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Tied

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Tied

Owned 2.5

Mary Catherine Gebhard

Contents

Dedication

Synopsis

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Epilogue

BONUS: Secret Project Teaser

About the Author

Also by Mary Catherine Gebhard

Dedication

For Liz

Synopsis

Charlie is a sick bastard.

He likes to kill and he’s made his fortune doing it.

Years ago he nearly died losing his leg, falling into one debt money couldn’t erase.

Now when the debt collector calls, Charlie doesn’t expect it to bring him to his knees.

It was supposed to be a quick in and out job: retrieve the girl and return to his life.

But there’s something about Vera that has him tied.

***

Vera’s been kidnapped.

Tortured and abused more times than she can count, she fully believes she’s going to die in her cement prison.

She has no idea what to expect when Charlie shows up to save her, but she quickly discovers he’s no angel.

There’s a dark side to Charlie that instead of igniting fear, makes Vera want to turn off the lights and see what lurks inside.

They both know that if they keep playing with fire, one of them is going to get burned. What Charlie soon learns is Vera isn’t playing with fire.

Vera is fire.

***

Warning: Contains graphic violence and sex. Has situations that may be a trigger for some.

***

This is book 2.5 in the Owned series, but can be read as a standalone.

Purchase books one, two, and three here:

You Own Me

Let Me Go

Come To Me

1

CHARLIE

My fist collided with his jaw, the blood splattering like a Jackson Pollock painting across the wall. Six hours in and he still wasn’t talking.

“Is that the best you got?” he said, spitting out a blood-covered tooth. I didn’t know the man’s name. I never asked for names, didn’t need them. They all bled the same regardless. What mattered was what the man said. He’d pissed off the wrong people so he got to play with me.

Lucky guy.

I liked to warm them up, make them think that all I was gonna do was hit them. Crack a few ribs. Break a few bones. They got comfortable that way. They got cocky. They started to spit out insults and gibes, thinking they could handle me and my blows. Because what’s a few broken bones?

Then they saw what I could really do and their smiles cracked. Their will broke and they sung like canaries.

I stepped around the chair he was tied to, hiding myself from view. The limp from my prosthetic was nearly invisible now. I’d worked hard to hide my weakness, but it still showed. It would probably always show, despite how hard I had worked to conceal it. In my profession, any weakness could mean death. I was missing a limb; that’s about as fucking weak as you can get.

“Too afraid to look me in the eye when you hit me?” The man gloated. “Just like your employer. Doesn’t even do his own dirty work, instead hires some cripple to do it.” I folded my arms, keeping silent at the slur. There was nothing he could do or say to rile me up. I’d heard it all.

I wasn’t born a cripple, but I was born a poor kid to an alcoholic mother in the rich part of California. You learn to adapt quick. Either grow some thick skin or get out. I did both. I breathed through my nose at the memory and glared down at the lucky bastard in the chair. He shimmied in his restraints, trying to look at me.

Something about silence makes a person want to fill it. In some cases, silence was more effective than my fists. Keeping myself out of their eye line made them uncomfortable, and people always talk when they’re uncomfortable. Case in point:

“Your boss is a fucking idiot. He thinks this is the only time I stole from him? I’ve been stealing for years!” The man laughed, a rough sound like dust caught in a chimney, which alerted me to the fact that he probably had fluid in his lungs. Blood, maybe. “I’m not the only one neither. But does that matter? No. Fucker only cares about how he looks.”

Bingo.

I walked back around the chair, my face betraying nothing. Through swollen, puffy eyes, he watched me expectantly. Waiting. Maybe this guy would be easy. At first when I’d started working on him, I thought he’d be tougher to crack. They all crack, but some take longer than others. Now it appeared he might be easier than I’d thought. Tough, but stupid. I could work with stupid.

The thing about tough guys is that they’ll hold out until their last breath. It’s not about integrity; it’s about pride. Above all else, pride is my biggest enemy. Pride keeps tongues tied and mouths shut. Pride is the hardest thing to break.

People will trade their integrity for the slightest hope of freedom. They will sell their first born if it means life. But pride? That’ll keep the engine running long after the car has stopped.

When I first started working on the guy he’d shown himself to be tough. That worried me; I didn’t want to spend the next couple of days in a dirty as fuck warehouse. Was it so much to ask that my employer spring for air conditioning?

Then the guy went and opened his yaw and out tumbled information. Maybe I’d get out of there at a reasonable hour. Discovering stupidity was like striking gold. I rubbed the stubble on my chin, another reminder that I’d spent too much time on the guy already, and evaluated the best course of action to take. Just as I reached for the pliers, my phone went off.

***

&“What&?” I barked into the phone, not pleased with being interrupted. Only a few people had my number, and even fewer that I actually gave a shit about.

“It’s Vic. I need a favor.” Vic Wall. I’d only worked with Vic on a few assignments, but that was all it took for me to owe the fucker big. It had been my third—and last—assignment for GEM. We were in some bum fuck desert out in the Mid East doing some shit assery, when a bomb exploded and tore off my leg.

Vic is recon, meaning he isn’t in the shit. It was a three-man job: me, Vic, and a green kid who didn’t know his ass from an AR-15. The intel was bad. At that time GEM was going through their own shit, some kind of hostile takeover or something, and us guys on the ground paid for it.

There’s not much you can do when the intel is bad, except pray to whatever god you believe in that there aren’t more bombs. Vic is the best recon man I know, and even he got fucked by GEM and their intel.

There aren’t many guys out there that would do what Vic did, not in our business anyway. To date, I’d only met six others. Still, with those six, once they saved your life your debt would be greater than death. They called them The Boogiemen for a reason.

Vic saw what happened, came running, and saved my life. Couldn’t save the leg, though, as that had been blown to bits. That green kid? He ran off to fuck knows where. Probably died. Would serve him right.

“You sure about that?” I said into the phone. “Last I checked you only got one favor, and you needed it bad.”

“Don’t fuck with me, Charlie.” Vic growled.

I laughed, the feeling like acid against my throat. “Who’s got your testicles in a vice grip?”

“There’s a girl. She’s gone missing.”

“And?” I thumbed the fabric of my shirt, stained with the man’s blood. “Girls go missing all the time.” The man I had tied up gave a small whimpering sound. I kicked him in the leg. He yelped at the impact, but at least he shut up. Nothing like whimpering to distract you while you’re on the phone with an old…acquaintance.

“She’s important. Need her back.” Vic was never one for long conversations. Then again, neither was I.

“What’s her name?” I asked, curious as to who was so important that Vic would cash in his one favor.

“I’ve sent all relevant information to your burner email.”

“You sure you want to do this?” Vic hung up, not bothering to answer my question. I shrugged, sliding my phone back into my pocket. If he wanted to cash in his favor for some missing chick, be my guest. Made no difference to me.

Blood crusted around my knuckles but I couldn’t tell you if it was mine or the man’s. I squinted down at the bloody mess crumpled against the stainless steel chair. A few more hours with me and he would be singing louder than a church boy. They [_always _]cracked. I didn’t have time to spend wailing on him any more, though. Vic had cashed in his favor and that came first. I flicked a piece of dried blood from my hand and smiled at him.

“It’s your lucky day.” He sagged at my words, relief visible in every muscle. I pulled out my .45 and it was over before he could register thought. The bullet flew through his eye, cut through his brain, and lodged into the cement behind him.

I stuffed the gun back into its holster and dialed for cleanup. As I left the warehouse, I glanced back at the limp body. A quick, clean death. Couldn’t get much luckier than that.

2

VERA

“I will kill you Cruz Zeros.”

“You’d have to get off your knees to do it, bitch.” It was moments like these, starin’ up at the sickly, deranged face of Cruz Zeros, that I couldn’t help but think how I’d ended up here. Once upon a time I’d been a normal, small-town Louisiana girl. I’d had friends and family, and I’d been happy.

Sure, we were poor. We couldn’t afford many nice things. Mama had to work two jobs just to keep the double-wide over our head, but we’d been happy. When Mama had the rare day off, we’d spend it bakin’ cookies or brownies and drinkin’ sweet tea. It was bliss.

School wasn’t real important where I came from, but Mama made sure I stuck in it. It was hard to care when everyone was out partyin’ and dancin’ on Friday nights and I was stuck inside, readin’ ‘bout people who were long since dead.

Maybe I was here ‘cause finishin’ high school in that small town didn’t ever translate to anything. Maybe I was here ‘cause my daddy took off when I was two, leavin’ me with some clear abandonment issues. I really didn’t know.

When it was clear that I wasn’t goin’ to suck his cock (I’d sooner bite his dick off than suck him off), Cruz grabbed me by the neck and threw me to the dirty mattress in the corner of the room. We’d been playin’ this game for over a week, ever since he’d come and stolen me out of my nice apartment in California.

I wished I could say I had been surprised to see him, but I wasn’t. You didn’t just leave a man like Cruz. Once you were with Cruz Zeros, you belonged to Cruz Zeros. I used to think my ex-fiancé was bad, but compared to Zero he was practically Prince Charming.

“I’ll be back for you later,” Cruz sneered. He walked to the only door in the room, the only exit, and shut me in. There were no windows in my prison. There wasn’t even a toilet. Just this one dirty mattress. I hugged my knees to my chest, starin’ at the four gray walls that had become my home.

I missed Grace, my old roommate. Back in California, we’d been thrust together because of our similar circumstances. She was runnin’ from somethin’, that was clear to see, and I was also runnin’ from somethin’: Zero. Neither of us had much to our name, but together we’d become somethin’ great. She was the closest thing I’d had to family in a long time, so figured Cruz would come in and ruin that.

As I stared at the gray walls, her face materialized. Long, curly brown locks and a face so innocent you’d want to shield her from the world. I knew better, though. Behind that curtain of naiveté lurked sinister memories. Grace wasn’t innocent; she’d seen some horrors in her life. Just like me.

I wondered what she was up to. I wondered if she was thinkin’ ‘bout me. Cruz had made me call her and tell her I was fine and not to look for me. He’d also made me call the police and say the same thing. While the police had seemed convinced, Grace had been hysterical. I didn’t like the idea of being forgotten…but I hated the idea that Grace was out there suffering ‘cause of my mistakes.

I sighed, closing my eyes at the memory of Grace. If I thought hard enough, I might be able to smell the seaside and hear the seagulls. I wouldn’t fall asleep—I could never, not there—but perhaps I’d drift off into semi-unconsciousness.

***

&I’d made a fatal mistake&. I’d fallen asleep. I was almost comfortable on my dirty, bodily fluid-soaked mattress. For a moment, I’d disappeared into dreamland and my circumstance was made mute—which made what happened next so much more difficult to deal with.

“Wakey wakey, bitch.” Zero grabbed me by the hair on my scalp and dragged me off the mattress, throwin’ my body onto the middle of the concrete floor. “Time to make up for all the trouble you’ve caused me.”

My bones ached. My gut growled. Every ligament felt stretched. Zero hadn’t spared me any, having taken to torture the minute we’d arrived at this hellhole. I wasn’t sure where we were; he’d knocked me out and blindfolded me immediately. We could be in Bermuda for all I knew.

I was pretty sure we were in Hell.

The first day he’d raped me. The second day he’d beaten me. The third day I’d stopped counting what he did to me, instead focusing on surviving. As I curled into a ball in the middle of the concrete, I felt my defenses cracking. The walls I’d built on arrival were crumbling.

For a brief instant since he’d kidnapped me, I’d been content. It was dumber than takin’ a raft to a flash flood, but I had let myself fall asleep. I’d been warmed and I’d felt safe. Then he’d ripped me out like a baby from a womb and thrown me on the cold, wet concrete. He ripped down the pants I’d had on since he kidnapped me. They were dirty and smelly, but they were the only protection I had against him. So of course he took them.

I couldn’t take it much longer. I couldn’t be Zero’s doll to do whatever he wanted with. He saw me as a thing to torture and use; there was no compassion in Zero. He was nothing, completely void.

“Someone will come for me,” I yelled desperately. I wasn’t so much yellin’ it at Cruz as I was yellin’ it for myself. It was my plea. It was my prayer.

Cruz laughed, the sound like nails on a chalkboard. “No one’s coming for you, you stupid bitch. You told everyone you’re fine.” With those words, the sound like a death knell to my ears, Cruz entered me.

***

&I heard the door open&, but I refused to look at him. Cruz had won. He’d even taken my clothes with him earlier. I was broken. I hadn’t moved since the mornin’, still in the fetal position. In the beginning I’d fancied myself a warrior. I thought I could handle everything Cruz threw at me.

Rape? I would compartmentalize until I was free.

Torture? I would breathe through the pain.

Humiliation? It was all in the eye of the beholder.

Until that mornin’. Cruz struck the final blow. He reminded me that I would never be free. One week, one month, one year, forever. It was all the same. I had sealed my fate the day I had called Grace and told her I was fine. I was so stupid. I had feared death by Cruz’s hand, when in reality that would have been mercy.

The worst part was that I had no way to end it. There was nothing I could use to kill myself in my prison. I only had the mattress. As I heard the footfalls of my destruction near me, not even tears would fall. I was utterly and completely razed.

I felt hands lift me up and terror seized my gut. What was Cruz planning now? I tried to shut everything out, I tried to fall down a well into my own dark consciousness, but a delicious scent filled my nostrils. Whereas Cruz stank of day old fast food mixed with mildew, the person carrying me smelled like cardamom and spices. I inhaled, confused, before carefully shifting my attention to the person carrying me.

My breath whooshed out of my body. Who was this man? He was so unlike Cruz. Whereas Cruz appeared like death himself, his skin the color of bone that stuck to his withering muscles, this man was life. He had golden skin accentuated by tattoos crawling up to his neck and out of his shirt. His jaw was square and firm, his frown only making him look that more strong. He had brilliant blue eyes that reminded me of the ocean. For a minute, those eyes transported me back to California.

He carried me out of the concrete prison and into the fresh air. The clean smell of forest and sunshine whipped me in the face. I’d been smelling my own urine and Cruz’s odor for what felt like years. I started to cry. Feeling weak and vulnerable, I nestled into his neck. Had I died? Was this man the reaper there to bring me to Heaven?

I felt fragile and useless, crying into the neck of a stranger, but for the first time since Cruz had taken me, I felt safe. Maybe this man was just going to pick up where Cruz had left off. Maybe this man was worse than Cruz. For the moment, though, I allowed my mind to settle and my terror to subside. For the moment, I felt safe.

3

CHARLIE

I’ve seen a lot of shit in my line of work, stuff that makes horror movies look like bedtime stories. I don’t get fazed any more. I do my job, go home, and sleep. You can’t be in my line of work if you let the job affect you. The ones who get attached get killed.

Or worse.

So when I picked up the crumpled, caramel-colored mess on the floor, I didn’t let it faze me. I didn’t register her nakedness, or her silent sobs, or the way her hair still shone despite the dirt that caked the strands. I ignored the way the flowers on her skin bloomed beneath the layer of dirt on her body. I didn’t question how someone so beautiful and unearthly could have ended up there. I tamped all of those feelings down.

As I carried her out to my car, I reminded myself that it was just a job. Whatever the girl had been through, it didn’t matter to me. I knew her name. I knew some of her story. Vic had sent me the pertinent details, but it didn’t matter. To me she was just a job. She was just a girl.

I didn’t register the fact that she clung to me the way a lover would. I didn’t mind the way she buried her face into my neck. None of that pertained to the job.

As I set her down in the passenger seat, I put a spare blanket over her. She greedily pulled the blanket up to her chin. Her eyes were closed the entire time, no doubt fatigued from the ordeal. As I pulled the seatbelt across her body, I again reminded myself it was just a job.

The seatbelt clicked and as I leaned out of the car, her eyes opened. Bright brown eyes the color of honey peered back at me. I froze, unable to move forward or go backward. Her eyes were warming, like caramel seeping into my veins. If you looked closely, you could see green flecks like little jewels around the iris.

“Are you an angel?” she asked, her voice small. I sucked in a breath. Even her voice was mesmerizing. I quickly removed myself from the situation, first double-checking that her seatbelt was secure. I couldn’t remove my gaze from her jewel-flecked one, though. As I exited her side, I banged my head on the roof of the car.

“Fuck.” I rubbed the top of my head before slamming the door shut. I’d already wasted too much time ogling the target. This was supposed to be a clean extraction, meaning no bloodshed. Bloodshed leaves a trail and a trail leads to questions. I was to extract the target and return her home. The longer I sat staring at the target, the more I risked the mission.

I slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the engine of the Land Rover. As we pulled out of the abandoned warehouse, I could feel her stare on me the same way I would feel a .45 pressed into my hip.

***

&We pulled& into the safe house just as night fell. The girl had fallen asleep somewhere around Lafayette and had stayed that way since. We passed through New Orleans and were now deep in Jean Lafitte. The safe house I had out there was unknown to anyone, even the men I worked with. It was a quiet and peaceful place, right along the Mississippi river.

Fireflies lit up the night, in most cases their twinkling yellow bursts the only source of light for miles. The cypress trees’ knees peeked out of the water, like ghostly hands. Their leaves hung like spectral curtains, glowing in the dark night. The bayou at night was an eerie, almost haunted place.

When Katrina came, it wiped away most of the houses in the area. In some places you could still see remnants of the past. Foundations remained, but the houses were swept away, leaving only the four posters. In other areas you’d see entire houses that were lifted from other parts of the city and carried down with the flood. The bayou had become a ghost town.

Naturally, I had built my home there.

Putting my car into park, I walked around to the passenger seat. The girl was still fast asleep. I lifted her out of the seat, making sure to keep her wrapped, and walked into the house. I was acutely aware of the fact that with every step I took into my house, I broke protocol further and dug my grave deeper and deeper.

The job was simple: find the girl and bring her home. She should have been on a plane by now, yet, when I drove to the airport, I kept on driving. Past the exit and beyond, until we got to the house with her safely in my arms. As I felt her in my arms, something tethered her to me. I knew nothing of her or how she had gotten herself into the mess, but I couldn’t let her go. Not yet.

I approached my hallway and was faced with yet another problem. Do I put the girl in my bed, or do I put her in the spare room? I was already in deep shit, but putting her in my bed…that was unspeakable.

Do not get attached to the target. It was rule number one. It was the simplest, most obvious rule. As I recounted the rule, my grip tightened on the girl.

Fuck.

I’m putting her in my room.

I shook my head as I cleared the distance to my bedroom.[_ I don’t know what the fuck is happening to me._]

I laid her down in my bed. Her breathing was steady, but a little shallow. She looked peaceful and serene. Her hair was black, with shades of chestnut highlighting it. Despite the dirt coating her skin, I could see her beauty. It was a beauty that stopped you in your tracks. A beauty that made poets write. A beauty that tore countries apart. As I watched her sleep, I felt like I wasn’t worthy.

A stray hair fell across her check and, like I was possessed, I moved it from her face. That one movement was so gentle and so unlike me, I whipped my hand back, staring at it as though it were a foreign creature. I was so busy staring at my hand that I didn’t notice her wake. By the time I did, it was too late. She was screaming, her beautiful hazel eyes contorted in fear.

She was afraid of me. I wished I could have comforted her and told her she had no reason to fear me, but the truth was she did. She should have feared me.

The girl scrambled to the top of the bed, practically pasting herself to the wall. She clung the blanket to her body and searched the room, trying to decipher meaning.

“Who are you?” she asked, fear lacing her voice. “Why am I here?” That was a loaded question if I ever heard one. The reason she was there was that I couldn’t figure out a way to shake her. I should have driven her to the airport and dropped her off. She should have been halfway to California by now. Instead, she was in my bed. She had a right to know why she was there, but first I had to figure out the answer.

“I took you,” I answered simply.

“Why?” Her brows caved as she eyed me up and down. Perhaps she was wondering if I was going to pick up where the asshole had left off. That’s what I would have been wondering.

“You have friends in the right places. They wanted you free.”

“I don’t have any friends,” the girl said suspiciously. “At least none that could have helped.”

“You hungry?” I asked. I wasn’t about to explain myself. I never did. The girl eyed me suspiciously.

“No,” she lied. I grunted my disbelief and left her. If she wanted to die of starvation, so be it. When I reached the kitchen I had every intention of making only one sandwich. Yet, as I prepared the ham, the cheese, and the lettuce for myself, I couldn’t eat it. I thought of the frightened girl in my bed.

“God fucking dammit.” I set my sandwich down, grabbed a glass of water, and walked back into the bedroom. “Here.” I shoved the sandwich at her, but she knocked my hand away.

“I don’t want it.” The girl was clearly starving. Her face was gaunt, black shadows marring the skin beneath her hypnotic hazel eyes, yet she refused to eat. She looked at the meal I gave her with disdain. I may as well have given her spiders.

I folded my arms, regarding her. “I don’t do this for everyone, you know.”

“Lucky me,” she spat, glaring at the sandwich.

“You want to starve?” I glared. “Because that’s what’s going to happen. Eat.” I gave her another chance at the sandwich, watching the machinations in her eyes. She was beyond starving, near death. She needed the sandwich, but she didn’t want to acknowledge my help. She’d given up too much already.

I could relate to that.

I placed the sandwich on the nightstand and left. I heard her scrambling as I shut the door.

***

&I spent& the night in the living room. I didn’t sleep, but then I rarely slept, and I wasn’t about to start when a girl under my protection slept in the next room.

When the sun came up I made breakfast. I always kept the safe house stocked with the essentials: milk, eggs, bread, butter, etc. I scrambled the eggs, put the bread in the toaster, and when it was done I walked into my bedroom.

The girl was already awake, staring at the door as if she expected me to come through.

“I made you breakfast.” I gestured at the tray I was holding. She glared at me and my peace offering.

“Why are you doin’ this?” she asked. The blanket I’d wrapped her in was pulled around her shoulders, and I realized I hadn’t given her a spare change of clothes, or shown her to the shower. This was the first time I’d ever taken a target to my home. I wasn’t used to it, obviously.

“Do you need some clothes?” I asked, ignoring her question.

“Answer me,” she pushed. “Is this some kind of fetish? You feed me before you fuck me?”

I coughed, trying to hide a laugh. “Not exactly.” The girl glared at me again. I set down the tray of food, the same way I had the night before, and told her where to find a spare change of clothes. Before leaving, I explained how to use the shower.

I waited outside the door, feeling like a sentry. An hour later I heard the shower. I waited another thirty minutes before returning. I had thought she was mesmerizing before, I thought I was speechless before, but seeing her freshly showered in my clothes…it did something to me. It woke up some primal, caveman-like feeling.

Her hair was wet and dripping and it made a small wet spot on the shirt she wore—my shirt. It was oversized, at least four times bigger than she was, but she looked beautiful.

“What the fuck is happening to me…” I whispered to myself.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I said, do you want anything?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Some fucking answers would be nice.”

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I grinned. She frowned, looking away. Fuck. I’m a fucking idiot. I’m trying to be charming over here and this girl has been traumatized. “I mean, my name is Charlie.”

“I’m Vera,” she offered meekly. I could have said I knew that; Vic had given me all of Vera’s information. I knew her name, her mother’s name, I even knew her sign: Gemini. I didn’t, though, because it was a big step for her to tell me her name.

“Well, Vera,” I said. “What do you want to know?” I walked slowly to the bed, knowing if I sat down and acknowledged this, whatever this was, it would be catastrophic. I’d kept my distance from the girl. I’d played around with whatever was happening to me, but now I was calling her by her name.

Vera.

It was a beautiful name to fit a gorgeous woman.

“Why am I here?” she asked.

“You know why,” I responded. “You have friends in the right places.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’re free from Cruz Zeros.”

“And now I’m stuck here…?” She looked at me warily, green speckled eyes stony. Clearly she was a fighter; she was testing me out, determining if I was friend or foe.

“No.” I folded my arms. “I brought you here to clean you up before taking you home.” In an instant she relaxed. Her body eased, her mouth slacked. Though her eyes still watched me, stony and determined, the relief she felt was evident.

“When do I go home?” she asked.

“When you’re ready.”

“I’m ready now,” she responded almost immediately. The response was like a knife to my gut. I didn’t know what I was expecting; I couldn’t keep her locked in my safe house forever, but I thought I’d have more time. More time to explore whatever the hell was happening.

“No you aren’t,” I said, surprised by my response.

“I am!” The girl stood on the bed, her legs wobbling. I reached out and clutched her by the arm to steady her weak legs.

“Clearly,” I said sarcastically.

“So I’m a little banged up.” She shook me off of her. “I want to go home!” It happened so fast. One second the girl was on the bed and the next she was darting out of my room. I ran out after her. She opened the front door and was halfway out before I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back in.

“Let me go! Let me go!” She kicked and screamed against me. Dammit if it didn’t make me hard. [_I’m a sick bastard. _]I shoved her on the couch and she jumped up again, attempting to make another run for it. I pinned her with both arms on either side of her body.

“You’re not going anywhere,” I said, my voice low. “Cruz Zeros is still out there and he’s looking for you.” I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it seemed to get her attention. She stopped struggling.

“So what? I’m stuck here?” she asked, averting her gaze.

“I will protect you, girl,” I said, grabbing her chin to force her eyes on mine. “I just need time to figure this out.”

4

VERA

Two days passed before I felt safe enough to leave the bedroom. Every day Charlie would come by at the same times—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—bringing food with him. He never said a word, simply set down the meal on the nightstand. It was almost like havin’ my own ghost—a ghost that knew how to cook a killer tamale, but a ghost nonetheless.

The day after he’d taken me, new clothes had appeared in the closet. Hanging next to the men’s dress shirts and pants were now women’s sweaters, shirts, skirts, and jeans. I touched the fabric, wonderin’ if I’d somehow died back at Cruz’s and was now in Heaven. It all seemed too good to be true.

It wasn’t until day three that I put on the new clothing. After Charlie brought in my lunch and left, I headed to the closet. Call it courage or crazy, but I shed the sweats and men’s shirt I’d been wearin’ for three days and donned new attire. Shockingly, it fit me perfectly. The jeans were snug but not too tight and the sweater fit in all the right places. I looked down at my body, stunned. Gathering a bit more crazy, I walked to the door.

My hand hesitated over the knob and I looked back at the room. It had become my sanctuary. Though it was four walls like what Cruz had held me in, it was nothing like that prison. The room was painted a steel blue color, so different than the dull gray I’d stared at for weeks. There was a big square window that looked out at the Mississippi river. At night, the fireflies danced.

Though I couldn’t be certain where I was exactly, I’d gathered we were somewhere along the Mississippi. Maybe we were in Louisiana. If that was the case, then I had come full circle. After leaving my small-town Louisiana home only months before, I’d been carted back like a lost dog. Shaking my head, I returned my gaze back to the knob. The metal was cold to my touch.

Panic crept into my lungs. What if the door was locked? I’d tried the doorknob in Cruz’s prison so many times. I’d pulled so hard that I’d ripped the knob off. A brief moment of elation had filled me then, as I was able to look through the hole to the other side. It was short-lived, because Cruz quickly discovered my secret. Soon he had the doorknob hole filled with concrete. That day had been one of the worst.

Takin’ in a deep breath, I turned the knob. Unlocked, thank god. I pushed the door open, expectin’ somethin’ terrible to happen, but I was only greeted with a hallway. Tentatively I stepped out, one leg at a time. I turned my head both ways, glancing down the long hallway. There was no plan in my brain, but I did crave answers. Was Charlie my savior, or was he another devil?

Choosing to go right, I took more tentative steps until I was at the end of the hallway. I found myself in a kitchen that overlooked a dining room and a living room. It was breathtaking.

“Going for a walk, girl?” I jumped, spinning around to see Charlie leanin’ casually in the doorway. I stumbled back, afraid, and nearly tripped over my feet. Grabbing the counter for balance, I walked around it and put more distance between us.

“I’m not going to hurt you, girl.” Charlie walked toward me. For the first time I noticed he walked with a slight limp. I was too afraid to ask if he was hurt, too scared for my own being. “If I wanted to hurt you I’d have done it a while ago, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know,” I stuttered, movin’ around the kitchen island as he advanced. “I don’t have any idea what your plans are.” Charlie watched me, his midnight blue eyes narrowing. He lifted his hands up, as if in surrender, and took two steps backward.

Folding his arms, he leaned against the steel fridge. I looked away, trying not to notice the way his muscles screamed against his skin. “I told you, girl. I’m here to take you home.”

“Then why am I still here?”

“You’re not ready.”

[_The hell I’m not. _]He had said that three days ago. “What will it take to prove to you that I am?” I leaned forward on the granite countertop, desperate and searching. Who did this guy think he was? Why did he get a say in my life? Charlie looked me once in the eyes and then shifted his gaze to the floor.

We remained like that for at least ten minutes. Finally, I lifted my hands from the countertop. It was clear Charlie wasn’t going to answer me.

“When you came to get me,” I said, shaking my head. “I thought I was safe. Clearly I was just trading in one prison for another.” Charlie’s gaze whipped back to me, the midnight stare sucking me deep.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, girl.”

“Oh yeah? Then why do you call me ‘girl’?” I asked, leaning in again. “You know my name. Could it be that you’re distancin’ yourself from me? For when you break the news that I’m never goin’ home?” Like a lion on the prowl, Charlie stalked around the island. Shoulders hunched, gaze fixed on me, I felt like an antelope caught at the wrong time. I knew I should move. I knew I should run. But I couldn’t. I was utterly tied.

Charlie stopped only inches from me. At that angle, I was intensely aware of his height and mass. It was like being in the wake of a planet—strong, powerful, all-encompassing. I opened my mouth to speak, but only breaths came out. Charlie grabbed my chin and there was no gentleness in the action.

“Vera,” he said. My name on his lips wasn’t reverence. It wasn’t adoration. It was an ownership and grimness heard only by mourners. Abruptly, Charlie let go of me. He stalked past me and out of the room. I was like a bomb survivor in his wake. I still felt his presence like shrapnel in my skin, and I still tasted his voice like toxic gas in my system.

***

&Hours later I touched a bruise&, looking at myself in the full-length mirror. It sat right above my left breast and was turning a garish yellow-green; at least that meant it was healing. I was almost completely healed. The scars Cruz left behind would only be emotional, so at least there was that.

I brought my hand to the mirror itself, touchin’ the girl that stared back. Was that me? The one without the smile. The one without the laughter.

“Excuse me.” I turned to see Charlie standin’ in the doorway, holdin’ a tray—presumably dinner. Maybe it was a peace offerin’, or maybe he intended to continue what he’d stopped earlier that day. Despite my nakedness, there was no blush on his face. Sure he’d seen me naked before when rescuin’ me from Cruz, but this was different.

Before I was practically a child, curled up and broken. Now I was healing. I was gettin’ my curves back. I was standin’ tall again. Still, Charlie didn’t shy away or apologize. When he spoke he was merely announcin’ his presence.

He gave me a once over, looking at me from top to bottom and bottom to top. He spared no feelings when he devoured me, making sure I knew he saw everything from my toes, to my pussy, to my face. Maybe if I had been a different person I would have felt what most do: shame, embarrassment, bashfulness, the usual. I wasn’t most.

Before Cruz had stolen me away, I’d been a cam girl. I got naked and fucked myself on camera for money. It was like porn, but a bit different. I did it for people live and I fulfilled their requests. I’d always been a sex positive person, much to my mother’s chagrin. I had tried to fit her mold of a perfect Catholic Latina princess, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me.

“When are you going to be done with that?” I asked, gesturing at the dinner tray.

“Can’t let you starve.” Charlie walked over to the nightstand and set the tray down, like he’d done all the days I’d been there. “Not on my watch.” He folded his arms, regarding me again. I’d been naked for countless men and women. My body had become like the statues in museums, the curves memorized by everyone. Yet, when Charlie looked at me, I felt new. I felt exposed. I felt different.

I shrugged at him, tryin’ to convey nonchalance, and threw on a sweater.

“Don’t get dressed on my account,” he said, taking a seat on the bed. He watched as I pulled on a pair of jeans.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, throwing Charlie the finger over my back.

***

&Breakfast didn’t come& the next day. I didn’t realize how much I depended on that little bit of human interaction until lunch, when again I didn’t see his face. Charlie hadn’t shown any anger when I left my room the day before. In fact, he’d almost seemed excited. I know I can leave…

I stared at the wooden door. I know it’s unlocked. I know I can leave the room any minute…but I’m afraid. Not of Charlie, not the way I was of Cruz, but of what he’s doin’ to me. I felt excitement. I felt tingly. I felt terror. He’s not like the other men I’ve dated or fucked. He’s nothin’ like them. With them I could leave any time. With Charlie, I feel compelled toward him.

Standin’ up from the bed, I shook the thought out of my head. Clearly I was traumatized. There was no way I could feel anything for someone like Charlie. Charlie was dangerous and probably insane. You’d have to be insane to come and rescue some worthless girl like me.

I stepped into the closet and fingered the nice clothes Charlie had presumably bought for me. I didn’t understand. There were cashmere sweaters, gorgeous lingerie, and expensive jeans. Why would he do that? I frowned, throwin’ on the most expensive looking one. Because screw it, right? I wasn’t going to live like this forever.

Hopefully. I mean, that was the plan. The plan was to leave.

Even if I did feel tied to this man.

I had to leave.

Opening the door wasn’t as hard as it had been the day before. In fact, it only took two minutes of staring at the knob this time and then I was out, walking around the house. I went left this time instead of right. The hallway led me to a room where Charlie sat, looking at a computer.

Every instinct I had told me to turn around, every instinct but one: the one in my gut. The one gnawing to touch him and be touched by him.

“What do you want?” Charlie asked without turning around.

“Nothin’,” I replied, leaning against the doorway the same way he had the day before. “Just explorin’.”

Still without turning around, Charlie replied. “You go exploring, you might not like what you find.”

“I’ll take my chances.” Charlie stood up out of his chair and came toward me, faster than I thought humanly possible.

“Do you think this is some kind of game, girl?” Head bent, his Atlantic blue eyes probed deep. His mouth was set in a thin line and his jaw ticked. I was never really one to back down, though.

“I don’t know what this is, Charlie.” I emphasized his name pointedly, showing how once again he had referred to me as “girl”. Charlie drove me out of the room with the sheer magnitude of his body and shoved me against the hallway wall.

“Vera.” Charlie pressed himself deeper against me. I opened my mouth in silent surprise when I felt his hard length like a steel rod against my stomach. “You’re playing with fire.”

“Sometimes I like to get burned,” I responded, pressing myself back. It was Charlie’s turn to look surprised. I used it to my advantage and shimmied out from beneath him. I ran down the hallway and into my room, shutting the door without hesitation. When I turned to lock it, though, I paused. The logical conclusion would have been that I had gotten some kinda PTSD from being locked inside a concrete cage and so didn’t want to lock the door. Something inside me was whispering otherwise, though. Something inside me didn’t want to lock someone out.

5

VERA

I sat down next to Charlie when he delivered breakfast the next day. “If I’m goin’ to stay, maybe you can tell me a bit about yourself.” I tugged at the sleeve of the sweater I wore, hating how vulnerable I felt. Even when I did my shows for the randoms online, I still felt powerful. Now, sittin’ next to Charlie, I felt so open.

Charlie’s gruff voice warmed me like a Christmas tree. “What do you want to know?”

“How did you find me?”

“I told you—”

“People in high places,” I cut him off. “What does that mean? Why me? I’m nobody.” I could feel his stare on me even though I didn’t look. It was hotter than the summer sun and heavier than the rain. Slowly I turned to meet his gaze.

“You are worth more than anybody I’ve ever known,” Charlie said, gaze pinnin’ me.

I laughed awkwardly. “Thanks for lyin’, but you don’t have to do that with me.” I rubbed my arms and looked away.

“A man named Vic called in a favor. You were the favor.” I frowned and looked back at Charlie. I didn’t know anyone named Vic, and I especially didn’t know any Vics who could call men like Charlie.

“I really think you have the wrong girl. I mean I’m real appreciative that you came and got me…”

“I don’t make mistakes, Vera.” His voice was so hard and sure that I nearly believed him. “Vic Wall called in a favor for one Vera Araya.”

I gasped. Vic Wall? “I know Grace Wall…” I paused before asking, “Can I call her?”

Charlie’s answer was immediate. “No.”

“Now why the hell not?” I asked.

Charlie seemed to think on my question for a bit before finally responding, “You’re not ready.”

“Bullshit,” I muttered, standin’ up so I was right across from him. Charlie chuckled to himself and I nearly slapped him across the face. I stretched my hands out, tryin’ to free them of the feeling.

“Do it,” he said.

“Do what?” I glared.

“Hit me.” The way he spoke, it was as if he was asking me to kiss him, not hit him. I shook my head, not likin’ the way the conversation had turned.

“I’m not gonna hit you.” I folded my arms, still glaring.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” he said, a crooked smile on his face.

“You’re just like the rest,” I spat. “Cocky, arrogant, and a brute of a man.” In a flash Charlie was up and gripping me by the waist. He held me flush against his body so I could feel him throbbing against me. Secretly, I wondered if the throbbing I felt at my belly matched his heartbeat.

“I am cocky. I am arrogant. And I am a brute of a man, but I am not like the rest.” I ripped myself out of his hold, ready to argue, when he did something amazing. I watched as Charlie bent over and, with careful deliberation, lifted up one leg of his jeans. Silently he revealed that one of his legs was missing and in its place was a prosthetic.

***

&I’d never seen& a prosthetic before. It reminded me of a high-tech steel skeleton. It was as if all the useless stuff was stripped away and in its place remained the bare essentials needed to function. Raw power in an iron cage. I reached out to touch it, but pulled back when I realized what I was doin’.

“So?” I said, sittin’ back down on the bed. Charlie stayed standin’, his prosthetic visible. “All that proves is that you got hurt.”

“I showed you my deepest shame, Vera,” Charlie said, bendin’ back down to cover it up. “The least you could do is acknowledge how hard it was.”

I bit the inside of my lip, feelin’ bad. When he phrased it that way, it sounded terrible. I didn’t look at what he’d shared as shameful. He’d been hurt and continued on. That wasn’t shameful; if anythin’, it was admirable. Then again, I had a few skeletons in my closet I wouldn’t want people knowin’.

“Sorry,” I offered.

“Make it up to me,” Charlie said.

“Of course,” I said. “You can’t just take an apology like a normal person, can you?”

Charlie grinned. “I showed you mine.”

“What the fuck do you want?” I spat. “I used to be a cam girl. There.”

“I know that already.” Charlie sat down next to me. “I know most everything that is on record. It’s why I’m so good at my job.”

I scoffed. “So you know that I used to be engaged, then?”

“No.” The word came out as a low growl and I looked to see if Charlie was okay. His fists were curled so tight they were almost white and his gaze was fixed straight ahead.

“Yeah,” I continued. “Well I don’t really like to talk about it.”

“To Cruz Zeros?” Charlie asked, voice still dangerously low.

“Ha!” I laughed. “No, thank god, but this guy wasn’t much better. No…” I sighed, really wishin’ I didn’t have to tell the story. “You know, no one really knows this. I mean people know I was engaged, but they don’t know my feelins ‘bout it. I kept those locked tight.”

“I consider myself honored.” I looked at him sideways, not sure if he was bein’ sarcastic or not, but all I saw was sincerity. Charlie grasped my palm, my hand looking so small in his.

I exhaled, getting ready to tell my story. “Yeah, well, it goes like this. Mama was a real devout Catholic. She really loved me but, I mean, I could tell I was a big disappointment, seein’ as I didn’t go to church much and I slept around a lot. One day Hollis, my ex, comes along and we started gettin’ along fine and all. That is until we moved in together after he proposed. He started beatin’ me”—Charlie growled and I stopped for a moment before continuing—“and all that stuff. I was gonna call off the engagement but right around that time, Mama was diagnosed with cancer. My weddin’ was the only bright spot in her life. She loved it when I went to try on dresses and Hollis was never out of turn around her. Since she was dyin’ of cancer I didn’t want to burst her bubble or nothin’. She died about a week before the weddin’.” I laughed raggedly. “I was so relieved, because then I didn’t have to marry Hollis. I was so relieved I didn’t even mourn Mama. Then Cruz came into my life. I think he was my punishment. You know? My karma for wantin’ my mama to die.”

I looked up at Charlie, not sure what to expect. His eyes were murky, the emotion distant. I leaned in to get a better look and he followed. I could smell him all over, his scent enveloping me. I was so close to his lips I could practically taste him. The energy between us crackled.

Then, Charlie let go of my hand and severed the bond. Without another word, he left the room.

6

CHARLIE

I leaned against the doorframe, watching her, transfixed. She danced fluidly, her arms and legs moving like leaves in the wind. How did she have joy in her soul after so much darkness? She was like a white flower floating along a dark river, so completely detached from it all.

There was no music; she didn’t need it. She sang to herself. The melody was upbeat and her voice was loud. I’d left her the other day and hadn’t been back except to bring food. That day when she shared her story with me had been a breaking point. I had to let her go soon or I never would, so that’s what I was going to do.

I was going to gather her up and take her home.

But fuck me backwards.

I couldn’t think straight when she danced.

“How long you been standin’ there?” she asked.

“Long enough,” I replied. Vera came over to me, dancing the entire way. She beckoned to me, but I shook my head. I hadn’t danced when I’d had two legs, I sure as fuck wasn’t going to dance now. Shrugging, Vera turned away from me and bent over, her ass in the air, and lifted up. My cock stirred at her erotic dancing.

I wasn’t sure if she meant to entice me, but that’s what she was doing. Watching her spin and drop to the floor, all I could think of was sex.

“Take off your clothes.” Vera spun around at my request, eyes wide as a doe.

“What?” She still didn’t stop dancing.

“Take off your clothes. Let me see you.” A dark smile spread across her face at my request. Slowly she peeled off her shirt. I smiled when I saw the lingerie I bought her beneath. It was light blue with lace and it looked fucking great against her skin.

“Now your pants.” Vera paused at my request and I quirked a brow. “Did I say you could stop dancing?” Vera smiled that dark and deadly grin again before starting to sway. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, asking her to strip for me and making her dance. I’d come to bring Vera her lunch and tell her I was going to take her home finally, but instead I’d stumbled upon this.

We’d been skirting around our sexual tension for a week. I knew what I was doing was about as dangerous as throwing a match in a puddle of gasoline, but shit. My willpower only went so far.

I didn’t think she’d actually go for it. I didn’t think she’d actually start taking off her clothes. I expected her to fight me as per usual. Now it was like we were both in a deadly game of truth or dare, each wanting to see how far the other would go.

Vera stripped out of her jeans and I sucked in a breath that sounded more like a hiss. Wearing only a light blue thong, I could discern the outline of her pussy. Suddenly I wanted nothing more in the world than to sink into it. To bury my cock or my face into that beautiful caramel-colored pussy.

“I’d better go.” I turned to leave.

“Why?” Vera demanded. I didn’t give her an excuse, I didn’t even respond. I walked out of her—my room, shutting the door behind me. I cursed when I heard the door open. Glancing back, I saw Vera following me, still wearing nothing but the lingerie.

“What the fuck was that?” Vera called after me. I stopped, turning to face her.

“Go put some clothes on.”

Vera scoffed. “Are you fucking kidding me? You just told me to get naked!” Vera shook her head, disbelief evident on her face. “You know what, fine. Fuck you. I knew you thought I was trash, but I didn’t think you would fuck with me. Asshole.” Vera spun around to head back to my room, but I grabbed her by the elbow, bringing her into me.

Crushed against my chest, I felt everything. I felt her heartbeat, I felt her breasts lift and fall with her furious breathing, I felt the warmth of her skin. It was enough to undo me.

“You are not trash, Vera Araya.” I pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re good—too good. I’m not worthy.”

Vera shook her head. “That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie. I’ve been a bad girl. Punish me.”

***

&I hadn’t been& able to get Vera out of my mind since taking her home. What was supposed to be a one-day job had turned into a two-week long excursion. It wasn’t the ethics I was worried about. My ethics had been fucked the moment I sold my soul to the gun.

It was Vera.

Vera was more than a fucktoy I could use and throw back. She was burrowing her way inside of me, and I was letting her. She’d shown me herself unclothed and raw. Not just without clothing, but without her armor. I knew I was fucked. There was no way I was sending Vera home. She was mine, dammit.

To take her, though? To fuck her after what that skinhead asshole had done to her? I might be degraded, but I wasn’t completely soulless. Not yet, anyway. I made sure to keep my distance. I set boundaries. But now, now she broke them down with just one single sentence.

“I want you to punish me,” Vera said—no, practically begged me. She looked up at me, her eyes puppy dog brown, her lip caught between her teeth.

Fuck it, I’m going to hell anyway. Might as well enjoy the ride.

I grabbed her by the hair and pulled it back, forcing her to look up at me. “Do you know what I’m gonna do, girl? It isn’t nice. It isn’t pretty. I’m going to fuck you until I break you.”

Vera narrowed her eyes and for a moment I thought I had her. I thought she understood the danger I posed to her. Instead, she shoved her hand down my pants and gripped my cock. “Don’t call me girl.”

I was lost.

I snaked my other hand around and furiously grabbed her by the neck, pulling her in for a kiss. No more waiting, I was going to taste her. When her lips crushed against mine, I let out a frustrated and pent up growl. She tasted like raspberries. How the fuck did she taste like raspberries?

I needed more.

I thrust my tongue into her mouth, warring with hers, letting her know in no uncertain terms that she belonged to me. With her hand still wrapped around my cock (like it would be forever if I had any say about it) I started to step forward. We moved together, our tongues tied, and I pushed Vera up against the hallway wall. Her small hands came out of my pants and started undoing the buttons. In an instant my cock was free and I spun her around so she couldn’t see me.

I hadn’t been naked with a woman since the accident. I’d fucked of course, but none of them had seen me.

“I want to see you, Charlie.” Vera reached around her back, grabbing my cock.

I groaned. “No.” I pushed her harder into the wall, ripping off her panties, my cock finding her entrance. In one rough push I was inside of her. She was warm, wet, and wanting. Her pussy tightened around my cock and it took all my strength not to come right then like a fucking boy. Vera fought against me, struggling to get free from my hold. I’d be a fucker if I didn’t admit her struggling made me harder.

“This is what you wanted, Vera,” I growled into her ear. “You wanted me. I’m damaged. I’m rough. I don’t play nice. I don’t ask for permission.” I fucked into her, even as she fought against me. I felt her pussy tighten, I heard her breathing grow labored. She was going to come. I was going to rip that orgasm out of her whether she wanted me to or not.

I reached an arm around, laying my palm flat on her stomach. Slowly, I trailed my fingers down until they were buried in her pussy. As I pounded into her, my fingers played against her clit. Her fighting ceased and she melted into me. For a few seconds of bliss, Vera gave herself up completely. My name left her lips in a whisper.

As she settled down, I prepared for my own undoing, but Vera elbowed me in the abdomen. I let go of her briefly, giving her just enough time to wiggle out from under me. I turned to see her, cheeks flushed from the orgasm, hair a mess, and still naked from the waist down.

She was beautiful.

“You are not that man,” she accused. “That’s who you pretend to be.” Vera hurriedly grabbed her clothes and began dressing. She reached for my shirt and threw it over the lingerie.

“Who am I then?” I took a step to Vera when I noticed her gaze drop to my leg. “This?” I grabbed my prosthetic. “This is what you want to see?”

Vera glared, her gaze returning to me. “I don’t care about your leg.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me,” I growled.

“I’m the liar?” Vera laughed but the sound didn’t reach her eyes. “You’re the one who keeps saying the only reason I can’t leave is because I’m not ready, but we both know that’s a lie. It’s you who isn’t ready, Charlie. You’re not ready!”

“Then leave, girl! Get the fuck out!” I took a harsh step toward Vera, gesturing like a madman. She stumbled back, fear and anger in her eyes.

“You don’t mean that,” Vera whispered.

“Get the fuck out if you want to go so badly!” I threw my hand out to point at the door just as Vera took a step toward me. My hand collided with her cheek and I knew I’d hurt her. Tears welled in her eyes. She turned and ran, thrusting the front door open. The wood smacked against the wall. I opened my mouth to call after her but nothing came out.

Maybe it was better she ran.

7

VERA

I was about three miles down the road before my actions started to resonate in my mind. I was in the middle of nowhere with no cash and no cellphone. I didn’t have any shoes and was only wearing a baggie t-shirt. My situation was really lookin’ bleak.

“Shit.” I kicked a loose rock, feelin’ frustrated. How had all of this happened to me? All I wanted to do was leave Louisiana and start over. I wanted a new life. I wanted adventure. Was that so much to ask? I thought back to Charlie and the way I’d felt when I was with him.

The thought was almost enough to make me turn around. He hadn’t meant to hit me. I knew that by the way he’d looked when his hand hit my cheek. I’d been hit by men before. I’d been hit by lovers before. Their faces didn’t look a thing like Charlie’s.

Charlie was dark and dangerous, but he was something else too. He was my missing piece. He filled the hole inside me. Sex with Charlie had been metamorphic. He’d given me an orgasm in minutes, and the orgasm he’d given me had completely transformed my being. Life without Charlie seemed like being a butterfly that wanted to go back to being a caterpillar.

I turned around, looking back at the way I’d come. Would he want me back? I’d left so angrily. I watched the horizon, wonderin’ about my options. A lone truck appeared, steadily getting closer. The massive vehicle got closer and closer and I expected it to keep going, but it stopped.

The engine was still roaring when the side door opened, revealing a man with a long unkempt beard and beady eyes.

“Hey little lady, need a ride?” I surveyed the trucker. He seemed harmless enough. Worst thing he would do was make me blow him. Charlie’s face popped into my head unbidden. Before Charlie, I hadn’t given myself much value. A blowjob here, a blowjob there, who cares. If someone took it without asking, not a big deal.

Charlie made me see how wrong that was.

Charlie made me see a lot of things.

I glared at the trucker and put my hands on my hips. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothin’,” the trucker responded. “It’s rainy and wet out, tryin’ to do a good deed.” I stared down the long, windy black road. If I didn’t get in, I may as well have signed my death warrant.

“Fine.” I lifted my foot to the ledge, grabbed the handle, and climbed in. The trucker smiled at me before putting his foot on the gas.

“Zero’s sure gonna be happy when he sees what I’ve found.” I opened my mouth in silent shock, prepared to fight, but it was too late. The trucker hit me over the head and everything went black.

***

&No&.

I refused to accept it.

It could not be happening.

No.

Not again.

I buried my head in my hands. The headache, the horrible pounding from where the trucker had knocked me out, was nothing compared to the utter despair I felt. I saw the gray walls, the dirty mattress, and I knew instantly what had happened.

I’d traded in love for cataclysm. I didn’t need to lift my head and look to know who it was. I recognized the stench. I recognized the footfalls. I recognized everything. The room was slightly different, but the feeling had been burned into my head only weeks before. It would stay there forever.

“Welcome home, cunt.”

8

CHARLIE

Shit.

Shit. Fuck. Shit. Goddamn, motherfucking cunt, motherfucking shit.

I’d lost her.

I screamed, barreling my fist into the wall and making a large dent in the plaster. I should have run after her right away. By the time I’d gone it was too late.

I’m a goddamn motherfucking idiot.

He has her.

I fucking knew he had her, because the fucking trucker that had taken her had told me so. After looking through the security footage of all the gas stations within a ten-mile radius, I found the trucker that had taken Vera.

He squealed like a fucking pig. Too bad his squeals didn’t know shit about where Cruz Zeros was hiding.

“I don’t know shit, man!” the trucker had said, coughing up blood. “It’s all over the ground! Said he’d pay big money if we brought his bitch back alive so he could fuck her one last time before—” I punched him across the face when he said that and after that he was useless. I put a bullet in his skull and threw him in the river for the gators to eat.

The only good information I’d gotten from him was that Zero had had a bounty out on Vera and wanted her alive so he could kill her himself. Of course I checked his old spot out, but Cruz Zeros had enough brains to move, unfortunately. I’d told Vera Cruz was looking for her, but it had been a lie, a trick to get her to stay. I didn’t believe that fucker would actually try and get her back.

I’d underestimated him.

And now I was paying for it.

I sat in my office, contemplating what to do. There really was only one option left. I picked up my phone and dialed the number.

“What?” His low, menacing growl was unmistakable. Seven was not a man you disturbed unless you absolutely had no choice. It was like waking a dragon. The dragon didn’t care what it burned; the fire blazed indiscriminately.

“It’s Charlie.”

“I know who the fuck this is,” Seven snarled. “You think everyone has this number?”

“I need your help.” There was a long pause on the line. I knew Seven hadn’t hung up, he just wanted me to squirm. Seven was nice like that.

At last he said, “What did you do?”

I retold the story of Vera to Seven. The further into the details I got, the more like a shithead I felt. Seven didn’t make it any easier.

“You can’t handle a fucking small-town drug dealer?” Seven scoffed.

“I got too close,” I explained. “I let myself be clouded by emotions.”

Seven laughed bitterly. “First Vic and now you. Are they putting something in the vaginas down there?”

“Are you gonna come bail me out or what?” I growled.

“I’ll be there tomorrow. Don’t fuck anything up in the mean time.”

***

&Seven was a beast of a man&, tatted out from head to foot with a smattering of scars. Him and his crew were called The Boogiemen, because they went bump in the night and you never saw them coming. One minute you were alive and the next you were dead. They slid away without a trace.

To be a Boogieman you had to be ruthless. You had to be soulless. You had to be utterly blackened. I was a bad man, I did things the devil would balk at, but I ruminated on my sins. I acknowledged my evil. Seven reveled in his. At the moment, I was grateful for that, because to have a Boogieman on your side meant everyone should run and hide. It meant I had a chance at getting Vera back.

“So this cunt made of gold or what?” Seven asked, leaning on the side of his car. The McLaren was out of place in the swamp and brought attention, but Seven wasn’t one to worry about drawing attention. He knew anyone who tried to fuck with him wouldn’t live to regret it.

“Something like that,” I responded. Seven was acting friendly, but I knew better than to think him a friend. He dealt in favors and blood, and I was going to owe him one of each. If I could help it, I would rescue Vera and leave her out of it. If I could help it, I would use Seven without him meeting Vera.

“Well hop in.” Seven got in the McLaren and I followed suit. He peeled out of the gas station we’d agreed to meet at and we were zooming down the highway before I even shut the door. The car was so smooth against the ground, I barely even noticed how fast Seven was going.

“What’s the plan?” I asked.

“Get the girl and kill the guy.” Seven paused. “Maybe I get a po’boy afterwards, I haven’t decided.”

“Will you take this fucking seriously?”

“This isn’t fucking Algiers—fuck, do you remember Algiers? Goddamn nightmare…” Seven made a hard left onto a dirt road. Many people would cringe at the mere thought of bringing a McLaren on a dirt road, but no one was like Seven.

“Anyway.” Seven turned to me. “We’re in Louisiana hunting a fucking small-time drug dealer. It took Ghost five fucking minutes to find the guy.” Ghost was another Boogieman, a member of Seven’s crew. You wouldn’t want to know the reason they called him Ghost.

I punched the dashboard, sick of Seven’s shit. “I told you, I’m not thinking clearly.”

“No shit,” Seven said. “It isn’t the chick. You haven’t thought clearly since the day you lost that leg.”

“Fuck you,” I growled.

“No thanks,” Seven replied sardonically as he pulled the car to a stop outside an abandoned house. With a rusted tin roof and rotted wooden siding, it looked like it hadn’t been inhabited in years. It was the only place for miles. “Your girl is in there.”

9

CHARLIE

It could have been an easy in and out job, just like the first time, but Seven made it clear that wasn’t worth his time. He wanted action. He wanted blood. So we went in the front door (if you could call a bunch of scrap metal welded together a door) guns blazing.

The first two “guards” went down easy. They were sitting at a plastic table playing cards and didn’t see the bullets coming. After that our presence was known. For a small house, it was packed pretty heavily with assholes. I counted ten men I had to take out; I wasn’t sure what Seven’s body count was.

There was still no sign of Cruz Zeros. We advanced to the last room, guns still drawn. When I heard her voice, I lost my shit.

“No!” Vera called out. “I won’t let you do this!” I kicked open the door and saw red at the sight: Zeros holding Vera, a knife to her neck.

“Charlie, leave!” Vera shot me a nervous glance. “This is what he wants!”

“Finally,” Seven said. “Shit’s getting interesting.”

“Put the fucking knife down,” I growled, gun aimed at his skull.

“No way man,” Zeros said. “She’s my ticket outta here.” The sound of a gunshot had me scrambling. Zeros went down and so did Vera. I rushed to her.

“Are you hurt?” I touched Vera all over, looking for any imperfections on her perfect skin. She wrapped her arms around my neck, clinging to me. Zeros screamed like a stuck pig; he’d been shot in the thigh. When it was clear that Vera wasn’t hurt, I turned to Seven.

“What the fuck?” I screamed at Seven. “You shot him? He could have killed her!”

Seven gave me a bored look. “I don’t have all day to play hostage. I have tickets to see that new movie everyone is coming in their pants about.” Ignoring Seven, I pulled out my gun, ready to end Cruz’s miserable existence. Seven stayed my hand. “No.”

I let out a frustrated groan, not sure what Seven was up to. “You want to fuck him up a bit first?” I wasn’t in the mood for games. I wanted to take Vera home and get her warm and safe. Whatever fuckery Seven had planned for Cruz, I wanted it over quick.

“No, I want her to shoot him.” Seven shot Vera a wicked grin. It wasn’t a happy smile. Seven didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t rejoice. What he did do was revel in other’s misery. The expression on his face was more akin to a jack-o-lantern than a human smile.

“What?” Vera exclaimed, clinging to me harder.

“What the fuck are you playing at, Seven?” I barked.

“This whole fucking thing has been…” Seven paused as if looking for the right word. “Not really worth my time. So make it worth my time. I want to see this little doe shoot someone.”

“Fuck off, Seven.” I pulled Vera to her feet, pushing her behind me to shield her from Seven. I knew it was fruitless. Once Seven wanted something, he got it, no matter the cost. Still, I was willing to fight, even if it meant laying down my life.

“Don’t be so goddamn dramatic, Charlie. I just want her to shoot the fucker. He’s gonna die anyway.”

“Oh man!” Both Seven and I turned to look at the whining, whimpering mess on the floor. “Come on, just let me go, I’ll do anything you want.” Seven didn’t even raise a brow. Both of us were so hardened to the pleas of dying men that it may as well have been white noise. I didn’t want that for Vera, though. She was sunshine and life; she didn’t deserve to turn to stone. She didn’t deserve to have Seven snuff out her light.

Ignoring Cruz, I rounded on Seven. “Back the fuck off.” Seven’s face quirked into a small smile. The only time I saw Seven smile was when he was about to kill. Nevertheless, I pressed on. “It’s over. I’m taking Vera and you won’t see us again.”

“Sure you want to play it like that?” His voice was deathly quiet, like the whisper of a storm before it broke.

Making sure Vera was still behind me, I stepped up. When I’d called Seven for help, I’d known he was unpredictable. Still, I had been willing to risk it. Without him I wouldn’t have found Vera in time. Sure, I would have found her eventually, but it might’ve been too late. I didn’t have the resources he had. He had The Boogiemen and together they were unstoppable. Without his help, I probably would have found a body.

“Vera.” I said her name, keeping my eyes trained on Seven. “Run.” Seven laughed, the sound cold and lifeless.

“No,” Vera said against my back. “No, I’ll do it.”

“Ah,” Seven said, peering around me at Vera. “The little doe wants to be a wolf.”

“Fuck you,” Vera spat. Turning to me she said, “I’ll do it.” There was terror and urgency in her eyes, but there was also determination. I didn’t have time to think about how I’d put her in this position. I didn’t have time to wonder if she’d have been better off if I’d have taken the exit and put her on the plane. There was no time for regrets or what-ifs. There was only now.

Reluctantly, I pulled out my .45 and placed it in her palm.

“Do you know what to do?” I asked quietly as she weighed the gun in her palm.

“What the fuck is this?” Cruz screamed, outraged. “Are you shitting me? Don’t shoot me baby. Don’t you remember the times we had? I love you!”

Vera’s eyes narrowed at Cruz’s outburst. She lifted the gun and I watched her face for any sign of doubt or distress. I saw something in her eyes, but it wasn’t fear. In her hazel glare was the same cool calculation and sure determination that had lodged itself in my soul. It was the look of a killer.

When she pulled the trigger, the kickback pushed her into my chest. I wrapped my arms around her and Vera dropped the gun like it was a snake. Cruz Zeros’ body fell to the ground, blood pooling around his head like a halo, probably the only halo the guy would ever wear. I rubbed Vera’s arms, now covered in goose bumps, and fuck if I wasn’t hard. We’ve already established that I was a sick bastard, still, that awareness didn’t stop me from getting turned on by her first kill.

“Nice.” Seven’s voice trickled into our bubble. “There’s not enough room in the McLaren for everyone. You’ll find a way back, I’m sure.” Seven gave me a pat on the shoulder and sauntered out. For a moment I thought I would get away, but that moment was short lived. Seven’s icy tone drifted back like winter wind.

“You owe me.”

***

&Cleanup wasn’t& a big deal and neither was the fact that Seven had left us without a ride, they were just minor annoyances. I always had a guy on standby for cleanup, and the same person who stocked my safe house dropped a car off, calling himself a cab. The problem was Vera. I had her now, but she had no reason to stay. Cruz Zeros was out of the picture.

I drove back to the house, wondering if I should drive slower to prolong the drive. About the same time that thought popped into my brain, I began to wonder when I’d become such a pussy.

Vera was just a girl.

I didn’t get hung up on girls.

As the thought left my mind, I knew it was a lie. Vera wasn’t just a girl, she was the girl. There was no way I was letting her leave. I turned my gaze from the road and to Vera. She was staring at her hands with a blank look on her face. The first kill I had made was in the Navy. I knew I wasn’t like the others right away. For them, it was hell. It was a bit easier because Uncle Sam took some of the burden, but still the guilt wracked and destroyed parts of them.

Not me.

I liked it.

It had unleashed a part of me that would have made my mother weep, had she not already drowned her soul with alcohol.

“You okay?” I asked, turning my attention back to the road.

“Is it wrong that I…” Vera looked out the window. “Never mind.”

“Tell me.” Vera would need what the soldiers had needed: therapy, consoling, and the like. Not me. I was the worst thing for her.

“Is it wrong that I liked it?” I snapped my head to her.

“Liked what?” I knew what she was talking about, but I had to hear her say it.

“I liked killing Cruz.” Vera licked her lips, her gem-flecked gaze pinning me. I was hypnotized. A car honked and I spun away just in time to avoid a head-on collision. I kept my eyes on the road the rest of the way, but I could feel Vera’s on me.

She liked[_ killing_]. Well, that changed everything.

10

VERA

Charlie pushed the door open with our bodies, his hands tangled in my hair.

“Fuck, you’ll destroy me,” he said, biting my lip and dragging it out. “But I’ll gladly walk to my destruction.”

I pulled back, briefly endin’ our kiss, and said, “I love you, Charlie.” It was the first time I’d ever said the words and meant it. Excitement and terror filled my gut, but I needed him to know where I stood. No more runnin’.

When I pulled the trigger on Cruz, I expected to feel guilty or remorseful. Instead I felt liberated. When the bullet left the chamber, I realized I’d effectively murdered myself. Vera Araya had been dyin’ a slow death for years, though; I’d just ended her misery. Before, I’d kept trying to fit other people’s molds. First Mama’s Catholic Latina princess. Then Hollis’s bride. Then Cruz’s bitch. Each time had slowly chipped away the original: me.

It took meeting Charlie to finally see who I was.

Charlie gripped me on either side of my head, pullin’ me into a long, heady kiss. “I love you, Vera,” he whispered against my lips before pullin’ me back to him. The kiss broke me and put me back together again. His lips were hot and greedy, takin’ everything I had to offer and more.

We fell to the floor in a needy heap, tangled in more ways than just our bodies; our souls twisted and wrapped around each other’s. Charlie undressed me quickly, ripping off his shirt as if it was hot to the touch.

“Wait,” I said as a thought popped into my head. Charlie either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, because he kept kissin’ me, movin’ from my lips to my shoulders to the tops of my breasts. I groaned, losin’ the will to speak. “Wait, I haven’t showered… I’m dirty…” The last place I’d been was the warehouse with Cruz. I probably didn’t taste very good.

Charlie thrust a finger inside me. It was so quick and sudden that I didn’t have time to prepare, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t ready for him. I was already wet clear down my thighs. Charlie removed the finger almost as quickly and I sighed, missin’ him already.

Charlie licked the finger that had been inside me and practically grunted, his voice was so low. “Taste good to me.” He resumed his assault on my body, kissing every inch of my skin. No part of me was left untouched by his lips. “Taste fucking great, actually.”

I lost myself to delirium. Charlie and his lips, his tongue, his touch, was all I knew. I couldn’t even appreciate it when he stripped off his shirt, I was already so far gone. I thought I might go mad, driven insane by pleasure. Was it possible to feel too good?

Charlie flipped me over, forcin’ me to be on all fours. He palmed my round cheeks and said, “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.” It wasn’t a question. I craned my head to look at him, black hair cascading in waves ‘round my shoulders. He held me flush against his cock and from my angle he looked magnificent. Like a god. Would I ever get used to his strength and beauty?

“You are?” My lips lifted in a grin.

“I’ve already had your cunt.” He paused, a small smile on his lips as if remembering the memory. “And you can bet I’ll have it again and again, but now I want your ass. I want to fill you in every way, Vera. I want there to be no doubt who owns you.”

***

&My cheeks darkened& at the thought of him filling me up, but I replied, “No.”

“No? It wasn’t a question, baby girl. I’ll have your ass now, whether you like it or not.” Charlie inserted a finger inside me and I groaned, backin’ up against him. Dammit, but he had all the power in this situation.

“I want to see you first.” I moaned, grindin’ myself against the finger he held inside me. “All of you.” I shot a pointed look at his still covered leg.

Charlie shoved my head against the carpet but I heard him unzip his pants. There was a long, painful silence where nothin’ happened. He didn’t move the finger, he kept my head pinned, and I groaned, needin’ some kind of release.

Charlie pulled me back against his chest and thrust another finger inside me. “Take it,” he growled as he pounded into me. The orgasm curled and burned inside me, ripping pleasure all throughout my body. Even though I didn’t close my eyes, my vision blackened for a minute. I swore I saw stars. When I came down, I noticed somethin’.

Charlie was completely naked. He’d removed his prosthetic and all that remained was Charlie. He’d shown me a bit of himself before, but never without the prosthetic. The way he was now was uniquely beautiful and utterly Charlie. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, as Charlie hadn’t made one himself, yet I was so honored he’d shared himself with me that tears welled on my lids.

“Enough of that,” Charlie said, pushing me back down. “I show you mine and you show me yours, remember?” Grinning wickedly, Charlie placed himself before my entrance. I felt his head at my ass, the pressure a rare mixture of pain and pleasure. Balling my hands into fists, I cried out when he finally entered me.

“You’re mine, understand that?” Charlie growled. “Whatever life you had before is over. You don’t get to run away any more because you’re home. I will take care of you. I will protect you. You are my missing limb. I’ve found you.”

Charlie wasn’t my missing limb; he was my missing self.

I nodded. “I’m yours.”

Epilogue

Grace was sittin’ at a little cafe eating french fries and ice cream. She always looked so innocent, but I knew better. Like me, Grace was haunted. Across from her sat a big, hulking man with a skull-shaved head. I recognized him as the man who’d stolen her heart. Months ago I’d walked in on ‘em havin’ sex, but left them to it. I smiled to myself, happy that they had worked out whatever had been keepin’ them apart.

Even though he was big, he was the complete opposite of Zero. His skin was dark as night but the real difference was in his face. He had a great big smile and the way he was lookin’ at Grace, you could see real love. True adoration.

I nearly turned around, not wantin’ to interrupt them. I shifted on the balls of my feet, watchin’ the two of them eat, when Grace caught my eye. She dropped her fork and her vision zoomed in on me. I gave her an awkward smile.

Grace jumped out of her seat and it fell to the ground. People started lookin’ at her but she didn’t pay them any mind. She sprinted toward me, her hands in the air. I thought she was goin’ to run me down, but she stopped just short of me.

“Oh my god!” Grace said. “Vera is that you?”

“Yeah…” Gracie was the best friend I’d ever had. I felt so weird bein’ there with her, knowing I had to leave in less than an hour.

Grace pounced on me with such a big hug that I nearly toppled over. “Are you here? Is this really you?” Grace pulled back, putting me at arm’s length so she could examine me. She put on a serious face, looking me over for any signs of bruisin’, I was sure. Gracie was like a second mama to me. She looked out for me. Hell, she’d saved my life.

“I’m really here!” I laughed. I swatted her away and said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“I can’t believe you’re here. Are you okay?”

I thought about Charlie, waitin’ for me in the car. “I’m more than okay, Grace. I’m wonderful.”

“I was so worried when I heard you were taken by Zero. I haven’t stopped thinkin’ about you. Are you sure you’re okay? Are you back for good?” Charlie had filled me in on everything. He’d told me all about Grace and her family, how she was connected to Zero. In the end, I was even happier that Zero was dead.

Still, that was another reason I felt like shit. She was my best friend and I wasn’t comin’ back. Grace had gone to extraordinary lengths to save me. She truly was an amazin’ person and how did I repay her? By disappearin’ with a man.

But Charlie wasn’t just any man.

“I’m not comin’ back, Grace.”

“What?” Grace exclaimed. “Why? You’re not staying with Zero, are you?”

“Zero is dead,” I replied.

There was another palpable pause before Grace said, “Good.” She added, “So why aren’t you comin’ back?”

“I’ve found the love of my life, Grace.”

Grace glanced back to the man she’d left at the table. He was givin’ us a real stare-down, but he hadn’t stood up yet. “I suppose that’s as good a reason as any,” Grace replied. “You promise it’s not Zero?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.” I grinned, making an “x” motion across my heart.

“I’ll miss you,” Grace said, eyes downcast.

“I’ll miss you more,” I replied. “I’ll call you and I’ll visit, Gracie. You have a piece of me.”

“You have a piece of me, too,” Grace replied. I pulled her in for a hug before she could see the tears that had formed on my lids. We hugged for a good five minutes and then separated. I didn’t say goodbye, because it wasn’t a goodbye. I’d see Gracie again. After all, she had a piece of me.

***

&We were& on the Amalfi Coast. Never in a million years had I dreamed I’d end up there. When I’d imagined gettin’ out of Louisiana, I’d thought of places like Tennessee or—and this was my biggest dream—New York. Now here I was with the love of my life, wearin’ a gorgeous red dress that he’d bought me, and sippin’ on wine while starin’ out as the sun set over a brilliant blue ocean.

It was heaven.

“You’re rich,” I’d said when I’d discovered Charlie’s secret.

“Yeah, does that change anything?” he’d teased. “You suddenly more attracted to me now?” After I’d visited Grace, we’d driven for a few hours and then stopped outside a small airport. We’d driven right onto the tarmac. Charlie had refused to tell me anythin’ about what was happening, but I’d kept tryin’ to guess.

Every guess was so wrong.

I never would have guessed he was goin’ to take me on a private plane and then to a yacht where we would sail around the world. How could a small-town girl like me guess that?

“If anythin’ I’m less attracted to you,” I’d responded. “Crap, you got a lotta rules I need to follow now? Like, I probably have to use a special fork and everything. Probably got a nice family I need to impress too, family who is gonna be sorely disappointed when they see my poor ass.”

“My parents are dead,” he’d said simply, holding out his hand for me to take as we ascended the stairs into his private jet.

“Oh, that’s good,” I’d muttered. He’d laughed then, and I remembered thinkin’ how wonderful it was to have someone who understood me so well. Now he was sittin’ in the captain’s chair, gettin’ ready to sail the boat to our next destination. I had no idea where we were goin’, but it didn’t matter.

I wrapped my arms around his back, snugglin’ my face into his neck. Charlie grabbed my wrist and flipped me around, pullin’ me onto his lap so I faced him. I looked up at his hardened jaw, his face shadowed by the glow of the sunset behind him. He almost looked celestial. When he’d rescued me, I’d thought the same thing.

Charlie cupped the back of my neck and pulled me in for a hard kiss. His tongue snaked into mine, claiming me inside out.

“What are you thinking?” he growled, pulling away slowly.

Resting my head on his tough shoulder, I answered truthfully. “I was thinkin’ how when you rescued me, I thought you were an angel.”

Charlie threw his head back and laughed. “Sorry to disappoint.”

As Charlie pulled the boat out of the marina, I didn’t respond. Safe in Charlie’s stony countenance, wrapped by his thick arms, I relaxed as we sailed into the purpling horizon. His free arm wrapped tightly around me and I glanced up once more, getting one last look at the man I loved before his features disappeared into the shadows of night.

Charlie thought he was all hard edges and lines and that I was soft and vulnerable. He thought I needed savin’, and he was partly right on that front. He was wrong, though, in that he thought he was the demon who’d turned me dark. I knew better. The devil was an angel once, and I’d spend the rest of our lives proving that.

BONUS: Secret Project Teaser

This is an unedited sneak peek at my upcoming top secret project. If you like what you read, you can sign up for a chance to read an advanced copy here

http://goo.gl/forms/3V5g054yT0B4j5uw2

“Take me instead,” she said, voice unwavering.

“And what will you offer?” His voice was low and gravely. It was cruel.

“My life for his.” With eyes the color of cold water, though her face didn’t move, the pools of her irises rippled like a river. She was frightened.

Good.

“The Beast,” as they called him, was going to kill her father. He’d racked up a series of unbeatable debts. While some were to banks, most were to unsavory types like him. Her father’s debt was past payment. It was past broken kneecaps and threats. There was no way he could pay it off, and if he couldn’t pay it, he would die.

That was the agreement Antonio Notte had made months ago when he’d taken money from the Pavoni Family.

The Beast walked around the small New Jersey home touching things as he went. He didn’t normally go on routine collections. He was past his cracking skulls days. Now he wore suits, no longer bloodying his knuckles. Earlier that day when the Beast stared out the glass of his Tribeca penthouse, he hadn’t felt luxury. He’d felt like a caged bird. He’d called Arlo and asked what his next appointment was then found himself in New Jersey at the feet of this cowering man.

And his daughter, who refused to cower.

Beast turned his head away from the window. Nothing in the house was new. Everything was old and yellow. The linoleum was peeling. The fake wood on the cabinet was coming up like paper. It smelled faintly of old earth.

Clearly Notte hadn’t used the money to redecorate.

The Beast had come expecting whining, blood, and splatter. Instead he received a girl with long curling, chocolate hair. Her collar bone protruded gently from honey skin. Beast walked closer, placing a single finger on the protruding bone. She swallowed as he ran a finger down the bone, feeling the smoothness against his rough skin. One of his brood laughed, but the Beast raised a hand that quickly shut him up.

She swallowed again and smacked his hand away. The Beast smiled, but only a fool would think it was anything other than chilling. The smile was lazy and crooked, his teeth pearly white. Something in that smile betrayed pure wickedness, an evil born and not beget.

“My life for his,” she repeated.

“Belle!” Notte protested, though it was limp. As the old man said the words, he still remained in his corner.

“Belle?” The Beast murmured just as Notte reached for Belle’s arm. Maybe the penniless fool realized if he did nothing save sit in a corner while his daughter traded her life so he could live, he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

“It’s done. Come now, Belle.” The Beast grabbed her arm and dragged her out the door.

She was his.

About the Author

Thanks for reading Tied! I’m so grateful you took the time out of your day to read my story!

I quickly want to say I am so eternally grateful for the family I have, from my parents to my fiancé/partner-in-crime, for they make it possible for me to write. I’m also very grateful to have such amazing beta readers who give me the feedback I need to make my stories great! I’m so, so happy to have my personal assistant and cheerleader, Liz Wiley, on my team! I couldn’t do it without my editor, Caitlin Nelson of Editing by C. Marie, either. Last but not least, I’m grateful to YOU, the readers!

To stay up to date on all of my books and to connect with me, you can find me here

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Also by Mary Catherine Gebhard

Owned Series

You Own Me

Let Me Go

Tied (Owned #2.5)

Come To me

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Standalones

Elastic Heart

Secret Project (click for more information)

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The Boogiemen Series

coming soon


Tied

There is a bonus, never-before-seen sneak preview of my secret project at the end of this book! Charlie is a sick bastard. He likes to kill and he’s made his fortune doing it. Years ago he nearly died losing his leg, falling into one debt money couldn’t erase. Now when the debt collector calls, Charlie doesn’t expect it to bring him to his knees. It was supposed to be a quick in and out job: retrieve the girl and return to his life. But there’s something about Vera that has him tied. Vera’s been kidnapped. Tortured and abused more times than she can count, she fully believes she’s going to die in her cement prison. She has no idea what to expect when Charlie shows up to save her, but she quickly discovers he’s no angel. There’s a dark side to Charlie that instead of igniting fear, makes Vera want to turn off the lights and see what lurks inside. They both know that if they keep playing with fire, one of them is going to get burned. What Charlie soon learns is Vera isn’t playing with fire. Vera is fire. Warning: Contains graphic violence and sex. Has situations that may be a trigger for some.

  • ISBN: 9781311138897
  • Author: Mary Catherine Gebhard
  • Published: 2016-06-25 23:20:12
  • Words: 16768
Tied Tied