
“Okay, party people. Finish your drinks and cake and then let’s clean up. We have three clients scheduled between one and two this afternoon, and Ryan is handling any walk-ins.” Though she wasn’t sure there would be any walk-ins since it was day one and they were doing a slow start. Some of their long-time clients had moved with them, and they already had a waiting list because of it, but that could change on “dime. Having word of mouth would be what made their shop a success, and that meant getting more clients in who weren’t just the same ones from before.
The door opened, and she held back her frown. They weren’t officially open yet, but it wasn’t as if she could tell a potential customer off. The door had been unlocked, after all.
As a man in a nicely cut suit with a frown on his face walked in, Adrienne had a feeling this wouldn’t be a client.
“Hi there, can I help you?” she asked, moving her way through the crowd. “We’re opening in an hour or so, but if you need any information, I’m here.”
The guy’s face pinched, and she was worried that if he kept it up, it would freeze like that. “I’m not here for whatever it is this establishment does.” His gaze traveled over her family’s and friend’s ink and clothing before it rested back on her. “I’m only here to tell you that you shouldn’t finish unpacking.”
“Excuse me?” Shep asked, his tone serious. The others stood back, letting Adrienne and Shep talk, but she knew they were all there if she needed them.
“You heard me.” The man adjusted his tie. “I don’t know how you got through the zoning board, but I can see they made a mistake. We don’t want your kind here in our nice city. We’re a growing community with families. Like I said, don’t unpack. You won’t be here long.”
Before she could say anything in response to the ridiculous statement, the man turned on his heel and walked out of her building, leaving her family and friends standing beside her, all of them with shocked looks on their faces.
“Well, shit,” Mace whispered then winced as he looked behind him to where Livvy was most likely with her mom.”
“We’ll figure out who that was. But, Adrienne, he won’t be able to shut us down or whatever the hell he wants.” Shep turned to her and gave her that big-brother stare. “Don’t stress about him. He means nothing.”
But she could tell from the look in his eyes, and the worried glances passing back and forth between her family members and friends that none of them quite believed that.
She had no idea who the man was, but she had a bad feeling about him. And every single warm feeling that had filled her at the sight of her family and friends coming together to celebrate the new shop fled, replaced by ice water in her veins.
So much for an easy opening day, she thought, and her stomach roiled again. Perhaps she would throw up because she just knew that wasn’t the last time they’d see that man. Not by a long shot.
About Carrie Ann Ryan
Carrie Ann Ryan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of contemporary and paranormal romance. Her works include the Montgomery Ink, Redwood Pack, Talon Pack, and Gallagher Brothers series, which have sold over 2.0 million books worldwide. She started writing while in graduate school for her advanced degree in chemistry and hasn’t stopped since. Carrie Ann has written over fifty novels and novellas with more in the works. When she’s not writing about bearded tattooed men or alpha wolves that need to find their mates, she’s reading as much as she can and exploring the world of baking and gourmet cooking.