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The BEST book from this series. I am completely in love with Damon and Winters relationship. Their so cute and steamy!
08 June 2021 (06:52)
Hey !!!! I just completed the whole series. I kinda have mixed feelings about it. IDK but the story just feels incomplete at some/many places, also Michael and Rika's story lacked depth compared to others and also, I felt as if these two were only there because they had to be included in other books since it all started with them or else I guess the story still would have moved on if they weren't their. After Hideaway, nothing about Michael and Rika made sense. I did not anticipate Athos coming into the story out of nowhere ? her's was the most unneeded character through out the whole series. I just love the way Damon and Winter's story came along, I guess author worked on his part the most, but I loved it even though it blurred the other characters from limelight. I wish we could've gotten to see more of Michael and Rika ?, their part of the story coulda been so much better. I wholeheartedly resent of what author did to them. Finally, I was happy with Will getting his much worthy lime light in the last installment of the series. But, the whole Blackchruch gag was too hyped up either way ?.
14 July 2021 (13:15)
Cómo lo descargo en español?
23 July 2021 (21:50)
Damon is so fucked up and I love him for that
17 August 2021 (21:03)
has winter a chronic sickness or something with her eyes? i didnt understand it
11 October 2021 (20:42)
Katy she is blind i think
15 December 2021 (20:32)
Okay not gonna lie this book is the best out of all of them. Damon and winter OMDS
11 January 2022 (00:57)
Penelope Douglas Copyright © 2019 Penelope Douglas Cover Design © 2018 Pink Ink Designs All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Proofreading & Interior Formatting by Elaine York, Allusion Graphics, LLC Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Epilogue Nightfall Sneak Peek Punk 57 Excerpt Acknowledgements About the Author I don’t normally add a preface, but as this is the third installment in the Devil’s Night series, I’d like to forewarn readers. While this is a series in the sense that each book tackles a new plot with a new hero and heroine, it has become a saga, of sorts, as well. There is a bigger story at play with the central characters all prevalent in each other’s books and other mysteries playing out. It’s recommended to read the series, starting with Corrupt and Hideaway. Getting to know all the players and connecting all the fun dots will assure that you have the best chance at understanding the full picture. If you’ve already read Corrupt and Hideaway, then onward and enjoy! If you haven’t, both are currently available through Kindle Unlimited. Happy Reading! “37 Stitches” by Drowning Pool “And the World Was Gone” by Snow Ghosts “Bad C; ompany” by FFDP “Beggin for Thread” by Banks “Black Magic Woman” by VCTRYS “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” by Concrete Blonde “Cannibal Song” by Ministry “Cry Little Sister” by Marilyn Manson “Dark Paradise” by Lana Del Rey “Deathwish” by Red Sun Rising “Don’t Say a Word” by Ellie Goulding “Fear the Fever” by Digital Daggers “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Chromatics “Go to Hell” by KMFDM “Go to War” by Nothing More “Hater” by Korn “Holy Water” by LAUREL “Human” by Rag’n‘Bone Man “Is Your Love Strong Enough” by How to Destroy Angels “Me Against the Devil” by The Relentless “Mouth” by Bush “My Prerogative” by Bobby Brown “Nothing Else Matters” by Apocalyptica “Plastic Heart” by Nostalghia “Season of the Witch” by Donovan “Serenity” by Godsmack “Seven Nation Army (Glitch Mob Remix)” by The White Stripes “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny “S.O.S. (Anything But Love)” by Apocalyptica (feat. Cristina Scabbia) “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals “Voices” by Motionless in White “There is a reason why all things are as they are.” -Bram Stoker’s Dracula For Z. King Winter My ballet slipper brushes the hardwood floor as I slowly step down the long hallway. The glow of the candles on their pedestals line the dark walls, and I fidget with my fingers as I glance left to right at every closed door I pass. I don’t like this house. I’ve never liked it here. But at least the parties are only twice a year—after summer recitals in June and following the premiere of the annual Nutcracker performance in December. Madame Delova loves ballet, and as my school’s benefactress she considers it a ‘gift to the masses to descend from her tower once in a while to entertain the villagers and allow us into her home.’ Or so I overheard my mom say once. The house is so big that I don’t think I’ll ever see all of it, and it’s filled with things that everyone is always gushing over and whispering about, but it makes me nervous. I feel like I’ll break something every time I turn around. And it’s too dark. Even worse today with the house only lit by candlelight. I suppose it’s Madame’s way of making everything look like a dream the way she kind of looks herself: surreal, too perfect, and porcelain. Not exactly real. I press my lips together, pausing before I call out, “Mom?” Where is she? I step softly, not sure where I am or how I get back to the party, but I know I saw my mom come upstairs. I think there’s a third floor, too, but I’m not sure where the next stairwell is to get to it. Why would she come up here? Everyone is downstairs. I clench my jaw harder with every step away from the party I take. The lights, voices, and music fade, and the silent darkness of the hallway slowly swallows me up. I should go back. She’ll get mad that I followed her anyway. “Mom?” I call again, itching at the tights on my legs as the costume I’d been wearing since this morning chafes my skin. “Mom?” “What the fuck is the matter with you?” someone yells. I jump. “Everyone is uncomfortable around you,” the man continues. “All you do is stand there! We talked about this.” I spot a sliver of light peeking through a cracked doorway and creep closer. I doubt my mom is in there. People don’t yell at her. But maybe she is in there? “What is going on in that head of yours?” the man bellows. “Can’t you speak? At all? Ever?” There’s no response, though. Who is he mad at? Leaning into the door frame, I peer into the crack, trying to see who’s in the room. At first, all I can make out is gold. The golden glow of the golden lamp shining onto the golden desk set. But then I shift to the left, my pulse hammering in my chest, as I see Madame’s husband, Mr. Torrance, cross into my view from behind his desk. He stands, breathing hard with his jaw set, as he looks down at whoever is on the other side. “Jesus Christ,” he spits out with disdain. “My son. My heir… Can anything come out of that fucking mouth of yours? All you’ve gotta say is ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you for coming’. You can’t even answer a simple question when someone asks you. What the hell is wrong with you?” My son. My heir. I inch down and then up, trying to see around the edge of the door, but I can’t see the other person. Madame and Mr. Torrance have a son. I rarely see him, though. He’s my sister’s age but goes to Catholic school. “Speak!” his father bursts out again. I suck in a breath, and on reflex, take a step. But I accidentally go forward instead of backward and hit the door. The hinges creak, the door creeps open another inch, and I rear back. Oh, no. I scurry back, away from the door, and whirl around, ready to bolt. But before I can escape, the door opens, light spills across the dark hardwood floors, and a tall shadow looms over me. I clench my thighs, the silvery ache burning like I’m about to pee my pants. Slowly, I turn my head and see Mr. Torrance standing there in a dark suit. The scowl on his face softens, and he lets out a sigh. “Hi,” he says, his lips curl in a slight smile as he gazes down at me. On instinct, I retreat a step. “I…I got lost.” I swallow, looking up at his dark eyes. “Do you know where my mom is? I can’t find her.” But just then, the room’s other occupant swings the door open even more, letting the knob hit the wall, and charges around his father and out of the room. Black hair hanging in his eyes, head down, and necktie draped untied around his neck, he rushes past me without a look and barrels down the stairs. His footsteps disappear, and I turn back to Mr. Torrance. He smiles, coming down and squatting at my level. I rear back a little. “You’re Margot’s daughter,” he says. “Winter, right?” I nod, putting a foot behind me and ready to take another step back. But he reaches over and places a hand under my chin. “You have your mother’s eyes.” I don’t. No one ever says that. I raise my chin, so it isn’t touching his hand. “How old are you?” he asks. He takes my chin again, tilting my head left and right as his eyes appraise me. Then they fall away from my face and down my white leotard and tutu, past my tights and down to my feet. They float back up, meeting my eyes, but now the smile is gone. Something different plays behind his gaze as he stares at me, and I don’t know if it’s his silence, his size, or how I can’t hear the party anymore, but I finish my step and pull away a few more inches. “I’m eight,” I mumble, dropping my eyes. I don’t need his help finding my mom. I just want to leave now. He was so mean to his son. My parents aren’t perfect, but I’ve never been screamed at like that. “You’re going to be very beautiful someday,” he adds in almost a whisper. “Like your mother.” I try for a few seconds, finally able to swallow the lump in my throat. “The first time I saw my wife,” he goes on, “she was in a costume very much like yours.” I don’t have to imagine what Madame looks like in costumes. There are pictures and paintings of her all over the house and the studio. Mr. Torrance stays there for a moment, his height and eyes hovering over me and making me uncomfortable. Finally, he drops his hand and inhales a breath as if snapping out of something. “Run along and play,” he tells me. I spin around, darting back the way I came, but I have to glance over my shoulder one more time to make sure he’s far away and not following me. But as I look, I see him continue down the hallway, open the door straight ahead, and pause for a moment as if seeing someone. I almost turn back around to keep going, but he moves out of the doorway, swinging around to close the door, and I see her. My mom. I narrow my eyes, blinking to make sure it’s her. White afternoon dress, long hair the same color as mine, playful smile on her lips... The door closes, cutting off the image of her heading toward him, and I stand in the black hallway, the sound of a lock clicking echoing around me. I should go. I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think I should bother her. Twisting around, I run back down the stairs, through the foyer again, and toward the back of the house and the party. The back door opens, a waiter coming through with a tray, and I slip out, flitting across the stone patio and through a sea of adults. Chatter surrounds me, people laugh, drink, and eat, while a flute player in a light blue gown shares a corner with a string quartet far off to my right. They fill the terrace with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a track I know really well from dancing. The waitstaff clears silverware while glasses clink, and I glance up at the darkening sky, seeing the clouds cover the sun and cast a shadow over the party. Perfect for the candlelight. Spotting a group of white, I see my friends, all similarly dressed, since we’d just performed in our recital earlier today, run behind some hedges. They’re huddled together, giggling, and my sister, three years older than me, is in the middle of them. I only hesitate a moment before I take a step, following them. Running around the hedge and onto the grass, I suddenly stop and inhale the rush of wind that hits me as it blows through the trees. Chills spread up my arms, and I glance back at the house and the windows on the second floor where I’d been. My mom might come looking for me. But the party is boring, and my friends are this way. Beyond the house and party, the land opens up into a vast lawn, lined and dotted with flower beds to my right and left as well as trees and rolling hills in the distance. It spans far and wide and looks like something out of a fairy tale. I look over, seeing my sister in a tight group with our classmates. What are they doing? She glances over at me, smirks, and then says something quickly to them before they all rush into the garden maze, disappearing behind the tall hedges. “Wait!” I shout. “Ari, wait for me!” I take off down the small slope and toward the maze, stopping only briefly at the entrance and flashing my gaze to both of the hedges on either side. The path is only visible for several more feet before I’m forced to make a turn, and I didn’t see where they went. What if I get lost? I shake my head. No. This wouldn’t be dangerous. If it were, they would’ve blocked it off. Right? A bunch of kids just went in. It’s fine. I push off my foot, breaking into a run as the wind sweeps through the cypresses, the promise in the gray sky and looming clouds making the hair on my arms rise. I turn right and wind around the trees, following the path and losing my way as the entrance to the maze gets farther away from me the deeper I go. The smell of earth fills my lungs as I breathe in, and even though the ground is covered with grass, dirt scuffs my slippers, and I shift uncomfortably. They’re going to be ruined now. I know it. But Madame insisted we keep our full costumes on, even after the performance. Laughter and howling echoes in the distance, and I shoot my head up, starting to walk faster to follow the sound. They’re still in here. After a minute, though, the sounds die out, and I stop, straining to hear where my sister and friends might be. “Ari?” I call. But I’m all alone. I step timidly down the path, coming to an open plot of green with a big fountain in the middle. The space is about twice the size of my bedroom, surrounded by tall cypresses with three other pathways leading off from the big, open area. Is this the center of the maze? The fountain is massive with a gray stone bowl at the bottom and a smaller one on top. Water shoots from the spouts, filling the upper bowl and pouring down like thick waterfalls into the lower one. It creates the prettiest sound. Like roaring rapids. So peaceful. But not looking where I’m going, I crash into someone and stumble backward. A woman’s arms rise with her palms up and away from me as if I’m dirty and she doesn’t want to touch me. I see Madame’s surprised eyes soften with her smile, her body graceful and fluid like this is a theater, and she’s always on stage. “Hello, sweetheart.” Her voice is drenched in sweetness. “Are you having fun?” I step back and drop my eyes, nodding. “Have you seen my son?” she asks. “He loves parties, and I don’t want him to miss this.” He loves parties? I dig in my eyebrows, confused. His father doesn’t seem to agree. I’m about to tell her ‘no’, but then something to my right catches my attention, and I look over, thinning my eyes at the dark form. The dark form inside the fountain. It sits behind the water in the bottom bowl, almost entirely hidden. Damon. Their son who was just getting yelled at upstairs. I pause for a moment, the lie coming out before I can stop it. “No.” I shake my head. “No, I haven’t seen him, Madame. I’m sorry.” I don’t know why I don’t tell her he’s right there, but after the way his dad just shouted at him, I guess he looks like he wants to be left alone. I avoid Madame’s eyes like she’ll be able to tell I’m lying, and instead, stare straight ahead. Her black dress flows to mid-calf, glittering with little jewels and pearls as the top hugs her slender body and the bottom sways as she moves. Her long, black hair drapes down her back, as straight and shimmering as a cool stream of water. I never hear my mom say anything nice about her, but while people are afraid of her, they are definitely nice to her face. She doesn’t look much older than my babysitter, but she has a kid older than me. Without saying anything, she glides around me and walks toward the entrance, while I stay still for a moment, wondering if I should follow and just leave, too. But I don’t. I know he probably doesn’t want to see anyone, but I kind of feel bad that he’s alone. Slowly, I inch toward the fountain. Peering through the streams of the water pouring down, I try to make him out as he quietly hides. Arms clad in a black suit coat, resting on his knees, and dark hair hanging over his eyes and sticking to his porcelain cheekbones. Why is he in the fountain? “Damon?” I say in a timid voice. “Are you okay?” He says nothing, and through the falling water, I can tell he doesn’t move. It’s like he doesn’t hear me. Clearing my throat, I harden my voice. “Why are you sitting in there?” And then I add, “Can I come in, too?” I didn’t mean to say it, but I got excited. It looks fun, and something inside me just wants him to feel better. He shifts his head, his gaze flashing to the side, but then he turns back. I squint into the thin slices of air between the spills to see his head bowed and wet hair hanging in his face. I spot a flash of red, noticing blood on his hand. Is he bleeding? Maybe he wants a Band-Aid. I always want my mom and a Band-Aid when I’m hurt. “I see you at Cathedral sometimes. You never take the bread, do you?” I ask him. “When the whole row goes to receive communion, you stay sitting there. All by yourself.” He doesn’t move behind the water. Just like in church. He just sits there when everyone else goes up the aisle, even though he’s of age. I remember him being part of my sister’s first communion class. I fidget. “I have my first communion soon,” I tell him. “I’m supposed to have it, I mean. You have to go to confession first, and I don’t like that part.” Maybe that’s why he stays seated during that part of Mass. You’re not supposed to take the bread or wine unless you’ve confessed, and if he hates that part as much as I do, maybe he just sits out altogether. I search for his eyes through the water. The spray from the falls hits my skin and costume, and the hair on my arms stands up. I want to go in there, too. I want to see. He doesn’t feel friendly, though. I’m not sure what he’ll do if I climb in. “Do you want me to go?” I lean my head to the side, trying to catch his eyes. “I’ll go if you want. I just don’t like it out here very much. My stupid sister ruins everything.” She took off with my friends, running away from me, and my mom is…busy. Seeing what it’s like inside a fountain for the first time seems like fun. But he doesn’t look like he wants me here. Or anyone, for that matter. “I’ll go,” I finally say and back away, leaving him alone. But as I turn, the sound of the water suddenly changes, and I look over, seeing that it’s hitting his hand now. He reaches out slowly through the water for me, inviting me in. I hesitate a moment, trying to see if I can make out his face, but still, it’s covered by his drenched hair. Glancing around me, I don’t see anyone, and my mom will probably be mad that I’ll get wet, but… I want to. I can’t hold back the smile as I reach out and clutch his chilled fingers, lifting my leg and stepping into the fountain. So long ago. That was so long ago, but that day was burned into my mind, because it was the last day I saw my mother’s face. It was the last day I saw my bedroom and whatever new décor she would fix it up with. The last time I could run anywhere I wanted, knowing by the clear picture in front of me that the path ahead was without danger, and it was the last time people weren’t nervous around me, or that my parents loved me more than they were burdened by me. It was the last time I was included without question or could enjoy a movie, a dance, or a play the way it was meant to be enjoyed. It was the last day I was me as I knew it and the first day of a new reality that could never be undone. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t rewind and not go into that maze. I couldn’t undo stepping into that fountain. Because God, I wished I never did. Some mistakes you never heal from. And as my mother and I stood next to my older sister, now thirteen years later on her wedding day, smelling her perfume and hearing the priest mumble through this blessed sacrament of marriage, I fought not to recoil or remember how, for one brief, beautiful moment, that fountain all those years ago was indeed a heavenly hiding place. And how I wished I was there now, if only to be away from here. The rings, the kiss, the blessing… And it was done. She was married. My stomach dropped, and my eyes stung as they closed. No. I stood there, hearing whispers and shuffles, and waited for my mother’s hand to guide me down the stairs and out of the empty cathedral. I needed air. I needed to run. But my mother’s and sister’s voices moved away from me. And the same chilled fingers I reached for in that fountain all those years ago now brushed mine. “Now…” my sister’s new husband whispered in my ear. “Now, you belong to me.” Winter Present I froze, fisting my hand and feeling him sitting across from me in the limo after the service. Damon Torrance. The boy in the fountain. The kid in the disheveled suit with hair in his eyes and a bloody hand who would barely speak or look at me. But now he was a man, and he had definitely learned to talk. Tall and sure, there was a threat in his dark words in the church, but I could still smell that fountain on him. He smelled like cold things do. Like sharp water. “Your father guaranteed us a lofty settlement as long as I stay married to you for a year,” my sister said as she and Damon sat side by side, across from my mother and me in the car. “I intend to see it through. No matter what you pull.” She was speaking to him, but his voice was calm and resolute when he finally addressed her. “We won’t be divorcing, Arion. Not ever.” His voice sounded turned away, like he was gazing out the window or anywhere but at her. No divorce? My heart pumped harder. Of course he would divorce her. Someday, right? I couldn’t even believe it had gone this far. This was all just revenge on my family, after all. Why would he want to carry it out for a lifetime? It was his plan to ruin us. Finding proof of my father’s embezzlement and tax fraud and causing his flight from the country, the feds seizing nearly everything we owned, our bank accounts drained, and now…the perpetrator of all the havoc swooping in to take advantage of three destitute women who needed support. Someone to save their home and put them back into the luxurious lifestyle and community standing they were accustomed to. But no, I understood. As much as I wanted to pretend I didn’t know the end game, I did. Deep down, I did. His plan wasn’t to ruin us. It was to torture. For however long it entertained him to do so. “You want to stay married to me?” my sister asked. “I don’t want to be married to anyone else,” Damon clarified, his voice monotone and uninterested. “You’re as good as anyone, I suppose. You’re beautiful and young. You’re Thunder Bay. You’re educated and presentable. You’re healthy, so children shouldn’t be a problem…” “You want kids?” My sister’s question sounded almost hopeful, and I closed my eyes behind my sunglasses, cringing. “Oh, God,” I breathed out, unable to hold in the curse filled with nausea and disgust. Silence stretched the space of the car, and I was sure everyone had heard what I’d said, and while I couldn’t see him, I knew his eyes were on me. How could she still want him? And they were going to bring kids into this madness? What he did when we were children wasn’t enough to convince her how bad he was, and neither was what he did to me in high school. She knew he couldn’t stand her, but still, she wanted him anyway. She always wanted him. Arion didn’t care that she had to marry him because of the predicament he created in the first place. We lost everything, because of him, but no fear… Here he was, giving all of it back by marrying the eldest daughter and tucking us back in under the umbrella of his protection and his family’s bank account. He made himself the cure, which wouldn’t have been necessary if he hadn’t also created the disease. I hated him. My sister’s new husband was the only man I thought I might kill someday. “If you have extramarital affairs,” Arion warned, “be discreet. And don’t expect me to be faithful then, either.” “Ari…” My mother hinted my sister to be quiet. But she kept going. “Do you understand?” she pressed her husband. I stayed turned toward the window to hide my face—or at least half of it—or maybe I wanted to appear as if I weren’t following the conversation, but the car was too small a space to escape his presence. I couldn’t not hear every word. Wasn’t this something they should’ve discussed before getting married? Or wasn’t this a deal-breaker for my sister? “Let’s get some things straight,” he said calmly, “because I think you’ve forgotten exactly what your situation is, Arion.” He paused and then continued. “You get my name. You get an allowance. You get to preserve your social standing in this community, including your lunches and your shopping and your fucking charities.” His hard voice dug her grave deeper with every word. “Your mother and sister don’t wind up on the streets, and that is where my obligation to you ends. Don’t speak unless spoken to, and don’t ask me questions. It aggravates me.” My chest rose and fell in shallow breaths as my stomach tightly knotted. He continued, “I will fuck women who aren’t you, but you can’t fuck men who aren’t me, because no one else can father my kids. Duh,” he added snidely. “I will come and go as I please, and I expect you to be dressed and ready on the rare occasion we need to play the couple in public. You may not be the happiest wife, Arion, but I’m told this is why God invented Saks and Xanax.” No one said anything, and I tightened my fist around my skirt, suffocating with their lack of guts to fight back. But as much as I hated his honesty, I appreciated it. There would be no illusions or false hopes in their marriage. Damon never lied. Except when he did. “And if you want to live through this,” he warned, “I would adjust as quickly as possible, since the only way you’re getting out of this marriage is in the event of your death.” “Or yours,” I mumbled. Everyone was silent for a moment, and the hair on my arms rose, but I still smiled inside. I imagined he was probably glaring at me with those same black eyes I remembered; not quite hidden under that same smooth, thick hair I was pretty sure no one else but me had ever touched, but I didn’t care. This was going to be bad no matter what. I wouldn’t do him or his family any favors by walking on eggshells. “We understand, Damon,” my mother finally said. The car slowed, and I heard the gate to our estate creak open, and then the car sped forward again taking us home. I remained huddled at the end of the seat, against the window and feeling my body pull as we circled the drive and stopped up in front of our home. Maybe I should be grateful that we still had the house. My father—the mayor of Thunder Bay—was gone, our businesses, assets, and real estate seized, and nearly every dollar to our names taken. My mother was thankful that Ari and I could at least sleep in our beds and not lose the place where we’d grown up. But she was delusional. None of this was ours anymore. The house and everything in it was in Damon’s father’s name. We truly had nothing. You would think that’d be heartbreaking, but there was a freedom in knowing that I no longer had anything to lose. He’d never fought someone who had no fear. The door opened, and I heard bodies shift as they rose. “I’m not coming in,” Damon said. There was a moment of silence and then my sister’s brief protest. “But…” But she didn’t finish. I didn’t know if she just decided it wasn’t worth the effort, if my mother gestured for her to shut up, or if she remembered his instruction not to ask questions, but she passed me and climbed out of the car, the soft scent of her Gucci perfume following behind her. The train of her dress brushed over my flats. My mother passed next, always preceding me, so she could guide me to the front door. But as soon as I scooted forward, I was grabbed by the collar, hauled forward into a hard body, and the car door was slammed shut right before I heard the lock click. I sucked in a breath, an electric current coursing under my skin as his warm breath fell on my lips. “Winter?” my mom called from outside. “Damon, what’s going on?” I heard one of them jiggle the handle, trying to get the door open again. “Hey.” My sister’s voice followed and a knock on the window. I made to move my arms to push him away, but dropped them back to my side almost immediately. He wanted me to fight him, and I wasn’t ready to give him the satisfaction. Not yet. “Wise choice,” he whispered. “Save your strength, Winter Ashby. You will need it.” His breath caressed my mouth, tickling the corners, as his chest rose and fell faster than before. He wasn’t calm anymore. The door opened, and I was flung out of the car with little effort, stumbling into my mother’s arms before hearing the door slam shut again. Someone grabbed my arm—my sister, I assumed—as I straightened myself. “What was that about?” she snarled. “Are you stupid?” I bit out in a low voice. Did she really not know? None of this had anything to do with her, and she knew it. My mother guided me into the house. I felt my sister’s gown brush past me as soon as we entered the marble foyer, and I let go, holding out my hand to find the stairs ahead. Once inside, I knew my way. The stairs creaked above me. Probably Ari seeking out her room. Some wedding day. No guests. No reception. No wedding night. At least not yet. “Mom?” Ari called out as I swung around the bannister and headed to my room down the hall. “He and I will need a bigger room and more privacy, as well as the master bathroom.” I clenched my jaw, lightly skimming the wooden bannister with my hand as I charged to my room. Opening the door, I ducked inside and slammed it shut, locking it behind me. My nerves fired underneath my skin, and I felt to my right, immediately grabbing the dining room chair I’d stolen. I nudged it underneath my door handle for additional protection. He might’ve left for now, but he could be back at any time. Any day. Any hour of the night. Any minute. Mikhail brushed his wet nose on my leg, and I crouched down, petting him and holding his head to mine, savoring the feel of the only thing that made me feel good anymore. Other than dancing. I adopted the golden retriever last year, and while I adored the company, it would be hard to leave with him if I was going to run now. I stood up, rubbing my eyes. God, I couldn’t believe Ari. They were taking my mother’s bedroom. Anger boiled my blood, but I guess it was a good thing. We shouldn’t hide under any illusions. We lived, ate, and slept under someone else’s good graces. Now, we were simply guests in our own home. How could my father leave us to this? If caught, he would’ve gone to prison, which I was sure was Damon’s desire. An eye for an eye. A little payback. A dose of his own medicine. But my father had just enough time to run, and no one knew where he was now. If he had used some of the money to hide us away, get us out of the country with him, or put us under the protection of friends, I might’ve been able to forgive him. Or at least trust that he had a care in the world. But he just left. And he left us high and dry at the mercy of anyone who came along. What was Damon going to do to us? He would certainly have his fun. My sister was gorgeous. My mother still had her figure and face, judging from the comments I’d overheard around others. My sister would do anything he asked, and so would my mother. If she refused, he’d just threaten me, and she’d do anything. She might’ve even been an option for this alliance, if not for the fact that she was still married to my father. And I wasn’t an ideal choice, either, because I’d fight him and never stop fighting him. Ari was the easy choice. But dodging that bullet didn’t mean I was safe. What the hell else was I going to do? I had to leave. It was time. I knew this. I should’ve just stayed gone. After high school, I’d completed two years of college in Rhode Island but quit to come home and focus on dancing, training, and trying to convince any choreographers or company directors to give me a chance. It had been a horrible year, though, and getting worse. Kneeling down, I slid my hands under my bed skirt, feeling around for the nylon strap, and yanked a packed duffel bag out from underneath. The cool, oblong bag had been hidden in my closet since I sent Damon to jail five years ago, always ready for flight, because I knew I would lose in the inevitable fight. There were two changes of clothes, an extra pair of sneakers, a burner phone plus charger, a hat, sunglasses, a first aid kit, a Swiss Army knife, and all the cash I’d been secretly scrounging since then: nine thousand eighty-two dollars so far. Of course, I had friends and family I could go to, but disappearing was the only fail-safe. I needed to be gone. Out of the country. But I needed help getting there. Someone I trusted above everyone else who wasn’t afraid of Damon or his family or the elite in this town. Someone who could outwit my new sister’s husband and get me out of here. Someone I hated putting in Damon’s path, but I wasn’t sure I had a choice. “Hey,” Ethan called out from the running car. “Are you okay?” I nodded, feeling the car brush my thighs and knowing he’d opened the door for me. “I’m fine.” It was just after midnight, and a shiver snaked up my arms as I exhaled the chilly air outside my front gate and held on to Mikhail. Of course, my mother might see headlights, so I’d told my friend to pick me up down the road, honking three times in a pattern of two quicks and one slow to alert me he’d arrived. Awareness made the hair on my body stand up. Damon hadn’t come back tonight, but as long as nothing had changed, then he was still the same. He liked to be up at night, so he could still be on his way, and I needed to hurry if I was going to put miles between me and this town before anyone found out I was gone. I should’ve left when the feds came after my dad more than a month ago. I knew more was going on. Or I should’ve left two days ago when my mother and sister were summoned to a meeting with Damon’s father, and Arion came out engaged. But I was leaving now. I wasn’t spending a single night with him in this house. My duffel was pulled out of my hands, and I knew Ethan had taken it to toss in the backseat. “Hurry up. It’s cold,” he said. I climbed in, forcing the dog into the backseat and pulled the door closed, fastening my seatbelt. A strand of hair, loose from my ponytail, brushed across my lips before getting sucked into the corner of my mouth with all of my panting. I nudged it out of the way. “Are you sure about this?” Ethan asked. “I can’t stay in that house,” I told him. “I’ll leave them to whatever sick game they want to play.” “He won’t let you go.” I could hear him shift into gear again and the engine rev. “He won’t let any of you go. Your mother, your sister, you… In his mind, you all belong to him now. You, especially.” The car took off, I pressed back into my seat, and with every inch we sped away from my family’s home, the non-existent breath on my neck got hotter. I hadn’t slept well in a while, but from this moment on, I’d always be looking over my shoulder. You, especially. Ethan was one of my best friends, and he knew the whole story and how bad this was for me. “He only married Arion because she was easy. She said yes,” Ethan warned. “It’s you he wants.” I remained silent, clenching my teeth so hard they ached. Damon didn’t want me. He wanted to torment me. He wanted me to hear him in the next room with my sister every night. He wanted to see me sitting quietly at the breakfast table, nervous with my knees shaking, wondering if he was watching me and what he was going to do next. He wanted to kill any peace of mind I’d achieved these last years with him tucked away in jail. I let out a breath. “I don’t care if he comes after me. I’m twenty-one years old. Whether or not I stay in that house now isn’t his decision.” “But it is in his power to let you leave,” Ethan retorted. “He’ll bring in guards if he has to. We need to be ready.” I knew he was right. Legally, I could do whatever I wanted, but Damon wouldn’t care about that. With or without my consent, he’d keep me wherever he wanted me. I still had to try, though. And never stop. “I’m not scared of him,” I murmured. “Not anymore.” “And your mom and sister? What he’ll do to them if you don’t come home…” Which was nothing different than he was already going to do, I finished for him. “They knew what happened to me when we were kids. And what he did to me five years ago,” I pointed out. “And they still brought him back into our lives. They put me back in his path, because of the money. Not only did they not protect me, but they put us all back in danger. Damon’s family is bad.” Arion’s behavior didn’t surprise me. We’d been wealthy our entire lives, and she’d always wanted him. Having money again and being his wife, even if he was the cause of all our recent troubles, was more than she could’ve hoped for. She might even be happy this all happened in the first place. But my mother was a different story. She knew what inviting him into our lives would mean. She knew his end game here, and she didn’t protect me. And as much as Ari and I didn’t get along, I didn’t want her suffering. And Damon would make her life hell. What he’d said in the car was no doubt accurate. She’d be popping pills to dull the pain of his treatment sooner or later. How could my mother let this happen? Was she really that scared to lose her home? Was she that worried about how we’d survive? Or did that intimate look between her and Damon’s father I’d seen when I was a little girl finally make sense? My mother had an affair with him, didn’t she? Perhaps it wasn’t only fear that controlled her. And despite what they were willing to endure, I wouldn’t let them make that decision for me. “We could get married,” Ethan said, his usually light and playful voice, low with a sultry tone. And despite my nerves, I snorted. “That won’t stop him. It won’t even give him pause.” Having a husband wouldn’t even protect me from Damon Torrance. “Ah, shit,” Ethan breathed out. “What?” “Cops. Behind me.” Cops? We’d only been driving a few minutes. I hadn’t felt the turn onto the highway yet, so we were still on my country road. There were never cops out here. I knew that, because how many times had my sister sped up and down this road as a teenager with me in the car and never gotten caught? “Are their lights on?” I asked. “Yeah.” “We’re still on Shadow Point?” “Yeah.” “Don’t stop.” I shook my head. “You weren’t speeding. They have no reason to pull us over.” “I have to stop.” He wasn’t worried, but I slid my hands into the center pocket of my hoodie, fisting them. The only time cops were out here was when they were called. Something was wrong. “Please don’t stop,” I begged. “It’s okay, babe.” I felt the car slow down. “We’re adults, and we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re not in trouble.” Reaching over, I felt for the knob I knew would be there and turned off the radio, my ears trained on any sound coming from outside. Gravel crackled under the tires, and I knew Ethan was veering off to the side of the road. He pressed the brake, my body lurched forward a little, and I planted my hands on the dash to steady myself as he shifted the car into Park. Shit. I’d only been in a car that was pulled over once before in my entire life, and now, tonight of all nights… A car door slammed shut, and a quiet motor hummed, telling me Ethan was rolling down his window. His shallow breathing filled the car. He was nervous, too. “Good evening,” a male voice said. “How are you tonight?” I recognized the voice. Small town, limited cops, but I didn’t mix with him enough to remember the name. “Hey, yeah, we’re good,” Ethan told him, shifting in his leather seat. “Is anything wrong? I don’t think I was speeding, was I?” There was silence, and I imagined the officer bending down to peer through Ethan’s window. I remained still. “Kind of late to be out, isn’t it?” he finally said, ignoring the question. The hair on my arms stood up. What did he care? Ethan let out a nervous laugh. “Come on, man. You sound like my mom.” “Winter?” The cop spoke up. “Everything okay?” Heat brushed the side of my face. He had his flashlight on me. I nodded quickly. “Yeah, we’re fine.” But my hands started shaking. We shouldn’t have stopped. If we’d just been able to get down into the village, around people… “Can you pop the trunk for us?” the cop asked, his tone clipped. “You have a bulb out. I’ll check it.” Us. There were two of them. “I do?” Ethan shifted in his seat again. “That’s weird.” The trunk popped open, and Ethan exhaled as I waited quietly, still feeling the heat of the flashlight. “If you see any bodies back there, they’re not mine!” Ethan called back to the second cop at his trunk, joking. The car shifted under me a little as the second officer fumbled around at the rear, and I clasped my hands together. “Congratulations to your sister, Winter,” the officer still at the window said. “Looks like your family’s luck is improving. You must be grateful.” I pursed my lips. “So where are you two going?” he asked. “To my apartment in the city,” Ethan replied. There was a pause, the heat left my cheek, and then he continued, “Planning on staying a while, Winter?” the officer questioned. “Is that your bag in the backseat?” I swallowed, my heart suddenly hammering. And then I hear the officer’s low, taunting voice. “Tsk-tsk-tsk… Damon won’t like that.” I turned my face away, out my window. Shit. I knew it. “Excuse me?” Ethan interjected. But he was interrupted by the officer shouting from the back. “Found something?” “What?” Ethan blurted out. I turned my head back toward their direction. They found something? In his trunk? “Step out of the car, please, Mr. Belmont.” No. “What is this? What’s going on?” Ethan argued. But the next thing I knew, his door was opening, and I could feel him getting out of the car. I didn’t know if the officer helped him or he did it of his own free will, but I opened my mouth to speak. “Ethan…” But I didn’t know what to say. They had him now. Shuffling and mumbling, I could feel the car shift under me as they dug in the trunk again. But then… “What?” Ethan shouted. “That’s not mine!” I twisted around in my seat, hearing Mikhail whine a little as I tried to hear what they were saying. “Cocaine,” one of the officers said. “That’s a felony.” I shot my eyebrows up. Cocaine? As in… cocaine? I unfastened my seatbelt and opened my door. No. Stepping out of the car, I got out, leaving the door open, and kept my hand on the vehicle, using it as guide as I walked toward the rear. I wasn’t supposed to leave the car. They were going to yell at me, but… “You guys have to be joking?” Ethan growled. “You planted that!” I heard a scuffle and a grunt, and I sucked in a breath. “Whoa, whoa,” one of the officers said. “Are you under the influence right now?” What was happening? More grunting, gravel kicked up under their feet, and I knew they had their hands on him. “Stop!” I yelled, my hands sliding down the hood of the car to the open trunk as I reached them. “He would never do drugs. What are you doing?” I heard heavy breathing I assumed was Ethan’s as the chilly evening air stung my nose. “We’ve got at least fifteen baggies here,” a cop said. “That’s intent to distribute,” added the other. Intent to distribute. Two possible felony charges? My head was reeling. “You son of a—” Ethan growled but was cut off and shut up. “Wait!” I burst out. “Please stop. This is my fault.” This was all a setup. There was no way he had drugs in his trunk. These cops stopped us for a reason, and it wasn’t a busted taillight. I stepped closer, careful of my footing. “I called him,” I said, taking the blame. “What do you want me to do? Just please… Please don’t do anything to him.” There was silence for a few moments, and then I heard some clicks. Someone was on their phone. “Sir?” one of the cops said. “I have her here.” Damon. This was him. He was who the cop was calling. A cool hand touched mine, and I jerked, pausing when I realized the officer had put the phone in my hand. My fear and confusion slipped away, replaced with anger. I breathed hard, seething as I clenched my teeth. I raised the phone to my ear. “I’m very disappointed you actually thought this would work,” a hard voice said. “Although I am surprised you even got out of the house.” It wasn’t Damon. “Gabriel?” I barely mumbled, shocked. Damon’s dad had arranged all of this? I was pretty sure he hadn’t been at the wedding. I knew he had to fully support what Damon was doing, but it escaped me that he’d have his back, too. He was watching me. “Try not to worry,” he went on. “They’ll let him go in the morning.” “They’ll let him go now!” I growled. I wasn’t having my friend suffer at all because of me. It was stupid. I should’ve known better. Even if I had made it out, I would’ve put Ethan in Damon’s path just by involving him. “Or we can keep him locked up until the trial,” Mr. Torrance continued. “Your choice.” I ground my teeth together, too angry to think. Ethan wasn’t tough. I loved him, but a night in jail wouldn’t be good. Much less weeks, months, or years. Tears sprang to my eyes, but I forced them away. “What do you want?” “I want you to get your fucking little ass back home and in bed,” he bit out. I shook my head, knowing he had me—for now. But not forever. “You think I’ll be easy?” I challenged. “Of course not.” His tone softened, sounding amused. “That’s why he wants you, Winter. Just try not to be predictable next time.” “What do you care anyway? You have Arion.” “Arion is Mrs. Torrance,” he clarified. “The face of his family, and the one who will raise his children. But you?” He paused, his tone darkening and making chills spread down my arms. “You’re his cherry on top.” Damon Seven Years Ago I snake my arm around her, pulling her close and hanging on as I bury my nose in the back of her hair. The coarse little jewels glued to her costume cut into my arm. She’s so small and fragile, like a toothpick in my coil. The fountain spills around us as her teeth sink into my hand, but instead of yanking my arm away, the pain of her sharp, little bite fills my veins with warmth and my eyelids flutter. Tingles spread under my skin, and the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding finally leaves my lungs. It doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t hurt the way it should. I look at her small face, not resisting her as the pressure deepens, and I’m sure the skin has torn. Yes. I won’t pull away. Not ever. I squeezed her tighter in my arm, the curve of her body molding to mine as I refused to let go. Even as consciousness started to seep in, the fountain faded away, and the scent of her changed from flowers to my soap. The costume she was dressed in was now soft, like cotton, and her naked legs, free of their white tights, laid next to mine. It was different. Something was different. I blinked my eyes open, the weight of sleep heavy on my head as the dream floated away and the room came into view. As well as the body next to me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the girl from the dream. I stared at the back of my sister’s head, her hair laying across my pillow and nearly as dark as mine. I could feel her breathing in my hold as she slept, and my fist clenched where it lay across her stomach. I’d reached for her in my sleep. I never used to do that. We’d been sharing a bed for four years now. Just knowing she was there was enough. Uncurling my fingers, I accidentally brushed against the skin of her tummy where her shirt rode up, and I stopped, my eyes narrowing as unease burned under my skin. I lifted the sheet and looked underneath, taking in the pronounced curve of her waist, deeper than I remembered it, and her round ass pressing into my groin. There were dips in her thighs where the toned muscles were now more pronounced, and her skin looked so smooth. Fuck. I closed my eyes, the relief of the dream long gone by now. She was starting to look like other girls. Girls who were old enough for guys to do things to. She felt like the girls I went out with. “Damon,” she suddenly said, awake. “It’s Banks.” I guessed I stirred her when I touched her. She probably thought I was thinking she was someone else. Opening my eyes, I clenched my jaw and yanked away from her. “Yeah, I know who it is.” I threw off the covers and got up out of bed, grabbing my cell phone off its charger. “I thought I told you to wrap yourself up,” I mumble, unlocking my screen and scrolling through my notifications. She didn’t say anything, but I heard her scoot up to a sitting position. “When I sleep, too?” she whined. “It’s like a corset, Damon. I can’t breathe.” You’ll get used to it. After thumbing through a couple messages from Will and some comments on posts, I tossed the phone down onto my desk and started some music on the computer. Walking to the closet, I grabbed some slacks and a white shirt and then stopped, staring at a pair of jeans hanging next to my black hoodie. Devil’s Night was next week, and a familiar rush skated through my veins. I grabbed the jeans, too, and headed for the bathroom to my left. I had a craving. “Maybe…” I heard Banks say from the bed. “Maybe I shouldn’t sleep here anymore, you know?” I stopped, narrowing my eyes as I turned to look at her. Her gaze instantly dropped. She knew I didn’t want to talk about this. Banks was my father’s daughter, but she was mine and had been from the day she came to live here. Her mom was some lowlife slut, one of the many my father had kept on the payroll, and if her mother hadn’t banged down our door for money four years ago, I probably never would have known Banks existed. My father certainly never acknowledged her and still barely did. That was fine, though. She wasn’t his. No one could take her from me. After the first time we met, I spent days scrounging and stealing all the money I could find around the house and any valuables my mother wouldn’t know were missing. It was thousands of dollars, and Banks’ drug addict mom put on a show of struggling with the decision for a full twelve seconds before taking the cash and jewelry and giving Banks to me. I brought her home and no one fought me on it. My mother, when she still lived here, didn’t let anything penetrate her happy, little dream world, and my father allowed anything that kept me happy. Banks stayed in my room, she took care of me, and I provided for and protected her. She had her own mattress up in the little hideaway in the tower adjoining my room, but she’d barely ever slept there. “Just in this bed, I mean,” she clarified. “In… your bed. Maybe I should start sleeping in my cubbie again. We’re not twelve and thirteen anymore. You’re bigger. You need more room.” I cocked an eyebrow, angry and knowing I had no good reason to be. There was a reason I kept her a secret. A reason I didn’t let any other girl in my room and forced her to wear my old clothes, bind her body, and would never tell my friends my sister was the only woman who would ever sleep in my bed. I knew I was fucked up. I just didn’t care. As long as I was happy, I didn’t explain myself to anyone. When she turned away, I knew she’d given up the argument, and I continued into the bathroom. Turning on the shower, I stripped out of my pajama pants and climbed in, washing and shampooing. I rinsed under the hot spray, bending my head forward and letting the water run down the back of my neck. I closed my eyes, my fingers pressing into the wall. It’s only a matter of time, though. My senior year just started last month, but it was my last year at home. Next summer, I’d be leaving for college, and Banks wouldn’t be going with me. I should let her set up her own room. Get us both used to the space. We had plenty of empty bedrooms for her to choose from, after all. And I had no doubt she’d adjust easily and even love having her own room. No, the problem was me. She was mine. She was the only person who knew everything, but we were growing up, and I knew she was going to leave me eventually. I dug my fingers into the wall, feeling a face—anyone’s face—fill my hand as I tried to crush it in my fist. The familiar burn crawled up the back of my neck, into my head, and I could feel heat rush through my dick, every inch of my skin begging not to feel anything I was feeling right now. I needed to get out of here. Finishing rinsing, I turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, grabbing a towel off the shelf to my left. I dried off, pulled on my jeans and T-shirt, and walked back into the bedroom, drying my hair on the way. “I did the math problems and updated your research log,” Banks told me, sifting through papers on a desk I never used and slipping folders into my bag. “You need to recopy the math in your handwriting, though, and don’t forget to do the reading in Physics for your test today. At least absorb enough to pass.” I tossed the towel down and picked up my black hoodie, sliding my arms through. “I always pass. Ever notice that?” I shot her a look before pulling the hoodie over my head. “I could piss all over that test and still pass.” I heard her laugh under her breath. “Yeah, it’s almost like they don’t want to do anything that will keep you at that school longer.” Nope. I would never fail a test, much less a class. The administration was practically counting the days until I was gone. They would never hold me back. I did whatever classwork I was inclined to in order to keep people off my case, but Banks did the homework, projects, and papers. It wasn’t that I was lazy—I worked my ass off for the basketball team—I just didn’t care. And it was too damn hard to force myself to do anything I wasn’t invested in. I was selfish and completely fine with that. Taking the bag from her with my uniform inside, I slung it over my head and stuffed my wallet, phone, and keys into the pocket. I walked out of the room and closed the door, not even half-way down the short, hidden staircase before I heard the click of the lock on the other side of my door behind me. She knew the drill. It normally didn’t occur to me to care that my house wasn’t exactly a safe place for pretty, young girls, but I didn’t want anyone messing with Banks. That door stayed locked until she was dressed and had her guard good and up. Swinging around the bannister, I headed through the foyer, down a few more steps, and into the dining room, straight for the table. “Good morning,” someone chirped. I blinked, aggravated. Some girl stood just out of the corner of my eye dressed in the standard white button-down the servants wear, but she must be new. I grabbed a slice of bread from the tray and began piling it with some eggs and bacon, then stuffing some water bottles from the rows on the table into my bag for the day. Our cook, Marina, placed a silver bowl of fruit on the table. “When is my father back?” I asked, tearing off the crust on the bread. “Tomorrow evening, sir.” “Would you like something in particular for dinner tonight, Mr. Torrance?” the girl piped up again. Jesus Christ. I folded the bread in half, keeping everything tucked inside as the girl waited for an answer. I took a bite, shot Marina a look, and walked out, hearing her scold the new girl as I left. Life felt like hell, because we expected it to feel like heaven. The quote I read years ago went something like that, but I never understood it. When you’re in the thick all your life, living in ways you eventually figure out no one else is, you learn to sleep well in heat and eat fire. Until one day it’s all you need. It was heaven I didn’t trust. High hopes and false expectations… No, I needed the trouble. I pinched the cigarette butt between my three fingers, feeling my phone vibrate for the second time in my back pocket as I brought my hand up to my mouth and took another drag. The faint sizzle of the paper burned to the end, the hot smoke being pulled into my lungs, and I blew it out again as I leaned against the column next to the bulletin board. The school was still mostly empty, at least forty-five minutes to the bell. And the third floor was my favorite place. The bustle of the cafeteria and gymnasium were far below, and there were very few classrooms up here, so it was quiet enough that you could hear every footstep. Every door. Every pen drop… You knew when you weren’t alone. And she wasn’t alone. I wondered if she’d noticed that yet. I turned my head and peered around the edge of the column, seeing the blur of her through the glass, across the open air, which allowed for the courtyard below, and through another set of windows. She’d gotten a little too big for her britches, but that was common with new teachers, especially the young ones. They thought college prepared them for this, and even if it did, it didn’t prepare them for Thunder Bay. Things worked a little differently here, and she wasn’t the boss, because I couldn’t be handled. It was time to educate her that teachers fell in line, not the other way around. She moved in the room, making her copies at the machine, and I licked my lips, my mouth going dry. Come on. Go somewhere quiet, or I’m taking you right there. Images of her loose, little bun coming down. Those legs in heels as she was bent over a table… My phone vibrated again, and I blinked hard, swallowing through my parched throat. Goddamn him. Gritting my teeth, I dug out my phone, swiped the screen, and held it to my ear. “Fuck off.” “Well, top of the fucking morning to you, Grouch,” Will said. “What’s your problem?” I swallowed again, raising my eyes to the prize once more. “Nothing my dick can’t solve if you leave me alone for ten minutes,” I told him, staring at her. “What do you want?” “To make you smile.” I frowned. To make me… Jesus, fuck. I rolled my eyes. But just like that, I almost gave in. He had a gift for smoothing out my edges and really fucking quick, too. “Haha. I can hear you smiling.” I could hear his amusement. The laughter always present in his voice. “You can hear me smiling, huh?” He was the only one—the only one—who didn’t walk on eggshells around me, and I damn near killed him for it a few times, but now I barely did anything without him. “I told you,” he pointed out. “We’re connected. It’s spiritual and shit.” I let out a little grin he couldn’t see. “I fucking hate you.” Idiot. Will, Michael, and Kai were my friends, and I’d walk through fire for any one of them. Will was the only one, though, who I was sure would walk through fire for me. “So, what is she wearing?” he asked. I kept my eyes on her, following her as she left the copy room and started down the hallway. “An engagement ring.” “Kinky.” I laughed to myself and took a step and then another, matching her pace as she walked down one hallway and me another. “Be even kinkier if she were wearing the wedding dress, too.” “I’ll take a piece of that.” “You’re welcome to it. I’m good about sharing.” And sometimes sharing was necessary. When it came to women, I didn’t always keep my promises. Will finished them off if I lost interest. She was approaching the corner and would turn left. It was almost time. “Gotta go,” I told him. “Meet you in the parking lot at seven-thirty.” “Yeah. I left my gym bag in your car, so I need to get it before practice. See you—” I didn’t let him finish. I pulled the phone away from my ear and hung up, never taking my eyes off her. She rounded the corner and reappeared through the windows perpendicular to me, making her way closer and closer. Pulling to a stop, I slid my phone back into my pocket, leaned my shoulder into the wall, and slipped my hands into the center pocket of my hoodie, waiting for her. She took another left, briefly disappeared from sight, and reappeared again, stopping as soon as she spotted me. “Mr. Torrance,” she said. I nodded once. “Miss Jennings. You wanted to see me?” She took a step back, looking around her. I wasn’t sure if it was instinctive or if she was confused, but it amused me. She wore a short-sleeved, black V-neck dress that hugged every curve, far from the little cardigans and floral, knee-length skirts she wore at the beginning of the school year. A first-year teacher who started out looking very much wife-of-the-town-pastor seemed to like the lustful eyes of her teenage male students on her and couldn’t help but dress for it now. She still wore her glasses and her hair in tight, little buns, though. She swallowed, a blush crossing her cheeks. “Um, during school hours, yes. I’m, uh…” She dropped her eyes, shifting in her black heels, and I held in my smirk. While she dressed sexier now, she was still shy. And I loved that. Confidence annoyed me. I didn’t like being hunted. “Well, you’re here, I suppose,” she said, giving me a curt smile. “Come in.” I followed her into the classroom, feeling the blood suddenly pump a little warmer through my body. This was what it took for me. There were any number of girls downstairs right now. Girls my own age. The cheerleaders, the gymnastics team, the work-study students in the cafeteria… I could get laid in five minutes if I wanted to, but sex for me had little to do with my body. It was right here. With my eyes on her back. With the door I closed and locked behind me. With the fear and the attraction and the danger I felt rolling off her at being alone with me. With the idea that she’d have to look at me every day for the rest of the year until I graduated, knowing what she’d let me do to her today and the panic that she let it happen but also the desire of wanting it to happen again. Sex for me was in the head. Almost entirely. She set her little pile of papers on her desk and turned around, her eyes darting to the door she just realized I’d closed. A heavy pause followed, and I saw her body go rigid, but she pressed on. She threaded her fingers in front of her body and put on her stern face. A pretty cute attempt for a twenty-three-year-old who thought the seventeen-year-old guy in front of her who was broader—and half-a-foot taller—actually saw her as an authority figure. I took the two steps to reach the first desk in the front row and planted my ass on the edge. “Look, I’m not skilled at beating around the bush,” she said, “so let’s just cut to the chase.” I stared at her. “There is a significant difference between the work you complete at home and the work you complete in class,” she continued. “And I notice the difference in the handwriting, as well. I’m not going to ask you to defend yourself, because we both know what’s really going on, and I’m not going to waste either of our time.” I cocked an eyebrow. She paused, licking her lips and clearing her throat. “All I’m going to say is ‘stop’.” She tipped her chin down at me. “Do the work, or you won’t pass.” Uh-huh. I kept my eyes on hers, but I could still see the hard, little points of her nipples jutting through her dress. Maybe it was cold. Maybe it wasn’t. I just wanted to see them. My breathing quickened and my cock started to swell with the image of her undressed, and I ground my teeth together to keep my urges in check for as long as possible. When I didn’t reply, she prompted me. “Do you understand?” I cast my gaze upward again, imagining her glossy red lipstick smeared all over my pillow from being ‘face down, ass up’ in my bed all night. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied. She stood there, looking confused like she didn’t expect it to go that smoothly, but then nodded and offered me a goodwill half-smile. “Okay, then. Have a good day,” she said, dismissing me. I almost snorted. We weren’t done. My turn. “May I ask you a question?” I said, pulling up a picture of her on my phone. “Is this you?” I stood up and strolled over to her, not stopping until I was close enough to look down at her. Her eyes shot from the phone in my hand up to me and back down again in our suddenly intimate space, trying to take a step back but only meeting her desk. I held it up, speaking softly. “You don’t look a lot different.” She swallowed again. It was one of many pictures I found on her social media, apparently from after her junior year of high school when she was away at summer camp. She posed with friends on her bunk, smiling and innocent, hair down, tan legs in cute jean shorts, no makeup and braces… She pursed her lips. “I know how to use mascara now.” Turning her back to me, she lifted the chalk and began writing on the board. “You’re blushing,” I commented. “Are you embarrassed?” “That’s enough.” Young Miss Jennings was a dork, but she had potential. I let my eyes wander down the curve of her waist to her ass and sexy legs. Obviously. “You see, I’m not lazy or dumb,” I said, coming up behind her, just out of reach. “I’m just not interested in doing anything I don’t enjoy. But things I love doing?” I lowered my voice, playing with her. “I could go all night, Miss Jennings.” She twisted her head to the side again, her hand paused mid-sentence on the chalkboard. Her mouth opened and closed twice before words came out. “I have work to do.” I shot out my hand, planting it on the board in front of her and leaning in so close, her hair tickled my lips. “Guys like me didn’t go for you in high school, did they?” I taunted in a low voice. “No one ate you out in the backseat of a car. No one took off your panties and dry-humped you on your parents’ couch while they were in the next room.” I slowly ran my finger over the zipper at the back of her dress as her body went rigid and her breathing turned shallow. “No one sucked your tits and made your pussy wet on someone else’s bunk beds in a room upstairs at some party in a house you didn’t know.” She whipped around, her teeth slightly bared. “I’m going to report you.” “Please don’t.” I smirked. “If I were there, though, I would’ve broken your cherry.” I dropped my voice to a whisper, leaning in. “I like the quiet ones.” She shook her head, the brown of her eyes warm and dark. “I was warned about you boys. This won’t get you an A. Someday you’ll learn the world will make you work for something you want.” “Oh, I don’t mind working.” I planted my other hand on the board at the side of her head and looked down at her. My little Lit teacher was only six years older than me, and while every guy in school loved to look at her, I was the one who would have her, because nothing else would do. I was bored. So bored all the time with the brainless twits downstairs who never said ‘no’ and couldn’t satisfy the sordid need inside me to be deviant in everything I did. I didn’t want to fuck. I wanted to get dirty, and I wanted to get her dirty. I didn’t want to be the only one who… I couldn’t finish the thought. My friends—as much as they liked to play at being bad, they were still always clean. Their desires were normal, getting off was physical, and fun was just around the corner. But for me, everything was harder. I couldn’t detach from my brain, and I wasn’t happy unless it was a mindfuck. I didn’t want Miss Jennings to enjoy it. I wanted her to hate that she enjoyed it. I inched in, holding her eyes and moving in for her mouth. But she planted her hands on my chest, halting me. “Stop it.” I let the weight of my body slowly press into hers, the heat of her breath falling on my mouth as I shook my head. She breathed faster, her eyes dropping to my lips, and I could see that look on her face that I’d seen a hundred times before. Everyone lets themselves indulge in a moment of consideration. “I don’t need an A, and I’m not afraid of what you can do to me,” I said, flicking her top lip with my tongue and hearing her whimper. “I just want you to slide up your dress, lie down on the desk, and spread your legs like a good teacher who just wants her student to eat his breakfast.” She growled, raised her hand, and fucking slapped me. But I barely moved, the sting of her hand filtering down into my neck within seconds. Grabbing both of her wrists, I held them against the chalkboard at her side, trying to hold in my grin. “You just hit a minor. It hurt, Miss Jennings.” Her chest rose and fell hard as she seethed and tried to squirm out of my hold. “I know you want this.” I let my eyes fall down her body. “Your skirts are getting tighter. Your tops lower cut. You’re not my first rodeo. I know how to keep this a secret.” “No matter what a woman wears, she’s not asking for it.” “So that’s not you then?” I gestured my head toward the windows. “Peering down from the window when the team’s exercising on the field? Watching me?” We were nearly eight weeks into my senior year, and coach had us on the outside courts after school as much as possible while the weather held. I started noticing her gazing down a few weeks ago and then quickly ducking away when I would notice her. Just went to show, we want what we want and we were built to burn. “You stare especially long when I have my shirt off.” I dropped my eyes to her lips. “Which I take off more now, because I know you like it.” She lost her breath, opening her mouth as she stared at mine. “If I had been in your high school,” I told her, leaning in to her ear, “I’d come up to you in front of your friends and whisper in your ear ‘I want to touch you.’” I whispered the last and then came back around, holding her eyes. “And then I’d take your hand and lead you down to the basement and into the dark wrestling room where no one ever is, and I’d start to take off your clothes.” “Mr. Torrance,” she choked out, and then pleaded, “Damon, please.” Fear etched across her face, but not the fear of not being able to stop me. It was the fear of wanting something but not wanting to get caught. “And then I’d push you down on the mat,” I said, “lift up your skirt,” I let go of one of her wrists, and wrapped one hand around her neck, “and fuck your tight, little body while I sucked on your tits.” She panted, and before she could say anything, I sank my mouth into hers, her groan getting lost down my throat. I kissed her hard, tasting the strawberries she had for breakfast and feeling her arms wrapped around my neck. I pulled them off and lifted her off the ground, turning us around and planting her ass on her desk, immediately pushing up her dress. Reaching under, I slipped my fingers under her panties and pulled them down her smooth, tan legs, over her heels, and dropped them to the floor. I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my heart pound a little harder. I’m gonna fuck her. I’m gonna have her begging to come and take pleasure later today as she tries to lecture the class knowing her fucking panties are in my pocket. I’m gonna come back for seconds tomorrow and maybe bring Will and watch her ride him in her own desk chair. Yeah. My heart skipped a beat, and I stopped breathing for a moment. My dick hardened, and I licked a trail up her leg to the inside of her thigh as I stood up. “Why me?” she asked, leaning back on her hands and biting her bottom lip. I pushed her down, forcing her back onto the desk. “Because it’s sordid,” I growled. Hiking up her skirt the rest of the way, I checked the door again, remembering I’d closed and locked it, and then dove down, covering her goddamn cunt with my mouth, the little gasp and cry that followed making my eyes close in satisfaction. Just spread your fucking legs and let me have my way. That’s what you’re here for. Wrapping my hand around her thigh, I held on as I sucked, kissed, pulled, bit, and penetrated her, tasting her clit and making her squirm and moan with every inch I teased. She wasn’t the first teacher I’d seen like this, but she was the first one I’d touched, and I looked up at her as I sucked on her, seeing how much she liked it. This was almost too easy. It was less of a turn on when it was easy. “Pull down the top of your dress,” I ordered her, flicking her clit with my tongue. She let out little moans again and again as she pulled down one side and then the other, baring her naked breasts. Better. She looked vulnerable. Half-naked, legs spread for one of her students, glasses… “You’re so good at that,” she panted. I bit her lightly, making her gasp. Don’t talk. She started moving into my mouth and took my head in her hands. I shoved them away and pressed a hand on her stomach, keeping her ass on the desk. I licked and sucked again and again, liking her in my mouth, because I was in control and she was at my mercy. Everything was happening to her right now and whatever I wanted to give her. “God, yeah,” she moaned. “That’s so good.” I snapped out of my head for a moment, hearing another voice instead. That’s a good boy. You’re getting so good at that, baby. I stopped working Miss Jennings, needing to swallow, because my mouth was suddenly dry. Forcing myself on, I pushed the voice out of my head and slid two fingers inside her as I played with her clit with my tongue. “God, you’re doing so well,” Miss Jennings said, refusing to shut the fuck up. “Don’t stop. Keep going, baby.” Baby? What the fuck? I clenched my teeth and stood straight, breathing hard and damn near ripping at my belt buckle to unfasten it. She might have some duct tape in her desk. She needed to be shut up. Heat flooded my neck and chest as I fought to get back in my head where I was distracted. But she rose up off the desk, trying to kiss me and take over unfastening the belt. “I want to suck you,” she breathed out. “I want to taste you.” It gets hard when I do that. That means you like it. The memory of those words knotted over and over again in my gut, and I pulled her hands away. “No.” I didn’t like that. “Do as your told,” she said, trying to play. But I lost it. I grabbed her neck and held her still as I got in her face. “I don’t like that.” Yeah, you like it, don’t you, baby? You’re such a good boy. I shoved her away and backed up, refastening my belt. My pulse pounded in my ears, and my skin crawled as the walls closed in. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t breathe. Fuck. “What?” I heard Miss Jennings say as she held up her arms, covering herself. “I want it, Damon. You knew I wanted you. This was so hot. Come on.” She reached for me and stood up, trying to wrap her arms around my body. “Finish me,” she whispered, her sticky, snake-arms like fire on my skin. I pushed her off and ran a hand through my hair. “Stupid bitch.” And I walked away from her, unlocking the door and throwing it open as I charged into the still mostly empty hallway. Nausea rolled through my stomach. Why couldn’t she shut up? Why couldn’t she just shut her fucking mouth? Most people did what they were told. I bolted down the stairs and then the next flight as well, turning the corner and pushing through the door into the men’s room. I shouldn’t have touched her. I walked to the sink and spit, still tasting her and spit again. I turned on the water, filled my hands, and splashed my face to try to cool down. I did it again and again, wiping my face on my sleeve. I stared at myself in the mirror as I ran my hand through my hair, dragging my nails over my scalp and down my neck. Down my neck, digging in, deeper and deeper. Come sleep with me, my sweet. And the memory of climbing in her big bed with the thick comforter as she held me to her naked body. I let my eyes close and my forehead fall into the mirror as I breathed. “I should have fucked her,” I mumbled to myself. “I should’ve taped her mouth, turned her over, and fucked her.” Everything turned black behind my eyelids, and I was sinking into a black hole. I felt the needles prick at the back of my throat. I dug out my phone and hit all the buttons without even looking. It started to ring, and I held it up to my ear. “Damon?” Banks answered. I paused, breathing hard. “Banks...” “Do you need me?” I blinked my eyes open, checking the door to make sure no one was coming in. “There’s no time.” We had to do this over the phone. But she started to argue. “Damon—” “Fuck, what good are you?” I squeezed the phone so hard I heard it crack. She fell silent, and I pictured her in my room where she was cleaning or reading or taking care of my snakes, and I wished she was here, because this would be so much quicker. Do it. Just do it. I heard her clear her throat and let out a sigh. “You know…” She gave me her best annoyed tone. “I got shit to do. Is this all you’re calling me for? Jesus, you’re such a fucking baby.” My fingers twitched with the urge to fist. Good. Keep going. I slid into a stall and locked the door. “Go ahead,” I egged her on. “Say that again?” “Or what?” she shot back. “What will you do? You’re so goddamn weak, you have to call me because someone hurt your feelings? Someone stepped on your toe, baby, is that it? Michael, Kai, and Will must be doing Jesus a favor to even consider breathing the same air as you.” My jaw locked. “The only reason I stick around here is for the money, but I don’t even care about that anymore,” she continued, “because I want to fucking vomit every time I have to look at your stupid face. Jesus, I really am sick of this shit.” My chest shook, and I balled my fist over and over again. She’s lying. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do. I need her to hurt me, because pain covers up pain, and if I feel one, I won’t feel the other. I need her to push back down what tries to crop back up. “What?” She smarted off. “What are you going to say? Nothing, that’s what. You can’t even manage an hour away from me before you’re having a Malibu-fucking-Barbie panic attack. No wonder Daddy likes me best. I’m the son he always wanted.” And I feel a slice inside my stomach. That one cut. Because I thought she might be right. My father wouldn’t even acknowledge her as his kid, but he trusted her. He entrusted her. Her. A bastard gutter rat who would be turning tricks just like her junkie mother if I hadn’t literally bought her ass when she was twelve. She lived in a mansion, because of me. She had three meals a day, because of me. She was safe, because of me. “What did you say?” I gritted out. I could hear her breathing shake. She was losing the nerve. “Damon, please…” “Say it again!” She gasped, choking down her tears and forcing the words out. “We laugh about you every day while you’re gone.” Her voice grew harder. “He can’t trust you to grow up. He can’t give you any responsibility. Everyone laughs about you. Especially the guy doing me in your bed right now.” I shook my head, gripping the top of the stall door. No one was supposed to touch her. “God, you weren’t even out of the house before the first one was inside me,” she said, digging deep. “I’ve been getting pounded all morning. Why don’t you get to class and leave us the fuck alone?” I clenched my teeth, seeing her in my bed with a line of my father’s men taking their turns. Smiling at her. Enjoying her. Using her. Treating her like trash. And I kicked the door. I kicked it again and again, growling until it gave way and swung open, hitting the wall behind it. Fuck, yes. And just like that…everything relaxed. My limbs felt exhausted, and I saw my sister, in my room at home right now, fully dressed with her collar up to her neck, crying, and her books spilled onto the floor, because she was innocent, pure, and the sweetest girl I would ever know. Everything she said, I made her say, because we could only feel one pain at a time, and maybe if I could pile on enough dirt, I’d get so buried I wouldn’t be able to think. And sometimes, I could overpower whatever was in my head by making my own victims. Like Miss Jennings. Like Banks. Maybe I didn’t like being alone, and I wouldn’t be if everyone else was as dirty as me. At home, there were other things I’d ask her to do to stop the pain, but when she wasn’t in front of me we had to improvise. The memories that had sprung up in Jennings’ room were so far way now, I couldn’t even remember what had set me off. I walked to the sink, turned on the faucet, and pooled some water in my hand before taking a drink, feeling the cool water soothe the heat in my head. The last twenty minutes never happened. “Damon?” I heard Banks call. “Damon!” I stood up straight and held the phone back up to my ear. “Better?” she asked. “Yeah.” I checked my face and hair in the mirror, seeing the rage start to fade, and my skin turn pale again. “Yeah...” “Please stop making me do that…” I pulled the phone away from my ear and hung up, ignoring her. What she wanted was ultimately unimportant. We would do what we had to do. Straightening my clothes, I felt the phone vibrate in my hand again and looked to see who it was. ***Damon K. Torrance*** Please see Mr. Kincaid in the dean’s office before the first bell this morning. cc: Gabriel Torrance Thank you. Goddammit. I checked the time on my phone, seeing that I had eight minutes till bell. I wanted to smoke. Sticking the phone in my back pocket, I let out a long breath and tilted my neck to each side, hearing it crack. Every time I got summoned, my father got the same text, keeping him abreast of whatever was going on as if he cared. He knew if it was important enough, they would call him directly. Which they had done plenty in my tenure at this school. I used to want his attention. Now I just hated it when they reminded him that I existed. I wasn’t excited to leave town for college next summer, but I couldn’t wait to get out of that house, either. So what bullshit did I do now that Kincaid needed to hassle me? I left the bathroom, brushing the shoulder of another student as I crossed the hallway and entered the school office. Swinging the door open, I walked up to the long, dark wood counter and shot a glare to Mrs. Devasquez, the secretary. “Have a seat,” she said, her short gray hair unmoving as she nodded to the chairs behind me. “The dean will call you when he’s ready.” I simply turned around and propped my elbows up on the counter, waiting. Drumming my fingers as my hand dangled over the edge of the counter, I noticed no one else was in the office, but I perked my ears at several voices coming from Kincaid’s office to my left. I looked over, seeing bodies rise up, as if from sitting positions, behind the frosted glass. “Why aren’t you in uniform?” I heard Devasquez challenge behind me. “Is it 7:45 yet?” I didn’t turn around to look at her, and she didn’t open her mouth again. I hated this room. Most of the classrooms in this old school had been updated over time, the fancy gray stone exterior preserved, and everything in a condition which was expected from parents who paid a substantial tuition every year, but this room reminded me of home. Dark wood, shiny with a noxious odor from years of layers of furniture polish, high ceilings with rafters that collected dust, and cobblestone floors that never quite made me feel like my feet were firmly on the ground. Kincaid’s door opened and voices flooded out. I turned to see Margot Ashby lead the way out of the office, saying as they all left, “Thank you, Charles. I know you and the teachers have gone above and beyond to help Winter re-assimilate.” Winter… My eyes narrowed. And then she appeared. Holding her mother’s arm and trailing slowly behind. I stopped breathing for a moment. Jesus Christ. What the hell was she doing here? The little girl in the fountain. She’d grown up. She couldn’t be more than fourteen or fifteen now, but the baby fat was gone, her white tutu gone, and her eyes on me…gone. She would never look at me again. Her older sister, who was my age, squeezed out first, while Kincaid and their father, the mayor, trailed behind. “We’ll keep her up here until Miss Fane arrives,” I heard Kincaid say as they all drifted into the main office. “She has all the instructions to help Winter through her first few weeks, and since they’re in the same grade, it was easy placing them in the same classes.” Same classes. Miss Fane. Erika Fane? She and Winter were going to be in the same classes? Then that meant Winter was a freshman. And she’d come home to go to high school. I fought not to smile, practically fucking delighted with the potential of this new distraction. She came up alongside her mother and dropped her hand when everyone stopped, not needing to hang on any longer than necessary, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her blue eyes still looked so innocent and carefree but probably only because she didn’t know I was less than five feet away from her. I wondered how well she remembered me. But there was a defiant lift to her chin that intrigued me. How easily one pain replaced another. How I could barely remember the hurt in my head just a few minutes ago and Miss Jennings seemed like a distant memory. I inhaled a deep, quiet breath, filling my lungs with the welcome fresh air. “Does she have to wear the blazer?” Mrs. Ashby asked. “We tried to get her to wear it, but—” “Oh no, it’s fine,” Kincaid answered. “As long as she’s in Thunder Bay colors, we’re good.” Winter wore the standard blue and green plaid skirt, but while most everyone wore blouses or Oxfords under their blazers, I could see a white Polo hanging out from under the hem of her navy blue hoodie. Rebel. “What’s the dress code say about wearing shoes from dumpsters?” Arion, her sister, chimed in as she knelt down to tie Winter’s Doc Martens that were scuffed beyond repair on both toes with laces dragging. “You’d think someone who needs a hand to walk everywhere so she doesn’t trip would know how to double-knot.” “Bite me.” Winter yanked her foot away and felt for the counter next to me. I wasn’t sure how she knew it was there, but she found it and then knelt down to tie her boot, her long, layered blonde hair hanging around her. Everyone in the room suddenly fell silent, and I looked up to see her parents staring at me, suddenly realizing I was in the room. Three inches from their daughter. Winter rose, her hand brushing my jeans. “Oh, excuse me,” she said, finally noticing someone was here. Her mother inhaled, darting toward us. “Um, actually, Charles, we’ll wait with Winter in the library.” She came up and grabbed Winter, pulling her away from me. “If you could send Erika there when she arrives…” “Of course.” Margot, Arion, and Winter filtered into the corridor, and my head started swimming with all the possibilities now laying in front of me. I wasn’t sure if she thought about me or what she thought about me, but I knew she wouldn’t forget me. She would never be able to forget. The door closed behind them, and I saw Griffin Ashby, our city mayor, start to follow, but then he stopped as he reached me. I stared at his profile, his dark gray suit and blue tie perfectly pressed as he focused ahead, refusing to spare me any eye contact. “Someday you’ll be in a cage,” he said. “And hopefully sooner rather than later, so you can’t do any more damage. Mr. Kincaid will fill you in on the do’s and don’ts while my youngest is in attendance at this school.” And then he finally turned his head to look at me with disdain “Mark my words, if you fail to behave, I will end you, and it’ll be for good.” Turning away, he left the office, and my lips twitched with a smile. Six years ago, his little girl and I changed each other, and while I couldn’t change her back, I could certainly give her some new memories of me. Now that… I could do. It was settled, then. I heard Mr. Kincaid clear his throat as he held his office door open for me. “Mr. Torrance, if you please?” Damon Present “Ten moves and you have me,” Mr. Garin told me. “Do you see it?” I stared at the board between us, calculating the moves I needed to make for checkmate while trying to anticipate his counter moves. Yeah, I see it. But what fun would that be? I reached for my pawn at E2. “Don’t,” he scolded. And he shot me the same look I’d seen since I was a kid. But I couldn’t resist. Unable to hold in my small smile, I ignored him and moved it to E4. He let out a sigh and shook his head, exasperated with the lack of control and strategy he failed at drilling into me all those long afternoons after school, years ago, when he worked for my father. Or he thought he failed at drilling it into me, anyway. People assumed I behaved strictly on impulse, when actually, it required quite a bit of strategy being this fucked up. House music pounded downstairs, the club already packed with college girls, young professionals, and anyone else in the twenty-something set able to spring for the three-hundred-dollar bottle of vodka or champagne just to be able to sit at a damn table. I’d spent plenty of time down there in the crowd and noise in high school with my friends. Now I just kept a private room upstairs on reserve to catch up with Kostya Garin, one of my father’s old bodyguards who now organized security for this club. Fifty-nine years old, gray goatee, and the same black suits he always wore when he worked for my father, he still had more muscles than me, and he was one of the few people I had, at least, some regard for. I would do business with him. I would trust anything he had to say. I would attend his funeral. There weren’t many people I’d sit through a whole service for. But we weren’t friends, and we never discussed anything personal. He taught me things, but he never complicated it with trying to be my father. He was one of the perks I came here for. The other… “I want to leave,” a girl spoke up from the other side of the room as if on cue. As Mr. Garin contemplated his next move, I turned my head toward her. She wore a tight pink dress of sequins, glittering in the dim glow coming from the sconces on the wall, and her ass was planted on some little prick’s lap whose name I didn’t know. Her boyfriend across from them, on the edge of the black leather couch, watching his buddy putting his hands on his woman. I observed them, trying to put myself in each of their skin. Did she like another man touching her? Was her boyfriend jealous? Turned on? Angry? Was his best friend living out a long-held fantasy for her? Was he enjoying this? Was he hard? I blinked, waiting for it to come. His jealousy. Her degradation. His desire. Their fear and excitement at being watched. But it didn’t come. Not yet. It was getting harder and harder to empathize over the years. Fuck. Maybe if it was my new little wife being fondled? Or… The guy touched her hips lightly and hesitantly as his mouth grazed a path across her shoulder, probably trying to hold back so they didn’t know how much he was enjoying himself. “Can we leave now?” she asked me, the man underneath her not giving the slightest hint he wanted to leave quite yet. But I ignored her, turning back to the board and seeing that Mr. Garin had matched my move with his pawn to E5. I smiled to myself. “Look closely,” he continued. “You can still get me. Ten moves.” Ten? I grabbed my knight and moved it to F3, hearing Mr. Garin let out a sigh as he plucked his knight and sat him back down in C6 as if on auto-pilot. “Damon…” he scolded, growing angry with me. I could hear it in his voice, and my pulse raced a little as he continued the game, going through the motions as if we’d gone ’round and ’round about this for years, and he was done with my bullshit mistakes and impulsiveness. He just wanted to get the game and his inevitable win over with so he could get back to work now that my head wasn’t in the game. My bishop to C4, his pawn to D6, my other knight to C3, and as he reached for his bishop, I stopped breathing as I watched him move it to G4, pinning my knight to my queen. You idiot. That actually fucking worked, and he didn’t see what he’d done yet. I moved my knight to E5, snatching his pawn and leaving my queen completely vulnerable to his bishop. He saw the opening, shook his head, and captured her, removing her from the board and moving his bishop into my queen’s spot. My heart jumped into my throat. He thought he had me. But it was my move now, and as soon as I moved my bishop to G7, I had his king in fucking check. He paused, realizing what had just happened and re-examining the board. His eyes flashed to mine. As expected, he tried moving his king to E7, but the look of defeat was already in his eyes. I slid my knight into D5. “Checkmate,” I said. He stared at the board, scowling like he wasn’t sure how that just happened. “Seven moves...” he mumbled. Yeah. Not ten. His eyes darted up to mine. “You hung your queen. I didn’t teach you to do that.” Just then there was a knock on the door and my driver moved to open it. Erika Fane entered, and I stood up, fixing my jacket as the driver closed the door behind her. “The queen is the most powerful piece on the board,” I told Mr. Garin, keeping my eyes locked on Rika’s. “Why not use her?” Rika, the fiancée of one of my high school friends, stepped farther into the room, looking ready for anything except a night at the club. A smile tugged at my lips. Her tan baseball hat sat low, casting a shadow over her eyes, while her long, blonde hair spilled down her back. She wore jeans with the hood of a gray sweatshirt sticking out the back of a tan jacket, her hands tucked into the pockets. She stopped when I started to approach, no doubt trying to keep a safe distance. I veered for the couch, sitting down on the opposite end as the boyfriend, who still watched—or tried not to watch—what his girlfriend and best friend were doing. “Have a good night, Damon,” I heard Mr. Garin say. I nodded, and when I looked up again, he was gone. Rika stayed back, watching me as I dug out my wallet from my breast pocket and pulled out a stack of bills. “I want to stop,” the young girl said, pulling away from the guy’s mouth. “You can stop whenever you want,” I said. “Door’s not locked.” And I started slowly laying down one-hundred-dollar bill after another on the frosted glass table between us. Next to the cash I’d already paid them for what they were doing. “Or you can stay there,” I continued, laying down another hundred and then another, “and keep doing nothing while your little boyfriend lets his best friend put a hand inside your dress.” I put down the last hundred. “And you can earn next month’s rent money while you’re at it.” “What the hell is the matter with you?” Rika demanded. I glanced up at her, seeing her shoot a glare from them to me. “You can look,” I told her. “I won’t tell Michael. I’m good at keeping our secrets.” She looked away, and I cast my stare back down at the girl—who’d arrived earlier, trying to sneak into the club with her boyfriend and his friend, none of them twenty-one. She was hot, they looked fun to play with, so here we were. The young woman’s brown eyes dropped to the money on the table and lingered for a moment. And just like with Mr. Garin, heat coursed slowly down my arms, through my stomach, past my groin, and into my thighs as I waited to see if she would do what I wanted her to do. Her young tits rose and fell as she got more nervous, no doubt wanting to do it but afraid of what seeds this would sow between her, her boyfriend, and his friend once they left this room. Did she just want the money? I swallowed, watching the indecision on her face. Or did she like the kink? The danger. She threw a look to her boyfriend, whose face was etched with discomfort, but he sure as hell wasn’t standing up and taking her out of here either. Come on, man. Make a decision. Get your woman or sit back and enjoy the show. What a pussy. But slowly, she made that decision for him. She relaxed into his friend, he fisted the back of her auburn hair, and buried his mouth in her neck as he slid a hand into her dress and took hold of her breast. Her eyes fell closed, her breath shook, but she remained rigid. For the moment. And after another moment, I was him, with her in my lap and taking what someone else didn’t want me to have. The boyfriend on the couch saw his friend’s desire and knew the truth now. Something his buddy had been hiding. They were changed, and pleasure fluttered into my chest. Yes. I closed my eyes for a second, finally fucking feeling something. Just a twinge, but it was better than nothing. I heard Rika’s sigh. “You wonder why everyone hates you.” I opened my eyes, shaking my head. “I don’t wonder.” I stood up and tucked my billfold back into my breast pocket. “I like chess.” I approached her, noticing her hands were still tucked into her pockets. “Knowing and seeing what I want in front of me. Knowing that it won’t come easily. Knowing that it takes patience and a series of carefully constructed maneuvers all plotted into a specific sequence.” I paused, looking down at her. “Knowing that the longer I have to wait and possibly alter my course makes getting what I want so much more enjoyable.” I loved making her uncomfortable. Mindfucks were sometimes more fun than actual fucking. And for a moment, it was like I was looking down at her. At Winter. They had the same hair, although Winter’s was a shade lighter, and the same colored eyes, except Rika’s were darker. Winter had this ring of darker blue around the outside of her pupils that made them…piercing. I was glad she couldn’t use them, because if she could look at me with those eyes… Yeah, Winter and Rika were both so similar, and not just in their looks. They were both defiant. Both liked a little danger. And both fought back. “And knowing that the path to success changes based on the game pieces I choose to use,” I continued. “And people are my favorite pieces, Rika.” She narrowed her eyes but didn’t say anything. She was probably trying to look bored, impatient, or unimpressed, but I knew better. “Look at her.” I nodded once to the girl in the chair. “That beautiful body, hesitant at first, but now she’s responding. She wants to touch him.” I glanced at Rika and back to the couple making out. “You see how she’s fisting her dress in her hands. She’s turned on, but her boyfriend is watching, and she’s scared of what he thinks. She doesn’t want to show how much she likes his friend’s hands and mouth on her, so she’s feeling her man out. Waiting for some sign from him that it’s okay to enjoy it.” “Then why did she say she wanted to leave?” Rika retorted. “Because it’s what girls are supposed to say, isn’t it?” I fired back. “It’s risky to bring out your king or queen too early.” The couple continued playing, nibbling, kissing, and touching as we talked. “That’s what they teach you, isn’t it?” I went on. “That’s what I taught Banks?” Women weren’t supposed to want it as much as a man, right? And they certainly weren’t supposed to like it casual. That was what I taught my sister to keep her safe. I pressed forward. “So why did she stay?” I questioned Rika. Her jaw flexed, and she looked away as if she wasn’t playing, but then I saw her gaze slowly flash back to the college kids and then to the money on the table. “Because it was your move, and you pushed back,” she replied. “Yes, very good.” The girl might be doing it for the money. Or maybe she needed a good enough excuse to agree. “Now him.” I eyed the best friend under her as he kneaded her tit under her dress. “He’d do this for free. I told him to kiss her, but he’s eating her alive right now. He’s wanted her for a long time.” I saw his eyes open, probably having heard what I’d said. “Probably fantasized about her and looked at her when his friend wasn’t watching. I’ll bet he really wants both hands on her tits now.” And then I looked down at him, asking, “Don’t you?” He nodded, his mouth on the girl’s. He dropped his other hand from her hair and placed it on her hip, getting ready for when he got permission. “And her boyfriend,” I told Rika. “It’s driving him insane. He wants to be angry, but—” “He wants the money,” she finished. “Or it turns him on maybe, and he doesn’t want to admit it.” She gave me a condescending look. “Yeah, sure.” How naïve she still is. “Not every man has to be paid to watch his woman get fucked by another guy.” “Why would he enjoy that?” “I think you know,” I shot back, eyeing her with amusement. I knew all about her little romp in the steam room at Hunter-Bailey with Michael and Kai. And as much as I thought I’d be turned on by the reality of what Rika had enjoyed in that room, it actually pissed me off. I wasn’t quite sure why, either. Maybe because I didn’t get my turn, and I felt left out of the fun? Or maybe, even though I knew her enough to know she didn’t let anything happen to her that she didn’t want, a small part of me still felt like she’d been… I don’t know… Used. I didn’t know why I gave a shit, though. Michael and Kai had shared a woman before. I just didn’t want to think about it with Erika. But it did mean one thing good. My old friends still liked to play and they’d be prime game pieces. “You see, Rika,” I told her. “There are people in the world who are destined to be played. Victims who wouldn’t be able to change their fate even if they went back and lived life over a thousand different ways.” I made a show of letting my eyes fall down her form. “And then there are players. Like you and me.” I gestured to the threesome. “Which piece would you move next?” She didn’t look away from the challenge this time, only hesitated before finally surveying the group. Her gaze finally rested on the boyfriend. “His instinct is to be the better man.” Very good. “He feels competitive, yes,” I replied, impressed. “It pisses him off and gets him hard. He wants to fuck her and show her who the real man is. To keep him in the game, we need to use him. Make him feel important.” She was quick. She had the same thought I did. “Boyfriend?” I called to the guy on the couch but still stared at Rika. “Tell your friend what you want him to do you