What Grows Dies Here Read Online Anne Malcom

Categories Genre: Angst, Contemporary, Dark, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 112091 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 560(@200wpm)___ 448(@250wpm)___ 374(@300wpm)
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What Grows Dies Here

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Anne Malcom

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B09SGW7323
Book Information:

“You will be loved many times by many men. But you will only ever love one man. And that man will be your destruction.”
Wren Whitney lives a beautiful life. She is a child of Beverly Hills, growing up in boarding schools, on private jets—a life of extreme wealth and privilege.
Wren Whitney lives for adventure. She is afraid of nothing. She says no to nothing. Her existence is a blur of international incidents, outrageous stories and the many men that love her.
Wren Whitney has never been in love. She has said the words many times but has never meant them. I love you is the only lie she’s ever told. Except when she says the words to her girlfriends, the people she most adores. But to a man? No. She would never mean those three words. Because it would be the end of the life she holds so dear.
Wren Whitney knows the second she meets him that he will destroy her. That she will love him with everything that she is. Until her dying day. She tries to fight it, feebly. Because she is a woman who isn’t afraid of anything. Not even him.
“He will be your sun. Your stars. Your moon. Even though this man is darkness itself. Midnight personified.”
Wren Whitney does not trouble herself by thinking of the consequences of her actions. What events she put in motion by letting him into her life. She never could have imagined what would happen to her. To them. How utterly ruined they would both be by their love.
Books by Author:

Anne Malcom



But were that hope of pride and power

Now offered with the pain

Ev’n then I felt—that brightest hour

I would not live again:

For on its wings was dark alloy

And as it fluttered—fell

An essence—powerful to destroy

A soul that knew it well.

The Happiest Day

~Edgar Allen Poe

PROLOGUE

Great Divide – Ira Wolf

“If you could’ve told yourself one thing before all of this, what would it be?”

A pause. The clock in the corner ticked. Street noise hovered over the classical music that was always playing in the expensively appointed office.

Whenever I heard Bach or Beethoven, I thought about the white slip covered sofa I was currently sitting on. The view of the ocean out the window, the color-coded books artfully arranged on the built-in shelves, the framed degree from Princeton. The sensation of wanting to tear it all apart, escape my skin, scream at the top of my lungs.

I picked at my manicure.

The need to escape was overwhelming. But I’d made a promise to myself. To my friends. That I was going to try to deal with this how a normal, well-adjusted human might, not in the self-destructive ways I had for the past year and a half. Even before the intervention, I’d known that it was a matter of time before I really hurt myself. Before I killed myself in my quest to escape the past.

I’d known that all along. That was the point of it all.

But I’d made promises, seen the pain on my friends’ faces, the reality of what I had been doing to people I loved dearly. I’d seen the way I’d ruined the man I loved. How I’d killed everything we had, scorched the earth so nothing else could possibly grow.

And I didn’t do anything halfway.

So I had to do this. Had to answer her question.

“That the future is going to break you,” I said, my voice a husky whisper. “That it will absolutely ruin you. But you will survive. Even when you don’t want to. You will survive.” I rolled my eyes. “Jesus fucking Christ, I sound like a Gloria Gaynor song,” I muttered.

My therapist regarded me with a tilt to her head, her green eyes assessing me over the top of her Chanel glasses. I figured they weren’t prescription. She wore them because, along with her office in Santa Monica and her hourly rate, they helped her look the part.

That’s what we were all trying to do, wasn’t it? Look the part? Play the part? Avoid, under all circumstances, being seen for what we were.

“You think you’re broken?” she asked finally, in that placid, calm voice of hers.

I raised my brow at her in a ‘really?’ gesture.

“I fell in love with a murderer, got impregnated by him, let myself hope for some kind of warped future, and then got it all shattered, literally, by a bullet tearing through my body, killing my baby,” I said when it was clear she wasn’t going to be satisfied with an eyebrow raise. “Now, I’m a good liar. A great one, in fact. But even I can’t say there’s a way to be whole after that. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

My voice didn’t shake. No tears fell. No outward emotion. Inside, I was torn, bleeding, screaming. But I’d come to tolerate that. I’d perfected the mask on the outside to look as close to the woman I had been before. Almost everyone was fooled. Except those who knew me best. They saw that I was wrong, ruined and broken. And they also knew me too well to think that they could do anything to change that.

But they wanted me to change myself. Heal myself.

Almost all of them wanted that, at least.

One person wasn’t dead set on me healing, going back to who I once was.

One man. The one who knew me better than anyone, knew he couldn’t change what was broken inside of me. The only man I’d ever loved. The only man I ever would love.

He’d take me now, exactly as I was. He wouldn’t make me feel less than, broken, tawdry, ruined.

But I’d feel that nonetheless. I’d feel all of those things. To an unbearable extent if I had to look into his eyes, see the unconditional love there.

So I was here, trying to heal. Trying my best to stay away from the only man I’d ever love. Trying to stop myself from dragging him down with me.

PART ONE

WHAT GREW HERE

CHAPTER ONE

THREE YEARS EARLIER

Champagne Problems – Taylor Swift

At first, I wanted him merely because I knew he was going to be a challenge. He had a marble façade, didn’t seem outwardly impressed by me. That in and of itself interested me. Not to be vain or anything, but men were generally impressed by me. I was beautiful. Our society doesn’t want women acknowledging their own beauty. If we did, we were conceited, vapid, superficial. Beyond that, there were billions to be made in the beauty industry. In order to make that money, women needed to be constantly criticizing themselves, looking for ways to hide things, create beauty in accordance with society’s standards.

Now, that is not to say I hadn’t been complicit in this system. I liked makeup, high heels, spending thousands on hair, lingerie, clothes and eye creams imported from France. I liked being beautiful. Which is something I’d never say out loud, of course.

But I was beautiful, and I was used to men noticing that. I was used to getting what I wanted. Who I wanted. Without much effort.

I was spoiled, in every sense of the word.

Men came easy, yet the second I laid eyes on him, I knew he wouldn’t. Knew he’d be a battle, knew this wasn’t a man to worship at my altar just because I had good bone structure and great tits. I knew it from the way his eyes had barely flickered over me before dismissing me, focusing on his job, which happened to be my best friend. I was itching for a challenge.

Beyond that, I was attracted to him. In a way I’d never been attracted to a man before in my life. Because I’d never been presented with a man. Not as carnally as I was when Karson stood on the sidewalk and stared me in the eyes. Something inside of me awakened when our eyes met.

Yes, that seems cliché and totally unbelievable, especially when it comes to someone like me, prone to embellishment and dramatics.

But even if I told the story of Karson and I in the blandest possible way, it would defy belief.

Now, I’d lived a pretty extraordinary life to say the least. I grew up surrounded by wealth and riches, immersed in a lifestyle that only one percent of the world’s population understood. I never knew struggle. Never knew hunger. I knew it in the sense that I was perpetually on a diet but couldn’t fathom that there were millions of people in the world who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

No. I traveled the world in a private jet, without asking permission from my parents because they didn’t much care what I was doing as long as they could pay to get me out of whatever situations I put myself in.

And my family had enough money to buy me out of every situation I’d been in. Which was really saying something, considering the amount of international incidents I’d been involved in.

But I knew the second I locked eyes with him that there was no amount of money or power in the world that could save me from this man.

The first time I met Karson, he was trying to spirit one of my best friends off the street after a kickboxing class.

My best friend, who was tangled up with some billionaire who was involved in the criminal underworld. The one who propositioned her in a nightclub. A sex arrangement. You couldn’t write that shit.

My protective instincts had kicked in when a large, menacing—albeit attractive—man demanded Stella get in a car with him so he could take her to the man who propositioned her in the nightclub.

My friend Stella, who had been attacked the month before that. Almost raped. My friend Stella with a kind, gentle heart who was doing her best to act like she was okay when I saw she really wasn’t. And it broke my fucking heart.

And pissed me the fuck off.

A man. A piece of shit man could break off a piece of my precious friend, change her fundamentally because he thought he had the right. Because he thought he was entitled.

And here, on the street was another man thinking he was fucking entitled to do something like demand a woman get in a car. Furthermore, the man who employed him thought that he had enough power and prestige to make Stella want to get in the car.

I’d been all for the sex arrangement initially. Although a man was initiating the arrangement, Stella would’ve had the power. Because this man was obviously infatuated by her. Infatuated enough to have her pulled off a dance floor and propose sex. It wasn’t exactly politically correct in the current climate, but I thought Stella needed some excitement in her life. Needed some sexual freedom. Her sex life before had been so very vanilla.

There was a reason why vanilla was the most popular ice cream flavor on the earth—because people were far too afraid of change to try anything different or risky.

Me? I had made it my life’s mission to sample every single fucking flavor.

Except whatever the fuck he was. The man I ‘met’—though I wouldn’t consider me threatening him for trying to abduct my best friend as a meet-cute—on a sidewalk, wearing a sharply tailored, black suit that did nothing to contain the powerful body underneath it. It was so black that it looked like the night itself. He looked like the night itself.

Like death itself.

He was a man. In every sense of the word. His masculinity radiated off him, coating me, enchanting me.

So Stella and I were exiting a kickboxing class.

For beginners.

I already had a black belt in karate and had been doing Muay Thai for years, so I didn’t technically need to be at a kickboxing class, but the cardio was welcome. Beyond that, Stella needed the kickboxing class. She needed to feel strong and able to defend herself after almost being raped a month ago.

My skin went cold and clammy every time I thought about what almost happened to my best friend, the shadows under her eyes this past month, the pallor of her skin. That night was the first time the light was back. Just a glimmer. She was still haunted by what happened to her, it would follow her for the rest of her life.

Even if she was saved before anything could happen.

Saved by the mysterious Jay Helmick. A man who had pulled her off the dance floor at Klutch—the best nightclub in the city, which he owned—a month ago and told her he wanted to go Christian Grey on her. In other words, he told her he wanted to fuck her in the dirtiest of ways and didn’t want any kind of relationship.

Of course, Stella had refused him, gave him a piece of her mind, stormed out of there, and had an emergency girlfriend briefing the next day.

Zoe, Yasmin and I had had varying reactions to this news. Yasmin, being the lawyer, was all about any and all legal action that could be thrown at the man. Zoe, shrewd, reasonable and a force to be reckoned with, had wanted to know every detail about the situation and the man himself. She was a reasonable woman who would gather all the facts before going to war—and winning.

Me, I was more interested in the gleam in my friend’s eyes, the slight breathlessness that she had while recounting the story. Stella hadn’t been entirely disgusted or offended. Jay scared her, yes. But he had also excited her. Offered her something that none of her run-of-the-mill, all-American asshole boyfriends could ever give her.

I had sensed that there was a part of her that very much wanted to say yes to the man, and part of me knew that we had not heard the last of Jay Helmick.

But I wasn’t thinking about him as we walked out of the kickboxing class. I was thinking about distracting my friend from her demons, knowing she wasn’t fully healed. She wasn’t ready to talk, to get deep. So I was doing what I did best… Keeping it light. I was telling her about my latest boyfriend.

The prince.

Granted, Stella had not so much as batted at eyelash when I told her I was dating a prince. She’d been friends with me long enough to not be ruffled by such things.

“Which country?” she asked.

I grinned at her, thinking of the man in question. He was a prince in every sense of the word. Filthy rich. Incredibly handsome. Impeccable manners. A talented tongue. He was utterly infatuated by me, muttering things about how he’d make me his princess, give me anything I wanted.

I was already growing bored.

Of course, I didn’t tell Stella this.

“Bhutan,” I replied as we left the building and walked into the oppressive heat of LA in August. “A darling little country in South Asia.”

We were supposed to be flying there this weekend so I could meet his parents. They wouldn’t approve of me, of course. Rich as I was, I was a commoner without any royal blood. An American at that.

I was half Asian, on my mother’s side, but her family came from extreme poverty and had worked their asses off to come to America to give their daughter a chance to make a different life for herself.

My mother had done that. And some. She was the most impressive person I knew. But to an ancient dynasty, she was still new money.

No, I was not likely to be welcomed with open arms. That didn’t faze me. I could enchant anyone. By the time the weekend was out, they’d be welcoming me to the family, and I’d be offered the crown, the title.

Princess.

Pity I never wanted to be such a thing.

I was thinking about what it was I actually did want when he descended.

Like a shadow, blocking out the sunset, blocking out the sun itself. Our stride stuttered, and both Stella and I came to a complete stop on the sidewalk.

My attention shot to Stella, her entire demeanor changing in a moment. Suddenly, her easy smile was gone. Her body turned rigid, hands fisted at her sides and her eyes squeezed shut. She had been yanked back into a memory. Of something that terrified her. Of that night.

Because of the man who had stepped into our path.

“Babe?” I asked Stella, making sure to keep my eyes on the tall man in black who was standing in front of us yet to utter a word.

My own body tensed as I readied myself for confrontation. Though I couldn’t be sure, something told me this man was connected to Jay Helmick. Stella was a fashion stylist with a fabulous life. But before Jay Helmick entered it, she was not getting attacked or accosted by dangerous men in sharp black suits.

And this man was dangerous.

I could tell by the glint in his eye. The way he held himself. The very energy.

Kevin Macintyre, the ex-SAS solider who had trained me in self-defense and survival skills, taught me to spot men such as this. How to recognize whether I could defend myself or if they were stone cold killers with no souls. This man in the suit seemed like the latter. Some deep, cold survival instinct told me that.

My own fists clenched, not from fear but preparing to fight this man, to the death if need be.

Stella opened her eyes, unclenched her fists, and her body relaxed. Or appeared like it did. There was still tightness in her face, her eyes stormy with fear.

“I’m fine,” she told me firmly.

I did not believe her. Not even a little. So I zeroed in on the man in front of me. He was tall. Really fucking tall. But then again, everyone was tall to me since I was 5’2” and generally petite everywhere but my tits.

But this guy was over six foot for sure. It wasn’t even his size that made him seem tall, it was his overwhelming presence. The air seemed different around him. The column of his neck was thick, muscular. His eyes were a piercing ice blue, bone structure sharp, high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw.

Handsome. Very fucking handsome. And not something that was important at this juncture.

Stella tilted her chin upward. “Karson, what are you doing here?”

I wanted to smile at the bite in her tone.

But the name stopped me.

Karson.

He was the man who saved her that night. Because Jay had been having her followed. And it seemed he was still having her followed. He was obviously captivated by my friend. It made sense. She was captivating. Gorgeous. Smart. Funny. Self-made.

But that did not mean he could have his fucking goon accost her on the street, the first day she felt powerful in a month.

“Mr. Helmick would like to see you,” Karson said, focused on Stella.

Stella stared at him in shock, her face pale at the mention of the name.

“Mr. Helmick?” I snapped at him. “The Mr. Helmick?” I directed this question at Stella now.

She was still staring at Karson. “The very one,” she said, her voice nowhere near as strong as before.

“There is a car waiting for you.” Karson nodded at a black car at the curb that was illegally parked.

I was interested to see the cop who dared give this man a ticket.

But most of my energy was going toward Stella, watching her for signs of some kind of post traumatic breakdown so I could step in for her.

Though she had been shaken, something sharpened in her as she looked from the car to Karson. “A car waiting for me?” she repeated.

I bit back a grin at her tone. No, she was not going to break down.

“You expect me to get in it now?” she asked a stone-faced Karson.

“Mr. Helmick is expecting your arrival within the next hour,” Karson responded, his voice low and even. “Considering traffic, I would say that you need to be in the car within the next two minutes.”

I raised a brow at this. The entitlement of men did not surprise me, but what did was the nerve this man had to say this with a straight face as if it was a foregone conclusion that Stella would drop everything to go running to a man she barely knew. Yes, a man who excited her and had saved her from a terrible fate, but a fucking stranger nonetheless. His saving of her did not entitle him ownership over her.

I made a mental note to learn everything there was to know about this asshole. I hadn’t been against him at first, but now he was really starting to piss me off.

Stella seemed to be mirroring my thoughts.

“Let me get this straight,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Karson. “Mr. Helmick knows my schedule well enough to position you on the sidewalk precisely when we walk out, and he actually expects me to drop all plans in order to get in the car to have an audience with him?”

Oh, yes. My girl had her fucking claws out.

Stella turned her thumb toward me. “She’s the one dating the prince, not me,” she added. “And prince or not, a man does not have the right to summon a woman.” She deepened her glare. “Under any circumstances.”

I would’ve applauded if it wouldn’t have undermined the absolute awesome speech she delivered to this man without an ounce of fear.

Karson, for his part, looked affected. His granite expression had wavered throughout Stella’s speech, and if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought this man was amused at Stella’s response.

Not amused in a patronizing way, like he was impressed.

That crack in his façade didn’t linger for long, though. “I’m afraid I must insist.”

It was his tone that got me. Like he wasn’t going to leave this sidewalk without Stella. With or without her permission.

Fire ignited within me, and I stepped in front of my friend without a second thought.

I squared off with this man, narrowing my eyes at him to communicate that I wasn’t scared of him. Not even a fucking little.

Attracted to him? Yes.

But that was neither here nor there.

And at this juncture, my concern for my friend trumped any and all attraction I may feel.

“If my girl wants to go somewhere, with anyone, especially some mysterious man in search of some arrangement, she’ll be going on her own terms, in her own ride and with her hair and makeup done to her satisfaction,” I hissed at him. “Do you know how rude it is to accost someone coming out of a kickboxing class? One she actually worked her butt off at?”

I didn’t give Karson a chance to answer because I didn’t give a fuck what his answer might be. I wasn’t done.

“Very fucking rude,” I informed him, narrowing my brows. “So unless you want to take her bodily, in which case you’ll have to go through me first, you can turn around, trot your Tom Ford clad feet back to that Range Rover and drive back to your master.”’

I waved my hand at him, essentially dismissing him.

Karson’s brow quirked ever so slightly in the silence that proceeded my little speech. Then he moved his icy stare slowly up and down my body, which was on show. My shorts showed off every inch of my legs, my cropped sports bra left very little to the imagination, my tits angry to be contained. My nipples pebbled under the weight of that gaze. It was thorough. It was fucking electric. And somehow, it wasn’t at all insulting.

I struggled to maintain my composure as his eyes finally made their way back to mine.

“Honey, if I want to take her bodily, it would take less than a second to go through you.” His voice was smooth and sure. “We’d be in the car before you even knew what happened.” His ice blue eyes did not leave mine, and my lungs were having trouble finding enough air. “But I’m not in the habit of making women go anywhere they don’t want to go.”

Finally, thankfully, his eyes released me, and I could breathe again. “Does she speak for you?” he asked Stella.

“I speak for myself,” Stella replied, voice firm. “But Wren happens to know what I’m planning on saying. Tell Mr. Helmick that if he wishes to contact me, he can do it himself, on the telephone, like a normal man.”

Now that I had regained function over my major organs, I could manage a smirk. “Well, let’s not say normal man,” I added. “Since normal men—meaning assholes, because let’s face it, most men’s factory default is asshole—don’t like to use the telephone to call women in the day of text messaging.” My eyes stayed on Karson, challenging him. “Plus, from what I know of Mr. Helmick, he is the furthest you can get from normal.”

At this point, I grinned at Karson, winking at him before I linked my arm with Stella’s. I really had to leave before I got any more worked up and either tried to fight this man or fuck him.

“We’ll be going now,” I informed him with saccharine sweetness. “Just so you know, I’m not adverse to being whisked away in SUVs…” I trailed off with my stare full of sex. “With the proper warning given, of course. I can have on the right clothing … on the outside, at least. Underneath, I’m always prepared.”

I made sure to walk both Stella and myself away at this juncture, because the stare that Karson was giving me was impossible to withstand. And I needed to make my exit.

I had just made the first move in this battle. And I was going to make the second too. The decision was made.

That man was mine.

Stella was okay.

More than okay after the … altercation with Karson. We had wine. We had cheese.

More wine. She smiled, laughed and contributed to the conversation. But I knew my friend well enough to know her mind was elsewhere.

Her mind was on the man that proposed a sex arrangement. Who had her followed, and in turn, was the reason she wasn’t raped. Who then, a month later, sent his lackey to accost her on the sidewalk and spirit her away, seemingly with or without her consent.

He was not a knight in shining armor.

At best, he was a morally grey potential suitor.

At worst, he was the villain.

And there was something about the villain that tempted even the princess.

Although I was technically dating a prince, I was certainly no princess, so I had my mind on a villain of my own.

I’d decided at some point during our altercation on the sidewalk that I was going to fuck him. Something about him, his presence, his eyes, his roguish handsomeness told me he fucked like a man.

I was a very adventurous woman, both inside and outside of the bedroom, and I’d slept with many kinds of men. Almost every kind there was.

But not the villainous, imposing man in a suit with the muscles, the bone structure and the … presence.

So he needed to be checked off my bucket list. I needed to try everything once.

Thinking on it, I may have to try him twice.

But first I had to find him.

THREE WEEKS LATER

His house was nice. Very nice.

It took a lot to impress me, given the amount of wealth I’d grown up with. It wasn’t the grandeur or the monetary value of this house that impressed me... I just liked it. It surprised me, the little house in Malibu. It could almost be described as a cottage.

Almost.

But this residence was owned by a total fucking badass who was the epitome of alpha male masculinity, and it was against the law of physics for such a man to live in a cottage.

He worked for Jay Helmick, who owned multiple businesses, was worth millions and was some kind of king of the underworld. I didn’t know the specifics because Keltan, my private investigator, told me the specifics could put me in danger. Of course, that made me all the more curious, so I’d offered to double his rate to get any and all dangerous information.

Keltan was an alpha male. A fucking hot and unfortunately married alpha male. He was also an incredibly good guy. So he refused the money and refused to put me in danger. He hadn’t felt at all comfortable giving me this address. He’d offered to come with me for the visit.

Across the table from Keltan, I’d pinned him with a stern glare. “Unless you’re going to protect him, no, I don’t need you to chaperone,” I told him with a smirk. “I can handle myself just fine.”

Keltan regarded me in a way that told me his wife was a very lucky woman. Like he was measuring me, weighing my character and capabilities with a mere look. And he was … impressed.

“I suspect you can,” he said in his sexy accent after a few beats.

So here I was, at Karson’s home as the sun set. He had an impressive security system. Luckily, I was pretty impressive myself, so I’d been able to let myself in to make a martini before walking back to the front porch to wait.

The intelligence I got told me that Karson was rarely home, constantly working for Jay, doing whatever it was the second in command for a crime boss did. But he did come home just after dusk for a couple of hours. At least, that was what the intel I’d gotten from the past few days told me. I suspected that Karson was not a creature of habit, both by nature of his business and as a survival tactic.

Though I wasn’t quite an international woman of mystery, I was a woman, and it was drilled into us how to avoid getting raped. Don’t run or walk at night. Don’t wear headphones. Don’t run the same route lest a stalker watch you and know exactly where and when to strike.

I wasn’t even sure that he’d show tonight. In which case I’d come tomorrow. And then the next night if need be. I was nothing if not determined. And once I decided what I wanted, nothing was going to stop me.

As luck would have it, I wouldn’t have to cancel my social calendar in order to stalk my prey. Lights lit up the end of the long driveway, and wheels crunched against the gravel.

I didn’t make an effort to hide my car or myself. This wasn’t a move to scare him. That was a losing battle. I had a feeling a man like him didn’t scare easily. Or at all.

My knee bobbed as I sipped the drink I’d made myself. He had good vodka. Top shelf everything. His home bar was excellent. As was his home. Aesthetic was masculine yet cozy. I ached to explore more of the cottage that smelled of man and the ocean and … lemons.

I wanted to rifle through his drawers, look at the books on his shelves, learn everything there was to know about this man who was a stranger to me in every way. A man who I’d thought about every night since the day I met him.

But even though I was breaking into his house and having him followed, I wasn’t eager to invade his privacy like that. That was taking it too far.

Everything else I’d done had a justification. I wasn’t doing all of this because I wanted to seduce him, although I did plan on seducing him once my initial task was done with.

I kept my posture relaxed as Karson parked beside my Tesla, fingers gripping the stem of my martini glass when he got out. He wasn’t holding a gun, which was a plus. Though I’d put all the lights on to illuminate myself so he wouldn’t go Rambo and shoot the shit out of me.

Even that wasn’t a surefire safeguard to me not getting shot. This man was a dangerous stranger by all accounts, and my safety wasn’t guaranteed here.

Which was what made me all the more excited.

Karson kept his eyes on me as he walked slowly from the car to porch. His steps were unhurried, purposeful, the black of his suit seemed to move like ink through the air, melting over his muscles.

His expression was blank but not empty. His eyes burned into me during his entire journey. It was hard to maintain my composure, to seem relaxed and unbothered by the hulk of a man stalking toward me after I’d broke into his house.

But I managed it.

My entire life of adventure and chaos had trained me for this very moment.

My chest moved evenly as Karson ascended his porch steps and came to stand in front of me. Close.

The wind blew his scent toward me. Like his house, but all the more concentrated, coming directly from its source. My body responded to his closeness, his smell. I crossed and uncrossed my legs as tension coiled through my body, culminating between my legs.

Karson’s eyes didn’t move down to my legs to witness my unintended Sharon Stone moment, and beneath my fear and arousal, it hurt my pride a little. But I didn’t let it show, didn’t lower my eyes from his flat gaze.

“Honey, you’re home,” I said in a faux high tone, tilting my head and pouting my lips just so. “I may have sneaked a few sips of the martini I made you, but I’m happy to share…” I held the glass up to him in invitation.

Karson, ignored the outstretched drink, eyes never leaving mine. The silence yawned between us like a pulsating thing, and I moved my hand back.

Instinctively I wanted to stand, to even out the power balance between us. I’d held the upper hand for just a moment, catching him by surprise by finding his house, being brazen enough to break into it, but I could feel the power slipping between my fingers.

Karson’s eyes scalded me, searing through my skin. Though I wanted to look away, I took the opportunity to take him in, completely. His skin was pale ivory, flawless upon first glance, but a thin line through one of his dark brows showed me where his past had been. His cheekbones were high, severe almost, jawline sharp. The eyes penetrating my skin were the color of the ocean in Greece. Electric blue. Magical almost. His onyx hair was just a little too long, too wild for the rest of him which seemed so controlled and orderly. I wanted to run my hands through that tousled hair, the wild part of him. I swallowed roughly, forcing my eyes to move along other parts of him.

His suit was Gucci, the collar of his black shirt open and revealing a thick, corded neck. Again, the skin was smooth, almost like marble except the bright porch lights shone down on a slight puckering of the skin on his neck. Another scar. Another moment of violence from his past.

The rest of him was covered, but I had a feeling there would be more of that under his clothes. Places that would hint at just how close he’d gotten to death. Just how violent he was.

“What are you doing here?” he asked after I was ready to squirm, to run. To tear his clothes off. “How do you know where I live?”

It took a second for me to find my composure. To remember why I was here. Once I did that, I took a breath. Then another. Then I grinned, sipping my martini. “I have a lot of money, honey. Granted, I had to spend a lot more than I expected to find where you live, but I also know the guys at Greenstone Security, and they can find a needle in a stack of needles.” My eyes scanned over him. “Or a hunky, mysterious, dangerous guy who does something shady and definitely criminal for a living.”

That was when his blank expression flickered. His eyes were cerulean fire, his brow raised ever so slightly, and his mouth turned upward just a little. Nowhere near close enough to be called a smile or even a smirk, but it was one of the sexiest things I’d ever seen.

“You couldn’t wait for me to come to you?” he asked after an achingly long moment. His voice was warmer than I’d heard it. A tone that I suspected not a lot of people had heard before.

I liked that.

My pussy fucking loved it.

I vowed to myself that I would explore that, at a distance, of course. This was a man who could ruin a girl who wasn’t careful.

And although careful wasn’t a word that came to mind when people thought of me, I was in matters of the heart. Not that my heart could be involved here. I didn’t even know this man.

“I’m not really a girl who waits for things to come to her,” I purred, slipping into my sex kitten persona. “I’m more of a woman who goes after what she wants.” My skin tingled as I spoke with a sexual confidence that was second nature but for some reason came out shakier than normal.

I hadn’t been nervous coming here. I didn’t get nervous. Not even knowing I was going to be alone with a criminal. I grew up super rich and surrounded by billionaires, politicians and various forms of royalties.

I was used to being around criminals.

But Karson was something different entirely. I knew that down to my soul. I couldn’t show this man any fear. So I drained my drink, placing it on the table beside me that had a potted plant, lovingly cared for, blooming bright red flowers.

I didn’t let myself think about this dangerous man tending to flowers. He most likely had a gardener to do such things.

I got up from my chair on slightly weak knees. Even in my heels, I barely came up to Karson’s shoulder, and I stood close enough to almost brush it. He hadn’t stepped back when I approached. Hadn’t moved a muscle. His eyes just ran down the length of me. Slowly.

“I’m here because you interest me,” I said bluntly, not quite in the mood for playing games, and definitely unable to lie to myself about the carnal control this strange man had over me.

It had shaken me slightly. Then excited me. I didn’t scare easily, which I’m sure Karson was used to. People being scared of him.

I looked forward to showing him just how unafraid I was.

My stomach tingled with the anticipation of it.

But that was not what this visit was about. Even though I looked like pure fucking sex. My chocolate brown hair was pinned back at the nape of my neck, strands falling on my exposed shoulders. I’d worn little makeup, except a pink gloss on my lips.

I was in a sundress, simple, white, tight at the bust, finishing just above my knees. Which wouldn’t be what a lot of people thought about when dressing to look like sex.

Many women tended to go toward as much skin showing as possible, fabric as tight and scarce as possible. Which I was all for.

But a man like Karson wouldn’t respond to that, I sensed. In fact, it was a simple sundress that drove most men wild.

It fed some fucking milkmaid virgin fantasy. Aligned with the ideal that women should look feminine, delicate. I wasn’t one to align to what the patriarchy considered the ideal woman, but I also loved a fucking sundress. I liked feeling feminine and delicate and also strong as fuck, since a single white dress looked like it was about to bring this powerful man to his goddamn knees.

For a second, I was utterly paralyzed. Thinking about this man on his knees in front of me.

Worshipping me.

Devouring me.

It was an effort to get myself under control, to steady my breathing, quiet my thundering heart. Especially when his eyes were alight with fire, with the knowledge of exactly what I was thinking about.

But, of course, he couldn’t read minds.

And there was something more important than my desire right now.

My best friend.

“I’m here to let it be known that you interest me,” I said, tilting my head up. “Now that I’ve let it be known, I’m here to tell you I know what kind of man Jay Helmick is. I know that you’re his right-hand man. I’m here because he has set his sights on my best friend. And from what I understand, Jay Helmick is not a man to give up easily. Or at all.”

Karson’s face was a mask. His eyes had darkened once more, the fire inside them still burning, but it died down the more I spoke.

“I’m here because I have a feeling my best friend is going to get involved with him,” I continued, voice steely. “Because I know her well enough to understand she wants to explore his world.” The air between us thick yet barely there at the same time. My eyes were on Karson’s. “I’m here because my friend is precious. And if you or your boss let anything happen to her, I’ll hunt you both down and fucking destroy you.” My tone went light at the end of my threat. Seductive.

Karson didn’t let a thing slip through his expression, but I doubted he was used to being threatened, especially by a woman. I suspected he was the one who did the threatening more often than not. By just breathing, this man was a fucking threat.

I expected him to respond to my words. To preserve his male authority or what the fuck ever.

But he didn’t. Not for a long time. I wasn’t sure if he was testing me, seeing how long I could withstand his presence, his stare, or if he had nothing to say. But if it was the former, I wasn’t about to fail the test, be the first one to blink, proverbially or otherwise.

So I jutted my chin higher and narrowed my eyes, just slightly to make it known I wasn’t looking away. The air between us was charged. Crackling almost, with something I didn’t understand.

Attraction, it had to be. Love at first sight was a concept invented to sell movie tickets.

No, it wasn’t love. But it was an attraction I’d never experienced. His pheromones were causing some fucked-up chemical reaction in my body. That made sense.

I didn’t know how long it had been, with us just standing there, almost touching, staring at each other, not speaking. My knees were starting to shake, but no way in fuck would I break.

Something moved on Karson’s face as he seemed to realize this, his mouth turning up again once more in that impossibly sexy thing that wasn’t a smile.

“Understood, darlin’,” he said finally, his voice husky, a hint of twang curling around the endearment.

My skin prickled. I was well versed in being called all sorts of shit by men. The effect varied between being irritating to straight up patronizing. Never had it felt comforting or complimentary to me. I didn’t want a man to call me baby. Certainly not ‘darlin’.’

But it was an entirely different thing coming out of Karson’s mouth.

Something that knocked the wind out of me for a second, making me forget about the person I was. Or the role I played so very well.

For a second.

Then I regained my bearings.

“Now that’s over with,” I said, smiling. “This is going to happen,” I whispered, my lips brushing against his. His body was still, taut. I could feel the sexual tension rolling off of him. My knees were having a hard time keeping me vertical, and I was having a hard time remembering what in the actual fuck I was doing.

“By the looks of you, I’m sure you’re used to controlling anything and everything around you,” I continued, my voice breathy and my wits failing me. “Even women.” My eyes dragged themselves from his, flickering down his body. My own responded with pure hunger.

I ignored it.

With supreme effort.

“Especially women,” I added, my eyes meeting his once more. I reached up to adjust his collar, careful not to brush his skin because I knew my resolve would waver if I did. “The thing is, darlin’, I’m not like any woman you’ve ever met. I’m not something you can control, I’m not like anything you’ve ever experienced. So just hold on and enjoy the ride.” I went up on my tiptoes so my lips brushed against his once more. I breathed in the scent of him, woodsy, spicy, deep and rich with that fresh hint of lemon. And then I stepped back, locked my eyes on his for a moment longer before I turned on my heel and walked away.

He watched me the whole time.

I could feel his stare burning into my back. And then I damn near crashed into his car, trying to get out of the driveaway because I couldn’t keep my eyes off the man on the porch of the cottage, surrounded by flowers, standing like a statue staring at me.

I managed. Barely.

And I made it less than three miles before I pulled over to the side of the road to make myself come. Quickly, efficiently, and not with the release I needed. But enough so I wouldn’t cause a wreck on the drive home.

Thinking back on that first night, the night we really began, I cannot believe that I had no idea of the destruction that would follow. If I had, would I have done anything different?

The romantic part of me said no, I wouldn’t. I would go through all the pain, the unmitigated devastation just so I could know him. Know me when I belonged to him.

Know us.

But the resentful, ugly and truthful part of me knew the answer.

I would have ran from him.

Ran for my fucking life.

Even though he would’ve chased me down.

Destruction was inevitable.

But I didn’t know that at the time.

CHAPTER TWO

First Day of My Life – Bright Eyes

Sleep eluded me.

Even after two more martinis and a session with my vibrator.

At the best of times, I wasn’t a good sleeper. It had been like that for as long as I could remember. I’d be roaming around the house I grew up in at three in the morning, switching lights on and off to make sure there wasn’t an intruder lurking in the darkness. We lived in the wealthiest area of the city, in a gated neighborhood with a top-notch security system, the possibility of someone breaking into our home was slim.

But not zero.

My parents didn’t have rules when it came to the movies or shows I watched, the books I read. I had a TV in my bedroom, my own ‘living room’—my parents rarely used the formal living room as they weren’t often home to sit and watch something as common as television. They were out almost every night and not home until late. We had one family dinner together a week, on no set day because their schedules were important, filled with charity dinners, parties, new restaurant openings. Sometimes I went with them, but mostly I stayed at home. Though I had a busy social calendar of my own with horseback riding lessons, karate, sleepovers and whatever extracurricular activity I’d selected for that semester. But when I was home, my parents were rarely there.

Our maid who doubled as my nanny, Victoria, who had emigrated from Russia before I was born, would eat dinner with me and sometimes watch a movie or two. She was my best friend. She was not warm or motherly. She was severe, almost cold but with a dry wit. She taught me Russian until I was fluent. She had always spoken to me like an adult, and I loved that.

She loved me too, in her own way, but she had a family, a life of her own. So she’d leave to go home, to resume her duties around the house, and I would channel surf until I found a horror movie or sitcom about crime and serial killers.

I was never scared. Not until after my parents got home, came in to kiss me goodnight smelling of perfume, aftershave and expensive liquor. After they’d retired to their own wing of the house, and everything went quiet. It was then my imagination ran wild… I started to hear the noises that houses made only in the dead of night, convincing myself that it was an intruder.

I never woke my parents. No. At eight years old, I’d find the source of the noise, walk toward it, switch on the lights expecting to see someone clothed in black, wearing a balaclava. There was never anyone there, thankfully. But it was a routine, a compulsion that followed me into adulthood.

Of course, I rarely, if ever, was home alone watching TV shows. There was always a party, a dinner, a date, a flight to Tel Aviv. But eventually, I’d have to come home to the obnoxious mansion my father gave me as a twenty-first birthday gift.

Not a house I would buy myself, but I wouldn’t dare insult my father by selling it. Poor little rich girl, complaining about the mansion her father bought her.

I slept very little in this house. Four hours a night was my absolute maximum. Doctors around the world would likely swear it was impossible for a human to survive on such little sleep and still be healthy, functioning. But my body had been surviving on that for as long as I could remember, and I was as healthy as a horse. Though I could afford holistic health coaches, personal doctors, massage therapists, chakra aligners and all the organic groceries and superfoods money could buy.

That was neither here nor there.

I knew tonight was going to be different. I knew that even my regular four hours would evade me. So I’d thrown back the covers and exited my bed. I lived by the philosophy that if I knew I wasn’t going to sleep, I was to leave my bedroom immediately. I already had enough trouble sleeping in my bed without inviting all that chaotic insomniac energy into a room that needed to be calming and invite restfulness.

After turning on every light in my home, I was standing in my living room, trying to decide if I was going to do yoga, read a book or make some popcorn and have a Scream movie marathon.

Then I heard the sound.

As someone who had spent her entire life hearing and familiarizing herself with every sound houses made throughout the night, I knew instinctively that the house had nothing to do with it.

Someone was here.

In my home.

My alarm hadn’t gone off. It was top of the line. Installed by the best security company in the city, Greenstone Security. Politicians used them. Celebrities. Their client list was a verifiable who’s who of Hollywood and beyond.

It was not your average burglar who could disable their security system.

It wasn’t even your above average burglar who could do such a thing.

Only a very serious, very fucking dangerous person could do that.

I didn’t panic. There was no place for panic in life-or-death situations. I’d been in plenty, and I had learned mostly by trial and error what to do and what not to do. The rest I’d learned from Charles Davidson, which I doubted was his real name since he was ex-CIA.

My phone was still in my bedroom. A terrible, horror movie heroine type mistake. A woman living alone cannot afford to make such seemingly innocuous mistakes as leaving her phone across the house from her in the middle of the night. We needed to be able to call for help at any moment, because we’d been trained to understand that our lives could be ruined in mere seconds.

Not to worry.

I had a gun in a hidden compartment of the side table right beside me. At this stage, calling for help was not an option. Helping myself, saving myself was on the agenda.

No sooner than I’d outstretched my hand did a man speak.

“Going to shoot me, are you?”

I froze.

All of the calm that settled over me once I’d realized there was an intruder in my home dissipated when I learned the identity of that intruder.

My heart beat furiously in my throat, and I stayed frozen like that for another handful of seconds before I turned around.

Karson was standing in my living room, staring at me. Despite it being the middle of the night, he was still wearing his impeccably tailored black suit, obsidian hair artfully mussed and eyes alert, alight.

Then again, he couldn’t exactly break into my house in the middle of the night naked, could he?

The thought of him naked, what scars and ridges of muscle I might find underneath his clothes, sent warmth to the core of me.

Then I blinked, reminding myself that I shouldn’t be thinking about fucking the man who was able to surpass a serious security system in order to break into my house in the middle of the night. Then again, I’d broken into his house. Turnabout was fair play and all that.

My eyes narrowed as his words penetrated.

He knew that there was a gun in the drawer beside my sofa. How could he know that? No one knew that. It was underneath the drawer itself, in a secret compartment only I knew about.

I had a handful of weapons in such places around my home. It would surprise many people, the amount of firearms I had in my possession. On the surface, I was a pretty, liberal, happy, rich girl… The make love, not war girl.

I was that girl.

Woman.

But if I was forced to go to war, I’d make sure I was armed accordingly.

Though I had the feeling, staring into Karson’s eyes, that I was on the precipice of war, one I had no idea how to fight.

“How did you get in here?” I asked, louder than I’d intended. But I couldn’t whisper over the sound of my thundering heart.

The corner of his mouth turned up in a wicked smile that I felt between my legs. He didn’t answer me, didn’t need to.

The question itself was rather stupid. He didn’t answer because he didn’t need to answer. I knew how he got in here. Knew that it was his job to know how to circumvent security systems, knew that his job meant he was dressed in a sleek suit at three in the morning.

This was the middle of his workday, I guessed.

I was wearing a nightgown. Silk. Skimpy. It barely covered my ass, clung to all of my curves, and my nipples were pebbled against the delicate silk.

Karson’s eyes did not flicker down my body, though, they stayed on mine as he walked slowly, purposefully toward me.

I was so paralyzed by shock, desire and a sprinkling of fear that I didn’t move. I just watched Karson advance.

His steps echoed delicately through my home, his darkness a sharp contrast against the shades of white I had decorated my home in.

“I don’t play games,” he said, standing close enough that his scent enveloped me, consumed me, but so we weren’t actually touching. Every nerve ending in my body cried out. My breaths were shallow and rapid, and my hands were clenched at my sides.

I wasn’t afraid. I should’ve been. Karson was some kind of dangerous criminal, and he’d broken into my house in the middle of the night. Yes, I likely should’ve been afraid.

But I wasn’t really a woman who reacted the way one should in high pressure situations, or any situation.

I tilted my head and regarded Karson, the texture of his skin, the sharpness of his jaw and the electricity in his eyes. My heart thundered, and I worked hard to school my expression.

“Really?” I asked, my voice husky, my breath blowing into his face. “Because I think breaking into my house in the middle of the night, presumably for sex, seems remarkably close to a game, if not, certainly a felony,” I added, my eyes never leaving his.

Karson’s eyes flared, but his expression stayed the same. Stoic, almost rigid. Cold on the surface. But now that I was closer, now that I could smell him, feel his presence, I understood there was a fire inside of me that was singeing my skin with its nearness.

He didn’t take the bait that I was dangling in front of his face. I half expected him to. Though I was nowhere near an expert on the details of his chosen profession or life in general—I barely knew this man—I thought he might be prone to conflict. And the idea of engaging in battle with this man had my pussy pulsating with need.

Karson didn’t give me the fight I was so craving. He didn’t give me anything, in fact. He just stood there, staring, suit just brushing against my nightgown, the heat of his body lighting mine on fire.

The air was thick, pulsating. It was a living thing between us. There was a low roar in my ears, and my stomach swirled with unease and arousal.

“Here it is,” I whispered, my eyes never leaving his. “Here is the thing I’ve been chasing all my life.”

The words came out of their own accord. I hadn’t intended on saying them. They were honest, raw. I was never honest or raw with a man. But the truth spilled out of me because I had been chasing this feeling. All over the world. With many different men. I’d been waiting for one to awaken me this way. To make me feel this alive.

And he hadn’t even fucking touched me.

Karson’s expression shifted. That was the only way to explain it. As if the stoic badass thing was just a mirage.

He lifted up his hand to stroke my cheekbone with a featherlight touch. Barely there.

I flinched nonetheless, my skin reacting viscerally to his hand on me.

“I’ve been thinking, dreaming of what your pussy tastes like,” he murmured, almost a whisper. “I’ve been obsessing over what it’s going to feel like clenching around my cock.” His hand cupped my jaw, slightly firmer this time. “I need to see your face when you’re full of me, exploding around me. And I have a feeling that you had a lot planned before we fuck.” He leaned in to brush his lips against mine, my mouth opening reflexively because it was impossible not to open to this man.

He kissed me gently, with reverence, taking me completely by surprise. In the short time I’d known him and fantasized about what it would be like to kiss him, everything had been brutal, frantic, violent. And I’d loved the thought of that.

I wasn’t one for tenderness. Too vanilla.

But holy fucking shit.

I’d never tasted vanilla like this before.

“You’re used to being in control,” Karson murmured against my lips, his hands settling on my hips now, firm and heavy. “And I’ll be happy to let you take the wheel…” His hands skimmed over the sides of my waist, brushing my breasts. I sucked in a ragged breath. “Once I’m done with you.” He kissed me again. Hungrier this time. Fiercer. I responded enthusiastically, desperate to taste him, all of him.

Karson pulled back once more, and I barely suppressed a groan of protest.

“Though I’m starting to get the feeling I’ll never be done with you,” he added, voice rougher now.

Somewhere deep inside, a voice told me to challenge him on that, to play some kind of part, be the sexually free, sexually fierce woman I was. But an instinct, a deeper, older and truer instinct, told me to submit. To release all of my expectations and let this happen exactly how it was supposed to—with Karson in control.

His hands trailed along my collarbone, right down the middle of my chest, not touching my nipples which were aching for his touch. No, he didn’t go there. Instead, his hands gripped the thin silk of my nightgown and tore it down the middle.

Tore it down the fucking middle. Until it fluttered to the floor, leaving me naked in front of him while he was fully clothed.

My breath left me.

I blinked at him then looked downward to the ruined silk on the floor.

“I had that custom made for me in Paris,” I hissed, my voice raspy and thin.

My eyes met Karson’s, glittering, liquid, pure fucking sex. “I don’t give a fuck,” he replied, his tone as close to a growl as I’d ever heard.

My pussy clenched at the tone, at the look in his eyes, at my skin being exposed to him.

Instead of doing what I expected him to do, what every nerve ending in my body needed him to do—touch me, fuck me, give me some kind of release—he stepped back, giving me empty, cold air. My nipples pebbled in response, in desperate need.

As much as I wanted to, I didn’t follow his movements, didn’t take charge and tear his clothes off as I might’ve in other situations.

No, I just stood there, naked. Shivering despite the night being balmy with humid air blowing through the doors I’d just opened to the pool area.

Karson stood a few feet from me, his eyes moving slowly over every inch of my body, drinking me in. Fucking devouring me.

It was even more erotic than if he’d touched me right away. He was taking me in like I was a piece of art, like he’d never seen a naked woman in the flesh before.

And I’d bet my left tit he’d seen many naked women before.

“Are you going to fuck me or stare at me?” I asked, suddenly uneasy, almost self-conscious. The way he was staring at me made me feel things I’d never felt from a man touching me.

I’d never felt self-conscious in my fucking life. Especially not with a man. But when other men looked at me, all they saw was skin. With Karson, I couldn’t shake the feeling he was seeing my fucking soul—even though the mere thought of such a thing was fucking insane.

“I’m going to stare at you,” Karson replied, his voice thick, deep, rich. “Then, I’m going to eat your pussy.”

My stomach dropped, my hands fisted at my sides, nails sinking into the flesh of my palms.

“Then I’ll fuck you,” Karson continued. “Right here on the floor.” He shrugged off his jacket casually, inch by inch as if he had all the time in the world, the gesture was somehow impossibly erotic. “First, I’m going to take my time staring at you, Wren. I’m not going to let you rush this, let you take charge. So you’re going to fucking stand there until I decide we’re ready.”

I pursed my aching lips together, tasting him there. Acid crawled up my throat. Not arousal this time, anger.

Despite my self-consciousness, I put my hands on my hips, tilting my head up to give the impression that I was totally fucking comfortable with my nakedness and not at all weakened by my arousal and his general overarching presence.

“This isn’t fifty fucking shades, buddy,” I snapped. “As much as you radiate the whole ‘Dom’ thing, I’m most definitely not a sub.”

Karson’s mouth turned up at my words as he worked the buttons on his shirt. I forced myself not to look at his exposed muscular chest and defined abs.

Okay, I looked a little.

Then my eyes darted back up.

Karson had caught the look and the way I’d unintentionally licked my lips while looking at his torso, if the glint of satisfaction in his eyes was anything to go by.

“Oh, I knew from the second I laid eyes on you that you were not a sub,” he said, his shoes thumping on the floor as he removed them. His shirt fluttered downward and joined them.

Again, I failed to keep his eyes as my gaze ran over his broad shoulders, down his sculpted arms, veins raised like smooth stone. There were scars peppering his arms, not many, but a noticeable few. I ached to touch them, feel the imperfections on his skin. Know the history behind them.

“And despite what you think, I’m not a Dom,” Karson added, pulling my attention back to his eyes. “I don’t gain anything from making a woman submit to me. I haven’t been interested in women for a long time.”

He was undoing his pants now. I swallowed thickly, willing myself not to look.

“Until I saw you,” he continued, his voice rough now. Hungry.

My hands started to shake, my skin turned to gooseflesh. My heart thundered in my chest.

“And I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I made you submit to me.”

His pants fell to the floor.

He wasn’t wearing any underwear. His cock was hard. It was fucking magnificent.

I licked my lips again.

His body flinched at my gesture, and a grin of my own stretched on my face. He was as much of a slave to his body, his desire, as I was. He was just better at hiding it.

“And you haven’t moved a fucking inch, which tells me that you want to submit to me too,” he finished, eyes flaring with satisfaction.

I gritted my teeth, fury battling my desire for control over my motor functions. I moved quickly, in two long strides, launching myself at him.

Karson was definitely strong enough to take my weight—I mean, look at those fucking arms—but I didn’t know the man, didn’t know I could trust him to catch me.

I did it anyway.

And he caught me.

My legs wrapped around his hips, both of us gasping as my wet pussy rubbed against his bare skin, his cock pressing against me.

I kissed him fiercely, with all of my anger, frustration and desire. He matched me, mouth moving against mine violently, hands pressing into my ass, grinding me against his body.

I pulled my head back, breaking the kiss, eyes finding his.

“I wouldn’t be so sure that I’ll be the one submitting once this is done,” I warned, my voice sounding wild and carnal. “You’ll be swearing fucking fealty to me, tattooing my name on your fucking chest before the night is out.”

“Maybe I will,” he agreed, hands biting into the flesh of my ass.

I let out a gasp of pain and pleasure as his mouth covered mine once more, my body grinding against his, my climax already building as I got the friction I was so desperate for.

We were moving, but I didn’t take much notice of that, I couldn’t. Now that I was committed to this, him, my mind was overrun with need, like a fucking animal.

I did take notice when he set me down on the sofa, just as my climax was within reach.

“You come against my mouth,” Karson rasped, hand at the back of my neck, squeezing to the point of pain. His eyes were almost black, seemingly inhuman, and my stomach flipped in fear, with excitement, my skin prickling.

Then his hands traveled to my hips, yanking me right to the edge of the sofa. Karson kneeled in front of me, pushing apart my thighs, exposing me to him.

He didn’t dive in straight away, not like I needed, no. Like before, he sat there, staring at the most intimate part of me, open to him, desperate for him.

My breaths were rapid and shallow as I watched him stare at me, watched his eyes flare and the veins in his neck pulse.

I felt the same pulse in the apex of my thighs, as if my pussy was a living thing, separate from me, ready to obey Karson’s every will.

Then again, at this moment, my brain and body were both willing to obey his every will too.

My nails sank into the fabric of the sofa, ready to tear it apart just so my body didn’t explode. I wasn’t going to beg him, no matter how desperate I was. Though this man—a virtual stranger—staring between my legs was beyond personal and gloriously uncomfortable, I forced myself to continue to stare at him, to drink in the way he stared at me.

Perspiration beaded on my skin from the heat his was igniting in my body.

Karson dragged his eyes away from my pussy—that’s what the gesture was, like he was moving through a gale force wind, battling against something that was drawing him between my legs.

I jolted as his eyes met mine.

“Your cunt is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” His voice was little more than a whisper. Much rougher than a whisper. The words moved across my skin like callused hands.

The pads of his fingers pressed into my thighs.

“And I know it’s going to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever tasted,” he added, this time in that half growl of his that should’ve sounded ridiculous, not insanely sexy.

Before I had the chance to take another shallow breath, to muster up a response to his words, he dived in.

He dived the fuck in.

I threw my head back, letting out a strangled scream as his mouth moved against my clit. It was only going to be seconds before I completely exploded, my body had been crying out for this since the moment I laid eyes on this man. Since the moment I’d heard his voice crawling out of the silence of the witching hour.

One of my hands tangled in his hair, fisting it, yanking it. My body convulsed as he moved his tongue expertly along the most sensitive part of me.

I exploded.

Indescribably.

Against his mouth, with my hands yanking at his velvet hair. With his fingers bruising my thighs. Extending to parts of me that no man had ever reached.

Karson didn’t linger there as I twitched with aftershocks. No, he lifted me up once more, my body lead. Seconds later, I was no longer sitting on my soft sofa, the floor was hard and gloriously cool against my back. Karson lifted my head and placed a cushion I didn’t see him grab underneath it before letting it fall down again.

I was little more than useless, a puppet in his hands after he had torn me apart with his mouth.

Karson was hovering above me, not giving me his full weight, but his skin pressed against mine, his cock brushing against my sensitive entrance.

I let out a rough gasp, suddenly hungry for more of him. Suddenly mad with the need for him to be inside of me.

“Baby.”

The word came through water.

I blinked.

Karson’s eyes were intent on mine. They were wild. Ravenous. My toes curled. I tried to move against him, tried to plead for him to fuck me without saying the words.

“I want to fuck you raw,” he murmured, mouth inches from mine.

The words penetrated.

Protection.

Something I was absolutely religious about, even though I was on birth control. It didn’t matter how drunk I was, how horny I was, how hot the guy was or the promises they gave me about their lack of STIs. I always used a condom.

Always.

It wasn’t just about protection from STIs or the small possibility of getting pregnant while being on birth control. It was about the intimacy of it. There was a closeness that came with that that I hadn’t been willing to give to any man.

No way was I ever going to save myself for marriage. I lost my virginity at thirteen. It was messy, painful, and lasted for less than a minute. But I eventually learned my own body, my own needs, taught it to boys I dated, dumped men who didn’t want to be taught.

No, the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with—or at the very least someone I would love with everything I am for a time—wasn’t going to get my virginity. But I had nurtured the idea that I could give him something special.

As much as I proclaimed to have loved many men in my life, I never wanted to give them that. I reveled in the small amount of distance I could create, a small shield I could hide behind to make sure they didn’t take anything from me.

I’d turned it into something more.

So certainly, I would not give this piece of me to a stranger. One who had broken into my house tonight. One who worked for a shady criminal. One who I met briefly on the street while he was basically trying to abduct my best friend.

“Do it,” I hissed, my voice barely recognizable.

Karson didn’t plunge right in, he didn’t do anything, just continued staring at me, hovering above me, cock pressing against me.

“Once I do this, there’s no going back,” he warned. “You’ll be mine.”

I was too far gone to understand what that statement was. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I knew exactly what he meant by that.

I wrapped my arms around him so I could yank him closer, sinking my nails into his skin.

“I want you,” I murmured, my eyes locked with his.

This time there was no pause. He surged inside.

My nails sank in farther.

Karson fucked me hard, deep, with a kind of violence that his eyes had promised since the beginning. The feeling of his skin against mine, his weight pushing me into the floor, causing my skin to smolder. I gripped onto him harder as he built me toward another orgasm, this one more world shattering than the last.

His lips were at my neck, teeth grazing over the skin there. My nails were still clawing at his back.

My body sang for him in a way that felt overwhelming and like absolute perfection at the same time. I wasn’t thinking about anything but his weight on top of me, his cock moving inside of me and the orgasm that he was stoking, creating. My body went taut as I felt it build inside me, my mind clouding over, thinking of nothing but incoming pleasure. Incoming ruin.

Karson must’ve felt my body tensing, my pussy pulsating around him, because his lips were no longer at my neck. Glacial eyes burned into mine, jolting me out of the reverie I was in. No longer was everything soft, cloudy. Every angle of Karson’s face was etched in sharp detail, as if it was carved from stone. The depths beyond his eyes sucked me in, held me hostage, signified something that even in my pleasure ridden insanity I knew was important, pivotal, unescapable. That, coupled with his body moving rhythmically atop me, cock surging inside of me, was too much for me to handle. I squeezed my eyes shut in order to escape his gaze and the intensity behind it, determined to chase my orgasm and nothing else.

Karson stopped moving the second I squeezed my eyes shut, when I was moments away from coming apart completely.

My entire body rebelled at his lack of movement, at his denial of something I needed for my thundering heart to continue beating.

“Open your eyes, Wren,” Karson demanded, voice rough. It sent shivers down my spine.

I obeyed him on reflex. His irises were pits of desire. Hunger. His entire face had transformed into an entirely different man than the one I’d met earlier. There was a monster dancing behind his stare. And my pussy contracted seeing it.

He let out a low grunt, telling me he’d felt that, the veins in his neck pulsating with the restraint it was taking him to stay still. It was obvious that he was moments away from emptying himself inside of me.

“You look into my eyes when you come around my dick,” he gritted out. “You let me see you.”

My body was not capable of forming words at this current juncture, so I just kept staring at him, in my own version of agreement. How in the fuck could anyone refuse the man inside of them when they said something like that?

A voice told me such a thing was too intimate, too dangerous, but I brushed it away.

Karson didn’t start moving again immediately, no matter how desperate both of us were for him to. He just stayed above me, staring, his skin pressing into mine, his breath hot on my face.

The night was quiet. Deadly quiet. There was nothing but our breathing, my heart. Nothing but this moment that seemed to catch time itself.

I was paralyzed by the closeness I felt to him. A closeness that had nothing to do with his cock being inside of me. It was something else entirely.

Luckily, he started moving before I could inspect what exactly that was.

As much as I wanted to close my eyes, throw my head back in ecstasy when my orgasm shattered me, I didn’t. I did exactly as he had ordered and kept my eyes on his as I thrashed, as I exited reality entirely, as the world turned to sunburst.

And I was rewarded by the incredible sight it was to see Karson fall apart right along with me. His growl echoed through the quiet night, mingling with my moans as we both chased our own pleasure, connected through the eye contact neither of us broke.

I had initially thought that he’d moved us from the sofa because he was much too large to fuck appropriately on it. But it was because fucking on the floor made this something else. Desperate. Carnal. Animalistic.

There were no frills. No handcuffs, toys, blindfolds or even a soft mattress underneath us. No, this was sex stripped down to its very bones. And it blew me off the fucking face of the earth.

I came back down to earth, eventually. And I was laying on my living room floor. Well, I wasn’t exactly laying on my living room floor. Karson was. I was splayed on top of him. I didn’t quite remember how exactly I’d gone from being underneath him to being on top of him, but that detail seemed rather insignificant at that juncture.

Our naked bodies were damp from exertion, his chest hard underneath me. All of his muscles were hard, sculpted. Yet somehow, they felt more comfortable than the ten-thousand-dollar bed I barely slept in every night.

“This is just sex,” I blurted, my voice scratchy, as if it hadn’t been used in days. As if I hadn’t been crying out in pleasure for the last … eternity. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

Karson didn’t respond.

His chest was rising and falling underneath me, so I knew he was alive. I’d never killed a man with sex before, but fuck if it felt like I’d died and entered Nirvana.

“I’m serious,” I said as if he’d argued with me. “You’re an alpha male. I’m obviously amazing at sex, you’re obviously amazing at sex, and that was…” I trailed off, my body tingling at the memory of what had happened between us. Something that was a lot more than just sex. “That was great,” I chirped lamely, trying to be casual yet getting the feeling that Karson saw right through me. “But I’m not into commitment. And as I mentioned earlier, you’re an alpha male. And you’ve had an intense, smoldering look in your eye. That gives me the idea that you’re attached to me.” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry and my stomach achingly empty. I felt like I’d just run a marathon. Or two. I’d run a marathon before, and I hadn’t been as exhausted and fucking starving as I was right then.

But I had a point to make. Reality had meant nothing from the moment Karson had entered the house, yet now it was rushing back in, so I needed to take control of the situation.

Karson still didn’t say anything, so I wrenched myself upward, coming up on my elbow so I could stare into his eyes. Just as I predicted, I found the intense, smoldering look in his eyes that made my stomach go all melty. I gritted my teeth against it and waited for him to argue. Certainly, he was going to. He was a man used to taking charge, that much was crystal clear, and he wasn’t going to let a woman make the rules.

“I’m going to make you some mac and cheese,” he informed me, voice rough.

I stared at him, wondering if he’d broken me somehow and I’d lost the ability to understand words.

He didn’t give me the chance to figure that out as he somehow knifed upward, taking both of us with him, planting me on unsteady legs.

My entire body felt heavy, achy, like I’d used every muscle in my body.

Karson stayed there in front of me for a few seconds, not speaking—I would’ve pushed the issue that this was just sex, but I was too busy trying to find my bearings and fighting to stop the room from spinning. Then, just as I was able to stand on my own again and sharpen my focus, Karson walked away.

Walked the fuck away.

Without a fucking word.

Naked.

To go and make mac and cheese, presumably.

Karson made kick-ass mac and cheese.

Quite possibly the best mac and cheese I’d ever had. Not that I’d had a whole bunch—I’d grown up in LA with a mother who ate the bare minimum to keep her alive and in a size two, and I came of age when the waif thin supermodels were plastered all over the media as shapes to emulate.

So yeah, my relationship with food and my body hadn’t been the greatest, but I was working on it.

And I didn’t think once about carbs or calories as I wolfed down two bowls of mac and cheese. Nor did I think about doing such a thing in front of a man I’d just slept with. Women were supposed to nibble at salads and poached chicken on first dates, according to popular culture and society, at least.

But I was never one to act as a woman was supposed to act, and this couldn’t exactly be classed as a ‘first date.’

We were silent as we ate. I’d opened a bottle of wine as Karson cooked and handed him the glass, trying not to drool at his body. His eyes had flickered hungrily down the length of mine, which made my stomach do a little flip.

He moved fluidly in the kitchen, sure of himself in his movements, not asking me where a fucking thing was, finding things on the first try.

My kitchen was mostly for show—the extent of my ‘cooking abilities’ were putting together a kick-ass cheeseboard. The chef’s oven, sleek marble countertops, large fridge and various gadgets were there because most people spending tens of millions of dollars on houses wanted everything top of the line, for everything to scream money.

Although I liked it well enough, sometimes I dreamed of a cozy little cottage with delightfully cluttered counters and a warmth that my cavernous stone kitchen could never omit.

My mind flickered to Karson’s little cottage by the beach. Him cooking us dinner, the sounds of the waves traveling through open doors, me perched on the breakfast bar, watching him cook, sipping an ice-cold cocktail. I quickly pushed that little fantasy away.

I should’ve pushed the fact that this was just going to be sex between us, but I couldn’t find it in me to puncture the compatible silence, to ruin it. I could linger here, if only for tonight.

After eating, we both did the dishes, again in companiable silence. The night crept closer to morning by the time we were done, and I found myself growing increasingly anxious about the coming sunrise.

I wanted more of Karson, without whatever bullshit I’d no doubt conjure in the daylight. Not just more sex—although I certainly wanted more of that too. I wanted to know where he learned to make such excellent mac and cheese. I wanted to eat more of the food he made me. Wanted to know the history of each and every one of his scars.

Mostly, I wanted to know how he became who he was in this moment, what brought him to my living room in the middle of the night.

Which was where we had ended up once more. The bottle of wine sat on the coffee table, our glasses on either side. Our clothes were still strewn about on the floor—if you could call ruined French silk, clothes. Karson didn’t seem to have any inclination to put on any clothes, and I definitely wasn’t mad at that.

We didn’t nestle into one another on the sofa, didn’t cuddle. Though the idea of curling up on his chest, having those strong arms around me was incredibly tempting. I wanted to stare at him, wanted to drink in all of him. We sat close, very close, so I could smell sex on his skin, so his scent was mingled in with every breath I took.

I could’ve waited for him to speak. Could’ve told myself to create some kind of narrative about his silence, turn it into a game, a power struggle. Such a thought was sour in my mind. Karson was not about games. That was why he came here tonight. Because he wanted me, and he wasn’t going to fuck around making it known.

So I wasn’t going to play games either, no matter how unfamiliar that seemed.

“What’s your villain origin story?” I asked, settling down amongst the cushions, crossing my legs, not self-conscious about being totally naked. I was self-conscious about plenty of other things in my life—things no one knew about—but nakedness was not one of them.

Karson’s eyes traveled along my bare skin with hunger, reverence, despite all the things he’d just done to me less than an hour ago.

My stomach skipped—even after everything he’d done to me. A blush crept up my neck.

A fucking blush.

I didn’t think I was capable of doing that.

But here was a man who made me realize nothing was impossible, not with him.

“My villain origin story?” he repeated.

The low, raspy tenor of his voice tinged with amusement caused my pulse to skip even faster, but I tried to stay on task. Speaking was out of the question, so I took another sip and nodded.

“You think I’m a villain?” he asked, taking a sip of his own wine.

There was something innately sexy about a big, muscled, macho man sipping a glass of wine, holding the stem delicately with the same hands that had gripped onto me, bruising my very bones.

“Of course, you’re a villain,” I told him, meeting his eyes. “There’s no other way you’d be so interesting to me. Prince Charming is so fucking predictable.” I rolled my eyes. “And I’ve dated actual princes.”

The fact that I was still technically dating a prince didn’t linger in my mind.

“They are nothing like the stories. And even if they were, what ... save the damsel, slay a dragon, ride off into the sunset? Snore.” I smiled at him. “I’m not after a ride into the sunset and certainly don’t need you to slay any dragons for me. Villains keep things interesting. And I have it on good authority that they fuck better than any prince can.”

Though I didn’t know Karson near well enough to predict what kind of reaction he was going to have about my assessment that he was a villain, I knew I’d see the flare of his eyes when I talked about fucking.

I just thought it might be coupled with some kind of cold, tight expression.

Not the grin that he treated me with.

A full-on smile.

With teeth.

It hit me square in the chest. I wasn’t sure why, but I got the feeling that not many people got to see this man smile.

It was absolutely breathtaking. Instantly, I felt greedy and protective over that smile.

“If I’m a villain, what does that make you, sweetheart?” Karson asked, teasing. “A princess?”

I bristled. “Certainly not. A queen at the very least.” I jutted my chin upward.

The grin widened. “Ah, of course. So I’m to worship you, then?”

My stomach dipped deliciously. I gulped. “Naturally,” I said. “And your queen demands to know your story.”

Karson dipped his head in reverence. “My queen’s wish is my command.”

My pulse quickened, thinking about the idea of having power over this man, wielding it benevolently, of course, if a little focused on multiple orgasms.

Karson regarded me. “For you to class me, correctly, as the villain, I gather that you have at least a rudimentary understanding of what Jay Helmick does and what in turn I do for him?”

I nodded once. “Yes, I have the general gist.”

His gaze got heavier. “And it doesn’t bother you?”

The question was a surprise. I had thought he was a ‘take me as I am or fuck off’ kind of guy. There was real curiosity in the question. Almost … concern.

“No,” I reassured him quickly. “It doesn’t bother me.”

He tilted his head ever so slightly, as if he was taking measure of my words.

I sighed. “That’s not just empty air,” I added. “Although I probably haven’t experienced the reality of your life, I’m not exactly innocent either. I’ve seen a lot in my life. I’m very aware that the world is not a pretty, carefree and safe place. That people are full of multitudes. That good and evil exist inside of everyone. If I had a problem with who you were, I certainly wouldn’t have let you fuck me.”

Karson’s eyes darkened ever so slightly, and I got a flashback of what had happened on the floor behind us, my nerve endings prickling with a reminder of that pleasure.

When Karson came back into focus, it seemed to me like I hadn’t hidden what I was thinking about.

I thought, hoped—despite my stomach full of mac and cheese—that he might cross the distance between us and remind me of what it was like to be fucked by him, but he started talking instead.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed.

“I grew up in the Midwest,” he began.

My eyes widened at this, he didn’t have a hint of an accent. His low baritone was steady, even, without origin. Then I remembered the slight twang when he’d called me darlin’.

“Poor,” he continued. “A dad who liked to smack my mother around. He eventually killed her.”

I flinched. Not at the information, but at the way he delivered it. Cold. But not without feeling. I could see something in his eyes. Something he’d had to harden in order to live with this truth.

My heart fractured, and I sank my teeth into the inside of my cheek in order to stop myself from crying right then and there.

“I killed him later,” he stated, matter of fact. “When I had the skills.”

Though no one had ever confessed murder to me before, I didn’t feel shocked or disgusted. Elation bloomed within me for Karson getting some kind of justice, being able to avenge his mother. That surprised me. I was against the death penalty—I believed that people could be reformed, that we needed to focus on fixing the problems instead of erasing them, burying them.

Such a stark turnaround in my beliefs was the thing that shocked me.

“I learned the necessary skills from a branch of government that isn’t supposed to exist,” Karson explained. “One that works domestically, spying on citizens, taking away their rights if the upper echelon decides they’ve committed crimes against their country.”

I blinked. I believed him. It didn’t surprise me one bit that there was a secret government organization that worked in the shadows, did things that only people with tinfoil hats imagined.

I’d been around enough political powers that be to know that there was a whole world behind the curtain.

I was surprised that Karson was telling me all of this, though. I was essentially a stranger. One who wasn’t well known for her secret keeping abilities. Yet he couldn’t know that about me. Because he didn’t know me.

Yet here he was, telling me he used to work for a top-secret government organization that likely tortured and killed Americans.

Karson didn’t strike me as a man who went around telling everyone this little gem buried in his history.

“I did well in school, despite all that shit,” he continued, the low baritone of his voice enchanting.

His eyes had never left mine. Most people didn’t hold eye contact for an extended period of time. Their gaze flickered around the room, back and forward. Prolonged eye contact with someone during even the most banal of conversations was too intimate for most people.

This was not a banal conversation.

I was trapped in Karson’s gaze. In his past. “Got a scholarship to some fancy fuckin’ college.”

He paused to take a sip of wine. I didn’t do the same. I just stared, actually waiting with bated breath for him to continue.

“I didn’t go,” he said after swallowing. “Knew I wouldn’t fit in there. Knew, even then, that I wasn’t cut out to be put on an assembly line and cut into whatever shape those places turn out. So I enlisted. Wasn’t the only kid from my hometown that did. It was the only way out for most people born poor, destined to continue whatever fucked-up lifestyle they were born into. Most of us went in because we wanted to hurt. Kill. Somewhere where that was a job instead of a crime. Of course, we only told each other that. It’s not something to be proud of.”

There was no shame in his voice now. Just honesty. Brutal, stripped-down honesty. It should’ve scared me, him admitting he wanted to kill someone.

It didn’t.

The time for fear had come and gone. I was hungry, ravenous for more of him.

“Turned out I was good at it,” he told me, eyes intent on me, searching for some kind of reaction. “Killing. Turns out I liked it. My superiors took notice. Tested me. Though I didn’t know that’s what they were doing at the time. I passed. With flying colors. A test most men fail. A test most men should fail. But I didn’t. So they offered me a job. One that meant I had to cut all ties with the person I was before. Told me I couldn’t contact anyone I loved.” He scoffed. “It wasn’t a great sacrifice. It actually felt like a fuckin’ gift from God, shedding away everything I was born into and being able to create my own version of myself.”

With a shaking hand, I took a sip of my wine, not tasting any of it. All I could taste was Karson’s words. They were sweet, even though they shouldn’t be.

“It didn’t bother me.” He trailed a finger down my arm almost lazily. “For years, it didn’t bother me. I fuckin’ loved it, in fact. Then I decided I didn’t. Nothin’ drastic happened. They didn’t ask me to do anything that was beyond my morals. I’d done everything and anything. One day, I decided I didn’t want to be taking orders from some fucker wearing a suit, sitting in the shadows, who’d never had blood on his hands in his life. Figured out I was a puppet, and that eventually they’d kill me. When I outgrew my usefulness. Didn’t quite like the thought of being a puppet. So I left.”

I took in his relaxed demeanor. “Now, I’m no expert on secret government operations, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you don’t get a cake and a gold watch when you announce your retirement.” My voice was croaky, rough.

Karson smiled at me. It warmed me to my very soul. Lit me up from the inside out, like he hadn’t just told me he’d tortured and killed people for years.

“No,” he replied. “It’s not a job you leave. It’s one you disappear from. One way or another. I was good at making people disappear, so I did that. Drifted around for a few years, found Jay. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

It took me a second to process all the information that he’d just offered me so freely. All of his history. He didn’t gloss over it, didn’t try to make it more palatable for me. And I’d devoured it.

“That satisfy you as a villain origin story?” he smirked.

I nodded once, draining my drink and placing it on the coffee table with a clang. “Yes. It more than satisfies me. Now we’re going to go to my bedroom, and you’re going to satisfy me in a whole other way.”

Karson’s stare deepened, and I silently prayed that I wouldn’t stain the couch with my arousal. I watched his throat move as he drained his remaining wine, setting his glass down beside mine.

“As you wish,” he murmured.

Then he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder, hand coming down on my ass.

I screamed in delight and desire.

Then, he took us to my bedroom. Where he satisfied me. Thoroughly.

CHAPTER THREE

Landslide – Fleetwood Mac

I came awake slowly, bright light hot against the backs of my eyelids. That in and of itself was strange. The only way I could get the small amount of sleep I got was by wearing a thick silk eye mask, which blocked out all light and was also wonderful for the skin.

There was no way I would’ve even dozed off without it. I couldn’t sleep without it. It had become somewhat of a compulsion

I was warm. Very fucking warm. There was a furnace behind me. Which was good, because I liked to sleep with my bedroom doors open, and they carried the cool breeze with them.

Karson.

He’d stayed over.

Hadn’t I told him he couldn’t?

I certainly had.

But he hadn’t listened to me. Should I have been surprised? I wasn’t really in the state to argue after he’d carried me into the bedroom and fucked me slowly, gently, yet somehow exhausting me and working all my muscles better than three back-to-back spin classes.

And I’d slept.

Without my eye mask.

Cuddling.

Or more accurately, with Karson cuddling me. Well, his alpha male version of cuddling, with his front pressed to my back, his arms vicelike around me.

I did not let men cuddle me, alpha male or not.

Like having sex without a condom, it was too intimate. Plus, I had a bad enough time sleeping without someone’s limbs and heavy breathing getting in my way.

It was a problem with almost every man I dated. Despite what they told their ‘bros’ to protect their vulnerable masculinity, in my experience, men needed to cuddle. Moreover, they wanted to be the little spoon. They wanted to feel nurtured, protected, taken care of. Not that they’d ever say it out loud.

“Mornin’,” Karson mumbled, his voice thick with sleep.

I frowned as my body warmed further at the tenor of his voice, both comforted and turned on by it.

“I told you you weren’t allowed to stay over,” I grumbled. “You need to leave.” I tried to make my voice firm, but I was still tangled in a half-awake state that was altogether unusual for me.

I woke easily and instantly. I was never groggy, no matter how little sleep I got the night before. I was sure a sleep doctor would’ve loved to get their hands on me.

Karson didn’t respond. Instead, he flipped us so I was on my back, and he was hovering on top of me.

His hair was mussed from sleep, eyes lazy and turned on. There was a slight shadow on his jaw, barely there but noticeable that close. I reached up to stroke it, his hair jagged against my skin.

I couldn’t help my gesture. He looked different in the late morning light. Softer, somehow. Impossibly handsome in a way that hurt my fucking soul. My body had never been more wired and relaxed at the same time. I’d never felt more at home than right in that very moment. Waking up with a man who was essentially a stranger.

Completely fucking insane.

Something changed in his expression when I touched him like that. Something melted.

My breath left my lungs. “You need to leave,” I whispered, my words thin, full of holes.

Karson smiled slowly, the grin lighting up his handsome face. His hand moved under the covers, ghosting up my inner thigh. My toes curled as he trailed his fingers against the hair in between my legs, not slipping inside, driving me fucking crazy.

I was pinned to the bed, glued in place, held hostage by him.

Karson leaned down to kiss my neck. His hands moved over my stomach, up to my breasts, circling my sensitive nipples.

My breathing shallowed.

His hands trailed back down now, and I prayed to all the gods I knew of that they would go where I was craving, where I needed.

I wasn’t sure if it was a god that answered, but I got what I was praying for. His fingers slipped past my folds, and my eyes rolled to the back of my head.

Karson’s fingers moved lazily, knowingly, as if he’d studied the road map of my insides, knew just where to stroke to tease my climax out of me.

“You want me to leave now, sweetheart?” Karson asked, voice thick, rough.

My eyes snapped open as I wrestled for control. “I’ve got three vibrators in my bedside table that will do the job you’re about to,” I breathed. “So yes, I want you leave.”

Karson’s eyes darkened. His fingers left me.

I wanted to scream in protest, but I stayed silent, fisting the sheets so I wouldn’t grab onto him.

Karson moved quickly and fluidly. I watched his muscles flex as he reached over to my nightstand, the drawers opening and closing.

As soon as I saw the flash of pink, I knew exactly what he was doing. Anticipation swirled in my belly, and I gripped the sheets that much tighter.

His eyes were blue flames.

“Show me,” he demanded, authority in his tone.

I blinked at him. Everything else was blurry, but this naked Adonis holding a vibrator to me was in sharp detail.

“Show me,” he repeated. “Show me how you make yourself come. Show me how you can make yourself scream like I did last night. You do that, and I’ll leave and never come back.”

It was the cockiness in his voice that did it. He considered it a foregone conclusion that he would be able to pleasure me better than one of the best vibrators in the world—created by women who knew the female anatomy and exactly what we needed. Orgasms without men getting in the way.

And all of this occurring while I was seriously turned on and needed release. If he was going to play games with me, then I could play them right back. I wasn’t some shy woman who was ashamed of her sexuality, I wasn’t going to blanche at a man watching me make myself come.

Even Karson.

I snatched the vibrator from his hands, turning it on. The low humming emitting from it was the only sound in the room. My eyes didn’t leave his, even as I moved the vibrator between my legs, even as it found my aching clit.

He hissed through his teeth as I moaned in pleasure, his gaze never leaving mine. He didn’t move his eyes downward, to where my knees were open, to where I was moving the vibrator slowly, torturing myself.

The thing was famous for its ability to make women come in less than a minute. For giving you so many orgasms that you couldn’t walk without twitching in pleasure for an hour after.

I’d done the research.

It was a dangerous piece of machinery, so effective that it made you wonder why you bothered going out when it did everything a man could do—and most especially what he couldn’t.

Well, not every man.

Because although I was fast approaching climax, I already knew that it would be a small wave, delicately washing over me. Not like the tsunami that ruined everything in its path that Karson had brought on.

His eyes swirled like an icy blue storm as my body tensed, preparing for release. The way he was watching me was what put me over the edge. It was the cause of my climax, if I was honest. No man had ever watched me like that. Like the sky could fall in around him and he wouldn’t even notice.

I didn’t scream as I came. The sound that came out of me could only be described as a whimper. Stars danced in my vision as my body pulsated. I did not split apart. I did not leave the earth. My eyes stayed open, intent on his. He did not move. He just watched.

My breathing was rapid and shallow, my knees weak, my body not sated, desperate for more.

The low buzz of the vibrator was still the only sound in the room, mingled with my breathing and rapid heartbeat.

“You want me to leave, darlin’?” he asked in a gravelly voice.

My brows narrowed. “Shut up and fuck me,” I demanded, voice breathy.

I didn’t need to ask him twice.

He did just that.

He made me scream.

He made me leave this earth.

The tsunami that washed over me left nothing in its wake.

“I was serious last night,” I said, sipping my coffee, suppressing a groan of pleasure.

Karson made it.

I had an impossibly fancy espresso machine ever since spending a handful of months in Australia, drinking what real coffee should taste like. American coffee was dirty water compared to the nectar made at the bottom of the world.

I’d taken a course there on precisely how to make it the way they did. It was an art. Only a handful of cafés here in LA were able to reproduce it. One could not just walk up to a coffee machine and make coffee how it was supposed to be made.

Except, of course, Karson.

I ached to ask him where in the fuck he learned to make a coffee like that, since I was pretty sure it wasn’t part of his secret spy training. But I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t learn any more about him. I needed him to leave.

I was wrapped in a silk kimono. He had pulled on the slacks he’d arrived in as well as the shirt, completely unbuttoned. It was very, very hard to maintain eye contact with his naked torso which seemed to glimmer in the late morning light.

“I know you were,” he agreed, watching me. “I’ve never seen someone come so seriously before in my fucking life.”

I gripped my coffee cup a little tighter. “Not about that,” I ground out. “About this just being sex. Nothing else. I don’t want some intense relationship. I like you. You’re a great fuck. But that’s it.” I paused, biting my lip. “And the next time we have sex, you’re wearing a condom,” I added as an afterthought. This would not be just sex otherwise.

Karson’s jaw hardened as he crossed the distance between us. I retreated instinctively, and my back hit the kitchen counter.

Karson took the coffee cup from me, placing it on the counter gently.

He ran his hands down the sides of my body, ghosting over the curves, over the parts of me he’d bruised, he’d kissed, he’d claimed. His mouth was inches from mine, but he didn’t kiss me.

“Baby, we both know that there is no fuckin’ way that I’m putting anything between us when I fuck you,” he murmured, his rough voice, making it a struggle not to squirm. “No way I’m not feeling the velvet of your cunt against my cock as I move inside you.” His hand parted my robe, skimming down my stomach before settling between my legs where his fingers easily entered me, lubricated by my arousal.

I let out a low moan.

“We both know there’s no going back now,” he whispered, taking his finger out of me and moving it up to his mouth, tasting me.

My knees trembled.

“We both know this a fuck of a lot more than just sex,” he said, brushing his lips against mine.

He kissed me gently, slipping his tongue inside, coaxing a response from my own before he stepped back, leaving me wanting.

His eyes moved slowly up and down my body, a slick smile on his face before he turned around and walked out of the house.

I reached for my coffee cup, stumbling out of the kitchen and back into my living room, staring at where this all began.

But no, that wasn’t right. This didn’t begin in my living room. This began on the sidewalk outside a kickboxing class, the very first moment we laid eyes on each other.

I had a feeling the end was a long time coming.

If such things like this had an end.

Yasmin and I were meeting for brunch at one.

On any other day of the week, it would’ve been called lunch. But some clever bastard figured out that on the weekend, brunch can be all day as long as there are mimosas, Bloody Marys and various egg-based dishes.

I was very on board with brunch.

Usually.

For this brunch, I was half an hour late. Not completely unlike me, but if it was a one-on-one meal, I tried my best for fifteen minutes at the max. But to my surprise, Karson and I had slept in until well past ten and stayed in bed another hour after that. Then there was the shower, then there was the arguing about whether Karson was allowed to break into my house again. Then there was me sinking down on the sofa after he left, staring into space for fifteen minutes, trying to process what the fuck happened.

Then there was me remembering the time, hurriedly getting ready and navigating my way through the LA brunch traffic.

Yasmin had been my friend for years and knew how time challenged I was, therefore, she didn’t say a word as I plonked down in my chair and drained the last of her mimosa. She merely tapped at her phone for a few beats more before focusing on me.

Yasmin was a high-powered human rights lawyer. She was impossibly intelligent, impressive and attractive. Her auburn hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail, accentuating her delicate, almost elven bone structure, the copper eyeshadow on her lids making her emerald eyes seem to glow.

She was wearing a light brown pantsuit, tailored to perfection with subtle but expensive jewelry accentuating her look. Most likely she’d come from the office. She was a workaholic, so her personal life was nonexistent, except the times we dragged her out for drinks or food.

“Sorry I’m late,” I told her, smiling at the waitress politely to signal my need for booze and sustenance. Once again, I was starving. Karson had offered to cook me breakfast, but I’d passionately denied. I couldn’t have him feeding me twice in a twelve-hour period. He’d fucked me more than enough, and cooking me another meal was far too intimate and ventured into relationship territory.

“It’s fine. I’ve only just gotten off the phone with this fucking case,” she replied. “I should’ve canceled, I’m absolutely buried with work, but—”

“But you haven’t seen your best friend in years,” I interrupted.

“A week,” she corrected with a sly grin.

I ignored this. “And you likely haven’t eaten a meal that hasn’t come out of a takeout bag in much longer than that,” I continued. “I bet you’re the last to leave the office and haven’t even had the energy to make yourself a cocktail when you get home.” My eyes roamed over her. “You look amazing because you have an excellent skincare routine and even better genes, but I know you very well, so I see you’re well overdue to get a day drinking buzz on and eat your body weight in carbs.”

I smiled to the waitress who had approached our table. “Bloody Mary, spicy, strong, and two orders of French toast plus some fries for the table, please,” I told her.

I focused back on Yasmin once the waitress left. “Now, I’m so proud that you’re so powerful and successful, and I want to be you when I grow up, if I ever grow up, but in addition to carbs and booze, you really need to get laid.”

Yasmin gave me an affronted look. “How do you know I haven’t?”

I scoffed. “Oh, honey. This isn’t my first day on planet Earth.”

Yasmin pursed her lips. “I have an excellent vibrator that makes me come harder than any man ever has.”

My head tilted, and I tried to hide the way my body reacted to the memory of this morning. “Then you haven’t found the right man.”

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “And you’ve found him? Finally? The prince?” I wasn’t sure if it was hope, disbelief or disappointment in her tone, but I didn’t really focus on that. It was the words themselves that struck a chord within me.

Because I’d rushed here in somewhat of a daze, I was having a delayed reaction to everything that happened last night. And this morning.

“Oh, fuck,” I realized, pressing the heel of my hand into my forehead, extremely grateful that the waitress chose that moment to put our drinks down on the table.

“What?” Yasmin asked, tilting her head in concern.

I blinked at my friend. I had intended on spilling everything that happened with Karson the night before. That’s what girlfriends were for. Fuck, that’s what brunch was for—drinking in the morning and talking about the men who broke into your house in the middle of the night then gave you the best sex of your life. The best without a condom sex of your life.

How fucking stupid was I? I’d let him enchant me with that air of mystery and the tales about being a super-secret government spy turned criminal. With those eyes, that bone structure, the scars on his body, the dark trail of hair that ghosted over his abs, down to his magnificent cock.

There was a good chance a man like him was clean, but was I putting my health on a good fucking chance?

And then there was the pregnancy aspect. The pill was only 91% effective. That meant there was a fucking 9% chance that he could’ve impregnated me last night.

Or this morning.

I did not want children.

Fuck.

“Wren?”

I blinked again.

Yasmin looked more concerned now, her sculpted brows pinched together.

Fuck.

My friends had heard every sordid detail of my sexual escapades of which I had many. I didn’t hesitate to share anything with them.

But something made me pause here. Something about Karson. About what he said last night.

“Once I do this, there will be no going back. You’ll be mine.”

Fuck.

I shook my head. “Oh, I was supposed to meet the prince at the airport this morning,” I fibbed. “We were going to meet his parents.”

Not a lie.

And I had entirely forgotten about it until this moment. There were numerous missed calls from him, which I had ignored in somewhat of a daze. To be completely honest, I’d completely forgotten about who he was and that I’d been dating him.

Karson made me forget about a prince.

A very villainous thing to do.

Yasmin relaxed her face into more of a knowing smile. The smile I was used to. The ‘isn’t my friend Wren adorably insane’ kind of smile. She was well used to my antics by now, the whirlwind of men, of impossible situations. She had been integral in getting me out of many situations thanks to her law degree and knowledge of international law.

“Did you forget, or did you put it out of your mind because you knew that meeting his parents was a sign of the kind of commitment you are definitely not ready for, even though becoming a princess will be the result of such a commitment?” she asked, sipping her drink.

I downed my drink as I typed a quick apology text to Tenzin, citing a family emergency. I didn’t have a conventional ‘job’, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse.

I hated myself for having such a one percenter fucking problem. Not for the first time, I stared at my high-powered attorney friend who had worked her ass off for years to get to where she was. Who helped people, who had a purpose. She was indescribably extraordinary and made me feel totally worthless in these moments.

Not because she tried to. No, none of my successful, girl boss friends ever judged me because I came from impossible amounts of money and had a trust fund that meant I never had to work a day in my life.

Judgement was not their style.

“I’m not against commitment,” I argued.

“And I’m not currently wearing bikini bottoms because I haven’t done laundry in two weeks,” Yasmin countered.

I grinned at her, tapping on my phone once more. “Well that, I can fix. I’ll just arrange for the best laundry service in the city to come to your place to pick it up tonight and have it back tomorrow, pressed and fresh.” I grinned at her. “I may not be freeing political protesters, but I can make sure you have on fresh panties,” I winked at her. “We’ll also go shopping after this. Retail therapy and day drinking go together like cheese and wine.”

Yasmin inspected me with that shrewd gaze of hers. “You look different. Seem different. Have you met another man? Is that why you flaked on the prince?”

It suddenly felt like there was a twenty-pound weight at the bottom of my stomach.

No way was I telling anyone about Karson. Not even Yasmin, who I’d known since college.

“The prince isn’t history, we’re just on a break,” I hedged.

She sipped her drink, scrutinizing me over the rim. “Okay, Ross,” she muttered. “But there is another man, isn’t there?”

I couldn’t avoid questioning from someone like Yasmin. Me dancing around the question would only make her more suspicious.

“No, counselor, there is not,” I replied smoothly. “We need to focus on getting you another man. Or at the very least, another pair of panties.”

And that’s where it started. That’s when I started lying to one of the most important people in my life.

That’s how I knew, no matter how hard I tried to fight it, Karson was never going to be just sex.

CHAPTER FOUR

You and Me – Dave Matthews Band

I wasn’t proud of what happened next.

Though I was a lot of things—spoiled, entitled, superficial, and unapologetically dramatic—I was not a coward. I didn’t really do fear ... a quality I’d discovered about myself when a couple of friends and I ran away from boarding school to meet up with some guys we met out clubbing on yet another night we’d snuck away from boarding school.

They were older than us. Handsome. Rich. And they had access to their father’s yacht. Which we took sailing. In the middle of the night. Off the coast of France. With absolutely no one knowing where we were.

We did not know that a particularly nasty storm front was heading for us. The boys were not as competent sailors as they’d told us. I had been sailing since I was a child, one of my father’s and my favorite pastimes. Of course, I let the boys have their fun, let them think they were in charge, that they were the most talented of us all. I’d learned quickly that boys, especially boys who were brought up rich, didn’t like to feel threatened by women. They liked women to marvel at them.

It was a trait I loathed in them, but it was much too difficult to fight against at that point. On top of that, I had so much more power when I kept quiet. When I let it be known in the most opportune of moments that I was smarter, stronger and a lot more capable than them.

Which I did, right about the time waves were throwing the boat like a rag doll, and lightning was illuminating the sky … and their terrified faces.

That was when I took control.

That was when I saved all of our lives.

Of course, later on, in the daylight, on land, they remembered the situation differently. And I let them.

But we all knew that they’d pissed themselves with fear and let a girl save them.

I hadn’t been afraid. Not even a little. Maybe because my father had taught me well and let me know that fear was useless on the open water.

“The waves will come whether you’re afraid or not, so you make the decision on how you want to face them.”

My father was not really much for fatherly advice, mainly because he wasn’t around enough to impart it. Except on the days we sailed together. I treasured those days and adored my father.

And my mother, in a different way. She was colder, more distant than my father. But she was a second-generation immigrant. She was self-made. Her parents had scarified everything to give her the opportunities and education to get her where she was. They’d died before I was born, and whatever extended family we had lived back in Vietnam. We didn’t speak to them much.

My mother had embraced every part of American life and largely shunned her culture, so she encouraged me to do the same. She also wanted me to be fluent in multiple languages, know how to defend myself, learn how to drive the fastest cars in the world and pretty much be better than men at everything. Be better than everyone.

I was a mix between my Greek father and Vietnamese mother, so I was constantly described as ‘exotically beautiful.’ The compliment didn’t bother me after hearing it so much, and I wasn’t treated differently, like my mother and her parents had. Not when we were now the part of the elite. We had money and status. But I knew those scars lay underneath my mother’s exfoliated, moisturized and Botoxed skin. Because scars like that never healed.

She did not want that for me. To be other.

So she’d worked hard at that. Sending me to the best boarding school in the world when I was twelve. Having me coached, tutored and trained by the best of the best. Then I went to Yale, graduating summa cum laude.

And, for the most part, I wasn’t other. Yes, there were the ‘exotic’ comments, the men who fetishized me. But I did not live a hard life. My ancestors, tanned skin, bone structure and features did not define me, did not separate me like they had my grandparents and mother.

I was too busy being defined by my trips on yachts in the middle of the night, the jets to private islands, throwing parties in palaces, rickshawing across India.

I’d lived an eventful life full of chaos, drama and near misses. Yet this was the first time I had been really afraid. My mind went to a cottage in Romania, words floating out of a memory I’d done my best to shun.

“He will be your destruction.”

I didn’t let that memory manifest any further, couldn’t. I believed in a lot of things and thought there was a lot more to the world than what everyone wanted to think. But the future told to me in a cottage in Romania couldn’t come true.

I wouldn’t let it.

So I pushed that out of my mind, along with Karson, and I got on a private jet with my prince.

Yeah, the prince who I had planned on breaking up with, given I’d technically cheated on him and all. Although I had never agreed to exclusivity in any of my relationships… The mere idea of it made me itchy. I didn’t sleep around if I was ‘with’ a man, but I liked having the option to do so if I wished.

Even though I was well within my rights as an independent woman, I did not sleep with the prince while we vacationed in the Caribbean—we did not go to meet his parents either. It felt cruel, now that I was sure I was eventually going to break up with him.

Well, I’d known for some time that I was eventually going to break up with him. He was handsome, polite and a prince. But he was also boring. And he was aching to get married, whisk me back to Bhutan and have me pump out a bunch of heirs.

No thank you.

I was using him as an escape hatch so I didn’t have to deal with Karson and him breaking into my house, fucking me and making me feel things for him.

It was a bitch move. Especially since I couldn’t get myself to go further than second base with the prince.

I lied and told him I was on my period, and he’d blushed, nodding in understanding, not pushing sex once I’d said that. He’d made sure to steer clear of that general area. He was one of those men who were mystified, scared and grossed out by menstruating women. The ones who wouldn’t dream of fucking a woman while bleeding.

The same ones who likely spoke big talk in public, who wore their masculinity like a badge sewn into their blown-up biceps. They were afraid of a little blood.

I knew for a fact that Karson would not be afraid of a little blood. He would fuck me hard, dirty and exquisitely whether I was bleeding or not.

I needed to be thinking about Tenzin and how he brought me hot tea, had a nice, lean swimmer’s body and talked about making me his princess.

I was too busy thinking about the man who had already made me his queen.

After being home from the Caribbean for two weeks, I had still not seen Karson.

While I was away, Stella had jumped feet first into a sex arrangement with Karson’s boss, Jay Helmick. That’s where she was this Saturday evening while Yasmin, Zoe and I were drinking and obviously talking about her situation.

“He’s going to hurt her,” Zoe grimaced, her dark eyes stormy as she sipped her drink.

Zoe did not approve of our loving, tender hearted, hopelessly romantic friend getting into a sex arrangement with a man who had a reputation for such things.

Zoe was a no nonsense, boss ass bitch who was ride or die for our small group of friends. She owned a lucrative PR firm, had her shit completely together and did not let men get in the way of anything. Men were lining up to get in her way, with her flawless ebony skin, her deep brown eyes, her amazing curves and the confidence she wore like couture.

Zoe was not a hopeless romantic.

“Yes,” I agreed, sipping my own drink. “And hopefully she’ll love it,” I added with a grin.

Zoe gave me a look. She did not narrow her brows or pinch her lips—Zoe was committed to skincare, and to do that, she schooled her expressions so they wouldn’t create undue lines. And because she kept most of her emotions close to her chest.

Because I’d known her for years, I knew that look was meant to be chastising.

“Oh, come on, Zoe. You’re telling me you haven’t been chained up in some millionaire’s sex dungeon before?” I asked sweetly.

Now Zoe broke her rule to scowl at me.

We all knew that Zoe may not have been into love, but she was into kink in a big way.

Who wasn’t?

A ball gag and some handcuffs, with the right guy… Exquisite.

“What Zoe is trying to say,” Yasmin interjected before things could escalate. “Is that Stella doesn’t know what she’s in for.”

I frowned at that, not worried about wrinkles. Most of mine were smile lines anyway, plus I was half Asian and blessed with excellent skin. Then there was a little thing I liked to call Botox.

“Stella is a grown woman,” I argued. “Jay, from what I understand, spelled it all out. Only weekends, every weekend, only sex, with only him. The arrangement can be terminated at any time if she feels like she’s in over her head. Which honestly, I think will be good for her. Why dip your toe in the water when you can get yourself drenched?” I waggled my brows. “No pun intended.”

Yasmin smiled despite herself. “I don’t disagree that Stella would benefit with some hot sex that is nowhere near vanilla, but our girl loves nineties romance movies. She loves Richard Gere. She thinks she’s going to change him. Turn it into something else. Even if she doesn’t know that, in her heart of hearts, she is hoping for that.”

“And, from what I hear,” Zoe took back the reins, “Jay Helmick does not change for anyone.”

“Stella is not anyone,” I countered.

Zoe nodded, grabbing a lukewarm fry from the bowl in the middle of the table. Girlfriend briefings always required booze and simple carbohydrates. “No, she isn’t. Stella is gorgeous, kind and loving. And she’s irresponsible. She maxes out her credit card every month, she has no retirement account, and she believes in the good in people. She believes, for some reason, that Jay is her white knight. Not because she needs to be saved, but because she wants the happily ever after,” she added, her hand raising in the air as I opened my mouth to argue the fact that Stella did not need saving.

“Speaking of saving,” Yasmin interjected. “She was saved by Jay, or one of his henchmen who beat a would-be rapist half to death … Karson, was it?”

I pursed my lips at the mention of his name, my fingers curling against the stem of my glass.

These women were my family. My ride or dies. There were no secrets between us. That I knew of, at least. This was the first time I hadn’t told them about a man in my life. It didn’t sit right with me that I was keeping Karson a secret. Then again, from the disdain in Yasmin’s voice, it probably served me well to keep this discreet until the flame between us petered out.

Maybe it had already. Maybe everything he said about me being ‘his’ was just bullshit he used to get into women’s pants.

But I didn’t think so.

He was playing games, even though he’d declared his intention to do the exact opposite at my house almost a month ago.

Punishing me for disappearing with another man, maybe.

“Yeah, Karson,” Zoe nodded, bringing me back into the present.

“He was having her followed,” Yasmin said with her eyes dark. “After she told him no.”

“Okay yes, that’s fucked up,” I chimed in. “But that’s also why our friend is bruised, rattled by that experience, but not permanently shattered. And she chose to get in the car with Karson after it happened instead of going to her apartment and calling one of us.”

I remembered the text Stella sent me that night, the night that she had been attacked on the street and saved by Karson. The night that he took her to Jay’s house, where she spent the night recovering from the attack, only texting me the location because she was a single woman in LA and knew the protocol for going to a man’s house—send your girlfriend the location followed by hourly updates to make sure she knew you were still safe.

Of course, at the time, I’d merely thought she was having wild sex with Jay, and I’d been proud.

Until the next morning when she’d called us all and told us the truth.

“It doesn’t make what’s happening okay,” Yasmin retorted. “He was having her followed. We know the rumors about Jay Helmick. I couldn’t find any history of him being convicted of anything, and every business he’s the CEO of is legit, but … he has a violent goon ready to beat the life out of people following Stella.”

I gritted my teeth. Yasmin was my oldest friend, yet I felt an unreasonable fury toward her for calling Karson a goon.

“We can’t do anything about this,” I interjected, suddenly anxious to get off the subject, even though I did worry about my sweet friend and what would become of her.

“I could open an investigation into Jay’s businesses until I find something illegal then prosecute him to the full extent of the law,” Yasmin said thoughtfully.

An uneasy feeling settled over me.

Yasmin could and would do such a thing if she put her mind to it. She was currently working on a high-profile human trafficking case that many attorneys before her had tried to work but got scared off of by people in power.

I’d worried about her immensely, but once she sets her mind to something, she’s there until the end.

Which was why the comment about Jay scared me. She would go after him and wouldn’t stop until he was behind bars. And if she did that, then Karson would be in trouble too. The thought of him in jail had my skin itching with panic.

That was insane, though. Wasn’t it?

“Let’s table that plan, but not abandon it completely,” Zoe suggested.

My blood chilled, even as I drained the last of my drink, the liquid burning my throat. With Zoe on board, Jay had no chance, no matter how powerful and dangerous he was. Those two could bring down regimes.

“This is dark shit, but like Wren said, she’s a grown woman, and she is exploring parts of her sexuality. I’m not going to be one to shame her for that,” Zoe looked at each of us. “But if he hurts her…”

“Then I will make sure that we ruin his life, irreparably,” I finished for her, meaning every word I said.

They said hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but they didn’t know about three women who would burn the world down for their sister.

The waiter put down a new round of drinks that were sorely needed. I held up mine. “A toast,” I declared. “To Stella’s sexual awakening and Jay’s destruction if he doesn’t treat her like the queen she is.”

Our glasses clinked together.

A pact.

ONE WEEK LATER

I was an heiress to money. Old money. New money. A fuck-load of money. More money than I could spend in a lifetime.

I had a trust fund. If I so wished, I didn’t have to work a day in my life. Conventionally or not.

Of course, I did not wish for that. To have a meaningless life where I didn’t contribute anything. So I created charities, helped run them. I donated my time. I’d tried a bunch of different careers, created my own jewelry line, walked on the runways at a few fashion weeks, worked as a translator for Uncle Sam for a hot minute.

Nothing stuck. I had the freedom to quit jobs as I so wished, an unthinkable luxury for most people. But I hadn’t found my passion yet.

So I did my charity stuff and worked as an interior designer for my mother’s properties. I planned parties for friends and sometimes celebrities. And yes, I shopped, got facials, traveled the world and sunned myself on yachts. And got into all sorts of trouble that required ambassadors and phone calls to be made in order to secure extraction. So I was busy. I made sure I was busy. Made sure I gave back to society as much as I could, made sure I was always moving so I didn’t think too hard on the fact that I didn’t have a purpose.

But lately, my mind wasn’t on an existential crisis of any kind. It was on one man. One night spent with one man and the radio silence that followed it.

Sure, I could’ve turned up to his house and seduced him just like he did me. I was not a woman to sit by the phone and wait for a man to call. But, as shameful as it was to admit, I was used to men chasing me. Working for me.

I was a fucking prize.

And I’d thought Karson was going to chase me. Just a little bit. Hence why I ran away with a prince, secretly hoping that the villain might drop in and whisk me away. But that shit only happened in Disney movies. And in Disney movies, the villain wasn’t whisking the heroines away for a delightfully nasty fuck session.

The prince was still in the picture. I was stringing him along. I wasn’t proud of it. But he also had matters to deal with at home, and I couldn’t break up with him via text. That would be rude. I’d wait until he flew across the world to see me to break the news. Or I could take a trip to Bhutan. But then I might end up imprisoned in a palace if he didn’t take the word no well.

There was a lot of shit swirling in my mind.

Which was why I was sitting in my favorite bar, drinking my favorite drink—dirty martini, two olives—curled up in the corner, hiding from the world. Skyline was the semi seedy bar that I went to while going through a crisis, or if I wanted to drink alone without bumping into anyone I knew. The martinis were excellent, and strangely enough, they made an excellent fucking cheeseburger.

The décor was from the seventies, the clientele was mostly in their seventies too.

Not much couldn’t be solved sitting in the corner booth, getting a buzz on while stuffing my face under the dim candlelight. But a half-eaten burger and three martinis were proof that there were some things that couldn’t be solved with booze and red meat.

In situations such as these, I usually would call my girlfriends. They each offered their own unique set of advice, comfort and expertise. Each of them had counseled me in the various crises I found myself in.

But the problem was, as dramatic as a lot of my crises were, they were all shallow, superficial, fantastical.

The prince I was dating wanted to make me his princess, but I wasn’t attracted to him.

The governor I was fucking would only continue fucking me if I wore his ring and committed to him for as long as it took him to get the presidency.

The Russian spy I had tangled myself up with had the CIA tapping my phones.

That kind of thing.

Each of those stories were interesting, on the surface, at least. But that’s all they were, surface. I never cared about the men in question, and I didn’t lose a moment’s sleep over them when they were gone. My sleep was precious.

It’s what they expected of me, my friends. The flighty heiress falling in and out of lust but never really committed enough to fall in love. Not really deep enough to fall in love.

It’s what I expected of myself. It’s the identity I had carefully crafted over the years. It was comfortable. Safe.

And talking to them about these feelings I was having … it would’ve made it real. Serious. Really fucking dangerous. I wasn’t ready to shatter my whole sense of safety in such a way.

So instead, I was drinking martinis on a Tuesday afternoon.

I would have continued drinking into Tuesday night had a shadow not descended onto my table. I didn’t look up because I knew it was him. Could feel him all around me. Could smell him.

I didn’t ask how he found me. Such a question was much too obvious and cliché. I wouldn’t put it past him to have some kind of tracking chip in me. Though that was unnecessary, all he needed to do was hack into my phone. I was sure he knew someone able to do that.

I leaned back in my chair, my eyes slowly grazing up his body. I had only ever seen him in that black suit or completely naked. It was an odd thing, to know him so intimately in some ways and for him to be such a stranger in others. There were many dark places inside of him, I realized, sipping my martini. Deep and foreboding. Endless even.

And that made me uncomfortable. Because every part of me was bathed in light, everything was smooth, beveled edges, everything had a bottom.

I hated him in that moment. For making me feel so inferior, even if it was all in my head.

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine,” I remarked in a teasing tone, not betraying my existential crisis.

Karson’s eyes flickered downward to my chest. My stomach fluttered at the hunger I could see even in the dim light of the bar. My slinky slip dress dipped way low in the front, and the air conditioning in this place told him all he needed to know about my bra, or lack thereof.

“You’re still dating him.”

Not a question. Nor was there any kind of accusation in the statement. It was just that.

A statement. Uttered in a flat, nonthreatening tone.

Nothing told me Karson was bothered by this fact. His posture was taut but not wired. Hands not clenched into fists. Brows not pinched together. Not even a hint of fire in his eyes.

Everything else about him screamed that he was an alpha male. A possessive one at that. Yet he wasn’t pounding on his chest, throwing me over his shoulder and declaring me ‘his.’ No, he was just standing there, staring at me mildly.

That pissed me off.

It shouldn’t have, of course.

I was a modern woman. A feminist. One who didn’t believe in monogamy, who didn’t think that any man should feel ownership over a woman. I loved reading about those men, of course, but in real life, I wasn’t a fan.

Yet here I was, lamenting over the fact that Karson wasn’t throwing me over his shoulder and muttering about killing a prince for daring to lay a hand on what was his.

Maybe I was drunk.

“Yes, I’m still dating him,” I responded pleasantly, not letting an ounce of my fury leak through. I couldn’t let him know he was getting to me. Couldn’t betray that my feelings for him ran deeper than I’d intended. “He’s a prince. He is a gentleman. Inside and outside the bedroom.”

I hadn’t slept with Tenzin since Karson. The mere thought of his smooth, gentle hands running over the same skin that Karson had branded with his touch sickened me.

I wanted to see something on Karson’s face. Wanted to make him jealous. It was ugly and petty, and I hated myself for doing it, but I couldn’t seem to help it.

Karson, for his part, didn’t even flinch. His expression stayed the exact same.

I gripped the stem of my martini glass with such force I was surprised I didn’t snap it in half.

The silence he let linger between us served to wash shame over me. Embarrassment for resorting to such juvenile methods in order to fuck with a man. A real man.

“You’re used to playing with men,” he said finally. “You don’t mean harm, and fuck, I don’t even think you do it on purpose. But you know what an effect you have. That you drive most hot-blooded men fucking crazy. I know it because if I hadn’t lived the life I have, I’d be just like them. Like all the other poor bastards who have come before me. But I have lived the life I have, so I can hold on to my sanity. Doesn’t mean I want you any less, and fuck, baby, do I want you.”

He paused to let his words sink in, to stare at me in a way that could’ve burned the silk right off my body.

“And I’ll have you,” he murmured. It was an oath. “But I won’t let you fuck with me. Play games. You want to continue to date the prince who touches you with soft hands and doesn’t have you close to coming when he’s fucking you … be my guest. Just know his life is forfeited the second you lose interest, the moment you understand you’re hiding behind your games because I’m the only man you can’t control. Then, he’s dead for touching what’s mine. And you’re mine, darlin’.”

The words thrummed through my brain as Karson stood there, towering over me. And he wasn’t done.

“You’re gonna fight that,” he continued, adjusting his collar. “And I’m lookin’ forward to it. You’ve got enough fight in you to last a lifetime, and I’ve got a lifetime of battles ahead of me with or without you. And Wren, fighting with you is not a chore. Not something I’ll get bored of. But I am the only man who has stood up to you. Will be the only man who stands up to you.”

I tilted my head, regarding him, digesting all of the things he just said. My stomach was swirling, full of butterflies, my heartbeat rapid, my breathing shallow. Physical symptoms of being scared, terrified. Or very fucking turned on.

I was both.

It was pretty much what every single woman wanted to hear. Well, minus the promises to murder a prince. Especially when they came from a man like Karson. One who meant every single fucking word he said. One who would burn the world down just to keep the woman he chose warm.

And he was choosing me.

He was making it very fucking clear that he was choosing me.

Many men had chosen me during my life. Because of my tits. My ass. My pussy. My money. The version of me they’d created in their minds. The idea of the life they might have with a woman like me. How jealous their college buddies would be if they landed a woman like me.

Not to be conceited, it was just the truth. And it wasn’t exactly a compliment, because men only chose me because of my looks, because of an idea they had of me. None of them truly knew who the fuck I was. Not really. And deep down, they didn’t care.

No one who really knew me actually chose me. Apart from my girlfriends, of course. And even with them, I hid a little part of myself. Not because it was particularly dark or fucked-up, but because it didn’t fit in with the person they thought I was. The person I wanted to be. Or maybe I was a little fucked-up. Who knew really?

Karson. He knew.

He saw me. As absolutely insane as that was.

And he was fucking choosing me.

Yeah, that scared the shit out of me.

Because he could hurt me. I’d known that since the moment I’d brushed my lips against his on his porch that very first night. Not physically. I knew he was dangerous enough to know how to kill a person with his bare hands and not leave a spec of evidence.

But my fear didn’t come from him hurting me in that way. I was terrified that he’d make me fall in love with him, make it so I couldn’t breathe unless I was with him. Then he’d break my heart. Leaving me nothing but a shell of my former self, unable to forget him.

I’d never had my heart broken before. And I did not plan to have it broken in the future.

Especially not by this man.

The risk was just too high.

But I’d jumped out of airplanes, I’d learned how to fly those same airplanes, traveling to places the US government recommended its citizens steer clear of, vacationing in the middle of military coups.

“I’m going to take you on a date,” I informed him.

Karson’s narrowed eyes told me that my answer was not at all what he was expecting. He had probably been expecting a fight. He had me pegged as a strong, independent woman who was not going to be owned by a man. And in that regard, he had me pegged right. But although he seemed to see a lot of things about me, he couldn’t see just how much he affected me.

“You’re going to take me on a date?” he repeated. His voice was slightly husky. It was full of sex. Of promise.

I pressed my thighs together, tightening my grip on the stem of my martini glass. “Yes. Are you afraid of flying?”

Karson shook his head slowly, just once.

“Are you afraid of strong, capable women flying you and destabilizing the power dynamic I bet you are so very used to?” I asked.

Finally, his expression changed, a small uptick of his mouth. “I’m more than happy for you to destabilize the power dynamic between us, darlin’, as long as you know my cock is going to be inside you at some point during this date.”

My throat went dry, making it difficult to swallow.

How long had it been since that night? Years, surely. I felt parched. Suddenly desperate for him.

I licked my lips, reaching into my purse for a handful of bills to throw on the table. Then I stood on unsteady knees, walking toward Karson, stopping only when our bodies brushed together. The hairs on my arms stood up at his proximity. I kept my eyes on his.

“We’re going to start the date with that, darlin’,” I whispered.

Then I turned on my heel and walked directly to the bathroom.

CHAPTER FIVE

Romeo & Juliet – Peter McPoland

I flew us to Napa Valley for the date.

Our family had a house there. One that my parents used only for their annual holiday party. Both of them were much too busy to use the Spanish inspired villa in the middle of wine country.

Oh, rich people problems.

I had never taken a man there. It was my place. Overlooking vineyards, the smell of herbs on the wind from the meticulously maintained garden. The bedroom with the French doors that opened up to endless country.

It was quiet. I liked that. Needed it.

I’d brought Stella, Zoe and Yasmin here, obviously. For wine weekends. Girls’ getaways. It was a special place I shared with special people.

And I was bringing Karson there on what amounted to our first date. Then again, I’d just let him fuck me in the bathroom of my dive bar, so it’s not like we were strangers.

“You’re impressive, you know that?” he asked quietly.

We were picking at the cheeseboard I’d prepared. That was the one thing I was good—no, great—at in the kitchen.

We were on the patio, curled up on one of the sofas, watching the sunset.

Sickeningly romantic, really. But it felt entirely right. Had it been last week when me and my girlfriends were plotting his and his boss’s demise?

It would be a good idea not to bring that up.

I rolled my eyes at the words he said.

He told me he didn’t like this response by grabbing my chin and turning me to face him.

“You flew us here on a fucking plane, Wren.” His low, gravelly voice warmed me.

“I’m aware, Karson,” I replied, my own voice tight. “And I’m aware that the reason I could do that is because I have the time and money to pay for flight lessons, and used my family’s private jet to fly us here. That is not so impressive.”

His gaze turned stormy. “When you’re with me, you’re not going to do that shit.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Do what shit?”

“Talk down about yourself. I’m not gonna listen to it,” he replied, his grip tightening on my chin. “You do it, I’ll have to punish you.”

My fingertips tingled.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I see you like the idea of that. But you won’t like it when I put you over my knee, turn your ass red and your pussy wet, making you beg me to finish you.” His hand went to my cheek, holding me casually. “You don’t want to have to beg, do you, sweetheart?”

I hated what his soft tone was doing to me. Hated that I was responding carnally to the picture he was painting in my mind. Hated that I knew he was dead fucking serious.

He held me there in his grasp for a long time, knowing that I couldn’t answer. Wouldn’t answer.

Eventually, he let me go, and I was both relieved and disappointed.

“Do you want to know a secret about me?” I asked, swirling the wine in my glass.

“I want to know every fucking secret you have,” Karson responded, a hunger punctuating his husky tone.

I smiled into my wine glass. “Of course. Because I seem like a woman who may have a lot of interesting secrets, untold depths.”

“I have no doubt that you are full of untold depths.”

I kept that smile on my face, hoping he couldn’t see how fake it was. How terrified I was under his gaze. A gaze that really saw me.

“I do all these crazy things, like date a prince, get held captive by oil barons, get involved in international incidents because that makes me interesting, not because I’m interesting.”

I took a drink, needing courage, desperate for respite from his gaze.

“I’m an adult with a college education bought by my parents. Sure, I occasionally earn my own money, but from businesses my parents’ money helped start. I’ve never known struggle, not true struggle. And I feel like struggle, pain, carves people into who they’re truly meant to be.” I sat back, sighing. “Or maybe that’s just coming from the perspective of an entitled rich girl.”

The birds answered the silence that came after my words. I hadn’t intended to share that much. I never shared such things with anyone. They sounded pathetic in the face of the real problems people contended with every day.

Because I was deep in introspection, I wasn’t prepared for Karson to snatch the glass from my hand, put it on the table, and in one fluid movement, lay me over his knee and push my dress up to expose the naked skin of my ass.

His palm brushed over it with a light touch. “Told you what would happen if you put yourself down again,” he grumbled. “I’m a man of my word.”

My pussy was already drenched, my breathing shallow, my body taut with expectation and excitement.

Karson didn’t bring his hand down as I expected. His hand skimmed my ass. “You’ve done your research on me,” he continued. “I’ve done mine on you. I’ve been inside you, Wren Whitney. I've seen you face off against me for your friend, even though you could see exactly who I was. Without fear. Without care for your own wellbeing.”

His hand was still brushing over the skin of my ass, creeping down to the inside of my thigh, almost to the apex before moving back up.

It was torture.

I didn’t dare move.

Didn’t dare speak.

“You fly planes,” he continued his ministrations, his light touches exquisite torture. “You know how to circumvent a very fucking complex security system. You’re fluent in three languages and passable in two more. You’ve created two successful businesses then handed over the running of those businesses to employees you knew wouldn’t get a chance any other way.”

His words filled up my head. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was stunned by what he’d learned.

“There’s a lot of other very fucking impressive things that speak to the depths inside you,” he told me with a rasp to his voice. “But we’d be here for longer than I want if I listed them all. And I’m aching to punish you, darlin’.”

He gripped my ass to the point of pain. I gritted my teeth, my body already primed and ready to explode.

Karson didn’t make me wait a moment longer.

His hand left my ass, and the air whistled ever so slightly before his palm came down with a sharp slap.

I let out a hiss of pain and pleasure, my pussy throbbing with need.

His hand rubbed circles on the tender skin.

His other hand took a handful of my hair, twisting me upward to face him so he could lean down to kiss me savagely.

“I’m far from done, Wren,” he growled against my mouth. “So hold the fuck on.”

I did my best to hold the fuck on. But at some point, I left the earth once more.

We were in bed. It was the middle of the night. Apparently, Karson got the night off from doing villainous badass things, because he had been on the phone for thirty minutes after we’d showered, then came to tell me we were leaving in the morning.

He’d told me when we were leaving.

As if he was in charge.

Even though he had just had me over his knee a couple of hours ago and made me beg to come, I’d put my hand on my hip and prepared to launch into a monologue about how I decided when we were leaving since I was the one flying the damn plane. But then he’d crossed the distance, thrown me over his shoulder and taken us to the bedroom. For the next hour, I could barely remember my own name let alone launch into any kind of monologue.

Afterward, I’d slipped gently off to sleep. In Karson’s arms. And that was where I woke when the night was still thick around us, the smell of sage on the breeze mingling with Karson’s scent.

He was awake. I knew it the way you could sense another person’s awareness by the way they held their body, the cadence of their breathing, the fact he was drawing slow, lazy circles on my back.

“We’re not going to tell anyone about this,” I broke the silence.

He stopped drawing circles on my back. I was mad at myself for puncturing that moment of contentment, of intimacy between us.

“We’re not?” Karson’s tone was flat, carefully even.

“No,” I replied, not moving my head from its spot on his chest. “For now, I’m not going to tell my girlfriends. If we do happen to encounter each other in public, you will be the man I argued with that time on the sidewalk.”

I felt slightly guilty about what I was demanding. I cared about Karson. There was no way for me to deny that now. I did not want to hurt him. But I did not want to bring our … relationship into the light, have to act like it was yet another one of my flings. I didn’t have the strength to lie to my girlfriends like that.

Not yet, at least.

And, who knew? Maybe we would get enough of each other, the flame would extinguish itself before the need to tell my friends came up.

Though that thought was thin and full of holes.

I was waiting for Karson to argue. He did not play games, didn’t try to make this into something less than it was. He’d made it clear that he wanted me. Wanted this. And that it was a fuck of a lot more than just sex.

Men liked to take their relationship with me public. Because of the social cache it would give them, because having me on their arm looked good for them.

I knew Karson wasn’t like those men, but it didn’t stop my stomach from swirling with unease.

“We’re not going to tell anyone about this,” he agreed after a few long moments of silence.

I blinked in surprise.

His arms tightened around me. “I’m quite content to have you all to myself without whatever fuckin’ complications come with the sunlight.” He cleared his throat. “Not that I’m not prepared to go into the sunlight with you. I’m planning on it, Wren. Make sure you understand that.”

He flipped me on my back then moved down so I could feel his breath where my thighs met.

“But in the meantime, there are many, many things we will explore in the darkness,” he murmured, his powerful hands gripping me.

Then he showed me all the things we could do in the darkness.

They were pretty fucking wonderful.

We were in the VIP booth at Klutch.

The most exclusive club in the city. The VIP booth was the most sought-after place to be. It didn’t matter how rich you were, how famous you were, how well connected you were, it was the owner of the club who decided whether you were going to gain access.

Stella just happened to be screwing the owner of the club. Or, more accurately, Stella was still involved in some sex arrangement with the owner of the club. We had yet to destroy Jay Helmick because he was doing something to our friend.

She was positively glowing. Glowing. She was different. I could easily see that. He was changing her. I knew the sex was good for her, but it remained to be seen whether the man himself was.

I wasn’t exactly the best judge of which men were good for you considering I was engaging in a sordid affair with Karson, fucking him any chance I could, and lying to myself that it was just sex, ignoring that he was marking me in a way that felt permanent.

I knew that Karson would be at Klutch tonight. Knew that I would be pretending he was nothing to me and that he would do the same, so I was dressed to torture him. Because I was still playing games.

My dress barely covered my ass, a white tube of fabric that covered my tits and pussy. Those were the only things left to the imagination. It clung to my every curve. My heels were the highest I owned, delicate straps snaking up my legs. I kept my makeup light except for the glitter around my eyes, making the creamy hazel in them pop. I had extensions in my hair, so the chocolate brown locks were tumbling down my back.

I looked good.

Fucking great.

Walking sex.

I was playing with fire, I knew that. But a little heat never hurt anybody.

All of my girls were equally glammed up for the occasion, Stella because we all knew that Jay was sitting in the office that sat above the dance floor like some kind of evil overlord, watching her.

That was solidified when Karson appeared midway through the night to fetch Stella. The task seemed a little above Karson’s paygrade, and that pissed me off just a little, that Jay was treating my villainous ex-superspy as some kind of errand boy.

But then I thought on it as she walked away. That was, of course, after I made a point to ignore Karson, and he made a point to ignore me.

I gathered that Karson was Jay’s most trusted advisor. His second in command. Although I did not know the specifics of that, I had a pretty good imagination. And I was getting to know Karson rather well. He had, thus far, remained tight-lipped about his past with Jay. And Jay in general. Not that we had a whole bunch of conversations about our pasts. It was mostly life changing sex followed by arguments about me not belonging to him.

But, despite my best efforts, I was getting to know Karson. So I knew that Karson was not the kind of man to be someone’s errand boy.

That meant the task of coming up to the VIP booth and escorting Stella through the throngs of people on the dance floor was an important one.

“You don’t think he’s changing, even a teeny bit for her?” I asked as we watched Karson lead Stella to Jay’s office.

He had a great ass. It was exciting, keeping us a secret, even if I couldn’t escape the bitter taste in my mouth that came from lying to my girlfriends.

“I haven’t heard about him bringing any of his other women to the VIP booth at Klutch,” I added, turning to focus on my friends who were also watching Stella thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, they did not choose to continue this conversation with me.

“Something’s going on with you and Karson,” Zoe announced, zeroing in on me.

I opened my mouth in shock. “No, it is not.” Luckily, there was the low thump of the music and the multiple cocktails we’d imbibed tonight to mask how terrible I was at lying.

Zoe raised her brow. “That man is fine. Beyond fine. Not exactly my type, but definitely yours.”

I placed my hand on my chest in mock shock. “I do not have a type. I do not discriminate when a man is fine. Or the ruler of a small country. Or has some kind of palace.”

The prince took the breakup gracefully, thankfully, and we parted on good terms. The last thing I needed was another ruler of a small country pissed at me because I dumped him.

Zoe was not buying the act. “Yes, past behavior does indicate that you like all kinds of men, but that,” she pointed her red tipped nail toward where Karson had disappeared, “is a man. With the hair, the eyes and the jawline that will ruin your life. He is trouble. And Yasmin nor I fuck with men who spell trouble—although we can appreciate them for their beauty—you, Wren Whitney, fuck with them. Hard.”

Yasmin nodded in agreement, sipping her drink. “And you didn’t even look at him. Not once,” she added.

I started feeling mighty uncomfortable in my seat, and the truth was creeping up my throat.

“So because I didn’t objectify the man, that means I must have something going on with him?” I scoffed. “I’m a progressive woman.”

Another brow raise from Zoe. “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

“No,” I pouted. “But you do look like you were born less than two decades ago with not a wrinkle to be found. Why are we talking about how I may or may not have looked at a man with a great jawline? You need to be getting out there.” I gestured vaguely to the dance floor. “When was the last time you were pounded good and hard?”

“Thursday,” Zoe replied. “Stop trying to change the subject.”

“I’m not trying to change the subject!” I yelled. “I just don’t want to talk about this.”

Both Yasmin and Zoe were wide-eyed at my reaction. I was not known for yelling. Or any kind of outburst. Not with my girlfriends, at least. They were used to the perpetually happy, always dramatic Wren, not the Wren who yelled at them when they were asking about a man.

Zoe held her hands up in surrender. “Okay, you don’t want to talk about it, we won’t talk about it.”

I pasted on a fake smile. “Sorry, too much vodka. Makes me unpredictable.” I held up my glass even though both of them knew that I could drink five more of these and carry on complex and calm conversations in three different languages. Because they were good friends, they didn’t call me out on my shit.

Yasmin’s gaze told me that she would eventually, though. She was my oldest friend. She never let me avoid the serious shit.

At some point, I would share about Karson. Once I had properly catalogued what the fuck was going on and could pass it off as yet another one of my casual flings.

“So what’s going on with the case?” Zoe asked Yasmin, turning her attention fully toward her.

I relaxed ever so slightly, even though I felt a gnawing sense of guilt for deceiving my friends. Even if it was by omission.

My phone buzzed on the seat beside me, so I looked down at the illuminated screen.

You look too fucking good. You’re coming home with me tonight. Don’t want any bullshit argument.

I pressed my lips together to hide my smile as I read the message. Luckily, Zoe and Yasmin were respecting my wishes and had changed the subject, in a serious conversation about Yasmin’s case. Normally, I would be extremely interested in this discussion because the case itself was very intense and dangerous and career making, but Karson’s text stole my attention. My fingers moved quickly over the screen of my phone.

What happens if I decide to make a bullshit argument?

I glanced up from my phone to scour the edges of the dance floor, looking for him, hoping he was skulking in the shadows, watching me. My phone buzzed, and I looked down.

Then I’ll come up there, kiss the fuck out of you in front of your friends, stake my claim and make sure we are not the secret you want us to be.

Anger quickly took place of my arousal.

Fuck you.

I typed quickly, trying to keep the rage off my face so Zoe and Yasmin didn’t clock it and decide to push me further.

His text shouldn’t have irritated me as much as it did. I wasn’t ashamed of Karson. Not even a little. Despite what my closest friends thought of him. I was never one to let other peoples’ opinions affect who I was attracted to, even if they were the opinions of the people I treasured most in this world.

They did not know Karson. Not like I did. That he could be gentle. Soft. That there were eternities behind his eyes. That there was a past that defined who he was today. That that past could’ve erased any humanity or kindness within him, but he still possessed them. I felt both, deeply in my soul, when he was with me. I also felt safe, protected and treasured when I was with him.

So no, I was not ashamed to be fucking him.

I was terrified it was something more than fucking. And I was acting like a brat because of it.

And Karson was pushing me. Despite what he’d said about not playing games, he was fucking with me. Which was fine, because I could fuck with him right back.

I slammed my phone down on the seat beside me then drained the rest of my drink.

“I’m going to dance,” I declared loudly.

Both Yasmin and Zoe looked at me, my words coming out a little more manic than I’d intended.

“Does anyone want to dance?” I asked, mania still evident in my voice. I couldn’t help it, my blood was pumping and anger was pulsating.

Both women shook their heads slowly.

“Okay,” I said, standing, adjusting my dress.

I blew them kisses. Then I strutted onto the dance floor, swaying my hips to the music. I quickly melted into the bodies, letting the music take over.

As was the norm when a woman in a skimpy dress went onto a crowded dance floor, men descended, thinking she was doing it all for them. Because she wanted something. Was asking for something.

It pissed me the fuck off generally, but for now, it served my purpose. So I focused on the least sleazy looking one and put my hands on his shoulders, moving close to his body.

His hands went to my hips, then he leaned in so his mouth was to my ear. “What’s your name?” he shouted.

I yanked my head back and shook my head at him, turning to dance against him. He didn’t seem too eager to learn my name after that. Whenever his hands got too intimate, I made sure to move, to separate myself from him. I didn’t look for Karson, though I knew he was watching me. Just like Jay had eyes on Stella all night, Karson was watching me. Sure, he had some kind of job to do here, but he was a man who could multitask.

While I danced against this stranger, I thought of Karson’s eyes on my body, moving fluidly to the music, another man’s hands on me. He’d be pissed. He’d verbalized the ‘you are mine’ thing more than once in the weeks we’d been fucking. And he may have pretended he didn’t care when he thought I was still fucking the prince, but thinking I was doing something and seeing it with his own two eyes were very different things.

I was taunting him. It wasn’t nice or mature or ethical, but I didn’t give a fuck. The thought of his fury mounting sent my blood pumping hot. My body thrummed with need. With arousal that had nothing to do with the man dancing with me.

When it became too much, when the man thought that I was promising something he was not entitled to, I knew it was time to stop. It was entirely possible that Karson might break his iron clad composure and pummel this poor, albeit slightly handsy, man.

“Thanks!” I shouted at him with a wink before walking off.

The man looked disappointed, but he did not follow me off the dance floor, calling me a tease or harassing me like some might have.

Zoe and Yasmin greeted me back in the booth with wide eyes, but thankfully, neither said a word. Also thankfully, Stella arrived a moment later looking flushed and well fucked. The attention was diverted from me, so I settled into my seat, grabbing the brand new martini the VIP concierge had set down for me.

I grabbed my phone.

You’re lucky I didn’t kill him.

The way I’m going to fuck you to erase the evidence of that man’s touch will make you forget your own name. The only one you will know is mine.

I shifted, trying to staunch the throb between my legs, grinning wickedly. It was then I got up and went to the bathroom—a private one for VIPs only—and took a very tasteful nude, sending it to him.

My name is Wren fucking Whitney, and no one will make me forget it, not even you. And after I’m done with you tonight, you’ll want it inked into your skin.

I snickered under my breath, leaning forward to touch up my lip gloss. I did not look at my phone for the rest of the night.

As the night neared its end, the women started to get ready to leave. It was late. For some people, at least. For me, the night was only just beginning. My skin felt tight, and my body was wired with anticipation. Even the friction from moving in my seat was too much.

“Babe?” Yasmin asked.

I jerked out of the fantasy in which Karson and I were the only ones on the dance floor, and we were naked.

“You want to share a car with me?” she asked, glancing at her phone. “It’s here now.”

I blinked at her before looking into the shadows past the still crowded dance floor.

“I’m going to stay,” I declined, looking back at my friend.

She glanced toward the dance floor in understanding, obviously thinking that I was looking at the man I’d been grinding on earlier.

“Be safe,” she said, leaning in to kiss my cheek.

I smiled at her. “What would be the fun in that?”

Zoe leaned in to kiss me on the cheek too.

Once they left, it was just me and Stella. I regarded her. Her skin was still slightly flushed, and her eyes were wide, awake. Even the way she moved was different. Like she was surer of herself. More comfortable in her own skin.

My heart warmed for her, even though I knew the road to the end of whatever this thing was with Jay was going to be bumpy. Men like Jay, with rules and arrangements about relationships, didn’t admit to their true feelings easily.

He’d hurt her first. At some point. I just had to hope he was smart enough to rectify such mistakes. Or we’d be forced to ruin him.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay on your own?” she asked.

I pursed my lips at her. “Honey, I can more than handle myself with some club rat.”

She smirked as she stood up, obviously eager to get back to her man. More kisses and goodbyes were exchanged before we both went our separate ways.

I was on the dance floor for less than a minute before hands landed on my hips and my body was yanked to the hard torso of a man. Karson’s scent enveloped me, even amidst the mix of sweat and aftershave permeating the dance floor.

My blood turned hot as I moved against him, rubbing my back against his front.

“Sweetheart, you keep moving on me like that, I’ll have to kill everyone on this dance floor for seeing you like this, then our secret will be out,” he murmured in my ear.

My eyes swung to the crowd around us, people who hadn’t existed until that moment.

Some were watching us. Even though it was the early hours of the morning and most of these people were drunk or high or both, whatever Karson and I had tore through the highest of highs.

Stella was still here, presumably up in Jay’s office. I doubted that she was using her time alone with the man she was falling in love with to stare at the dance floor, but I also wasn’t ready to take this public.

And even I drew the line at fucking for a crowd.

Not that I judged.

So I turned, mouth inches from Karson’s, peering up at him. My hand gripped the back of his neck before I yanked him down so I could whisper in his ear. “Take me home and fuck me like you promised.”

His hands gripped my hips even tighter.

Then he whisked me off the dance floor.

We didn’t make it home.

I started pawing at Karson midway through the drive, squirming in my seat, desperate for friction, for release.

Karson had made a growling sound in the back of his throat, pulled the car onto a road leading to a now deserted stretch of beach, got out of the car, opened the door then lifted me bodily until my heels sunk into the sand, my palms flat on the side of the car. He then yanked up the skirt of my dress and took me right there.

It was pure and carnal fucking. Animalistic. Brutal. Absolutely glorious.

CHAPTER SIX

Crash Into Me – Dave Matthews Band

It was Stella’s birthday.

I had been working on her birthday for months. It was a big one. Not because she was entering the final year of her twenties, but because it was the year that her mother first started showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia. The disease that haunted my delightful, kind, vulnerable friend. The disease that stole her mother away from her. That stalked her like a ghost. She barely talked about it. Only on one night, the great confession, as I liked to think of it.

We’d all been extremely wasted and shared our darkest secrets. Traumas. Fears. Each burden my precious friends carried was heavy. Impossibly so. Looking at each of them, you would never guess it. They were successful, stunning, shiny. You never knew the weight people carried, no matter how perfect their lives looked on the outside.

So Stella was not worrying about her looming thirties because of wrinkles or her biological clock ticking. She was terrified of having her life stolen from her. Of having everything she ever was taken away, warped by a disease that had caused her mother to try to kill her.

I could not do a thing about that. I was not a doctor, though I had met with some of the foremost specialists on paranoid schizophrenia and researched all of the emerging and experimental treatments for the disease so we could be prepared for the worst. So if needed, Stella could live the life she deserved with the proper treatment. I didn’t tell her about that, of course. Law of Attraction and all… What you think and believe will manifest. She did not need to know about that, but I needed to be prepared to help my friend in any way that I could.

I didn’t really have anything else to offer.

Except that I could throw her one hell of a party. Which, if I did say so myself, was what I did.

The bitch loved Lord of the Rings, fantasy and faeries. Which made sense. With her delicate features, her strawberry blonde hair and iridescent, pale skin, she looked like a fairy princess.

So it only made sense to have my parents’ estate transformed into a fairy land and have everyone don custom made wings for the party.

Okay, for most people, that would not make sense. But it was my way of making magic for her. Guiding her out of her dark thoughts and reminding her of the little girl who had believed in all sorts of wonderful things.

Her relationship with Jay existed in darkness, I knew that. Understood that. And I didn’t hate it. She needed to feel comfortable with those dark parts of her. Embrace them. But I didn’t want them—him—to become her whole world.

Hence the party.

Hence me sending Jay a personal invitation.

It was a test. To see if he would come into the light. For Stella. And in case he didn’t, I invited every eligible bachelor in the city. Ones with normal jobs and normal approaches to relationships. Even though I was pretty sure Stella was already in too deep for that.

I knew I was. I mean, there was a future presidential hopeful in attendance with a square jawline and the JFK look, yet I barely gave him a second glance.

Karson had broken me somehow.

The flame was not petering out between us. Far from it. We were burning hotter than ever. I was at his house as often as I could be. And if I was out partying late, he’d be at my place when I got home. I did not yell at him about breaking in. Which I should’ve. I should’ve done a lot of things, should’ve set all sorts of boundaries to protect myself, but I got caught up.

One of the most important things I should’ve done was tell my girlfriends about Karson. It was becoming clear that this thing wasn’t going to end anytime soon, and the continued deception was weighing heavier on me every fucking day.

But tonight was Stella’s night. I would not steal her thunder. They’d make it into a big deal... Karson and me. A bigger deal because I’d been hiding it.

Which was why the plan was to not tell them about everything that had been happening. I’d say this was new.

I’d lie.

To my closest fucking friends.

Karson had broken me.

But it wasn’t just that.

It was the memory of that cottage in Romania.

But I was not in Romania. I was in fairy princess land, staring at my best friend, clad in white and looking like an ethereal creature lost in thought.

“I invited Jay,” I informed her.

That piece of information had its intended effect. She almost choked on her martini.

“Excuse me?” she ground out after clearing her throat.

“Yeah,” I shrugged, thankful to be back in a role that suited me better, the wild friend who did things like invite her bestie’s scary, kind of boyfriend to her fairy princess party. Not the woman who focuses on the past and ruminates on the disasters that may lie in the future. “As a birthday present,” I added.

Stella was gaping at me. I couldn’t be sure if she was pissed or just stunned. Then she waved her arms toward the fairy forest I had erected in the back yard. “Um, babe, this was my present. For the next decade.”

I disagreed with that but also saw my opening for a Karson reference that wouldn’t completely steal her thunder.

“Okay, well maybe it’s a teensy bit for me too,” I admitted. “Because I’m over the prince, and I need the Big Bad Wolf to come and save me from him.”

Another lie.

My friends thought I was still with the prince. It was more of a lie of omission because I changed the subject whenever they brought him up. It also didn’t help that I’d brought him here tonight. He’d called me to say that he was in town, and I invited him because I had a friend, a total sweetie, innocent, kind, hot—in a girl next door kind of way—that I thought I could set him up with. That was until I saw him, and he made it clear that he was here because he wanted to do the grand gesture thing and win me back.

Yeah, I fucked up.

Still, it was fucking shady.

“Karson?” Stella asked, her eyes open wide.

I took a breath, nodding, preparing myself for the lie. “Karson,” I agreed. “I’ve been biding my time, partly because the prince wasn’t exactly boring. He gave great head and could’ve possibly made me a princess.”

Almost all of that was true.

“But a man like Karson, he’d make me his queen.”

Unbidden, memories of the various ways Karson had worshipped me over the weeks rushed into my mind. I shivered at the mere thought of him, my body reacting viscerally to the recollections.

I shook myself out of it. “But I don’t want to come on to him directly.” Also not exactly a lie. I hadn’t come on to him per se. He was the one who’d broken into my house for sex.

“Not that I think there’s anything wrong with a woman making the first move,” I added. “But with him, it wouldn’t be smart.”

Again, not entirely a lie. I knew what I was doing with Karson wasn’t smart. I knew I was going to get myself hurt, I could feel it. I just didn’t fucking care.

Stella looked concerned. “Wren, you don’t play games with a man like Karson.”

I bit my lip, annoyed at her perception of Karson. The way she said it, like she thought he had a torture basement he’d chain me up in or something.

It was an unreasonable emotion to have toward a friend who was looking out for me, especially since it was exactly the image Karson projected to the world.

My eyes darted to the prince who was staring at me expectantly. I blew him a kiss, even though it sent the wrong message. It worked to punctuate this conversation.

Yeah, Karson and his villainous ways were totally rubbing off on me.

“Of course, I play games with men like Karson,” I told Stella, my tone light. “They’re the only men who won’t let me win.”

Again, none of this was a lie. It was just the details. The timelines.

If Stella pushed me further on this, I wouldn’t be able to maintain the lie. It would all come tumbling out and ruin her birthday. Make it all about me. And although that was the image I projected to the world—that I loved being the center of attention—it couldn’t be further from the truth. It was just more comfortable playing that part than trying to explore who the fuck I really was.

Karson was helping me explore who the fuck I really was.

“Jay isn’t going to come,” Stella sighed.

My shoulders sagged in relief at the change in subject.

The lies wouldn’t have to keep unravelling.

The truth would come out eventually.

And the truth was that I was falling in love with Karson.

****

I turned up at his house when the party was over. I had managed to gently tell the prince that there was another man then introduce him to Catherine, whom he seemed to get along with well enough. He’d taken the news with grace and focused on my friend with vigor. He was in the wife hunting business.

It was my party, which meant the party was over as the sun kissed the horizon.

Karson was awake. I assumed he’d just gotten home considering he was standing out on the porch, fully dressed except for his jacket.

I had managed to keep my wings on during the car ride over here, which was not an easy or comfortable feat, but I was determined. It was part of the look.

And this particular look was crafted with Karson in mind.

The flowing kaftan I was wearing didn’t cling to my body like most of my looks did, it floated easily over my curves, billowing in the wind. The front dipped way down, like almost to my navel, and my tits were secured with some carefully placed tape.

The wings themselves looked like peacock feathers, the same blues and greens as my dress, so long that they trailed on the ground behind me. My hair tumbled in wild waves, gemstones threaded through my chocolate brown locks. I had on very little makeup, my skin glowing and dewy from all the dancing I’d been doing.

My hard work and the uncomfortable car ride was all worth it as he watched me ascend the stairs to the porch, my every move catalogued by him. My cheeks warmed underneath the subtle bronzer on my face from the heat of Karson’s stare. It didn’t make sense, that I could still blush in the presence of this man. He’d seen every inch of me, done things to every inch of me.

“Holy fuck,” he hissed, rubbing his hand over his mouth, his eyes wide as they took me in.

I grinned, extremely satisfied that I was emitting such a reaction.

“No,” he hissed, holding his hand up as I made to step forward, to climb him like a fucking tree, my need overwhelming any kind of satisfaction I felt.

“Stand fuckin’ still,” he ordered.

My step stuttered. Usually, I would fight him on any commands. That was pretty much the basis of our relationship. Sexually, at least. Conflict. A battle for who was in control. A battle he mostly won, but then again, considering how many orgasms I had, I wasn’t exactly a loser in any sense of the word.

Despite my tendency to fight Karson—at the beginning, at least—I obeyed him immediately. Something about his tone, the roughness to it, the way every fucking cell in my body responded to it, gave me pause.

“Need to imprint this image,” he murmured. “Of you, standing here looking like something out of a fantasy. Looking like a fuckin’ angel.”

His eyes seared into me.

I could barely breathe.

It was over a minute before he moved. It was a million fucking lifetimes. He didn’t throw me over his shoulder and take me off to ravish me like his expression said he was going to. No, he stood in front of me, holding on to me with a tight jaw. With every muscle in his body taut.

“You were right,” he said, hands tight on my hips. “I am the villain here. And that means I technically shouldn’t be saying this, giving you this out, trying to be noble, but I’m doing it anyway.”

His eyes never left mine, searing me with an intensity that scared me.

I was coming close to something. We were coming close to something.

“Because I might have a little bit of hero in me,” he murmured, lifting a hand to brush my jaw with his hand. “A tiny fuckin’ amount. So I’m using it to say that you need to think about what you’re doing with me. This is the one chance I’m giving you to walk away.”

My heart stopped. Literally fucking stopped. Of all of the effects I thought this outfit would have tonight, this had never even entered my mind. The mere thought of walking away from Karson had my skin crawling with panic.

“I’m not going to chase you,” he continued, unaware of my impending panic attack. “Not going to fight for you. Because theoretically, you’re better off without a villain in your life. One chance, baby. After this, if you stay here, I know, I fucking know you’re going to own me for life. And I’m not going to let you walk away from me. I’ll fight for you until I don’t have a heartbeat. This is it. You can’t change your mind after this.”

It took me a long time to process everything he’d just said. Because each of the words were weighted. Each of the words sank all the way down to the bottom of me. Because every single letter of the words he spoke were injected with passion. Ferocity.

They did things to me. He did things to me.

I’d had many, many men speak pretty words to me. Try to captivate me with poetry and promises. But nothing, nothing compared to what Karson had just stated.

It wasn’t poetry.

He was essentially telling me that if I didn’t walk away now, I’d be trapped with him forever. Red flags, surely. Possessiveness. Obsessiveness. Danger.

All of those things were a fucking siren’s call to me.

Yet despite being me—someone who had defined herself as a free spirit, a feminist—I wanted to be owned by this man. Caged in by him.

He was watching me as this all ticked over in my head, as if he could read my thoughts. Though Karson had considerable power, I knew he didn’t have actual superpowers. He couldn’t read my mind. But he read my face, my eyes, exceptionally well. Even though we’d known each other for a short time, he knew my subtleties. Because he took the time to watch, to look. Not just looking at me because I was pretty.

Again, words from the past floated into my mind.

“He will be your destruction.”

“Are you going to kiss me or what?” I asked in response to his monologue. My voice guttural.

His body jerked.

Jerked.

This was it. This was me embracing destruction. This was me giving up the fight. This was me embracing him.

And the truth of that shook him bodily.

I didn’t have a moment to process that, to get all warm and melty, because he kissed me. Then he fucked me on the porch.

Eventually, we made it inside. The sun was rising. We were in Karson’s bed with the doors to his balcony open, the ocean right in front of us. A soft breeze was kissing our exposed skin.

We hadn’t spoken in a long time, our energy spent on each other. But sleep was far away.

“Jay didn’t come tonight,” I said, staring at the ocean.

Karson’s body visibly tightened.

“I invited him,” I continued.

“Of course, you did,” he muttered.

I went up on my elbow so I could glare at him. “It is Stella’s birthday. An important one. Extremely important for reasons I won’t share with you because they are not mine to share.” I sighed, trailing a finger along the sculpted ridge of his pec. “Anyway, although I don’t know the intricacies of their little arrangement, I know my best friend was hurt that he didn’t come, though she did well to hide it.”

Stella had a good time at the party. A great time, even. But I saw the way her eyes flickered to the entrance like clockwork, waiting, hoping for her man to show up. Hoping that he would come into the light for her.

“I don’t like my friend being hurt,” I said, my voice sharp. I was suddenly irrationally mad at Jay Helmick and decided he needed a visit from someone who was not afraid or attracted to him to help him get his head out of his ass.

Karson gave me his own version of a frown. It was a lot more badass and glowering than mine.

“I see the shit working behind your eyes,” he growled. “See that you’re forming some kind of plan. I don’t want you getting involved. Don’t want you near Jay.”

I scowled at him to hide my shock that he’d correctly read my mind. “Well, sir, let me just submit to your every whim,” I cooed sweetly. “Oh, wait. I’m not the one in some kind of Dom/Sub relationship with rules and contracts. That’s my friend Stella. And although I would be open to exploring all kinds of whips and chains with you, I’m not going to let you call the shots in my life.”

Karson’s eyes had predictably flared in hunger at the whips and chains comment, but his jaw remained stiff. “I’m serious, Wren… Do not fuck with Jay.”

I stared at him. “Or what? He’s going to have me whacked?”

He did not see the humor in my statement. “He’s my boss, Wren. He’s one of the only people I trust. And I really don’t want to have to go up against him. Which I would. For you.”

I contemplated his words. He would go up against Jay. For me. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant, whether it meant a strongly worded, alpha male argument or a full-on death match, and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to be the reason that Karson did that, even though I was pissed at the whole situation. Even if Jay wasn’t some crime lord and Karson wasn’t his second in command, it was a dick move for me to meddle in my friend’s love life.

I sighed dramatically. “Fine. But to distract me … I’ve got handcuffs in my purse I would like to use on you.”

His eyes flared, and his jaw was no longer tight with any kind of fury.

“You’ve had handcuffs in your purse this whole fucking time?” he growled.

I nodded slowly. “You comfortable enough with your masculinity to relinquish all control to me?”

“Sweetheart, I relinquished all control to you when you stood on my porch in a white sundress,” he murmured, then he kissed the absolute fuck out of me.

After that, he got the handcuffs.

ONE WEEK LATER

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I asked, picking at a piece of Brie.

We were curled up in front of a roaring fireplace, eating from the cheeseboard that I had put together. I was wearing one of Karson’s shirts and nothing else. He was wearing his slacks, commando. I’d arrived in the early afternoon. Karson had met me at the door, torn off all of my clothes and fucked me right there on the floor.

I’d lost track of the amount of times I’d come.

My limbs were still tingly and my stomach still ravenous as we sat in the glow of the fire. Its warmth was nothing compared to Karson’s arms around me. I’d come to learn that he was not content with us being in the same room and not touching.

Usually, I was against things like cuddling and constant affection, but with him, it was something else entirely. I was desperate for his warmth, his contact, his smell. Desperate for him.

I learned more and more about Karson every day, my mind hungry for tidbits about him, how he lived his life. Almost everything about him was a surprise, not at all aligning with the image he portrayed to the world—a handsome, lethal, cold man who worked deep in the criminal underworld and was presumably brutal and heartless. A man of few words. Well, with everyone but me. With me, he was positively chatty. I was giddy about that. Wanted to hoard everything he told me, stand sentry over it like I was a dragon guarding treasure—it turned out Karson was into all those fantasy movies and practically forced me at gunpoint to watch them with him.

Like a greedy dragon, I was not content with the treasures and tidbits I already had. I wanted more.

“If someone looked at my life from the outside, they’d certainly say the worst thing I’ve ever done is kill,” he said, not hesitating to answer. He gave me everything freely, without pause, without games.

“Kill. Maim. Torture. I’m sure a civilian would think that is damnable enough.” His eyes burned into me. “I’m sure you think that’s damnable enough. But I’m numb to that now, for better or for worse.”

He took a drink then paused for a long time, just staring at me. Maybe he was waiting for me to shrink back in disgust, to run from the room screaming, whatever. I guessed my constitution looked a lot weaker on the surface.

When it became clear I wasn’t going to do anything like running or screaming from the room, he continued speaking.

“Part of my job is to oversee the street gangs, keep them from killing each other too publicly, watching for someone we can find use for.” He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “They know who I am. In the early days, they thought they could test Jay. Test me. But now they understand. There has to be some kind of order.”

“And you enforce that order,” I deduced.

Karson nodded, still watching me intently.

Although I knew it was not the intended effect, the thought of Karson roaming the streets, enforcing law to the outlaws like some kind of dark sheriff, really turned me the fuck on. I did not say this out loud.

“People know me. People have come to understand the power that Jay has,” he continued. “One day, I was coming out of a meeting with a couple of gang leaders and their lieutenants. One of the leaders couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He’d found himself at the helm after his brother was gunned down.” He spoke softly, eyes still on me.

“He came to me after the meeting was done.” His eyes shifted to the fire. “Came to me begging to get him out. He was the only one left in the family. Told me he knew he was going to die on the streets and didn’t want to, but he didn’t know any other way. Told me he knew I could get people out of the life.”

My heart was thundering in my chest as I saw something resembling sorrow in Karson’s eyes.

No, not sorrow. Shame.

I reached out to hold his hand because it was killing me, killing me in that moment not to touch him. He needed me to touch him.

His large hand encircled mine, squeezing tightly.

“I could’ve.” One of his shoulders lifted, but just barely, the tiniest of shrugs. “We’ve got legit businesses. Contacts. I could’ve called in favors. I didn’t.”

The fire crackled as I waited for him to go on.

“That’s not how this world works. So I walked away from him. He was dead within the month.”

Karson’s voice was devoid of emotion. But I could feel it. I was drenched in the sorrow and regret he felt over that. This was something that followed him.

Fucking haunted him.

That hit me. Right down to my core. Karson was exposing a different side of himself to me. A side that I sensed no one else had seen.

I grabbed his chin so he wasn’t looking at the fire anymore. “I know this may not mean much coming from me,” I whispered, “but I’ve met a lot of people in my life. Bad people pretending to be good. Good people pretending to be bad. People are mostly all the same, all pretending to be something they’re not.” I stared into his eyes. “But you... You are not. You are not just the villain. You said you have a little bit of hero in you. And I agree. Except it’s more than a little. It’s a whole fucking lot. And I see it. I see you.” I rubbed the slight stubble on his cheek. “I see you,” I whispered, my voice breaking at the end because I was too much of a coward to say three other words that would’ve been most honest in this moment.

“Let me take you to bed and show you exactly what kind of man I think you are,” I said, standing and holding my hand out to him.

Karson didn’t hesitate in taking it before throwing me over his shoulder.

“I’m going to show you exactly what kind of man I am,” he countered.

And he did.

He was the kind of man who fucked me into oblivion and brought me wine afterward.

The kind of man who held me in his sleep.

My man.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Burn Your Name – Powderfinger

It was at brunch the next day when I knew the time had come for me to break the news. Well, past the time. After last night with Karson, after last week, the day of Stella’s party... Things had changed. It felt permanent now. And I couldn’t go another fucking second lying to my friends.

“So I’m fucking Karson,” I blurted.

All eyes went to me. None of them widened. Not even a little. Granted, they weren’t easily surprised by me, but I thought this news would shock them at least a little.

“Honey, we already knew that,” Yasmin said mildly while Stella and Zoe sipped their drinks.

My jaw dropped. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You’re not exactly a master of deception,” Zoe added.

I scowled at her. “Excuse me, I have deceived many a border agent and various members of secret police in communist countries.”

“We’re your best friends,” Stella told me. “We know you better.”

“And you’ve been going out of your way not to talk about the man or even look at him,” Yasmin threw in before grabbing a fry. “Not to mention, you axed the prince, you have not said a word about any other man, and I think this is the longest you’ve been in the country for an extended period of time.”

I bit my lip.

Yeah, who was I kidding, thinking I could lie to my friends?

They saw a lot. Almost all of it. And they weren’t judging me or pissed at me for keeping it a secret.

“You like him,” Yasmin observed.

The weight of that observation hit me. Sank me. “No, I don’t,” I argued on instinct. “I like to fuck him,” I corrected.

“Okay, so tell us,” Zoe suggested.

I stared at her. “Tell you what?”

“About the sex.” She leaned back in her chair. “Although he’s not my type, I’m interested to know what he’s like in the bedroom.”

My hands were suddenly sweaty. I was not modest when it came to sex. Each of these women had heard every sordid detail of my previous sexual escapades. Nothing I told them would shock them.

Except if I said I was in love with Karson.

Then I’d get a reaction. Then I wouldn’t be able to hide from the truth. Then it would become something I didn’t want it to turn into.

“I would tell you,” I waved them away casually before taking a sip of my drink. “But then I’d have to kill you.” I tapped my nose. “Top secret.”

Each woman leaned forward in her chair. “Okay, you’re really not going to tell us about his cock and his kinks?” Stella asked. “I shared everything about Jay.”

“That was your prerogative,” I replied. “Plus, you needed to share about that shit. It was novel worthy. There is nothing to know about Karson and me. We’re fucking. I wanted to tell you all, now I have. And we can move on.”

Each of them regarded me with shrewd gazes.

“Fine,” Zoe eventually stated.

Yasmin and Stella gaped at her. Zoe was not known to let sleeping dogs lie.

“She wants to keep it locked down, she keeps it locked down,” Zoe shrugged.

I had never loved my friend more in that moment.

The rest of the brunch passed by as the ones before it had, and even though the weight of lies was off my shoulders, I still felt heavy with the truth I was denying myself.

I went to Karson’s after brunch, texting him to let him know he could tell Jay that we were fucking at their next slumber party.

I couldn’t tell if he’d smiled at that or not, he’d merely replied telling me to ‘get my ass to his place.’

And he told me he was going surfing but to go there and wait for him.

Surfing.

We’d been fucking for months, yet I didn’t know he surfed. Yes, he lived right on the beach, and these were some of the best waves in the area, but Karson didn’t strike me as a surfer.

It was endearing and interesting. He was still out in the water by the time I arrived, and although the idea of watching him emerge from the water was tempting, I realized I hadn’t been alone there since the one time I broke in.

Then, I’d reasoned it wasn’t ethical to snoop. Now that we were sleeping together, I figured I was entitled.

First were his bookshelves. They took up a whole wall with the fireplace in the middle. The mantle held candles, no photos. There were no photos anywhere in the house. That I’d noticed. I’d figured he didn’t have anyone to have photos of. His father killed his mother. He killed his father. He didn’t have any siblings that I was aware of. And I doubted he had any extended family who gave a shit about him.

He didn’t have friends, apart from Jay, and that dynamic was much too complicated to categorize, though I knew it wasn’t the kind of relationship where they’d pose for selfies.

I didn’t like that. That Karson didn’t have any photos. My entire home was covered in photos. Of my adventures, my girlfriends, my parents. I had a picture from Stella’s party blown up and put over the fireplace in my sitting room.

Karson deserved that. Photos, memories littering the surfaces of his home.

My fingers trailed along the spines of the books. A lot of autobiographies, books on the brain, men type things. Then my finger paused on a book that had a visibly worn spine.

The Duke & I.

I grinned as I found countless other historical romances nestled between all the badass books.

“Wine, darlin’?” Karson’s voice didn’t surprise me as I’d heard him trudging up the stairs of his balcony. I’d just been too intrigued to turn.

“Definitely,” I told him, slipping a book off the shelf. “Maybe then we can read together.”

I turned, a wicked grin on my face while brandishing the book with the muscled man clutching onto a woman in a gown.

“I’ve read this one, and it’s particularly saucy. I approve,” I teased.

Karson, for his part, did not look ashamed. Not even a little. The corner of his mouth turned up.

“I like them,” he said simply.

That was it. My badass, ex spy, villain liked historical romances.

I almost said it. Right then. As he crossed the room holding two glasses of wine, smirking at me.

The words bubbled in my throat, desperate to escape. There was no way I could hold them in much longer.

I even opened my mouth, prepared to lay it all out, until he got close enough for me to focus on his torso. Or, more accurately, his chest. He was shirtless, a pair of shorts slung low on his hips, showing off his Adonis belt and impossibly perfect physique.

“Oh my god,” I breathed, staring at the black script, the slight redness around the lines. It was obviously recent. And he’d just come from the ocean. I did not have any tattoos, but I was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to go surfing the same day you got one. And he had to have had it done today because I’d been with him last night. I’d seen every inch of his naked torso. Not one bit of ink anywhere. Plenty of scars. But no tattoo on his left pec reading ‘Wren’.

“Please fucking tell me this is some kind of joke.”

Karson’s expression was even. “Do I strike you as some kind of comedian, darlin’?” he asked dryly, extending the glass to me.

I wanted to move my attention from his pec to his face so I could scowl at him, but my gaze was glued there.

“No,” I snapped. “You do not strike me as some kind of comedian. But you seem reasonably sane, and a reasonably sane person does not permanently tattoo someone else’s name into their skin when they’ve known aforementioned person for a handful of months.” My voice went slightly shrill at the end of this, but I couldn’t help it.

Karson put the glasses down on the coffee table then moved to brush the hair from my face, and I let him do so because I was still in a state of shock. “You called it,” he said. “First night I fucked you, you told me that that night would make me want to tattoo your name into my skin.”

I gaped at him, still trying to find something on his face that would imply this was some elaborate joke.

Nothing.

“Yes, and I’m someone prone to over exaggeration, something you surely have already learned about me. One of the few things you’ve learned about me, because we’ve only known each other a few months,” I spluttered.

Karson’s expression had been relatively mild throughout this exchange, if not ever so slightly amused, but now his eyes were narrowed, and his expression had darkened.

“How long?” he clipped. “How long do you think it would take a man to know you? A month? Two? A year? A decade?”

He snatched his glass up from the coffee table, talking a long drink before zeroing his attention back to me.

“I’ll wager a guess and say that you’ve never been with a man long enough to let him know you,” he continued. “Let him feel your pussy clench around his cock with nothin’ in between. I’m the only one you gave that to.” He pointed to his own chest violently.

I’d never seen him as intense as he was right now. Which was saying something. Karson was intense by nature. But this energy was something different.

“You gave that to me on the first fuckin’ night,” he rasped. “Something that’s important to you, sacred, you gave to me when you knew as much as you could get your private investigators to find out about me. Which should’ve been shit to make you want to stay the fuck away from me. Instead, you came to my house, clad in your white dress, threatening me, seducing me, awakening me.”

He was breathing heavy now. Visibly, his chest rising and falling. Visibly pissed off at me, holding nothing back.

“You knew exactly what the fuck you were doing,” he proclaimed sharply. “That white dress was the red flag to a fucking bull. You let me in, Wren. On that first night. Because even though you’re stubborn as fuck, even you can’t deny whatever the fuck this is between us.”

He looked out the window, pinching the bridge of his nose. I didn’t move a muscle. I couldn’t.

“I’m a grown man,” he said, less intense now. Much quieter. “I’m a man who knows what he wants when he sees it. And I know I want you. Know that I’ll only ever want you. Know that I want your name as a scar on my skin.”

I stared at him.

He was serious. Deadly fucking serious. Of course, he was. He’d inked my name onto his skin. And Karson was not a man who made rash decisions, not like I did. He thought about things. Knew every fucking detail of said thing before he made his choice. And he’d made the choice.

To have me. Above his heart. Forever.

My throat became itchy, breathing more difficult as the walls started closing in.

I stomped across to the breakfast bar, snatching up my purse, desperate to create distance, to escape this. Him.

When I turned, Karson was standing in the same position, gripping his glass of wine, staring at me.

There was nothing relaxed about his posture. He was watching me with an intensity that was difficult to weather.

“I’m leaving,” I declared, breathless.

Karson’s expression did not falter. “You’re running,” he corrected.

I pursed my lips instead of answering, because he wasn’t wrong.

“You’re running,” he repeated. “But it’s too fucking late. You can’t run from me, and we both know it.”

I didn’t say anything, didn’t try to fight him on that. Just stared. At him. At my name on his chest. His hair still damp from the sea. The bookcases behind him. He looked like he could be on the cover of one of those romances. Dark. Sultry. Perfect.

But you couldn’t fit everything he was into the pages of a book. He was much too large. Too complicated.

And he was terrifying me.

So I walked out that door.

Or as he said, I ran.

Karson did not chase me. He did not break into my house in the night, nor did he text or call me. My fingers were itchy from the need to call him. My limbs were tight, wired with the need to drive to his place, run there if need be.

But I was being stubborn.

No, for the first time in my life, I was being sensible. He had my name tattooed on him. That was too much. That was my sign to get off the ride before it went right off the fucking rails.

My next move would predictably be to find another man. Someone rich, someone dangerous, someone powerful. Or just the closest man with a good jawline and a heartbeat.

But the mere thought of another man touching me sickened me. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t push past that.

I was fastening my bracelet on my wrist when I saw him, a shadow in the corner of my gaze. I looked up to find him staring at me in a way that made me wonder how long he’d been watching me. I thought I’d become hyperaware of this man and his presence, but I underestimated his skills.

Every cell in my body sang for him, something deep inside me sighing in relief. Something else, something much hungrier, urged me to claw all his clothes off him.

My lips pursed as I took in what he was wearing.

A tuxedo.

His own icy gaze was running over my white gown. It was a simple halter neck, dipping modestly in the front and not so modestly at the back. The fabric draped flawlessly over my body, paired with delicate Jimmy Choos… It was perfection.

My hair in waves, messy and brushing my shoulders. My makeup was sultry, accentuating the creamy hazel eyes given to me by my mother. Clear gloss on the full lips given to me by my dermatologist.

I looked good.

And by the hungry look on his face, Karson seemed to agree. Like he hadn’t seen me in years, not just the three days since I’d stormed off.

It felt like a fucking lifetime.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, slightly breathy. “And I don’t have time for you to make good on that look. I’m late.” I scowled down at the clasp that was fighting me.

Large hands pushed my fingers out of the way, Karson silently crossing the distance between us as I battled with the bracelet.

His fingers expertly fastened it, his thumb brushing the inside of my wrist for a moment before letting me go. Cue all the melty feelings that I thought I wasn’t capable of feeling. The reasons for running three days ago dissolved into nothing.

I swallowed roughly before I looked up at him. “I’m late,” I whispered.

“I know,” he murmured back, grasping my chin in his hands and kissing me gently.

More melty feelings.

“Okay, I can be a little later,” I conceded, moving my hand down with the intention of undoing his pants.

His hand caught my wrist. “No, you can’t. This entire event is honoring you and your charity’s work in the East Sudan.”

I blinked up at him. The tuxedo made sense.

I hadn’t told anyone about this event. I purposefully hadn’t told anyone about this event. The only reason I was even going was because I couldn’t stop them from holding it, and I would seem like a rude asshole if I didn’t turn up. Especially since the event in question was five thousand dollars a plate, and all of the proceeds were going to the charity.

Karson knew about this because he was Karson.

“Having me surveilled is a gross invasion of my privacy, and it’s pissing me off. You need to stop,” I snarled.

“I’m not having you surveilled,” Karson countered. “I’m merely making it my business to know everything about your life.”

I scowled at him. “You’re not coming.”

“Want to fight me on that?” he challenged.

I did want to fight him on that. But the steely determination in his eyes told me I would likely lose.

“Why do you want to come?” I demanded instead.

“Because you’re my woman,” he said simply.

“I’m not your woman,” I argued.

“Your name is on my chest.”

I tilted my head upward, scrambling for the anger that I’d felt when I saw that script. But now, with distance, I could understand it wasn’t anger I’d felt, it was fear. “Against my will,” I pointed out.

“Why aren’t your girls coming?” he asked instead of launching into another fight about the tattoo that would last hours. It would only last hours because at some point, we would start having sex. Then I would see my name inked on his chest, and despite everything I’d said, I would get turned on and proceed to act like a wild animal.

So it was good he was changing the subject, but not so good considering the new subject.

“Those women are your soulmates. Don’t think I don’t see that,” he murmured. “Don’t understand that. You’re there for them through every moment. But you haven’t told them about this. A big fuckin’ moment in your life.”

He wasn’t going to let this go. That was not Karson’s style.

I let out a long sigh, stepping from his gaze to find the purse I needed for this outfit, and because I needed some distance.

“This is not a big moment in my life,” I contended, finding the white clutch and shoving lip gloss and my phone into it. “This is me getting an award for being born rich. Everything I did for that charity was done with money I did not earn.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, taking a long breath.

“There was no talent involved,” I explained on my exhale. “I’ve got friends who dress first ladies. Who fight human traffickers. Who started their own million dollar PR firm. Those are big things. Me getting an award for doing something every rich person should do is not a moment.” I was pacing now, my voice getting louder as I heard how it all sounded.

Karson stopped me from pacing by stalking forward and grabbing my hips with a grip that bordered on pain. His eyes were stormy.

“Rich assholes give money for the tax break,” he informed me in a clipped tone. “Without a second fucking thought. They do not travel to a war-torn country in the middle of a violent clash for power in order to help build a facility for young women.”

His eyes burned into me, and his grip didn’t loosen.

“They do not stay there, without any fucking personal security, for three months, working quietly with those young women and local governments to give them access to birth control. Medications,” he listed all of the details with certainty of the facts.

“They hire mercenaries, but not to protect themselves, to escort girls to and from school to ensure their safety.” I suppressed a whimper as he gripped me tighter. “They do not then travel to Lao Cai in Vietnam, where their grandparents came from, where women have the highest rates of illiteracy and human rights violations, and do the same thing there.”

I stared at him. “How do you know all of that?” I asked, my voice barely audible.

No one knew any of that. There were no photos. No virtue signaling social media posts. No one did anything because it was the right thing to do anymore, they did it for the social clout. It was all too sickening. If anyone knew what I was doing, they’d think I was just another rich girl trying to get attention.

“Because I make it my business to know everything about you,” he replied quietly. “The question is, why didn’t you tell me, sweetheart?”

“It … embarrasses me,” I admitted quietly, looking down because I couldn’t face him while I said that.

Of course, Karson wasn’t going to let me look down in shame. His hand found my chin and tilted it upward so I met his eyes.

He didn’t say anything, the gesture said enough.

I sighed audibly then sucked in some air, trying to find courage. I didn’t find it in the air. I found it in Karson’s eyes.

“I don’t have a purpose,” I whispered. “Don’t have a passion. It’s not noble that I donate to charities, donate my time, start foundations—that’s the bare fucking minimum for someone who has the resources that I do. I live a frivolous life.” I paused, running one of my hands through my hair. “A shallow life. And I’ve been searching for it...” His eyes penetrated me. “Depth,” I admitted under my breath.

“You really fuckin’ think that you don’t have a purpose, a passion?” he asked slowly, quietly, with a dangerous undertone that I didn’t quite understand but made my skin prickle nonetheless.

I didn’t trust myself to speak, or even to nod, so I just stayed silent, rooted in place by his hands.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Wren,” he muttered. He ran his hands up and down my arms before squeezing them again. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life, seen all types, from the worst to some of the best. But I’ve never known anyone like you. Someone who breathes passion. With your vibrancy. Who lights up any space she walks into. Not only that, you light people up. I’ve never seen anything like it. Like when you look at people, you awaken something inside of them that they didn’t even know existed. You have a … magic about you. Something you have to see to believe. And to think you don’t have a purpose?” He shook his head. “You think because you don’t have a nine to five, don’t walk into an office every day, you don’t have a purpose? Think that everything you’ve done is the bare fuckin’ minimum?” He shook his head again. “I’m not a good person,” he tapped his chest. “But I’m also not one hundred percent evil. I don’t believe in that binary shit, but if there are some kind of scales, weighing out our deeds, I know which way mine tips. I’m okay with that.” He cupped my cheek. “I also know which way yours tips. I see you, Wren Whitney. I see through your bullshit. So get your purse, and get in the fucking car. Let yourself be celebrated.”

It may have been because of all of those incredible words. Or because Karson looked fucking great in a tux. Or even because I was really, really late. But I got in the car with him.

My parents were at the event.

Because it was expected, sure. But also because they were proud of me. They did want to support me. And if they could do that publicly, gaining social cache, a tax write-off and some new business contacts, that was a bonus.

My parents did not expect me to attend this event alone because they were used to me and my antics.

So they didn’t look twice when Karson and I walked into the ballroom. We weren’t holding hands, but Karson’s hand was on the small of my back, a gesture infinitely more intimate.

My mother, of course, looked stunning. Her gown was deep purple. Couture, of course. Alexander McQueen. Tailored to perfection, showing of her petite frame. There were diamonds on her wrists, at her neck and ears. Her skin was smooth, lineless, thanks mostly to her Asian genes and a little more to her cosmetic fillers. My mother was in her early sixties—she didn’t have me until her mid-thirties—yet she barely looked forty. Fucking barely. She worked out religiously, had a private chef prepare the meals she barely ate and was always the early adopter of any knew wellness craze.

I had her deep hazel eyes, her delicate cheekbones, her heart shaped mouth.

She still worked seven days a week. Although my father came from money, my mother was not content to be a lady who lunched. Especially because she’d made a name for herself as a property developer before they even met. She took off a week to have me, then I was handed off to nurses when she went back to work.

My mom was a boss.

My father was almost comically taller than her. She was petite, and my father was towering, solid and imposing. Well, he would look imposing if you caught him at a rare moment when he wasn’t smiling. But my father was almost always smiling. And he was beaming when Karson and I approached.

“Princess,” he exclaimed, pulling me into his arms.

Stepping away from Karson, I sank into my father’s embrace, inhaling the aftershave he’d worn since I could remember. Woodsy, expensive.

“Hi, Daddy,” I replied once he let me go.

I leaned in to kiss my mother on the cheek. Her Tom Ford perfume was classy, delicate and smelled of roses.

Her eyes skimmed over me. “You wore the Calvin Klein,” she acknowledged with approval. She smiled less than my father, but her eyes twinkled. “You look perfect.”

Her gaze flickered to Karson, and I watched her assess his suit and its tailoring, her lip curling upward in approval. “And a new suitor,” she observed, the slight lilt to her voice characteristic of her.

“This is Karson,” I introduced. “Karson, these are my parents.”

I hadn’t quite thought about this exact moment once I’d conceded to Karson coming here. I’d been too intoxicated with his presence and the surreal concept of us appearing in public together.

Now that it was happening, I was intrigued to see how this would work. Karson did not seem like someone who would do well meeting parents. Too many pleasantries to be exchanged, too much small talk.

But he transformed before my eyes as he stepped forward to shake my father’s hand.

“Mr. and Mrs. Whitney,” he said, his lips turning upward. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Karson, is it?” my father asked, voice warm. “Good name. Unique.”

“Karson is definitely unique,” I agreed with a grin, leaning into him.

My mother’s gaze went off into the crowd somewhere. “Wren, darling, we would love to stay to chat, but you are due at the podium before dinner is served.” Her eyes went back to me. “Your television friend has been waiting for some time to present the award.”

I rolled my eyes. “Mother, she is not a television friend. She is one of the most successful women in the business right now, she’s won four Emmy’s. And she just directed and starred in her own movie that won an Oscar. She’s rather famous.”

Mom waved her hand. “Yes, yes, of course,” she muttered.

Only my mother would dismiss one of the most famous women in the entertainment industry.

“Anyway, we must not keep her and our guests waiting,” she took charge, grabbing my wrist. “Karson can keep your father company.”

My mother did not organize this dinner, but she magically knew exactly what was going on and who needed to be where. As was her way.

My stomach pitched as I looked through the throng of people between us and the stage. I wasn’t nervous about the speech but leaving Karson’s side. It surprised me, that feeling. Not once had I felt like I needed a man beside me for anything but a good story.

My mother had spirited me away before I could cling to Karson. After that it was smiles, hellos and air kisses on the way to the podium. Then there was my introduction. The applause. Then I was on stage where I hugged my ‘television friend’ and accepted the glass trophy that sickened me as I stepped up to the podium.

“Hi,” I said into the microphone quietly.

I was not a nervous public speaker. I’d done all sorts of speeches throughout my life. Once I had to entertain a crowd at a rock concert when the lead singer—the guy I was dating—was trying to come down enough from a bad trip to get on the stage.

It had been established that I was not shy. Even if I felt odd and wrong about accepting this award while wearing diamonds and couture in a room full of women wearing the same when the charity was about helping women who had literally nothing. Even then, I could turn it on. I could play the game. Because without all of this, the charity would not get the money and attention it needed. So I was more than willing to spout some bullshit, indulge in the spectacle for the greater good.

But I was hyperaware of Karson in the audience. Of his eyes on me.

I cleared my throat, cognizant of the amount of eyes on me. “I want to thank you all for being here tonight.” I addressed the crowd but kept my eyes on him.

“I know it may seem like just another gala, a reason to get dressed up and drink cocktails. Just another dinner. If you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all, right?”

A slight hum of laughter reverberated through the crowd.

“We’re used to charity being an event,” I continued. “But we don’t think anything else about it. Not something that we should explore in ways other than signing checks.” I narrowed my eyes at the crowd. “But don’t skimp on the checks.”

More laughter.

Aside from my last statement, my eyes never left Karson’s. “I know it’s rather cliché, but I do not think I deserve this award. And I promise this isn’t false modesty. If you know me personally, you know that modest is not a word used to describe me.”

Cue laughter.

“I have lived a fortunate life,” I continued. “The world that these women live in may as well be on a different planet. We’re so far removed from it. It’s easy to be removed from it. Much more comfortable. But I’m not content being comfortable. And I’m not comfortable staying within the confines of my fortunate life. The one that my parents gave me.”

My gaze moved from Karson to where my parents were standing beside him. “If my grandparents hadn’t been brave enough to leave Vietnam, my mother would not have created the life that she did here. Don’t get me wrong, she’d be running things wherever she was in the world, but my grandparents knew that she would not ascend to the heights she deserved if they stayed where they were. And my mother created an empire. She met my father. They created me.”

I smiled at my parents.

“It was a genetic lottery that had me being born here,” I said. “Given the life I live because of my grandparents’ bravery and sacrifice, because of my mother’s tenancy, my father’s kind heart. But I could’ve been born into a different life. One where I wasn’t afforded the right to read. To choose my own suitor.”

My eyes touched Karson.

“It was luck. Extraordinary luck that had me born here instead of somewhere where diamonds, gowns, freedom seem like items and concepts found on another planet. So I truly don’t deserve an award for trying to help people with what I was born with. But thank you for the recognition. And the big checks.”

I winked at the audience then left the stage.

“He’s different, isn’t he?” my father asked as we watched Karson dance with my mother. Yes, Karson was dancing with my mother. I had no fucking idea how it had come about. Karson, it turned out, was good with parents. He was excellent with parents. And with my parent’s snobby friends.

He was a different man.

Almost … charming. Almost. He couldn’t shake off that menacing air that hovered around him. People were scared of him. I could see that. And I liked it. Liked that he was mine.

My parents, of course, were not scared. They were impressed.

“Than the others,” my father clarified. “He’s different.”

My parents had been around for a lot of the men I’d dated. I hadn’t tried to hide my romantic history from them, I honestly hadn’t thought they noticed all that much. My father had abandoned the shotgun and the porch routine when I started dating a teen popstar at sixteen.

It didn’t suit him anyway. He took care of himself, my father. He came from Greek parents who had money. Oil money. Not from humble beginnings like my mother. He’d been born rich. He hadn’t had to fight for much, well, except my mother. She put up somewhat of a fight, falling in love with a filthy rich businessman when she was determined to make her own fortune.

But he won her over.

My father won everyone over. He had kind eyes. Light brown, easy to smile, his face wrinkled with evidence of that. Those wrinkles only made him look more distinguished, handsome. The same with the white in his midnight black hair. And he worked with a trainer six days a week, even in his late sixties, so he was in great shape too.

But his hands were smooth, without calluses, scars. He was not a fighter, my father.

Which was why I adored him. And kind of killed the theory that every girl looked for a man like their father, because Karson couldn’t be more his opposite.

But my father was perceptive. Apparently, more perceptive than I’d thought. He loved me. A lot. I knew that. From the way he bought me ponies, jewelry, flew all of my friends to the Maldives for my sixteenth birthday. He threw money at me to show his love.

I hadn’t thought he looked at my life close enough to see what Karson was.

Then again, Karson was a guy you looked at, who you saw.

“Yeah, Daddy, he’s different,” I admitted quietly.

“I’m happy for you,” he smiled down at me. “You’ve found a man who will treat you like you deserve. Not like the princess I treated you as but as the queen you are.”

His words hit true.

“Do I want to know what he does for a living?” he asked after a few beats.

I bit my lip and tried not to smile. “No, Daddy.”

His eyes twinkled as he nodded, draining his drink. “Okay, then.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

I Love the Rain the Most – Joe Purdy

We were back at my place.

Not because I particularly wanted to be there, but because it was much closer than Karson’s cottage, and both of us were desperate for each other.

We’d barely made it in the front door.

That’s where our clothes were.

We were now in the kitchen after hours in bed. Karson had cooked us fettucine because the food at the dinner was impossibly fancy and comically small.

I had devoured the food because I was starving and because Karson was a truly wonderful cook.

I liked it. Him cooking for me. Caring for me in that way. It went deeper, meant more considering my problems in the past. It felt like he was repairing a part of me. Nourishing a vulnerable part.

He had on his slacks but nothing else. My eyes went to his chest. There was no shock seeing my name there. No anger.

Only warmth spreading from the deepest parts of me.

He was right. There was no more running.

I thought of my father’s question.

“Do I want to know what he does for a living?”

There was knowing there. Because my father was shrewd and he’d spent many years around all kinds of people with all kinds of money.

He knew the value of plausible deniability.

Me? I did not.

“If we’re going to do this,” I gestured between us, “like really do this, I need to know everything. I’m not going to be content only knowing the sanitized, official version of your life, your job. I need to know every detail, even the things you think I can’t handle.” My gaze sharpened on his. “Especially the things you think I can’t handle.”

Karson held my eyes for a long moment, perhaps measuring how serious I was. That or deciding whether or not he could tell me all the shady things about his life.

“There’s nothing I think you can’t handle,” he said quietly.

My eyes widened in surprise, and something warm encircled my heart.

Karson folded his arms across his chest, and my eyes flickered to the way his muscles bulged as he did that, momentarily distracted and turned on.

“If I tell you everything, there’s no going back,” he continued, voice husky, most likely having seen the spark of hunger in my eyes. This man knew my every gesture, every expression, just like I knew his. Even though his were much more subtle than mine.

My eyes found his once more, hungry, intense, knowing. “Honey, you’ve got my fucking name tattooed on your chest. I’m pretty sure there’s no going back.”

The harsh angles in his face softened with my words, his expression turning far less grave and far more tender.

He stepped forward, grasping my hips and yanking me to him so our bodies were flush. I relaxed into him, my body molding into his.

One hand left my hip to tilt my chin up so my eyes met his.

“You just called me honey,” he said.

I blinked at him, surprised.

“First time you’ve called me that,” he said, the words yanking the ground from under me. It felt as if Karson wasn’t holding me, I would’ve tumbled down into nothingness. Had I really been that determined to hold him at arm’s length that this was such a big deal to him? An offhand endearment that he held in his hand like it was the most precious thing in the world.

Fuck, I could be a total fucking bitch.

I bit my lip, unsure of what to say. The truth seemed like the best course of action, but the mere thought of verbalizing it scared me. Fucking terrified me. It was like jumping out of a plane without knowing for sure if your parachute was going to inflate.

I focused on Karson, the depth behind those dark eyes of his. The soft grip of his fingers on my chin, the reassuring strength of his hand at my hip, his smell that immediately relaxed me, made me feel safe.

I took a deep breath. Karson watched me silently, waiting without any outward signs of impatience. Like he would stand here, waiting for me to gain the courage to tell him the truth for the rest of his fucking life.

“I know you’re probably going to get all alpha male furious at me mentioning the men who came before you,” I started, trying to force my voice to sound firm yet teasing at the same time. “I know you men secretly want untouched virgins at the same time you want to be able to sample whomever you want as many times as you want before you find the right one. And it’s probably going to piss you off, but for the sake of clarity, I have to talk about it.”

Karson’s expression didn’t change, no fury danced in his eyes. If anything, the corners of them crinkled just a bit. He tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. “Sweetheart, I don’t give a fuck how many men came before me, especially because I know they didn’t get what I’m getting. I know you didn’t give them what you give me.”

My nostrils flared, annoyed. And also absolutely fucking floored at the softness of his tone. “Of course,” I muttered. “Of course, I ramp up to tell you my big honest truth, and of course, you already fucking know it.”

The corner of his eyes crinkled tighter. “Sorry, baby.” He pretended to be chastised. “I’ll let you finish.”

I scowled at him. “What’s the point?”

His face turned serious. “The point is, I want to fuckin’ hear it.”

I pursed my lips, eager to step out of his arms. He was pissing me off yet turning me on at the same time, and I felt especially vulnerable. I knew that if I tried to move, Karson’s grip would become iron.

“Fine,” I huffed. “With all the men who came before you, I called them honey, baby, sweet-cheeks … what the fuck ever because it didn’t mean anything. They didn’t mean anything. It was all surface.” I took a breath, desperate to look down, not wanting to have to make such declarations while looking into Karson’s eyes. But I knew the second my eyes went downward, the pressure on my chin would tighten. And I liked that. Karson held me accountable. Didn’t let me run.

From this.

Or myself.

“I mean it with you,” I whispered. “And that scares me.”

He smiled at me. “If this doesn’t scare you, darlin’, then you’re braver than me. Because I’ll tell you right here, right now… What I feel for you terrifies the fuck out of me.”

My bones shook with his words. The sincerity behind them.

“Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way,” I announced, clearing my throat. “You were going to tell me all of the tawdry details of your day job.”

Karson’s expression changed. Darkened. Not with anger, but with something else. Something that looked almost … uncertain.

Karson was like an immoveable object, impossible to destroy. He was bulletproof in my mind.

Seeing that vulnerability, the chink in his armor, made me like him even more. Settled him right into the center of me.

Now it was my turn to be tender. Though I was easily affectionate with people I dated, with my girlfriends, I felt overly aware of myself doing it with Karson. Aware that everything I did cemented something about us. Tangled us more permanently into each other.

But my affection for this man, my need to comfort him, trumped all my crazy about getting more intimate with him. It was closing the gate after the horse left the barn.

I lifted my hand to gently caress his jaw. It was silky smooth, his skin warm underneath my palm. Watching his body relax into my touch granted him permission to settle somewhere deep inside me, somewhere he’d never leave, no matter what happened.

“It’s not going to change anything,” I told him firmly. “Whatever you think is going to alter my feelings for you, however terrible. I can promise you that.”

He let the words sink in, seemingly assessing the weight of them. I’m sure a lot of people could say such things, thinking they meant them, but then faced with the reality of the situation found themselves ready to run.

At the beginning of this, I was poised to run. But as I said, that was closing the gate way after the horse had already bolted. This was a thing. We were a thing. And I didn’t do anything in halves.

“Jay has multiple businesses,” Karson finally broke the silence. “Some of them legitimate, most of them not.”

This, I already knew. I had kept these facts to myself but kept a close eye on Stella. I was not her mother, and no matter how much I wanted to protect her, it was not my job to make decisions for her. Just to be there for her when the consequences of those decisions—be them good or bad—manifested.

“I solve problems for him,” Karson continued. “Sometimes with his legitimate businesses, but mostly not since he has an army of ivy league assholes to deal with that.”

I grinned ever so slightly, thinking of those ivy league assholes shrinking in Karson’s shadow.

“Mostly, I deal with the less legitimate businesses.” He idly played with some strands of my hair. “He’s involved in various aspects of the underworld including keeping territories under control, taking a cut of gun running and dealing with other organizations hungry for his territory. But his main income and focus is prostitution.”

I flinched at this. Not because I had anything against sex workers—exactly the contrary, in fact. I believed that women in hard circumstances made even harder decisions, and the laws should not be punishing them for doing so. They should be altered to keep those women safe. What I had issue with was that Jay was essentially a pimp, something that hadn’t come up in my research. Pimps got a terrible rap, for good reason. Men should not be profiting off women selling sex. And that was the best-case scenario. Worst case, they took almost all of their money, beat them and trafficked them.

All things I did not approve of, not in the fucking slightest. In fact, I’d started a charity to help sex workers find their way out of those situations, giving them safe places to live, regardless of if they were still on the street or not. I hired private security for them if they were.

No one knew about this charity, of course, because it wasn’t completely legal. But my father’s slimiest lawyer had set it all up for me, and it made a small difference to an enormous problem.

But it did not make me feel differently about Karson. Especially since I hadn’t heard the rest of it.

So I waited for the rest.

“I already see your claws coming out,” Karson commented dryly. “Wanting to fight for women who, in most circumstances, are treated like shit by assholes making money off them.” His brows shot to his forehead. “Am I right?”

I raised my brow right back. “You’re certainly not wrong.”

Karson chuckled. It was a lovely sound, especially since it was occurring in the midst of such a topic.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” he murmured, leaning forward to kiss me on the head.

I melted at the gesture, just a little, until he pulled back, and I remembered he needed to say a load more for me to feel okay about this situation.

“We don’t take a cut of the girl’s money,” he informed me. “Don’t lay a hand on them. We punish anyone who does, though.”

“You punish anyone who does,” I clarified.

Karson nodded curtly.

Punish. That was a rather broad word. It could encompass a black eye, waterboarding or a shallow grave. Knowing Karson, I didn’t think he would stop at a black eye when it came to a man laying a hand on a woman, and that would not make me lose sleep at night.

“If they don’t have somewhere to live, we’ve got a house, behind gates, with twenty-four-hour security.” Karson watched me intently as I absorbed his words. “Medical care, childcare, if they want to go to college… It’s all paid for.”

“Doesn’t sound like the work of villains to me, honey,” I told him, the endearment coming out sweet on my tongue now. “Sounds like something awfully close to what men on white steads do in fairy tales.”

Karson did not smirk at my joke. “I’m not a hero, Wren. Neither is Jay. He’ll be the first to tell you that. We didn’t get to where we are by being noble. And we sure as fuck don’t stay where we are by being white knights.”

His voice was harsh, but he wasn’t being harsh to me. He was making sure not to embellish the truth, sugarcoat what he did. Maybe, just a little, he was trying to test me, scare me away, because he hadn’t completely gotten over his guilt for dragging me into his world.

“What we do with those women is our fucked-up way of trying to balance the scales, even in the slightest,” he shrugged. “Separate ourselves from the rest of the scum out there. But in truth, we’re no different than them. I’ve killed men before, Wren. Tortured them. Seen the life leave someone’s eyes. It used to keep me up at night. It doesn’t anymore.”

He waited for that to sink in. For me to run, if need be, even if he was keeping me prisoner in his gaze.

“I need you to know that, baby,” he watched me intently as he spoke. “Because that’s the reality of this life. Right now, it may not bother you. But later down the line, when the reality of this sinks in, it might eat away at you. You might ask me to stop. Leave this life. And as much as I’d do anything you asked, I would do anything but that. I can’t be anything else than who I am right now. I've lived enough of my life to know that.” He gave me a long look, as if he was committing me to memory. “I need you to know that.”

I tilted my head, giving him a wide-eyed look. “You really underestimate who I am if you think I’m going to want to change you at any point in this relationship. I’m not going to suddenly have a longing for a white picket life, two point five kids, a golden retriever and a man who works in some office where he fucks his secretary. That is my personal version of hell.”

I leaned over to grab his wine glass then took a long sip from it.

“I’m sure I won’t agree with many of the things you do in your work, but I can tell you right now with complete certainty, I’m not expecting you to be anyone else but the man you were when I met you.”

My eyes ran down his torso, stuttering on his tattoo then finishing at his eyes. “The man you are right this very moment. Because I can promise you that I’m always going to be the woman standing in front of you right now. I’m going to be doing crazy shit, causing trouble, wandering around the house at three in the morning. So it really won’t serve either of us if you think you’ll ever want me to be smaller, quieter, something you can own.”

Karson chuckled at that.

Chuckled.

In the space of my big speech. The one I was rather proud of.

“Sweetheart... I wouldn’t dream of changing a fucking thing about you. And I think we’ve established that you’re the one who owns me. Body and soul.”

I stared at the tattoo on his chest. I didn’t say it aloud, but despite what he said, he owned me too.

Stella had disappeared.

Not Dateline Special disappeared—she’d called and left a message to tell me where she was going—but she dropped off the face of the earth.

Well, almost.

She was at the bottom of the world in New Zealand. A styling job for a TV show had come up at the last minute, and she’d jumped on a plane in an instant.

Because Jay had broken her heart.

As I had predicted.

But it had been over a month. Stella sent emails, texts, anything she could do to avoid phone calls with the three of us. We were all worried. Yasmin and Zoe had devised various ways they could destroy Jay’s life. I’d held them off, barely. I’d held them off because I was waiting for him to get his shit together and realize what he’d lost. Once he did that, he would do the big romantic gesture thing where he jumped on a plane and crossed an ocean to declare his undying love for Stella.

That had not happened.

And that pissed me right off.

Though I didn’t make a point to meddle in my friend’s love lives—depending on your definition of meddle—this situation obviously needed some sort of intervention. One of my best friends was on the other side of the world, heartbroken, without her girlfriends.

That would not do.

So I had a plan. And I was ready to instigate said plan when I pulled up to Klutch in the early afternoon.

Karson met me at the door. Whether he had cameras mounted on the outside of the club, or he was tracking my phone, I wasn’t sure. At that moment, I didn’t give a fuck. I had one goal, and it had nothing to do with my boyfriend.

Yes, I was calling him my boyfriend now. He had my name tattooed on him, for fuck’s sake. Though boyfriend seemed much too small and juvenile of a word for Karson. For what we had. But I didn’t have time for semantics at that time.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, eyes flickering up and down my body as if he was searching for something.

Wounds. He was checking for wounds of some kind. Since he knew I wouldn’t just turn up at his place of work. He could’ve been torturing an enemy or something. Not that he shied away from me knowing the realities of his work, but knowing and seeing were two different things. He was scared of me running away from him because of the reality of his work. I knew it. He didn’t tell me. He didn’t need to. We were at that place where we just knew things about each other based on looks, on tones, on the way he held me late at night after coming home with blood on his shirt.

I wasn’t sure whether he didn’t think I could handle it or if he didn’t want me to handle it, it didn’t matter. He was afraid. I needed to figure out a way to reassure him that nothing was pushing me away. Something flickered in my mind, but I quickly pushed it away.

This was not the time.

“I’m here to see your boss,” I informed him, slipping past him to stride into the club.

It looked odd during the day. Unnatural. All the lights on, the dance floor empty, some bar staff unpacking bottles. My eyes focused on the glass high above the dance floor.

Jay’s office.

Karson’s snatched my arm, grip tight. “You are not going in there, darlin’.”

I looked from where his hand was gripping my upper arm to his glacial eyes. “You want to remove me, bodily?” I asked, threat in my tone. “Because you use your hands on me in that way and we’re done.” I meant it. Every fucking word.

His grip remained a steel band around my bicep a few seconds longer before he finally let go.

“Good choice,” I muttered, turning on my heel and stomping toward the narrow hallway I knew led to Jay’s office.

Karson followed me.

Obviously.

He didn’t speak to me until I was standing in front of the elevator. He stood in front of me, blocking my path.

I glared at him. “Get out of my way, Karson,” I demanded through gritted teeth.

He didn’t move.

“Wren, I know you think you have good intentions, but fucking with Jay right now is not a good idea.”

I folded my arms across my chest.

“Well, you know what they say about the road to hell,” I retorted, staring at the doors. “I would go to hell and back for my friend. And I’m sure Jay is very scary and dangerously unpredictable but I’ve dealt with worse than him.”

It was on that the doors opened and I stormed in, turning to face Karson who made it look like he intended on riding the elevator with me.

I held up my hand, and even though it wouldn’t work in actually blocking his way, he stopped anyway. Presumably because of the look on my face.

“I’m not going to be in an enclosed space with you right now,” I snapped.

Karson’s eyes flared, and I watched him battle with the decision to go with his alpha male instincts and get in the elevator no matter what I said, or respect my wishes.

Normally, I was all about an alpha male fight with him because even when I lost, I won. But this was different. He was aware of that because he knew me. Because he’d agreed that he wasn’t going to try to control me.

So he let the doors close.

I did not sigh in relief. I was too keyed up.

When the doors opened upstairs, I didn’t hesitate to storm out.

I had never seen Jay in person. My best friend had been fucking this guy for months—my best friend was in love with this guy—yet none of us had met him. I knew that was by his design. He was still clinging to all the rules he’d created at the beginning of their relationship, still scrambling for control. He wanted to send Stella a message by not meeting the most important people in her life.

Good thing I was here to send a message too.

“You’re still here,” I snapped at the man behind the desk.

His eyes moved up from the computer screen as I approached, surprise flickering in them, the rest of his face a cold and unforgiving mask.

He was handsome. That was a given. With the suit, the emerald eyes, the hair. I’d expected that, as well as the general air of danger around the man.

I was fucking Karson, who had an entirely different and, in my opinion, entirely more malicious air of danger, so I wasn’t fazed. Moreover, I was here to battle for my girl. I would fight fucking dragons for her.

This was not a dragon. This was just a man.

“Why are you still here?” I demanded, laying my palms flat on his desk, leaning down to glare at him, to communicate that his badass mask did not work on me. Not even a little.

He was inspecting me in a way that felt uncomfortable. Probing. Not in any kind of sexual way, but similar to the way Karson had originally looked at me on the street that first day. Weighing me. Considering me. Really fucking looking.

“I’m here because this is my office.” His voice was smooth, deep, even.

There was a ding as the elevator doors opened once more. Karson was obviously not content to have me up here alone with his boss. I didn’t know if he thought Jay was going to hurt me or if he thought I might hurt Jay. I didn’t look back at him, though Jay’s emerald eyes darted back.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Karson said from behind me. “I’ll get rid of her.”

That was when I looked at my boyfriend. “Pray tell, Karson, honey, tell me how you plan on getting rid of me.” My tone was full of challenge. Of warning.

I fucking hated the way Karson called Jay ‘sir’ too. Like he was less than him in some way.

“It’s okay, Karson,” Jay’s voice interrupted our stare off.

Karson did not look at his boss, he was staring daggers at me, promising all sorts of punishment. I stared right back, promising him the exact same thing.

Once I had silently expressed how pissed I was with him, I turned to face Jay once more. “You need to go to Stella,” I told him.

Jay’s expression didn’t crack as I said her name, but I saw something move in his eyes. He was not the marble man he considered himself to be.

Of course, he didn’t answer me. That would seriously fuck with his ‘I’m the bad guy, I don’t care about anyone or anything’ routine.

Time to go a new route.

“You know she’s in the hospital, right?” I asked, keeping my expression even.

A lie. A tiny white one for the greater good. Nothing lit a fire under an alpha male’s ass like thinking his woman was in some kind of danger. It cut through all the bullshit.

That was when the marble façade cracked. Fucking shattered.

Jay turned into something else, something that even I was a teeny bit afraid of. He had stood and rounded his desk before I could fathom what was going on. He was coming for me, that much was clear. To do what, I wasn’t sure. But if the look in his eyes was anything to go by, it wasn’t going to be good.

Karson stepped in front of me.

His hand was flat on Jay’s chest, stance rigid as danger rippled from him.

“Stand down, Jay,” he commanded in a voice I’d never heard before.

This was it. This was Karson going to battle for me. Against his boss and kind of bestie.

Jay glowered at Karson. His own stance was taut, wired. They were in an alpha male standoff. Though I was concerned that Karson might get another scar to add to his collection, I figured even if this went south it would be entertaining. They wouldn’t actually kill each other. And Karson would win. He was in protective mode. And he was a total fucking badass.

The stare down lasted a while. I was tempted to check my emails, but they’d probably both be offended I wasn’t impressed or terrified or turned on.

So I waited, resisting the urge to roll my eyes.

Jay eventually stepped back, whether it was because he knew it was a fight he wasn’t going to win or if he remembered what I said about Stella, I wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter.

Because he snatched up his phone on the desk.

“I need you to book me a flight to New Zealand. The next flight,” he told the person on the phone.

Success.

Once he’d hung up the phone, he turned his attention back to me, hands flat on the desk. He was rattled.

“Tell me what you know,” he ground out.

Oh, shit. Yes, I’d told him Stella was in the hospital.

I grinned at him. He didn’t like that. “I knew you still loved her,” I beamed triumphantly.

Jay’s expression tightened. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Oh, he was going to turn this into a thing. “I knew that the second you thought Stella was hurt, you’d get your head out of your ass and go get her,” I explained to him.

Jay’s gaze darkened into what I guessed was his villain stare. I had weathered plenty of those, so it didn’t affect me. “You mean she’s fine?” he asked quietly.

I scowled at him. “Of course, she’s not fucking fine,” I snapped. “You shattered her heart into a million pieces, and she’s run off to the middle of nowhere New Zealand, not a Sephora or Nordstrom to be seen. She’s nowhere near fucking fine.”

My heart broke, thinking of how much pain Stella must’ve been in to run away like that, to avoid us so completely. My hands fisted at my sides even thinking about it.

Jay was still villain-glaring at me. “But she’s not in the hospital?” he clarified.

It was clear then that Jay really was not okay with my little white lie. Karson stepped in front of me.

I rolled my eyes at him. “Settle down, Karson. He’s not going to hurt me.”

Jay was not staring at Karson, his attention was weighted on me. “How can you be so sure?” he asked, the words a threat.

“Because you know how much I mean to Stella, and you wouldn’t hurt her,” I answered, not an ounce of fear in my voice. “Not beyond what you’ve already done. Which you most likely did while trying to be noble or some shit. Trying to protect her.”

I rolled my eyes once again, attention flickering to Karson who was still on high alert.

“I swear, you fucking badass alpha male types are so hell-bent on being heroic, on protecting us from the world, from yourselves, you’re blind to seeing that your toxic masculinity is the thing that fucks us up the most.”

Karson showed no reaction to my words, even though they were also spoken for his benefit.

I turned my attention back to Jay. “If you’d thought the unthinkable, to … I don’t know, speak to Stella honestly, lay it all out and let her make her own decisions about what’s good for her and what’s not, we probably wouldn’t be in this fucking predicament,” I sighed. “Nonetheless, we are. So you’re going to New Zealand.”

I was rather satisfied with my little speech. More than satisfied. These men were like toddlers, all they really needed was a stern talking to.

He wasn’t going to agree with me straight away, of course. He had to sit there with that granite stare on his face, operate under the illusion that he was in control of all of this. When really, these men, these strong, dangerous men were powerless against us.

The only problem was, we were pretty powerless against them too. And we were both trying to hide that.

“No,” Jay spoke finally, and my heart stuttered. “I am not going to New Zealand.” His eyes went from Karson then back to me. “We are.”

It was then I grinned.

“Fuck yes we are.”

CHAPTER NINE

I Want More – KALEO

The elevator ride down was silent. Painfully silent. Karson was obviously still pissed about the whole thing. I was not troubling myself with that. I was sending texts to Zoe and Yasmin to let them know I was going to get our girl.

I left Jay out of it. Mentioning his name to them would invite trouble. Better to wait until Stella was stateside and once again in love. They would be less trigger happy and less likely to ruin Jay’s—and in turn Karson’s—lives. These alpha males were hell-bent on protecting us when they had no idea how much we protected them.

Karson made it clear that he was not happy with the silence, not happy about me ignoring his male fury when we got out of the elevator.

“What the fuck was that?” Karson hissed, pushing me against the wall. His eyes were wild. Furious.

I had quite a bit of my own fury, so I matched his stare. “That was me fighting for my friend. Because your friend is a real fucking dick.”

I was happy that Jay was going to do the grand gesture thing, but I was not back on his team. Not yet.

“He’s not my friend,” Karson shot back. “He is one of the most dangerous men in the city. I owe my life to him. And you made me face up against him, prepared to kill him if I had to.”

“Well, you didn’t have to, did you?” I snapped back. “Plus, I didn’t need you to step in for me. I had it handled.”

Karson’s eyes bulged. “You had it handled?” he ran his hands through his hair, his frustration obvious. He shook his head. “Jesus fucking Christ, Wren. I get that you’re used to walking into any situation and walking out again with a great story, but it doesn’t work that way in my world. If I’m not there to protect you, you might not walk out again. And what the fuck am I supposed to do then?”

My stomach did a little flip, but I was still pissed, so I ignored it. “I am capable of protecting myself,” I argued, hands flying to my hips. “I know you think I’m vapid and naïve and do things without thinking, but I was well aware of what I was doing in there.” I pointed vaguely upward. “And I apologize if that put you in a bad position with your boss, truly. But someone needed to do that for Stella. I would do anything for her. I would run into a burning house to save her. As it was, I didn’t have to. I got us a trip to New Zealand where, hopefully, my friend’s broken heart will be repaired.”

Karson was still glaring at me, but the glare had changed somehow. Softened.

“I fuckin’ love you,” he growled.

Growled.

I blinked at him.

Did he really just say those three words, the three words I knew he felt but he’d never simply said out loud in all of his alpha male declarations about his feelings? Yes, he did. He just growled them with a glare on his face.

Because he was Karson.

And he wasn’t fucking done.

“I do not think you are vapid or naïve,” he grunted. “You’re not to say that shit again. I think you’re stubborn, infuriating, that you are so fucking loyal that you will do anything for the people you care about, regardless of the dangers it poses to you.” He was gripping my neck now.

The silence thrummed between us, both of us refusing to break the stare, refusing to back down.

I didn’t know who broke it first. It didn’t really matter. Our mouths clashed, kissing each other angrily, hungrily. Karson’s hands pushed up my skirt, ripping at my panties. I tore at his clothes with the same primal intensity. My fury had been channeled into something else entirely, and I felt like an animal.

The second I freed him from his belt, he lifted me, surging into me in the next fluid movement. Our mouths found each other once more as he fucked me brutally against the wall.

We were packing to go to New Zealand.

To see Stella.

Jay was going to see Stella, and he’d demanded we go with him.

Normally, especially considering my current feelings for the man, I would not get on a plane and cross the world just because a man had ordered me to. I’d learned my lesson on that one. It was a sticky situation to get out of and required waking up a few senators to call in some favors to get me back from Qatar.

But I complied because Jay, this dark demon of a human, was afraid of what awaited him at the bottom of the world. He was afraid that Stella was going to reject him—as was her right after the way he treated her. So he wanted me, presumably, to be there to make her feel comfortable, to speak on his behalf. Which I wasn’t going to do. I was going because I missed my friend, and because I was a hopeless romantic who wanted to see her happy. If she was all about taking Jay back, great. If she’d met some hunky Kiwi and decided to have his babies, equally great. But I knew my friend. Her heart was Jay’s, and her heart was not fickle.

Jay also, from what I could gather, did not have any close friends. Nor did Karson. He didn’t have buddies over for the game, didn’t go on boys’ trips. They were besties, in a badass criminal type way, but besties just the same. And Jay wanted his buddy with him in case things went south.

It was cute.

Karson didn’t think it was cute. He’d muttered things about ‘logistics’, until I told him I wanted a vacation with him. Then he’d stopped muttering, but he didn’t look happy.

He’d packed a bag, though.

One bag.

We didn’t even know how long we’d be gone for.

I already had two suitcases and was working on a third. Karson was watching me.

His gaze was heavy, as it had been since we left Klutch, since we exchanged ‘I love yous.’ There was something brewing in that mind of his. There was a lot of things brewing in my head too, but I was doing my best to distract myself by choosing between strappy sandals.

It came to a head as I zipped up my last bag.

“When I grabbed your arm in Klutch, it triggered something in you,” Karson said.

I jerked my chin up. “When you manhandled me, you mean?”

Instead of saying anything, Karson advanced. He stalked forward. It was not with a familiar expression of hunger. No. This was the Karson who worked for Jay. The deadly one. The one who could and had killed men with his bare hands. Who had tortured people.

My body scuttled back out of instinct, something subconsciously telling me to retreat. To run. I didn’t stop until my back hit the wall. Karson didn’t stop until his body was pressed against mine, caging me in. His hands went to the wall on either side of my head.

My heart roared in my ears.

His eyes were pits. His energy menacing.

He was doing this on purpose. To test me. To find out what that was at Klutch. Because he saw me. And he saw that there was something behind my reaction to him grabbing my arm in that way.

“Are you afraid of me?” he whispered, his breath tickling my face.

I jutted my chin up. “No,” I replied truthfully. “I know you won’t hurt me. At least not in ways I don’t want you to. I’m well versed in the difference between dangerous men who would do anything but truly hurt a woman, and emotionally stunted man-children who will only hurt women.”

The comment was meant to make me sound worldly, experienced, unafraid. It was meant to let Karson know I was not some pampered princess who was unaware of the realities of this world and the assholes who called it home. But it did not have its intended effect.

Not even a little.

Karson pushed away from the wall, his hand just barely resting on my chest with the lightest of touches. The air felt charged, Karson’s hand lingering for only a moment more before he stepped back entirely, eyes glued to mine.

“A man has laid his hands on you.”

Again, one of his non-questions. Every survival instinct I had told me it was safest to stay quiet in that moment.

But I was not a woman who chose the safest route.

“Yes. But he only did it once.” I did not break eye contact.

The air seemed to shimmer around Karson as his eyes swirled with a fury that I had never seen. My blood chilled at the look. This was the man I knew Karson was. The cold-blooded killer. I’d known that in theory, but I’d never seen him as that. He’d shielded me from it.

Until now.

Until I told him that a man had hit me, and he couldn’t hold it in anymore because it bothered him that much. He let out the monster inside of him.

It was kind of romantic when you thought about it.

“Name,” he barked.

I jumped ever so slightly before regaining my composure. “Is shouting ‘name’ at me meant to scare me into giving the identity of the man in question?” I asked in a sugary sweet tone.

Karson didn’t answer. Just continued pinning me with his smoldering, murderous stare.

I sighed. “What are you going to do? Kill him?”

“At the very least,” Karson answered through gritted teeth.

Karson wasn’t being metaphorical. Not even a little. If I gave him the name, he would hunt him down and straight up kill him.

That should have turned me off more than it did.

And it didn’t turn me off. Not even a little.

I had to work hard to get a hold of myself so that I didn’t climb Karson like a tree. “You don’t need to kill him,” I said on an exhale, licking my lips.

Karson noticed because his eyes flared, but it did not jerk him out of his murderous rage. “I disagree.”

I sighed again. “You want to defend my honor? Save me? Avenge me, right?”

A muscle in Karson’s jaw twitched. “Just give me his fuckin’ name, sweetheart,” he ordered softly.

Desire shot through me, and fire danced along my skin.

“I’ve already avenged myself,” I told him.

Karson’s forehead scrunched.

“I had his identity stolen,” I shrugged casually. “Opened a bunch of credit cards in his name, maxed them out, defaulted on some personal loans and committed minor fraud. Not to mention alerting authorities in New Mexico and Nevada, where he had outstanding warrants.”

I inspected my nails triumphantly. My phone buzzed on the bed. “That’s our car,” I said, looking at him. “We’ve got a flight to catch. And since it’s commercial, it will leave without us.”

I thought back to the minor argument I’d had with Jay about how we were going to fly. I’d told him I could take care of the arrangements. But of course, a man like him could not let anyone else take control. Not when I’d already had too much sway over his decision making. He’d assured me it was ‘handled.’

And it was. He booked us first class on the next flight. Then I called some contacts to buy out every other seat in first class.

If we were entering a dick measuring contest, he was never going to win. I had ovaries, they were so much better.

“I’m not going to go back and forth on this,” I told Karson. “I understand that you love me.” My heart did that weird little skip thing saying it out loud. I cleared my throat. “That you consider it your duty to kill this man for hurting me. But I promise you right here and now, I’m okay. I was lucky. I was in a situation where I could walk away. Where I could punish him in the way he deserved to be punished, and it did not affect my future relationships.”

Karson’s gaze was unyielding. The monster still danced in his eyes.

“I’m okay,” I repeated. “And if we’re going to do this, you need to understand that I’ve lived an eventful life. Shit has happened. Probably a lot of shit you won’t like. But we’re not living there, in the past. We’re right here. You don’t need to fight the bogeyman for me.”

“I’m always gonna fight the bogeyman for you,” he rasped. Then he kissed the fuck out of me.

Unfortunately, we really were late, so we couldn’t have sex. But the kiss was really fucking good.

Karson was sleeping.

I’d never seen him sleeping before. I knew that was some weird thing that happened to lovestruck idiots in the movies—they watched each other sleep like serial killers. I did not do that.

Mostly because since Karson and I started spending almost every night together, I actually slept.

Six hours.

Sometimes even eight, depending on what his night looked like.

Once we were done with each other, I passed out in his arms and did not wake until he woke me. With coffee. Pancakes. Or his dick.

I was a fan of all three methods of waking.

So there had never been a time when Karson fell asleep before me. I couldn’t be sure he actually slept. I’d seriously considered making the tiniest little incision somewhere on his arm just to make sure he bled. On the off chance he wasn’t some top notch, alpha male sex robot.

But here we were, five hours into the flight, and he was dead asleep. He had said something about training his body to get on the right time zone. I’d rolled my eyes and ordered another champagne.

Jay was not asleep.

He was in the pod across from us, sitting up and staring at his laptop, sipping from a mug of coffee.

I had reading material in front of me, but nothing could hold my attention. Usually on long international flights, I was with a bunch of people, drinking, talking, swapping stories.

I did not want to wake Karson. He looked much too peaceful. And now was the perfect time to talk to Jay when Karson wasn’t watching, ready to jump in front of me if I pissed Jay off.

The man in question looked up as I settled myself in an empty seat right beside him. His gaze was even, guarded.

I wasn’t sure if he was glad about my intervention or was plotting my death.

“Don’t worry, I’m not here to give you more shit about Stella,” I said. “My job is done. Well, not completely done. I’ll see her first. Get the lay of the land for you.” I winked at him. “Also, I’ve known her much longer than you, and I miss her enormously. So I call dibs.”

I took a sip of my champagne. Jay hadn’t even glanced back at his laptop. He was giving me his full attention. Also, I was pretty sure he’d just been staring at the screen, thinking about what might happen with Stella.

“I’m here to ask about your history with Karson,” I informed him, my eyes darting back over to where he was curled up asleep. “Now, I’m not asking you to betray his trust because I know all about his past and the…” I trailed off, looking around for a flight attendant. “Spy thing,” I stage whispered. “He’s been very open with me about who he is, and I adore him just the same. But he has stayed rather tight-lipped about your history with him. Out of loyalty, surely. He doesn’t want to tell your story for you. Or at all.” I regarded him. “And I don’t want to know it either, since I guess it’s a ‘if I tell you I have to kill you’ type deal, and I’m very attached to my life.” I glanced back over to Karson. “Especially right now.”

My mind lingered over the growled ‘I love you’ and my radio silence in return. Granted, we did fuck almost immediately after that. But I didn’t use any of my chances to say anything to him.

I focused back on Jay. “Although I am still pissed at you for hurting my friend, it seems I owe you a debt. Because it was you, through a series of events, who sent Karson and I hurtling toward each other. Without you, I wouldn’t have him. And I really like him. I love him, actually.” I mumbled the last part quietly, less than a whisper that was almost drowned out by the low hum of the engine.

Jay’s eyes flashed ever so slightly, but his expression stayed blank.

He was one stoic motherfucker.

“So if you feel like telling me a little story…” I invited.

Again, Jay did not speak immediately. He stared at me a while before he leaned back in his chair.

“There is a lot about my past that I haven’t told Stella,” he said. “A lot that I need to tell her first. So you’ll forgive me for doing some editing.”

I nodded in acceptance, something warm settling inside me at the tender way he said Stella’s name, how his face changed, softened for a second.

“The … organization that Karson left was not happy that he did,” he began. “And they were not happy that they didn’t notice signs, telling them he wanted to leave so they could’ve either reprogrammed or eliminated him.”

Even though I knew that Karson was sleeping a few feet away, even though I knew he’d escaped from them, a cold chill ran through me at the thought of something happening to him.

“He was smart,” Jay pressed on. “Moved a long way away, into a world deep underground. Where they wouldn’t look,” Jay explained. “The man he worked for was deplorable. True evil. But even he was afraid of Karson.” His emerald gaze veered toward Karson’s sleeping form before he focused back on me. “Karson was a much different man then. It took him years to untangle himself from the person that organization turned him into.”

When Jay leaned forward to sip from his coffee, I took the opportunity to drain my champagne. I needed it, thinking of Karson in the past. Thinking of what this fucking world had turned him into. It would’ve made sense if he’d stayed like that, a killing machine, unable to care about anything or anyone.

But he didn’t.

He cared about me.

Loved me.

In a way that made me feel safe. Treasured. He was a fucking miracle. He could say the words, and I could not.

Bullshit.

“I was much different then too,” Jay continued. “We became as close as men like us could be. I told him of my plans to overthrow the asshole ruling the city. The one who would instantly kill both of us if he thought it would keep him safer. Karson followed my lead. Had my back. And he has ever since.”

Though his voice remained cold, I could detect something there. Respect. A manly kind of affection. Jay did truly care about Karson. Although he would probably rather die than say it out loud.

“Can I get you another champagne, ma’am?” the flight attendant asked. I’d been so engrossed in Jay’s little story that I hadn’t heard him approach.

“Yes, you can.” I handed him my glass. “And could you please get this gentleman a whiskey?”

He nodded. “Right away.”

Jay’s gaze was steely. “I’m not in the habit of letting a woman order a drink for me,” he informed me in a flat, dry tone.

I grinned at him. “Oh, honey, if we’re gonna be friends, you may have to get a little bit flexible about your habits and your rules.”

Jay didn’t speak as the attendant handed us our drinks.

I held up my flute. “To you winning my best friend back and learning to relax a little.”

To my absolute surprise, he clinked his glass with mine.

“Karson is totally fucked,” he observed.

I beamed at him. “I know. Isn’t it great?”

Everything turned out wonderfully with Stella and Jay.

I went to see her first. It immediately hit me, the heartbreak that seeped out of her every fucking pore. It made my heart bleed, to see my friend in that much pain. It also scared the shit out of me.

“He will be your destruction.”

The words rang in my ears.

I pushed them away. I was here for Stella. And luckily, it all worked out for her. Well, her and Jay likely had a lot more to hammer out. Because, in reality, the grand gesture of flying across the world to declare your undying love for someone after hurting them was just the beginning.

There would be mountains to climb.

But I had hope it would work out.

As for Karson and me, there was not a mountain to be seen. I’d rented a cottage on the beach, and we barely left it. Which was terrible, really, considering the untouched beauty of New Zealand. But we hadn’t had that much uninterrupted time with each other … ever. He cooked for me. He fucked me. And … yeah, that was it. It was wonderful. Absolutely fucking wonderful.

Like some kind of dream.

“I love it here,” I said to him as we sat on the beach watching the sun set on our last day. “I love us here. It’s so peaceful.”

“Sweetheart, you’d be bored to tears with peaceful in about three more days.”

I poked my tongue out at him, even though he wasn’t wrong. As much as I’d adored what we had here, it was only special because I knew it was temporary. We both needed more to our lives. Karson needed the darkness of his life in the underworld, I needed the chaos … wherever that took me.

The waves crashed gently on the sand. I stared back out at them, sucking in a breath as I struggled to find the courage.

“I didn’t say it back,” I whispered. “When you told me you loved me. I didn’t say it back.”

“You don’t need to, sweetheart,” Karson told me in a soft tone that broke my heart.

I turned to him. “Yes, I do. I do need to say it back. I need to give it to you. Because you saying it was the most precious gift I’ve ever received.”

“I’ve never been in love,” I admitted. “I tell myself I have, because it’s so much more interesting. But I’ve never felt attached to anyone. Never given a second thought to them after I was done, once I got bored. It was rather nasty of me, really, because a lot of them told themselves they loved me too. They didn’t, of course. I never gave them anything tangible to love, but they loved the idea of me. And they were prone to dramatics because the men I broke up with were not used to a woman walking away from them. Which, of course, made me all the more desirable to them.” I rolled my eyes. “You men are all so predictable.”

My eyes ran over the man I loved. He wasn’t wearing a suit. Hadn’t in the entire time we were here. For the very first time, I’d seen him in jeans. In swimming trunks. I’d seen him in the daylight. It was something rather spectacular.

“Except you,” I murmured. “You are the farthest thing from predictable. You’re … menacing, sweet, worldly, kind, a great chef, you’re the best fuck I’ve ever had. You read historical romances. You garden. You contain multitudes. I know I’ll never be bored with you. Always be safe with you.” I took a breath. “I love you.”

The words that I’d been dreading saying for however long, the ones I was sure would taste bitter, like the end of things, tasted sweeter than anything I’d tasted. My body relaxed fully after saying them.

Karson leaned forward to kiss me. Tenderly. Slowly. With reverence. Then he pulled back so his eyes met mine. “I know I was living before we met,” he rasped. “I was content with the life I had. I wasn’t searching for more. For better. For anything. But then I looked into your eyes. Saw you square your shoulders, ready to take me on for your friend. Ready to jump in front of a fucking train for someone you love.” He reached up to brush a hair from my face.

The gesture was so tender, so reverent, I flinched. No one had touched me like that before. No one had looked at me like he was right now.

Like he saw me.

Like I was endless.

“On that sidewalk, that was when I died,” he whispered. “I died so I could come alive again … just for you.”

My heart was pounding in my chest, a roar inside of my skull. I fought against the panic crawling up my throat. Men had said such things to me before, but the words were lighter, almost rehearsed, most definitely plagiarized by some fucking rom-com or a poem they read in college.

Nothing about this was rehearsed. It did not come from anyone else. This was all Karson. It came from the core of him. It was everything he had to give. And I was the only person he’d given this to.

The only person he’d give this to.

Although that was impossible for me to know, I knew it nonetheless. Karson may not have been any kind of hero from any work of fiction, and this was definitely not any kind of fairy tale, but an instinctual part of me knew this was forever. We were. For better or worse.

“I want your name on me too,” I blurted out in response to the most beautiful thing anyone had ever said to me.

Karson, to his credit, did not look at all disappointed that I didn’t respond with some kind of poetry of my own, with a declaration of love. Although I was a sucker for a rom-com or a steamy romance novel, I wasn’t exactly one for declaring my affection. Especially not when I really felt it. To the core of me. Like it was oxygenating my blood.

How in the fuck did anyone put that feeling into words? How in the fuck was I supposed to go against what Karson just said?

He leaned forward, his face reddening. “What did you just say, darlin’?”

I pursed my lips. “There’s nothing wrong with your hearing.”

Karson’s eyes twinkled. Fucking twinkled.

And that’s how I flew back to the USA the next day with Karson’s name on my skin.

CHAPTER TEN

Hold You Dear – The Secret Sisters

The peace from New Zealand didn’t last long, predictably.

Karson went back to work, so we continued our nocturnal schedule. I didn’t mind it one bit. Especially when sometimes he surprised me wherever I was—I didn’t bother asking how he knew, and I found that I wasn’t bothered either—and took me to lunch or drove me to a deserted beach and fucked me on the hood of the car.

Those times were great.

But there were also arguments.

Like the one I had with him on the eve of one of my parties. My parties were legendary. A-list celebrities begged to get invites. Presidential hopefuls scrambled to get in because some of the biggest donors they could imagine would be sipping one of my signature cocktails.

There was no particular reason for this one, other than the fact that I was happy. Stella was back with Jay, living in his fortress by the sea. Zoe seemed to have accepted him and was thriving at work. Yasmin was getting deeper in her case which meant she was also thriving.

I was in love. Busier than ever with my companies, with work for my mother and the charity projects.

Therefore, a party needed to be thrown.

Karson did not say anything when he saw me preparing for weeks before aforementioned party. Likely because he knew what my response would be when he broached the topic of having armed guards at the perimeter of the house.

Which were stationed around my house.

I’d been so busy dealing with last minute problems and getting my outfit together that I didn’t see them until guests literally started arriving.

I’d smiled as they arrived, laid on the charm then directed them to the booze before pulling Karson off to the side.

Yes, Karson was attending the party. As my date. My man. Jay and Stella were attending too. I wondered who was running the underworld in their stead.

Well, I had been wondering that until I saw the men with the guns. Then I was just plain pissed.

“You need to tell the men in the suits with the semi-automatic weapons to leave,” I hissed at Karson. “I tried to do it myself, but apparently, they think they’re guarding Buckingham Palace because they didn’t so much as blink at me. Which doesn’t make sense because if this was Buckingham Palace then that would make me the queen and therefore the only person that they have to answer to.” I stepped forward, narrowing my eyes at Karson. “But I have a sneaking suspicion that you are the one they answer to, which makes no sense because this is not your party nor your house.”

Karson didn’t so much as blink. “No, but the most precious thing in my world lives in this house. There are a shitload of people coming to this party, and I wasn’t able to vet them all.”

“Vet?” I repeated. “No one is trying to assassinate me, no one needs to be vetted.”

Karson folded his arms. “I disagree.”

“I do not need security at my party,” I informed him. I was well aware of the shit that was happening with Jay and his territory. Things were getting shady. Dangerous. That was part of the gig.

I had not expected it to be ruining my fucking party.

“It’s the Russian Mob, Wren,” he gritted out. He was obviously pissed, since he was calling me by my name. Karson was all about the endearments, which I enjoyed. But whenever he was mad, he called me ‘Wren’ in that flat but loaded tone of his.

“So?” I replied, annoyed.

“So?” he repeated. “It’s the Russian fucking Mob, Wren.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I heard you the first time. I’m sure they are very scary and very intense but they are just men, and some very well dressed women. Plus, they focus mainly on illegal gambling operations in places like Atlantic City and New York. They would not be interested in this kind of party. Although I’ll keep some vodka on ice, just for them. Happy?” I put my hand on my hip to punctuate my point.

I had never seen Karson look furious. Like truly furious, steam coming out of his ears type furious. Not until now, at least.

“This isn’t a fuckin’ joke, Wren,” he practically snarled. “And this isn’t a conversation. The men are staying. Stomp your foot. Throw a tantrum. Do whatever the fuck you want.”

I stared at him. “Oh, I will. The chief of police is a good friend of Daddy’s. And I used to date someone rather high up in the DEA. I still have his number. I’m sure he’ll be happy to come over here to remove the men with guns from my premises.”

Karson had a tic in his jaw as he folded his arms across his impressive chest. “Do it,” he challenged.

The asshole was actually calling my bluff. He knew that I wasn’t going to make that kind of spectacle. Nor was I really going to divert resources when they had real work to do.

I couldn’t do anything. Not really. Not if I wanted to go up against the armed guards. And my dress was vintage. I couldn’t risk tearing it.

“Arrgh!” I screamed, stomping my foot. I pointed at Karson. “We are not speaking for the rest of the night, potentially for the rest of eternity.”

I turned on my heel and trudged back to the party, snatching a shot off a tray and plastering a smile on my face.

I made good on my promise, avoiding Karson for the rest of the night aside from staring daggers at him. Stella noticed but wisely didn’t say anything. Nor did Zoe or Yasmin.

Despite the armed guards, the party was great. One of my best.

It was after everyone left that things got good. When Karson and I had angry sex. Then make up sex.

I eventually spoke to him again.

THREE WEEKS LATER

I blamed the different time zones.

Never mind the fact that I’d been all over the world three times over and hadn’t been jet-lagged … ever. Also never mind that New Zealand was months ago, and it was biologically impossible for it to be the reason.

There needed to be some kind of excuse. So traveling to the bottom of the world worked fairly well. There was chaos. I was seeing my best friend for the first time in months. The coffee was extraordinary. I had Karson entirely to myself. He didn’t have to run off in the middle of the night. He didn’t come home covered in blood.

It was just us.

Therefore, I was distracted. I couldn’t be trusted to do things like take the pill I’d taken religiously since I was thirteen.

Plus, I only skipped one day. Doubled up the next day. I did everything by the book. It wasn’t like I went on antibiotics and didn’t know that they affected the pill’s efficacy. I knew every caveat of the medication that came between me living the exact life I wanted and being covered in shit and spit-up.

Avoid grapefruit and its juices, antibiotics make it less effective, and take it at the same time. Every day.

I was not one to scare easily.

I’d been in multiple situations where I should’ve been scared. On a yacht in the middle of international waters with a Saudi Prince that for a hot minute didn’t seem like he was taking my refusal to marry him very well. I’d been in one minor plane crash. Had been stuck at an American embassy in Laos without a passport and in a whole load of shit.

Yet I’d never been as utterly terrified as I was right now, jonesing for a fucking cocktail or a Valium or something to take the edge off. But the reason for this fear, for the queasiness in my stomach, was the same reason I couldn’t indulge in drugs or alcohol.

I had to face this sober.

Face him sober.

He wouldn’t hurt me, of course. I knew that much. Karson wouldn’t dream of hurting me. He loved me. In a crazy, jump in front of a bullet for me, type of way. I felt the intensity of it in my every cell, while I was fucking sleeping. Sleeping with his strong arms wrapped around me.

I knew that I loved him with the same intensity that he loved me.

But loving someone, fucking them every moment possible, sleeping together, trying to inject ourselves into each other’s veins, was quite different than raising a child with them.

I was afraid of what this would do to our relationship. The life we had only just created. The lifestyle I was used to. And yes, because I was a vain piece of shit, I was worried about what it would do to my body. Not having control over such major changes filled me with crippling panic.

But then visions of a child with dark hair and Karson’s eyes entered my mind, and the panic subdued somewhat. It didn’t disappear. Couldn’t disappear, not with my past. But I could breathe around the panic.

I was at Karson’s cottage, waiting.

It was just after midnight. I hoped he’d be home soon. He didn’t exactly keep regular hours, but I didn’t either, so it worked for us. I’d never once texted him, asking what time he’d be home because I had dinner waiting or whatever the fuck.

Well, once when I was really horny, I had sent him a video of me and my vibrator, telling him that I was going to start without him if he took much longer. He’d been home less than an hour later, yelling at me about putting videos of me doing that shit out into the world.

Then he’d fucked me well and good.

Short of sending him a picture of one of the ten pregnancy tests I’d taken this evening, I just had to wait. This wasn’t something you told someone over text. Especially when I didn’t know how he would react. He might take it out on someone who didn’t deserve it.

We had not talked about children. Or our future in general. He’d said that I was his until his last heartbeat, so I assumed we were in this forever. I’d only very barely gotten used to that, especially with that damn premonition haunting me. The same premonition that I’d heard as soon as that second line popped up. I’d done very well at ignoring that, as the present was rather pressing, and a repressed past was easily pushed away.

Karson did not strike me as a man who was anxious to be a father. Not with all his demons. Not with his lifestyle.

Which was why I was pacing around his house, unable to sit still. I picked at some charcuterie then I remembered that I’d heard somewhere that pregnant women weren’t allowed charcuterie. I groaned out loud, thinking of all the rules I’d have to live by for the next nine months.

That was not enough to distract me, to calm my nerves. I was ready to explode by the time Karson’s headlights illuminated the room. Suddenly, my palms started sweating, my heart fluttering like a hummingbird in my chest, my breath shallow.

I was unfamiliar with all of these symptoms. I worried for a second that I was having some kind of heart attack.

I didn’t worry for too long since the second Karson opened the door, I fainted.

Yeah, like full on movie style fainted.

The next thing I knew, I was in the arms of a very muscular, very concerned looking man.

“Wren.” His voice was more urgent and serious than I’d ever heard it.

As he came into focus, I gazed into those icy eyes shrouded with worry. All of the nerves, all of the worry that had literally caused me to pass out were nowhere to be found.

“Baby,” he said softer, stroking my face. “I need you to tell me if you can hear me.”

“I’m pregnant,” I blurted.

He stared at me. Just stared. In shock. I’d never seen Karson lost for words before. Then again, I’d just fainted in front of him, and the first words I’d said were ‘I’m pregnant.’ Surely, my badass was prepared for a hail of bullets or commandos storming the house at any minute, but not his girlfriend—the one on birth control—telling him she was pregnant.

The next thing I knew, I was up in his arms, and he was striding toward the still open front door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Hospital,” he grunted.

Grunted.

I tried to squirm in his arms. They were like vices. “Karson, I do not need to go to the hospital,” I argued as we made it to the porch.

“You’re pregnant, and you just fuckin’ collapsed in front of me. We’re going to the hospital.”

I rolled my eyes. “They call me dramatic,” I muttered.

Karson stopped on the porch and glared down at me.

Glared.

“Dramatic?” he repeated in a dangerous tone. “You’re carrying our child, Wren. We do not get to be flippant about that.”

Our child. The two words were like music. Poetry.

My irritation disappeared. I reached up to touch his chin. “Honey, I’m not being flippant. I haven’t eaten all day. First, because I was late to a meeting, then because I had to drive all the way across the city to check on construction for one of our shelters. Then I did some counting in my head and realized I was late, after which I went to the nearest drugstore, bought up all of their tests, did about a million, freaked out, then came here.”

I took a long breath, inhaling the sweetness of his scent.

“Then I made a cheeseboard because I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, only when I’d finished making it did I remember pregnant women aren’t supposed to eat deli foods. What kind of bullshit is that, by the way? Cavewomen were eating woolly mammoths back in the day, I think I can have a double cream brie.” I waved my hand. “Anyway, I was too nervous to eat, and then I got nervous about telling you, and it all became too much. And remember, I am slightly dramatic. Though I will say I’ve never actually fainted before. That’s a new one, even for me.”

Karson stared at me, digesting everything I just said, likely weighing out whether it justified him not rushing me to the hospital.

After a few beats, we were walking back into the house. I sagged in relief.

Karson carried me all the way to the breakfast bar, setting me down gently. As gently as if I was a child.

“You got one of those million tests with you?” he asked quietly.

My stomach dropped. “You don’t believe me?”

He brushed hair from my face. “I believe you, sweetheart,” he replied, voice firm. “I just want to see.”

“They have my pee on them, you know,” I told him solemnly.

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Biting my lip, I moved to my purse where I did indeed have a pee stick. My hand was shaking ever so slightly as I handed it to him.

His head was bowed down so I couldn’t gage his expression. Karson hadn’t exactly reacted to the news yet, he’d just gone into alpha male protective mode.

My heart started beating wildly again.

Until he looked up at me smiling.

No, fucking beaming.

Karson was holding the positive pregnancy test and beaming at me. Happiness was etched onto every inch of his face.

I blinked at him. “You’re not pissed off?”

Karson’s smile faltered slightly, his brows furrowing. “Why in the fuck would I be pissed off?”

I wanted to smile at my man’s ability to transition from smiling to menacing in a single second, but this moment was just too odd. “Because you are a tough guy, alpha male with a very scary job who has lived on his own terms for over a decade, and now the woman you’ve been sleeping with is telling you she’s carrying a baby that will turn your carefully crafted life upside down?” I surmised.

“There’s a lot wrong with what you just said.” Karson’s expression turned from a stormy smile into a full-on frown. “We’re starting with the ‘woman I’m sleeping with’ part. Because although I plan on sleeping next to you for the rest of my fucking life, that’s not the only thing you are to me. I think I’ve made it very clear you’re everything to me. I’ve lived a tough life, Wren. One full of violence, blood, death. With that comes a stark understanding of the truth. Being able to wade through the bullshit. Second, you spoke to me, I knew you were mine. Knew you were it. Time doesn’t mean shit when it comes to you. In addition to that, any kind of insinuation that our fucking child would ruin my life in any way is a bunch of bullshit.”

“Okay, okay,” I murmured, smiling as my body filled with warmth. “You’re happy I’m carrying your spawn, I get it. You don’t need the whole intense, alpha male speech.”

Karson kissed the side of my head. “With you, I need the speech.”

“Let’s get one thing straight, though.” I pointed at him. “I do not need you going into insane alpha male protection mode now I’m pregnant. Women have given birth for thousands of years. Viking women went into battle, fought and won with children inside them. They gave birth on the battlefield.”

The last part was fudged a little. No historical evidence actually proved that Viking women gave birth on battlefields, but Karson didn’t need to know that.

I was ready with more examples, more hysterics if need be, knowing Karson wasn’t about to back down on this one.

But he tilted his head and regarded me with amusement and adoration. My heart swelled.

“Okay, my Viking warrior,” he murmured, kissing me on the head. Then he pointed to the cozy armchair pointed toward the ocean. “Sit,” he ordered.

I scowled. “Didn’t we just decide that I was a Viking warrior? Viking women do not sit when ordered by a man.”

“Yes, but my woman just fainted because she hasn’t eaten all day,” he countered. “So she is going to sit her ass in the chair while I make her some food.” His tone brokered no argument.

I really ached to argue. But he was right. My stomach was growling, and I was still slightly unsteady on my feet.

I pointed at him. “Just so you know, this is me deciding to go sit of my own accord because it’s been a long day, and I’m hungry,” I clarified.

He smirked. “Okay, darlin’.”

So I curled up in the chair and watched my man cook for me.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Next to You – New West

“You’re havin’ a man on you,” he said in the darkness.

It was the middle of the night, or the early morning, and we were in bed, naked and curled up with each other.

We had spent the entire night celebrating his happiness over the news and my surprising joy over it. I had been feeling like I was floating on a cloud.

All those nice, floaty feelings I was having toward this man, the father of my child, dissipated in an instant.

I shifted in bed, to face him, even though the room was bathed in only flickering candlelight. “Excuse me?”

“Starting tomorrow, you will have a man on you. Someone will be here at the house when you’re here without me, and you will have someone with you whenever you leave.”

“That is insane, Karson,” I groaned, thinking back to the argument we’d had about the party at my place. Since then, I had not seen any armed guards anywhere. I’d really thought that was the end of that. “We literally had a conversation about me being a Viking and you not being an over the top, toxic, alpha male.”

“This is not me being over the top,” he snapped back. “This is me understanding that I have a fuck of a lot more to lose now, and trouble is brewing. This was going to happen whether or not you were pregnant. Just ask Stella.”

I blinked in the darkness. “Stella?” I repeated.

“Yes, Stella. Jay is having her protected every moment she isn’t with him. And Jay is a man of reason. He wouldn’t do this shit if the risk wasn’t real.”

His words were sucked into the void of my fury. I threw back the covers and snatched my phone off the nightstand, stomping out of the bedroom.

I ignored the low thump of Karson’s footsteps telling me he was following me.

“Wren? Is everything okay? Are you in the back of a police car?” Stella questioned sleepily.

“If I was, I’d be calling Yasmin,” I replied, pacing through the living room, switching on the lights. I was looking for the clothes Karson had peeled off me after dinner. Karson was standing in the doorway, watching me with a glower on his face.

Like me, he was naked, so I zeroed in on his eyes before I could get distracted.

“I’m calling to tell you that Karson has decided to ‘put a man on me.’” I made sure to mimic his voice and use air quotes for the last part, still glaring at Karson. “Therefore, we are breaking up.”

His glower deepened when I spoke the ridiculously dramatic sentence that I didn’t really mean but my fury forced me to say. He pushed off the door jamb and stalked toward me.

“Wren, hang up the phone,” he demanded.

I scowled at him. “I am talking to my best friend, I’m not hanging up the phone.”

“It’s three in the morning,” he needlessly pointed out. “Hang up the phone.”

“She keeps villain hours now,” I snapped. “So yes, Karson and I are breaking up, and I’ll talk to you at brunch tomorrow,” I said to Stella.

She chuckled over the phone. “Okay, babe. Love you.”

“Love you too,” I murmured before hanging up the phone.

Karson’s gaze was stormy. “Callin’ up your friend at three in the morning to try to play some bullshit game with me is going too far, even for you.”

I huffed in annoyance, hands raking through my hair. “Having some bodyguard follow me around all day is toxically alpha male, even for you,” I spat back. “And my normal go to would’ve been to travel to my wine cellar and grab a nice Pinot to take the edge off my anger, but I can’t do that, can I?” I was yelling now.

“Why can’t you have wine, Wren?” Karson asked quietly.

I stared at him, breathing heavily, my blood boiling. I couldn’t be sure if this was the excess hormones or plain old female fury. It didn’t much matter at that point.

“What?” I demanded.

He stepped forward. “Why can’t you have wine, Wren?” he repeated.

“What kind of question is that?” I shot back, watching his approach with a thundering heart. “You know why I can’t.”

His hands settled on my hips when he stopped in front of me. “Because you’re carrying my baby.” His voice was still low. Deadly. “Because anyone who wants to hurt me can do so through you.”

His hand moved up to my stomach. “Because I couldn’t fucking live with myself if something happened to you because of me. You’re fighting because you want your freedom. Have it, baby. I’m not telling you that you can’t live your life however you want to. But I am telling you that when I’m not with you, you will have a highly trained, heavily armed man protecting you and our baby.”

I pursed my lips, still pissed. But I couldn’t really argue. Not when it wasn’t just me anymore. Not when I knew that the dangers of Karson’s life were real. He was not prone to dramatics. He wasn’t insisting on this to be a controlling asshole. He was doing it because he was worried. Because he was terrified. I could see it now that the red film had left my eyes.

All remaining fury drained out of me.

“I’ve never had a family, not a real one,” he continued quietly. “I never thought I’d have one. I made my peace with that. The second I met you, I knew you were mine. I knew you were all I needed. All I’d ever need.” He looked down at my stomach. “Then you told me you were carrying my baby. You gave me a gift. A treasure. A fucking family, Wren.” His other hand cupped my cheek. “I’m gonna need to do everything I can to protect you. And our child. It’s gonna piss you off because you’re strong-willed. Because you have gone through your life on your own terms. Because you fucking hate anyone telling you what to do.” He brushed my bottom lip with his thumb. “But I’m not telling you what to do, babe. I’m just saying there will be an armed man there while you do it.”

My eyes filled with tears at his words. The vulnerability in it.

He had never had a family. His terrible, horrific father had made sure of that.

“I’ve never had a family either,” I whispered. “I mean, I’m insanely lucky to have parents willing to give me the world, but only if they could buy it.” I glanced around the room, noting the warmth of it, imagining a little child running around, Karson holding it in his arms.

“I want to give you that,” I proclaimed. “Want to make that with you.”

Karson’s eyes were shimmering, and I was in danger of turning into a bawling mess if this beautiful, honest moment lasted much longer.

“Can my guy at least be someone who loves to shop and talk about skincare?” I asked hopefully.

Karson’s lips stretched into a grin before he kissed me on the forehead. “I’ll see what I can do, darlin’.”

A man named Phillipe accompanied me to drinks the next day.

He did have amazing skin and was happy to talk to me about alternatives to retinol now that I was pregnant, so I was happy.

Ish.

I didn’t love having someone follow me around, able to report my actions and location to anyone. Even Karson. I’d lived my life on my own terms since before I could remember. My parents never set rules or curfews for me. There had never been an authority figure in my life.

But I had to trust Karson. Trust his intentions.

Which I announced to my friends at drinks the second they sat down.

It was safe to say this shocked them.

Stella sprayed her martini all over the table.

Both Yasmin and Zoe were speechless. Literally speechless. They had been my friends for years. For years I had told them that I was never having children.

And for me, a never say never girl, I was really fucking serious.

I just hadn’t accounted for Karson and his super sperm.

My girlfriends knew me better than anyone. Their opinions meant the world to me. So I was terrified. I needed them to tell me that it was all going to be okay.

That I could do this.

But Stella was trying to wipe up her mess; Zoe and Yasmin were wide-eyed and speechless.

“Someone has to say something,” I snapped, glaring at each of them. “Because I cannot drink to calm my nerves.”

Yasmin got her shit together first. “Honey, this is … great?” Her voice was high and uncertain and did nothing to quell my anxiety.

“It’s great if you want it to be great,” Zoe corrected, ever the rational, supportive friend. She was not one to scream, jump around crying and buying me mittens or whatever the fuck. She was in love with her life and did not want children.

“Right,” Stella said quickly. “If you don’t want it to be great, if you don’t want it, then that’s okay too, babe. It’s your body.”

They each nodded and Stella squeezed Yasmin’s hand.

We were all there for her when she’d had to make a tough, heart-wrenching decision five years ago. Yasmin did want children. But she wanted her career more than anything. She wanted something else first. And she wanted them to come from a man she was married to.

I knew she was still haunted by that decision. That she still second guessed it, even though we all knew it was the right one. But we couldn’t tell her that. Nothing would change her feelings on it.

I knew that better than anyone.

“Of course, I fucking want it!” I yelled, feeling vaguely sick at the thought of taking Karson’s family away from him. “I love the man and his super sperm that apparently are resistant to birth control.”

“You were on birth control?” Stella asked, paling slightly.

I did not have the energy or presence of mind to figure out why that was. “Of course, I was on birth control,” I told her. “All the sex I was having? You’ve got to be on three different kinds with Jay, I bet.” It was kind of a joke, but you seriously never knew with these men.

“Wait,” Yasmin chimed in before Stella could reply. “You love him?”

Oh yeah, that. I hadn’t told the girls I loved Karson.

But they knew me, they should’ve guessed at least that. “Yes, I love him. Of course, I love him. Have you seen the man?”

Everyone had officially met him at the party I had but, I’d been mad at him, so it wasn’t a great first impression. Since then, I’d had each of them over to dinner at Karson’s—he cooked—and gave them a tour of his bookshelves.

He’d had on the persona similar to when he met my parents, easily charming them.

“He’s the only one who can go head-to-head with me without flinching,” I continued. “He fucks like a stallion, he never gets boring, and he’s got all of these delicious dark corners to explore.”

I scowled, thinking of everything I’d just said.

“What has become of me?” I cried. “I’m pregnant and in love before thirty. This is not what I wanted from my life. I was meant to be the eccentric, wealthy aunt to all of your brood, buying them booze and sleeping with their friends.” I stared at the cocktails in front of them. “And I can’t even drink!”

I was truly spiraling now.

“Don’t worry, I’ll do the drinking for you,” Stella quickly offered.

I smiled but flipped her off.

“Babe, this is going to be okay,” Yasmin said, reaching to squeeze my hand. “You are going to do motherhood unlike anyone else. You’ll go to Burning Man with the kid strapped to your chest. You can make your own rules. You’ll be wonderful. I promise.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, but the words sank in, and I relaxed a bit. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Yeah, I’ll be wonderful.”

“To Wren and her spawn,” Zoe toasted cheerfully.

They all clinked their drinks while I sat their scowling. Until I thought of what I could do. What Karson and I could do as a family. What we could create. Then I started to feel hopeful. Happy. Absolutely clueless about what awaited me.

Karson, of course, had to come to my first doctor’s appointment. Even though, at six weeks, there was pretty much nothing to see, and all the doctor was going to do was get up in my vag and tell me not to pound cocktails.

Karson, unsurprisingly, didn’t listen to any of this. He’d just said, “I’m drivin’.”

Like now that I was pregnant, I couldn’t drive. Then again, he did not get in the car with me behind the wheel before this either. He kept muttering things about not having a ‘death wish’, even though I reminded him that I had my heavy vehicle license and had driven a rusty old pickup truck through the Atlas Mountains without a scratch.

I didn’t try to argue with him about the driving or the doctor thing. I was much too tired. That was my main and most annoying symptom. I did get morning sickness, but only at night, and a huge bowl of Karson’s mashed potatoes had set me right thus far.

The tiredness, though… That was killing me. I took naps at three in the afternoon. I’d fallen asleep in a very important and serious board meeting for one of my charities. And I was dead asleep the second Karson and I were done having sex. Like dead asleep. Sometimes before he even pulled out of me. He found that very amusing.

I was only six weeks, so there wasn’t much to see, but they did an ultrasound anyway. Karson held my hand as we stared at a tiny little peanut. As we watched the flicker of its heartbeat.

My own heart fluttered seeing it there. A living thing already.

Ours.

Karson had stared at it with intensity, hand tight in mine. I’d never seen him look so … captivated. By a little flickering peanut on the screen.

Once we were done with that, we sat down with my doctor.

“Okay, let’s go through the basics,” the doctor said, putting her chart down. “You can have coffee. I’d stick to one cup a day, though. Also lunchmeats are safe as long as you heat them up. No sushi, though.”

“Of course,” I replied, nodding solemnly.

I felt Karson’s glare. “You had sushi for lunch yesterday,” he accused.

I snapped my head to him. “Snitch.”

The doctor smiled good naturedly at us. “Don’t worry too much, Dad. Women are designed for this.” She glanced back at the chart. “We’ll see you back here for your twelve-week appointment.”

I didn’t hear much of what she was saying. I was focused on what she’d called Karson.

Dad.

The title should not fit this man. The one with the muscles, the jawline, the air of menace.

But it did. Nothing had suited him more.

She left us alone in the room for me to get dressed again.

Karson watched me, and I paused, putting my shoes on.

“Wren?” he asked, hyperaware of me and all of my subtleties.

“I’m scared,” I whispered, rubbing my flat stomach, staring into the eyes of the man I loved.

“You’re smart to be,” he replied. “I’ve lived what a lot of people would call a dangerous and deadly life, and nothing terrifies me like that.” His eyes were on my flat stomach. But there was no fear like he spoke of. Only wonder. Love.

My eyes prickled, and I cursed the hormones swirling around my body for making me want to bawl at the drop of a hat. Then again, my very sexy, very badass man staring at me with such naked love wasn’t exactly the drop of a hat.

“Being a parent,” he continued. “Being responsible for a small, pure, vulnerable thing. Having to find a way to give values that I was not taught and that I sure as fuck don’t possess. Not to mention diapers.”

He shuddered. My badass, villainous man actually shuddered.

I let out a giggle, despite the thoughts still gnawing at my insides. Despite the memories I had buried ever since I saw those two lines on the tests.

“I’m not worried about being a parent,” I said. “Not really anyway. I’m sure we’ll fuck up some things. Most things even. But we’ll love that little shit with all our hearts, and I think that’s the most important thing.” My eyes met his. “I’ve felt what it’s like to be loved by you, and I think our child is already the luckiest baby that there ever was.” My voice shook, and my eyes moistened with tears I wouldn’t let fall.

Karson’s gaze softened and his expression melted.

Melted.

The man who was made of iron and steel for everyone else melted for me.

For me and our baby.

Fear clutched at my heart, squeezing it tighter with every beat.

And Karson, the man that he was, noticed. He tilted his head ever so slightly. “What are you scared of, then, darlin’?” he asked in an impossibly soft tone.

“This,” I whispered. “You. Us. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever felt. The only real thing I’ve ever felt. And from what I understand about love, it isn’t supposed to come this … easy. There are meant to be struggles. Pain. And we haven’t had that. I’m afraid it’s not possible to have this without something devastating to balance it out.”

I bit my lip as the words hung in the air. My mind threatened to go to that box I’d locked and shoved away, letting out all of the ghosts.

Karson prevented that from happening. “Stop that shit right now,” he demanded. “You’re Wren Whitney. You do not invite devastation. You do not think about devastation. That is not who you are,” he reached for my hand. “It’s who I am. I’ve lived a life of pain. Of blood. Nightmares. And I do not hope. It isn’t in me. But I found some of it when I looked into your eyes for the first time. Found even more when you inked my name on your skin. And today, hearing our child’s heartbeat, I felt it again. You gave that to me. Don’t you dare take it away from yourself.”

That was it. That was the moment when I should’ve told him the one thing I’d been hiding from him. From everyone. That was time to unlock the box so it would stop rattling, so it would stop haunting me. Waking me in the middle of night with an inescapable feeling of dread.

But I couldn’t do it. Not after everything he just said. Not after seeing the hope shining in his eyes.

Jay and Stella got married.

They climbed their mountain.

Not without effort, but they did it.

I, obviously, planned the entire wedding. I’d run around the entire city, flying in and out to scout flowers, furniture, bands. Karson had not liked that. He tried to argue with me until I reminded him about the Viking conversation. Then he shut up. But that did not stop him from glaring. From following me everywhere he could. Phillipe was with me whenever Karson wasn’t.

Which was great, actually, since Phillipe had excellent taste and really helped with some of the tougher decisions when it came to Stella and Jay’s wedding.

Our baby grew. We had the photo from the latest ultrasound pinned on the fridge. I felt it move. Karson felt it move. It became real. My fears and dread slowly drifted away.

The box stopped rattling.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Mightiest of Guns – A.A. Bondy

We fought on the last happy day of our lives.

The last true day of our relationship.

It was a familiar fight. One we’d been having on and off since I announced my pregnancy. The outside observer might think that Karson was constantly ready for a fight. That he thrived on such things. Someone who knew my man even a little, who knew the position he held in the underworld, might’ve thought that he couldn’t exist without conflict.

But no one knew Karson. Not truly.

Except me.

Therefore, I knew that my muscled, deadly, dangerous man did not thrive on conflict. It was just a biproduct of his chosen career path. Something he didn’t shy away from, but not something that got him out of bed in the morning.

I didn’t exactly thrive on conflict either, though fighting with him did excite me. Especially because it almost always ended in magnificent sex. And I almost always got my way.

Karson enjoyed make up sex wholeheartedly, but the sex we had on a regular basis was so out of this world that we didn’t need to invent fights just to have exciting sex like some couples did.

Karson did not like fighting with me either. Hence me almost always getting my way. He liked me happy. Liked me satisfied. And he reveled in peace. I was his sanctuary. The life we’d created together was his escape from the harsh and ugly realities of what he did for Jay.

So he let most things go.

But not this.

“I cannot believe we’re still talking about this,” I huffed angrily, struggling to push apart my clothes hanging in the closet.

I adored almost everything about Karson’s cottage. I’d all but moved in here.

The only problem was the closet.

It was a walk in. Quite impressive considering the modest size of the house itself. But inexplicably ridiculous when one had as many clothes, shoes and purses as I did.

I was testing the limits of the closet’s capacity in that moment, with hangers so crammed in I could barely move clothes in and out.

Of course, I could’ve streamlined, Marie Kondo’d everything like Karson had in the tiny little sliver he had dedicated to identical black suits, but every single item of clothing I owned brought me fucking joy, and unlike my boyfriend, I was not content to wear the exact same thing daily forever.

Though he could wear the absolute fuck out of a black suit.

“Why is this such a big deal to you?” I demanded, frowning at a flowy, printed dress that would skim over my belly and fall just above my ankles.

“Because I want you to be my wife,” Karson said simply.

I glared at him over my shoulder. His posture was taut, tense, determined. He was ready for a fight. He was ready for a battle. For war.

With me.

Over this.

And he was used to winning all his wars, so he was expecting to win this one. I was sure he was pissed off that it had taken him this long, that I’d held out this long. But he knew me, so he understood I wasn’t someone to give up easily.

But he expected me to do that. Give up. Give in.

It didn’t make sense, me fighting him on something like marriage when I was pregnant with his child. When I had committed to a life with him. When I planned on forever with him. When his name was inked into my skin.

What was marriage compared to that?

I got a party. I got to be the center of attention, I got to wear a custom-made white dress, I got to say my vows to the man I most loved in this world. All of those things were indescribably wonderful.

But something stopped me. Stalled me. Visions of my parent’s marriage. A union originally rooted in love, at one point. One that became about parties, charities, an image. Our marriage would be nothing like that, I knew that for sure. Yet I still paused.

I still fought.

I still battled.

And come hell or high water, I would win this war.

But I wasn’t ready to hurt him. To face him head on. Not yet.

Beyond that, hearing him declare, so simply, that he wanted me as his wife sent a comforting warmth all the way to my fingertips. Surrender was on the tip of my tongue.

“This fucking closet is too fucking small!” I screamed, throwing the dresses on the floor and glaring at Karson.

He did not glare back. In fact, all of that granite left his eyes, and his posture relaxed. The corner of his mouth turned up, and his eyes sparkled.

I found it hard to remember why I had been so furious with him.

“Then we’ll build you a new closet, darlin’.” He spoke with so much love and adoration in such an unromantic sentence that it almost knocked me down.

I pointed at him. “You cannot bribe me into marriage with a closet.”

A wrinkle formed between his brows as he folded his arms. “Wanna bet?”

He was serious.

Deadly serious.

And I did not have the energy to continue to fight with him on that. I did not have the energy to really think about why I was fighting him so hard on that.

I was late for a shopping date with Stella.

So instead of continuing to fight, with the yelling, scowling and glowering, I ripped the dress off the hanger and shed my clothes.

I was aware of Karson’s eyes on me as I stripped down to my bra and panties. My skin heated under the weight of it.

Karson loved the changes to my body. He’d made that very, very clear every moment he could. He worshipped me. He gave me fucking foot rubs every day.

The villain gave foot rubs.

My adjustment to all of the changes was more complicated. I loved that our child was growing, was healthy. It calmed a lot of the fears that I hid from everyone, including Karson. But my relationship with my body had never been simple. I hid the unease I felt too. I was ashamed. What was happening to me was wondrous. I was growing fucking life. It was impossibly shallow to be worrying about stretch marks and the size of my thighs. I probably should’ve talked to someone about that. A paid professional. Someone who didn’t know me, didn’t care about me and wouldn’t judge me.

Therapy was great. I knew that. But I wasn’t eager for someone to go rooting around in my head. Not when the box had just stopped rattling.

I would deal. Plus, Karson soothed a lot of my unease. Even when he was pissing me right off.

Once dressed, I grabbed my purse, leveling my gaze at him. “I’m going shopping. This conversation is not going to continue when I get home.”

The hunger edged with irritation dissipated when I spoke.

I didn’t let that tenderness affect my own irritation. I was too far gone at that point. Something I was discovering about pregnancy hormones was that you couldn’t just turn off an emotion. You felt it. Passionately. So even if I’d wanted to get all sweet and loving with Karson, it was not in my control. Not while pregnant.

So I tilted my chin up and walked toward the door, intending on ignoring him and the endearing look on his face.

Karson latched onto my wrist as I tried to storm off. Before I could yell or try to snatch my arm back, he yanked me to him and kissed me. Despite my fury, I could not deny him that kiss. Could not deny myself.

So I kissed him back. Thoroughly.

“I’m still mad at you,” I declared when he pulled back. My voice was thin and breathy.

His eyes twinkled. “I’m not happy with you either, darlin’.” His hand found the swell of my belly, rubbing it. “But you never walk out that door without kissin’ me, without letting me say goodbye to my girls.”

My stomach bloomed with warmth despite the anger still simmering inside of me. Or that could’ve just been the heartburn that wouldn’t go away.

“You don’t know it’s a girl,” I reminded him.

He grinned up at me. “I have a feeling.”

I scoffed. “You have a feeling?” I shook my head. “Do your badass powers stretch to magically knowing the gender of our child?”

He grinned wider, grabbing onto either sides of my neck and kissing me again.

Thoroughly.

When he was done, I’d forgotten why I was mad at him, forgotten all about shopping. Until he spoke, of course.

“Mark my words,” he murmured against my mouth, hand on the swell of my stomach. “You’ll be my wife before this little girl greets the world.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Wanna bet?” I challenged, then turned on my heel and walked away.

Those two words were the last thing I said to him before everything was destroyed.

“Karson wants to marry me,” I told Stella as we walked through the store with all of our bags.

Okay, all of my bags.

Stella’s face lit up in naked happiness for me.

“Of course, he does! You’re amazing,” she smiled brightly. Her grin faltered when she saw that I was not smiling back. “You’re not happy,” she observed.

“Of course, I am!” I huffed, stopping abruptly at the exit to the store. “I’m pregnant to a man I adore, who feeds me well and fucks me even better. He’s building me a closet!” I was getting very close to screaming now. Even in the most upscale of neighborhoods in LA, a five month pregnant woman screaming in a baby store wouldn’t be the craziest thing to happen that day.

“And I keep arguing with him, I keep saying no,” I said, quieter this time.

Stella’s face softened. “Honey, you are under no obligation to say yes to something you don’t want to do just because you love him. Even if he is building you a closet,” she added with a playful shove. “You are building a life together. You make decisions together. Your life can look however you want. You can design it. And he will get over the marriage thing. He’s just an alpha male who wants to declare you his.”

“No,” I argued in little more than a whisper. “No, that’s not it.”

I thought about her words. About this morning. About all the times when Karson had quietly taken my hand and said he wanted me as his wife. There was no need for him to own me, to declare me his, have me say I’ll obey him forever.

It wasn’t that. No. It was something so simple, so fucking pure that I’d overlooked it.

Like an asshole.

Karson simply wanted a wife. He wanted me. A family. He wanted what he’d never had growing up. He wanted to prove that he was not his father’s son. He wanted to treasure me.

I blinked myself out of my thoughts, frowning at the stores lining the streets. “We need to go to Oscar de la Renta,” I announced.

Stella screwed up her nose in confusion at my abrupt change in subject. “I’m not going to argue about our girl being clad in couture straight from the womb, but I don’t think we’ll be able to carry much more.” She motioned to all the bags we’d accumulated in a few short hours.

“No, it’s for me,” I told her. “Oscar is the only place I trust will have something suitable off the rack. Of course, we’ll have a proper, appropriately lavish ceremony once the baby is born and I’ve got back into shape. I’ll have something custom made. But for now, Oscar will do.”

Stella stared at me in question.

“For our wedding,” I told her, jostling the shopping bags so I could find my phone. “We’re having it today.”

She blinked. “Today?” she repeated.

I nodded, tapping at my screen.

“Don’t you need like marriage licenses, ordained ministers, things like that?” she asked.

I looked up from my phone. “Honey, I’ve broken myself out of a Balinese prison which involved a small misunderstanding and a lot of illegal drugs that most definitely were not mine. Not only did I break out successfully, I also managed to direct the authorities to the rightful criminal. Think Mr. Darcy in the second Bridget Jones,” I said. “This is nothing.”

Stella grinned. “So you’re getting married today.”

I nodded. “So I’m getting married today.”

“You think you want to tell the groom?” she asked dryly.

“Eventually,” I waved her off, walking forward with purpose. “But first I want your opinion on names.”

“Names?” Stella repeated, obviously confused by the rapid change in subject.

But it made perfect sense to me. We were getting married. That was a grown up and serious thing to do. Would I take his name? Walker? I liked that, and it went with the double W thing I had going on. So I would have to choose our child’s name accordingly.

“Yes, names,” I replied. “I’m thinking Striker for a boy and Hudson for a girl.” I smiled. We hadn’t found out the gender, but I had a feeling it was a little girl. Hudson Walker. Totally cute and badass.

“Karson has tried to veto these, of course, but his name is Karson. How can he think he has a leg to stand on?” I shook my head as we left the store.

I was going to tell Stella that I had a feeling it was a girl, that I just knew.

But I didn’t get the chance.

Wheels screeched against the road, the roar of an engine drowning out all sounds.

Except the shots. And the screams.

I heard all of that.

Then I heard—heard not felt—the bullet tearing through flesh, bone, through my future, absolutely fucking tearing it apart. My life did not flash before my eyes as I fell to the ground, my blood staining the baby clothes she would never wear. No, my mind flashed to my future, the one draining out of me.

Karson and I would not get married.

I thought about the moment a lot in the months that followed. A lot may be a slight understatement. I thought of it every second I was awake—which was a lot since my insomnia had gotten to the point where the only time I slept was when I drugged or drank myself to oblivion. Even then I got only a few scant hours. Even then I dreamed of the moment.

I would not take his name.

Nor would our child.

PART TWO

WHAT DIES HERE

CHAPTER ONE

Mad World – Michael Andrews

KARSON

I knew something was wrong the second Jay called me into his office at Klutch. We were in the middle of a shitstorm with the Russians, I had weapons deals to oversee and there was gang conflict stirring in East Hollywood. We were stretched thin. Too thin for Jay to be calling me to his office, telling me the news that was too important for a phone call.

I knew something was very fucking wrong when I walked into his office.

Initially, I thought something was wrong with the working girls. There were many interested parties who wanted the revenue those girls brought in, wanted to take over the business. Parties who would do whatever it took. Who would not treat those women with respect.

Jay cared about the working girls, in his own way. He couldn’t show it, not even a little. If he did, he would show his enemies a weak spot. Something they could hurt, destroy, something that would leave him vulnerable.

Marrying Stella was the most dangerous thing he’d ever done, in his eyes at least. He knew what it would mean, knew the danger he’d be putting her in.

I never wrestled with that with Wren. I worried about her. Every fucking day. Every fucking minute of every fucking day. But I did not attempt to reason myself into shutting her out, hiding how I felt for her.

Not possible.

And I was not a good man. I would not let her go to save her from this life.

The life that Wren lived meant she was on the edge of danger at any given moment, with or without me.

Now that she was pregnant, I was hypervigilant. Especially since she didn’t slow down, not in the slightest. Running around planning Jay and Stella’s wedding, flying to fucking Italy for flowers and wine without telling me.

Short of chaining her to the bed—which I’d considered—there was no way to slow Wren down. Which was one of the many, many fucking things I loved about her.

It was a good thing our baby was draining the energy out of her so she spent a lot of her time sleeping. Sleeping more than she ever had before. Through the night. She’d mentioned offhand once that she’d never slept well. I knew that the first night I went to her house and she was wide awake at three in the morning.

It made sense to me that Wren didn’t sleep often. She was determined to live her life to the wildest extent, to suck it dry. Sleeping took her away from that.

I also noticed that the more comfortable she got with me, with us, the less she tried to fight her feelings, the more she slept. That filled me the fuck up. That she felt so safe with me she was willing to shut the world out, to let her body rest.

That body was growing more and more beautiful every day. Fuller. With our child. So even though I worried about her, even though there was shit with the Russians, serious fucking shit, even though I had to get more blood on my hands than I had in years, I was good.

Better than good.

Which was how I was fucking blindsided.

Jay was standing when I walked into the office. He was waiting for me. Just leaning against the front of his desk.

Alarm bells started ringing.

“What?” I demanded.

The look on his face told me everything. Every fucking thing I needed to know. This fucker never cracked. Not once. Not when he was witnessing the worst shit I could do to a human. Not when he was doing it himself. Nothing got in.

But now, he was cracked.

He wore it on his face.

Something happened with Stella… To Wren. My heart stopped beating. Everything stilled. The creature inside of me that had been sleeping started waking up, clawing at its cage.

“You need to lock it down,” Jay said. He spoke with an even cadence, sounding resolute. But his eyes weren’t. They were full of fucking fear.

Stella and Wren were shopping together today.

“Are they dead?” I managed to ask.

“No,” Jay said.

That didn’t give me any comfort. Not dead was the baseline. But there were a multitude of things worse than death. We both knew that.

“According to the reports I’m getting, they are both en route to Cedars.” He paused. I saw him take a breath. Visibly take a breath. “Wren was hit. Don’t know how many times.”

Fury, cold and overreaching, clawed its way over me so my vision was sharp, defined. There was a low ringing in my ears.

My piece was out of its holster and pointed at Jay’s head before I could blink.

He didn’t pull his own, though I knew he was wearing one.

“Why in the fuck did you call me here, thirty minutes out of the way, when my pregnant woman is shot and on her way to the fuckin’ hospital?” I gritted out. “If she doesn’t make it, if you steal those last moments from me because of some fuckin’ power play, you’re dead.”

I meant every word. Every single one. Jay, the man who I’d followed blindly for years, who I respected, admired, I’d kill him in a fucking instant if he took that from me.

Jay gave me a curt nod, understanding. “She’s gonna make it,” he said quietly.

I was still holding my piece at his head. “You do not know that shit.”

We were both well versed at how easily life could end. How death did not discriminate whether or not you were praying. Hoping. Hope didn’t make a shred of fucking difference. Nor did fate. All that mattered was where the bullets hit my woman and how many.

Where the bullets hit my pregnant fucking woman.

I scrambled to bring her up in my memories. The way her face had screwed up in anger only this morning. How my dick had twitched, watching her get all worked up and ready to go to battle with me.

She’d been so vibrant. So fucking alive. Nothing could’ve happened to her, not when the memory was so fresh.

But even now, that image of her was draining from my head, slipping through my fingers.

“I brought you here because you need to lock it down,” Jay told me, watching me carefully. He was seconds from death. He understood that.

“Whatever happens in there. You lock it the fuck down,” he repeated. “For Wren. You hold on to all that rage and need for death, and you wait. First stop is going to be the hospital. Then we’ll get vengeance.” He nodded to my gun. “You’ll get to use that. I swear it to you. Right now you’ve got two wolves inside of you. One scrambling to find your woman, the other hungry for the blood of whoever hurt her. Feed the first one.”

His words penetrated slowly, as if traveling through molasses. Through water. I had already been welcoming the man I had been before. The weapon the government created. I did not feel back then. Not a fucking thing. I could turn off my emotions. Turn off who I was. That switch was still in me, and I was preparing to flip it because I was already resigned to having lost her.

But I wouldn’t flip it. Not until I saw her.

Slowly, I lowered the gun.

I went to feed the first wolf.

There was no hope in my heart.

I had faith.

Not in the fucking universe or some god.

No, I had faith that Wren would fight. My Viking woman would not go down easy.

WREN

I was in the in-between. In between worlds.

Dreaming. But aware. Outside of my body completely. Something bad, something awful was happening. I knew that somewhere in the back of my mind, but it didn’t matter much. Not here in the in-between.

I was nowhere specifically until I was there. In the woods of Romania. The wind was cold, and it seeped through the open window of the cottage I was huddled in. There was a warm cup of a strong-smelling tea in my hand. The other was being held by a wrinkled one. The woman holding it was old. Ancient, it seemed. Her skin was creased like tissue paper, her gray hair running down her back. She had on a long, flowing white and red dress that billowed with the wind. A jeweled headband sat atop her head.

I’d heard about her on my travels. Whispers. Witchcraft was common in the area, thriving, in fact.

That’s why I’d come here. Because I wanted to see real magic. Wanted to feel it. Wanted to know what my future had in store for me. And I wasn’t about to do this by halves. Which was why I’d hiked through the Boldu-Creteasca forest with my translator to find this woman.

As soon as I was in her presence, I knew this was real. As soon as she touched me, my body started. My heart jumped into my throat as my eyes met hers, deep pools of something foreign. Something ancient.

Fear, not something I felt often, prickled the back of my neck. A small, unexpected voice told me to turn around, hike back through the woods, find a warm, cozy bar and a handsome man and do something I was much more familiar with.

But I didn’t listen to that voice.

I entered the small cottage, took the tea and let the woman tell me my future.

She traced the lines of my palms and muttered in a language I didn’t understand. Candles flickered on every surface. Though I’d learned some rudimentary Romanian, I knew the language she was speaking was something else entirely. Something much older. My translator and guide, Mihai—a middle aged man with an excellent mustache and three children he adored—looked stumped too. He’d taken it upon himself to be my guardian since I was a young woman traveling on her own and he had three girls. He’d tried multiple times to direct me to the more mainstream vrăjitoare in Bucharest, wary of the cursed pool that shared this forest. The one surrounded by otherworldly forces, animals refusing to drink from it. He was obviously afraid of this area and the woman in the woods. I told him I would happily go alone if he drew me a map of the area. His eyes had gone wide, and he’d started speaking rapidly in Romanian. He would not hear of it. We would go together.

That was where we stood then. In the cottage, with the howling wind and the strange heaviness of power that was not of this world, I got the feeling he really regretted his decision. I would make sure I tipped him very well. You know, if we weren’t both cursed by some ancient and powerful witch.

For some reason, I wasn’t afraid of her.

She was known as a great white witch, her power being what scared most people. That and what she knew, her proximity to that cursed pool.

I knew suddenly that whatever she had to say I probably would not want to hear. But there was no escape now.

Her eyes had been closed as she spoke that other language, but her grip suddenly tightened on my hand, and her eyes snapped open. The wind stopped abruptly. Everything went still. Quiet. As if we were sucked into a void of nothingness.

I couldn’t tear my eyes from her gaze, the one that had seen lifetimes.

Then she began to speak. Mihai was silent for a few moments, then he struggled to catch up, to translate.

“You will be loved many times by many men,” Mihai repeated what she’d said, stuttering slightly on the words.

The woman kept speaking.

I was frozen in terror.

“You will only ever love one man,” Mihai translated. “And that man will be your destruction.”

My heart thundered.

“He will be your sun. Your stars. Your moon. Even though this man is darkness itself. Midnight personified. You will know the moment you meet him. And you will try to fight it, fight him.”

She was still speaking as Mihai struggled to catch up.

“But you will love him until you meet your death.”

My mouth was dry. I tried to lick my lips, but I found that I was paralyzed.

“It is up to you whether you spend your life with this man,” Mihai continued. “There is a chance that you will not. The stars have not decided yet.”

Although the woman kept speaking, Mihai stopped abruptly, as if he couldn’t say what was coming next.

“You will be a mother for only a short time,” he gasped. “Your child will not breathe air or know the warmth of your arms. You will never have another.”

The air thrummed with the silence that proceeded the prediction. I was numb, my stomach swirling, my head pounding.

Later, I would try to dismiss what she’d said over red wine with Mihai, but my voice would be weak, and my smiles would be hollow.

I’d try my very hardest to forget the words spoken to me that day, but they would haunt me forever.

Because I knew in my heart of hearts that they were true.

I was no longer in the in-between. No longer in the muffled silence of my memories.

I was back here. In horrific reality.

There was noise. A lot of it.

Voices. Sirens. Engines grunting. Beeping of machines.

There was pain.

A lot of it.

I didn’t focus on that, not for long.

“My baby,” I croaked, blinking at the ceiling of the emergency room.

That’s where I was, wasn’t I? An emergency room. I was sure I’d been in an ambulance just moments ago. Less than a minute ago I was on the sidewalk. Stella was screaming, she had been covered in blood. My blood.

I was losing time.

Time wasn’t anything, though. I’d gladly lose months, years, decades if I could keep her.

“My baby,” I called out louder now. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I’d spoken the first time. Seconds? Minutes? Hours?

There was bright light. Noises. Voices shouting things about vitals, blood loss, surgery.

No one was listening to me.

There were hands on me, strange, cold, dry hands that were probing, violating. No one was worried enough. No one cared. All of these strangers were letting my words peter out into a void.

“Where the fuck is my baby?” I screamed, sitting up, yanking at the tubes that had become attached to me at some point. My hands were scrambling for the swell of my stomach, desperate to find it, find her safely there. I shouldn’t have needed to touch it; I should’ve known, felt her moving. But I couldn’t feel anything. My arms were lead.

People were looking at me now that I’d screamed like a banshee. There were many of them, in scrubs, white coats, all individual people, all different, distinct people with wants and needs. But they weren’t people to me. Not now.

“Ms. Whitney, you need to calm down and let us do our job,” one of them said.

Arms were pressing me down, my hands still unable to reach my stomach. I thrashed on the bed, fighting against them, fighting against the heaviness of my limbs and the panic clutching at my throat.

More hands now. Words, trying to placate me. I didn’t understand anything they said.

“Where is Karson?” I cried, my eyes darting around the room looking for him. I was desperate for safety, for warmth, for my man to hold these people by their throats and crush their windpipes if they didn’t answer my fucking question.

“Ms. Whitney, we’re here to take care of you, but you need to calm down,” the doctor repeated in that infuriatingly calm, detached tone.

“You need to tell me if my baby is okay!” I screamed, fighting harder now.

There were more arms. There was pain, but I didn’t care about that.

Then there was a prick in my arm.

Then there was nothing.

KARSON

I knew before I walked in the doors that our child had a low chance of surviving when its mother had been shot. Knew that I should’ve accepted that. But there was something burning deep inside me, barely flickering but there, that hoped. For a miracle.

The doctors didn’t try to fight against whatever the fuck rules they had against releasing information to people that weren’t family. Not when they saw the look on my face.

Wren was my family. My only fucking family.

One gunshot wound. To the stomach.

To the fucking stomach.

It had not hit the baby directly, they told me. But the massive trauma, the blood loss. There was no way a fetus could survive that.

Not a fetus. A little girl.

Our little girl.

“What’s wrong with Hudson?” Wren frowned at me from across the breakfast bar.

She was eating pickles while I made her mashed potatoes. She couldn’t get enough of them.

“I’m not naming my daughter after a river in New York that people dump bodies in,” I told her.

She screwed up her nose at me. “No fair! You don’t get to connect the names I choose with dead bodies. There won’t be anything left.”

She was out of surgery. Wren.

She would be okay, they said. A full recovery.

Without our child inside her.

They had her, the doctors said, the baby. For when Wren woke up. If she wanted to say goodbye.

That almost broke me. Right there and then. Split me apart. I’d peeled the skin off people’s bodies. I’d watched hundreds of people die.

Done terrible things.

But that right there almost fucking broke me.

Almost.

No fucking way I was going to break.

Wren still needed me. She was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors with a gunshot wound in her stomach.

They’d tried to tell me bullshit about visiting hours. Protocols.

They didn’t try that for long.

“Hi, darlin’,” I murmured as I sat down in the chair beside her bed. Her eyes were closed, hair pulled back from her face, her cheekbones gaunt, lips almost blue.

I grabbed her hand. It was so small. So fucking cold. I warmed it in my own, bringing it up to my lips.

“You can sleep for as long as you want,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on her closed ones. “It’s gonna be hard when you wake up. But I’m here. I’ll be here. To remind you that you’re strong enough to get through this. To survive this.”

The only reply was the steady beeping of her monitors. My hand stayed in hers.

WREN

Karson was by my bedside when I woke. His hand was in mine. Heavy, dry, secure. It made me want to peel my skin off.

If I had the strength, I would’ve yanked my arm away. But I didn’t have the strength.

I knew before the doctor told me.

Whatever drugs they’d given me had me feeling numb, like my limbs were made of cotton wool instead of flesh. There was no pain.

But there was emptiness. There was an expression on the nurse’s faces. There was a sorrow hanging over the room that was coming from me. From inside of me. I was coating everything, everyone with my rancid emptiness.

Karson was there when the doctor told me. His hand was tight in mine. I saw that instead of felt it. His knuckles were white. His expression was foreign. Hopelessness tinged with fury, with sheer fucking devastation. He knew before the doctor told me too. I wondered for how long. Who’d told him.

The thought of him standing there in the hospital, on his own, being told that. It hurt me, in a place deep down where I could still feel.

They told me I could see her.

Hold her.

They had kept her for me. Kept her where, I wondered. Not in those tiny, clear cribs you saw in the movies. Not in the room full of babies, wriggling, screaming, blinking and getting used to the world they were thrust into.

Of course, they would not keep her there.

Then where, I wondered. Somewhere cold, quiet, where she would be alone. Not that it mattered now, I guessed. She couldn’t feel the cold, couldn’t hear anything. She wasn’t really here anymore.

I said no. The doctor tried to gently urge me to change my mind. For closure. Healing.

I stared at him. I fucking hated him. For his white coat, his weak jawline, the expensive haircut, the no doubt Ivy League education and impossibly rich parents—I knew how to spot the trust fund kids just like I could spot a fake Chanel. He was trying for empathy, maybe. Or maybe he was just regurgitating whatever some therapist had told him.

He couldn’t possibly know what I was feeling. What I needed. He had a dick and a superior air to him that told me he had no idea what real pain was. He was detached from it all. He came in and did the cutting, talked to the patients when it couldn’t be avoided, and pawned most of the work off onto the nurses.

“Healing?” I repeated. My voice was scratchy. Dry. As if I’d been screaming. Had I been screaming? Maybe. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened since I woke up. Except that my baby was dead.

That was the one thing I remembered. The one thing I would never forget.

“You think that you know anything about what I need in order to be healed because you know how to sew up flesh after you’ve torn everything out of it?” My voice much higher now.

I felt Karson’s body move closer, pressing into the bed, but he didn’t touch me. I couldn’t remember if he’d touched me since I’d woken up.

The blood drained from the doctor’s face, and I watched panic settle in as he was faced with what every man was afraid of: a hysterical woman.

“I, um, maybe I should—”

“Maybe you should shut the fuck up and don’t announce what you think I should do,” I hissed.

He all but ran out the door.

I stared at that door for a long time. Karson remained close to me. We’d barely spoken since I woke up. I could barely fucking look at him. Doctors and nurses had been in and out, working as buffers. But now the silence was so thick I was drowning in it.

“I can’t see her,” I told Karson, my voice shaking now. “I can’t do it.” I imagined holding a tiny bundle, I imagined seeing her, much too small and impossibly beautiful. I imagined her with her father’s dark hair. Feeling the weight of her. Still. Frozen.

My entire body started shaking.

“I can’t see her,” I repeated, tears falling down my cheeks.

Karson was obviously done with the standing at my bedside portion of this exchange because the next thing I knew, he had climbed into the bed and was cradling me in his arms. I had no idea how he did that without disturbing the machines I was attached to, without hurting me.

Though there was nothing more anyone could do to hurt me anymore.

I buried myself in his chest and wished I could bury my face away from the world.

He held me tight. Stroked my hair.

“I can’t see her,” I told him for the third time, my words muffled by his chest. “I can’t hold her because I’d never be able to let her go.”

I felt Karson’s body flinch. He stopped stroking my hair for a handful of seconds. Then he resumed.

“I know,” he replied, his voice impossibly quiet. “I know, darlin’.”

It was the middle of the night. Neither of us were sleeping. There was a dim light coming from under the door, from a lamp in the corner that Karson had switched on, as if he’d sensed I couldn’t be in the darkness.

But I didn’t much like being in the light either. Hated the prospect of a new day, having to stay in it. Survive it. I liked it here. In the middle of the night, with the dim light and quiet hallways. This was the in-between. Nothing seemed quite as real here. Quite as heavy.

It was just Karson and me.

He hadn’t touched me since he climbed into bed with me. It was as if I knew I couldn’t handle that either. He may have needed me to comfort him. I hadn’t thought of that. That he needed my hand in his. He had lost something too. That family he so badly wanted. But I couldn’t do it. I wanted to. Desperately. But I did not have the strength.

I loved this man. He was my everything. Yet I couldn’t even fucking touch him.

“I don’t blame you.” I broke the silence between us.

Karson’s body jerked as his eyes met mine. A flinch. At my tone or the words, I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t blame you,” I repeated, because the look on his face told me I needed to repeat that. “I know you, so I know you’ve been punishing yourself through all of this. Torturing yourself.”

Though I was relatively numb, the thought of the turmoil Karson was going through hit true. He was hiding it. He would hide it from me forever. He was not one of those ‘what about me?’ men. No. That was not him. If he was stabbed right now, he would quietly bleed to death rather than have a moment of attention, of care, diverted from me.

“I don’t know what is ahead after this,” I confessed quietly. “I can’t think about that right now. But I have a sense that I’m not going to deal with this well. That I’m most likely going to hurt you. Push you away. Because I will not deal with this right.” My eyes stayed on his, despite the pain. “And during that time, I’m going to be too absorbed in my own pain, unable to tell you this. So I need to tell you this now. I need you to hear me now.” I paused, staring at Karson. “Are you listening to me, honey?”

His eyes shimmered. “I’m listening to you, baby,” he croaked after a long silence.

“Good. This is not your fault. None of this. You love me with everything inside of you. You loved that little girl with everything inside of you.”

My voice caught when I saw a tear run down Karson’s cheek. I blew out a heavy breath, knowing I had to get this all out. It was important. It felt like life or death.

“I know you do not think of yourself as a good man,” I whispered. “And maybe you aren’t. Maybe to everyone else you aren’t. But to me and that little girl you were. You were the absolute best man, and it would’ve been her privilege to have you as a father.”

Karson was shaking now, but I still couldn’t stop.

“You are not to blame here,” I told him, my voice firm. “I do not blame you. Not even a little bit. You did not pull that trigger. You did not put those events in motion. If a butterfly flapping its wings sets events in motion for a typhoon, that is not the butterfly’s fault.” I reached out to wipe a tear from Karson’s face. “You are the butterfly. Loving me did not sentence me to this.”

I made sure to stare at him as intensely as I was able. “I have a feeling that the focus is going to be on me throughout all of this. Because it was my body. Because she grew inside me. But she came from you. She is you. You watched her grow too. And even though you won’t show it, you’re going to feel a kind of pain that will tear you apart. Not because of your spy training, but because that’s who you are. You want the focus on me. You want me to be taken care of.”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment before I opened them again. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take care of you in the way you deserve. I want to. More than anything in this entire world, I want that. But something inside me tells me I don’t have it in me. Won’t for a long time. So I want to say this now because I won’t have the strength or presence of mind in the future... I love you, Karson Walker. I love you endlessly. With everything that I am. And I apologize in advance if I lose sight of that.”

Karson didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. I didn’t need him to. He didn’t need to give a big speech, apologizing for his actions in advance because he wouldn’t lash out at me. He wouldn’t push me away. He’d be there, steadfast, weathering everything.

I knew that already.

Knew that from now on, he would be a better person than me.

CHAPTER TWO

Shrike – Hozier

People came and went. My parents. My father awkward and somehow too large for the room. He kissed me on the forehead, muttering unintelligible words because he didn’t know what to say, how to comfort me. He loved me very much, I knew that. I could see that. But his need to escape this room was palpable. I didn’t blame him. If I could wrench myself away from my body and fly somewhere far away, become someone else, I’d do it in an instant.

Mom floated around the room, arranging flowers, rearranging them, complaining about the light in the room. “You need proper sunshine to recover, darling,” she chirped without looking me in the eye. “Vitamin D. There are so many studies that show its impact on healing, on the immune system. And this food.” She scowled at the untouched tray in front of me. “It may as well be poison. You need nourishing, healing food. I’ll have my chef whip up the appropriate meals and have them delivered.”

She fluffed pillows, brought me cold-pressed juices… She never stopped, never paused, making sure that there was never a moment for her to get caught in where we might have to acknowledge what had happened, why we were here.

It didn’t bother me. Didn’t hurt me. Not that I had the ability to be hurt anymore. It was almost … comforting. My mother being the exact same, never changing, even in the midst of absolute disaster. I didn’t resent her for not being the kind of mother who cried, who held my hand, hugged me, sat at my bedside. That wasn’t who she was. I’d accepted what I’d get from my mother long ago.

Plus, I had enough people coming in with the hugs, the sitting at my bedside, the choked back tears … the love.

Stella, Yasmin and Zoe came in shifts, making sure I was never alone. Even though Karson barely moved from his position at my side. He slept in the chair, not the cot the nurses had brought in when it was clear he wasn’t going to abide by visiting hours.

At some point, I was alone in the room. I wasn’t quite sure how that happened because I knew that my friends worked in shifts. They had devised some kind of system to ensure I was never alone, not for one moment.

Karson had disappeared for a time, presumably to torture and kill whoever was responsible for the shooting. That neither disgusted nor delighted me. It made sense because Karson had to avenge me. Avenge her. That was his way of coping. He needed to cover his hands with blood.

I understood it.

But I didn’t have any kind of thirst for vengeance. I didn’t have a thirst for much, really.

However it was designed, I was alone when the doctor came in, closing the door quietly behind her. At some point, the doctors had changed. The one with the cold bedside manner and the expensive haircut had been replaced with a warm, kind woman named Abigail. I was sure someone had done this for me. They had good intentions. They thought I needed kindness during the worst days of my life. It made sense. They couldn’t know that the doctor with the warm smile and kind eyes was much, much worse than the douche with the expensive haircut.

I liked him. Appreciated that he was detached, that he delivered news to me like it was just … news. Like it happened every day. Like I wasn’t special. I needed that.

Abigail spoke like a friend. With empathy, with her hand in mine. I ached to rip it from her grasp, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Wanted them to think they were helping.

So I didn’t say anything.

Not when she came in, sat beside me, clutched my hand and spoke in soft tones, saying that I most likely would never be able to have children again.

Her eyes glistened as she told me.

Mine were dry.

This news did not surprise me. I already knew.

“Your child will not breathe air or know the warmth of your arms. You will never have another.”

I didn’t tell anyone this news. Why should I? They were already upset enough on my behalf. They were already handling me with kid gloves. I couldn’t stand to be the woman who not only lost her child but the one with the barren womb too. No, that just wouldn’t do. I’d hold this truth close to my chest and make sure no one ever knew.

Not even Karson. Perhaps it was cruel of me to keep it from him. It didn’t matter, though, not really. Not when our future was ruined. Dead.

I would love him to the end of my days, I knew that. But this was the end of us.

KARSON

Wren’s father found me as I was just about to leave. Just as I got the intel.

His hand clapped on my shoulder to get my attention.

Touching me was dangerous lately. He didn’t know that, of course. But it was a battle, a fucking battle to not turn and harm him.

Wren did not need her father in a hospital bed.

I expected him to flinch when I met his eyes. I’d morphed into something else as soon as I got the call. I could feel it. The animal inside of me scratching at its cage. I’d unlocked it, so I was no longer the same person. Even men like Wren’s father, rich men who hadn’t seen the dark underbelly of this world, even those men saw it. Evolution hadn’t erased that instinctual knowing from us.

But he didn’t flinch.

Because this was not the man I’d met at the charity dinner. The one with the manicured hands, strong grip and easy gaze. This was not the man who immediately saw me as the alpha in love with his daughter and backed down, not challenging me. Not because he saw that I was tougher than him, a fuck of a lot more dangerous. It wasn’t because he didn’t love his daughter.

Anyone could see he loved her.

But he‘d been able to tell that I loved her. Mostly because I hadn’t hid it from him. I’d showed him that I would protect his daughter. That anyone who challenged me for her would be sorry. Anyone who hurt her would rot in a shallow grave. That I’d die before I’d let anyone close enough to hurt her.

That ended up being pure fucking bullshit.

The man I’d originally met was nowhere to be seen. This was the steely face of a father whose child had been hurt. Another being entirely.

“You know who did this.” Not a question.

He’d been watching me, it seemed. I hadn’t noticed. I’d been too focused on Wren. Too focused on locking myself down. Too focused on fucking hating myself.

I replied with a tight nod, not seeing the point in lying to him.

“You’re going now, to kill them, him. Whoever did this.” Again, not a question. “That’s the only reason you would leave my daughter’s side.”

Though he was entitled to it, there was no blame in his tone. No hatred in his eyes. Just a thirst, one I recognized. For blood.

Again, I nodded because I didn’t trust myself to speak.

“Take me with you.”

Even though I was little more than a monster at this moment, this took me by surprise. He wasn’t just offering because he felt he should, he was serious. He craved vengeance as much as I did.

We didn’t involve civilians in this shit. Jay had strict rules. I abided by them. Enforced them. Civilians who got caught up in our shit were lucky if we relocated them far away, with warnings about what would happen if they came near us again. The unlucky ones didn’t go far, weren’t long for this earth.

Involving Nicholas in this shit would make it even messier. Would leave loose ends. I did not leave loose ends.

Instead of telling him that, I nodded and started walking. He fell into step with me. We both knew he was walking toward death, and I for one craved it.

My wolf was finally going to get to feast.

Jay did not say a word to me when we arrived at the warehouse where we were holding the four responsible. His eyes had lingered on Nicholas for a second, weighing the risks of him being here, measuring things. Then he looked to me and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Approval.

Stella had changed Jay. Fundamentally. Humanized him. Like Wren had me. Which was our weakness. What the four men on their knees in front of us had been ordered to exploit.

I handed Nicholas the gun first. If he had to wait for me, we’d be here a while. I did not plan on using a gun. There was a knife on the table beside the men—that was my instrument of choice—and some pliers if I felt like changing things up.

Although I had brought Nicholas here, to witness the reality of who I was, he didn’t need to see me in action. No one needed to see that.

He took the gun with his eyes on the men. There was none of that ease in them from the night we met, only steely determination.

Nicholas glanced down at the gun, ejecting the clip then putting it back in with a familiarity that surprised me. If I’d had to guess who knew how to handle a gun in Wren’s family, it would’ve been her mother.

Nicholas looked to me, silently questioning which of the men he should focus on. I’d already confirmed that there had been two active shooters, the two on the right, so I nodded to one of them.

The other would be mine.

Nicholas stepped forward, his loafers not making a sound against the concrete floor.

I thought he’d back out at the last moment. That wasn’t me thinking little of him. He was a good man. For a rich asshole.

Good men didn’t have the stomach for violence, for killing. Not when they were face-to-face with it. With the smell of a grown man pissing himself. The fear in his eyes. The reality of it.

But he didn’t hesitate. Not once. He lifted the gun and fired it in less than a handful of seconds. The body thumped to the ground, the shot echoing through the empty warehouse.

He stared down at the spreading blood and brain matter for a moment before turning to me to hand me the gun. He held my eyes as I took it, his own full of turmoil and pain. After a heavy sigh, he nodded once to me then to Jay before walking out.

Jay did not waste time in shooting the other two, leaving the last one for me. I picked up my knife as Jay left. He knew I did not want an audience for this.

It was hours before I was done.

Jay was outside the warehouse when I finished.

I lit a smoke, inhaling deeply. It was a ritual that had started way back when, one I hadn’t been able to kick. I was compulsive when it came to this side of myself. The side I hid completely from Wren. The side that was barely human.

It took the length of the cigarette for me to come back. To resemble the man I once was.

Jay knew that.

So he waited.

I crushed the butt with my shoe.

“This means war with the Russians,” he spoke while staring into the distance.

“Yep,” I agreed.

There was no other way. The Russians had been trying to partner with Jay for months now. They had asked nicely, at first. Asked in a way to show Jay that it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

They were the Russian Mob. An old institution. Not the same as they once were, but still powerful. They were still connected around the globe.

Jay was a powerful man. But at the end of the day, he was just a man. He could not go up against them.

Or so they thought.

They did not know Jay.

They made that clear when they opened fire on his fucking wife in the street. Called him to inquire after her fucking health and then urged him to reconsider their ‘offer.’

“We’re going to have to be smart about this,” he continued. “It’s going to be slow. We’re not going to get instant gratification. We’re not going to be able to avenge them, not properly, for months. Maybe even years.”

The men we had killed were merely pawns. Little satisfaction came from ending them because they were disposable. There would be no way to connect them to the Russians, of course. Even though they were the ones who gave the order.

“I know,” I told him.

“I’ll make you a promise right here and right now,” Jay said, looking at me. “We will burn their fucking empire down.”

I stared back at him. “I know.”

That fire would come. It would consume the underworld. Change things dramatically. Vengeance would be served.

But it wouldn’t give me back what was lost.

And it wouldn’t give Wren anything at all.

Killing worked as therapy for me. It was the one time when my mind was completely quiet. Ultra-focused. I could see things clearly without any messy emotions getting in the way.

The clarity I gained in that warehouse followed me all the way back to the hospital.

I probably should’ve gone home and changed, showered, washed the blood off properly. But I didn’t want to be away from Wren for that long.

As I was walking through the hospital halls, still stained in blood, I realized maybe I needed to be away from Wren.

Completely.

The mere thought made my skin crawl. My entire body rebelled against it. Which was probably a sign that it was the right thing to do.

I’d vowed to her a lifetime ago that I’d never let her go. I’d made an oath.

But I hadn’t imagined this. How completely this life would wreck her.

I stared at the door to her room.

If I went back in there, I’d be sentencing her to more of this. The war was only beginning. There would be blood. Death. I’d have to become my worst self.

Corrupting Wren like that was a sin that even I couldn’t commit.

My eyes panned to someone standing by the door, watching me.

I’d been aware of Stella speaking on the phone, somewhere in the back of my mind. It had been part of my training, to always be aware of everyone in my surroundings, anyone could be a hostile.

She’d been with Wren when it happened. A bullet had grazed her arm, but she was fine otherwise. Since she was discharged, she’d been practically glued to Wren’s bedside. As had Zoe, Yasmin and Wren’s parents. I made it a habit to stand outside the room when they were around, barely interacting with them. I couldn’t face them. I was that much of a fucking coward.

“It’s my fault.”

I hadn’t intended to speak, but the words left my mouth of their own volition.

Stella’s gaze was intent on me.

Hard.

“You’re leaving her?” she asked me with the hostility I deserved.

“She’s better off without me,” I replied, shifting my eyes from Stella to the closed door. “If she hadn’t met me, none of this would’ve happened.” I looked back to Stella. “I need to go now. She’ll only know pain with me.”

Wren would be well looked after, I knew that. She once said she’d slay dragons for her friends, and they would do the same for her. They’d never leave her.

Stella’s stare sharpened with anger. With hatred. “You’re a coward,” she spat with venom.

“Not just a coward but a narcissistic one at that,” she added. Her eyes went up and down my body in a way that told me she found me lacking. She titled her head. “You know, if I hadn’t gone into Klutch that night, I never would’ve met Jay, never would’ve met you, and therefore, Wren never would’ve met you. That doesn’t mean this is my fault.”

Her eyes went to the door once more, her face painted with sorrow, with pain. When she looked back to me, there was no sorrow. Just fury. “There is no one to blame for this except the people who did it.” She pointed at my bloodstained shirt. “You took care of them, didn’t you?”

I nodded because I couldn’t say anything else.

“They’ve been punished. The people who are truly responsible,” Stella sighed.

I didn’t correct her to let her know it was much bigger than that. She’d learn the hard way soon enough.

“You walking away now is not punishing anyone but Wren,” she pled. “Not hurting anyone but Wren.” She pointed to the door. “And that woman, that fabulous, kind, open hearted woman has been torn apart.” Her voice splintered, and her eyes filled with tears as she jutted her chin up. She was not done with me. Her eyes narrowed. “And so help me God, if you even think about leaving her at a time when she needs you most, I will hunt you down, and I will end you.”

I believed Stella in that moment. Many, many people had tried to take me down over the years, most notably a secret branch of the US government that didn’t technically exist.

Even they could not succeed.

But I believed the five-foot nothing woman who was barely a buck ten soaking wet.

Because she’d slay dragons for her friend.

Her hand shook as she pointed to the door once more. “You march your ass in there,” she ordered. “You show her all that pain you’re feeling. Don’t you dare fucking hide it because she needs to see it. She doesn’t need you to be the big, strong man without a heart.” Her gaze softened ever so slightly with mercy I did not deserve. “She needs your heart. Your broken heart. To know that she’s not in this alone.”

It was clear by the rapid rise and fall of her chest that Stella had expended all the energy she had left to go up against me. And even though she was exhausted, if I fought her, she’d go up against me until she collapsed.

Then I’d have Jay to answer to.

If I left, where the fuck would I go anyway?

Leaving was the noble thing to do, the good thing, despite what Stella said. But I was not noble or good.

So I looked at Stella for a moment longer before walking to the door, opening it and closing it quietly behind me.

Wren was not asleep.

She turned her head ever so slightly when I entered. Her expression didn’t waver. Nor did the vacant look in her eyes.

I had to restrain my flinch, seeing her like that.

Her empty gaze went to my hands. I’d tried my best to wash the blood off, but some remained.

I knew she saw it, knew she understood what it meant. She didn’t comment on it. Didn’t speak as I settled in the chair beside her bed.

She looked so small, so fucking lost in that bed, I could barely stand to look at her. All her light was gone. Every inch of her seemed so fucking fragile, I was afraid to touch her, to look at her wrong.

But even now, during the most horrible time of her life, she was still my Wren. She would always be my fucking Wren.

WREN

He didn’t say where he’d been, and I didn’t ask. I already knew from the blood on his hands.

He’d gone to avenge me. Avenge us. I hadn’t expected anything less. But the knowledge that those who did this to me were dead did not give me any comfort. I didn’t have any kind of thirst for revenge. Although I wasn’t hip to all the details on what was going on in Jay and Karson’s world, I understood it was the Russian Mob. I was also shrewd enough to deduce that the men who did this were hired guns. Orders came from somewhere else completely.

Jay and Karson would be going to war with one of the oldest criminal institutions in the world. For me. For Stella. For her.

The thought did nothing for me. It merely made me tired to think of all the effort, all the danger they’d be immersing themselves in when it was too late to make any kind of difference.

This had still happened, no matter how many people they killed in retaliation.

They could not bring her back. Nothing would ever grow inside me again.

“This is it,” I said, my voice flat, dead.

Karson regarded me unblinkingly. “This is what?”

I stared right into his eyes, unflinching at the pain, the devastation behind them.

“This is my villain origin story.”

His face contorted in pain like I’d hit him. I didn’t feel any guilt. “Darlin’, you could not be a villain if you tried.”

I zeroed my gaze in on him. “You’re wrong,” I argued. “Because I have to be. That’s how I survive this. I don’t come out with a renewed vigor for life, I don’t become inspirational, an ‘everything happens for a reason’ person that I imagined I might be if something horrible ever happened to me.”

I sighed, overwhelmingly exhausted at the prospect of life outside of this hospital room.

“No, I’ll be the villain,” I decided. “Not in the conventional sense, of course. But I’ll hurt people.” My eyes met his. “I’ll hurt you. I won’t be able to help it.”

His face was ravaged in sorrow. “Sweetheart, hurt me all you like. I promise I can take it. I promise I won’t go anywhere.”

I turned my gaze from his, looking up at the ceiling. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I muttered.

He didn’t say anything else, just settled into the seat beside me. I squeezed my eyes shut and pretended to sleep.

It was just me and my mother in the room.

Karson was probably standing outside the door. He slept in here, of course, when everyone was gone, but he didn’t linger in the room when there were other people in here.

I wasn’t sure if he was standing guard or if he just didn’t want to be far from me. I supposed I was still in danger. But maybe not. This had been a message. To Jay. I assumed that Stella was the target, his wife. They were telling him they could do damage. That they could and would end lives.

I imagined things were going to get worse before they got better. But beyond my friend’s wellbeing and safety, I didn’t care much about all that.

It was not often my mother and I were in here alone. She’d avoided it. Having to face me, having to find the things to say to me. I understood that.

She was messing with the flowers that littered the surfaces of this room. They kept coming, and I fucking hated them. All in varying ‘sympathy’ arrangements. Tastefully arranged. Well meaning, of course. But I fucking hated the sight of them. Blooming with life and vigor. I wanted to tear them apart with my bare hands.

Her back was to me when she spoke. “I lost three children, before I had you.” The words were said so tenderly, almost a whisper.

But they boomed inside of my head, cut through some of the numbness covering my body. I hadn’t heard my mother speak in that tone before. I hadn’t ever heard such raw emotion from her. She always spoke carefully, with an almost undistinguishable accent that she forced to sound more interesting. Actually, I didn’t think she forced it anymore. It was who she was now. A supremely rich, stylish, successful and eccentric woman with a veneer covering her aura to keep her unattainable and distant.

Finally, she turned toward me, walking slowly to my bed, resting her hands at the end of it, her fingers trailing ever so slightly on my feet, as if she was afraid she was going to hurt me.

“Two miscarriages and one stillborn,” she continued, eyes glassy. “A boy.” Her voice was tinny, and she was looking at me, though I could tell I wasn’t who she was seeing. “Henry. He was so very tiny. I held him in my arms before they took him away.” She stopped speaking for the longest time.

“We didn’t talk about it, your father and I.” She let out a long breath. “I couldn’t. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I hated myself and feared he hated me too. In order to survive, in order to hold on to my marriage, I had to shut off all of those feelings. Had to erase those pregnancies, had to erase Henry. I didn’t acknowledge any of it. Didn’t speak about it to friends.”

She smoothed over the sheets covering my body, frowning at them as if she hadn’t brought them in and steamed them herself.

“Those things weren’t discussed back then, you see.” She looked up at me once more. “Especially not in the circles we ran in. The subjects of conversations were about who got facelifts, new properties in France or who was having the affair with the tennis instructor. True tragedies were swept under the rug and never spoken of. Especially losing children. Women were expected to carry on ... silently. Deal with such things alone. It made people, most especially men, uncomfortable.”

She sighed, squeezing my foot but hesitantly. My mother didn’t know how to touch me. We weren’t affectionate, not like me and my father.

“Your father wanted to help, wanted to be there, but he didn’t know how. Especially when I put on an incredibly convincing show of being okay. Even though I was gutted inside. But I kept running the business, going to charity functions, redecorating the house, getting up in the morning. And then I got pregnant with you.”

She smiled at me with a sadness that broke my heart. Or it would’ve, if it wasn’t already in a thousand tiny pieces. I wasn’t sure it even existed anymore.

“I wasn’t happy,” she continued. “I couldn’t let myself be. If anything, I was angry. Furious that I was going to go through it all again. I knew I wouldn’t survive another loss. So I closed my heart off to you. I didn’t let myself hope, didn’t let myself love you. I was prepared, every single day, to lose you. And then you were born. Beautiful. Perfect. Ten fingers. Ten toes.”

She squeezed my foot again, a little tighter. “And still, I kept my heart closed. I didn’t let myself register just how much I loved you because I couldn’t. I was broken inside. It’s not until now, seeing my precious baby in this much pain, that I truly see how much I’ve failed as a mother.”

“No,” I replied quickly and firmly. “You have not failed.”

She smiled again, with even more sadness in her expression. “Thank you, sweetheart, for loving me wholeheartedly despite the distance I’ve put between us. I will regret what I lost with you, but that was the only way I thought I could survive. I was quietly fighting for my life without a single other person knowing.”

There was something in her voice I recognized. A fire that I was feeling deep inside. I never imagined I would feel such a kinship with my mother. Because she was right. There had always been a distance between us. One I’d always accepted and never resented because I didn’t know any better. Because I grew up around other trust fund kids whose mothers were either too pilled out to care about them or too busy with plastic surgeries, charity galas or spa days. And even if they weren’t trophy wives, they were self-made women, hardworking, without the time to devote to their children.

Sure, there were exceptions to every rule, and I did witness friends who had mothers who cared about their grades, their college prospects or whatever boy they were in love with at the time.

I’d convinced myself that I had it much better, a mother who didn’t know whether I went to school or not and didn’t care. One who let me use the jet whenever I wished and let me have wine with dinner.

“Men are different creatures.” Her words broke into my thoughts.

“They are wired differently. I know that’s not a fashionable thing to say these days, and it’s not an excuse for inexcusable behavior, but it’s an explanation as to why they cannot find empathy in situations that escape their comprehension. They want to. Your father wanted to…” she trailed off, sighing. “I want you to remember your father is a wonderful man. He is deeply flawed, he’s human after all, despite what his business rivals may like to say about him.”

She smiled softly.

“But he loves you. Loves me. That love has looked different over the years, thinner in some places, especially when I was so lost in pain, and he didn’t understand that I resented him for going back to normal.” She paused, looking down at her manicure. “Or acting like he was, at least. It hit him in different ways. Ways that he didn’t show me.”

She nodded toward the door. “I doubt he’ll show you either, darling. The way he looks at you, the way he loves you… I can feel it in my marrow, just by looking at him. So I can’t imagine what it feels like.”

Before this, I would’ve said wonderful, exciting, safe, all encompassing.

Now it was stifling, heavy, uncomfortable, toxic.

I didn’t say any of those things to my mother.

“I’ve never met a man like that before,” she tapped her French manicured nail on her chin. “He’s very … intense. In a way that tells me he’ll do anything for you. But show you how he feels. How he bleeds. He won’t want to burden you with that.”

Yes, she saw a lot, my mother.

“Hold on to each other,” she whispered. “Tight enough to make your fingers bleed.”

I didn’t let her words penetrate.

“This is going to change you,” she stated the obvious, moving back to the tray she had arranged earlier. I hadn’t taken much notice of what she was bringing in and out of the room. It didn’t really matter.

“Fundamentally, right down to the core of you,” she carried on as I heard glass clanging, liquid sloshing. “I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish I could say that time heals all wounds and that, eventually, you will be the woman you were before.”

She walked over, handing me the crystal tumbler.

I paused at first, almost saying, ‘no thank you, I can’t, I’m pregnant.’

But I wasn’t.

Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to drink with all the drugs I was on, but I didn’t care. I doubted it would do any more harm. The glass was heavy, crystal. The clear liquid was probably one of the most expensive vodkas in the world.

I sipped it thankfully, savoring the burn at the back of my throat.

My mother did the same, settling herself in Karson’s seat. Stella, Zoe and Yasmin had all sat there, but the seat was somehow still his.

“But unfortunately, honey, as much as I’ve failed you as a mother in many ways, I’ve never lied to you. I’m not going to start now.” My mother’s voice was wary.

She regarded me, not masking her pain. “You are a different person than you were before. This will define you. Even if you spend decades pretending it hasn’t like I have. But you are different than me.”

She smiled sadly, reaching over to squeeze my hand. “So much better. You have genuine friends who have depth. Friends who won’t shy away from this, from being there for you. You have an intense man who would level cities for you. Eventually, you will find the strength to try again. And you will be a mother. One with an open heart. Because that, my sweet, is who you are.”

My heart thundered, and my heart dropped at the last part.

The vodka soured in my stomach, and my mouth went dry.

She expected me to try again.

Because she didn’t know I couldn’t carry a child again.

None of them did.

Was this going to be my fate? Everyone caring for me through this, helping me heal, expecting me to continue my life with Karson and try again?

No.

That couldn’t happen. Wouldn’t.

I drained my drink and let my mother comfort me.

I let them all comfort me during the two weeks I was in the hospital. Because once I left, everything would have to change.

CHAPTER THREE

World Spins Madly On – The Weepies

Karson was here.

At my house.

I’d told him to leave, many times. He hadn’t listened. I didn’t have the energy to fight with him. Plus, I was barely ever alone with him. Yasmin had moved in for the time being, and she was working from here as often as she could. Same with Zoe, Stella and my mother.

I was stronger now. I could use the bathroom on my own. Yasmin helped me shower. I knew the sight of me hurt her, but she hid it well. I was hard to look at. My stomach still had a swell to it, my boobs were huge, leaking, my wound had barely healed.

The round, puckered hole would be an ugly scar, even with the best surgeons in the country working on me.

The bullet had entered just below my ribs, punctured a lung then went out clean the other side.

I quickly lost blood at the scene. My body went into shock. My heart stopped twice in the ambulance. She didn’t have a chance to survive any of that.

My eyes were on the TV, but I could feel him enter the room, smell lemons as he stood close to me. I held my breath.

Hopefully, if I ignored him, he might leave.

It was cruel, exceptionally so, to treat him this way. The man who loved me. Who was caring for me. Whose heart was broken too.

But I was the villain now.

“You need to eat,” he eventually said.

His tone was barely different than it usually was. Most people wouldn’t have caught it. I wasn’t most people. So I heard the hopelessness in it. The indescribable grief. It tore at my soul.

I had to take a few long moments to collect myself before I responded. In that time, I kept my gaze level on the TV, watching carefully with dry eyes. The pills on my coffee table helped with keeping the tears at bay, keeping me wonderfully detached from my toxic feelings.

But Karson wouldn’t let me completely drift away. His mere presence was an anchor. To my feelings. To the wretched wasteland that was my life.

“I am eating.” I nodded to the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table, sitting next to the almost empty bottle of Bordeaux.

“That’s not food,” Karson replied in an even tone.

“Olivia Pope would disagree with you,” I countered, not having the strength to add any emotion to my voice.

Silence pulsed between us for a while, his stare weighing me down. I still didn’t look at him.

“You’re not supposed to be drinking with your pills,” Karson broke the silence.

I took a large sip from my glass before I replied. “Oh, I’m not supposed to mix booze and pills?” I asked sweetly. “I challenge you to find anyone in this neighborhood who isn’t doing that right at this very moment.”

“You’re not anyone.” His words came out clipped.

I sighed. “Your concern for me is ill-founded, honey. What is mixing pills and wine going to do to me? What could it possibly take from me? I’m not going to swallow the whole bottle, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

I could almost feel the clenching of his jaw without having to look his way.

“I’m worried about you, Wren,” he ground out.

“Worried?” I scoffed.

“Worried,” he repeated. “Because you are my heart, you are my soul, you are my fuckin’ everything. What happens to you happens to me. What tears you apart fuckin’ shreds me.” His voice broke right at the end. It shattered into a million pieces, and whatever of me was left shattered right along with it.

There it was. There was my lifeboat. He was my lifeboat. Karson. Unyielding. Never-ending. He might’ve toyed with the idea of walking away from me. Not because he didn’t love me, because he did. He loved me with every cell in his body, I had no doubt about that. Leaving me at the lowest point of my life would kill him. It would destroy him. But he’d gladly destroy himself if he thought it was best for me.

But something in him had decided that leaving me was not for the best. He had decided to stay. And not just for the duration. Until I’d healed… Whatever the fuck that meant. Until he took his last breath. He was staying. No matter what.

Because he loved me.

Because I was his everything.

“I’ve lived a very fortunate life,” I said in response to his beautiful words. “I hadn’t experienced true trauma, despite my antics to go around chasing danger and excitement. Something to make my existence a little … deeper.” I picked at a thread on my sweater. “I’m not like Stella, Yasmin or Zoe in so many ways. They’ve all gone through so much to become who they are. They’re all so fucking strong. They’re equipped to handle anything that life throws at them without falling apart. Because they have something to measure it against.”

I focused on the TV.

“I don’t have that,” I said, quieter this time. “I don’t have anything to compare it to. Apart from what I see on TV or in movies. And in TV or movies, they lose their babies. It’s tragic and heartbreaking and horrible … for one scene. It does what it needs to, in that scene. It’s powerful, it’s heartbreaking. But only in one scene. That’s all the audience needs. Truthfully, it’s all they want. All they can handle. They don’t want to experience the reality. So I didn’t even have an idea of what that reality was. And though I’m going to carry this with me forever…” I sucked in an uneven breath as the thought of forever with this pain was absolutely unbearable.

Karson waited in the silence. He didn’t rush to fill it while Olivia Pope yelled at Fitz in the background.

“But I didn’t know I’d have to carry it once I left the hospital. I thought I’d be spared that.” I let out a hollow laugh that I didn’t recognize. “I thought the world was kinder than that.”

I drained my glass, leaning forward to pour from the last of the bottle.

I felt Karson’s eyes on me. I didn’t look at him, not wanting to see or feel any judgement or concern or even love.

“Baptism by fire,” I said once I’d leaned back on the sofa, wincing ever so slightly at the movement. Karson surely looked concerned at that, but again, I wasn’t brave enough to face him. “I am sitting in my own blood,” I told him in a dead voice. “As we sit here, I’m coated in my own blood. I have to sit in it. Because I can’t deal with it any other way. The blood. Anything else would put me at risk for infection. Because my insides are shredded. My insides are an open wound. So blood is gushing out of me. Not trickling, gushing. The world has not been kind to me. My body, the space I have to live in...” I gestured up and down my torso. “This place I can’t escape, is not being kind to me. Still showing me the evidence of what used to grow here.”

My hand ghosted over my stomach. There was still a very slight swell there, even though it was empty. Even though I was empty.

“I’m still dying, from the inside out. Every breath I take, every time I move, use the bathroom, I’m scared. I’m terrified of my own body. And I know that I’m not supposed to be telling you that. That men don’t want to hear about the gory details of it all. We’re supposed to grit our teeth and hide the reality of how fucking horrific it is to go through this, shield the delicate male sensibility.”

“Wren.”

It wasn’t a shout. It was closer to a growl, though the tenor was gentler. It rattled my very bones. Every part of me was called to attention, and it was no longer within my power to keep my eyes on the screen. No, they found him.

Karson’s body was stiff, taut, as tense as I’ve ever seen him. He was like a marble statue. Like an open wound. Like a fucking hurricane. All of those things.

His presence and his expression yanked me further away from my chemically induced detachment.

I felt compelled to stare at him, observing him for a long time before he finally spoke. He held me there, in a mental embrace, in a prison, both comforting and excruciating.

“I can handle blood.” He spoke so fucking quietly, it was almost a whisper. “I know blood. I’m not scared of it. Not scared of you. I’m not going to shy away from the reality of this. I’m not scared of your body.”

There he was, saying all the right words. Giving me everything. Yet still…

“That’s not what I mean.” I stared at him coldly. I never thought I could look or speak to Karson in that way, but there I was. “You said whatever happens to me, happens to you. That’s wrong. You are not walking around coated in your own blood. You do not have to live this the way I do. And I can’t fucking stand to look at you.” I gritted my teeth. “I need you to leave. This is done. We’re done.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Karson’s expression didn’t change. “We’re never going to be done.”

Fury, hot and thick, surged through my veins. “We need to be done.” My voice rose. “I cannot try to be Wren for you right now. I can’t even be her for me. I swear to God, if you don’t leave my house right now, I’m going to scream.”

The way Karson looked at me told me he was measuring my words. He knew me best.

Or at least, he had.

I was dead fucking serious. Panic was clawing at my throat at his continued presence, at his insistence that there was something left of us. I couldn’t face that right now. I could barely face going to the fucking bathroom.

It was becoming increasingly likely that I would lose my mind if I couldn’t escape his stare and that fucking smell of lemons.

“I’m going to walk out of your house,” Karson finally said. “But I’m not walking out of your life. Not now, not ever.”

His words were a promise, absolute determination coating every syllable.

But I heard it as an omen.

I forced my attention back to the TV as he walked away. A tear trailed down my cheek.

I looked away, staring at the wineglass. It was half empty. In another life, it would’ve been half full. But whatever. This life was all I had. So it was half empty.

I had an almost inescapable urge to grab onto it and hurl it against the wall with all my might. I wanted to watch it shatter, wanted to stain my white walls with the blood red wine. I wanted to release the aggression, the fury that was pulsating inside of me.

But I didn’t.

Because if I smashed it, someone would hear. Someone would come running. Someone would clean up my mess. Because no one would let me clean up my own damn mess, and even if they did, I didn’t have the energy. If I was alone, I would have happily left the shards of glass laying around, left the stain to serve as a somewhat comforting mark on my perfectly painted walls. But I was not alone. So I did not throw the glass. I just stared at it.

Then, for reasons that should’ve been inspected by a highly trained psychiatrist, I drained my glass and stood, my feet moving soundlessly through the house until I was standing in the middle of the room I’d just finished designing.

The nursery.

We had one at Karson’s place too. We hadn’t decided where we wanted to live yet.

Well, that wasn’t true. I’d already known I wanted to live in Karson’s cozy cottage by the sea. Not this large, impressive, cold mansion surrounded by manicured gardens and other large, impressive, cold mansions.

So our little family would’ve lived there.

After the closet construction, of course. But I had an entire closet of couture here. I couldn’t leave it behind. Therefore, the baby would have a room here. Just in case.

It was so pretty. Shades of white, soft neutrals. Everything calming and whimsical.

My eyes were dry as I took in the enchanting nursery. The rocking chair where I’d imagined feeding our baby. My feet sank into the soft rug in the room as I walked to the closet, absorbing it all.

There were a lot of clothes there. Not enough, I’d thought just a month ago. Nowhere near enough for my child. But I’d been kind of limited. We hadn’t found out the sex. Because I’d wanted a surprise. I wanted to make an event out of everything.

My mind flickered back to my first trip to an upscale baby store in Beverly Hills. I’d gone alone, mere days after I found out I was pregnant.

“These are precious,” the assistant said as she wrapped up thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes.

I may have gone a bit crazy. I would’ve blamed it on hormones, but that was honestly just who I was as a person.

I smiled down at the fabric. “They really are,” I agreed.

“A friend of yours pregnant?” she asked.

I laughed at the thought. Zoe and Yasmin were both all about their careers, and I cringed to think of the contract Jay would put in place before he impregnated Stella. Then again, things were different between them now. It would be great if we were both pregnant at the same time. She would make a great mother.

It was on that thought that I realized the sales assistant was still waiting for my response. “Oh, it’s me. I’m pregnant,” I told her.

Her eyes widened as her eyes traveled down to my exposed stomach that was still very flat. I was wearing a cropped tee and high waisted jeans that I would not be able to fit in in a few months.

“You look … amazing,” she breathed once she looked back up at me.

“Thanks,” I replied with a warm smile.

“How far along are you? If you don’t mind me asking,” she added quickly.

I waved my hand. “No, I don’t mind at all. I’m only like … four weeks and six days or something. I don’t keep track as well as I should.”

Her eyes widened again at this. She opened her mouth, closed it again, then focused back on wrapping the clothes.

“What?” I asked, interested in what she was going to say.

She glanced back up at me timidly. “No, it’s nothing. It’s not my place.”

I laid my forearms on the counter and leaned forward. “Girl, now you have to say it.”

She remained silent for a bit, her expression pinched. “A lot of women wait until they’re well into their second trimester before they announce, before they start shopping.” She looked down at the clothes.

I screwed my nose up. “Why would they wait?”

She looked slightly uncomfortable as she cleared her throat. “To be safe. Most of the danger is gone after the first trimester.”

“Danger?” I repeated.

She nodded. “Pregnancy loss, unfortunately, is most common in the first trimester.”

I nodded slowly in understanding, a pit opening in my stomach. “Oh, okay. Totally get it.” A slightly uncomfortable silence overtook us.

That locked box in my mind rattled. It was my duty, in order to safeguard my sanity, to keep it closed.

“I completely understand why women would want to be safe, keep it to themselves. But I’m not exactly known for playing it safe.” I waved away the thought. “And I don’t live my life under the expectation that the worst is going to happen. Life is going to happen, no matter what. The only thing I can control is my attitude.” I rolled my eyes. “Corny, I know, but it’s served me well thus far. The amount of times I thought I was going to be stuck in a Saudi palace or in a harem on a superyacht in international waters… That shit for sure could’ve gone bad. But it didn’t. So … yeah.”

I’d been so proud of my positive attitude then. Not proud, I was a fucking maniac about it. Clinging on to it for dear life. Because I’d had to. If I’d loosened my grip, even a little, I would’ve let that dread in. That cold knowing. The words that I’d heard in Romania.

What a wonderful job I did, telling myself I’d forgotten about them completely. Dismissed them entirely.

What a fool I was.

I hated that woman, the one who bought all the clothes in front of me. Despised her with a hatred I hadn’t thought I was capable of possessing.

Only for a second.

Then I made a plan.

I was wearing Chanel.

It only seemed fitting.

Although some people might’ve considered it a crime to fashion to stand so close to an open flame while wearing vintage Chanel.

Such things didn’t really worry me anymore.

I’d dumped everything into the large fire drum I’d had delivered. It had arrived in under an hour. The things you could get in LA if you were willing to pay. Yasmin hadn’t noticed all the commotion because she was baking brownies in the kitchen. Yasmin baked when she was worried, stressed or upset. Dealing with me, she had to be all three. Plus, she knew my weakness for her brownies, so it was also probably part of a larger effort to get me to consume more calories.

So she didn’t come out until I was standing in front of the fire drum with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a lighter in the other.

Zoe and Stella arrived as she walked toward me, faces pinched in concern.

“Wren, what are you…”

Her words cut off as she got close enough to see what was in the fire drum. What was in a pile beside me because there wasn’t enough room.

Clothes.

Baby clothes.

Thousands of dollars’ worth of them.

It was selfish of me to do what I was doing. I could’ve donated them to women in need. But I wasn’t really in a selfless state of mind. I was purely focused on getting them out of the house.

“I need it gone,” I stated quietly. “I need it all gone.”

Other friends might’ve tried to speak to me in muted tones, reasoning with me about making decisions while going through trauma and on a lot of mood stabilizers and booze.

But not these women.

“I’ll get on the phone with a contractor to have the room transformed by day’s end tomorrow,” Zoe announced, already tapping at her cell.

“I’ll shop online for everything you need to furnish the room,” Stella jumped in.

The love I felt for them at that moment was overwhelming, but I wasn’t in a state to be able to articulate it.

I took a long swig from the vodka bottle before pouring the rest all over the clothes. Then I dropped the lighter into the pit.

They caught fire quickly, and I added more as the fabric burned.

As I watched the flames dance, I vowed to myself that this would be the last day I mourned like this. Moped like this. Soon, it would all be erased. All evidence of her. On the outside, at least. So I would act like the woman I used to be.

On the outside, at least.

CHAPTER FOUR

TWO MONTHS LATER

Arms – Christina Perri

It was one minute until midnight.

I was in the bath with a bottle of vodka. It had long grown warm, and the bath was almost cold. But I lingered inside of it, my skin pruned and freezing, my eyes staring at the bathroom tile, unseeing. Except when my gaze flickered to my phone, propped on the table beside my tub. I’d downloaded some app to have the time displayed like a screensaver, each minute flipping like an analog clock.

One more minute, and the day I’d dreaded for months would be upon me.

My due date.

May 21.

It was rather masochist of me to be sitting in a cold bath, half drunk, far too sober, watching the minutes go by, waiting for the second worst day of my life.

But that’s how I rolled these days.

Of course, Stella, Yasmin and Zoe had been a nonstop presence this week. Each of them had offered to stay with me tonight, first gently and then more insistently. I’d refused first gently and then more insistently.

They meant well, of course, each of them. They loved me, wanted to be there to support me. Which made it that much worse. I could not have an audience to this fucking day. I could not use my energy, trying to be the person I was pretending to be around them. The energy it would take to breathe was all I had.

My mother hadn’t offered to come over. She’d called. Sent flowers. And this very expensive bottle of vodka. She’d left a message, promising she’d see me the next day. Her voice had been full of faux cheer, edged with sorrow. With true empathy.

She’d passed through these days. She knew that the last thing I needed was … people. My mother, for the first time in my life, understood me better than anyone else.

He hadn’t called.

I’d expected him to. He hadn’t gone anywhere, hadn’t given me breathing space, hadn’t given me any inkling that he was ready to give up on me. On us. He was fighting, to the death for us, doing everything he could to get me through this time.

He slept outside the gates to my house in his fucking car.

Yet with this day looming like an omen, nothing.

That was good.

I couldn’t handle seeing his face.

But there was no one I needed more.

Not that I would admit that. Not that I would call him.

I poured some of the warm vodka into the cold bathwater as the clock struck midnight. My eyes followed the liquid as it splashed in.

I sighed, tipping the bottle back upright, taking a long swig. I sank farther down into my tub, soaking my hair, my neck, immersing everything but my face underwater.

If I could’ve sank into the porcelain, I would’ve. The prospect of the bath swallowing me up was enticing. More than enticing. I wanted to claw at it, breaking nails, soaking my hands with blood, crimson liquid spilling into the water, a sign of my desperation to escape. But I couldn’t do that. Couldn’t sink away into a hole somewhere, as much as I wanted to. Because it would hurt the people I loved. And though I didn’t care about much these days, certainly not myself, I cared about my friends, my family. I wouldn’t do that to them. Wouldn’t become some pitiful burden that they had to watch like a clock, that they constantly worried about.

The next best thing would be to keep all my curtains drawn, drink myself stupid and take an appropriate amount of prescription drugs—enough to knock me into oblivion for a worrying amount of time but not actually kill me—and let this dreadful day pass.

Once I was free of it, this wretched date haunting me like a ghost, then I could carry on. Then I could start my journey back to myself. Or do my best to resemble the person I was before.

Without Karson, of course.

He couldn’t be in my life now that the clock had run out.

I wouldn’t do that to him.

To myself.

Even though every second he was absent was like having my teeth pulled from the root, having my skin flayed from my bones. Pain was fine, though. I was used to that.

My miserable contemplation and half a bottle of vodka was the reason I didn’t hear him come in. Or maybe he was the reason I didn’t hear him come in.

I wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing there, staring at me. Probably not long. Though he considered himself the villain, he would always save me if he thought I was in danger. Even if I was the one endangering myself.

So he wasn’t going to stand and watch me drown myself in the bath. But he wasn’t going to announce himself immediately either.

As I discovered when I saw a black figure move out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t jump, didn’t shriek or even flinch. Hadn’t I half expected him to show up?

Hadn’t I been hoping, praying for him to show up and save me? Been drinking myself into a stupor because I hated how much I needed him?

My relief quickly turned into fury. At myself, of course, but it was much easier to direct it at him.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded, sitting up in the bath, not bothering to try to cover my nakedness. He’d seen it all before.

I had intended to sound outraged, pissed, hostile, but I barely managed to sound annoyed. There was no fight in me. Not anymore.

“Get out.” It was not the command I wanted it to be. It was little more than a plea.

Karson did not move. Nor did his gaze move downward to my naked body. He kept my eyes for ten seconds. I counted.

Then he approached.

He was on me in three strides, snatching the towel beside the bath and scooping me up with one arm. The water sloshed as he lifted me from the tub and wrapped me in my fuzzy towel.

I didn’t bother to fight him. What was the point?

So I let him hold me like a child, bundle me up tightly, seep his warmth into my skin, into my bones.

We didn’t speak as he carefully dried me, working slowly, masterfully. Once he was done, he dropped the towel to the floor.

The cold air bit at my naked skin for less than a handful of seconds before he wrapped me in the plush robe that was hanging on my bathroom door. It was thick, outrageously expensive, and I adored it. Nothing was warmer. Cozier. Safer.

Except Karson’s arms.

I didn’t speak, didn’t ask for him to hold me. I refused to, no matter how desperately I wanted him to. Needed him to.

But it was Karson. I didn’t need to ask.

He scooped me up once more and carried me to my bedroom. Didn’t stop until he laid me on the bed as gently as you would a baby bird.

I couldn’t help but let out a little moan of protest as his arms loosened around me, and the bed threatened to swallow me up.

There was a thump, then another as his shoes hit the floor. He wasted no time in climbing into bed and pulling me back into his arms. I burrowed in as close as I could, wishing I could unzip his skin and bury myself inside of it. I settled for splaying myself half on top of him, inhaling his scent and letting it wash over me.

Karson’s arms were tight around me, telling me without words he wasn’t going to let me go.

We didn’t speak for a long time, silence lurking all around us, the settling of the house puncturing it every now and then.

Though I felt safer than I had in a long time, I was still tense, my every muscle coiled. My limbs were tight, my jaw clenched.

Karson could feel that, I knew. He understood my body better than anyone.

I heard his swift intake of breath, and I held my own, preparing for him to say something, ruin this, forcing me to clamber away, to protect myself.

The air felt thick, heavy, growing more stifling from all the words left unsaid. The powder keg finally seconds away from exploding.

I squeezed my eyes closed, clutched him tighter, preparing for what was to come.

“Sleep,” Karson ordered in a rough voice.

I creaked my eyes open.

Karson moved one of his hands from my back to stroke the side of my face. “Sleep, darlin,” he repeated, less abrasive this time.

The command came out easily, fluidly, as if such a thing was possible in such a situation. As if the seemingly simple concept of sleep wasn’t an impossible mountain to scale.

But even mountains shrank in the face of Karson.

So I slept.

KARSON

I did not relax after Wren finally drifted off to sleep. Her body didn’t either. All of her muscles were stiff, strained, as if she was preparing to run, to do battle in her fucking sleep.

Tonight would be the longest she’d slept since it happened.

I knew that because she only slept through the night when she was with me. And even though things between us were fucked, they weren’t destroyed. We weren’t destroyed.

Wren understandably thought that we were because she was in ruins. To her very core she was. What happened had been a bomb that laid waste to everything.

Wren was still surrounded by smoke, debris. She couldn’t fathom that anything could’ve survived the blast.

I only knew that we did because I was still here. Still somewhat human. The monster inside of me did not have control.

Not entirely.

I watched Wren’s face in the dim light, all of her features scrunched together. My hands skimmed over her hips, over the place where she had a pink, puckered wound that was transitioning into a scar.

She had two scars on her body. My name in ink on her hip and the evidence of the bullet that had torn through her body as a result of me.

What she said that day in the hospital had been true for her. She didn’t carry blame for me.

She was pushing me away for her survival. It was that simple. The mere fact that she didn’t find fault in me for this was what gave me hope that she was still in there. My beautiful Wren was in there.

Somewhere.

WREN

Karson and I stayed in bed the entire next day.

We did not have sex.

We watched cooking shows. I had vodka for breakfast. Karson said nothing, but he did leave the bed for close to an hour, coming back with a large tray of eggs, bacon, fresh fruit and pastries.

He poured orange juice from a jug into my vodka.

He didn’t demand I eat, as I’d expected. No, he just prepared himself a plate, arranged the cushions on his side of the bed to prop himself up, then ate. Yes, I still referred to it as his side, the side I’d kept undisturbed. It still had a book he’d been reading the day before this nightmare started, a water carafe. Reading glasses I’d teased him mercilessly about but which were secretly so sexy on him I’d climbed on top of him many times while he was reading.

The act of him sitting there, eating breakfast, the TV on our favorite cooking show. It was all so normal. So achingly familiar, yet something that would never be the same again. Not after what happened.

The thought turned everything sour, including the orange juice liberally spiked with vodka. I drained it anyway. And I arranged a small amount of food on the plate Karson had brought in, nibbling on it as I settled in bed beside him.

It was delicious, of course. Yet another thing Karson was brilliant at. Memories of us at his cottage, drinking wine and eating the dinners he prepared rushed at me. He’d made only mashed potatoes for two weeks straight when it was the only thing I could stomach, eating them dutifully in solidarity.

I squeezed my eyes shut at the memories, doing my best to banish them. My gaze strayed over to Karson, who had been studying me.

He didn’t try to hide it, try to mask his expression, he just looked at me. His brows were pinched together, and that smile of his I’d come to adore was nowhere to be found. It seemed impossible that any kind of joy could ever have existed on this handsome man’s face.

It was as if he’d never known happiness, that’s how deep his sorrow was etched into him.

This day was unbearable for him too. This life. This nightmare. I knew this, obviously. But I’d been thoroughly wrapped up in my own grief, drowning in it so that I was ignorant to the fact that I was not in these waters alone.

Karson seemed so strong, so impenetrable, so capable that it seemed unfathomable that he could be destroyed in the same way I was. But there it was, plainer than I’d ever seen it on his face.

My plate hit my side table with a clatter, his landing a bit more gracefully thanks to his large, capable hands.

We both moved toward each other in tandem, but instead of Karson’s arms settling around me and tucking me under his shoulder, sheltering and protecting me as he was known to do, I took that role. His large form fluidly slotted into my slight one, his head settling on my chest as I ran my fingers through his hair, clutching him to me.

He gave me all of his weight. All of his pain. I was grateful for it. I hated myself for having been so selfish in my grief for so long, forcing the person I loved most in this world to shoulder his suffering alone.

At every turn, Karson had been there for me. He had every right to hate and resent me, but I knew he would never do either. He loved me relentlessly. He would love me until the day he died. Only me. I had no doubt of that.

At one time, such a thought was romantic, exciting, comforting. Now it was disastrous.

I did not linger on such thoughts now, though. There would be plenty of time for me to face the reality of a future where I was incapable of giving Karson what he needed, what he deserved.

This was not the time.

At that moment, on that day I could give Karson something. I could give him the last remnants of me. And I did it happily.

Neither of us spoke.

What was there to say?

My naked chest was wet from his tears.

At midnight, he left once more, sensing the change between us maybe. More likely he had tasks that needed his immediate attention. An entire twenty-four hours without glimpsing at his phone was a big thing for him.

Something in the darkness needed him. Or perhaps he needed it. He’d shown me the vulnerable, still bleeding part of him. But he had other parts too. Parts that would require him to make someone else bleed.

I pretended to be asleep when he laid a gentle kiss to my forehead.

We both knew I was awake.

“I love you, sweetheart,” he murmured in a voice that moved through the night like velvet, cutting through my body like a blade.

He didn’t linger, didn’t wait for me to respond, my lips squeezed together as tightly as my eyes. I didn’t let myself move. Didn’t let myself breathe. If I did, I’d cling to him, tell him I loved him too. I’d give us both hope that didn’t need to exist. It was better this way.

I laid there long after he left, not trusting myself to move, fearing I might just vaporize into oblivion.

KARSON

I had been waiting for one of them to confront me. Today made sense.

They had obviously noticed that Wren and I were no longer Wren and I. I didn’t doubt that she had informed them all that we were done. If that’s what she needed to cling to in order to get through this, I was okay with it. Fuck, it served me well. With all this shit happening with the Russians, I had to focus. Had to revert back to a primitive version of myself.

Wren did not need to see that on top of everything.

But all her friends saw was me abandoning her when she needed me most.

So I wasn’t surprised when one of them stormed into my office, obviously done staying silent on the matter.

I did not ask how they found me, in my office downtown, taking up a floor of a skyscraper, operating under a shell company that had no connection to Jay.

“My friend, my perpetually cheerful, irresponsible, adventure chasing friend is falling apart,” Yasmin said by greeting.

She took after the other females in their group, not fucking around with pleasantries when her friend was concerned. I had always thought her to be the most even-tempered of the group. The least likely to seek out conflict, do what she could to resolve things quietly and peacefully. Which was ironic since she was a lawyer, but that was the sense I got from her.

It had rung true until this moment. When she’d walked in here ready for battle. Politics and peace were abandoned, apparently, when I got a look at the fire in her eyes.

She was tall, without the six-inch heels she was wearing. In them she came eye level with me. She was also attractive in a sharp, severe way that interested many men. Full lips. High cheekbones. Large, piercing eyes.

But at that moment, her features were contorted with hatred.

“She is doing it quietly, my friend,” Yasmin continued before I could say anything. “Because despite the absolute turmoil she is going through, she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone. Doesn’t want to fuck up anyone’s day. That isn’t her style, you see. She is someone who brings joy. Laughter. Happiness. That has been a cornerstone to her identity. And she is clinging to that identity so fucking tightly her fingers are bleeding.”

Each word out of her mouth was a weapon. Pointed. Sharpened to penetrate. To damage.

Each of them found their mark. My skin was thick. It had to be in my line of business. Nothing got through. Nothing unless it pertained to Wren.

Yasmin’s eyes were clear, no sign of tears, though I could hear the naked pain in her voice. She couldn’t hide it. She loved Wren too much.

“She does not want to burden us with her breakdown,” she sighed. “She doesn’t want to burden us with the pain she feels after she was shot in the street, five months pregnant and lost her baby.”

Yasmin’s tone, impenetrable, impossibly strong and presumably the voice she used when she was in courtrooms, facing against impossible odds and winning no matter what, that tone faltered now. Just slightly. But the sorrow in it made me want to flinch.

I didn’t, though. I was practiced at hiding my emotions, at shielding my reactions. Years of training in one of the most ruthless and dangerous organizations this country had to offer gave me that. Torture, death and pain… I could stare all of these in the face without a reaction.

But these past few months had been testing the limits of my training. Testing the limits of everything.

“And you’re here,” she threw her hands out at my office. “You’re in the villain headquarters, doing shit that I could use to lock you away for a fucking lifetime if I wanted to.”

Her eyes narrowed at me, and I found myself believing, with categorical certainty, that she would be able to do that. Even though the fact was that many like her had tried and failed to find any proof of mine or Jay’s wrongdoing. People in the upper echelons paid, blackmailed or threatened accusers to look the other way.

Although I knew all too well that no one was untouchable, we were as close as you could get to it.

Yasmin’s specialty wasn’t even criminal law. She was successful but not powerful, and she didn’t have the connections needed to bring us down. But she had fierce loyalty and love for Wren. A love that would serve as fuel. As all the power she needed.

“I’m not going to lock you away,” she shook her head. “Because my best friends are tangled up with you and your boss,” she spat the word. “And I cannot hurt either of you without hurting them. I would never do that. So although I hated to see them both with you, with bastards capable of the most terrible things, I slept at night because you loved them. I could see that. So it stood to reason that you would do every and any terrible thing in order to protect them.” Her voice was shaking now. “But you didn’t.”

They weren’t words I hadn’t said to myself a million times over the past few months. Words I’d sharpened regularly so the pain of them was never dull. So they kept me up at night. As they should’ve.

“You’re right. I didn’t protect her.” I paused, thinking of that tiny, perfect child I held in my arms only once. “I didn’t protect them. And I will pay for that failure every day for the rest of my life.”

Yasmin blinked once. In surprise. She hadn’t expected me to own up to my mistake so easily. To tell her she was right. Men weren’t exactly known for doing that.

She recovered quickly, finding her fury and tossing aside whatever pity she may have felt for me.

“You’re here, not with her.” Yasmin’s eyes were practically slits. “And although I would love to change that, you’re the only one who can. Just like you are the only one who can fix her. You’re the only one who knows her. In ways, her best friends of years, decades, do not. Yet. You. Are. Not. With. Her.”

There it was. The full face of the fury that both her and Zoe had been harboring toward Jay and myself. They had both watched their friends fall in love with bad men, without being able to do anything about it.

I tore my gaze from hers to glance at my watch. “It’s almost two forty-five. Do you know what that means?”

Her face contorted into a sneer. “What? Time to torture?”

“At two forty-five, every day, Wren sits at the back of her linen closet, in the very darkest spot in her house. She sits there for exactly fifteen minutes. No more, no less. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t say a word. She just sits there. Staring. Not moving.”

I thought of my beautiful, vibrant woman hiding herself away in the darkness, as if each day she hoped it might swallow her. The thought tore at me. My fist clenched, but the rest of me stayed motionless.

Yasmin had paled. She had not known this little tidbit. None of them did. Wren, my darling Wren was talented. She was playing her part well. Her friends saw through parts of her act, of course. But they couldn’t imagine just how deep her suffering went.

And Wren didn’t want them to see that. She wanted to protect them from that. Because it would terrify them. It would break their hearts.

It scared the absolute shit out of me.

“Wren sits in that closet every day, at that time,” I continued, scrubbing a hand down my face. “No matter what. If you try to take her out of there, as I mistakenly did once, you will hear a scream that will haunt your fucking dreams. You will watch her claw at the walls. You will see the truth of it.”

Tears streamed down Yasmin’s cheeks. I didn’t feel remorse for being the cause of them. She had come in here looking for something, and I was giving it to her.

Be careful what you wish for and all that.

“You will see that no one can fix Wren,” I shook my head. “That she is so deep inside of herself, not even my arms are strong or long enough to take her out. She is the only one who can climb out… If that’s what she wants. If or when she is able. Until that time comes, I will live with her, in that dark, quiet, place for the rest of my fucking life. And I’ll be there, waiting outside the closet for her to come out, making sure that you will not drag her out before she is ready.”

“Two forty-five,” she whispered. “That’s when…” she trailed off.

“The exact time she was shot,” I finished for her. “Yeah.”

Yasmin sunk into the chair in front of her in defeat. She buried her head in her hands, her body shrinking in on itself.

I didn’t say anything as she quietly cried. Didn’t offer any comfort. I had none to give.

Her red rimmed eyes found mine. “Do you think she’s ever going to be the person she was?” she asked, all of her anger gone. “Do you think there’s hope for her to find her way back?”

I didn’t lower my gaze. “Yes,” I said with certainty. “Maybe with someone else it would not be possible, but with Wren, I have hope.”

“I’m sorry.” She wiped at her eyes which now held less hostility. “I’m not going to pretend I like you, but I see what you feel for her. What you lost.”

Her words were tinged in pity.

That punctured much deeper than hatred.

“You have to have hope,” I told her. “That Wren will pick up a shovel and dig her way out from beneath the rubble.” My voice was cold now. Dismissive.

Yasmin heard it. Saw me shutting down. It was an act of self-preservation, not cruelty. I didn’t much care if she couldn’t distinguish that.

She stood, straightening her skirt, stared a moment longer then turned on her heel, leaving me with my thoughts.

My thoughts were of Wren, sitting in a closet, trying to melt into the darkness.

WREN

Zoe and I were drinking together. Goodbye drinks.

I’d booked my flight the morning after Karson left, using a different name because I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t monitoring that kind of thing.

Yasmin was not there because she was working. Because I was not telling her I was leaving. Knowing her, she would chain herself to me in an effort to keep me in one place.

She cared deeply about me. Worried deeply. She’d gently mentioned me seeing a therapist. I’d gently told her this was not the time.

Zoe understood. My friend loved me. Bled for me. But she watched carefully, letting me make my decisions without judgement or comment.

Stella wasn’t here because Stella was pregnant.

She hadn’t told any of us, but we all knew. You could see it. She was naturally petite, and her boobs had gotten bigger. Her skin glowed, and she wasn’t drinking any booze. That was the biggest sign. That bitch loved a cocktail.

I guessed she hadn’t told us because she hadn’t told Jay. Him and Karson were deep in planning for war with the Russians.

I knew this through Stella, not Karson. Apart from last night, I hadn’t spoken to him in months. Even though he was everywhere. He fucking slept in his car outside my gates. I’d watch him on the security camera, for hours, clutching a glass of wine, willing myself to find the strength to press the button to let him in.

I never found the strength.

There was still a security detail on me, though they followed me at a distance.

There was currently a man in a suit three tables over, sipping water and packing heat, watching us. I recognized him from the party at my house, eons ago.

“I’m not going to say shit about you leaving,” Zoe said, sipping her drink. She was dressed, as always, to the nines. Her curves were on show in a vibrant yellow sheath dress, perfect on her with her smooth, ebony skin. She wore her hair natural, with tight, wild curls framing her face.

Her espresso eyes focused on me. “Because I understand why you need to leave. But you’re not leaving without talking to me.” She leaned back and regarded me. “Really fucking talking to me. None of this, ‘I’m back to the Wren I was before.’ You don’t fool me.”

I measured her gaze. It was resolute. Determined. And no one stood a chance once Zoe had made up her mind.

There had been no heart to hearts with my friends. I hadn’t opened up about my pain. Everyone tiptoed around me. No one openly acknowledged what happened since my mother had that talk with me that day at the hospital.

They were all itching to, I knew that. But up until now, they hadn’t wanted to push me.

Zoe was quite obviously done with that.

I sighed, taking a long drink. Alcohol was my best friend these days. I had to be careful, though. I needed to drink enough to numb the pain, but not too much that I lost all self-preservation and searched for Karson.

A delicate balance.

“I’ve found myself fantasizing about a way that my life could’ve gone in order for this not to have happened,” I confessed, my voice little more than a whisper. “First, I go to the obvious. What if I didn’t go shopping that particular day, on that particular street? But that wouldn’t work. So what if I didn’t get pregnant in the first place?”

I had to force my hand from not going to my now flat stomach.

“Again, not specific enough,” I sighed. “So I toyed with the idea of wishing that Stella never met Jay.” I took a long drink. “But even at my absolute worst, I couldn’t wish that my friend didn’t find love, a family. So the only logical thing would be to wish that I never met Stella in the first place. In order to never meet Stella, I would have never met you.” I looked into my friend’s deep brown eyes. “So basically, I’m reverse engineering my entire life, taking away every single event and relationship that brought joy and love into my life so I didn’t have to experience one painful, terrible loss.”

I sucked in an uneven breath.

“That’s not who I am as a person. But then again, before that, I was not a person who had experienced true hardship. So I didn’t know who I truly was. And you know what? I now know who I truly am. I’m the person who would take away every piece of joy and happiness in my life just so I didn’t have to experience that. This.”

The silence rang between us like a high-pitched beep, imperceptible to the outsider, but I could feel it ringing in my ears, causing my brain to hurt.

Zoe was not one to fill a silence just for the sake of it, despite how uncomfortable I was in this one. She wasn’t going to rush in to placate me and my obvious pain, not with empty words she didn’t mean.

Zoe would never say anything she didn’t mean. Not even to her most fucked-up, broken friend. I appreciated that. Everyone else feared me far too much. Feared just how close to the edge I was. Stella and Yasmin were bending over backward to be tender, kind, understanding and patient with me.

It was driving me fucking insane.

Well, it was one of the things that was driving me insane. The emptiness of my womb and my heart were contributing. And my ruined, blackened soul.

“That’s fucked-up,” she murmured.

“Yep,” I grinned. “I died. Twice. In that ambulance. Then a third time when I woke up and realized...”

My stomach clenched.

“So I think I’m an entirely new person,” I told her. “That the Wren from before is dead.”

Zoe scowled at me after I spoke. Full on scowled. “Now that’s bullshit,” she snapped. “I’ll agree what happened is horrific. There isn’t a collection of words to describe how horrific it was.” Her gaze glistened ever so slightly. Zoe didn’t cry. I’d never seen her cry. Not ever. Her chin tilted up, and after a few breaths, her eyes cleared.

“But you, Wren Whitney, do not let shit defeat you. You did not die. You merely came back to life. That’s an entirely different thing. And you may be a little different, that’s true. But you are still you. I can see that. And eventually, you will too.”

Her voice was so firm, so authoritative, I almost believed her. Almost.

CHAPTER FIVE

Last Night - GRAACE

I didn’t want to go to Jay’s place. Didn’t want to look at Stella. The despondent, hopeless part of me just wanted to drive to the airport, leave this all behind and never look back.

But this was Stella.

She was my family.

I couldn’t leave her or any of my girls all behind.

Not permanently. But I needed distance. For however long.

So I entered Jay’s home—now Stella’s, even though I’d always think of her home as that cozy apartment near The Grove—my heels clicking against the floor. I made sure to structure my expression into one that came natural to me before. I’d had fresh extensions put in, my hair now bouncy curls that flowed past my shoulders. My makeup was flawless.

I looked the part.

But Stella saw through me. Sitting on the sofa, eating pork rinds, she saw through me.

I couldn’t let that show, though. The fact that I saw her sadness, her pity, the second she laid her eyes on me.

My gaze flickered to the TV. A housewife had just thrown a drink. “Oh my god, I love this episode,” I chirped. “You’re making me totally tempted to stay, change into sweats, Postmates a margarita and get drunk as hell to watch television gold.” I looked at the packet of pork rinds. “You on Keto or something?” I teased.

“You’re not staying?” she asked instead, latching onto the earlier portion of my little speech.

The hurt in her voice got to me. “I’m on the way to the airport.”

She stared at me, abandoning the pork rinds. “The airport?” she repeated.

I nodded, hating myself for putting that look in Stella’s eyes. I was abandoning her when she needed her friends the most. She didn’t have a mother to guide her through this time. Jay was stuck in villain mode. She needed me.

“I leave for Nepal in…” I looked to my phone just to get a respite from her gaze.

“Two hours,” I said. “And flying commercial means I actually should have left twenty minutes ago.”

Finally, I found the strength to look back up at Stella, to reach for hand. “But I had to say goodbye.”

Stella’s shoulders drooped as she tried to process all of this information. I was known to jet off to foreign countries at a moment’s notice, it wasn’t unusual. Or at least, it hadn’t been.

Everything was different now.

“Why are you going to Nepal?” she asked, confused.

I sighed. “I’m going to hike into the mountains and stay in a monastery,” I forced myself to continue. “Try to get some monks to forget their vows.” I tried for a jaunty joke, but it didn’t land. So I went with the truth. Or a very simple version of it. “I just need to … go.”

Stella gripped my hand tighter. “You can’t leave,” she whispered.

I squeezed her hand right back. “I have to.”

“What about Karson?” she demanded. “He needs you. You need each other.”

Her words tore through my insides like a knife. It was an effort not to collapse onto the floor from the pain. But I managed.

“I can’t look at him without seeing…” I trailed off, my voice breaking. I scrambled for the strength I needed. Took a breath. “I can’t look at him without seeing what we lost,” I admitted quietly. “I can barely look at myself. And I know he lost something too.”

I remembered the way we held each other. The sorrow that he wore like a scar.

“I know he’s hurting, but I can’t... It’s ugly and it’s weak, but I’m not strong enough to be with him, Stella. I’m barely strong enough to look at myself in the mirror.” I looked at my darling friend, tears swimming in her eyes. I cupped her cheek. “My amazing friend, I’m barely strong enough to look at you.”

It was a new part of me I hated, the instinct to recoil from my friend growing new life. Who was growing a family.

I had to escape. Now. So I stepped back, adjusting my blazer. The smile on my face split me apart, but I managed it.

Stella looked so small and helpless on that sofa, but I reminded myself she was far from helpless. “You’re coming back, right?” she asked, her voice childlike.

“Of course, I’m fucking coming back,” I promised. “It’s Nepal.” I arched a brow at her. “Not exactly my natural habitat. I’m going for a vision quest. For an eat, pray, find some fucking peace type experiment. Then I’ll come back. I’ll get more Botox. Plan a party. I’ll be me again.”

The idea of that seemed ludicrous, but I clung to it all the same. “Even if I’m not me again, I’ll come back. For you, mon chéri.” I did some quick math and guesswork. “I’ll definitely be back within six months.”

I winked at her, leaned in to kiss her cheek then walked out the door.

I was rather proud of myself… I didn’t break down in tears until about four hours into the flight.

I was deep in the mountains when I got the call.

Technically, you weren’t allowed phones at the monastery, but I’d managed to charm one in. With Stella pregnant and her husband fighting against the Russian Mob, I needed the phone.

I had Greenstone Security on retainer, keeping an eye on Stella and keeping me updated as to what was going on.

And what was going on was, Stella got kidnapped.

By the fucking Russian Mob.

In broad daylight.

They shot her bodyguard, Eric—who was just about to move in with his boyfriend and was full of excitement about the future—in the face.

They shot him in the fucking face.

When would this be over? The blood, the death. The loss of fucking children before they could breathe air.

I stared out at the mountains, forcing myself to take calming breaths. I was not manifesting that shit.

This would not happen to Stella.

We were done with loss. There had been enough.

On that thought, I began my hike down the mountain. I was not healed. I had not found inner peace, but my friend needed me.

I was pacing the porch at Karson’s cottage.

It was the first time I’d been back since that day.

I wondered if all my clothes were still crammed into that closet. If all my beauty products were still littered around his bathroom, even though he’d always kept them meticulously arranged after I’d used them.

What would’ve happened, I wondered, if I’d not fought him that day. If I’d stayed. If I’d agreed to marry him then and there?

I’d be in this house, with a baby. With a family.

I shook my head.

Those thoughts did nothing for me.

Stella was okay. I’d gotten the call as soon as I landed. She was heading back to Jay’s. My first and most immediate instinct was to go right there.

But then I thought about it. Jay’s pregnant wife had been kidnapped by the Russian Mob. The baby was okay. I’d gotten an update on that too. After hearing that, everything in me relaxed. I would not wish what happened to me on my worst enemy. Not in a million fucking years. I’d live every day with pain if it meant Stella never had to know it.

Surely, she and Jay were having a reunion. Tucked up in that house of his. He would not let her out of his sight. I trusted that. Trusted him.

It was over. From what I’d heard, the Russian empire was all but shattered.

It was done.

So I was pacing the porch. Waiting for Karson. I needed to see him. In one piece. And deep down in my soul, I knew he needed me.

Revenge had been keeping him going these past months. Keeping him functional. It was something to focus on. But now it was done. There was no one left to kill, left to punish. And I was afraid Karson might disappear inside himself once that became clear.

My throat was strangled with worry as it got later.

Finally, lights illuminated the drive.

I didn’t move, not one inch as he parked, as the door slammed and the gravel crunched underneath his feet.

I watched him approach, and I knew immediately something was different. He was different.

Blood stained his shirt.

His hands.

His eyes were electric, empty, wild.

Though he was the same shape, he was not the same man. He was bigger somehow. He carried the shadows in.

His eyes were on me. Determined. Dangerous.

Still, I did not move.

He did not slow his stride either. We crashed into each other like maniacs, his lips plastering to mine, hand at the back of my neck, yanking me in.

My body sang for him, everything in me disappearing but my animalistic need. We tore at each other’s clothes. I was desperate to feel the warmth of his skin. Blood smeared on my skin, and death seeped from him to me, but I didn’t care.

At some point, we made it inside the house. Then we were on the floor. The door was still wide open. Karson was flat on his back as my hands scrambled to free him from his pants. He’d already ripped my panties off at some point.

I didn’t hesitate to impale myself on him, Karson letting out a low hiss as we joined.

There was pain for me at first. My body had healed completely, but it had been a long time since he had been inside me. I hadn’t touched myself down there, had shunned that part of myself.

I liked the pain, rode him until it mixed with pleasure, until my body thrummed with impending release, impending oblivion. My palms landed on his chest, digging my nails in until I drew blood.

A low growl came from Karson’s throat, his eyes still glowing with the predator inside him. I liked it, loved it that he was almost a stranger in this moment, that his evil chased away my demons.

His hands had been on my hips, yanking me down on him, matching my rhythm. But they skimmed up my body as I coated my fingers in his blood. His hands fastened around my neck.

Tight.

With violence.

They were still coated in death. As he squeezed, he coaxed my orgasm out of me, my lungs scrambling from the lack of oxygen.

I rode him harder.

My fingertips prickled with numbness as my lungs burned as another climax hurtled over me, splitting me into a thousand pieces.

Through the cacophony of my racing heartbeat and our mutual panting, I heard Karson’s muffled growl of release.

For the first time in months, I did not feel empty.

Karson was sleeping.

We’d eventually made it to the bedroom, after showering together, the water pale pink as the blood washed off.

There were no words spoken. Karson was still not completely back to himself, something cold and empty danced in his eyes.

I was glad about that. There was no way I could’ve handled the more familiar version of him. The one who spoke poetry, who smirked at me, who treasured me.

That was why I’d pushed him away.

But this man... This true villain without morals or nobility, this killing machine. Yes, I could breathe in his presence.

So I’d gone to bed with him. Waited for him to fall asleep. It happened quickly. Adrenaline comedown, I guessed. I doubted he slept much these days. I knew I didn’t.

Despite how tempting it was to stay there with him, to give in to the old feelings cropping up, I knew the stark light of day would bring things I wasn’t prepared for.

The predator inside of Karson would be gone, and my demons would be everywhere.

I slipped out from under his arm, holding my breath as he moved. Karson was hyperaware, even in his sleep. Whenever I got up to pee in the night, he’d be wide awake, asking me if everything was okay.

Sleep held him too tightly this time. I was grateful for that. I was not strong enough to fight him if he woke.

My clothes were ruined. In scraps on the porch and inside the front door. My intention was to grab a shirt of Karson’s, but there was no need. My clothes were all there. Crammed in on the hangers as they had been the day I left.

Even the robe I was wearing that morning was slung over a chair, untouched.

Karson hadn’t moved a thing. He was expecting me to come back.

I shivered, snatching the first piece of clothing I could find.

It smelled of lemons and him.

A voice told me to stay.

To crawl back into bed with him and face the sunrise with him.

To repair us. Not let this horrible thing corrupt every corner of my life. Every last piece of my happiness.

It was familiar, that voice.

It was the same one that told me to go on yachts in the middle of the night, fly to untouched corners of the world with people I’d just met, the voice that told me to break into Karson’s house that first night.

It was the voice of the Wren I used to be.

But I wasn’t her anymore.

To be with him, he would have to become my crutch. I would’ve leant on him so fucking heavily, because he wouldn’t walk beside me while I hobbled. That wasn’t in his nature. I would’ve sucked all the life out of him like a fucking succubus.

And it would’ve poisoned us.

If a relationship exists where one person is literally keeping the other sane, sober or alive, eventually it turns toxic.

It would take Karson longer to resent me. Then much, much longer to hate me. Maybe it wouldn’t happen until his deathbed, maybe it would only be for the few seconds, right at the end when his entire life flashed before his eyes and he saw everything clearly. Saw me for what I was.

But I couldn’t stand the thought of him hating me for even a second. Certainly not a fucking lifetime.

I could handle him hating me for pushing him away, but I couldn’t survive him hating me for what I was. What I’d turned us into.

So with a single tear running down my cheek, I walked out.

SEVEN MONTHS LATER

He didn’t say anything when I came to him.

Neither of us did.

There was no mention of it in the daylight. He didn’t throw it in my face, use these visits as a weapon in his crusade to get me back. He may have been a bad man, he may have been the worst kind of man, but he wouldn’t do that to me.

To us.

I rode him furiously, chasing my orgasm relentlessly, my naked body damp with perspiration. Karson’s large hands spanned my hips, gripping them tightly, almost to the point of pain but not quite.

My hand went to his wrist, yanking at it, my eyes on his. This was the only time I was brave enough to look him in the eyes, half mad with need and pleasure.

Karson’s eyes flamed, knowing what I wanted as I pulled his hand off my hip, yanking at it. He was fighting against a dark need of his own and whatever was in his nature to continue to protect me, even if such a task was folly these days.

“Wren,” he ground out, my name a warning. The cords in his neck were etched in stone.

I didn’t stop moving, enjoying the battle in his eyes as I slammed myself against him.

“Do it,” I hissed, feeling my climax build. It was out of reach still, though my limbs prickled with anticipation of the inevitable bliss. If he refused me this time, then I’d hurtle back into myself, forced to live inside the skin that no longer felt right without these momentary reprieves I was chasing. Although I didn’t stop moving, I held my breath. It seemed as if even my heart stood still.

He was going to deny me.

The last vestige of peace I had was slipping through my fingers, and I’d have nothing left. I’d never come back here. I wouldn’t be able to face him.

But after a millisecond of pause, Karson’s hand crept upward. He brushed it over my sensitive nipples and rested his palm above my thundering heart before he circled my neck.

“Tighter,” I demanded, my voice a husky plea.

I sensed his hesitation more than anything. And guilt ripped through my damp, tingling body for making him do this.

For turning us into something wholly unrecognizable.

But that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

Karson wouldn’t deny me now. Even if he was starting to hate me for what I asked.

Even though I already hated me for what I asked.

His grip tightened around my neck, pain exploding in my nerve endings and my breath catching in my chest. My body responded to it all, the pain, the lack of oxygen, the proximity to death. The fact that it was Karson’s hands tight around my neck killing me. That it was just him and me. We were the only people on this planet. Nothing existed but his dick inside me, his hands around my neck and his eyes on mine. He was my beginning, and more importantly, my end.

My orgasm hurtled through me with the force of a destructive earthquake, shaking my foundations, splitting me apart.

Through a vortex, I heard Karson’s growl as I milked his release from him, his grip tightening even more for a moment before it released entirely.

As the pain subsided and my oxygen returned, my limbs tingled with feeling, aftershocks jolting my body before subsiding entirely.

Earth welcomed me back.

Life welcomed me back.

And I resented every breath that returned.

My fingers brushed against the raised red marks on my neck. The faint throbbing that came with them was welcome. Only it wasn’t enough. I needed more.

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

I stared at the dark figure that had appeared behind me in the mirror, the fury from those three words tearing through my skin, poisoning my blood. His eyes were focused on the red marks on my neck, his face strained with regret and pain.

That look hit me. Took the breath out of me. For a moment, at least.

I yanked my shirt on, pulling at the collar to cover the angry red skin. My penchant for revealing clothes meant my attempt was pretty futile.

“I’m not doin’ that to you again,” Karson grated out. “I can’t continue to hurt you like that.”

My heart was roaring in my chest, screaming at me to go to him, to try to be compassionate, light like I was before. To soothe the pain in his voice.

I stayed rooted to my spot, despite the urge to walk toward him, to behave like my old self. Instead, I laughed dismissively, staring at him in the mirror, making sure to avoid his eyes. “You think this hurts me?” I asked, my tone flat. “We both know that this is nothing.”

Karson stepped forward, as if to touch me, but stopped abruptly as my entire body stiffened, realizing what he was about to do.

He couldn’t touch me now. Not under the bright bathroom lights. Not now that my need had receded like the tide and reality had washed over us.

No, I made the rules here. I was the one in control. He only got to touch me in the darkness, only when night was at its thickest and my need was inescapable. He only got to touch me the way I wanted. The only way I could survive. There was no talking. No sweet nothings. None of the alpha male ‘you are mine, give me your eyes’ bullshit. No. There was just him fucking me, brutally. Just his hands around my neck. Tight. Reminding me that death was just one squeeze away.

“It’s something,” he protested quietly. “It’s something that you’re inviting in. A darkness that doesn’t belong in you.”

I rolled my eyes. “Really? A darkness that doesn’t belong?” I scoffed. “So I have to be the light and the airy Wren you fell in love with now?” My skin was tingling with furor. With the need to explode.

His mouth was a thin line. “No, you can be whoever you want to be, and I’ll love you regardless.” His voice was impossibly kind, and I hated him for it. “But fuck, darlin’. Let me carry some of this. Let me do something other than hurt you.”

There was a plea in his voice that broke me. Literally caused me to ache physically. But I didn’t give in to sorrow or pain. No, anger was much more inviting.

“Don’t you get it?” I screamed. “I have to carry it with me. I have to carry it with me everywhere. That loss. Our loss.”

I was shaking now, I needed to stop. But I couldn’t.

“It is sewn into my fucking bones,” I hissed. “Injected into the marrow of them. Every step I take is a decision. A battle. I feel tired just from breathing. From the effort of fucking living. I have two choices. Every day. Only two. I get up or I don’t. And I have to get up or else I’ll die.” I stopped speaking abruptly, my breath hitching as all of the fury, adrenaline or whatever left my body.

“Some days I want to die,” I whispered, looking to the floor. “Very much.”

I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t. But I had to get it all out. This had to end. “I didn’t even want to be a mother,” I groaned. “I never had that maternal yearning. Never gave it much thought. Even when I found out…” My breath stuck in my throat, so I blew out a breath, hoping to steady it. “When I found out, I was scared. Uncertain. I didn’t have a wave of love or whatever the fuck it is a normal woman feels when she finds out she’s pregnant. I seriously considered abortion.”

The words soured in the air as I said them, having never admitted them out loud, not even to my therapist. The one that Zoe and Yasmin had urged me to see enough times that I finally broke down. In the end, they’d held a mini intervention, and it was either the therapist or some kind of rehab center.

I chose the therapist.

I didn’t say much to her, not really. I went to appease them. Because, on some level, I knew that I couldn’t continue like this forever. But if this conversation was any indication, therapy wasn’t really helping. I wasn’t helping myself.

“I’ve already had one,” I admitted, my mouth suddenly dry. Still, I didn’t look at Karson. I couldn’t. Instead, I jutted my chin upward, staring at the wall just above his head. “I’m not ashamed of it. Not one bit. I was sixteen, I wasn’t ready for a child, and I don’t owe anyone an explanation. It’s my body. My choice, and I don’t regret it one bit.”

My voice was firm and the words true. I didn’t regret it. Not one bit. The decision didn’t haunt me, I barely thought about it. Well, until lately.

I wasn’t looking at Karson directly, but his dark form hadn’t moved a centimeter. He was as still as a statue. I didn’t need to look directly at him to know that. That was Karson. To everyone else, to the outside world, he was marble. Expressionless, unfeeling, unyielding.

But he wasn’t with me.

Or he hadn’t been.

“But ultimately, I chose her,” I whispered. “No, not her. I chose you. I chose us. The little fairy tale life that I’d imagined for us. That I had the luxury to imagine for us because I had faith. Because I have lived a blessed life. One where I was allowed the indulgence of faith. It’s easy to believe everything happens for a reason and the universe works in mysterious ways when you’ve grown up rich, white and without any serious trauma to speak of. So I had faith. Hope.”

I spat out the word, suddenly angry. Suddenly fucking furious. Not at Karson, not at the universe, at myself, mostly. But there was no way for me to direct that anger inward without seriously damaging myself, so I directed it at the one man who was used to taking hits.

I directed it at the man I loved.

I expected him to continue to treat me with kid gloves, treading around my feelings as if they were made of glass, retreating when it looked like something might turn into a fight.

But he surprised me. His eyes stormed, and his body tightened.

“I lost something too!” he roared.

I flinched, not expecting the explosion from him when he’d been so still for so long.

He roamed about the room like he was looking for something to break. To shatter. I knew how that felt, staring at a room full of things, longing to hurl them at walls, destroy everything.

I ached for him to do what I couldn’t. To smash everything in sight without having to restrain himself, bury his need for violence.

His eyes focused on me. “I lost something too,” he repeated with less fervor, but still louder than his normal tenor. There was an unsteadiness to his voice. One that shook the very core of me. Reduced whatever was left there to rubble.

It took me a long time to settle, to find the strength to speak. To gather myself. To fight the urge to crumble to the floor, to let him catch me.

“Yes, you did,” I agreed. “But it’s not the same. And that’s callous of me. Cruel even. But it’s the ugly truth. You lost something. You lost an idea. A future. But you never had something growing inside of you. You didn’t feel her move.”

My hand hovered over my flat stomach of its own accord.

“You don’t have the emptiness inside of you,” I whispered. “Your body didn’t bleed. Didn’t go through months of your body shedding pregnancy like it was a second skin while leaving scars on the insides, not to mention the marks of it I haven’t been able to shed. I couldn’t escape it. Not even for a second. Except for the moments when your fingers were around my neck.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “So don’t you dare tell me that I can’t escape in the one way that keeps me sane because you don’t like looking at the bruises on my skin.” My voice was raised to almost a shout now. “If you don’t do it, I’ll find someone who will.”

The last shot was low, even for me. But I wasn’t holding back. My aim was to hurt him, even though he was the last person in the world who deserved it.

My words hit true.

Karson stilled.

Completely fucking stilled.

Even though I didn’t feel fear now, something deep inside me chilled at that transition. Vehemence shone in his eyes.

Karson surged forward so quickly, I didn’t even have a chance to retreat.

He didn’t touch me, though, even though his eyes promised violence. He stood inches away from me. “You let anyone else touch you, let any man near you that isn’t me, you’re signing his death warrant,” he promised. “His murder will be on your soul, remember that.”

He stared at me a few breaths longer, daring me to reply. When I didn’t, he turned on his heel and left me.

CHAPTER SIX

TWO MONTHS LATER

Who Knew – P!nk

Stella had a little girl.

Ruby Grace Helmick was born two months earlier. At home.

Jay served as midwife.

And apparently, he acted like he’d trained every day of his life for delivering his baby girl in the middle of the night at his Malibu mansion.

She was perfect.

Ten fingers, ten toes. Eyes that gazed into your soul. She was warm, teeny tiny and had that baby smell that was like crack.

Stella was a natural mother. Like she was born for it.

And Jay, interestingly, was a natural father. He looked at his girls like they hung the moon.

I loved that for them.

I was at their house as often as I could be. Karson was there sometimes too. I ignored him. We didn’t interact in the daylight. He still came to me in the darkness, even after that night. I still wore faint bruises underneath expertly applied makeup.

I knew everyone watched the two of us with concern, maybe even frustration, the ‘they obviously love each other, so why don’t they get their shit together?’ type of frustration.

But as cliché as it was, love sometimes wasn’t enough. Or in our case, it was much too much. I was nowhere near strong enough to welcome it back in. Welcome him back in.

I was at Jay and Stella’s, and thankfully, Karson was not there. Stella was changing Ruby. Although I planned on being a hands-on aunt, spoiling that little girl rotten, I drew the line at shitty diapers.

So I’d gone back to the living room to pour myself a drink when I caught sight of a man in a suit standing on the balcony, watching the ocean. Jay had obviously only just got home. He was not one of the husbands who avoided diaper duty, or any duty that some deemed the mother should be able to handle … i.e. everything. No, he was king of the diaper changes, according to Stella.

That had made me smile.

The breeze was cold as I stepped out on the balcony, and the sea air taunted me with memories. I took a long sip of my drink.

“You did good,” I said, leaning against the balcony beside him. “With your family. You did great.”

His eyes swung to me then back to the waves. “I did better than I ever deserve,” he answered.

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on, you deserve them.”

Jay and I had come as close to friends as you could get to a man like him. With everything that happened to me, I understood him a little better. And I loved the way he treated Stella now that all their bullshit and drama was over with.

“Yes, you’re going to say you’re a bad man who’s done bad things,” I told him before he could open his mouth. “And I’m sure you are and sure you have. But that does not mean you don’t deserve that. That they don’t deserve you.” My eyes darted inside where Stella was emerging with Ruby bundled in her arms. “They are precious. Innocent. Good.” I looked back to him. “And they need to be protected by someone willing to do anything and everything for them. Not a prince or some shit. They’re always burdened by their morals or whatever. But you, the bad guy you think you are? You aren’t burdened with anything when it comes to them. You’ve got all the tools and weapons to ensure that the world does not bruise them.” I paused a second. “Scar them.”

My hand went to my stomach, to a scar of my own.

Emerald eyes bore into me. I knew that Jay had been watching me closely these months too. We were almost friends. I cared about him and him about me. And he looked like he was about to launch into some intense, alpha male speech I really wasn’t ready for.

Luckily, before Jay could speak, Stella stepped onto the balcony. Her eyes went to Jay. “Honey, you’re home.”

He moved to kiss Stella then carefully took Ruby from her arms.

My heart hurt a little in that moment, one that wasn’t mine. One that would never be mine.

“Let’s go inside,” Stella suggested quietly, eyes on Jay who had already turned back toward the ocean.

I followed her inside.

“It’s their routine,” she explained as we settled on the sofa. “Ruby loves the waves. The ocean. So Jay loves it too. Even though he used to be ‘indifferent’ to it.” She rolled her eyes. “I swear, he used to think someone would come and take away his badass card if he dared to find something like the ocean beautiful.”

I smiled. “Karson reads historical romances. Puts them on his shelf and everything, for anyone to see. Then again, he’d kill an intruder before he made it inside to peruse his bookshelf, so his badass card is safe.”

The words had come out of their own accord. I hadn’t meant to talk about him. Say his name. Speak as if we were still some kind of couple instead of whatever the fuck we were now.

There was a silent pact between me and my friends that we never mentioned Karson. I was back to the old Wren now. Partying too much, shopping too much. Not dating at all, of course. I didn’t need murder on my soul, and I knew that Karson was dead serious.

But I’d broken that pact now.

Karson was fair game.

I prayed that Stella would skip over this.

But there was not a chance in hell. My friend had been offered an opportunity to finally speak to me about the subject I’d been avoiding for months.

“Do you blame him? Hate him?” she asked gently, quietly. Everything was gentle and quiet these days.

I despised it. But the only way for me to make everyone stop treating me so gently was to treat them harshly. And I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t hurt my well-meaning, loving, supportive friends. Though the impulse was overwhelming sometimes. Just so I could be treated as something other than the broken, delicate woman who lost her baby.

I took a large gulp of my drink. Stella’s eyes followed this movement, chewing on her lip in concern. I really fucking hope I didn’t have another intervention in my future.

Yes, I was drinking more than normal. And my normal drinking habits were on the excessive side, but who gave a fuck? I was a millennial, we had been through all sorts of crap in our lives from terrorist attacks, environmental disasters, climate change, wars and the constant threat of the end of the world. Taking into account that my life included caring but self-absorbed parents, multiple boyfriends, near death experiences and trips to most corners of the world where I’d seen some fucked-up shit—enjoying a good cocktail was the least harmful thing I could do to deal with that, in my opinion.

And with everything I’d been going through, I deserved to dull the edges as much and as often as I could.

“I wish I could,” I said in a low tone. “I wish I could either hate him or blame him. That would make this all so much easier.” I stared at my now empty glass, longing to refill it, but I did not have the energy to weather Stella’s not so subtle stare or well-meaning concern. So I settled for thinking about the bottle of vodka waiting for me at home, the place where I could engage in all of my newly acquired toxic behaviors without anyone to witness. One of which was staring at the sonogram picture I’d buried in a drawer. It was wrinkled, ruined. I clutched it in my fist when I sat on the floor of my linen closet in the afternoons.

“But I don’t,” I sighed. “I don’t hate him. I love him with all that I am, and I’ll always love him.”

I waited. Waited for her to ask the obvious and inevitable question. If I loved him, why was I pushing him away? I’d always been so angry when I watched the movies and shows where the couple was obviously made for each other, obviously perfect for each other, obviously soulmates. There were always little miscommunications, things pushing them apart, noble reasons why they couldn’t be together. Traumas kept secret on one side or another. And fuck, it used to piss me off. I thought the writers were just lazy, looking for the easy drama to keep audiences watching. I thought love conquered absolutely everything.

How fucking naïve I was.

“Do you hate me?” the small voice tore through my thoughts. I focused on my friend and her shimmering gaze, her rigid posture, the fear and grief in her tone.

“I mean, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have met Karson,” she shrugged. “Or maybe you would’ve. Because you were meant to be. You would’ve found each other, no matter what. But if it wasn’t for me, if you weren’t with me that day, you would have a child right now.” She looked out to where her husband was cradling her daughter, watching the waves peacefully. Her eyes were filled with tears as she looked back to me. “You would have Karson.”

She was speaking a version of the speech I’d given to Zoe months ago. Though I had not healed since then, my perception had changed a little.

“Stella, I need you to listen to me, and listen good,” I ordered. “There is not a piece of me, not even a cell in my body that is capable of hating you. Not even one that could be mad at you. Even for looking better in couture that was made for me.”

She smiled weakly.

“Karson and I were a disaster waiting to happen,” I said, more serious now. “If it wasn’t what happened, it would’ve been something. I don’t regret meeting him, knowing him. Not one bit. My life wouldn’t know this pain, but I also wouldn’t know him. And I cannot fathom a world where I don’t know Karson.”

Every word I spoke was true.

I didn’t know where exactly I’d come to the conclusion, how such a thing had come out of my toxic thoughts, but it happened.

Stella had not mentioned that day or the wedding that never happened. Not once. Which I really appreciated. She was also the only one I’d told about the premonition I’d had in Romania. She didn’t speak of that either.

“Do you think there’s a chance?” she asked hopefully. “For you and him to find your way back to one another?”

I didn’t hesitate. “No, sweetie. There’s not a chance. We had ours, and we lost it. There is no hope for us.”

I had a therapy appointment the next day. Probably a good thing too. I’d come ready to talk this time. Ready to try to do something about this person I’d turned into.

I had the luxury of being born rich, so I could really stretch this mental breakdown on for as long as I wanted. My bills would always be paid, no matter what. Even if I did give in to the urge to crawl into bed and not get out for six months.

Although I was weak and had made some questionable decisions lately, I couldn’t abandon myself completely. I had to try, fucking try to get back to who I was. I had a little niece now. She was going to grow up and see me as a badass, slightly kooky aunt. Not the current train wreck I was.

So I was sitting in the chair, breathing in the scent of an expensive candle, staring at the ocean.

“They had a funeral,” I said. It was the first I’d spoken since I sat down fifteen minutes ago. Tina wasn’t much for coaxing me to talk. Didn’t pretend to be my friend in order to get my guard down, get me talking to her.

No, her superpower was silence. She could sit in that chair of hers, poised, watching, waiting. She’d do it for a full hour. She had done that during my first few sessions. It impressed me. I’d commented that some defense organizations could’ve used her for their interrogations. No torture needed. No, the sound of your own breathing, of your own heartbeat, not being able to escape the screaming inside of your head… That was all the torture a damaged person needed.

She was good. Which was why I paid her the big bucks.

“For the baby.” The words were dry in my mouth.

The baby.

Our baby.

“I didn’t go,” I continued, my voice scratchy. “They tried to speak to me in soft tones, all of them. All in their own way. Stella, gentle, with tears in her eyes. Yasmin, also gentle, no tears, though. More logical. Zoe played the tough love card. Or tried to. It didn’t work as well when the pity for me leaked from her pores,” I scoffed.

The memory hit me, of them all, dressed immaculately in their funeral black, sitting beside me on the sofa, blocking my view of the show I was addicted to. One after the other. Karson came last. He was the last resort, I’d presumed.

I’d taken to trying to ignore him now that it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Ah, they’ve brought in the big guns,” I said through a mouthful of popcorn, my only sustenance apart from the juices my mother forced down my throat—full of vegetables and vodka because she knew I wouldn’t drink it any other way.

“What are you going to tell me?” I asked. “That you know about death, you walk with it daily, you know it by name, and you know what I need in the face of it? That I will regret not going to a cemetery and burying our child that should be growing inside of me right now.” The words came out sharp, pointed. Speared. Designed to pierce skin.

Karson didn’t so much as indicate whether I’d struck true. He kept his gaze even. He didn’t flinch. Didn’t call me out for being unspeakably cruel. As he should’ve. As I deserved.

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” he said softly. Impossibly softly. “Of all of the things that you should have to do today, burying our child is not something I’m going to force you to do. You are going to stay here and eat popcorn and drink wine.” He gently pushed the hair from my face, cupping my jaw in his hand.

The touch seared my skin, but I didn’t pull away.

“And you can know that I will take care of it,” he said, still soft. “I will make sure our baby girl is treated right. That she has white lilies on her grave. I will carry her there myself. I will bury her myself.” His eyes glittered. “I will take care of her. You don’t have to worry. She will be safe with me. I will take care of her.”

The memory clawed at my skin. But I sat still, poised, my eyes dry.

“I couldn’t go,” I said, back in the present. “I couldn’t look at a tiny coffin that shouldn’t have existed. I couldn’t stand in the fucking California sunshine wearing black, standing next to my friends and family, burying my child.”

I stared out the window at the same sunshine. It taunted me, that cloudless sky. Reminded me that the world kept turning, that the sun kept shining, no matter what.

“So I made Karson deal with it,” I whispered. “He dealt with it alone. He buried our child without me standing beside him.”

I let those words linger in the air while I stared out the window. It was done. I certainly couldn’t change the past. I knew that all too well. But I could hate myself plenty for it.

“I fantasize about my death,” I admitted. “I know I shouldn’t say that. I’m a strong woman. What I went through is not unique. In fact, it’s shockingly ... common. The amount of women who have lost children outnumber those who haven’t.” I picked at the chair. “If men had to go through miscarriage, stillbirth, fuck, even the healthiest of pregnancies, the human race would be extinct in a generation. It is the biggest secret that it’s women who are the stronger gender. We protect men’s fragile masculinity that makes them think they’re the protectors.”

My mind wandered to my very own protector. The one whose masculinity wasn’t the least bit fragile. And who would have taken on every bit of my pain and trauma in a heartbeat if such a thing were possible. The exception to the rule.

“I’m not going to kill myself,” I assured her. “You don’t have to call whoever you’re supposed to call in such situations, have me sedated or put in a padded room. I promise, I won’t kill myself.” I tilted my head, thinking of how the words sounded. “Of course, that’s probably what they all say, and I have gotten good at lying lately, but I am telling the truth. When I think about Karson taking that all on, that tiny coffin and the tiny hole he dug, I want to die.”

Tina didn’t say anything. She just let me sit there and stew in that memory.

Rot in it.

I didn’t know why I went.

Maybe my conversation with the therapist had dredged up all of those terrible memories, and it was no longer possible to bury them. To ignore them.

So I found myself there.

At the cemetery.

Staring at the grave that was covered in lilies. Fresh lilies.

Karson. I knew it was him.

Who else would come to put fresh flowers on our daughter’s grave?

When my eyes found the words carved into the white stone, everything inside me stilled.

Hope Whitney.

Loved endlessly.

Hope.

“I do not hope. It isn’t in me. But I found some of it when I looked into your eyes for the first time. Found even more when you inked my name on your skin. And today, hearing our child’s heartbeat, I felt it again. You gave that to me.”

Anger crashed over me like a tsunami.

I didn’t even remember driving there or how I found him. He was behind a desk. I’d never seen him behind a desk. I hadn’t seen him in the daylight, going about his job, in a long time.

I hadn’t really looked at him with the sunlight on his face. He looked different. Fucking ravaged.

It hit me somewhere deep, but my anger was a blade, and it didn’t dull it at all.

His eyes widened in surprise and concern as I entered the room.

I didn’t let him speak.

“Whitney?” I yelled.

He blinked in surprise.

“Whitney?” I repeated, still yelling. “You gave her my last name. Why in the fuck would you do that?”

He opened his mouth, presumably to speak, to give an explanation, but I didn’t give him the chance. “She was yours too, Karson,” I hissed. “Yours. And you didn’t give her your name.”

Karson stood, rounding his desk, face soft. “Wren,” he murmured.

I flinched, holding my hand up. “Don’t you come near me,” I snarled. My hand was shaking. My entire body was rigid.

Karson stopped, his jaw fixed.

I regarded him. His shoulders looked broader, his suit looked like it was struggling to accommodate his growing muscles. The angles of his face seemed harsher, though. More cutting.

This was the man I loved.

Who read fucking romance novels, who made amazing mac and cheese, who deep down in his soul, wanted a family.

My mind flickered to the way Jay had cradled Ruby yesterday, the pure reverence in his gaze.

I would not be able to give that to him. No matter what happened, regardless of whether I worked on myself in therapy, if I let him back in, I would not be able to give him the gift he most deserved.

The realization hit me square in the chest.

I’d been holding on to him even though I was keeping him at a distance. Holding on to hope that we would find our way back to each other, regardless of what I’d told Stella.

But Hope was buried in the ground with lilies on her grave.

“We should see it as a blessing,” I said, my voice flat even as the words cut my insides. “This was never going to work.” I waved my hands between us, surprised that the air was so thin. I could barely breathe it seemed so thick. “You’re a criminal.” I swallowed, realizing that I was going to have to White Fang this whole fucking situation.

In other words, I had to be the kid throwing the rock at the animal he loved in order to save it.

I had to drive Karson away. Make him hate me. The thought of hurting him was a blade to my soul, but the thought of damning him to a barren life with me was worse. “Stella was kidnapped while she was pregnant,” I said. “She survived, the baby survived, but it could’ve all been so different. Your life is not the same as mine. And it’s better we realized it before it was too late.” I sucked in a breath full of broken glass. “It’s better we realized it before our baby girl had a chance to breathe air.”

I walked out of his office before I threw up all over the floor. And I drove straight to the airport. No clothes, nothing but my passport and my credit card. All I needed.

It was time to escape.

And I would not return for many months.

CHAPTER SEVEN

SIXTEEN MONTHS LATER

Sleep on the Floor – The Lumineers

I’d been in and out of the country for the past year and a half, coming only to see Ruby and my girls.

I’d deftly managed to avoid Karson completely until right then.

It was the middle of the night. I was at my house, drinking wine and watching a serial killer documentary.

I didn’t sleep these days.

Well, I must have because I was still alive, and human beings needed sleep to survive, but I was getting the bare minimum, even for me. Who needed to sleep when you could party in Prague? Or Budapest? Or Croatia?

I hadn’t just been partying my way through Europe as most of my friends believed. I had gone back to Vietnam to work on my charity, then to the East Sudan. It did good for my perspective on things. Tina had said that could be a healthy thing for me, looking at people experiencing things measurably worse than me, without any of my resources. As long as she didn’t belittle my own struggle, she’d clarified.

I needed the escape from my struggle. From myself. Needed to see a reminder that people in far worse situations than mine still found reasons to smile.

I missed him.

Every day.

Every moment.

I labored over the decisions I made, how I’d hurt him, abandoned him. But I stayed firm in my decision that I’d done the right thing by leaving. Not just because of what I couldn’t give him, but because of who I’d become. I was a fucking mess. I was broken. And he’d want to fix me. But I had to either fix myself or learn to love the broken pieces.

I knew he’d find me eventually. There was only so long I could run. I was tired. I missed my friends, my family, missed seeing Ruby grow. There was a time limit on this little routine. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, miss the most pivotal and important moments in my friends’ lives because I was too much of a coward to face him.

So I was going to stay.

Richard, Stella’s father, was getting married in New Zealand in a couple of days, and we were all going over to celebrate.

I was excited. I needed something to celebrate.

And when my eyes caught him moving into my living room, parts of me did celebrate. Parts of me could breathe again.

I stood on shaking legs as he slowly approached, taking in every inch of him. He looked the same as he always did, suit, pale skin, sharp jaw, piercing eyes. But he looked different too, sharper, somehow. More dangerous, if that were even possible.

His eyes did their usual assessment of me as he stepped toward me, eyes narrowing as he took me in.

My stomach dropped. I was wearing a nightgown with a cashmere cardigan on top. A lot of my skin still showed. My hair had grown out past my shoulders, and I’d parted it into two braids. My face was free of makeup. I hadn’t had cosmetic procedures in a while, so I assumed I looked older, more drawn.

Whatever it was he saw, he didn’t like.

He finally stopped a few feet from me. The distance he put between us was like a chasm. I ached to cross it, to melt into his arms.

I stayed where I was.

“Though it fuckin’ kills me, I’ll watch you run around the world, run from me,” he said by greeting.

I jerked ever so slightly at the sound of his voice as it ran along my skin, my hairs standing on end.

His stance was rigid, the cords in his neck defined. “I’ll let you pretend that you can run from us,” he continued, words clipped. “I’ll deal with the fact that I’m not sleeping beside you every night. I’ll fuckin’ wait for you.”

My heart thundered in my chest as he spoke.

“As much as it kills me, I’ll stand on the fuckin’ sidelines because I don’t want to push you farther away,” he gritted out. “It goes against every single one of my instincts, but I’ve been able to sleep at night—barely—because I thought that it was what’s best for you. I’ve let you push me away. But I’m done.”

His teeth clenched at the last word, as if he were forcing it out.

My breathing quickened under the weight of his words, settling like stones at the bottom of my stomach.

“I will watch you do all of that shit, but I will not watch you waste away. Turn into skin and bones before my fuckin’ eyes.” He threw his hand out at my body, and I flinched.

Not because I was afraid he’d hurt me. Karson would chop off his hands instead of hurting me, I knew that. But because he was forcing me to acknowledge what everyone had been tiptoeing around. The concern, panic and horror in his eyes showed me just how thin I’d become.

I’d known, of course, that I had relapsed. But I’d explained it away with the travel, with the parties, with how busy I was. And there was no one to call me out. To speak to me like this. I hadn’t seen Zoe, Yasmin or Stella yet. None of them knew I was home yet. I was avoiding them because I knew what they’d see. They had commented on it when I was home last, concern in their eyes, but I’d managed to dismiss it with a joke or two about too much champagne and not enough food.

Karson was staring at me. Waiting. Daring me to scream at him once more, tell him to leave, shut him out.

But I was tired.

Exhausted.

“I’ve had a problem with food my entire life,” I admitted, looking at his face but not focusing. Shame washed over me like a tidal wave. “Talk to a therapist, and they will give you a laundry list of reasons why an eating disorder manifested.”

I made a mental note to schedule an emergency session with Tina tomorrow.

“Absent parents who didn’t give me enough love,” I said, feeling like I was betraying them somehow, especially since my mother was finally acting like one now. “Me growing up in an environment that promoted unrealistic beauty standards. Fuck, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother eat more than two bites of anything my entire life.”

I thought of my mother then, wondering if her obsession with food came from her history with loss, the pain she never dealt with.

“Then, in a life of chaos, food was one thing I could control,” I explained. “Take your pick.” I sighed. “It could be that. But honestly, I feel like the reason is much simpler. I wanted to be thin. I wanted to fit into the sample sizes. All the vain and terrible things you could think, that’s what I wanted. In my early twenties, at least. Growing up, I realized what bullshit it was. Got myself together. Created a semi healthy relationship with food and my body image.”

I paused, picking at a hangnail, frowning at the state of my hands. When was the last time I’d had a manicure?

In the time before, I had a weekly appointment with the best manicurist in the city. No matter where I was in the world, whatever predicament I found myself in, my personal grooming was always impeccable. You can get a bikini wax, manicure, eyebrows threaded anywhere in the world… Even trapped in an oil baron’s mansion in Costa Rica if you were crafty enough.

But I was here, on my home turf, my stomping ground, where everyone knew me, knew the money I had, the influence I could wield, the careers I could make. There would be an army of men and women at my door in a moment to primp me and groom me within an inch of my life.

I pondered this for a second wondering if buffing, tanning, plucking would make any difference at this point.

Karson didn’t say anything in the silence I created while inspecting my ruined nails and peeling cuticles, he just waited.

I kept my gaze down at my hands for what I had to say next. “It isn’t something you just get over. Not something that ever goes away. Alcoholics and addicts have to fight every day not to drink, not to use. It’s the same concept when you’ve struggled with an eating disorder. Every day you fight against urges to eat nothing. Eat everything. Battle with mirrors. But I’d never fought less than when I was with you.” My breath hitched ever so slightly. “Never felt more nourished, more beautiful.”

I let the words hang before I continued. Because I’d ruin whatever positive glow those words had created with what I had to say next.

“Except when I was growing our child,” I choked out.

I saw Karson’s body move out of the corner of my eye. A slight recoil. I didn’t let that penetrate. If I wanted to get this all out, I couldn’t take his reactions in.

“For people who have struggled with food and body image, being pregnant can be incredibly triggering. Not to mention dangerous.” I kept inspecting my ruined hands. “I was afraid for a while, of that. For a very short time. Until I saw your reverence. With every change in my body, you reveled in it. In me. And I reveled in it. I didn’t resent it. Not for a second. My body wasn’t just mine anymore. It was ours. Hers.”

My breath caught as I drowned in my memories. In trauma unresolved, a bottomless ocean inside of me.

“And then it was taken from me,” I forced out the words, my voice a rasp. “She was taken from us. But I was left with all those changes in my body. It didn’t all disappear because she did. My body was no longer ours, no longer hers, but it wasn’t mine either. It was like a graveyard. One I couldn’t escape.”

My hand went to my too flat stomach. “I reasoned that the farther away I got from what I used to be with her inside of me, the easier it would be to cope. To breathe. I thought I could shed my skin from the life we’d had. Become someone completely different. Unrecognizable.” I sighed. “And I wanted to disappear. Disappear, not die. The logical part of me knew I was killing myself with what I was doing. But logic didn’t factor in at all.”

Something inside of me, something that had been tense since the moment Karson and I became Karson and I, that thing relaxed. Here was a man who knew almost everything about me. Here was a man I’d given everything to, willingly. Because it hadn’t been a choice. Because he was my person.

I fought it at first, scared of what that meant.

Then I leaned into it. Then I leaned into the indescribable joy of knowing that he was my person.

Then we lost everything. I lost everything. Lost myself. And Karson lost everything too. Lost me. Because I tore myself away from him.

At least I thought I did.

But I was deluded, blinded by my pain.

So I forgot that he was my person. He was Karson. He wasn’t going anywhere. For better or for worse, no matter what I did to him, he wasn’t going anywhere.

He was my person, and I had been hiding this one singular part of myself because I was ashamed. This part of me was hidden, buried so no one could find it. No one knew about it. People noticed, of course, that I was slender. Naturally thin. With a great rack—given to me by a great plastic surgeon.

And this was LA. Everyone in my circle was half starved. I wasn’t even the worst of them. Not by far.

It wasn’t original to have an eating disorder in this town. Wasn’t special. It was one of the great failures of society, what it did to our girls.

Nonetheless, I kept this secret. This shame. This weakness.

But now there was nothing but weakness inside of me. Now I couldn’t hide from him. I wasn’t going to disappear. Couldn’t. He wasn’t going to let me.

“Let me feed you,” he said after a long silence.

I had been waiting for him to speak with a pounding heart. My palms were sweaty, yet my teeth chattered from a chill that didn’t exist.

That’s what happened when you were underweight. Your body couldn’t regulate temperature. You were constantly cold, freezing in fact, because you didn’t have body fat to keep you warm.

“You are not disappearing,” he murmured. “I will not let you. So I am going to feed you.” His eyes reached into me, warming every inch. “Let me feed you.” A whisper.

Of course, an eating disorder relapse wasn’t overcome with something as easy as ‘let me feed you’, but it wasn’t the eating disorder that caused me to want to disappear.

So I followed him to the kitchen and let him feed me.

I was at Klutch.

I was drunk.

Very fucking drunk.

In order for me to be able to do this, I had to get very fucking drunk. Even though I could barely stand, I was still paralyzed with dread and shame about what I was about to do.

I’d woken up with Karson this morning. He’d brushed the hair from my face and kissed me on the head, promising he’d see me later and telling me that I was to eat the breakfast he’d set on my nightstand.

I’d slept through the night. Until late morning. Waking in Karson’s arms.

I didn’t say anything as he left, I was too disorientated. I’d gotten up, sipped at the coffee he’d put beside the food and slowly ate. The entire plate.

It was, of course, delicious.

And it was then that his words hit me. He’d see me later. It was a promise. Not open to debate. He’d told me last night that he was done. That he was no longer standing on the sidelines.

My first White Fang attempt had failed.

Most people would be shouting at me, screaming at me to sink into the feeling of wholeness I’d felt when I woke up. To sink into him. Us.

Most people, I hoped, I prayed, did not know what it felt like to live inside this skin.

It was most rational to fight my way back to the man who loved me. Whom I loved. But rational thought did not exist quite yet. I was fighting to survive. I wasn’t making good decisions. I was still self-destructing. Still acting like the asshole.

So I was at Klutch.

Karson was here. I knew that because I knew his schedule from our previous life together. Sure, he could’ve been out running errands for Jay, like punishing enemies or kidnapping Russian Mob bosses or whatever the fuck, but the odds were definitely in my favor.

If he was here, he would’ve clocked me the second I walked through the door. I knew that Jay had an office overlooking the entire club, but I also knew he had a wife and child at home, so most likely, he wasn’t sitting up there like some criminal overlord. He was being a criminal overload in his home office, with his wife and baby in the immediate vicinity.

But Karson didn’t have a wife.

Or a child.

So he was here.

And he was in control.

Which meant the guy at the door muttering into his radio was probably talking to him.

I walked up to the bar, swaying my hips, the music thumping over my skin.

“Vodka,” I said to the bartender who immediately came to me. I looked that good. I knew it. People couldn’t see how dead I was inside.

“Straight up,” I added, leaning on my forearms, bending over slightly so my exposed back and legs were visible to all of the men staring at me along the bar and from the dance floor.

Yeah, I looked too thin, especially to Karson who wanted me healthy, who loved me. To these men, desensitized by the LA look and who didn’t give a fuck about me, I looked good.

I slammed my vodka then turned around.

It didn’t take long.

The length of a song.

He’d grinded up against me in a way that told me he did not respect me one fucking bit.

He was perfect.

And he’d come to the bathroom with me without hesitation, despite how visibly drunk I was.

Though I knew what I was doing, I lost a little time on the trip. We had been in a crowded hallway one moment then in a bathroom the next. It didn’t much matter.

Karson came.

Of course, he did.

The man I was currently locking tongues with barely had time to palm my ass before the door flew off its hinges, and a dark shadow descended on the room, ripping the man off me.

I didn’t jump. Didn’t move a muscle.

Karson’s fist crunched against the bones of his face, the one smeared with my lipstick. He would’ve crumpled to the ground if Karson wasn’t holding him by the collar.

“I see you in this club again, in this fuckin’ city again, I bury you alive,” he said quietly, his voice calm, deadly.

Despite how removed I was from reality, my skin chilled at the tone.

The man in question nodded rapidly, blood running out of his nose. He crumbled when Karson let him go, scrambling to get on his feet and out the door. I watched him leave.

I’d expected something of this variety to happen. It was the goal, wasn’t it? I’d come in here knowing that some innocent man—well, not that innocent, since he was willing to take advantage of a drunk woman—was going to get a broken nose at the very best. I couldn’t have been sure Karson wouldn’t kill him.

But I did it anyway.

The music was a low vibration as the door swung closed. Karson was looking at me. I was looking at the small splatter of blood on the white walls of the bathroom.

I finally found the courage to meet his eyes after a handful of seconds. Karson waited. He would’ve waited a fucking hour if that’s how long it took. I knew that about him.

“Not gonna work, sweetheart,” he said quietly. Gently. His rage had been savage mere moments ago, it had been a living thing. A viper let out of its crate, set on tearing the world apart.

Now it was nowhere to be seen. Now he was the man who loved me. Who adored me in a way that defied belief. In a way that couldn’t be damaged, maimed or killed, try as I might.

When he stepped forward, my body started shaking. I lifted my hand up in some feeble attempt to keep him away from me. “No,” I shouted, as if it would make a difference.

Karson did not stop walking, he did not give me distance, space, he did not scowl at me with disgust or anger. He did not grab my upper arms and shake me, scream in my face… Like I deserved.

No, he hugged me.

Or he tried to.

“Why do you keep coming back?” I cried, hitting his chest.

His arms circled around me, or at least tried to. I kept hitting, fighting with a violence I’d been hiding inside of me.

He could’ve stopped me in an instant, I knew that. Not just because of his muscles. Because his whole body was a weapon.

“I need you to hate me,” I sobbed. “You have to hate me.”

His hand stroked my hair with a gentleness that shouldn’t have been possible in proximity to the violence it’d just unleashed. But this was a man who defied possibility.

“I’m never gonna hate you, darlin’,” he murmured against my hair. “You tryin’ to hurt me is only workin’ because you’re hurting yourself in the process.” He pulled back so our eyes met. “I can handle a lot in this world, have handled a lot. But the only thing that almost brings me to my knees is seeing you try to tear yourself apart in order to draw my blood. Push me away because you think it’s accomplishing something. Because you want to punish yourself.”

His hand ghosted over my jaw. “I wish I could stop it with a snap of my fingers, but I’m smart enough to understand it’s not going to work like that. I’m going to watch you hurt yourself until you realize that the only way you’ll ever be able to push me away would be to lower me into a goddamn grave.” He brushed my hair from my face. “And, baby… I hope to fucking God it doesn’t take you that long to realize that.”

I didn’t respond to him, didn’t try to fight him anymore. I just kept sobbing. I broke apart. Everything I’d been holding in poured out of me, all of the tears, the sorrow.

Karson gathered me into his arms at some point and carried me out of the club. I clung to him like a life raft.

Like he was the only thing tethering me to this earth.

The next morning I was hungover.

Really fucking hungover.

Every one of my limbs ached. It felt as if I’d been in a car crash.

Then I remembered the bone shaking sobs I’d let out in Karson’s arms. Almost three years of trauma, pain, had been let out in a single night.

It made sense as to why I was hurting.

There was a glass of water and two aspirin on my bedside table, and I took them thankfully.

I was alone in bed, but the sheets smelled like Karson.

The smell of bacon drifted through the house. He was cooking. Of course. He was still on his mission to feed me.

My first mission was a shower and brushing my teeth.

Once that was done, I slipped on some sweats and found him in the kitchen.

His eyes fluttered up to me. They were warm. He pointed with his spatula. “Sit.”

Because I was still hungover, still shell-shocked, and because I really didn’t want to steal that warmth from his eyes, I did as he said.

The espresso machine whirred as he turned to make me a coffee. I watched him hungrily, not for food, but for him. This. Him cooking me breakfast in my kitchen as if nothing had happened. I could linger in this fantasy for a while. For the length of the meal.

Which was why I took his coffee with a smile and waited for him to sit down beside me to eat breakfast.

He leaned over to squeeze my thigh as he sat down, my body soaking up that contact.

That hand stayed there on my thigh for the entire meal, despite him having to eat one handed. I didn’t dare move it. It warmed me in a way no heater or blanket ever could.

We didn’t speak as we ate.

Words would ruin everything, I sensed.

So I savored the food, the moment, the fantasy. Too soon, it was over.

The plates clanged as I stacked them, loaded them into the dishwasher.

Karson sat and watched me as I did so. I sensed he was savoring the moment too.

With my back to him, I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself to have the strength not to ruin this. It had been long enough. More than long enough. I should be strong enough to try. Brave enough.

I braced my hands on the sink for a moment longer before I turned. Karson had been watching me the entire time, his eyes solid, his posture tight.

The fantasy was over.

“I’m sorry for last night,” I said quietly. “Really fucking sorry. You did not deserve that.”

He stared at me a long time. “Maybe not,” he agreed. “But I’m not going to listen to an apology. That needed to happen.”

I chewed over his words. He was right, of course. If I’d held on to all of that for much longer, it would’ve turned even more toxic inside of me. Would’ve seeped into my cells and changed me for the worst.

I regarded Karson. The man who kept coming back for me. Who kept fighting for me. Who continued to forgive me. Who deserved, more than anyone, a family.

“I’ve traveled around the world since it happened, looking for something to believe in,” I said quietly. “Searching faiths and gods for a world in which what happened makes sense. A world that has a god who lets things like that happen. I didn’t find anything to believe in.”

Karson surged forward as my voice broke. His hands gripped either side of my neck, eyes burning into mine. “Believe in us,” he demanded, emotion making his voice rough. “You don’t need to search for a higher power, a fucking god. Because what we have is something more than that. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s right fuckin’ here. I’m right fuckin’ here. I’m not going anywhere. I will follow you wherever you go. I will worship at your altar.” His hands moved down my neck, skimming the sides of my body. His thumb brushed over the area where my clothes covered a scar.

I jerked back.

“I will not lose you,” he whispered, his voice as broken as I’d ever heard it. It seeped inside of the cracks that he’d made in my shield. “I cannot lose you. Not after we lost her. I will not let the death of our child kill us too. I refuse.”

My lip trembled at his words, as I fought against the urge to burst into tears, to jump into his fucking arms and let him fix everything.

But I clenched my fists, stayed still. There was nothing left to fix.

“Don’t you see, baby?” I asked on a whisper. “We’re already dead.”

And it being the hardest thing I’d had to do since leaving the hospital, I turned on my heel and left him.

I snatched up my purse on the way out, intending to head to the nearest Nordstrom, buy everything I needed for New Zealand then meet the girls at the airport.

Me running away to another country. It was like fucking Groundhog Day.

Self-destruct. Let Karson put me back together. Rip him apart. Leave. Repeat.

It repulsed me.

I wasn’t going to ruin Richard’s wedding by being a depressed, heartbroken asshole. I’d done enough of being a depressed, heartbroken asshole. This whole thing had dragged on much longer than I’d intended. I hadn’t expected to heal, not completely. That would never happen. But I did expect Karson to eventually give up. Get on with his life. I didn’t think so little of him to think that he would forget her. That he wouldn’t mourn for her for the rest of his life.

I knew that he would.

My villain had a heart. A huge one. And it was broken. Pieces scattered everywhere inside of him. And he wouldn’t be able to breathe without them cutting his insides for a long time. If ever.

But I thought I was giving him a chance at a different kind of life without me. Thought I was being kinder by pushing him away. Or maybe I was lying to myself and being utterly selfish

Whatever.

I’d done what I’d done.

Damned myself.

Yet he was still here.

He was still fighting for us.

So I got on that fucking plane. I put the fake smile on at the wedding that I knew all of my friends saw right through.

Karson had given that absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking, Nora Ephron worthy speech, yet I still got on a plane.

CHAPTER EIGHT

It’ll Be Okay – Shawn Mendes

The wedding was lovely.

It happened on a beach, not far from where Jay and Stella had reunited. Not far from where I’d had those moments of peace with Karson. Where I’d sat on the beach with him and told him I loved him. After, we drove for an hour before we found a tattoo shop that was still open to ink his name on my hip.

There were plenty of ghosts on that beach, but I thought I managed my act very well.

Stella, Yasmin and Zoe were all concerned about my weight, I could see it in their eyes. I made sure to mention the session with my therapist I had booked the day we arrived home, made sure they saw me eating excess amounts of the amazing food offered.

Of course, I also indulged in the amazing Pinot Noir. It was practically a crime not to. Which was how I found myself on a beach in the early hours of the morning, watching the sun just beginning to rise.

I didn’t jump in shock when a dark form sat beside me on the beach. I didn’t scare easily, or at all these days. Instead, I took the steaming cup that Jay offered me.

“You’re up early,” I commented, sipping the warm liquid, staring at the sun creeping up the horizon. “Even for the crazy, disciplined badass you are,” I added. Stella had told me that he was up at five in the morning almost daily.

Five.

In the morning.

The only time I was ever awake that early was when I was still up from the night before.

“I have a child,” he commented. “Sleep is merely an idea these days.”

I grinned into my coffee cup, thinking of my darling Ruby. She was a true wild child, like her Aunt Wren, even if we weren’t blood related. I loved that little baby with all of my heart and then some. She was my only source of sheer, unbridled joy. Not even a shred of darkness entered my heart when she was around.

“Still up from last night?” Jay asked.

“Yes, me and a bunch of Janet’s nephews went to the pub and had ‘skulling’ competitions which are just chugging races,” I snickered. “I won.”

“Obviously,” Jay responded.

The soft crashing of the waves filled up our silence. Jay and I had grown close since he got his act together and crossed oceans to get Stella back.

I knew Zoe and Yasmin had accepted him—he was married to our best friend and was the father of her child, he wasn’t going anywhere—but they weren’t his biggest fans.

They didn’t like the world he operated in, the shadows he cast on our friend and their life together. They blamed him for what happened to me.

I supposed if I wanted to, I could blame him too. He was the one that pissed off the Russian Mafia, he was who they wanted to hurt when they gunned me down in the street.

But that wasn’t how I operated. I knew Jay. Knew his heart. And I knew that he toiled over what had happened. I knew he loved my friend and their precious baby with an intensity that could not be measured. He’d move heaven and earth to protect them. He’d treasure them and burn down cities for his family.

No fucking tax accountant would do that for them.

And I liked Jay. He was scary and intense. Cold. Had a wall around him made of ice and steel. But there was a man behind all of that. One who cared deeply. Felt deeply. And had a horrible past.

I liked being around him. I didn’t feel so disfigured and ruined by my trauma. Didn’t feel like an outsider. He didn’t demand any kind of emotional labor, didn’t look at me with pitying, worried, well-meaning gazes.

“You crossed an ocean for Stella,” I said, my voice barely audible above the waves.

“Not without help,” he reminded me.

I smiled sadly, thinking about the day I told a teeny white lie about Stella being in the hospital in order for Jay to see his real feelings—without the bullshit—about my best friend and rush to her side.

“You would’ve done it eventually.”

“I would’ve,” he agreed. “But it might’ve taken longer. Much longer.” I saw him turn his head toward me in my periphery. “Years.”

Dread soaked through me like sticky tar, adhering to my veins. I’d known this was coming. I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t.

“I’m somewhat of an expert at hurting the person I love the most in this world because I think I’m protecting them,” he continued. “I didn’t want to sentence Stella to a life of darkness. Of violence.” His gaze turned back to the ocean. “I’m not a selfless man. But I was sure that hurting her, pushing her away would’ve been the one decent deed I did in my life. When, in reality, it was doing her a disservice. I was disrespecting her by thinking that she wasn’t up to making decisions about her future, even worse, taking a future away from her that she wanted. A future that scared the shit out of me. When it comes down to it, that’s why I hurt the person I love most in this world. That’s why I broke her. Because I was afraid.”

It was the longest Jay had spoken in one breath, without some kind of threat or underlying badassery. This was an emotional monologue. An exceptionally honest one. One that was serving as the mirror I really, really did not want to look into.

“I’d be doing you a disservice to insinuate that you don’t know yourself,” he added. “I’ve had the pleasure to get to know you over the past few years, and you are an exceptional woman who most definitely knows herself.”

He sipped his coffee. I did the same in an effort to chase away the chill of the truth.

“So if this is the future you want—sitting on the beach alone after partying all night with men whose names you don’t remember the names of—I will not judge.” Jay nodded. “No one will. Not for a second. But don’t you dare disrespect yourself by denying both you and a man I respect and admire a future just because you think you’re protecting him. Just because you’re afraid of what you may lose.”

There it was. The speech that everyone had been too afraid to give me since all of this happened. I knew that they did not want to rattle me, did not want to pierce the skin of mine that they perceived to be so fragile.

It wasn’t like I didn’t already know most of this. I’d buried the truth deep inside of me, pushed it away whenever it started to bubble up. But it was something entirely different when someone said it out loud, at five in the morning, with the sun rising over the ocean.

“Oh my god,” I whispered. “I’ve been doing the alpha male ‘I’m hurting you for your own good’ thing. I hate that thing. It’s my least favorite part of every rom-com ever made. And I’m doing it.”

Jay chuckled. Chuckled.

Since Stella and him got married, since Ruby was born, he was known to smirk, sometimes grin. But a chuckle? No, he did not do that. At least not in public. It would mess with his super villain street cred.

“You’re surviving,” he said, his voice suddenly serious. “You have been in survival mode. But now you need to live. For the people who love you. For yourself. You need to make a choice.”

He leaned in to kiss my forehead, lingering there a second.

I didn’t have siblings, not in this world at least, but the warmth of that gesture was what I imagined a loving brother might impart.

Jay stood then, staring down at me. “You need to make a choice, Wren,” he said again.

Then he left me staring at the waves, trying to figure out what to do.

“He will be your destruction.”

The words echoed.

I wondered if Karson had found that woman in Romania, if she would’ve said the same about me.

It didn’t much matter now.

All that mattered was my choice.

And so that’s how I found myself in LA roughly twenty-four hours later, in the same clothes I was wearing on that beach—the same clothes I’d worn to the wedding the day before—sitting on Karson’s porch, much like I had been the very first night we met.

That felt like a lifetime ago.

In a way, it was. I’d lived a lifetime of pain and trauma in that time. But also many lifetimes of happiness. Of love.

I had no idea what time Karson would come home. If he’d come home. He could be keeping different hours. He could be digging graves. He could be with another woman. Not that I had any right to be mad if he was.

Though I was mad.

Mad at myself.

For hurting him so deeply for so long. For denying us years.

Fucking years.

It had gotten dark as I sat on the porch lamenting over all of this. And cold. It was summer in New Zealand. The dress I was wearing had thin straps and was made of silk. I barely felt the cold... Not with all of the other emotions swirling through me.

When headlights shone down the drive, my heart stopped beating.

The same nervousness I felt the night I told Karson I was pregnant swept over me. But it was something different now. It went deeper. Because parts of me were hollowed out. Jaded. Empty.

I suspected I’d be haunted by memories of how carefree I’d been before, jealous of her, that woman who had believed the worst thing that could happen was gaining a few too many pounds. The woman who could feel happiness without an edge to it.

I’d mourned her for years, along with my child. Because she was there too, in that tiny coffin.

I stood up on unsteady legs when the car stopped and the door opened. My hands were clenched at my sides as his footsteps echoed through the night.

His face betrayed nothing, though his eyes did a slow sweep of my body as he ascended the stairs.

I imagined I looked like shit. If only I’d thought to make a quick detour to shower and freshen up so I could look my best in order to win my man back.

Too late.

He didn’t say anything. Just stopped in front of me. The distance he left between us was unnatural. It speared my heart. The wall he was finally putting between us after everything I’d done to him.

It served me right, I supposed.

He didn’t speak.

It wasn’t his job to speak first now. It was mine.

“I fucked-up,” I said, staring at him. “I fucked-up about a thousand times since we lost her. I don’t have an excuse. None.”

My eyes ping-ponged around his porch, searching for the right words, the strength to continue. “I crossed an ocean for you,” I whispered. “I know that doesn’t sound like much, considering everything I put you through, everything I put us through, but it’s my big grand gesture. It’s my apology … though I know I’ve got a lot more of that to do. I will tell you that I flew coach for you because the next flight was in ten hours, and I couldn’t wait that long. I know that’s a completely gross thing to complain about, but it was a middle seat, and the guy next to me had not showered in a hot minute. And the woman on the other side of me was seriously committed to getting me to join her MLM.” I released a long sigh, realizing I was babbling.

Realizing I was nervous.

Nervous.

It was an unfamiliar but not unwelcome emotion. It felt pure and honest compared to what I’d been feeling lately.

Even though the reason why I was nervous was because I suddenly realized that I was taking this big leap, finally getting out of my own way, finally living even though Karson may have already decided to move on.

He would be well within his rights. I’d put him through the fucking wringer.

I sucked in a deep breath. Then another one. Let myself feel warm with the idea of a future between us. Of Karson. Of sleeping with him every night.

Then I met his ice blue eyes, the ones that felt like home.

“I will fly across a thousand oceans for you, for us,” I said. “Across galaxies if need be—and space scares the absolute shit out of me. But nothing terrifies me more than the vast, empty existence I would have without you, without us.”

I ran my hands up and down my bare arms as Karson stayed stock still, unmoving, expression completely blank, not giving anything away.

“I know after everything that happened, I’m not the woman you fell in love with. I vaguely resemble her. But the things I’ve done, the things I’ve said to you, they were not said by that same woman. So I understand if I’m not … enough for you now.”

Karson’s face curled at that word, his cold expression gone. “Enough,” he stated in a low voice.

I reflexively jerked back.

“When you were laying in a hospital bed, still bleeding, barely stitched up, you apologized to me,” he quietly reminded me. “Your thoughts then were not for yourself. They were for me. You wanted to make sure I knew you didn’t blame me.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth. “Sweetheart, it broke my fuckin’ heart. But it showed me something else. How much you loved me. I’ve never doubted it. Not once.” He stepped forward and pulled me to him so our foreheads rested against one another’s.

“I’ve always had hope,” he murmured.

I let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “So you forgive me?”

“You leaving me again?” he asked on a low rumble.

“Never,” I promised.

“Then I think it’s time we had three years’ worth of make-up sex,” he growled.

My stomach flipped, and my panties were drenched in an instant.

I almost pounced on him right there and then.

His hand at my hip squeezed, his expression serious. “But, baby, I’m not markin’ you like that anymore.” His hand brushed along the skin of my neck.

Shame washed over me at what I’d forced him to do.

“I don’t want you to feel any guilt over that,” he said firmly. “No shame. No regret. I’m grateful for that thin thread that kept us together, but that’s done. We’re past that. You’re past that. You don’t need to hurt to feel good anymore.”

Tears prickled the backs of my eyes. But now was not the time for them.

As Karson said, we had years of make-up sex to have.

“How are you going to make me feel good then?” I asked in a low voice.

His eyes darkened, and I was over his shoulder in the next heartbeat.

I let out a squeal of delight as his palm came down on my ass.

Then we went inside to have three years’ worth of make-up sex.

A fucking lifetime’s worth.

I wasn’t sure of the time when I finally woke up.

I knew that I must have slept for at least twelve hours. The sun was just rising as we made it to sleep last night, and it was low in the sky now.

Karson was not in bed. I gratefully gulped down the water left by the bed.

Sounds of pots echoed from the kitchen.

I smiled.

Of course, he was cooking for me.

Once I used the facilities, I walked in the direction of the closet, intending to put on one of Karson’s shirts to cover my nakedness. My entire body was delightfully sore. My soul was the lightest it had felt in a century.

On the way, I snatched up my phone, firing off a quick text to the group.

Karson and I are officially back together. We are madly in love, and I plan on spending forever with him.

Off to eat and have a boatload of sex.

Kisses.

I grinned as I saw the three dots appear almost the second I hit send.

Stella: Ohmygod! Ohmygod!!!!

Stella: I just screamed out loud!

Stella: Jay came running with a gun! A gun! Ruby asked to play with it.

Stella: Brb, I have to yell at my husband. I’m so happy I’m crying!!!!

I smirked at her rapid-fire texts.

Zoe: Finally! I was worried I was going to have to pull something sappy, and I don’t do sappy. But I will finally sleep better knowing you got your shit together.

I grinned wider.

Yasmin: Holy shit! I woke up, and you were gone. I seriously thought I’d be flying to an embassy in Eastern Europe to get you out.

Yasmin: I’m happy for you. You deserve this.

My eyes misted as I replied with a bunch of hearts while walking in the direction of the closet. When I finally looked up, I stopped dead in my tracks.

I stared, dumbfounded at it.

The last time I was in here, I’d been grabbing clothes for an escape. The last time I was in here, it looked exactly the same as it did the day we lost her.

Now it was completely different.

Now it was fucking huge.

I wasn’t quite sure how I hadn’t noticed it from the outside, because Karson definitely had to add an addition to his house for this.

For my closet.

The one he’d promised me.

It was the closet dreams were made of.

My clothes from before were tucked into one section closest to me.

One section.

Karson’s arms circled around me as I continued to stare. “You built me this closet,” I whispered.

“If you build it, they will come,” Karson murmured in my ear.

I leaned back into him, mostly because I didn’t trust my legs to hold me anymore. I stared at the closet he had built because he had faith I’d come back, despite everything that had happened. Everything that I’d done.

“I can’t have any more children,” I told him, staring at the closet. “I can’t give you a family.” I choked the last part out in fear.

Karson’s arms tightened around me before he turned me to face him. His eyes were burning with blue flames. “Wren, sweetheart, you gave me all the family I need the day you faced off with me on the street.”

A tear trailed down my cheek. “Are you sure I’m going to be … enough for you?” I asked quietly, verbalizing my deepest fear.

At this he laughed.

Fucking laughed.

When I was being vulnerable and open.

He laughed.

My eyes narrowed, and I readied my claws to come out.

Karson’s expression cleared. “Wow, baby, stand down,” he murmured, kissing my head. “Are you enough?” he repeated, leaning back. “Fuck, Wren, yes. You are enough.” He kissed me gently. “You are enough,” he repeated. “Now, are you going to keep going, or are we going to christen the closet?”

My stomach tingled with need. “We’re going to christen the closet.”

Which we did.

It took a while.

It was a huge fucking closet.

CHAPTER NINE

EIGHT MONTHS LATER

Like Real People Do – Hozier

KARSON

Something was wrong with Wren.

I’d known it for a couple of days now. She had been acting distant, her smiles forced and her eyes tight with something I couldn’t catch.

The light had only just come back into her eyes. She’d only just come back to me. I woke in the night, shaking off a nightmare, relieved only once I realized her warmth was tucked into me, her arms clinging to me even in sleep.

She slept through the night now. Had for months. She didn’t even flinch when I jerked away, too deep in a sleep that had eluded her most of her life. She’d put on weight too. Slowly. Her relationship with food and her trauma wasn’t going to disappear overnight, nor would her pain. It was part of her now. Part of us.

But there was an us. She had come back to me. And that was all I cared about.

She was all I cared about.

Yet something was eating at her once more. Not our past, but something new. I had to wait for her to tell me what it was, as much as it infuriated me to do that. Wren was stubborn, as always, and needed to process things in her own way before she came to me. She didn’t lean on me. Wouldn’t. And as much as I fucking hated that, I admired the shit out of it too. Her strength of will. Of character.

She thought she was different now. Changed completely. She was altered for sure. Different in some ways, harder in places that should’ve always remained soft.

But her fire still burned brightly. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I was going to make sure of that.

But first, I had a meeting to attend to.

When I’d called Nicholas, he’d been warm, friendly. I hadn’t seen him or Wren’s mother since Wren recovered. We didn’t really run in the same circles.

I met him at a Greek restaurant he ran, and he greeted me with a friendly smile and a firm handshake.

“Karson,” he embraced me as if I was an old friend. “It has been so long. Sit, sit,” he gestured to a booth.

It was nice without being pretentious. Cozy. It smelled fucking great too.

“I was happy to get your call,” he said, sitting down. “It has been too long.” His eyes blazed with something.

The last time we were alone together, he’d killed a man.

I wondered if that haunted him.

I thought of Wren in the hospital bed. Wren staring at the TV eating popcorn. Wren pasting fake smiles on her face. Wren as just skin and bones.

No, I didn’t think it haunted him.

“I’ve got some food coming. Best Greek you’ve had in your life,” he exclaimed.

“I’m here to talk about Wren,” I said instead of answering. I wasn’t much for small talk, and I was anxious to get home. To her.

His face fell the second I spoke, all happiness draining from it. “What, what has happened to her?” he demanded.

Fear, naked fear radiated from the man’s face. He had been expecting something. Preparing for something.

She’d been back stateside for several months, only just getting back to herself. It made sense, him being on edge.

“Nothing,” I told him quickly. “Wren is fine. Better than fine.”

A slight mistruth, considering what had been going on the past few days, but I wouldn’t worry him. Plus, it was Wren’s choice to speak to her father.

He visibly relaxed, his shoulders dropping. “I was hoping now that she’s home. Now that the two of you are … back together? Her mother and I haven’t wanted to pry, but we’ve been quietly hopeful.”

Only two people like the Whitneys would be quietly hopeful that their daughter ended up with me.

“Yes,” I replied firmly. “We are back together.”

I paused as the food was set down in front of us along with two beers in frosted glasses.

Nicholas nodded in thanks to the waiter.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said once he left. “Because I want to ask your permission to marry her.”

His face went blank.

I couldn’t be sure he’d give his permission. He’d seen firsthand the man I was. Knew the kind of life Wren would have with me. It was reasonable for him to refuse.

Not that it would make a difference.

I was doing this out of courtesy.

But then his lips stretched into a smile. With all his features, he smiled. “Oh, of course, you have my permission,” he exclaimed. “Not that Wren has asked for permission for anything her entire life,” he chuckled. “And she’d probably have a speech ready about you asking me pertaining to feminism and ownership of her own self. But I admit, I’m old fashioned. I do like knowing before Wren.” He paused, opening up his napkin and laying it on his lap. “She doesn’t know yet, does she?”

I shook my head slowly. It would probably take work to convince her. She had been adamantly against marriage before.

But I didn’t plan on backing down.

He clapped his hands. “Excellent. You’re asking her tonight?”

I nodded again.

“Okay, I will have her mother arrange a party for tomorrow. Intimate, just close family and friends. I’ll see if I can get Lionel to perform.”

He was already shooting off texts.

Maybe I should’ve stopped him, let him know that the likelihood of Wren saying yes on the first try was slim, but he was too far gone. It was also amusing to see where Wren got it from.

He glanced up. “You have a ring?” he asked.

Instead of nodding, I got the box from the inside of my jacket and slid it across the table.

Nicholas’s eyes widened as he opened it. “Oh, you did good, son.”

I didn’t reply to that.

Because I already knew I did good. Fucking great. And it had nothing to do with the ring.

WREN

I stared at the clinic, pushing my shades onto my head so I could see closer. My eyes narrowed at the protestors, there to make the hardest decision of a woman’s life that much more horrible. I gripped the steering wheel, overcome with a fury so pure I was surprised my skin didn’t burn from the heat of my blood.

The fury was a nice respite from the fear of this decision.

Something primal woke inside me, and the next thing I knew, I was being hauled off in a police car.

Yasmin bailed me out. As she had done many times before. She didn’t ask questions. Not when she saw me. Instead, she drove us to my favorite bar.

It wasn’t until I was settled inside a booth with a martini in front of me that I fully processed what had happened.

“Drink it,” she urged. “You’ll feel better.”

I stared from her to the glass then back again. “I can’t drink it,” I whispered.

Her face softened in understanding. “That’s why you were at the clinic?” she deduced.

I nodded once. “I wasn’t going to do it. But it was my first instinct. And then I saw them there, I just kind of…”

“Hulked out?” she offered.

I nodded once, vaguely remembering beating one man with his own sign. Not my proudest moment. Luckily, I didn’t do any serious damage, only to the fat man’s ego to be beaten by a woman. The same woman he didn’t believe should have reproductive rights.

Okay, I was pretty proud of that.

“I’m so scared,” I admitted through the tears. “This isn’t happy for me. I don’t feel excited. That was stolen from me. I’m not going to have any good feelings about this. Any hope. Not when I know how much more it hurts when you hope. When you expect it all to work out.” I stared at my friend. “I can’t survive another loss. I won’t.”

Yasmin stared right back at me, her eyes shimmering. She reached across for my hand. “I’m not going to tell you it’s all going to be okay,” she said, voice firm, familiar.

I used it as an anchor.

“I can’t know that it’s going to be okay,” she continued. “I can’t promise that. But what I can promise, as horrible as it is, is that you will survive another loss, if that’s what the world is going to throw at you. I don’t want you to have to. I wish I had some kind of magic to make it so you won’t go through another second of hurt, but I don’t. Not now, at least. I do know you have your own kind of magic. You have a strength inside of you that I marvel at. You have a man who will never give up on you. Friends who will never leave your side.”

Tears were streaming down my face at that point, the dam inside of me well and truly breaking.

“I was cruel to him,” I hiccupped. “Terrible. I was so consumed with everything I was feeling, I didn’t give a thought to his pain. He was there for me every moment, yet I wasn’t even there for him for a second.” Panic started to climb up my throat.

“I can’t do that to him again,” I whispered.

“You won’t,” Yasmin proclaimed with certainty. “I won’t let you. I’ll straight up fight you if you try.”

I choked out a laugh. “You know I’d beat you in a second.”

She folded her arms in front of her. “I don’t need to beat you. Just beat some sense into you.”

I smiled, panic receding slowly but not disappearing completely.

“This is a good thing, honey,” she murmured, reaching out to squeeze my hand. “I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know what happened before is going to taint it, but you have me. Stella. Zoe. Even Jay—although full disclosure, I totally don’t get your friendship with him.”

I smiled through my tears.

“Most importantly, you have Karson. I may not have approved for a long time, but I’ve never seen a man more dedicated to you. More unyielding. He is your partner, Wren. You don’t have to shoulder this alone. He is with you. We are with you.”

“You really think I’m brave enough to do this?” I asked in a small voice.

She crossed her arms again. “Bitch, I have seen you face up against some of the most dangerous and powerful people on this earth. You’ve jumped out of planes, escaped military coups… I know you’re brave enough to do this.”

I stared into her eyes and found my strength there.

He had been watching me carefully since I got home.

That’s what the cottage was now, home.

The mansion was on the market.

My father was not offended in the slightest. My father had all but jumped for joy when I’d told him I was moving in with Karson. As had my mother, in her own, more subdued way. They watched me carefully too. Things with my mother were different now, warmer. I liked it. But she was still a busy woman who showed no signs of slowing down. It would still be my girlfriends I went to first.

It would still be my girlfriends who bailed me out of jail, who reminded me I had the courage to face things.

Face him.

He was across from me, chopping things and drinking wine. Acting like everything was normal even though we both knew it wasn’t. He was waiting. Giving me the opportunity to come to him.

Trusting that I would.

The truth… I had to tell him. All of it. Not just some of it. I owed him the ugliness of what I had come close to doing.

“I was arrested outside an abortion clinic today,” I told him as he sipped his wine.

To his credit, he didn’t choke when the words came out.

Poorly timed on my part. But I didn’t think there was a right time to say such a thing.

Karson didn’t look shocked in the slightest though I knew he was surprised. Karson had seen a lot in his life, done more, and he knew me well enough to know he could never predict what would come out of my mouth.

He didn’t speak either. Just waited for me to tell the rest of the story.

Because I knew how to read him, I noted the tightening of his body, everything tensing in apprehension of what was to come.

I envied his ability to drink the wine. Boy would some good vino take the edge off right now. “I kind of … blacked out,” I continued. “The protesters with the self-righteous bullshit, using religion as an excuse to peddle hatred. To abuse women at their lowest possible moments…” I trailed off. “Anyway, I broke someone’s nose. He’s pressing charges, of course.” I shrugged. “One thing on my rap sheet I definitely won’t regret.” I sighed. There was only so long I could talk about my crime until I got to the crux of it. “I was there because I’m pregnant,” I blurted. “Because I had planned on going in there and getting rid of our baby without telling you.”

I couldn’t look at him. Wasn’t brave enough. I didn’t know if I could survive the hatred that he had every right to feel.

“It’s wretched, evil and shameful,” I whispered. “But I was sure it was the kinder thing to do than subject you to more loss. To more pain.” The sound of waves crashed through the open windows. It was cruel of me to mar such a sound with my ugly truth. “It sounds fucking ridiculous when I say it out loud.” Shame saturated my tone. Still, I wouldn’t look at him.

Couldn’t.

“But it felt like the right thing,” I shook my head. “Or maybe I convinced myself it was the right thing because I’m a coward. Because I couldn’t face the idea of losing something of ours again. Or maybe I got into that fight to stop myself.” I threw my hands up at the idea. “Fuck, I don’t know. But I know I want this. More than anything. I know it could never replace her. Erase her. But it would be a disservice to her memory if I destroyed our second chance at a family just because I was afraid.”

Tears welled in my eyes.

“Fucking hormones,” I muttered, angrily wiping at my eyes.

It hit me after a few seconds that Karson hadn’t spoken.

Fuck.

It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe Karson wouldn’t want to take the chance to revisit the nightmare we’d barely made it out of. Fuck. I’d been a wreck. A complete and total wreck. It made sense that he wouldn’t want to have to put me back together again. Have to deal with me lashing out at him because I didn’t know how to deal with my own pain.

Unease pooled in my stomach.

Though I really didn’t want to, I finally looked at him. His face gave nothing away. He was staring at me, as he had been during my entire tirade. There was no fire in his eyes, no storm, no emotion. They were shuttered, his expression the mask he wore with everyone else. But not with me. Not usually, at least.

“Fuck,” I whispered, unable to look away. “I fucked up, didn’t I? We finally, after everything, had settled into our life together, when I, as always, had to add chaos.”

Karson’s brows knitted at my words. Annoyance. There it was finally.

But annoyance was much too mild of an emotion to match the news I’d just delivered.

Karson put down his wine glass calmly then rounded the kitchen island, stalking toward me.

For the first time since I met him, I fled.

It didn’t take long for him to catch me, though, one of his hands settling on my hips, the other fastening around my neck. There was fire in his eyes now. An inferno. “You’re marrying me,” he murmured. “Before the baby is born. I know you’ll want some big fuckin’ thing, and you’re going to complain about there not being enough time for the dress, the flowers to be flown in from Italy or where the fuck ever, but I don’t care. We can do it big, huge next year if you like. You can make it whatever you want. But it has to be in the next nine months. If I had my way, we’d be doin’ it tomorrow. But you’re in my arms.”

His hand slipped from my hips to cover my stomach. “My baby is inside you.” His voice was impossibly soft, bursting with emotion. “I got my way. I got my fuckin’ wildest dreams. So it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. But it will be soon.”

Tears were streaming down my face faster than he could wipe them away. Karson didn’t try. The last time I was pregnant, he got used to me bursting into tears at an insurance commercial or when I accidently dropped my cookie on the floor.

Surely, this had something to do with the hormones, if only a little. But most of those tears came from an authentic place.

Not a little bit of me even wanted to argue. “Okay,” I whispered.

Now he looked shocked.

“Okay?” he repeated.

I nodded.

“Fuck,” he muttered. “I thought it would be a lot more difficult than this.” He let me go so he could reach into his jacket. He pulled out a ring box.

Holy fuck. He couldn’t have magicked that out of nowhere. He had already been planning this.

“You kind of stole my thunder,” he teased with light in his eyes.

The box opened to reveal the most stunning emerald I’d ever seen. Square, solitaire, the band rounded with tiny diamonds.

“Emerald,” I murmured.

“Her birthstone,” he finished for me. “So you carry her, us, with you for the rest of your life.”

Somehow, the tears came even faster.

“Did I do good?” Karson asked, sounding slightly uncertain.

I nodded my head violently, leaning forward to kiss him. “Yes, honey, you did good,” I said against his mouth. “Now put it on me.”

He grinned. “Not arguing with that.” His eyes were grave on mine. “Once this is on, it’s never coming off.”

I scowled at him. “As if I’d ever.”

He slipped the ring on my fourth finger. It fit perfectly. It was slightly heavy. I liked the weight. Loved it.

I stared down at it for a long time.

“The doctors told me I wouldn’t have another baby,” I said quietly. “I already knew that, though.” I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy when I tell you this, but I have to tell you everything now before I lose my nerve.”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment.

“Years ago, I went to a woman in Romania,” I began quietly, opening my eyes. “A fortune teller. The real deal. You are a man of action and reason, so you won’t believe in her, but she was legit. She came from generations of witches. And she predicted this. All of this. Meeting you. Falling for you. Getting pregnant. Losing the baby.” It was only then I had the courage to look into Karson’s eyes. “And she told me that I would never have another child. That I would never be a mother.”

“Fuck that bitch,” he growled, pulling me into him.

I blinked at him. “She is a very powerful witch, Karson, you cannot call her a bitch,” I whispered, eyes darting around, half expecting her to appear.

“She is on another continent, I doubt she can hear me,” he replied, voice still rough with anger. “And if she was right in front of me, I’d gladly say the same. Because you are a mother. No matter what happens here. You are a fuckin’ mother. Nothing and no one can take that away from you.”

Again, tears clouded my vision.

“But both modern medicine and ancient witchcraft told me this wasn’t going to happen,” I sobbed.

Karson wiped at the tears with his thumb. “You’re Wren Whitney. Since when have you let modern medicine or ancient witchcraft get in your way?”

I grinned. “You’re right. Fuck that bitch.”

“That’s my girl,” he murmured.

It was after dinner.

And a lot of sex.

A lot.

We had a bunch to celebrate. I’d also called each of my friends. Stella screamed into the phone. Then she yelled, presumably at Jay, “Babe, stop coming into the room brandishing a weapon! I’m dramatic, deal with it!”

I was curled up in the loveseat, watching the ocean after I’d made my calls. Karson had just finished cleaning up.

“This isn’t going to be idyllic.” I was staring out at the waves and wishing, not for the first time today, that I had a glass of wine in my hand. My palm had settled over my still flat stomach, resenting and loving what was growing in there right now.

I felt Karson come closer, his heat warming my back. He didn’t touch me, didn’t say anything as he knew that I wasn’t done.

“This isn’t going to be exciting. We don’t get to float around on clouds, fighting over what color to paint the nursery or over what we’re going to name the baby,” I explained.

“I’m going to pretend, of course. That I’m impossibly happy, that this is a miracle, a blessing. Because no one wants to see my true feelings, no one wants to be reminded of what this could turn into. If only I had the luxury of not being reminded. It was here. It was always fucking here. Like a weight, making sure my hopes don’t get off the ground.”

I looked at him finally, my vision blurred.

“This isn’t going to be idyllic for us,” I repeated. “We don’t get that.”

I hated how fucking pathetic I sounded, how whiny. I wished I was better at pretending with Karson. Wished that there was a way for me to cloak all my ugly feelings, hide them from him. But he saw through it all. And even if he didn’t, I wasn’t strong enough to digest these feelings on my own. They would rot me from the inside out.

Instead of taking me into his arms like I thought he would, Karson took a seat beside me, staring out at the same ocean that seemed too calm for this conversation. I ached for it to mirror my emotions, so I could see the world could be as wild as I felt. So I didn’t feel so alone with my craziness.

Then again, if the outside world mirrored my insides, the ground would be opening up, and mountains would be falling into oceans. It was probably a good thing it didn’t.

“No,” Karson said finally. “We’re not going to get that. But once this part is over, once you get through it, we’ll have a family. Even if the worst happens, we’ll still have a family. But I have faith that this one is going to meet us in eight months.” He rubbed my stomach. “Because I have hope.”

I stared out at the ocean then back to him. “Yeah,” I nodded. “Me too.”

We got married the next day.

The bride wore white Oscar de la Renta. Off the rack.

The groom wore black.

The ceremony happened with our closest friends and family in attendance. It was not understated and simple, even though I only had a day to put it together.

I’d been training my entire life for such a thing.

It was over the top. There was a band on the beach. One of the most famous chefs in the country cooked our meals.

Flowers were flown in.

Everyone I loved was there.

And most importantly, at the end of the night, I was Mrs. Wren Walker.

EIGHT MONTHS LATER

KARSON

Wren initially went into labor without fanfare, which surprised everyone, me included.

She was forty weeks and one day. I was all but glued to her side. She kept rolling her eyes and muttering about ‘protective alphas not knowing about a woman’s strength and capability.’ I’d had the misfortune of replying, “tough talk from someone who can’t touch their toes.”

I’d paid for that.

She went in labor that night but urged me not to take her to the hospital until the last minute. She didn’t want to be in there any longer than she had to.

I understood that.

We’d already fought over her even giving birth in a hospital. She wanted a birthing center. Which might’ve been okay if hers wasn’t considered a high-risk pregnancy.

But she was.

Doctors had no idea how she got pregnant in the first place. It was little more than a miracle. They warned us that Wren might not carry to term. To prepare for a loss.

Demons swirled in her eyes when they delivered that news. Then her chin tilted up in defiance.

“Fuck that noise,” she’d scoffed once the doctor left. She decided modern medicine would not tell her shit. And whether or not it was fate, Wren’s sheer force of will or a little of both, our baby grew without incident. Wren grew. I saw ghosts in her eyes, though. Sometimes I found her on the floor of the closet. Roaming around the house in the middle of the night, trying to escape the past.

The worst didn’t happen.

But the doctors stressed the fact that she needed close monitoring.

I needed her in a hospital.

I told her that.

There was yelling.

She drove off.

But thankfully came back a couple of hours later, agreeing on the proviso we go at five minutes apart. “None of this dramatic male shit, gathering me in your arms and rushing me to the hospital at the first sign of a contraction,” she ordered.

I’d happily agreed to that.

So we drove to the hospital at five minutes apart. She cursed me and my “entire line” every five minutes.

I gritted my teeth, seeing her in pain.

We were shown to her private birthing suite. Her parents were called, friends were called. It was all very calm. Wren was ordering PostMates.

Until she wasn’t.

Until she went very fucking pale, monitors started going off and my whole world began to fall apart.

People rushed into the room. I watched, helpless as they started to work on Wren, urgently trying to push me from her side.

At some point, a doctor yanked me out of the way, staring at me.

“Sir, both of their heart rates are going down,” the doctor said. “I need to know who we are going to focus our attention on if the worst happens.”

I stared at him, everything quiet inside me. Everything still. “You need to stop dancing around the fucking point and tell me what in the fuck you mean by that.”

The doctor’s lips formed a firm line before he opened his mouth and sighed. “Right now, both your wife and the baby’s are in decelerations. You need to choose. If it comes down to saving one, which do you want to save?”

I stared at the man, unaware of the danger he was currently in. Everything sharpened, time slowing.

“Do you have a wife, children?” I asked.

He blinked, rattled out of his detached state. “I don’t think that—”

“Answer the fucking question,” I demanded.

This was a man used to calling the shots, people treating him with reverence, not answering back because of that white coat he wore. “I walk out of this hospital without both my child and my woman, I’m driving straight to your place,” I told him. “Then, I’m going to hold a gun to the head of your wife, a knife to the throat of your child and ask you to choose which one I will kill and which will survive.”

I let the words hang there, settling in the air. This was a doctor in Los Angeles, it would be a safe bet to assume he’d had people threaten him in the past. But I doubted he’d ever had someone who truly meant it to threaten him.

He looked like he might piss himself.

Message received.

Then I went to my wife, sweat sticking to her forehead, her face red, eyes wild with pain, fear and mostly determination. There was a film over that expression, though. Something was gripping onto her, trying to take her away from me. The delirium that followed with death. I’d seen it many times.

Only in my worst nightmares did I think I would see that look in Wren’s eyes. I hid my fear from her. She would not see defeat on my face. Not now when she needed my strength and faith in her.

“I’m not going to lose him,” she said through gritted teeth.

It was a boy. We’d found out as soon as we could. Wren did not want surprises this time around.

“I know,” I agreed. My woman would not let anyone take another child from us. She’d wrestle the reaper himself. She’d fight with everything she had to bring our son into the world. With her last breath.

Happily she’d give all of the life she had inside of her for our child.

Chaos was erupting around us, and I knew I had moments left with her. “I’m not going to lose you,” I told her, inches from her face. I clutched onto her neck. “This is your battle, darlin’. Yours only. I can’t do anything here. I can’t save you, my Viking woman. You are going to save yourself too.”

Her eyes cleared as she remembered the conversation we’d had a lifetime ago. Determination pinched her brows together. My woman was exhausted and experiencing pain I couldn’t fathom, but no one would dare go against her with that look on her face.

Not even death.

“Mr. Walker,” the doctor interrupted the moment I had with her. “You need to let go of your wife now.” His tone was even, detached. No more fear existed in it. It still lived there, inside of him, though, pushing him along. But he’d buried it in order to do his job.

Save my Wren.

In order to give him space to do that, I had to let her go. It went against every instinct I had. But I was powerless here.

I laid my lips onto Wren’s, lingering for a moment longer before I stepped back.

People kept telling me to leave the room, but I didn’t move. They finally stopped trying, focusing their attention on Wren. There were too many people around her for me to see her. Fear paralyzed me. Alarms were going off.

I didn’t know how Jay and Stella managed to get in the room amid all the chaos, and my eyes flitted over them with disinterest. Jay’s face paled as he took in the scene in front of him, then he tried to pull Stella out.

She bore down, moving to my side and putting her small hand in mine.

I barely felt it.

“We need to prep the OR, now!” the doctor yelled.

“There’s no time,” someone else called.

A nurse walked up to me. “Sir, your wife went into cardiac arrest. We are currently doing a postmortem c-section,” the nurse said.

I stared at her. She had tears in her eyes. She was upset. A doctor delivering this news probably wouldn’t be. They trained themselves not to care about human life in the way nurses did. You couldn’t cry over every person you couldn’t save. I knew it because my life was that in reverse. I couldn’t care about all the people I had to kill. They were my job. Nothing more, nothing less.

You couldn’t care.

But this woman in front of me cared.

She cared because she thought she was telling me that they were cutting my baby out of my dead wife.

Stella let out a whimper from beside me. It was a primal sound. Of pure pain. I didn’t look at her. I kept my eyes on the nurse. “You are mistaken.” I enunciated my words. “You are going to go in there and tell the doctor that he is going to bring our son into this world safely. Then, he is going to make sure that my wife wakes up to hold him.”

She blinked at me. “Sir, I’m not sure if you heard—”

“I heard you just fine,” I gritted out. “And you heard me just fine. Turn around and remind the doctor of the promise I made about his family.”

My words moved her, fear painting her expression. I watched her move through the bodies to talk to the doctor.

Then I waited. For my wife and son.

And I hoped.

WREN

The déjà vu was horrifying.

The hospital smells, the bright lights, the people yelling. Hands on me. Pain. Then emptiness.

It was too fucking familiar.

“I can’t save you, my Viking woman. You are going to save yourself too.”

But not completely. Karson had been there. He was there the whole time, reminding me to fight.

I felt a warm, dry hand in mine before anything else. Sensation started coming back to my body, and panic saturated my limbs as I once again felt emptiness in my stomach.

“Where is he?” I cried out, my voice thin and scratchy.

I tried to blink my eyes open, but they were full of grit.

“Where is he?” I repeated, louder this time.

“Sweetheart, it’s okay, he’s right here.”

I opened my eyes at the same time something warm was placed on my chest. I stared into wide, curious, ice blue eyes.

Like his father’s.

Tears ran down my face as I lifted my hand to brush his little cheek. He lifted his own to grab my finger in his.

“Oh my god,” I whispered, staring at him. “Striker, you’re here.”

“Baby, I understand you went through war to bring us our son, but no way in fuck are you calling him Striker,” Karson informed me.

I scowled in his direction but didn’t dare take my eyes off our little boy.

“He’s perfect,” I whispered.

“He came out of you,” Karson replied, voice gravely with emotion. “Of course, he is.”

I finally found the strength to tear my gaze from my baby long enough to look into my husband’s eyes. They were full of love. Yet edged with something else. Remnants of the trauma he’d gone through, pieces of the man he might’ve become if this had been different.

“Wren!”

We both looked to the door that Stella was bursting through, closely followed by Jay. “You’re awake,” she cried. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she rushed to my bedside. “You’re okay,” she breathed.

“I’m okay,” I agreed.

“I can’t believe what just happened,” she said. “You were … gone,” she choked. “The nurse came up to Karson and said you were gone.”

My insides shredded, thinking of Karson in that moment.

My eyes went to him as Stella continued talking. “But Karson would not believe it,” she babbled. “He just … told that nurse to go in and get the doctor to save you,” Stella chuckled. “He literally told her to turn around and come back with different news. Like, who does that?”

Stella was speaking rapidly, almost manically. I got it, she was high on adrenaline, on whatever it was that ran through people who thought they saw one of their best friend’s die.

She couldn’t see what her words were doing, couldn’t see Karson’s face distorting, the predator hiding in his eyes.

I saw, though. I understood how close I came to death. How close he came to losing everything.

Jay saw it too. “Baby, let’s give them some time,” he murmured, guiding her out of the room.

I mouthed a ‘thank you’ at him. It would be only a matter of time before everyone else descended. Though I suspected that Jay guarded the door to make sure no one could enter.

My arms tightened around the baby, Karson’s hand still there, steadying him.

“This is it,” I whispered. “Our family.”

Karson’s eyes shimmered. “This is our family,” he agreed.

And although he wasn’t the prince, although he was the villain, we did indeed live happily ever after.

THE END

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