Hunting Helena - (Clipped Wings #2.5) -Cracks In The Armour -(ang)

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Kat, thank you, friend. You’re an inspiration.

Acknowledgments Filets, you are an amazing group of women. I’m so proud to be one of you. Nina, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through this without you. You deserve a superhero cape. With sequins. Alice, thank you for having faith in my words and for getting them into the right hands. Micki, you are fabulous. I’m so lucky to have made my debut in the publishing world with your guidance. Tatiana, Diana, Marla, and the rest of the behind-the-scenes Gallery team, it’s been a pleasure. Alex, as always, thank you endlessly for your willingness to hash things out, to push me and in turn my characters, and for being such an awesome friend. Johnny B, one day I’ll use the Oxford comma correctly; until then, your red pen can pretty up my pages. Deb, you are phenomenal. Thank you for your encouragement and for believing in me, just like I believe in you. WC Crew—thanks for all the laughs and the tears and the hugs and distractions. And the cupcakes. I’m so fortunate to have people like you in my life. Brooks, there were some unexpected potholes in the road, but we made it! To the bloggers, a remarkable community who share my passion for the written word. Thank you to all of you who have read, reviewed, and jumped on the tour. Getting to know you has been a blast! Heather Maven, massive love to you, your generosity astounds and humbles me. Fandom friends, it was your positive encouragement and unwavering support that helped give me the courage to keep writing. To my family, who taught me to always have a fall-back plan—you gave me the courage to take the leap and the wings to fly. Husband, I adore you. You have the patience of a saint. Thank you for catching all the curve balls.

Cracks in the Armor

Chris

I shot Sarah a text message, hoping she’d get back to me if she wasn’t at work. She’d been called in on short notice —again. It’d been hit and miss with her lately, with more misses than hits. Other than some brief stop-ins at Inked Armor, the tattoo place where I worked, I hadn’t seen much of her in the past two weeks. “Everything cool?” Jamie asked as he pulled onto our friend Hayden’s street. “Cool as it can be, I guess.” I returned my phone to my pocket. “Lisa told me Sarah had to bow out again,” he said. “Yeah. That boss of hers keeps calling her in.” “Sorry¸ man.” I shrugged. “It is what it is.” Sarah had planned to go to yoga with Lisa and Tenley, but that was off the table now, thanks to work. Jamie knew how I felt about Sarah’s new job at The Sanctuary. So did Sarah. After all the shit that went down after the trial, she traded one strip club for another. She was the one with tuition loans, not me, and tips from The Sanctuary were too good for her to pass up. It sucked, but there wasn’t much I could do since I couldn’t afford to take on her debt. I pointed through the windshield. “It’s on the left, number eleven-eleven.” Jamie pulled into the driveway and parked, then he gaped at the two-story home with its attached double-car garage. “Wow! This is unreal.” “Seeing H in a place like this makes me believe anything is possible.” “Almost anything,” Jamie said. “You think those two will ever make it official?” “You mean get married?” “Yeah.” “I doubt it. Not with what they’ve been through.” He cut the engine and opened the door. Hayden leaned against the trunk of his Camaro, phone in hand, smirk in place. He had to be texting his girlfriend, Tenley. I took in the manicured lawn and the flower beds that lined the stone walkway leading to the front entrance, complete with blooming planters. It was the kind of house I’d find on the cover of some home reno magazine. Hayden didn’t do things half-assed, which had always been one of his biggest issues. He was all in, all the time. It seemed to be working for him now, though, since his recent choices weren’t damaging, like some he’d made in the past. I followed Jamie up the driveway, and Hayden ushered us into the house through the garage. It led into a huge mud room that was insanely spotless. To the right was a closet. He opened the doors to reveal a collection of shoes

and jackets. Winter coats were hung with his on the right and Tee’s on the left. Hayden’s shoes were lined up in perfect, evenly spaced rows. Tenley’s were less organized. “You can put your shoes in here.” Hayden pointed to a mat on the floor. Jamie arranged his all neat-like beside Tenley’s. I kicked mine off and tossed them in the closet, where they landed on their sides. Hayden glanced at them, a muscle working in his jaw as his fingers twitched, but he didn’t rearrange them like I expected. Instead, he shot me an irritated look, like he knew I’d done it on purpose, and motioned for us to follow him down the hall. It was a serious improvement over his past reactions. Tee had certainly mellowed him out. The light came on as soon as we entered the kitchen, and I blinked against the brightness of the overhead track lighting. I got an eyeful of dark wood cabinets, granite counters, and a brushed steel backsplash. Modern, with a hint of classic style. It was totally Hayden. Now, I wasn’t much of a cook. I could screw up frozen pizza if given the opportunity, but even I could appreciate the awesomeness of Hayden’s kitchen. Jamie let out a low whistle. “Impressive.” “F’real,” I said in agreement. “Thanks. I like it.” He smiled, something we hadn’t seen as much of in the past few months. I’d been to Hayden’s digs before the reno. Some rooms had been taken down to studs. The finished product was a testament to the changes Hayden and Nate had made. Not just in the house, but in his life as well. After Tenley went back to Arden Hills, Hayden had been desperate for a way to keep himself from falling off the deep end again, so when he wasn’t at Inked Armor, or at Tee’s apartment pining for her, he’d put time in here. He and Tee had moved in only a few weeks ago, and Hayden got shifty when things weren’t up to his standard of tidiness. As a result, we weren’t allowed to come by until the house was set up. He’d been a bitch to work with lately because of it. All the chaos in his personal space made him a serious pain in the ass. They’d finally unpacked enough for us to get an invite over. Hayden walked around the massive granite-topped island, frowning as he moved the fruit bowl in the center an inch to the left. I took in the unlimited cupboard space. I had a total of six cabinets in my kitchen. “Where’s your fridge? I asked, searching for a stainless steel industrial-sized monster. “Check this out.” Hayden’s grin widened as he opened what looked like a pantry cupboard to expose the ridiculously well-organized interior of a fridge. “Nice,” Jamie said with approval. Hayden slid open a drawer beneath the upper cabinet of the fridge and retrieved three beers. Popping the tops, he passed one to Jamie and then to me. We clinked before the first swig. In his extensive renos, Hayden hadn’t cheaped out on anything; he had an inheritance in an unknown amount to work with. His parents had been murdered, and he’d inherited everything. Not that it made the loss any easier on Hayden. It had messed him up pretty good for a long time. He managed better now, no longer flushing his money down the toilet like he had when they first died. I was proud of him for what he’d done with the place, and how far he’d come in the past year. He definitely deserved what he had. But sometimes I wished some of that good shit would happen to me. If I was honest—which I wouldn’t be with him—it was hard not to be jealous. I hadn’t dealt with any of the extremes he had; not the severe losses or the huge gains—like finding Tee had been for him. I just had a steady supply of crappy, followed by periods of mediocrity. Sarah was the best thing that had come my way in years, but she worked so much I didn’t see her often. Being alone was worse, though. Especially now that Hayden couldn’t be my wingman anymore. “You want the full tour?” Hayden asked once he’d shown us all the cool stuff in his kitchen. “Sure thing,” Jamie said, and I nodded, going along for the ride.

The main floor was open concept. The dining room was to the left of the kitchen, the living room straight ahead. Hayden’s massive flat-screen hung on one wall. “I’ll need you to take a look at that later.” Hayden gestured to the entertainment system below it. I paused as we passed, checking out the pile of cords shoved between the unit and the wall. “What’s going on there?” Hayden didn’t so much as glance in the direction of the TV, but I could see that jaw working again. “Tenley was trying to be helpful. Come on.” Jamie and I exchanged a glance, but neither of us said a word. It must have been driving Hayden mental. That he’d waited this long before he asked me to fix it showed exactly how important Tenley was. We followed him upstairs. There were two spare bedrooms, fully outfitted with queen-sized beds. Some of the decorative elements were clearly a product of Tee’s involvement. Aside from some gradient of black to white, the only colors I’d ever seen in Hayden’s condo were dark blue and red. Any deviation from them had to be Tee’s picks. Hayden’s master bedroom was so big that it dwarfed the massive, solid wood king-sized bed frame. TK, their little orange furball, was curled up in the middle of the pillows. She lifted her head at the disturbance, mewed, and then tucked her face under a paw. The windows on the far side of the room were huge, spanning from floor to ceiling. Lights were on outside, so I could see the backyard landscaping from where I stood, just inside the door. It would be awesome in the summer. I glanced around the spacious room. Beyond the view, the mammoth bed, and the sparkly chandelier hanging above, were a set of life-sized photographs in black and white. The subject looked familiar. “Is that Tee?” Hayden put his hand up in front of my face. “Don’t look at those!” “Kinda hard not to when you hang them on your bedroom wall,” I said, but kept my eyes on the floor. I remembered when I’d seen one of the photographs before. Tee had given it to him for Christmas. He’d opened it, his jaw had hit the floor, and he’d rushed to cover it up, but not before we all got a good look. That one was tame in comparison to the others. While I couldn’t see anything important, there was a load of bare skin. “Lisa’s been taking photography classes. I think she did a great job,” Jamie said. Like it was no big deal there were huge pics of half-naked Tee on the wall. “Uh huh,” Hayden said and hit the lights, submerging the room in darkness. “Let’s go back downstairs.” On our way to the landing we bypassed a closed door. “What’s in there?” I asked. “That’s Tenley’s office,” Hayden muttered. “I thought we were getting the full tour.” He shrugged, acting nonchalant, but his posture told me otherwise. “It’s nothing special. Just a desk and some bookshelves.” “So it’s cool if we see it, then?” I prompted. Hayden sighed and turned the knob, pushing the door open. It was dark, but there was this strange pink glow inside, allowing me to make out the shapes of furniture. Hayden reached inside and flicked on the switch. “Whoa.” Jamie cringed. “That’s, uh . . .” “Yeah.” Hayden shoved his hands in his pockets. “Did you let a unicorn with the stomach flu loose in here?” I asked. I was only sort of kidding. “It was perfectly fine when we moved in, nice and neutral, but then Lisa offered to help Tenley paint it last week.” Hayden directed a glare at Jamie. “Why are you looking at me like it’s my fault?” Jamie asked. “Tenley might have picked a different color if Lisa had bothered to argue against this.” He gestured to the walls. Jamie snorted. “Not likely.”

“Lisa could have at least tried. She’s supposed to be my fucking friend.” I gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Sorry, H, it looks like it’s chicks before dicks on this one.” One wall was painted black. The other three were a shocking electric pink. The room was difficult to look at, it was so bright. On the hardwood floor was a zebra print throw rug. The white stripes appeared deceptively pink, due to the way the walls tinged everything. Two of the pink walls were lined with bookshelves. It helped break up the color. Not really. Tee must have picked the color purposely to rile Hayden up; the rest of the house was painted in the same neutral tones he always went with. It was kind of ironic, considering the sleeve on his right arm was so vibrant and eye-catching. I looked around the room and noticed a cardboard box on the floor beside Tee’s desk. “Xbox and games” was written across the side. “Tee’s into video games?” “Huh?” I crossed over and knelt down beside the box. The tape had been removed, so I opened the flap. Carefully packed inside was an Xbox 360. It was a couple of years old, but it came loaded with games. “Score, brother!” I rifled through the contents. “Are you telling me you didn’t know Tee had this?” “Tenley and I don’t spend a lot of time in front of the TV.” I had a million comebacks, all of which would probably set him off. I kept them to myself. “I’m hooking this up and we’re playing tonight.” “I don’t know. This is Tenley’s stuff . . .” “Why would it matter if I set it up for her? Besides, wouldn’t you rather I do it now, than have her take care of it later?” He mulled it over before he finally relented. “Fine. Whatever. Hook it up if you want. Just let me shut the door. This room gives me the spins.” I tucked the box under my arm and followed Hayden into the hall. Five minutes later, I had a fresh beer in my hand and I was staring at the mess of cords behind the entertainment system again. “You said Tee was being helpful?” Hayden shifted uncomfortably on the black leather couch. It was the same one from his condo, except now it was accessorized. I had no idea what the deal was with all the frilly pillow shit, but girls seemed to like them a lot. “No. I said she was trying to be helpful.” Hayden yanked a throw pillow out from behind his back and tossed it to the other end. Then he glared at it for a couple seconds, leaned across, and rearranged it so it wasn’t cockeyed. He repositioned it three times, muttering about the “fucking pillows.” Meanwhile, TK, who had followed us downstairs, jumped gracefully onto the arm of the couch and trotted across the back. She rubbed herself against Jamie and continued to Hayden. When he didn’t pay her immediate attention, she head-butted the side of his face and climbed down his chest, curling into his lap. He cooed at her and scratched under her chin. He’d turned into such a sap. It was good to see. I held up the nest of tangled cords. “Everything you own is wireless. Why are there so many damn wires?” I’d already done this for him once before, when he bought the condo. Things had been set up perfectly. All he had to do was move it and hook into the new system. Hayden didn’t bother to answer. Honestly, what could he say that would make any sense? Instead, he drained his beer, picked up TK, and draped her around his shoulders like she was a scarf. Then he pushed up off the couch and headed for the kitchen. “Nice pussy wrap,” I called after him. He flipped me off. It was a classic evasive Hayden maneuver. He’d never win at poker because he always gave away his hand. He had tells, things he did that made it clear how he was feeling. He was pretty good at letting me

know when he was pissed. But things had changed. Hayden wasn’t nearly as explosive. Not since Tee had come back from Arden Hills. The recent shitstorm surrounding the trial over his parents’ murders had been difficult, but otherwise Hayden was less anal, more relaxed. Except right now. At this very moment he was antsy. I had a feeling there was more to his dodging the question than just letting Tee set up the electronics. “What do you think that’s about?” I asked Jamie when Hayden was safely out of hearing. He shrugged. “No clue.” I didn’t have any experience with solid relationships. I was currently dating a girl who waitressed at a strip club. While she didn’t get naked on a nightly basis, there was a chance it would go that way. It was either that, or she would quit. Again. Maybe this time for good. The alternative wasn’t something I wanted to consider. I couldn’t stay in another relationship where I had to worry about whether the girl was going to bang some dirtbag for an extra couple hundred bucks a night. Sarah wasn’t anything like Candy had been, but things could change. And I didn’t want that to happen. I liked Sarah a lot, enough that I didn’t want to be with anyone else. Candy had been the only other person I’d tried that route with, and it hadn’t worked out that well in the end. I pushed the worries aside and moved the entertainment system away from the wall so I could get at everything. Hayden returned with more beers and grumbled about the mess. His anxiety over what was behind the TV console was obvious. It was fun to watch him get all flustered over something that wouldn’t bother most people. “Seriously, you look like you’re going to shit a brick right now. What’s the deal? Why let her do this when you know it makes you crazy?” I asked. “Look, man, she said she wanted to do it, and who am I to tell her she can’t? She set it up in her own place, so I figured she had to know what was going on. Obviously, I was wrong. Besides, it was that or I let her unpack the kitchen, and that sure as hell wasn’t an option.” Jamie looked up from the magazine he was leafing through and snorted. Hayden rolled his eyes and pointed a finger at Jamie. “Don’t even pretend you don’t cave for Lisa all the time.” He turned back to me. “If it meant the difference between getting action or not, wouldn’t you let Sarah hook up your TV?” I blinked and thought about it for half a second before I replied, “No, H, that would never happen. Sarah knows better than to mess with my TV. I’d also like to point out that if you’d asked me to set it up when you first moved in, I wouldn’t have to undo all this crap.” “Just fix it, please.” He sat down and nursed his beer, as if it made it less obvious that he’d traded in his man card for a pussy. The fact that TK was still wrapped around his neck was more proof of that. Forty minutes later, the cord extravaganza had been removed and everything rerigged so Hayden could control not only the entertainment system but his entire alarm system from his laptop and his phone. Hayden was the most neurotic person I’d ever met when it came to personal security. He’d moved from a condo in a building with twenty-four-hour surveillance to a house with a pass code and retina display. It wasn’t surprising, considering the scene he’d walked in on when his parents were shot to death in his childhood home. He hovered around while I finished checking things over to make sure everything worked properly. As soon as I moved out of the way, he started with the rearranging. I didn’t take it personally. It was just his way. To help, I’d bundled together the few cords I couldn’t get rid of so they could easily be hidden. His compulsive organization was less of an issue than it used to be, though. I had my doubts that part of his personality would ever disappear. We all dealt in different ways. Organization and Tee were Hayden’s, and not necessarily in that order.

I had my own way of managing the unpleasant parts of my life, mostly by avoiding them. My stepdad had made that simple when he gave me the boot for flunking out of high school. My mom was too scared to do anything but take his side. I couldn’t blame her. I had a little sister, and my mom didn’t want me to be a bad influence on her. My mom hadn’t made the best choices, either. Her high school education had been cut short by my unexpected arrival. Now she worked as a cashier at two convenience stores. And all the paychecks went to take care of my stepdad’s habits. Hayden’s phone rang and he paused in his quest to make sure everything was aligned. “Hey, kitten, how’s it going?” During a stretch of silence, Hayden’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “Yeah?” Then they went low and a devious smile appeared. He turned his back to me and Jamie. Lowering his voice, he crossed the room and disappeared into the kitchen. I took a seat on the couch. “Not hard to guess what that’s about.” “Good to know moving in together hasn’t slowed them down,” Jamie said. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my phone to check for any missed messages. I was hoping Sarah might want to come over after her shift, even if it was late. She hadn’t gotten back to me, though. I tossed the phone on the coffee table and got to work on Hayden’s satellite connection. He came back a few minutes later and Jamie asked, “The girls on their way?” “Not yet; they’re going out to some kind of juice bar.” “Sarah loves that stuff.” When I got a strange look from both of them, I explained, “It’s healthy. You know, veggie and fruit juice with wheatgrass thrown in. They look gross, but some of them taste all right.” I would never admit that the first time Sarah and I went out for “drinks,” alcohol hadn’t been involved. Or that I’d bought a blender so I could make fruit shakes for her whenever she came over. “Oh. Right,” Hayden said, vaguely disgusted. “Anyway, they won’t be back for a while, so we’ve got some time.” “Excellent.” I’d just finished hacking the remote server, giving Hayden access to more channels than he could watch, including the porn ones. I flipped through the selection of raunchy films until I found one that seemed decent. “What the hell are you doing?” Hayden asked. “What does it look like?” He grabbed the remote. “You can’t watch porn. What if Tenley comes home?” “You said she wasn’t going to be home for a while. It’s not like she doesn’t know you watch it, right?” “That’s not the issue.” Heavy bass blared through the surround sound as a music video flashed on the screen. “Then what’s the problem?” “How would it look if she walked in to find the three of us hanging out watching chicks get banged? Don’t you think that comes off as a little disrespectful?” “He’s got a point. I mean, if I’m going to watch porn, it’s either going to be by myself or with Lisa,” Jamie added. “Thank you,” Hayden said, as if Jamie’s being on his side made it okay that they’d both had their balls cut off. “You two are brutal, you know that?” I said, irritated that even though the girls weren’t here, they could still ruin our fun. “Whatever. If you and Sarah ever figure out what you’re doing, you’ll get it.” Hayden snatched up one of the controllers. “Set up the Xbox.” I ignored the comment on my relationship with Sarah, and showed Hayden how to switch from function to function. The smart TV made it simple: cursor and click. “Thanks for fixing this for me,” he said as I rifled through the box of games.

Everything was outdated, but there were still some cool games. I put in the original version of Call of Duty and we faced off against each other. It was good to hang with the guys. Not that I didn’t like chilling with Lisa and Tenley, but being a fifth wheel gave me some perspective on how Hayden must have felt when Tenley was gone. Between classes and work, Sarah was rarely available these days. She kept saying it would get easier once her internship started, but the way I saw it, it would only get worse. Right now she had occasional downtime. The internship meant she’d be working five days a week, plus pulling shifts at The Sanctuary. I’d been against her working there, but she said bartending wasn’t lucrative enough. Besides that, I wanted to punch out her boss. He’d instated a rule that meant I wasn’t allowed in when she was working. He said I couldn’t be objective, and it impaired Sarah’s ability to do her job properly. Jamie and Hayden both agreed. But how could I be objective, when the fucknut told me he’d watch out for her personally? While staring at her chest. Three rounds in, the TV let out a beep. A message appeared at the bottom of the screen indicating Tenley and “guest” had entered the house. “Ah, man, that’s wicked,” Hayden said. “I can make it so it recognizes all of us.” “Yeah?” “For sure. I’ll do it next time I come over.” Hayden’s excitement over the prospect gave me the opportunity to take him down. I shot his player in the head, splattering digital brain matter all over the screen. “Eat it, Stryker!” I shouted. Female chatter came to an abrupt halt. Hayden’s attention moved from the screen, where his player lay in a pool of blood while mine loaded his body with a spray of lead. “Hey, kitten, how was the juice bar?” The smile on his face fell as the drink in Tee’s hand slipped out of her fingers and hit the floor. Thick pink liquid splattered up her shin and spread in a pool at her bare foot. Tee’s eyes were trained on the screen, wide and confused. “Kitten?” He dropped his controller. Her panicked gaze shifted slowly to Hayden, oblivious of Lisa’s hand as it came down on her shoulder. The tremor in Tee’s body was visible from across the room. “Where did you get that game?” “Chris found the Xbox in your office. I thought it’d be okay to hook it up—” “Why are you playing that?” she asked. “How can you play that?” “Shit,” Jamie muttered. “It’s just a game, kitten—” “That was Connor’s,” she said, eyes shifting back to the screen, the gruesome 3D scene replaying over and over. “All of those were his. I was going to give them away.” “Turn it off,” Hayden barked over his shoulder. I fumbled with the remote. Whatever was about to go down wasn’t good. The entire room hummed with energy, none of it positive. I hit the Off switch to shut down the game and the satellite station came on, showing a gangster rap video with some chick’s mostly bare ass shaking on the screen. It would have been hilarious if the timing wasn’t so poor. “Seriously?” Lisa shot me a look. “Shut it the fuck off,” Hayden said in that eerily calm way of his. I hit the right button this time and the screen went blissfully blank. The silence that followed was painful. Tee put out a hand to stop Hayden as he advanced on her, but he ignored it. Skirting around the mess on the floor, he

grabbed her hand and brought it to his mouth. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry, kitten. I should have realized—we’ll get rid of it,” he murmured, pulling her close. His arms went around her, and she stood there stiffly while he continued to talk, his voice low so none of us could hear. It took only a few seconds before she relaxed against him, her palms coming up to rest on his shoulders, her fingers curling around and gripping hard. Jamie elbowed me in the side and inclined his head toward the kitchen. I followed him, giving Hayden and Tee the privacy they needed. As we passed, Lisa’s fingers trailed over the back of Hayden’s hand before she stepped away. His eyes lifted. She didn’t say anything, just gave him a look that spoke of apology even though she’d done nothing wrong. We put on our shoes in silence. It wasn’t until we were through the garage and outside into the crisp night that any of us finally spoke. “H is going to be so pissed at me tomorrow.” “It’ll be fine.” Lisa patted my arm in assurance. “Like hell. Did you see Tee?” “It’ll be fine,” she repeated. “I don’t know. Maybe—” I turned around and considered going back to take the heat off Hayden. If I explained about it being my idea, maybe I’d get him off the hook. Lisa caught my arm. “Don’t even think about it. Those two are working things out the best way they know how. They don’t need anyone interrupting.” The photographs on their bedroom wall came to mind. “Good call.” We piled into the car. As we headed toward my apartment I checked my phone again. Sarah still hadn’t responded; but then, she kept her phone in her locker when she was working. The Sanctuary dress code for waitresses was pretty explicit: the less she wore, the better the tips. There weren’t a whole lot of places for her to store a phone when she was on the floor. “Can we stop at The Sanctuary on the way?” I asked. Jamie glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “I thought we talked about that.” “I’m just gonna leave a key for Sarah. In case she wants to come by later.” “I don’t know why you don’t just give her one,” Lisa said from the passenger seat. What Lisa didn’t realize was that I’d given Sarah a key plenty of times. She’d just never kept it. I figured it’d make things a shit ton easier if she had one. Otherwise, she had to call before she came over, or I had to drop one off so she could let herself in when she worked late, which was typical of her shifts at The Sanctuary. But every time I handed one over, it ended up on my counter before she left. I’d never told her explicitly to keep it; I thought it was implied. And now it had become this thing I didn’t have the balls to address. Because if she didn’t want a key, it confirmed what I didn’t want to know: that she wasn’t as into me as I was into her. Jamie pulled into The Sanctuary lot and went around the back where staff parked. No one was manning the back doors. I didn’t like it. Someone should have been posted there to watch out for the girls when they were coming and going. Annoyed by the slack security, I headed for Sarah’s car. As expected, she’d left it unlocked. When I’d mentioned it to her before, she’d said the car was a beater and she didn’t keep anything important in there, so locking it was pointless. I slid my apartment key under the front seat and locked all the doors before I got back into Jamie’s car. I fired off another text to Sarah as Jamie drove the short distance to my apartment. Lisa was quiet—either because of what had happened at Hayden’s or because we had stopped by The Sanctuary, I couldn’t be sure, but I felt bad either way. I got why she didn’t like the place. Things had been different between Sarah and me since she started working at the club. We were stalled in some kind of limbo; not moving forward, treading water. It made me feel shitty. Especially since Hayden and Jamie were

so happy most of the time. Still, I was reluctant to say anything to Sarah about it. I didn’t want to lose the one good thing I had because I wanted something different out of it than she did. Rocking the boat didn’t seem like a smart idea after the trial. It had been a nightmare. I understood, in a way I hadn’t before, Lisa’s and Hayden’s absolute disdain for The Dollhouse and the people in it. I was still trying to get my head around Damen’s involvement in Hayden’s parents’ deaths and my complete lack of awareness of it. That Brett dude had been on my mind a lot lately. I’d vaguely remembered him hanging around back then, but he never really stood out. Hayden had been hard not to notice, though. At three years my junior, he’d been just a kid when he started coming around Art Addicts, the tattoo shop where I began my career. Piercings had been his thing in the beginning, which wasn’t my deal, so I hadn’t had much to do with him. It wasn’t until after his parents were dead and he started working at Art Addicts that I got to know him. By then he was more damaged than any of us could have realized. Looking back, I got why Damen hired him. Why Hayden had been treated differently, given more leniency than most. He’d been a mess, and he only got worse over time until he was on the path to complete self-destruction. I told Jamie we had to do something, and he’d intervened. Getting Hayden out of Art Addicts had helped. But none of us could replace the family he lost or erase what he’d seen. Tenley was the real reason he was better. I just hoped this was it for them; if she ever took off again, Hayden would be done. We’d never get him back from that kind of fall. He was way too in love with her. Their kind of connection freaked me out. It was a weakness I could never afford. I felt obliged to help out my parents financially, but at least I wasn’t attached to them the way Hayden was to Tenley. It sucked not to have a relationship with them, but at least that way they couldn’t screw with me emotionally. Most of the time. Jamie dropped me off at my apartment on his way home. I grabbed my mail, picked up one of the newspapers from the pile on the floor, and climbed the three flights of stairs. My complex didn’t have an elevator. No nice carpet lined the hall, just commercial-grade short nap, brown from lack of cleaning. The walls, once white, were nicotine yellow. Horrible floral deodorizers only partially masked the smell of cigarette smoke. I stayed in the apartment for two reasons: it was a ten-minute walk from Inked Armor and the rent was affordable. When Hayden moved into the new house, he offered me his condo. But I didn’t have enough saved up for a down payment. I disliked the idea of paying him rent, and I didn’t want to tell him how tight finances were. It was hard to put away money when I was still passing over a good chunk of my paychecks to my family. A few months ago I’d forked out three grand for a new furnace. It had been the middle of February, right around the time the trial started. The temperature had dropped into the low teens and my mom had gone a week without heat before she called to ask for help. I’d been her last resort, as usual. She’d only caved because she’d gotten sick. Her doctor had told her one more bout of pneumonia and she’d be at risk of hospitalization. My stepdad made her call me because she couldn’t afford to be off work. He couldn’t afford for her to be off work, was more like it. The deadbeat dick spent most of her paychecks on beer, cigarettes, and poker. He was a waste of space, but my mom wouldn’t leave him. As a result of our differing opinions, I hadn’t seen her much lately. My stepdad, I didn’t give a shit about. I missed my baby sister, though, who wasn’t a baby anymore, but officially an adult. She graduated high school last year. I hadn’t been invited to her commencement. She got good grades but my parents couldn’t come up with the money to send her to college, so her options were limited for any kind of future. As soon as I entered my apartment, I could hear the neighbor’s TV through the wall. They were watching something involving guns and revving engines. It was preferable to the sound of them having sex. I locked the door but left the dead bolt off, in case Sarah came by later. My next stop was the shower. The tub remained a grimy gray color, no matter what I scrubbed it with. The toilet and sink were just as bad. I despised my apartment more than usual after spending the evening in Hayden’s

new digs. Once the self-care routine was done, I tidied the bathroom and set out fresh towels for Sarah. She liked to shower as soon as she came in from work. I grabbed a beer and made a couple of sandwiches, one for me and one for Sarah. I covered hers with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to keep it fresh. Then I dropped down on the couch, used the coffee table as a foot rest, and flipped channels until I found Cops reruns. I was too preoccupied to enjoy them, though. I couldn’t get Tenley’s reaction to the Xbox out of my head. I shot H a text, apologizing for any problems I’d caused, hoping Lisa had been right and he’d fixed it with a little bump and grind. I got a message back from him twenty minutes later. He told me not to worry; there would be a used Xbox waiting for me at work tomorrow if I wanted it. Relieved, I relaxed back into the couch, but I was bagged. I headed to bed just after one in the morning, too tired to wait up for Sarah any longer. If I was lucky, I might get some middle-of-the-night company. It wasn’t about the booty call, although that was a bonus. It was just nice not to sleep alone all the time.

Sarah

I pulled into an empty spot at the back of The Sanctuary. This lot was reserved for staff. It prevented patrons from following dancers and waitresses to their cars at the end of the night. It also allowed management to keep an eye on some of the girls who liked to make a little money on the side. I popped the trunk and cut the engine. Preparing myself mentally for the night ahead, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was just six hours. Then I could go home and wash away the stink and the dirty feeling that came with this job. At least tomorrow I didn’t have classes, so I could sleep in. My internship would start in less than two weeks. I didn’t want to think about how little time I’d have then; I was already spread so thin. I hardly had time to hang out with Tenley and Lisa as it was, and I saw Chris once a week if I was lucky. Which I hadn’t been lately. We hadn’t seen each other in sixteen days. Before I got out of the car, I checked my phone for messages. There was one from Chris, inviting me over once I was done with my shift. I had been excited about seeing Tenley and Lisa tonight and hooking up with Chris later, but I couldn’t pass up the shift when Xander called me in. As much as I wanted to text Chris back and say yes to the invitation, I couldn’t. I had to wait until my shift was finished first. Sometimes the clients got a little too touchy-feely and seeing Chris afterward was too difficult to manage. I shoved the phone in my bag and got out of the car. I didn’t bother to lock the doors. It had nothing to do with my faith in the security cameras that panned the lot at regular intervals. Or the beefed-up guy manning the back door. Occasionally the security guard got distracted. This happened most often when one of the dancers came out for a “breather.” By leaving the car unlocked, I made sure no thief had to bust a window to get at the nonexistent contents. The only things in there were a box of tissues, a lip balm, and the owner’s manual. The car itself was a piece of junk. Replacing a broken window would cost more than it was worth. I grabbed my bag from the trunk and headed across the pavement. Max, one of the security guards I knew from having worked at The Dollhouse, was leaning against the door, looking bored. Everyone who worked security was on rotation, according to management. Except for Grant, Xander’s right-hand man; he was practically glued to Xander’s ass. That meant that Max, like the rest of security, spent two hours of his shift back here, staring at parked cars. Their job was to escort the girls to their cars and make sure they weren’t soliciting on the side. Not that it didn’t happen anyway. It just happened less with Xander’s guys. While my job location had changed, everything else about The Sanctuary echoed The Dollhouse. The dancers were still looking for the same chemical escape, replacing Damen and his drugs with a more consistent provider. Like Sienna, Xander was heavy into the underhanded dealings. Except Xander didn’t have a middle man. He managed the club and dealt at the same time. Girls who brought in the money were also the ones who got bumps for free. From what I’d heard, a lot of things were traded in the privacy of Xander’s office. “How’s my favorite blonde tonight?” Max asked as he held open the door.

I rolled my eyes, already annoyed. As I went to push past him, his hand shot out, barring my way into the club. I gave him a look and he returned it with a hard stare of his own. “Someone’s in a mood.” I crossed my arms over my chest, impatient to get this part of my evening over with. I didn’t want a lecture on attitude from Max. I wanted to get inside, work my shift, and go home. Or go to Chris’s, provided tonight went well and I could wake him up to let me in. “I need to get changed.” “What’s the deal, girl? You can’t be going in there dropping this kind of attitude with Xander. Boy will put you on shooter detail for sure.” I sighed. Max was right. If I showed anything but total compliance, Xander would give me the worst section and have it filled with the lowest of the low to show me how bad things could get. It had happened once already. I wasn’t interested in a repeat, or the half-hour bitch session that would follow. “I’m just tired. School’s killing me.” His hard expression softened. “Don’t fuck that up, Sarah.” “I won’t.” “You better not. This place should be temporary for you. This isn’t your end game.” “Don’t make it sound like a death sentence.” He didn’t crack a smile. “It would be for you.” I could handle Max when he was pissy or parental, but tonight he looked sad—as though he knew what this place was doing to me. He had a point: I couldn’t afford to let this job interfere with school. My stomach twisted at the thought that I could end up here permanently. I had no intention of following in my mother’s footsteps. I’d worked my ass off to get where I was, and the internship would get me my MBA and the chance to break free from the life I’d been born into. Max stepped aside and let me pass. He was a good guy. I often wondered what his story was, how he’d ended up here. I didn’t know anything about him other than what he did for a living and his first name. It bothered me that I talked to him every time I worked, but knew almost nothing about him. I crossed the anteroom and pushed through the door to the main changing room. The usual sights and sounds greeted me: dancers in various stages of undress, primping, applying makeup, pouring themselves into skimpy outfits. The bitchy chatter was a bitter accompaniment to the smell of hair products and too much bare skin. I hated that this was my life. I hated this job. I hated this place. But I needed it. The fifty-five thousand dollars in tuition loans my scholarship hadn’t covered was enough reason to keep doing it. Once the debt was paid down and I had a respectable job, I’d walk away from this place and never look back. Most of the dancers ignored me, although a few shot me small smiles as I passed. None of these girls was my friend. My primary objective here was to make money. I crossed into the changing room reserved for waitstaff and set my bag on the bench. Inside was my outfit for the night: short plaid skirt, black boy-short underwear, black lace push-up bra, cropped white button-down that didn’t cover much, and a red tie. The prescription-less glasses completed the look. I always made great tips with the dirty schoolgirl uniform. Men were predictable in their perversions. Opening my locker, I wished there was a door for privacy. Hinges showed it had been removed and replaced with flimsy curtains you could see through. The no-door policy was for the dancers’ safety, or so Xander said. Protecting investments, as it were. He didn’t want to run the risk of having any of the girls cornered in a room they couldn’t get out of. I didn’t buy it for a second. There was more of a risk for the girls to go after each other than for someone to get past security. I was just about to strip out of my clothes when I heard the clip of stillies behind me. Dee, short for Destiny, stood in the doorway.

Dee and I had worked together before at The Dollhouse. Unfortunately, I found out recently that she’d once slept with Hayden. It had been long before Tenley, but it was the first thing I thought of whenever I saw her. I didn’t want to be a traitor for liking her, even though Hayden’s past wasn’t my fault. At least she wasn’t one of the many women who’d been in Chris’s bed. I’d heard more than enough about his skill set from a variety of sources. “You up soon?” “In about fifteen.” She glanced over her shoulder before she came into the room and stepped to the right, putting her out of everyone else’s line of sight. “What’s up?” I asked, suddenly on alert. “I saw the schedule tonight. I think Xander’s going to put you in Candy’s section.” Candy was one of the other dancers who’d come here from The Dollhouse. Of all the women Chris had been with, Candy was the one I felt most threatened by. They’d actually “dated” once, and from what Dee told me, Chris had been the one to end it. Still, there was history between them and Candy hated me enough for me to know she still carried a torch for him. On the upside, Candy danced on the main stage, which could mean great tips, but sometimes it also meant lots of assholes who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. “I guess that’s good.” “It would be if Xander hadn’t given Trixie center stage tonight. Candy’s on left.” “Are you kidding?” Left was closest to the back rooms where all the illegal action happened. While it was the most heavily watched by security, it was also the section I never waited, because on that side of the club almost anything was for sale. “I thought you’d want to know before you got out there.” I nodded, trying to stay calm. On the inside I was scrambling. “Thanks for the heads-up. What happened with Candy?” “Not sure. All I knows is last night Xander had a whole crew of dirty suits at center and Candy was on. Something musta gone down, but I sure as shit couldn’t tell you what. I gots to get ready—just thought you should know.” “Thanks.” She gave me a sympathetic smile and then peeked around the door frame, checking to make sure no one was watching as she slipped back into the main room. Trixie was new to The Sanctuary; she’d only been dancing for a month. That Xander would give her the main stage over Candy was like a slap in the face. But putting Candy on left stage? That was a big old fuck you in the ass. I changed quickly, having lost time from the chitchats with Max and Dee. Xander had been known to pop in whenever he felt like it, and I wasn’t keen on him seeing more than what I bared for the masses in the club. He’d caught me once in only underwear. I hadn’t liked the way he looked at me. It wasn’t about the possibility that he might want to get me on my back or my knees. That was a given. I was more worried that he wanted me to move from the floor to the stage, like most of the girls did eventually. Sienna had been pushing me to make the move, but I’d refused. Xander wasn’t so easygoing about it—or anything, for that matter. I shoved my bag in my locker, checking my phone before I closed it. In the time since I’d arrived I’d missed another message from Chris, but I didn’t have time to check it now. It was something to look forward to when I got a break. If I got a break. I left the pungent aroma of cheap perfume in the changing room for the smell of beer, cologne, and dirty sex. Of all the things I loathed about The Sanctuary, the smell was the worst. It clung to my hair and my skin, to everything I brought into the place. I learned early on to make sure nothing I wore to The Sanctuary ever made it back into regular outfit rotation. Not that I would ever wear my “work” clothes anywhere outside of this place. Not even the jeans I came to work in ever went back on, unless I was heading to or from the club. Regardless how many times I washed them, I couldn’t get the smell out.

I walked down the long, dimly lit hallway into the club and glanced at the left stage. Candy wasn’t on right now, but Trixie was riding the pole at center stage like she was ready for the real thing. Whatever happened last night had to have been bad. Shutting down my fear—because Xander was like a dog and could sniff it out—I headed for Grant, Xander’s personal bodyguard. He usually knew the schedule. Sometimes if Xander was occupied, Grant would say who was where. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with the boss directly. Of course, that wasn’t the case tonight. Grant took a step to the right as I approached, his massive frame having kept Xander hidden from view. Xander was sitting at the bar, sipping a drink, watching the club. When he saw me he glanced down at his Rolex. “Sarah, so good of you to arrive on time. You know, if you’d been early, like your friend over there”—he gestured to where one of the new girls was waiting in the center section—“then maybe I would have let you pick where you serve.” I plastered on a smile and twirled my hair around my finger, hoping to appear clueless. “I’m happy to serve anywhere.” His grin was as lecherous as his gaze, which moved down me in a slow sweep. “Now if that were true, you’d be making a lot more money, wouldn’t you?” * * * I didn’t end up serving left stage. It turned out the girl Xander put on center couldn’t handle the number of tables and we split her section. It was busy, but having to share meant the tips were weak. I walked out with a hundred less than usual in my pocket. It was a message from Xander. He was going to start pushing harder, just like Sienna had done. I could only wait tables for so much longer before the request that I get up onstage became a demand. The problem was, unlike Sienna, Xander wouldn’t let up until I folded. At the end of my shift I changed out of my slut attire and back into my jeans and T-shirt, then headed out the back door. The security guard had changed. He was one of the ones I didn’t know. Or trust. He gave me a sidelong glance. “You want me to walk you to your car?” “I’m right there.” I pointed to my Tercel. His eyes narrowed. “That’s your ride?” It wasn’t much of a ride, compared to some of the flashy cars parked out here. The girls who performed the best also got the best perks, leased cars being one of them. I was perfectly happy not to be among the privileged few. “Yeah. Have a good night.” “I think I should walk you over.” I was parked under one of the lights. If he was looking for a little end-of-night action, it wasn’t the most covert place to have it happen. He must have read the skepticism in my expression. “One of the guys on camera detail warned me that some dude was out here fucking around by the cars. It was during shift change, so there wasn’t anyone here. I’d feel better if you let me check things out.” I glanced nervously at my car and shrugged. “Yeah. Okay.” I trailed behind him as he stalked across the lot. He walked around the vehicle, looking for . . . signs of forced entry maybe? When he didn’t find anything sinister, I pulled on the handle to find that it was locked. “Huh, that’s odd.” His shoulders rolled back and his eyes shot around the dark lot. “What?” His hand went behind him, as if he was getting ready to go for a piece. It wasn’t the first time I suspected the security was armed with more than brass knuckles and walkies. “I don’t lock my doors.” “What?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Do you see this?” I gestured to the Tercel and then motioned around the lot. “Of all the cars here, who would choose mine to steal?” I peered into the backseat. All the doors had been locked. Only one person would do that.

I rummaged around in my purse until I found my keys. After unlocking the door, I bent down and felt around under the front seat until my fingers closed around a keychain. I bit my lip to stop the stupid grin from breaking out. Though it would be more convenient to have my own key, there was satisfaction in knowing he’d drop one off for me because he wanted to see me. “It’s cool. My b— friend was just leaving me a key.” I almost stumbled over the word. “Next time, tell your friend to leave it with one of us instead of sneaking around back here. We’ll get it to you.” “Yeah, sure. Thanks.” Chris would never leave his key with one of these beefcakes. I slid into the driver’s seat and let the bouncer shut my door. He waited until I pulled out of the spot before he ambled back to his post. He was a lot nicer than some of the other guys who worked for Xander, surprisingly. I checked my phone at the first red light. There were several texts from Chris—the most recent were admonishments for not locking my doors. The ones before and after contained an invitation to stay the night and a message about the key he left under the driver’s seat. Tonight hadn’t been bad, so I wasn’t about to pass up the offer. I was glad I’d packed an overnight bag, as I always did. I pulled into the parking spot reserved for Chris’s bike. He’d angled it at the top of the space so there would be enough room for my car. He was always thoughtful like that. It made me feel like a bitch for not inviting him over to my place more often, where parking wasn’t an issue. It had been too long since I’d spent any real time with him. I didn’t like how much that bothered me, or how excited I’d been about the text and key. That I constantly packed a bag in advance was a red flag I chose to ignore. I was quiet as I made the trek up the stairs to his apartment and unlocked the door. The light above the ancient, avocado-green stove was on, casting a pale glow over the dated kitchen. There was a note propped up on the counter with my name written across the front in Chris’s elegant cursive. I always teased him that he wrote like a girl. I set my bag down quietly, though a bomb could go off and Chris would sleep right through it. I left my shoes on, because Chris insisted I never walk barefoot around his place, and crossed over to the counter. There were little doodles in the corners of the note he left me. Designs that reminded me of the tattoos he put on other people. Ones he refused to put on me. Hey sweetlips, I hope you had a decent night. There are fresh towels in the bathroom and a sandwich in the fridge. Give me a kiss before you pass out. ~Chris I folded it and put it carefully inside my bag. I had a little box of notes like these from him in my bedroom. I kept every single one. My next stop was the bathroom. I shut the door and checked the showerhead to make sure it was pointed at the wall. If it wasn’t, the water would spray out of the tub and soak the floor. I’d found that out the hard way. It took a long time for the water to heat up, so I removed the fake eyelashes and the makeup while I waited. Although Chris’s bathroom wasn’t particularly nice, it had the benefit of a powerful showerhead. The spray came so fast and hard it almost hurt. I used Chris’s soap and shampoo. They weren’t anything special, just some no-name Axe knock-offs, but they made me smell like him. He’d left me two towels: one to dry off and one for my hair. Hanging from the back of the door was my favorite shirt of his. I pulled it over my head, wrapped my hair in the towel, and went back to the kitchen.

The sandwich was exactly the way I liked it. On thick sourdough, it was piled high with ham, cheese, lettuce, and mayo. I checked the other messages on my phone while I ate, my stomach rumbling even as I filled it. When I was done, I put the plate in the sink and headed for Chris’s room. It was sparse, just a bed, a dresser, and a night table with a lamp and a digital clock. The bed was the nicest thing Chris owned, aside from his bike. The mattress was soft and plush, his sheets always satin smooth and freshly washed. It was the only reason I preferred to stay at his place over mine. The headboard was a solid wood piece of art he’d gotten from Serendipity, the antique store my landlady owned. She also happened to be Hayden’s aunt. As I pushed open the door, the dim light from the hall brought him into view. He was sprawled out over the bed, a massive mountain of muscle and ink. I stood there for a long while, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of his back. His sandy blond hair was cut short, making the hard angles of his face seem more severe, especially cast in shadow as they were. But when he smiled all that menace melted away, replaced by boyish good looks that charmed the pants off more women than I could count, myself included. He moved his arm, muscles flexing as his hand fanned out over the sheets and stopped at the unclaimed pillow beside his head. His brows came down, a deep furrow replacing the softer lines of peaceful sleep. After a moment his hand drifted higher, fingers curling around his own pillow, and he relaxed back into unconsciousness. I left the door ajar so there was enough light to make the trip to the bed. The sheets were cool as I slipped between them, sinking into the mattress. I was beyond wiped. I was under no delusion that the exhaustion wasn’t going to get worse when I started my internship. I’d heard horror stories from some of the other people in my program. How they were given projects to develop or manage outside of work hours that kept them up all night. I didn’t get much sleep as it was. The possibility that I might get even less in the coming months worried me. I sighed as my head hit the pillow, easing into the comfort of Chris’s bed. As soon as I pulled the sheets up, he rolled onto his side. His arm came over me, pulling me closer. His hand moved down, along my thigh until he reached the hem of the shirt and hit bare skin. And then it was a case of under and up, his wide palm flattened against my stomach. He curled around my body, knees pushing into mine, his chest against my back. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” I said softly. I felt his nose as he burrowed through my hair, warm breath against my neck, finally replaced by his lips. “S’okay,” he replied in a sleep-heavy voice. “I’m glad you came.” “Me, too.” I put my hand over his and laced our fingers, pulling his arm farther around me. Soft kisses brushed along my neck, shoving down the exhaustion and waking up the part of me I turned off as a protective measure every time I went to work. It was difficult to compartmentalize the constant attention of The Sanctuary’s clientele. Occasionally, a little voice in the back of my mind reminded me that Chris had been among them at The Dollhouse. But he hadn’t fit the typical profile. He’d never tried to touch me when I worked, never made a crass comment. He’d been the pinnacle of politeness. Sure, he’d been flirtatious and persistent, telling me I was beautiful, asking me out for coffee, but that was as far as it went. He always looked me in the eye when I waited on his table, instead of at my chest or whatever other skin was exposed. I hadn’t known how to take him at first. “You have an okay night?” Chris asked. “It wasn’t bad.” He stopped nuzzling my neck and his body stiffened. I hoped he hadn’t read anything into the noncommittal answer. “Anyone put their hands on you?” “No, baby.” Not tonight, anyway. It was the main reason I’d been able to come to his place. I couldn’t face him after the nights with unasked-for physical contact. He was too good at calling out my lies. So when something happened that I didn’t want to tell him about, I avoided his texts and waited until the next day to get back to him. Beyond that, I couldn’t manage his

affection on those nights, even if it was wanted. The internal conflict was too much to handle. As if I’d been cheating on him, even though I wasn’t. I couldn’t stand it. His body relaxed again and I felt his cheek against my neck. He’d shaved tonight. For me. It made me feel good and bad. I knew he didn’t expect anything. He’d be just as happy to snuggle and fall right back to sleep until I gave him the go ahead for something more. It had been too long since we’d been together. I missed the physical release almost as much as I missed his bed, his arms, and his gentle way. I turned over to face him, the thin slice of light from the hall just enough to make out his shadowy features. Sliding a hand up his bare chest, my palm came to rest at the nape of his neck. “Wanna make out?” he asked huskily. “Mm. I’d like that.” “Cool.” I grinned in the darkness and waited for his mouth. Except it didn’t come. The hand on my waist disappeared. I inhaled sharply at the slow glide of his fingers along my arm. When they reached my neck, he pushed my damp hair back, tucking it behind my ear. I closed my eyes on a deep exhale. There was such intimacy in the way he traced the contours of my face, it made it difficult to meet his gaze. I could feel his eyes on me, though. When his fingers touched my lips, I let them part. The pad of his thumb swept along the bottom one. “Sarah,” he whispered. I opened my eyes as I sucked his thumb into my mouth. His face was a picture of masculine desire. Eyes hooded and intense, lips parted. I bit down, licking at the pad, watching the muscle under his right eye twitch. His thumb disappeared, replaced by his mouth. His lips were velvet soft. His tongue met mine in a languid rhythm. It became almost maddening, the longer it went on, and then he took my lower lip between his, dragging his teeth across it. He wouldn’t take it any farther. He was waiting for the “green light,” as he called it. Early on, I’d realized that if we were ever going to get to the next level, as in get naked, I would have to be the one to initiate it. That hadn’t changed over the last several months. I pushed through the sheets until I was pressed up against him, hoping that would make clear what I wanted. If he clued in, it didn’t register in the kiss. He just kept up that same slow, drugging rhythm. I dug my fingernails into the back of his neck and pressed my hips into his, desperate for more. I could feel him through his boxers, huge and hard and ready, just like the rest of him. He pulled back. “What’s going on, baby?” I didn’t like that he wasn’t all up on me anymore, or kissing me. “Why aren’t you touching me?” “I am touching you.” His thumb brushed back and forth over my cheek and he kissed the end of my nose. “Not where I want.” I abandoned the back of his neck and snuck a hand between us, palming his erection through his boxers. “Huh.” He looked vaguely amused. “That’s weird, ’cause you’re touching me right where I want.” I squeezed. The teasing smile fell and his lip curled into the approximation of a snarl. He grabbed my hand and in a quick move rolled over on top of me. I spread my legs and wrapped them around his waist before he had a chance to stop me. “I like this even better.” He laced our fingers together and kissed the back of my hand. When I tried to grab his ass with the other one, he snatched it up as well. On the positive side, it meant his pelvis was in line with mine. “You should take my shirt off,” I suggested sweetly. “You think? But then your hands will be free; and who knows what will happen then, what with my magnetic cock and all.” When I huffed, he laughed and then grew serious. “It’s been more than two weeks, Sarah. I have no plans to make this end quickly. I’d rather take my sweet time getting where you want me, if it’s all the same to you.”

“If you’d take your damn boxers off, you’d be exactly where I want you.” “Oh? So that’s what your problem is?” He gathered my wrists in one hand, his hold gentle. I could slip free if I wanted. Then he shoved his boxers down and repositioned himself so that hard length rested right where I needed it. He circled his hips, giving me what I craved. I met his hot stare. “I want to put my hands on you.” After a moment’s hesitation, he released them. Grabbing the hem of my shirt I drew it over my head, then I ran my palms down the solid expanse of his back, stopping at his ass. Pushing down hard, I shifted under him. His erection slid low, close but not quite there. “I’m not getting in you yet,” he said. “Please, Chris. I miss you. I just want you.” Usually when I said that kind of thing, in that pleading tone, he folded instantly. Not this time. His head dropped and I felt his lips against my shoulder. They parted and the sharp sting of his teeth told me he was fighting the plea. There was something in the heavy weight of his body and the tightness in his muscles that warned me not to push tonight. I stopped resisting and relaxed, absorbing his weight. “That’s my girl.” He started back up with the kissing. With each stroke of his tongue, his hips pulled back and eased forward, providing a hint of relief and a whole lot of frustration. He broke away again, his mouth moving down, over my chin, my throat, between my breasts. I groaned as the heat and pressure of his erection disappeared, but he fixed the problem when his hand moved between my thighs. Two fingers slid inside me while his lips closed around a nipple. I arched under him, fingers diving into his hair, holding him there. He licked and nibbled, his fingers moving with the same indolence. And then his head dipped lower; mouth moving over my stomach until he was finally between my legs. He sucked on the skin at the juncture of my thigh, his eyes lifting to mine as he kissed his way over to my clit. His lips parted and brushed back and forth. I bit back a moan at the silky smooth stroke of his tongue. His arms wrapped around my thighs and he nuzzled in, getting comfortable. “So fucking good,” he murmured. “Chris,” I pleaded, fingertips drifting over his cheek to the corner of his mouth. Lips wet and glistening, he lifted his head and bit my finger. “What’s up, baby?” “Don’t stop.” He dropped his head and gave my clit a kiss. “I missed the way your mouth feels on me.” “Yeah?” I groaned when his teeth replaced his tongue. The overwhelming sensation was short-lived, though, because he paused once again to ask, “You miss anything else?” I opened my eyes and looked down, sensing the vulnerability in his tone. “I missed everything.” His smile was triumphant as he bent his head. I closed my eyes and let the feel of his mouth unravel me. As I came down from the luscious high, Chris kissed his way lazily up my body. He expression was gravely serious when he asked, “You good now? Wanna call it quits and go to sleep?” “Not a chance in hell.” I kissed his neck and wrapped my legs around his hips. I was slick from his mouth and the orgasm. His deep groan had me lifting my hips just to hear more of it. The head of his cock slipped inside me. Chris’s body went taut. I knew it wasn’t going to last, but I hooked my foot around my ankle anyway, securing our position. He pushed up on one arm, eyes wide. “Whoa, baby, hold up a second.”

He ran a palm down the outside of my thigh until he reached the back of my knee. He gave a gentle tug. I clamped my legs tight against his hips, aware I was no match for his strength. He went a little deeper. His shock turned into something more like panic. “Shit, Sarah.” His jaw locked and his grip on my leg tightened. I unhooked them and he broke the connection. I smoothed my hand down his chest, over the solid wall of muscle. “Sorry. I got carried away.” Chris gave me a dark look and leaned over, fumbling with the drawer on his nightstand. He found the box of condoms and yanked out a row, ripping free a foil square. I grabbed it and tore it open. His full lips parted as I rolled it down his length. Settling between my thighs, he eased inside. “This right here,” he said as his hips came flush with mine. “This was what I missed.” “Mm. Me, too.” Just as the lead-up had been a slow progression to the first orgasm, this was, too. He kissed me again, penetrating my mouth in time with his deep, slow thrusts. He pushed up on his forearm and kept his eyes locked on my face as he moved over me, forcing intimacy that had been foreign in the beginning when we started this. But now I liked the way he focused on me so intensely. For all his harshness he was an exceedingly gentle lover. “Sarah, baby, you gonna come again?” He faltered and lost his rhythm. “Please. For me?” I was already so close, his words undid me. As soon as I came he stilled, eyes glazing over as his mouth dropped open. A tremor passed through him, every muscle tightening in response. Before he collapsed, he unlocked my legs from his hips and slid an arm under my back. Then he rolled us to the side so he wouldn’t crush me. Eventually he pulled out, and as always, the vacancy spread all the way to my chest. The comedown after the high of the orgasm made me feel hollow inside. He picked up the end of my hair and twirled it between his fingers. “I’m really glad you came tonight.” “Twice,” I joked. “Because I’m awesome.” He smiled, but something dark lurked under his expression. It was gone before I could pin it down, though. “Better than awesome.” I kissed him again, but after too short a time, he broke it off with a chaste peck and rolled onto his back. I snuggled into his side and put my head on his chest. “Wake me up before you leave in the morning?” “Sure thing, sugarlips.” He yawned and settled against his pillow. I stayed close until my neck started to cramp and my face grew damp from resting on his chest. He was already fast asleep, his breathing deep and even. So typical. Sex was like a sedative for men. I, on the other hand, was wide awake. Sitting up, I carefully lifted the dead weight of his arm, setting his hand on his pecs. Then I turned on my side to face him, bunching up the soft pillow he’d bought after I complained his were too poofy. I stared at his profile, brutally masculine even in repose. All those hard lines didn’t ease up in the slightest. Except when he smiled. That warm smile of his had been rare lately. The trial over Hayden’s parents’ murder had been hard on Chris, and I didn’t know how to help him through it. He didn’t want to talk about it with me, or anyone, from what I could tell. He was like that, silent in his pain. His hard edges had been part of the attraction, a dangerous allure. I fell asleep staring at the cityscape that covered his arm, wishing I knew how to be as permanent as his body art. * * * I woke up alone in Chris’s bed. The blackout curtains he used to keep the daylight from penetrating his room were drawn tight, so I’d slept much longer than I would have if I’d stayed at my own place. The clock on his nightstand

told me it was one in the afternoon. He’d left for work more than an hour ago. There was a note on his pillow. You looked so peaceful drooling on my pillow, I didn’t want to wake you. Stop by the shop if you have time before you go to work tonight. ~Chris I wiped the corner of my mouth, then smoothed my hand across the pillow. It wasn’t damp. I smiled and dropped back down, enjoying the quiet but not the emptiness of Chris’s bed without him in it. Eventually I got up. I had final assignments to complete, and I’d already wasted the entire morning sleeping. I hit the bathroom and groaned as I got a look at my hair; it had dried all wonky from having gone to bed with it wet. Not to mention the rat’s nest of tangles after being under Chris. I wet my hair and brushed out the knots as best I could, then pulled it back into a ponytail. Once I was done in the bathroom, I changed out of his shirt and into my own clothes. I made the bed, even though half the time Chris couldn’t be bothered, and honestly, neither could I. I only made the effort if Chris was coming by and planned to get me naked on it later. Messing up a tidy bed with him was fun. After stuffing everything back into my overnight bag, I went to the kitchen. A Post-it was stuck to the fridge with “OPEN ME” written on it. I smiled and checked inside. Chris was a horrible cook. He turned pasta into mush most of the time, but the man could do two things incredibly well: sandwiches and smoothies. On the second shelf was the top portion of his blender. Inside were layers of fruit and yogurt and whatever other stuff Chris had put in there to make it taste as awesome as it always did. I set the container on the base. A second Post-It was stuck to the lid. I heeded the “BLEND ME” instructions and hit the puree button, watching the contents swirl together. The end result was deep purple. I poured the concoction into the take-out cup Chris had left for me and went about cleaning up, leaving everything in the drying rack on the counter. As I sipped the smoothie my gaze drifted to the right, where I’d left his apartment key last night. It was still there. I picked it up, flipping it between my fingers. Chris never asked for it back, but he never told me to keep it, either. So I put it down for him to see, wondering if one day there’d be a Post-it saying “KEEP ME” attached to it. Which was silly, because it wasn’t something I should care about. But I did. I wanted that key on my chain. And that said a lot about my feelings for Chris. He was everything I wanted, but I was too scared to get close. If that happened, he’d let me down eventually—just like everyone else did.

Turn the page for a sneak peek at how it all began with Hayden and Tenley

Clipped Wings On sale now from GALLERY Books

1 hayden My head ached. A night of piss-poor sleep had turned the mildly irritating into infuriating. Between the droves of freshmen who had been passing through the shop recently and the naïve girl currently in my chair, I’d had it. I rubbed my temple to ease the dull throb that had developed over the course of the day. Ten more minutes and I’d be done with the design if I could stay focused. I was having difficulty winning the battle, because I was preoccupied. Once I completed the unicorn tattoo, there were no more appointments scheduled and more than an hour before closing. If I was unlucky, I would get stuck with another college brat walk-in who wanted a cartoon character slapped on their skin. The preferred option was to finish with my client so I could duck across the street to my aunt Cassie’s used bookstore and café. Coffee runs to Serendipity had become my new favorite pastime over the last four weeks, ever since Cassie hired the new girl. She was the reason I was so distractible. I hadn’t seen her lately even with my increase in caffeine consumption, and I was looking to rectify that, stat. I swiped a damp cloth over the fresh ink. The girl in my chair had been relatively quiet since I started shading in the outline, which was fine. I wasn’t in the mood for idle chitchat. Instead I focused on the hum of the tattoo machines. The sound never bothered me. It soothed, like good music. It was the superfluous stuff that irked: the inane chatter of teenagers, the nervous tapping of a shoe on the polished hardwood, and on the flat-screen, the loud drone of a newscaster as he spouted off the devastation of the day. The nasal timbre of his voice annoyed the hell out of me. Yet I couldn’t stop listening, drawn in by the desire to know that other people’s lives sucked more than mine. “Can you turn that down?” I called to Lisa, our resident bookkeeper and piercer. “Just a minute.” She waved me off but palmed the remote. The other artists in the shop were also working fixedly on clients. I seemed to be the only one with attention issues. The bell over the door tinkled, saving me from further irritation. Lisa changed the station and heavy rock beats filled the air, the bass vibrating the floor. She turned the volume down to a reasonable level. Pausing, I glanced over, praying it wasn’t another insipid college girl looking to flirt with deviance. The next client would be mine. Then I’d never get to Serendipity before it closed. Any potential aggravation evaporated the moment I saw Cassie’s new employee. She clutched a pile of books to her chest like a shield, her long hair windblown around her face. Her eyes darted away when she caught me looking at her. Her name was Tenley. I knew this not because we’d been formally introduced—even though I had spoken to her a few times—but because Cassie imparted the information upon my request. Cassie, fountain of information that she was, also informed me that Tenley came from Arden Hills, Minnesota, and was in a master’s program at

Northwestern. She didn’t act like one of those Ivy League–type snobs, though. She seemed pretty down-to-earth based on what little she’d said to me. Which, admittedly, wasn’t a whole hell of a lot. The first time I saw her was almost a month ago. I went over to Serendipity to visit my aunt and buy coffee, which wasn’t unusual. However, the new addition to Cassie’s store was. She was tucked behind the counter with a textbook on deviant behaviors propped in front of her, so only her eyes showed. She was so immersed in what she was reading that she didn’t hear the door chime, signaling my entrance. I scared her when I asked if Cassie was around as an excuse to get a closer look. Her textbook toppled over and her half-full coffee went down with it, dousing the page in beige liquid. When I offered to help clean it up, she stammered a bunch of nonsense and almost fell off the stool she was sitting on. She was gorgeous, even though her face had turned a vibrant shade of red. Cassie appeared from the back of the store to see what all the commotion was. That put an end to interaction number one. The next couple of times I went in she was either holed up in the basement sorting through the endless boxes of acquisitions or hidden in the stacks shelving books. Cassie didn’t dissuade me when I went to the philosophy section to see if there was anything of interest there, besides this Tenley girl. I found her sitting cross-legged on the floor with a pile of books at her knee, arranging the volumes alphabetically before she shelved them. I was in love with her organizational skills already. I made a point of clearing my throat to avoid surprising her this time. It didn’t help. She gasped, her hand fluttering to her throat as she looked up at me. She was stunning; her dark hair almost brushed the floor it was so long, her features were delicate, eyes gray-green, framed with thick lashes. Her nose was perfectly straight, her lips full and pink. It didn’t look like she was wearing makeup. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” I said, because it was true. I was also staring. “I’m Cassie’s nephew, Hayden.” Her eyes moved from my feet up, pausing at the ink on my arms, taking it in before lifting higher. She unfolded her long, lean legs and used the shelf for support to pull herself up. She flinched as she did so, like she’d been sitting for a long time and had gotten stiff. She was far shorter than me, all soft curves and slight build. “You own the tattoo shop across the street,” she replied. “That’s right.” I nodded to the shelves. “I’m looking for The Birth of Tragedy.” She gave me a curious look and trailed a finger along the spines as she scanned them. “I haven’t seen any Nietzsche lately, but if I find a copy I could bring it to you . . . to Inked Armor, I mean.” I smiled, liking the idea of her in my shop. “Sure. You could stop by even if you don’t come across a copy.” “Um . . . I don’t . . . maybe.” Her eyes dropped and she bent to pick up the remaining books on the floor. “I should put these away.” Her hair fanned out as she turned away. The scent of vanilla wafted out as she disappeared around the corner, reminding me of cupcakes. Interaction number two was moderately better than interaction number one. I was intrigued, which was unusual for me. Not a lot held my attention. It was a while before I ran into Tenley again. This time, when I walked into the store, she heard the chime. She was sitting behind the register. There was a sketchbook flipped open in front of her. Beside her was a stack of books with a plate of cupcakes perched on top. In one hand she held a black Pitt pen. In the other was a cupcake. I had a penchant for that particular dessert item. I caught her midbite; lips parted, teeth sinking into creamy icing. She let out a little moan of appreciation, a sound I might attribute to a particularly satisfying orgasm. At least that was what my imagination did with the noise. Her eyes, which had been closed in a familiar expression of bliss, popped open at the sound of the door. She hastily set the cupcake down, her hand coming up to shield her mouth as she chewed. “Sounds like it’s good.” I grinned as her face went a telling shade of red. Her throat bobbed with a nervous swallow, and she swiped her hand across her mouth, eyes on the counter. I glanced at the open sketchbook. A single feather, rendered in

striking detail, covered the page. Fire licked up the side, consuming it, tendrils of smoke drifting up as it floated in the air. “You’re an artist?” She flipped the book shut, pulling it closer to her. “They’re just doodles.” “Pretty detailed doodles if you ask me.” She stored the sketchbook in a drawer under the counter. Her shoulders curled in and she peeked up at me, the hint of a smile appearing. “Tenley, can I get a hand?” Cassie called from the back of the store. “Coming!” Her eyes shifted away. “I still haven’t found your Nietzsche, but I’m keeping a lookout.” “Thanks for thinking of me.” “It’s nothing, really. Feel free to help yourself.” She motioned to the plate of cupcakes, then disappeared into the back of the store with a wave. There was no way I would say no to cupcakes, so I took one and devoured the frosted dessert in three huge bites. It was incredible. I nabbed a Post-it, scribbled a note, and stuck it to the plate. When it was obvious she wouldn’t be back anytime soon, I cut through Serendipity to get coffees from the adjoining café. I came through the store on my way out, but Cassie was at the desk instead of Tenley. I took another cupcake because they were that good. That was five days ago; hence my impatience with the client under my needle. It looked like I didn’t need to worry anymore now that the distraction in question was standing in my shop looking anything but comfortable. Her nervousness gave me ample opportunity to check her out again. She wore a long-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans. Lean lines gave way to the soft curve of her hips and slender legs, which stopped at a pair of ratty purple Chucks, like she couldn’t be bothered to care by the time she got to her shoes. As usual, she was untouched by artifice. I wanted to know if she was hiding anything noteworthy under her clothes. If the way she hovered near the door was any indication of her unease with the environment, she was probably an ink virgin. “Tenley!” Lisa’s excited greeting captured her attention, giving her somewhere safe to look. “Did Cassie tell you I ordered in new jewelry?” A genuine smile lit Tenley’s features as she approached the desk where Lisa sat. It bothered me that she could hardly look my way but she was all cheer and pleasantries with Lisa. Ironically, every time Lisa went over to Serendipity to get coffees, Tenley always seemed to be available, based on Lisa’s recent reports. The two of them appeared to have struck up a friendship. It was easy to understand how that might happen. Lisa’s cotton-candy pink hair and ’50s attire never failed to make an impression. She was like sunshine in human form, with a nose ring, a Monroe piercing, and a half-sleeve. June Cleaver fused with a Suicide Girl. Lisa tended to keep a tight circle, which meant it was difficult for her to escape some of the girls from her past. They weren’t the best influence. Most of them were still immersed in the world of drugs she’d managed to get free from. A new friend couldn’t hurt, and Tenley seemed normal enough, if a little edgy. Tenley set the books on the counter, the spines facing me. It looked like she found my Nietzsche. I was in for some heavy reading. “I’m just dropping these off for Hayden.” Tenley didn’t look at me when she said my name. I wanted her to. Her sultry voice paired with her smokin’ body resulted in immediate discomfort below the waist. It was inconvenient, but unsurprising, considering how attractive I found her, not to mention captivating. This wasn’t the first time she’d stopped by the shop. Cassie had sent her over the day following the cupcake interaction with a couple of books for me. Unfortunately, I’d been busy with a client in the private tattoo room, so

I’d missed her. Now that she was here, in my space, I wanted to talk to her. Maybe get her to throw me one of those smiles she had for Lisa. That was probably asking a bit much, though; I didn’t exactly exude warmth. “I’ll be done in five if you want to wait,” I told her, hoping she’d take the bait. Tenley’s eyes settled on my arms, pausing at the exposed ink. She never made it above my mouth. Yup, I still made her nervous. She thumbed over her shoulder. “Cassie’s expecting me back.” “I’m sure she can live without you for a few minutes.” Tenley looked across the street. Through the windows I could see Cassie sitting behind the register, bent over what was likely end-of-day paperwork. As if to drive my point home, the neon Closed sign blinked on. She turned back to Lisa. “I guess I could have a look at the jewelry.” The answer might not have been directed at me, but I would take it. Lisa linked arms with Tenley and guided her to the piercing room before she could change her mind. I watched them disappear through the doorway and resumed my work. After Tenley’s last visit I’d gone over to Serendipity to thank her, but she’d already left for the night. Cassie had promised to relay the message. She’d also told me when Tenley worked next. Not that she’d needed to. I’d memorized Tenley’s schedule. I couldn’t fathom Cassie setting the poor girl up with someone like me; I’d eat her for breakfast. At that, I imagined what she might look like naked, spread out on my kitchen table. I liked the idea. Despite the distractions, I finally finished the design for the girl in my chair. It looked as good as it could for what it was. Once complete, I explained the aftercare process, strongly suggesting she stay out of tanning beds for the next few months. She hadn’t arrived at the artificial shade of Oompa Loompa orange by simply hanging out in Chicago in late September. As we chatted, I confirmed my original hypothesis; she was a freshman at the University of Chicago, and it was her first time living away from home. She’d even managed to score a fake ID, which she proudly showed me, like she thought I’d be impressed. I didn’t bother to tell her she’d been ripped off, since the card looked like crap. She would find out when she tried to use it. For the past several weeks my client base had been primarily composed of varying versions of the same girl. It was becoming tedious. College kids tended to be the most deviant at the beginning of the school year, when their freedom was freshest. Nothing screamed nonconformity more than a rose strategically placed on a tit. I rarely turned anyone away, but it crushed my artistic soul a little every time one of those kids picked a design off the wall and asked me to put it on their body. Chris, one of my partners, managed to finish with his client before I did. He was already at the register, checking out the schedule, as I rang up my client and sent her on her way. I waited for the ribbing to start. If nothing else, Chris was predictable in his enjoyment of my irritation. “That one seemed like a load of fun. She flip you her number?” I didn’t respond. Her number was already in the system, and I would never use it for personal purposes. Beyond her unappealing fakeness, we had one rule in the shop that couldn’t be broken: Don’t fuck clients. Both Chris and I had learned the hard way why it was in poor taste, particularly when we got involved with the same client. Not at the same time, but still. “We hitting the bar tonight? Or maybe The Dollhouse? I can’t remember the last time you came with me,” Chris said as he flipped the page in the appointment book to check tomorrow’s lineup. “Depends. You and Lisa coming out?” I called to Jamie, the third partner in our trifecta. Jamie and Lisa had been together since we opened the shop. Where she went, he went. “Maybe? Ask her when she’s done with Tenley,” Jamie responded as he worked on his client. If Lisa was in, The Dollhouse wasn’t an option. Lisa wouldn’t be interested in watching strung-out, mostly naked women humping poles. Particularly since many of them were her former colleagues.

But I hated The Dollhouse for other reasons, not the least of which was the people Chris associated with. Damen, the guy we apprenticed under before we opened Inked Armor, hung out there on the regular. He’d been a colossal prick back then, and nothing had changed since. Ever the entrepreneur, Damen ran a side business, dealing illegal substances. He took advantage of The Dollhouse’s close proximity to his tattoo shop to facilitate his second income. The real kicker was that the manager of The Dollhouse, Sienna, encouraged her dancers to indulge in whatever drugs he had available and happily took a cut of the profits. Aside from my disdain for their moral low ground, I had a long history with Sienna, and she liked to remind me of that every time I ran into her. I hadn’t seen her in more than a year, and I wanted to keep it that way. “You all right, man?” Chris asked. I shrugged him off. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just done with freshman season.” The influx of college kids might have been part of the issue, but they certainly didn’t encompass the whole of my problem. Every time Chris suggested a trip to The Dollhouse, I declined. I didn’t feel like I owed him an explanation, but it was clear he wanted one. I had no desire to get into it, though, with him or anyone else. Further discussions about where to go were thwarted when the door to the piercing room opened and Lisa stepped out, Tenley following close behind. “What’s the damage?” Chris asked as they approached the counter. “I’d hardly call it damage.” Lisa stepped to the side, bringing Tenley into view. Chris let out a low whistle. “Very sexy.” I wanted to punch him. Which made no sense. Chris flirted with everything that had boobs. It didn’t mean a damn thing, but I still had the irrational urge to lay the beats on him. I slid between Chris and Tenley, cutting off his view to get one of my own. “Let’s have a look.” Tenley appeared startled by my interest, so I gave her my best nonthreatening smile. She inhaled sharply as I put a finger under her chin. Sliding my thumb along the edge of her jaw, I turned her head to the side. It felt like there was a current buzzing just beneath the surface of her skin. An electric jolt zipped through my veins and headed south, ending right behind my fly. It took all my reserve to block out the barrage of perverse images invading my mind. While reveling in the intensity of benign contact, I studied the contours of her face. The tiny diamond stud was artfully placed on the right side of her nose. Her full lips were slightly parted, eyes downcast, making her look particularly subdued. The rapid thud of her pulse told me otherwise. I was being a dick. She was uncomfortable and I was the cause, but I didn’t want to stop touching her. It was fucking weird. “She picked the one you liked,” Lisa said, elbowing me in the ribs. It was a not-so-covert way of telling me to back off. I ignored her. I swept Tenley’s hair over her shoulder. It was as soft as her skin and silky as it slipped through my fingers. The kind of hair I’d like to bury my face in or wrap around my hand. I tucked it behind her ear, exposing a ladder of rings traveling the shell. A minor show of rebellion, which denoted a hidden predilection. Interesting. Maybe she was a closet deviant. She met my curious stare with a timid one. The uncertainty there flared to life and she took a step back, severing our contact. A slight tremor passed through her. If I hadn’t been paying such close attention, I never would have caught it. Tenley brought her fingers to the place mine had been, confusion marring her otherwise flawless features. I’d made an impact. It made her all the more intriguing. “I should probably get back.” “Already?” That was a disappointment. I tapped the books sitting in a neat pile on the counter. “Tell Cassie I appreciate her letting you bring these by for me.” I would personally thank Cassie the next time I saw her and dig for more information on this girl. There was something about her I liked, beyond the fact that she was gorgeous and clearly into steel.

“It’s not a problem.” Tenley edged toward the door and away from me. “What do I owe you?” she asked Lisa. Before Lisa could reply, I cut in, “Don’t worry about it. This one’s on the house as long as you promise to come by again.” Chris coughed. “But it wasn’t just the—” Lisa cut her off. “It’s cool. We can work it out next time. I’ll stop by Serendipity tomorrow.” “Okay.” Tenley nodded, her face fiery as she looked anywhere but at me. That sucked. Apparently I’d overstepped my boundaries more than usual. She said a hasty good-bye and rushed out of the shop, almost tripping on the curb when she crossed the street. We all stood there, staring at the door after she left. Well, I stood there staring at the door while everyone else stared at me. Lisa was the first one to break the silence. She punched me in the shoulder. “Ow. What was that for?” “Are you serious? What the hell is wrong with you?” I gave her my best bewildered look. I probably came off a little too . . . me. But Tenley was hot and I found her intriguing. Maybe it was because she seemed so damn uncomfortable around me and completely at ease with Chris and Lisa. Maybe it was the hint of rebellion hidden beneath that hair. I still planned to corner her again and attempt a real conversation. One that consisted of more than a couple of sentences. “Dude. You have a problem.” Chris scoffed and hid a grin with his fist. I wanted to knock it off his face. “What’s the deal?” I asked, looking back and forth between him and Lisa. I understood I might have breached the whole personal space continuum, but other than that I couldn’t see a horrific social faux pas. Chris pointed at my crotch and snickered. I looked down. Huh. My brain wasn’t the only part of me that found Tenley enthralling. I seriously hoped she hadn’t noticed, because my shirt didn’t come close to camouflaging the issue. “That’s just disturbing.” Lisa covered her eyes with her hands. “You need to get a handle on yourself.” “It’s probably better if I wait until I get home.” The masturbation joke wasn’t appropriate, but I was deflecting. Lisa ignored my attempt at juvenile humor. “She wants a tattoo, you know.” “Oh? Where? What kind of design?” Chris was way too interested. I pointed a finger right in his face. “You’re not touching her. So don’t even think about it.” My territorialism was unwarranted. We took clients based on our skill sets. Chris specialized in lettering and tribal art, Jamie had a talent for portrait pieces, and I ran the gamut from dark and sinister to light and feminine. Whatever body art Tenley wanted could fit any one of our strengths. “Have you seen the design?” I asked. “No. But I almost convinced her to bring it by so you could have a look. Then you ruined it when you got all up in her space and tried to dry hump her.” “I didn’t try to dry hump her.” “You would have if there hadn’t been witnesses present.” It was hard to argue, given my current issue. “I wasn’t intentionally being a dick.” “I’ll see Tenley tomorrow and do damage control. If I can get her to agree to bring the design over, you have to promise you’ll keep your hands to yourself.” “You do realize that won’t be possible if I’m putting ink on her, right?” “I’m serious.” “So am I.” Lisa shook her head. “I don’t know why I even bother with you. It’s like herding a cat.” I laughed. She wasn’t wrong. When it came to walking the line, I didn’t have much patience. People stuck to social codes because they worried about what other people might think. I didn’t give a shit. Mostly. There were a

select few whose opinions impacted on my decisions. Aunt Cassie’s was one, and Lisa’s was another. For that reason I would try to be on my best behavior where Tenley was concerned, but I couldn’t guarantee I’d be successful.

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1 tenley At 6:23 in the morning, the front door opened downstairs and the security system let out a chirp, signaling Trey’s arrival. I held my breath as I listened for the sound of the code being punched in, then a warning beep, followed by Trey’s irate curse. Last night I’d changed the security code for the seventh time in as many days. I started doing it after I woke up to him standing over my bed, screaming bloody murder about the tattoo on my back. Verbal abuse from my almost brother-in-law was not a good way to wake up. Since he’d thwarted my attempts to have the lock changed, I made the alarm system the bane of his existence. Trey strung together creative new phrases describing exactly what he thought of me; he knew the alarm would start shrieking at any moment. I reached for my iPhone, jammed in the earbuds, and scrolled to the playlist I’d created for this freak show. Hard rock filled my ears as the alarm went into full panic mode. Before long he started pounding on my door. Nabbing the remote from my night table, I turned on the surround sound hooked up to the flat-screen and blasted techno beats, then went into my bathroom to shower. Trey hated techno. The pounding had ended by the time I’d showered and dressed. With practiced stealth, I silently turned the dead bolt on my bedroom door. Opening it a crack, I peeked out. No Trey, but that didn’t mean he was gone. He’d waited for hours before; his persistence knew no bounds. Just outside the door was a pile of papers and a pen for me to sign over the property. He’d shown up each morning without fail, but in the past week his tactics had changed slightly. Occasionally he left the papers and ambushed me later in the day or the evening. The past couple of days, he’d gone back to waiting me out. My response never changed. I always tore up the papers and watched them scatter like fat snowflakes on the floor. Their destruction had become a ritual I enjoyed. I was about to shred the ones left for me this morning when I noticed they weren’t the usual documents. The stack was thinner. I leafed through the pages, frowning as I absorbed the content. The back page held my sloppy signature. Based on what I was reading, I’d signed over power of attorney to Trey. I had absolutely no recollection of reading this document, never mind signing it. According to the date, it was drafted and made legal two months after the accident. I’d been released from the hospital at that point, but I hadn’t been in any state to care for myself, and Trey had put himself in charge of my medication. Now I understood why. “Trey!” I crushed the documents in my fist and rushed down the stairs. He was sitting at the kitchen island, typing away on his laptop with a coffee at his side. As if it were his house and not mine. I slammed the laptop shut on his hands. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He stood, his chair toppling backward. The metallic clatter echoed in the open space.

“What’s wrong with me?” I shoved the papers into his chest. “What’s wrong with you? Do you think you can bully me into signing the house over?” He seized my wrists to stop me from attacking him. His lip curled. “I have power of attorney. I can take everything if I want to.” “Have you lost your mind? Do you honestly think this is going to hold? I wasn’t even lucid when I signed this.” I struggled against him, the bones in my wrists grinding painfully as his grip tightened. “Sign over the house and it won’t be a problem.” “Not to you, and especially not now!” I spat. “Sign over the fucking house, goddamnit!” he roared. “Why are you so intent on making me do this?” I screamed back. “Because the estate is useless to me until I have possession of this house!” He released my wrists and turned away to lurch around the kitchen, his wiry body jerking as he tried to get a handle on himself. Trey had never before lost control. I rubbed my wrists, red marks marring the skin where he’d held me too hard. His nostrils flared, eyes burning with hatred. He took a deep breath and adjusted his tie. “There are five houses on the property; why do you need this one?” I asked, his motivation lost on me. Although, with him, logic need not apply. “Are you really that stupid? I can’t sell the estate unless I own all the houses.” “But in your parents’ will—” “The will doesn’t matter anymore! My parents are dead, no thanks to your brilliant wedding plans, so what they wanted is irrelevant.” The shot of guilt hit me like a bullet to the heart. “That’s not fair.” “You don’t like the truth? Is it too much for you to handle? Should I get you a pill?” “Enough.” I held up my hand. I could never live in this house—not when it symbolized everything that might have been, but would never be. I couldn’t stand the thought of it leaving his family. Especially when he had so many close relatives who would jump at the opportunity to call the estate home if they could afford it. The property had been in his family for generations. “Even if I signed over this house, your uncles still own the summer home, don’t they?” I asked. “My uncles will sell.” “How can you be sure?” “Because everyone has a price. I’m just not sure what yours is. I mean, you stayed with Connor even after he fucked his way through half the female population of Cornell while you were on your little break, or whatever you called it,” Trey sneered. “And then you jumped all over that fucking proposal. So maybe the money is more important than you’re letting on. You’ve been more than willing to relinquish your self-respect these days, from what I witnessed in Chicago. What if I doubled the offer? Would you take it then?” Any shred of empathy I may have had for Trey dissolved. Connor hadn’t been perfect, and neither had our relationship, but Trey’s allegation sounded like another of his ploys to hurt me. True or not, I didn’t need that stain on Connor’s memory. “Why do you have to be so cruel?” Trey’s smile was malicious. “You are the only thing standing in my way, and I will do anything in my power to get what I need. If you don’t sign it over, I will take it. The request was a courtesy, but I see you’re too selfabsorbed to understand that. As usual.” I held up the crumpled papers, my resolve hardening. “This will never hold.” “We’ll see about that.”

He righted the toppled chair and picked up his suit jacket. He tucked the laptop into his briefcase, but before he closed the case he withdrew yet another set of papers. These I recognized. “I’ll just leave these for you, shall I? In case you change that little mind of yours.” With that, he turned and walked out the door. As soon as Trey’s car disappeared around the bend in the drive, I sank down in one of the chairs. His words were like slivers working deep into my skin. My relationship with Connor had always been tricky. He was older by several years, and he’d had some unrealistic expectations, mostly old-fashioned notions of propriety. In hindsight, it had been all about keeping up appearances. If we’d gotten married, I would have had to balance that my entire life. All my “little quirks,” as Connor called them, would have been shelved or channeled into more acceptable things. Or hidden under clothing or hair, as my tiny tattoo and ear piercings had been. Connor had been halfway across the country for years, only coming back to Minnesota during the summer months and holidays. When we started dating, he flew back more often. But the distance strained the relationship, and in my final semester of college it became too much to juggle. I needed to focus on school, not pine for a boyfriend so far away. So I gave him a reprieve. It lasted eight weeks. I’d never asked him about that span of time. It hadn’t seemed necessary to know, because shortly thereafter he proposed. Unfortunately, that little barb from Trey brought up other concerns that had nothing to do with Connor. An image of Hayden with Sienna all over him popped into my head. The thought made my stomach turn. I couldn’t stand the idea of him with anyone but me. Which wasn’t fair because I left him, not the other way around. If he went back to her in my absence, I had no one to blame but myself. Two weeks was long enough for her to find a way to sink her claws back into him, especially with how I’d left things. It made the urgency of tying up loose ends even more pressing. I missed him so much it was a constant, painful distraction. I smoothed the power-of-attorney papers out on the counter. Unlike sorting through Connor’s effects or managing the financial aspects of the settlement, this wasn’t something I could handle on my own. I snatched up my purse and the documents and headed for the garage. The familiar drive to Minneapolis didn’t take long, and I soon reached Williams and Williams Attorneys at Law. I should have called ahead, but Frank Williams was a longtime friend of my father’s. I was certain he would see me, even without an appointment. The elevator ride to the twelfth floor took forever. The confined space made me anxious; I hadn’t been to Frank’s office since I signed the paperwork regarding the settlement from the airline and my parents’ will. The receptionist looked surprised as I entered. “Tenley!” “Hi, Catherine. I’m afraid I don’t have an appointment, but I’m happy to wait if Frank is available.” “Is everything okay? Is there a problem with the settlement?” “It’s about Connor’s estate. I have . . . some questions.” “I’ll be right back.” She went down the hall to Frank’s office, and less than a minute later he appeared, Catherine following behind. “Tenley! It’s so good to see you.” Though he smiled, I saw his concern as he folded me in a fatherly embrace. I hugged him back. “How is Chicago treating you?” “I’m taking a short break. There are some things that need my attention here.” “Why don’t you come to my office and we can talk.” He looked to Catherine. “Can you reschedule that lunch meeting?” “Of course.” “I’ll let you know if we need to rearrange anything else this afternoon,” Frank said, and led me to his office. Once the doors were closed, I filled him in, handing over the documents. Frank lifted the bifocals hanging around his neck, his frown deepening as he scanned the pages.

“Why haven’t I seen this before?” he asked. “I just found out about it this morning. I came directly to you. Is Trey right? Can he take everything?” The property and the value attached to it didn’t concern me. It was having control stripped away, the potential for more loss too much to handle. “This is your signature?” He flipped to the back page and turned it toward me. “Yes, but I had just been released from the hospital and was on a lot of medications. I don’t remember signing that.” “That son of a—” Frank shook his head. “He can be disbarred for this.” “Is there anything we can do?” “I’ll need a few days, but I’m sure I can have this rescinded. He should be taken to task over this—but I have a feeling you won’t be interested in going that route.” “I don’t have the energy to take him to court. I just want to make sure he doesn’t have any power over me, and that he doesn’t get the house. I want this behind me so I can move on.” “If that’s what you prefer. Now, Catherine said something about Connor’s estate. Is there more we need to deal with?” “Yes.” I pulled out a copy of Trey’s transfer-of-ownership papers and the proposed remuneration. So much had changed since I’d signed the papers for the settlement. I’d been drowning in guilt over accepting financial compensation for such overwhelming emotional losses. For the past year I’d believed the loss was a direct result of my selfishness. Trey had played on that, but I’d finally seen that what had happened was far beyond anyone’s control. I wouldn’t allow him to hold that over me anymore. * * * Four days later I was back in Frank’s office with Connor’s cousin Weston. Frank had been able to overturn the power of attorney. He’d also uncovered some information about a recent proposal for the Hoffman estate, which sprawled over ten acres with five houses. Trey had applied to the city council for commercial zoning and demolition. My house and its two-acre parcel of land was a gift from Connor’s parents, meant for us once we were married. We were supposed to move in when we returned from Hawaii—except that hadn’t happened. I’d been shocked when I found out the property had been left to me. Trey had been livid, particularly since Connor, who’d specialized in real estate law, had left him with no loopholes to take it from me. While his plans for the property were unknown, some of the houses, if not all of them, were at risk of being torn down. That was not acceptable. In drawing up the new transfer-of-ownership agreement, Frank included a clause that stipulated the house and two acres would remain under the residential zoning bylaws. And since the house was smack in the middle of the estate, that kiboshed Trey’s plans. Pen in hand, Weston looked up at me. “You’re sure about this?” “Absolutely. Connor would have wanted to keep the estate in the family.” Weston’s family also held half the deed to the summer home. Once my house was signed over, Trey was effectively screwed. Weston and Connor had been close growing up. Weston had almost come to the wedding, but it hadn’t worked with his schedule. He’d been gravely disappointed, but now I was glad for that small mercy. With a respectful nod, he bent over the papers, signing at each of the yellow tabs. When his signature was scrawled on the last page, he set the pen down. “Is that it?” I asked Frank. “The house is Weston’s?” “That’s it. The keys will be passed over tomorrow evening at five.”

That would give me enough time to get the rest of Connor’s effects boxed and sent off to charity and to pack my bags. The tension of the past few weeks drained out of me. The power of attorney had been reversed. The house wasn’t my responsibility anymore; it belonged to someone who deserved it. I hadn’t wanted any money for it, but Weston insisted. Frank had assured me we could set up a trust fund. My parents’ house was the only thing left now. I still wasn’t ready to part with that. Weston pulled me into a hug. “Thank you for doing this for Connor. I know it must be hard for you to give this up.” It was more of a relief, especially knowing the house was safe now. “I’m sorry you’ll have to deal with Trey.” He laughed. “Don’t worry yourself about that. I’ve been dealing with him my entire life. It’s about time someone put him in his place.” * * * After I left Frank’s office, I went to my parents’ house. Despite my daily visits, I hadn’t accomplished much in the way of cleaning out my childhood home. Sadness overshadowed the warmth of the familiar surroundings. Being in the house without my family hurt; it had become a mausoleum instead of a home. I wandered through the house, lingering over familiar treasures, boxing up things I felt compelled to take with me. I could almost see my parents in the living room, cuddled up on the couch and watching TV. I missed my father’s dry sense of humor and my mother’s warmth. I missed summer dinners in the backyard, Friday movie nights, camping trips in the rain. I missed the life I had before it fell apart. Yet I realized that even if I could have it all back, it would never be the same. I was a different person now. I could no longer live in the protective cocoon of my previous existence; I had seen too much. The trauma had triggered my metamorphosis. I stopped in the doorway to my bedroom. The black comforter went perfectly with the band posters and the framed prints of Escher and Dalí. My parents had always allowed me creative freedom. Maybe they’d believed it would be enough of an outlet for my rebellious tendencies, but it hadn’t been. My mom had argued with me over the piercings as they traveled up the shell of my ear. When I brought up the possibility of a tattoo, I got a lecture on the type of image I should want to project. When Connor echoed their sentiments, I went out and got one anyway. When he got upset, I retaliated further by dying my hair poppy red right before a huge family event. I wasn’t allowed in the pictures, but I snuck in the back anyway. I had always straddled the line; many of my interests were unacceptable in my social sphere. So I fostered them through the subjects I chose to study. Until Hayden. I crossed the room and ran my fingers over the bedspread. What would Hayden have thought of my teenage bedroom? What would my parents have thought of him? Would they have been able to see past the unconventional exterior? I wanted to believe they could. They might have seen him as a passing phase, something to try out and eventually move on from. Maybe before the crash I would have regarded Hayden as an experiment in deviance, but I doubted it. I would still have been drawn to him. But I wouldn’t have had the courage to act on that attraction. His allure would have been overshadowed by my desire to fit into an impossible mold. My loss had made him accessible in a way he wouldn’t otherwise have been. Hayden understood my impulse for difference. His quiet, unassuming intelligence and his unique perception of the world kept me intrigued. Beyond that, our physical connection far surpassed mere need. From the very first time, sex with Hayden had been transcendental. I’d never experienced anything like it before him.

I missed our physical connection. I missed the way he tasted, the feel of his skin, the endless lines of ink covering his body. I wanted him back—but I needed to be worthy of him first. Moving around my old bedroom, I peeled the posters off the wall and rolled them up, threw some knickknacks I couldn’t leave behind in a box, then went downstairs to lock up. The next time I came to Arden Hills, it would be after I’d decided what to do with the house. With every additional piece of my past I released, I felt more capable of embracing my future. Driving away, I resolved to do the one thing I’d avoided since my return. I stopped at a greenhouse and picked up poinsettias. They wouldn’t last long in this weather, but I wanted to leave something beautiful behind. As I pulled into Hillside Cemetery, I felt a pang of guilt for not having done this sooner. The memorial service had been horrible, not healing, which contributed to my avoiding the cemetery. Trying to understand why the crash had taken so much from me was pointless. I’d internalized that pain, allowing it to take over my life, but I couldn’t anymore. Not if I wanted to go back to Chicago, to Hayden. It had taken returning to Arden Hills for me to finally realize that the tragedy wasn’t a punishment for my transgressions. At the cemetery, I visited everyone: the friends I’d lost, Connor’s parents, my own. I spent a long time at my mother’s grave, telling her about Chicago. I told her how much I hated my adviser and how I wasn’t sure if I could manage his unrealistic expectations, his ever-changing demands and his unwanted interest in me. I told her about my job at Serendipity and the friends I’d made; how much she would have liked them even though they were different. And I told her about the tattoo and the artist who’d changed my world, and that I wanted to be with him, despite being afraid. Connor I saved for last. Soft flakes began to swirl around me as I set the white poinsettia beside his gravestone. I sank down on the grass, heedless of the cold damp. He’d been stolen from life so early. I traced his name on the stone, followed by his dates of birth and death. He was a constant in my life; I’d grown up with him. The summer before I started college, things had changed between us. He looked at me differently. Treated me differently. Dating had been a natural progression. In the beginning we kept it quiet. The secrecy of it had been part of the draw: the sneaking around, the frantic make-out sessions when we found ourselves alone. I liked the rebellion of it all, that he was older, that his attraction to me made him reckless, and that I wielded such power over him. In the cold, quiet of the cemetery I mourned my old life, finally allowing myself to grieve Connor, our families, and our friends in a way I hadn’t before. The guilt and pain flowed out of me in streams of tears, yet there was a peace I’d never before felt. I would always love Connor, but he was gone. It was time to let go.

Also by Helena Hunting Cupcakes and Ink Clipped Wings Inked Armor

About the Author Helena Hunting lives on the outskirts of Toronto with her incredibly tolerant family and two moderately intolerant cats. She’s putting her degree in English Lit to good use by writing contemporary erotic romance. She is the author of Clipped Wings, her debut novel, Inked Armor, the sequel, and Cupcakes and Ink, an e-original short story. FOR MORE ON THIS AUTHOR: authors.simonandschuster.com/Helena-Hunting MEET THE AUTHORS, WATCH VIDEOS AND MORE AT

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Pocket Star Books A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020 www.SimonandSchuster.com This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2014 by Helena Hunting All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. First Pocket Star Books ebook edition June 2014 POCKET STAR BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc. The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event. For more information or to book an event contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at www.simonspeakers.com. Interior design by Kyle Kabel Cover design by Jae Song Cover art by Stefano Cavoretto/Shutterstock; Marcin Moryc/Shutterstock; FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock; Nagel Photography/Shutterstock; Konstantin L/Shutterstock ISBN 978-1-4767-3434-4

Contents Chris Sarah Teaser of Clipped Wings Teaser of Inked Armor About the Author

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