It’s a universal tale.
Two kids from the wrong side of the tracks head to LA to make it big.
Drugs, sex, and rock n roll—it’s the dream of too many to count.

Five years later, and their band, Miscreant Mischief, is barely a blip on the scene and not much else has gone to plan. Sure, the drugs are abundant, and the sex is plentiful, but the promised rock n roll has been traded for shitty gigs in seedy clubs for little pay.

Her head tells her to go home. His heart swears their big break is just around the corner.

One gate crashed party, a chance encounter with a music mogul, and an underhanded deal that should never have been made later, and they’re set on the path to stardom.

Their career is about to catch fire.
Pity his secret could send all their hard work up in flames.

Rough Mix is a brand-new, weekly serial from Kylie Hillman. Debuting on Tuesday July 3rd and exclusive to her Ultimate Insiders, this dark Rockstar romance is going to drag you into the dirty depths of the music industry where hope is a commodity to be bartered and greed is the buzzword of the day.

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PROLOGUE

“I’m just a girl, with a dream that got the best of me, in a world that believes fame is everything.” ~Miley Cyrus~

They say that with enough blood, sweat, and tears anything becomes possible.

First up, I’d like to know who the fuck “they” are? This random human that everyone uses as the benchmark for their decision to continue to bang their head against a brick wall in pursuit of their dreams has a lot to answer for. Personally, I’m fucking sick of hearing what they think. I want to know what the hell I’m supposed to do.

You see, I’m on the cusp of achieving everything I thought I wanted. Fame, fortune, and fantasy—presented in an outwardly agreeable package that hides the true price of having it all.

What would you give for the chance to live your dream?

Your freedom? Your heart? Your body?

After chasing it for so long, I truly thought the answer would be simple.

A girding of my loins and a gritting of my teeth—it’d be over in the blink of an eye.

Saying yes would be so easy.

That was until the deal was stuck for me.

 

ONE

Luci

“Holy fuck,” I groan, my inner thighs shaking as the cock I’m riding finds the angle it needs to press against that one spot deep inside me that sends fireworks sparking through my veins. My hands clamp down on a pair of broad shoulders and my fingernails dig into the sweaty cotton that covers them. Arching as much as I can, I make sure he knows not to stop what he’s doing. “That’s it. Don’t stop. I’m gonna come. Don’t stop.”

Throwing my head back against the sticky wall of the club I’ve just played, I attempt to focus on the mottled ceiling above me before my eyes flutter shut of their own accord. I’m off tap. The E I swallowed after we finished our set is blasting through my nerve endings. It sends pure bliss ricocheting through my body. Relaxing my brain, stifling the anxiety that plagues my every waking moment, and promising me that everything will be all right.

 “Fuck you’re hot.” The random dude who caught my eye as I prowled across the stage nips my chin with his teeth. “No one will believe me when I tell them that I’ve nailed Luci from the Miscreant Mis—”

He doesn’t get to finish verbalising his awe at being balls deep inside me. Instead, my lead guitarist slash backup singer slash childhood sweetheart wrenches my conquest from me and sends him flying into the wall on the other side of the corridor. When my feet hit the ground, I try my hardest to find some form of balance. It’s impossible. My mind is working too slow to be any assistance, and to be honest, it’s too busy trying to remember why Bax would be so pissed off about me fucking someone else.

I mean, there were a lot of slashes in his title, but I think we’re currently in the off phase of our on again/off again relationship.

“What the fuck, Luci?” Bax growls at me. I try to skip away from his angry face, but my feet refuse to cooperate, my arms resembling a windmill while I fight to stay upright. “You don’t even know this asshole.”

I’m still in the process of falling—it’s like a slow-motion action shot to my addled mind when Bax reaches out and wraps his left hand around the top of my arm in a vice-like grip. With his interference, I have no choice except to keep my feet. Bax might be tall and lanky, but he’s stronger than he looks.

All the fucking around he did behind my back sure helps keep him in good shape.

The thought of Bax with those other chicks pierces my heart and I begin to struggle. I don’t want his soiled hands on any part of my body. Not now, not ever again. He glares down at me, his eyes narrowing with the promise of severe consequences if I don’t start behaving, and the reason for my current state comes rushing back to me.

Popping E was supposed to be a temporary escape from the reminders that we’re really over this time.

Sliding on top of a random dick was just a last-minute opportunity that proved too good to turn down.

Anything to make Bax feel even half as shitty as I do.

“Fuck off,” I spit the words in his face before I try to wrench my arm away. He ignores my cursing, simply clamping his fingers tighter around my arm and dragging me behind him toward the exit. The sterling silver arm cuff I’m wearing doesn’t stand a chance under his rough grip. It bites into my skin, hurting like a motherfucker and ripping away the final vestiges of the pleasant veil of ecstasy that was flooding my blood stream.

“Ow,” I shout. “You’re hurting me.”

We’ve amassed quite a crowd of curious onlookers to our melee. Yet, when I yell again for him to let me go, not one of them come to my aid. Useless fuckers. I dig my nails into his hand, hoping like hell that he’ll stop long enough for me to get free.

All I get in response is an angry glare over his shoulder.

“Bax, please,” I cry.

Bax narrows his eyes further and I know then that there is no reasoning with him. “Just shut up.”

Tears of frustration well in my eyes. Resistance is futile when he gets like this. Rationally I know this, but the need to try again is burned in my brain.

I let my full weight drop. It slows him down for half a second. I attempt to dig my heels in to make him come to a complete stop, just so, I can make him let me go. It doesn’t work. Instead, my feet slide along the slippery floor for a few metres before I’m unceremoniously hiked in the air and thrown over his shoulder.

“I hate you,” I cry, while I pummel my fists against his back. Hanging upside down means that the tears that finally fall free miss me completely when they fall to the ground. “I’m never going to forgive you.”

“I know, Luce.” Bax agrees quickly. He sounds defeated, almost tired. “But I’m not going to let you hurt yourself to get back at me.”

He pushes the door under the exit sign open with one hand and strides through it without another word. An ear-splitting whistle fills the early morning air and a yellow taxi screeches to a halt next to the sidewalk. Bax pulls the door open and deposits me on the back seat.

“Here,” he says to the driver, handing him a wad of crumpled notes. “Take her to 24 Lexington Boulevard.”

Bax pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of the ID card that hangs from the taxi’s rear-view mirror. He glares at the driver with menace in his expression. “Anything happens to her, I’ll know where to find you.”

The driver hurriedly nods, then knocks the vehicle into gear. Bax slams the door shut and bangs twice on the roof of the cab. We start to pull away from the curb when there is another bang—this time on the boot of the taxi.

The driver stops straightaway, looking over his shoulder with nervous expectation creasing his face. My door re-opens and I watch his Adam’s apple bob in his throat when he swallows twice at the sight of Bax leaning back inside the cab.

“True is gonna keep you company,” Bax tells me.

Our drummer opens the door on the other side of the car and slides in next to me. He wraps a beefy arm around me and pulls me hard into his side. I love True—he was the first friend I made when we moved to LA five years ago—but I’m not in the mood for his kind of sympathy tonight.

Shrugging off his arm, I move back to my side of the taxi. Ignoring Bax, I take hold of the door handle. He gets the hint, quick smart, jumping out of the way before I can hit him with the door. His annoyed expression is the last thing I see as the taxi pulls away once again.

True chuckles and my own lips curve upward in response. He reaches for me once more. This time, I don’t protest, and find myself pulled all the way onto his lap. He holds me close to his heart, strong arms encasing me like I’m precious.

“24 Lexington, okay?” the driver asks.

“Perfect,” True replies.

We drive in silence for a few minutes. The quiet grows heavier, weighing me down until I can’t take it anymore.

“Do you think he’s going to fuck someone else before he come home tonight? I mean, that’s if he even bothers to come home.” My question ends with a sob. I drop my head so low that my chin touches my chest. “It’s really over, isn’t it?”

True presses his lips against my temple. He sighs, and I feel his shoulders move in a sympathetic shrug. “Bax is gonna do what Bax wants to do. You know better than anyone what he’s like. Just like you know that you two will never truly be over—he owns every part of you, Luci.”

Now it’s my turn to shrug. What can I say? True is right and there’s no getting around that fact.

Lifting my head, I square my shoulders and look my friend right in the eye. “Then maybe it’s time for the rest of us to do what we want to do?”

I phrase it as a question, but we both know that it’s not really. When I lean forward, True meets me halfway. Our mouths meet, lips parting automatically and with a skill that speaks of previous experience, we let our tongues tangle.

My hands have a mind of their own. Gripping and tugging and pulling until True’s T-shirt is a crumpled ball on the seat next to us. The zipper at the back of my leather dress is drawn down. The straps are pulled from my shoulders until I’m bare from the waist up. My fingers make quick work of his belt, unbuttoning his denim until True’s hard length is exposed to me.

Steady hands lift me up. He places me with delicate care directly over him, then lowers me gently until he’s filling me. I brace my hands on his shoulders and begin riding him. True buries his face in my cleavage, then he sucks my right nipple into his mouth and nibbles with his teeth until I’m arching over him.

The driver’s heated interest is burning a hole in the back of my head where he watches us in the mirror.

I don’t care that we have an audience.

I’m much too occupied by True’s unique brand of sympathy.

 

TWO

Bax

Sending True in the taxi with Luci is a calculated move. Luci is my woman. True is my best friend. She’s upset at me and he knows how to settle her down. He’s also the only person I’ll ever allow to touch her—and he knows better than to seek her affections without gaining my permission first. It’s the perfect situation. I screw up, she gets angry, and he screws some sense into her.

I sound like a sick fuck. I know this. Not that it bothers me. I kill my conscience years ago. That niggling little voice that most people have in their head. That annoying as fuck narrator that likes to lecture you before it sends a boulder-sized lump of remorse to the pit of your gut when you break the so-called “rules” of society is missing. I haven’t heard it for, at least, two years and I hold little worry that it’ll be returning any time soon.

LA has that effect on people. Almost every person I know is the same as me. Jaded. Bitter. Willing to fuck over your own granny for a slice of success. We all know that finding fame and fortune in this dirty town is highly unlikely, unless you’re willing to bend the rules, fuck the brains out of those who stand in your way, and then step on the rotting corpse of those who still possess a conscience on your way to the top.

I’m happy to do this.

Luci—not so much.

Five years after we escaped that po-dunk little town back south we called home, Luci is still as innocent as she was back then. Sure, she likes to dabble in the drugs, sex, and rock n roll that surrounds us, but she’s almost condescending in her judgement of any person who steps outside her comfortable little box of morality. Basically, she wants to be the lead singer of the hottest hard rock band in the world, but she’s not willing to pay the price that comes with that dream.

That’s where I come in, and to a lesser extent, True. He takes care of Luci while I take one for the team. Literally. The amount of geriatric pussy I’ve poked since we moved here is unimaginable. Hell, if I took the time to think about it, I’d probably slit my wrists.

“Hey, Bax baby.” The chick that greets me is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Full of plastic surgery, insecurities, and too much undeserved power. In other words, she’s an ageing Barbie-wannabe who happened to outlive a very rich husband.

“Heya,” I drawl, tipping my head toward her. My southern accent was lost long ago; however I know she likes to think that I’m an uncultured hick she’s taking under her wing.

“Come here, cowboy.” With the crook of a finger she beckons me forward. I let the door I just carried the sobbing love of my life through slam shut behind me. The resounding bang it makes reminds me that I need to shut my confrontation with Luci out of my mind, so I can concentrate on the dirty deed I need to perform next.

The success of Miscreant Mischief is so close I can taste it.

Struggling hard to preserve whatever beauty she had when she was younger, Amanda Jones is one of the most formidable gatekeepers of the LA music scene. Her club, The Lilipad, is one of the hottest on the strip and she knows it. Inherited from her late husband, Mandy’s love of musicians coupled with the substantial wealth she came into upon his death allowed her to turn this previously mid-level club into one of the best venues for new talent to make their name. It also became her personal hunting ground—it was a barely kept secret within the scene that to get your name on the Friday night setlist you needed to worship at the altar of Mandy’s aging pussy.

The coveted Saturday night spot came at an even higher price.

For that you had to sell your soul to her younger half-brother.

“Hey!” Mandy snaps her fingers in my direction. “If you have somewhere you’d rather be, then by all means.”

Shit. It’s time to get my head in the game.

I roll my neck, then let my well-rehearsed panty dropping smirk curl my lips. The effect is instant. Mandy closes the distance between us instead of standing in place like the Queen of all she surveys that she thinks she is.

Bony arms are draped over my shoulders and I check out the long, dimly lit corridor to make sure the right people are seeing this. Personal attention from Mandy—while it’s a running joke—is taken seriously in this club. If she’s publicly acknowledging you, then you’re on your way to becoming someone.

Even in her neon yellow, stripper heels, Mandy has to push higher on her toes to reach my lips. I offer her no assistance, making her come to me once again. A woman like her likes the cocks that make her work for them. The effort she needs to exert makes me smile. Six-foot-three with lanky limbs that retain an athletically muscled tone no matter how badly I eat plus chocolate brown hair that I wear long enough for Luci to lose her fingers in, I know I’ve been blessed with the perfect rocker’s physique. Our talent was enough to get us the attention of the serious musos in our scene, but it was my willingness to put my God-given attributes to work that have allowed us to rise to our current level.

And, until two days ago, I’d even managed to do it without my girlfriend of eight years finding out.

“Are you gonna make me beg for it, Bax?” Mandy croons. The smile on her heavily made-up face makes it clear that’s what she wants. I’m happy to oblige because as much as she’s a walking stereotype, I’ve been warned that she’s also a formidable fuck. I’ve already witnessed the way she owns her sexual needs in a way that most woman shy away from so I’m hoping this is true.

Here’s hoping that once you forget she’s old enough to be your mother’s older sister, the ride is actually enjoyable. Having a little fun at work never hurt anyone.

“Is that what you want?” I ask while I edge her backward down the corridor in the direction of her office door.

Wordlessly, Mandy meets my eyes with a come-hither gaze and a seductive smile.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Wrapping my hands around her waist, I lift her in the air. Long, ex-dancer legs are draped around my waist and I walk down the length of the hall. The wet spot she soaks through my shirt tells me that she was ready for this and she’s not wearing any panties.

One less barrier for me to contend with.

When we pass the wall where Luci was fucking that random earlier, I push Mandy against the same spot. The need to erase the image from my head is too much to bear. I knew it was petty revenge on Luci’s behalf, and I know that what I’m about to do is even worse so I can’t really complain, but that doesn’t dull the pain any. Luci is mine and I’m hers. And when we get to the top of this industry, I’m going to make sure she knows that everything I’ve done has been for her.

Mandy begins to squirm in my arms. She’s impatient that I keep getting lost in my head. To keep her happy, I balance her on my hips and nuzzle her neck. With quick hands, I pull a foil packet out of my back pocket. Ripping it open, I release my hard cock from my jeans, push Mandy’s teeny skirt up under her tits, and thrust inside her willing body.

Like I thought, she’s dripping wet. It makes it easier to enjoy something that should make me sick. A whinny reminiscent of a dying horse breaks over the din from the club. I take that as a positive and fuck her harder. Thrust after thrust. Pump after pump. I try my hardest to get her off without touching her.

It doesn’t work. My hard-on begins to flag until I remember something I heard about her around the scene. Working one of my hands free, I hold Mandy’s weight in one arm and the assistance of the wall. Once there is enough space between us, I bring my fingers down on her clit, slapping her hard enough to make her squeal. Instantly she clenches around me and I know that the rumours were true.

Mandy likes it rough.

With the same hand, I seize her throat and squeeze.

She clenches harder and I’m left worrying that she’ll snap my dick when she comes.

“You like that, don’t you?” I groan in her ear. “If I slap you again, you’re gonna come for me, aren’t you.”

I pull back and smack her bare pussy again. This time, when I reach up, I squeeze her throat harder and thrust deep at the same time. Mandy throws her head back. It bounces off the dirty plasterboard and she screams in unison with each clench of her inner walls.

When I know that I’ve wrung every drop of orgasm out of her, I pull my dick free, dispense of the condom on the sticky floor, and tuck my softening cock back in my jeans. I never come with these chicks, my orgasm is for Luci only. Thankfully, it’s never been noticed. I make sure they get theirs and they make sure that Miscreant Mischief is mentioned to the right people. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Holding Mandy’s shaking body in my arms, I walk the rest of the corridor until we’re at her office door. Mandy’s bodyguard nods at me before he opens the door for us. I deposit her on the leather lounge that sits along one of the walls. She leans her head on the closest arm and curls into a ball on her side.

“Where is it?” It’s time for business.

Mandy points at the single folder that sits in the middle of her desk. I open it and pull free four fancy envelopes. One for me, Luci, True, and our manager, Devon. This is what I what I’d negotiated—a ride on my disco stick for our official invitation into her half-brother’s exclusive party. A fancy shindig where everyone who matters in the music industry will be gathered.

Sliding the invites into my shirt, I button my denim and make for the door. If the traffic isn’t too crazy, I might be early enough to interrupt Luci’s pity party with True. The thought of pulling her off him and sliding back into my rightful place, has my still-hard cock jumping to attention in my trousers. 

“Stay.” Mandy holds out a hand to me. Her eyes are full of pleading she tries her hardest to conceal.

“Nah,” I say, shaking my head. “We had a deal. We’re done.”

I reach for the door handle to give her some privacy to pull herself together. It’s almost shut when she begins screaming after me.

“Come back here, Bax! If you leave, I’ll ruin you. You wait and see. I’ll make you and that pathetic band of yours my bitch. You will regret this.”

Walking down the corridor, I wink at her bodyguard who’s trying his hardest to ignore his boss’s meltdown. This scene doesn’t faze me. At the end of the day, Mandy gave up her power when she let me fuck her, so her threats are empty.

These old bitches never learn. The challenge is in the chase. Once I’ve had them and they’ve parted with the favour I required, they are useless to me.

The door to The Lilipad slams shut behind me. I slip my fingers between my lips and whistle for a cab. Patting the envelopes inside my shirt to make sure they’re still safe, I lean back against the cracked vinyl seat and close my eyes.

Images of Luci spring forth immediately and I let her innocence wash away the filth of tonight.

We’re one step closer to having it all.

 

THREE

True

The taxi pulls away from the curb, and Luci wraps herself around me like a boa constrictor. My cock is throbbing in my jeans, demanding release from the denim prison I encased him in when we had to get out of the cab. Luci’s tiny body is still shaking—an aftereffect of the orgasm I wrung from her a minute before the vehicle stopped.

“Up you go,” I say, pulling her arms from around me and turning away from her.

Luci springs onto my back with the grace of a tigress. As I begin the twisting trek up the four floors of the ugly red-bricked walk-up we live in, she kisses her way along my neck then nibbles on my earlobe.

Having her act like this is always bittersweet. At the end of the day, I’m only touching her because Bax says I can. It’s not real. It never will be. What I said in the taxi is the truth.

He’ll never let her go, and she’ll never willingly leave.

They’re the definition of co-dependency.

By the time we’re halfway up the stairs, thoughts of working elevators and doormen start invading my mind. I refuse to indulge them. The days of penthouse apartments are long behind me. The last thing I need to give into is reminders of an ill-fated past I escaped long ago.

It’s just like this situation with Luci—I’ll always be second best. There is nothing back home for me, just like there’s nothing except music here for me.

“I’m gonna ride you hard,” Luci purrs in my ear.

With a grin the size of Texas, I push away all thoughts of coming last, and jog up the rest of the steps.

After sliding the key into the keyhole, I jiggle the door lock in just the right way—its been sticky since we moved in four years ago—and let it swing open. The spring-loaded door slams shut behind us, but I barely miss a beat. My bed beckons. The offer of Luci bouncing away on top of me is too much to resist. I didn’t come close to getting my fill in the cab.

“Stay there,” I growl as I deposit her on all fours on my unmade bed.

Luci looks over her shoulder and grins. She doesn’t listen. Instead she raises upright while remaining on her knees and unzips her leather dress. While she peels it from her slim body, I toe off my Shit Kickers and slide my jeans down to my ankles. Kicking them off, I pull my shirt over my shoulders and add it to the pile of clothing on the floor. Luci sits back on her haunches, waiting for me. I slide in front of her, then drag her up the length of my body until she’s straddling my chest.

“Are you ready?” Luci asks, tentative need in her voice. Her hesitation is cute.

When we arrived, I was happy to have her ride me—except now I have a better idea.

Lifting Luci, and turning her back to me, I lower her over my face. With a shove between her shoulders, I push her down until she gets the hint. My tongue is on her clit, lapping at her pussy at the same time as Luci takes my hard, straining cock between her lips.

She wraps both tiny hands around my length. A shudder runs over me when she works me up and down with her mouth. I suck her clit, inserting a finger inside her tight pussy and crooking it until I find her G-spot. Luci’s hips buck. I grasp them and force her to remain in place. Working over her pussy, I take her right to the edge before I let her down.

“Turn,” I command. Luci does as she’s told, a flicker of rage at being denied colouring her pretty, flushed face. She hovers above my cock, while I work the condom I’ve snatched from the bedside table over my dick. I make her wait. It’s a deliberate tactic. She’s out of breath and angry at being deprived of her orgasm. Her need will only grow during my enforced delay.

Luci’s panting gains pace. It’s music to my ears—offering a taste of the tempo by which I’ll take her shortly.

“Now, be a good girl and sit,” I tell her with a smirk.

The vindictive joy in her eyes makes me grin. Luci slides her body over my dick, encasing me within her petite body, while she uses her inner muscles to grip me tight. With a groan, I acknowledge her little game. I pull her forward and wind her long blonde hair around my wrist. Pumping my hips, I gently encourage Luci to find the rhythm that works best for both of us. She strains on her knees, up and down, and I thrust upward to meet her.

Her climax isn’t far away. When I feel her clenching around me, I use the leverage I have with my hold on her hair to pull her chest to mine. One arm is an iron band that holds her against my chest, while my other hand tugs her head backward. It’s an awkward position, yet I know that it creates the perfect arc between our bodies. When my cock enters her body, each upward stroke pushes against the spot deep inside that will send her over the edge.

“God, True,” Luci moans. She seeks out my long dreads and yanks on them. “You feel so good.”

Arching upward, I clamp my teeth on her neck and bite. We move in unison. Our panting is in sync. It feels like every single cell of our bodies calls to one another. My balls feel tight. Luci starts to spasm around me and it sends me over the edge.

We come together. Our bodies shaking, and our breathing rushed. Luci collapses on top of me with my wilting cock inside her. As I soften further, I move her off me, so I can dispose of the condom. Tying the end, I toss it in the general direction of the overflowing wastepaper basket.

Resting on my back with one arm thrown above my head, I smile when Luci lays on top of me. I pull my covers over us and hold her tight. Her breathing is returning to normal. Her petite body relaxing. I rub a hand up and down her body, one hand spanning three-quarters of her back. She’s tiny, but she has an inner spunk that makes her appears bigger.

When she’s on stage, she’s at her happiest. I see the anxiety that plagues her every day disappear. The Imposter Syndrome that steals her joy fades into the distance. I love being centre stage providing the beat when she lets rip with her powerful vocals and strums her bass with confident fingers. Watching Luci perform sends chills up my spine. It creates a yearning that is barely satisfied by having her in my bed whenever Bax wants her out of the way. His permission to take her is an irresistible bonus that I never thought possible until recently. The first time he offered her to me had ruined my fantasies about her—the reality was so much more than I could have imagined.

Now, I live for the nights when Bax has to work and I can pretend she’s all mine.

“Love you,” Luci whispers, sleepiness creeping into her voice. “Wish you were my real Bax.”

She snuggles deeper into me. I stop stoking her back and simply hold her hard against my body. The E I saw her swallow after the show has almost worn off. In it’s place is the temporary feeling created by the drugs last gasp—a moment where everything looks like it might be better when you wake up and telling the truth doesn’t fill you with paralysing fear.

“Love you, too,” I murmur. Swallowing down the sudden lump that invades my throat, I wait until I feel sleep claim her before I speak again. “Don’t wanna be your Bax, though. Wanna be your True instead.”

The words are hollow because I know there’s no way for my wish to come true. As usual, I’ll settle for taking what I can get until her boyfriend gets home. Luci will never be mine. Not while Bax has this crazy dream for our band and continues to fill her mind with his promises of fame and fortune.

Definitely not while Luci swallows his promises like poisoned candy.

If I was any sort of man, I’d try to make her see sense. Rather than accept the tiny scraps Bax lets me have, I could take her away from all this and show her how good her life could really be.

However, in my twenty-seven years, I’ve never been accused of being a good man—in fact, the very opposite.

That’s why I’m living in a rundown apartment with the only two people in the world with more to hide than me and stealing time with a woman who lives with her heart on her sleeve, an anxious need to be adored, and constant disappointment. It’s a half-life at best.

I guess, you could say that I’m luckier than those two. When the dream finally proves to be more of a nightmare, I can head home to New York with my tail between my legs and my trust fund access restored. Bax and Luci are from Ripley, Tennessee—the only thing waiting for them is the same trailer park they grew up in and their good-for-nothing families, who’ll be happy to beat them over the head with their failure.

My escape hatch is securely within reach.

It doesn’t matter which way it goes. Fortune and fame can be mine if I let my father make a couple of phone calls.

My bandmates—not so much.

And that’s the only reason I’ve stuck around so long.

Well, that and the fact my father’s evil tendencies would put the devil to shame.

The front door jiggles, then opens. Bax strides in, letting the door slam shut behind him. He comes straight into my bedroom, safe in the knowledge that I’ll have done exactly what he asked me to do.

“Thanks, dude,” he says with a grin. “You saved my ass tonight.”

I bare my teeth in some semblance of a smile.

Flipping the covers from me and Luci, he lifts her sleeping body off me. I let her go without comment. Bax cradles her in his arms, smoothing her hair and stoking her face, and I try to pretend that I don’t have jealousy clawing at my throat from the sight of him holding her. Bax jostles Luci a little, searching for something in his clothing, but she doesn’t wake. When you’re coming down, there isn’t much that will rouse you—I know that from my own experience.

“Here.” Bax hands me the fancy-ass envelope he’s pulled out of his shirt. I sit up, still naked as the day I was born, and take it from him. “Mandy came through.”

Biting back a laugh, I lift my eyebrows and screw up my nose. “Yeah, and I’m sure you came through for her. Came being the operative word.”

Revulsion covers his face, and I wonder—not for the first time—exactly how he lives with the shit he does. Bax focuses on Luci, lying asleep in his arms, her tiny body appearing even smaller against his lanky frame. He seems to find some type of comfort in her, the distaste evaporating from his face.

When he meets my eyes, I see nothing but resolve in his gaze. He holds his head high, the muscle in his jaw working, and a sneer covers his face when he replies, “I made sure I held up my end of the bargain. Mandy wasn’t complaining, and now we have invites to the hottest party in LA this summer. I’d say it was a rewarding night.”

Bax pauses, then snorts when I fail to give him the kudos he seeks. “As if you have grounds to judge me. You weren’t objecting when I sent you home with my girl, were you?”

Our gazes are locked. I see a dozen things he’d like to say to me trapped in his face. My own expression is saying the same thing. If we set our various grievances free, fists would fly until one of us was unconscious. The only thing that stops that from happening is the woman tucked in Bax’s arms.

She’s our mutual soft spot.

She’s also going to be the crux of our inevitable downfall.

We both know that with utmost certainty.

“See you in the mornin’.” Bax breaks our staring contest first. “We have rehearsal at noon. Couple execs are coming for a look see.”

He walks out of my room and across the living room to the only other sleeping space in the apartment. Their bedroom door slams shut, and the bed springs squeak, then stop.

Getting up, I kick my own door shut and throw myself back onto my bed. With covers that still smell like Luci bunched around me, and my spare pillow jammed over my head, I roll onto my side. I glare at the poster-covered wall. I know what’s coming. He’s going to show me just how temporary my hold on Luci is. I’m already grinding my teeth together, the taste of defeat flooding my mouth, when the bed springs start protesting my housemate’s movements once again.

It doesn’t take long. Luci’s screams can be heard, loud and clear, though the wafer-thin walls. I toss and turn, trying to block it out. Nothing works. Eventually, Luci is alternating between screams of pleasure and cries of pain as Bax erases every trace of me and the guy she fucked at The Lilipad from her body.

It’s a dangerous game they play.

One I sometimes wish I wasn’t in the middle of.

Then memories of mine and Luci’s times together get the best of me and I know that I won’t go anywhere else while Bax continues to allow me to steal small snippets of her affection.

“Yes,” Luci shrieks. I throw myself on my back and jam the heel of my hands over my ears. It doesn’t help, I still hear her clear as day—like she’s standing next to the bed screaming it in my ear just to drive home the point. “Yes… Bax. I… love you. You… Only you.”

Yeah, Bax might’ve blinked first, but I lost this battle.

 

FOUR

Luci

Jerking out of my sleep, I’m overcome with a bad feeling in my stomach. Like I did something wrong last night. I wrack my brain, but nothing jumps out at me. My mind is a vast wasteland of black nothingness. The last thing I remember is coming off stage, goosebumps all over my body, the buzz I get from performing holding me in a state of euphoria. Then I went to the bar, and…

It all comes back. Sadness at finding out Bax has been cheating again. Popping E. Fucking some random in the hallway. Bax literally throwing me over his shoulder and sending me home. And, True. Beautiful, loving, perfect True. He’d taken care of me. Again. Making love to me in the taxi, then taking me to higher heights when we got home. He gone out of his way to take the edge off enough for me to sleep.

My hands shake when I remember waking up in the bed that I share with Bax. He was inside me. Punishing me with his cock and his hands and his teeth and his mean words for daring to do what he’s been doing to me for years. Normally, when I’m with True, Bax isn’t too upset. I’m not supposed to know, but their little agreement is pretty clear. My boyfriend of eight years. The boy who talked me into escaping Ripley with him once he’d saved enough money for two bus fares. The neighbour who let me spend the night in his bed any time my mom’s latest boyfriend got a bit too handsy. My protector since my earliest memories. He’s happy for me to sleep with our drummer as long as he gives his permission first.

Last night, I’d crossed the line. Buoyed by the effects of E, I’d taken matters into my own hands. I’d let someone other than True inside the body that Bax declared was his when I was only thirteen.

And, he’d made me pay for my mistake.

Lifting my arms in front of my face, I inspect the finger marks that run the length of my limbs. I move the covers out of the way, and I’m confronted with the realities of how far I pushed him last night. Bax is a demon in bed. When he feels out of control, he takes his frustrations out on me. I repay him with my screams and my promises to love him while he tries to hurt me enough to force me to leave him. The mottled bruising and bite marks that crisscross over my breasts down my ribs to the bottom of my stomach are dark and vicious. With delicate movements, I open my legs and run my hand between them.

A small hiss escapes my lips at the tenderness I encounter. I jam my hand over my mouth, biting the inside of my cheek so I don’t cry. Pushing myself up until my back rests against the headrest of our bed, I look at Bax where he sleeps on his stomach next to me.

With his eyes shut and the tension that usually radiates from his features missing, Bax looks like the boy I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I reach out to him, my heart hurting over the burden he shoulders for us both, and I run my fingers over his back.

He wakes with a start, rolling over and capturing my hand in his. Dark-brown eyes, chocolate depths that I could get lost in, stare up at me. I smile, a tentative attempt at reconnection. Bax gives me a small, quick quirk of his lips in return. He closes his eyes, resting his forearm over his face and blocking me from sight. My hand is still in his and I’m forced to extend my arm when he pulls my hand to him.

“I’m… sorry,” I try to say. My throat is dry, aching, and sore, a perfect match for the rest of my abused body.

Bax must have made me scream like a banshee last night.

Poor True.

“I don’t want to hear those words from you again,” Bax commands. He pushes himself upright until he’s sitting in the same position as I am. Turning to me, he examines my face with worried eyes. Taking hold of my arms, he turns them, so he can inspect the damage. Pain clouds his face.

“I hurt you again, Luce. Will you forgive me?”

Titling my head back, I stare at the cracked ceiling above us and berate myself. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I should have left him sleeping and cleaned myself up before he woke. With shaking hands, I take hold of his face and kiss him. My lips are dry. Bax tastes like stale alcohol, and I imagine that don’t taste much better. None of that matters. He is my home and I am his.

“Stop it,” I tell him after we stop kissing and he buries his head in my neck. “It’s okay. We’re okay.

Bax’s body shakes. I wrap myself around him, straddling his lap and pulling the covers around us. Holding him close, I run my fingers through his hair and sing to him in a low voice.

“It’s just me and you.

The two of us, an island together.

There is nothing in this world.

Not war or famine or hurricane weather.

Can tear us apart, ‘cause we’re forever.”

It’s the bridge to one of our co-written songs. Written one night when we had nowhere in LA to sleep except a dirty bus shelter. The only possession we had left to hock for money was Bax’s grandpa’s acoustic guitar. Rather than give into the urge to solve our problem with a short-term fix, we’d huddled together and ignored the pangs of hunger while we’d composed this song. Now, when we play it at a gig, we exchange a smile and belt out the verses in unison.

The crowd always joins in, singing our words of devotion without true understanding of how much they mean. Doesn’t matter. Sharing the story will come later. Right now it remains ours.

Our war cry. The rallying of our love. Proof that we can achieve anything together.

Nimble fingers wind their way into my hair. The words become garbled when Bax kisses his way down the middle of my throat. The same fingers that can wrangle the most difficult cords out of his electric guitar dig into my breasts when he kneads them. Throwing my head back, I allow Bax access to my body.

“You know I’ll never let you go,” Bax whispers as he worships every inch of skin he can reach. “You’re all mine, Lucille Williams. From the day you were born til the day you die.”

His cock hardens beneath me. Bax jams his hand between my legs. I ignore the complaints from my abused body and raise myself hips to give him the space he seeks. He pinches my left nipple then flicks my clit with his other hand. It’s barely tolerable, but I don’t show any discomfort. When Bax is like this, filled with sorrow, regret, and possessiveness, my submission is the only thing that will restore his control over his emotions.

It takes a second for my mind to shake off the agony that overwhelms me. While I battle to ignore the soreness, my boyfriend slips two fingers inside me. I’m not ready, his invasion is intense, borderline painful and almost too much to handle after last night.

“Relax, Luci. Breathe for me.” I follow his instructions. Bax pinches my clit, twisting the bundle of nerves with perfect precision. My hips buck, then I fight to stay still. “Ride my hand, baby. Up and down. Up. Down. Up. Down. And up.”

My mind is conditioned to Bax’s commands. Without conscious decision, I’m moving as he wishes, and only when he directs. He stops me as I lift up and I hold myself exactly as he demands.

He removes his fingers from my body and palms his hard cock, stroking himself while I watch. Tipping my head with his fingers under my chin, he smiles when I meet his gaze. My bottom lip trembles when he rubs the head of his dick over my pussy. From my clit to my core, he moves himself against me with lazy grace.

“Is your tight, little cunt hungry?”

“Yes,” I reply immediately, even though I’m unsure how true my answer is.

Black humour lights his eyes, turning them into twin pools of burnt brown. Bax can read me like a book. I glance away, unsure which way he’s going to go. Rage or redemption. Bax takes hold of my throat. He squeezes, and chuckles.

“Look at me.”

I meet his hard glare again. Bax grins, and I return his smile with mine own. He lets go of my throat, although I see in his eyes the desire to choke the life out of me. Trepidation steals my strength. The sound of my pulse pounding through my body fills my ears. My legs burn from maintaining the position he has me in. I want to lower myself, but I know Bax is going to lose his barely, semi-playful mood if I don’t wait.

The man I love needs my complete compliance if he’s going to get through today without hurting someone. Hurting me. I know this from spending almost every day of the past twenty-one years with him. I’m his safe harbour in a world of chaos. He’s the tornado only I can contain.

“Tell me, Luci?” Bax asks with a drawl. “If I made you wait all day, would you?”

“Ye-s.” My voice cracks halfway through the single word.

He runs a finger down the side of my face. Love fills his expression, and my heartbeat returns to normal. Bax is regaining his veneer of civility.

“I love you, sunshine.”

The pet name he gave me two decades ago makes my chest expand with joy. My soul mate is back, the angry monster from last night has been forced back into his cage. The reasons why it was unleashed taunt me—I’d left him because he was fucking other women. Except in this moment, it doesn’t matter any longer.

We’re Bax and Luci—an island cut off from the rest of the world.

“Je t’aime de tout mon cœur.” I murmur, lifting his arm and kissing the tattoo of a sun he has on the inside of his bicep. It’s the only sentence I know in French—something I learnt once in a book. Bax loves to hear my rudimentary attempt at saying ‘I love you with all my heart’ in a language he has always wanted to learn.

The remaining traces of wildness leave his face. Bax takes hold of my hips with infinite gentleness and pulls me down over his cock. As he pushes his way into my body, I close my eyes and let the sensations overwhelm me. The sting. The burn. The yielding. The reverence. It all runs riot over me, tattooing my need for Bax all over my skin.

“Clench my dick tighter.”

I do as I told, tightening my inner walls around him as he moves within me.

“Fuck, Luce,” Bax groans. “You’re perfect.”

His fingers dig into the sparse flesh of my hips. Bax moves me as he needs. The pace he sets is incredible. My legs can’t keep up, licks of ecstasy sparking in my lower belly and spreading warmth through my clit and core. It renders me powerless.

My orgasm hits like a steam train. My body is left feeling like it’s boneless. I limply hold onto Bax’s shoulders while he uses me to reach his own climax. Staccato pumping followed by longer thrusts. He seizes my throat and squeezes. I gasp for breath. My pussy spasms. Bax sinks his teeth into my shoulder, then throws his head back and roars my name.

“Luci!”

I lay my head on his shoulder and gasp for breath. Bax lets go of my throat and crosses his arms over the small of my back. When he holds me like this, I can forget all the bad stuff and just concentrate on how safe he makes me feel. Despite his issues, he’s my rock—the only solid thing in my life.

It’s my job to keep both our heads above water when he starts to drown.

“Need you to trust me, sunshine,” Bax states.

Without taking the time to truly examine what I’m agreeing to, I reply, “I do. I always will.”

 

FIVE

Bax

True is in the living area when I exit our bedroom. He has his legs propped up on the coffee table and a large steaming mug of coffee in his hands. He also has judgement written all over her face.

“Got something to say?” I ask, keeping my voice down so Luci can’t hear from our bedroom.

He shakes his head. “Not a thing.”

“Good. Keep it that way.”

Stalking into the tiny kitchenette, I set about fixing me and Luci a cup of coffee each. The tiny window that looks out over the boulevard we live on is dirty. I wind the latch until it opens all the way and glare down at the people who are milling about below.

Our neighbourhood is one of the crappiest in LA. Because of that it’s also one of the cheapest. My first goal is to get us out of here. I want to live somewhere where the shrubs on the sidewalk aren’t used as a place to take a piss and the air doesn’t smell like a smoggy urinal.

“How bad did you hurt her?” True leans against the counter next to me.

Biting back a smartass retort, I turn to him, examining his face for clues about where he’s going to take this. He seems genuinely worried and not looking for something to use to score himself a point in the pros column with Luci.

“Bad,” I reply. He twists his lips in a grimace, and he shakes his head. “But, she’s all right. I made sure. Just can’t take it when she goes after randoms.”

He bumps his shoulder against mine, then goes to refill his mug. “You need to get you shit under control. I know you love her, but she’s well within her rights to leave you if she wants to. ‘Specially when you’re fucking anything that asks.”

The temper I fought so hard to bring under control in my bedroom churns in my stomach. It rises through my body like a flame caught in a furnace. It makes my chest expand with self-righteous anger before it bubbles in my throat.

“Whoa, dude,” True says, giving me a once over and seeing how close I am to blowing.

He holds his hands up and takes a step back from me.

Tapping my foot on the floor, I count backward from twenty in my head. It’s a technique Luci taught me years ago, after the third—or was it the fourth?—time I belted one of her mom’s drug-fucked boyfriends for attempting to touch her.

“Not tryin’ to get in your face,” he continues, wide eyed and apologetic. “I know my place. Just trying to tell you, and fucking it up epically, that Luci was really upset last night. Maybe you should cool it with the other chicks ‘til she gets her head around the situation?”

The water pipes in the walls start rattling and clanging. The rickety shower door slams shut. Adrenaline surges within my veins. I sneer at True, malice etched on every inch of my face. Luci getting in the shower gives me ten minutes to get True sorted before she’s ready and we have to leave for the studio.

A happy little threesome ready to play music for the music execs netted by another one of my other carnal encounters.

“Are you expressing this worry of yours to Luci, by chance?”

He gets the hint. With earnest eyes full of sympathy, he answers carefully. “Whenever Luci speaks to me, I’m always careful to stay neutral. She needs my support, but you know I have your back.”

I smile. It’s full of teeth and the promise of nuclear war if he ever decides to change his attitude.

True doesn’t stand a chance against me.

He still possesses a conscience. Sure, it’s tainted—dented and a little bent out of shape—but he still has that little voice in his head holding him back. It means he’ll never get the job done, and Luci will remain loyal to me until the day she dies.

Picking up both cups of coffee, I move to leave the kitchenette. Just before I hit the living room, I stop and turn, pretending what I say next has stopped me in my tracks. Reality is, I had it planned before I came out of our bedroom. The jealousy I’d spied in his expression last night wasn’t new. It was the possessive recrimination that had pushed me over the edge and snapped the tenuous hold I had been maintaining on my control right in half.

It wasn’t the random at the nightclub I’d been punishing Luci for, it was True.

I’d sent him home with her to calm her down with his dick, not sleep with her. A hyped up, drugged up Luci wouldn’t have fallen asleep unless True had taken the edge off her anxiety. Fucking her was okay. Fixing her was not.

He follows me into the living room, almost colliding with my back when he sees that I’ve stopped. Apparently, my little ruse was wasted since he was preoccupied with something else. 

Lifting an eyebrow, his curiosity over me still being in the living room is plain to see.

“Sorry about the noise last night. I’ll tell Luci to keep it down next time,” I promise with a sheepish grin. It’s all fake—a contrived apology designed to put him in his place.

True balls his fingers into fists. The cords in his bull-neck stand out. His nostrils flare. I brace for his explosion—excited anticipation flooding me. Getting a reaction from my drummer is hard work. The guy is so even-keeled most days, it’s like he’s a walking zombie.

The flare-up I wanted doesn’t come. Instead, True ducks his head and shrugs.

“No, biggie. We both know she’s a screamer.”

He waltzes into his room and closes the door behind himself before I can respond. One coffee cup falls to the floor from my inattention, but the second one is launched by my right arm straight into his door. Furious shaking overcomes me.

From his room, belly-rumbling, bellowing laughter erupts.

I see red. A scarlet haze covers my vision, and my muscles tense ready for a fight. The need to storm into his room to rip his head off rages within me. I take one step toward his room, freezing on the spot when the bathroom door opens, and Luci comes out with a towel wrapped around her hair. She’s wearing the faded kimono she took from her mother when we left Ripley five years ago.

“Stupid hot water ran out.”

In a split second, my rage is gone. Turning to face Luci properly, I offer her a painted smile.

“Did you get your hair done?”

She grimaces. “Only just.”

The seeping coffee mess is at my feet. A matching puddle has collected at the bottom of True’s door. Luci glances between me and both spills, then back at me. She sizes up the scene, opening her mouth, before she gives herself a shake.

“Can you get my straightener from the kitchen? I did my hair in there last night so True could grab a shower.”

Lifting to her toes, she plants a kiss on my cheek. Luci walks into our bedroom, closing the door quietly behind herself. I make quick work of cleaning up the coffee, then grab the straightener and head back into our room.

By the time we’re ready to leave, True is waiting for us in the living room. He’s planted on the couch. His feet propped in the same position as they were when I first came out this morning. He greets us both with a genuine smile. Luci gives him a hug and ducks into the bathroom to quickly touch up her eye makeup. I stand back and hope like fuck his ridiculous copper-coloured dreads catch on fire.

In my current mood, I could watch him burn to death without blinking.

Dressed in a sleeve-less, Guns N’ Roses T-shirt and dirty denim, he matches me and Luci without looking like he’s tried. His lip and eyebrow piercings are stainless steel, and the heavy black boots on his feet simply add to his look.

“Gonna get the fuck over yourself any time soon?” he asks, quietly.

With a chin lift I acknowledge his question. I can’t bring myself to step away from my jealousy, yet I know I must. The success of Miscreant Mischief hinges on the connection between the three of us. True is as important to my dreams as Luci. Eating humble pie is a lesser evil than finding another drummer to split the apartment rent and the studio fees.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t trust anyone else with Luci, either.

True might want her for himself, ultimately, however I know he’ll respect the rules of the game we play until he makes his move. Bringing in someone else is only asking for trouble.

My jaw takes a moment to listen to the directions it receives from my brain. Eventually, it moves to form the words that need to be said.

“Truce.” I curl my lips into an awkward grin. “I’m being a dick. Too much stress, ya know?”

Nodding, he holds out his fist. I bump it with mine. Luci comes of the bathroom. She’s reenergised. Her night with True and her morning with me have reset her head. She’s back to normal—my anxious dainty fairy. She’s wearing tight leather pants and a flowing, long-sleeved made from some type of sheer black material. The damage I’ve done to her body is covered up, but she’s still managed to dress for the unending humidity.

“Come on.” I gesture them to follow me out of the apartment.

We catch the first cab we wave down. The journey to Sunset Sound in downtown LA is made in virtual silence. Luci rests her head on my shoulder and plays with my fingers with one hand. She holds True’s hand in her other and hums a little ditty. With deliberate evasion, I stare out the taxi window and pretend that I can’t see her clutching his hand like her life depends on their connection.

“Miscreant motherfuckin’ Mischief,” the receptionist greets us as we arrive at the studio. “Heard you guys rocked the fuck out of The Lilipad last night.”

“We did,” True answers, a shit-eating grin all over his face.

I sign us into the studio we have booked for today. Sunset Sound is expensive. We pool every dollar we earn from gigs to afford a standing slot to record our first independent record. The ability to pay for our sessions here supersedes my need to get Luci out of our shitty apartment. It ranks higher than paying the rent and buying food. My gut has said since the start that recording here was the only option.

Something—intuition, whatever—has stopped me from seeking out cheaper options any time True’s complained. This is where we need to be. This is where we’ll be discovered.

“Hey,” the receptionist calls after us as we head deeper inside the building. “You’ve got a visitor. I sent them in to wait. Hope you don’t mind?”

“Not a prob,” I reply over my shoulder.

She gives me a wide smile and a thumb’s up.

I double check my phone to make sure we’re not late. Nope, five minutes early. One of the music execs must have arrived before their scheduled time. Here’s hoping they don’t use this delay against us. Some of them are too amped up on their own importance to realise that the rest of the world doesn’t run according to their whims.

Pushing open the door, I let Luci in first, then follow her inside. True closes the door behind us. The lights are already on in the sound booth. Not unexpected since we knew we had a visitor.

What is unexpected is the identity of our guest.

Alexander Adonai stands. He adjusts his tie, smooths down his expensive suit, and greets us in a clipped voice.

“Lucille Williams, Baxter Johnson, and Terrence Anderson the Third. Also known as Miscreant Mischief. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’ve heard great things about your sound.” Amanda Jones’s half-brother holds out his hand. “Call me, Alex.”

Shock renders me speechless, frozen in spot, as my world comes crashing down around my ears. She told me last night that she’d take my band down if I walked out on her.

There’s no way Alex’s appearance here this morning is a coincidence.

The way he’s devouring Luci with his hungry gaze isn’t a quirk of fate either.

Nobody comes to the attention of Alexander Adonai and emerges with their soul intact.

 

SIX

True

Screwing up my nose when the music exec that Bax arranged to meet us enunciates my name in full, I take the hand he’s offering and give it a perfunctory shake. Call-me-Alex drops my hand and moves onto Luci, eating her up with starving eyes and a smarmy smirk.

I step back and let Bax take centre stage. Using the cover of their polite greetings to really check him out, disturbing licks of familiarity begin brewing within me. Unfortunately, unlike him and his ability to greet me by my much-detested name—Terrence Anderson the Third—I can’t put a full name to his face. What I do know is that he makes me uneasy. Exuding superiority from his bulky frame; he wears his expensive suit like armour. Taller than Bax and built like a brick shithouse, his slicked back blond hair and the sneering expression on his angular face adds up to something more than the usual executive we meet with. 

In short, he has my nerves jangling.

Bax’s narrowed gaze and the quick glances he keeps making between the blond dude and Luci makes me think he’s having the same effect on my lead guitarist.

“We should get set up,” Bax says. He waves Luci forward. “Why don’t you head for your booth? And me and True will—”

He stops speaking abruptly, a scowl covering his face when Alex takes hold of Luci’s wrist and tugs her to a stop. Her gasp fills the small room, setting the hair on the back of my neck on end. Me and Bax both take a step toward her, like a pair of denim-clad knights determined to protect her from the dishonourable rogue in our midst.

Inwardly, I laugh at myself. Apparently, my recent run-ins with Bax haven’t dissuaded me of my delusions about Luci.

“Why don’t you let the boys get ready while you tell me a little bit about your catalogue?”

The emphasis he places on “boys” could be accidental—the glint in his eye when he looks at Bax says otherwise.

Luci takes a second to examine his face, then she shakes her head and pulls free. Blinking fast, she offers him a small smile filled with apology. Her smile is at odds with the glimmer of fear I glimpse in her eyes. “Bax is better at that stuff.”

Seemingly intent on searching the carpet for the cure for cancer, Luci keeps her head down and hurries past the mixing boards and out of the door that leads into her vocal booth. The glass door closes behind her with a decided snick that leaves a weird friction in its wake. Linking my fingers behind my head, I stretch until the growing tension in my body begins to recede, then contemplate the two men in front of me. The friction has grown into an animosity that is thick enough to chew. It crackles like electricity, yet it all seems to come from Bax. This Alex guy appears as cool as a cucumber, apparently oblivious to the atmosphere he’s causing.

“Someone gonna fill me in or what?” I demand.

In unison, they turn to face me. Alex quirks a questioning eyebrow while Bax frowns.

“I’m here to listen to your music,” Alex says at the same time that Bax replies, “He’s Amanda’s half-brother.”

Foreboding floods my veins. It attacks my ability to think straight and hits me straight in the gut. After a deep breath, I glare at Bax.

“You’ve gotta be fucking me?” The question is rhetorical. Bax knows this and he doesn’t attempt to respond. Ducking his head, he shrugs when I continue. “I told you this shit would backfire eventually.”

Bax pulls himself up straight then meets my eyes. Cold calculation freezes me to the spot when he answers. “I do what I have to. I don’t hear you complaining when it lands us gigs and gets you free pussy.”

It takes all of my willpower to refrain from rolling my eyes at his over-exaggerated defence. Instead, I snatch my drumsticks from the counter and stride past him. Arguing with Bax when he’s up on his high horse like this is futile—and I’m over banging my head against a wall trying to knock sense into him today.

With the door that leads out of the mixing booth propped open by my shoulder, I half turn so I can glare at him. Common sense says that I should have kept walking, but I can’t resist taking one last shot at him before I settle in for another session behind my drum kit.

“Believe what you will,” I growl in a low voice. Bax curls his nose into a sneer. Alex Adonai leans back against the wall closest to him with languid grace. “But, mark my words. You keep going like this, fucker, and you’re gonna send this all up in flames.”

I wait for a moment, anticipating another flurry of insults being levelled at me. The tirade doesn’t come. Bax simply inclines his head with apparent agreement before he turns his attention to Alex.

“Let’s get this straight,” I hear him telling Alex as I slowly let the door swing shut behind me. “If you’re here to do anything other than listen to our music, you’re shit outta luck. We have options.”

“Your options are limited,” Alex replies. “No one else is coming—”

The remainder of his statement is cut off by the door closing. I walk past Luci’s cubicle, then back up and pop my head through the tiny door into her padded booth. Spying her in the corner, smoky tendrils of worry begin to wrap around me. Luci is propped in the corner of the room, pale and breathing hard. She’s barely standing.

“Hey, what’s up?” I call to her in a soothing tone.

She lifts her head just enough for me to see the tears streaming down her face, then drops her chin back to her chest. Tossing my sticks on the floor, I pull the door all the way open and enter the room. With a measured examination, I try to determine if she’s too far gone for me to handle.

Luci has a point in her panic attacks where nobody but Bax is going to be able to bring her back. When she’s at that stage, the intervention of anyone but him can send her into complete, emotional shutdown.

A quick glance through the window tells me that Bax is still occupied with Alex. I can almost see the steam coming from his ears while he argues with Alex and that makes the decision for me.

I’m it.

Come what may.

Luci reacted positively to me last night. Maybe, I can pull off a repeat today?

The glass window in the wall that faces the mixing booth exposes us to Bax and Alex, so I gather Luci in my arms and slide down the wall until my ass hits the floor. Rocking her in a steady rhythm, I catalogue the tremors running the length of her body, the staccato tempo of her breathing, and the way she’s knotting her fingers together like she’s trying to wring out a wet hand towel.

With a gentle grip, I use her chin to lift her face toward mine. Her eyes are screwed shut, the tears that are finally slowing in their pace are still leaving a damp trail down her cheeks.

“Open your eyes, Luce,” I command in an even voice. “Focus on me.”

She shakes her head.

I decide to change tact.

“Do you trust me?”

Without hesitation, Luci nods. I tamp down on the ridiculous surge of pride that flows over me and continue.

“Then open your eyes so I can help you.”

Almost imperceptibly, Luci cracks her eyelids. Letting go of her chin, I tighten my embrace and lay my lips against her forehead.

“Good girl,” I say before I kiss the smooth skin between her eyebrows. “Now, I want you to look me in the eyes.”

It takes her a second to comply, but she does. The shaking subsides a little and her breathing begins to even out. Perverse delight at getting her this far hits me in the gut, but I refuse to acknowledge it right now.

Luci stares into my eyes and I look back at her. I’ve always been aware of the depth of sorrow that she carries deep within her, yet until this moment, I never understood exactly how that affected her. There is a worldliness that seems out of place when you consider her punk pixie appearance. On the surface, she appears golden. Yet, inwardly, it’s clear she’s seen the worst the world has to offer and its damaged her more than I realised.

If I’m honest, part of me always felt that she used her anxiety to keep Bax in line.

Now, I know that it’s a symptom of the whole situation, not a mechanism that enables their disfunction.

My lapse into my own head causes Luci’s breathing to quicken. The tremors that return to overwhelm her are a burning indictment of my distraction, so I pull my head out my ass and train my focus on her. Luci’s throat works then she swallows. Fear dominates her expression as she starts to lose the little amount of control she had regained.

I part my lips and let my breath blow on her face.

“Do you feel how I’m breathing?” I ask.

She barely moves her head up and down, but I take it as agreement.

“Follow my rhythm,” I demand. “In and out. In and out.”

I continue to direct her, chanting in a steady pace. It takes a minute or two, but it works. Slowly, the colour returns to her face, then she’s breathing in sync with me without my prompting.

 Crashing sounds emerge from the front of the studio making Luci jump in my hold. I clutch her tight, restraining her when she tries to get to her wobbly feet. She settles back into my arms when she realises that I’m not going to let her go.

Pulling her arms around my neck, I press my forehead against hers and stare into her eyes.

“Please, True,” she pleads, on the verge of tears once more. “Let me go. Bax needs me.”

I move my head from side to side. “No, Luci. I need you.”

An eerie calm steals her fight. Luci pulls away from me ever so slightly and sits up straight. I follow her movement, returning my gaze to her face. Her bottom lip is trembling, gathering tears making her bright blue eyes gleam. The downward cast of her lips scares me, and I wait for her to turn away and run for Bax.

We sit like this while the crashing and banging from the mixing booth grows louder. Bax shouts at someone, who yells back at him. This goes on seemingly for hours, yet Luci doesn’t move. I do my best to hold still lest I startle her into action. The fear in me grows stronger with every lapsing second until Luci speaks—simultaneously healing my heart even as she shatters it into a thousand pieces.

“If I could choose, I would pick you over everyone in the entire world.” My chest clenches tight, and I mentally hug her words to my heart like my own personal slice of heaven. “But, I’m not free to choose. Not now he’s back to get me.”

 

SEVEN

Luci

When I lay out the truth for True, he turns to stone. I wait for the questions he must have to be fired at me, however they don’t come. As always, the beautiful man holding me pushes away his own needs and puts me first.

“I can give you freedom,” True vows with steel in his voice. His grip on my upper arms is firm, yet gentle—matching the passionate promise in his expression. “I have money. Say the word and I will take you anywhere you want to go.”

My lips curve into a sad smile. I wish he could. Unfortunately, the lingering remnants of the panic attack I’m still recovering from are proof of my acceptance that I’m doomed. There is nowhere to go. All the money in the world won’t save me. I could flee to a nunnery in Siberia and he would still find me eventually.

I escaped him once. He’ll never let it happen again.

Bloodthirsty hellhounds like mine get off on the hunt because they know that the eventual capture will make the kill that much more satisfying.

The fighting grows louder. It’s a stark reminder that I need to protect the men who defend me from their never-ending desire to sacrifice themselves to the futile inevitability of my dark future.

“Please, Luci.”

Seizing True’s handsome face with both hands, I silence him with my mouth. I kiss him with every ounce of emotion that currently flows through me. With mounting desperation, I swallow his next words and then the ones that follow them. His silence is my peace because it doesn’t matter what he offers, I cannot in good conscience accept it.

True is everything I’ve ever wanted. Bax is everything I’ve ever needed. It hurts me to hear either of them make promises that I can’t ask them to keep, yet True tempts me to dream of a better life more than Bax ever has. That fact alone is evidence that I need to set him free.

My personal happiness will never be possible.

The best I can hope for is my memory to live on with True.

But, before I do that, I need one last moment with him to sustain me through the horror that’s to come.

It’s with sure, steady hands that I pull his T-shirt over his head. Momentary shock stiffens his large body before he submits to my course of action and takes control. True grasps the neckline of my sheer top and rips it open down the middle. It exposes my black, half-cup bra and the marks left from my night with Bax.

“I want to kill him,” he growls.

“This is not about him,” I reply.

True closes his eyes and drags in a ragged breath. When he reopens them, a determined kind of reality shines brightly in their green depths.

“It’s always about him.”

There is no opportunity for me to respond. Not that there is anything left to say. He’s right.

True pushes to his feet, lifting me with him. He strides toward the door and I clutch his shoulders when it hits me that he means to take me back out to Bax.

“No, no. Stop.”

I shriek when my back hits the wall next to the door, and True swallows it with his kiss. Balancing my weight in one arm, he jams his hand down the front of my leather pants and wrenches the buttons open. Strong fingers work them down my hips, then he pulls his hips away from me for one second before he returns. His cock pushes inside me, giving me what I demanded with my pleas to stop. Opening my legs as wide as I can, I arch my back and scratch at his shoulders when the delicious burn becomes too nearly much to handle.

With a sinking heart, I wait for him to pull dampen the intensity.

He does the opposite and I kiss him harder for it.

True never treats me like this—like a normal, undamaged woman. Usually, he tiptoes around my issues and makes our sex all about me. Today, he’s taking what he needs. Deep, harsh thrusts that claim instead of asking. Hard fingers that dig into my flesh rather than caress. Teeth that threaten to bite as opposed to nibble.

It’s exhilarating. Validating. Annihilating.

“Fucking love you,” he grunts.

I sink my teeth into his shoulder until I taste blood.

“Fucking hate you too,” he snarls.

I lift my head and kiss him, relishing the truth that lingers on his tongue.

His words are perfect. There is nothing but truth in our coupling. True tangles his tongue with mine. I pull his dreads and bite his bottom lip with depraved savagery. Our flesh slaps together every time he pumps into me. It hurts even as it heals. With love burying deep into my heart, I take every ounce of feral ownership he offers and match it with my own.

There is a bonfire of pleasure burning through the bottom of my stomach. It reaches fever pitch before it twists and turns its way through me. My orgasm hits like a tsunami. I ride the waves of ecstasy, clutching at True like he’s my only safe port in the storm of his creation.

Truth be told, he always has been.

The initial sparks are barely subsiding when I feel him coming. The sticky heat of his climax is the first sign that he’s taken me without a condom.

“Shit,” True gasps, struggling to regain his breath.

Surprisingly, I don’t mind this lapse in judgement.

It feels right.

A physical reminder of the truth I surrendered to him.

Unfortunately, now that I have this memory to keep me sustain me, it’s time to deliver the final blow.

“What the fuck is this?” Bax demands after he pulls the door open.

If there was ever a time when he was the last person I wanted to see, now is that time. Having Bax involved is a complication I don’t need, especially when I haven’t a clue why he was fighting Alexander Adonai in the first place. I’ve never told him the truth and I highly doubt Alex did.

The Adonis of my nightmares isn’t very well acquainted with truth.

“Are you fucking deaf? I asked you two a question,” Bax rudely presses the point.

My brain is scrambled, and it makes me miss the opportunity to take control of the situation. Instead, True sets me back on my feet, tucks his dick back in his jeans, then gets in Bax’s face.

“I’m not deaf, motherfucker,” True states. He punches Bax in the face, knocking him to the ground. “Not last week. Not last night. Not this morning. Not ever.”

I’m still struggling to pull my pants back up when Bax pushes himself into a sitting position and leans against the doorframe. Wiping blood from his mouth, he smirks at True.

“That so?”

True leans over Bax and points a finger in his face. “Your time is over. Luci’s mine and that means you will never hurt her again.”

Finally closing the zip on my leather pants, I push between Bax and True. A quick glance between them alerts me to the fact that there is no going back. The standoff that I’ve always hoped to avoid has started. Bax’s face is battered and bruised from True’s punch and his brawl with Alex, yet it’s True who looks like he’s on the cusp of being beaten.

“Luci?” True asks, holding out his hand to me. He doesn’t say anything further, but I know what he wants.

Every atom in my body screams at me to take his offer of freedom. The synapses of my brain counteract my body with the stark reminder that choosing him means signing his death warrant.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Bax says with a laugh. He dabs at his lip again. “You’re making a fool of yourself.”

True moves his hand an inch closer. I bite down on the inside of my lip to stop myself from giving in.

All my life logic has had to override desire.

This time nothing has changed.  

“Luci?”

His pleading tone hits me in the chest and steals my breath. It also robs me of the hope that I refused until this second to admit still existed. I force myself to meet his begging gaze, at the same time steeling myself to break his heart.

I can’t speak—not that any words I could offer would be adequate.

Instead, I take the coward’s way out and shake my head.

Clutching his stomach, Bax breaks into bellowing guffaws.

I pay him no mind. My attention is squarely on True as he accepts my refusal without another word.

“Fucking loser,” Bax states with breathless mirth. “Too stupid to realise that me and Luci are forever.”

Through eyes that widen with dawning horror, I watch True jam his boot against Bax’s throat. My boyfriend is pinned against the doorframe by our mutual best friend turned my lover. He’s barely able to breathe, yet I can’t find the inclination to defend him.

Denying True to save him from Alex has taken every bit of willpower I possessed.

I’m spent.

Bone-weary.

Tired of my life.

Defeated by circumstances that have been out of my control since I was thirteen.

The tenuous hold I had on my emotions breaks free. I sink to the floor, my knees hitting the solid, felt covered concrete with a crack, and I fold in on myself. My heart pounds in my ears and my vision begins to dim. The last thing I see before I succumb to the cool relief of the beckoning darkness is True running to my side and Bax crawling toward me.

The black void engulfs me at the same time as I feel both men crowd around me, embracing me from each side. Their individual, yet collective presence offers me the comfort I need to let the bleak reality of what happened truly hit home.

My monster is back.

 

EIGHT

Bax

“Back the fuck up,” I snarl at True.

He ignores me, focusing instead on cradling Luci’s unconscious body in his lap. My muscles tense, and I’d love nothing more than to knock him out. Only problem is, I’m still reeling from the aftereffects of my punch up with Alexander Adonai and the couple of cheap shots True got in before Luci fainted.

“She needs a doctor.”

With an effort that feels herculean, I push my aching body into a standing position and glare down at him.

“No, she doesn’t,” I reply. He narrows his eyes and shakes his head at me. “Something’s triggered her. She had the mother of all panic attacks, that’s all. After a few hours sleep, she’ll be fine.”

True stands, holding Luci in his arms as he rises with ease.

“I’m taking her to the ER,” he states.

He’s already halfway to the exit before I manage to catch up with him. My leg is fucked, and the resulting limp has me resembling a gimp—and not in a fun way.

“Oi, wait up.”

Once again, I’m ignored.

Pushing open the double doors, he strides outside. The doors swing shut behind him, leaving me to deal with the open-mouthed receptionist who’s gaping at our strange departure like we’re a trio of circus freaks.

“What?”

“Ah, Mr. Adonai left this for you,” she says. She waves something at me. I limp forward and discover that it’s a business card in her hand.

“Thanks.” I snatch it from her and leave without another word.

I guess heading home with True and Luci is my only option right now.

With a comatose singer and a pissed-off drummer, there will be no recording today. The dollars wasted irk me, yet they would be the least of my problems, if I ever gave into the urge to be honest with myself.

The taxi situation in LA has worked in my favor. True is leaning against the front of the building, still holding Luci. She looks like sleeping beauty, all curled up against him. Blonde hair mussed, the skin around her mouth is red from his kisses, and he’s looking at her like she needs protecting from me.

He’s wrong. Half the time, I’m the only thing standing between Luci and a mental institution.

She stirs, then relaxes with a barely audible sigh. I run an assessing eye over her face and decide that she really is going to be fine. Her lips are parted, and her breathing is regular. The lack of eyelid movement and the relaxed way she remains sleeping tells me that whatever set her off isn’t tormenting her in dream land.

Nope, it’s when she wakes back up that her anguish will kick back up all over again.

The thought of what went down with Alex Adonai sends guilt spiralling through my mind. It takes dogged determination to harness it before I spin out of control. What’s done is done—and it’s for the greater good.

I’m sure Luci will understand why I agreed.

True… probably not so much.

“What’s that?” he asks.

I follow his gaze to the card I forgot I was holding in my hand.

Glancing down, I instantly recognise the logo for Adonai Entertainment on the front. It has Alexander Adonai’s personal numbers and private address printed on it. A quick flip of the embossed cardboard unearths a handwritten message scrawled on the back.

 

6 pm tomorrow night.

Bring her things.

A.A.

 

You know that guilt I just tamed? Yeah, well it’s back with vengeance.

“Are you deaf?” True snaps at me.

“Not deaf, just sick of your shit.”

With shaking fingers, I find vicious delight in crumpling the business card into a ball. I shove it down in my front pocket and step out onto the curb side. Jamming my fingers in my mouth, I let out an ear-splitting whistle.

Two cabs slam on their brakes and race to a stop in front of me. I pull open the door to the closest vehicle and wave True forward. His reluctance to accept my help pulses around him like a radioactive field of hatred, however he does what he does best and puts Luci first.

Once they’re settled into the backseat, I close the door and make a move for the front seat. That mission is quickly aborted. The taxi pulls out onto the street, barely missing my feet, and I’m left standing on my own in the middle of the road as it drives off. A back window is opened and True sticks out his tattooed arm and flips me the bird.

“Motherfucker!” I curse.

The second cab is still standing at the kerb. Ignoring my busted leg, I limp to the front passenger door. Before I can pull it all the way open, the driver shakes his head and reaches over to slam it shut.

“No fare now,” he stammers after he’s cracked the window two inches. “No fare.”

The opportunity to argue the point with him is removed when he speeds off after the taxi containing True and Luci. Throwing my arms in the air, I’m in the process of stamping my feet until a series of horns begin blaring and I remember that I’m in the middle of the street.

“Oh, go fuck yourselves!”

After raising my fist at the cars beeping me, I step back onto the sidewalk.

Raw anger is making me shake and I grit my teeth to stop from lashing out at the people who refuse to get out of my way, so I can get back to the front door of Sunset Sound. All I need is a minute by myself to get my shit together, except it doesn’t look like it’ll be happening any time soon.

The universe is conspiring to keep me pissed off.

My phone buzzes in my pocket.

 

TRUE: Enjoy the walk, fuck face.

 

Shoving it back in my pocket, I jam my eyes shut, then drag a breath in through my nose and hold it in my lungs until it burns. The slow exhale afterward soothes the aching in my chest and allows me to focus elsewhere.

Such as True and his ridiculous macho man display in the vocal booth.

Juvenile behaviour like this is the last thing I expected from True. Like I can’t hail another taxi to replace the one he scared off? As if I’m not going to head straight for the apartment and take Luci away from him without an argument from her? She made her choice clear—yet he continues to labor under the illusion he has a say in Luci’s life.

Whatever happened between them before I found them has upped the stakes in his dreadlocked head.

Now, it’s up to me to shove him back in his box before our performance tonight.

Being on stage will reset Luci’s mental state and it’ll show True that she’s not in need of his rescuing.

A win-win for both me and Miscreant Mischief.

The less interference he can run before we meet with Alex, the smoother this will go.

Whilst the strings attached to Alexander Adonai’s offer makes me nervous, getting through the month ahead promises riches beyond belief. The pinnacle of our goals. A realisation of the dreams we’ve chased for so long.

It’s easy. Put True back in his place. Get Luci’s head on straight. Give a kick-ass show tonight. Deliver Luci to Alex tomorrow. Pick her up in a month and ink the deal of the century.

Plan of attack in place, a grin curves my lips at the future I can finally see coming into view.

Control is my thing. This afternoon, it’s been slipping out of my grasp. Right now, I can feel my jangled nerve endings retracting and the raging torrent of fury in the pit of my gut calming.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

I, Baxter Johnson, have the will.

Alexander Adonai is the way.

 

NINE

True

 

“Wake up, sunshine,” Bax leans over Luci and coos at her in a ridiculous baby voice. “We’ll be late if you sleep any longer.”

She barely rouses, bar for a small sigh that leaves her lips. I’ve never seen anything like it. The way she’s sleeping is unnatural, worse than any comedown I’ve ever witnessed. It’s been four hours. Two hours longer than my nerves could handle, and three hours spent in Bax’s company that I would’ve liked to have avoided.

Uncertainty makes for strange bedfellows.

And, I’m more than uncertain right now.

Luci’s fear has infected me.

I’m fucking scared for what’s to come.

“That’s my girl,” Bax verbally encourages Luci when her eyelids flutter for a second.

Using his hip to push me out of the way, Bax scoops Luci up in his arms and carries her out of my bedroom. Part of me wants to protest his heavy-handed tactics, but a bigger part is grateful. I’m out of my depth. He’s a pro at handling her. It makes sense for me to step aside and let him take control.

Just like it makes sense for Luci to pick him over me.

The pipes in the walls screech and rumble, heralding the start of the shower. I lay back on my bed with my arms folded behind my head. My body is energy spent, yet my mind races. Today was crazy. Luci’s freak out and the harsh way I fucked her afterward has my nerves jangling.

I’m a confused wreck.

The placid veneer that Bax presented when he arrived home from Sunset Sound just topped off my worries. I’d expected a fight, but he’d not said a word to me. Instead he’d climbed onto my bed with me and Luci and held a silent vigil. Together, we’d watched her sleep. Separately, we’d mulled on our own thoughts. Later, as a trio, we’ll wash away the strangeness of the day and head to our performance tonight like nothing happened.

From somewhere in the living area, my phone beeps. Pushing to my bare feet, I pad across the sticky carpeted floor in the direction of the noise. I’m just about to enter the living room when a piece of cardboard sticks to the bottom of my left foot. I bend down and peel it off, and I’m about to drop it back on the carpet when a black logo catches my eye.

Untwisting the squashed business card, I smooth it out just enough to read it. The branding is distinct. An intertwined A and E, easily recognisable as Adonai Entertainment. This is the card I saw in Bax’s hand back at Sunset Sound. It must have fallen out of his pocket after he arrived home.

The handwritten message scrawled on the back remains readable. It’s damning evidence of Bax’s underhandedness.

“What the fuck?” I mutter to myself after I scan it a second time.  “Bring her things?”

My phone beeps again. Picking it up from the coffee table, I swipe my thumb up the screen and read the message I just received.

 

MOM: I hope this is still your number. If it is, please ring me. It’s urgent.

 

Holy shit.

Today keeps getting better.

Scrolling to the next message, I discover that my sister was the sender of the first message I heard.

 

POLLY: Come home, Terry. I need you.

 

If there is one name I hate more than my actual given name, Terry is it. The only person who gets away with calling me by the moniker is my little sister, and she only does it when she’s on the cusp of calling in every brotherly favour I owe her. To have my mother reach out hot on Polly’s heels heralds a disaster of epic proportions. Once I was heir apparent, nowadays I’m more of a persona non grata.

Telling your father where to stick his wealth will do that.

My nerves were shot trying to deal with Luci. With my mother asking me to call her compounded by Polly’s plea for me to return home, I’m at a loss over how to proceed. In one hand I have a business card from Alexander Adonai telling Bax to bring what I assume is Luci’s things tomorrow night while in the other I hold electronic entreaties of the only two other people I love in this world.

Do I confront Bax about Alex or book flight back home?

Rock meet hard place.

The conundrum is decided for me. Bax and Luci duck past me in the living room and slam their bedroom door shut. Neither of them speak to me. Hell, Luci doesn’t even lift her gaze from the floor during the five seconds that our paths cross. I’m still trying to wrap my head around Luci’s quick recovery when bed springs begin squeaking in their bedroom. It’s followed seconds later by the sound of my ring tone. Once I’ve checked the caller ID that’s flashing on the screen, I glare in the direction of their bedroom door. My heart thumps in my ears, angry beats that mock me while I pray to hell that I’m not hearing what I know I am.

Bax and Luci fucking.

The sound sets my teeth on edge. I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a bittersweet symptom—an undeniable sign from the universe that it’s over. It’s the final reminder I need. My feelings are blinding me to the truth. After what happened at Sunset Sound, and especially after Luci threw the ultimatum I gave her back in my face, the time has come for me to accept the truth.

I might believe I’m what Luci needs.

Reality is, I am not what Luci wants.

“Yo,” I answer my phone.

Silence greets me, and I immediately regret my flippant greeting.

“Hey, Polly,” I try again, this time in a serious tone that better suits the situation. “What’s so urgent?”

“Terry,” my sister sobs down the phone. “It’s dad. He collapsed at work.”

Tendrils of foreboding circle their way around my spine. My head feels weightless and my legs turn to spaghetti.

“He’s, ah,” Polly cries. “They don’t think… they said he might not make it.”

“Shit.”

A sad chuckle is the only sound I hear in response. Gripping my phone tight in my hand, I look around our dingy apartment. The stained couch where I’ve shared many movie nights with Bax and Luci. The tiny kitchen where we’ve concocted some truly weird meals out of whatever food we had left in the fridge. The minuscule bathroom we managed to make work whenever we’ve been rushing to get ready at the same time. The bed where I’ve shared Luci’s body with Bax and my heart with hers.

In the scheme of things, this is not where I belong.

If my father is going to die, I need to be there. If not for him and the memories of the few good times we shared, then for Polly and our mother as they try to navigate a world without him. His louder-than-life, bombastic, old school ways will leave a huge void in their lives.

“Mom went through his office,” Polly drags me out of my head. “She needs you home in case the worst happens.”

My feet are walking me back to my bedroom before I’ve made a conscious decision to go. While Polly drones away, I prop my phone between my ear and shoulder and start shoving my clothes into my two duffel bags. When they’re full, I survey what’s left. My best drum kit is at Sunset Sound. The one I have here is my favourite, but I’m not going to be able to take it. The bed belongs to the apartment as do the cupboards.

What I hold is my hands is all I own.

It’s a motley accumulation of bits and bobs—a pathetic testimony to my twenty-seven years on this earth.

“Did you hear what I said?” Polly asks. She sounds calmer, even though I’ve given her little to work with in the way of my plans. Guilt floods my gut when it dawns how much pressure my defection would have thrust on her young shoulders.

“Yeah, sorry sis,” I reply, readjusting my phone so it’s in my hand. “Wasn’t really listening. Busy packing.”

“Yay,” she squeals. “Mom will be so happy to know that she has your support. If we’re going to keep dad’s legacy alive, then having the new CEO back in the fold will keep the shareholders from becoming too jittery.”

My stomach drops to my shit kickers. Fingers that were steady until Polly’s last statement begin to tremble, and I drop the phone.

“Fuck.” Picking it back up, I jam it under my ear. “What did you say?”

“Dad named you as his successor in his will. Mom found it and she started losing her shit because she didn’t think you’d come back without a fight.”

Our mother was on the money. Any day but today and I wouldn’t have entertained the idea of returning home. Even tomorrow might have been too late. Luci has a way of reeling me back in every time I think I might be better off on my own. My mother and Polly’s texts gave me the out I needed today. I was drowning in my need to save Luci until it become clear that she was unsaveable—for now.

Yes, the qualifying caveat hasn’t escaped my notice.

“You’re still coming, aren’t you Terry?”

There is silence coming from Bax and Luci’s bedroom. If I dawdle any longer, there will be a three-way standoff. Luci will cry, Bax will yell, and I’ll stay.

I’m not under the illusion that Bax wants me to stay because he likes me.

As a drummer, I’m replaceable for Miscreant Mischief.

As a lover, I’m the only one he can stand touching Luci.

His behaviour this afternoon proves that.

I tried to take Luci from him and he still returned to our apartment and pretended like nothing had changed.

For Bax, I’m a necessary evil.

For Luci, I’m an essential circuit breaker.

For my sanity, this life needs to end.

At least, until I’ve found a way to make Luci saveable.

“Don’t stress, Polly Pocket,” I finally reply to my little sister. “I’m coming home.”

Holding both bags in one hand, I take measured steps toward the front door. Each movement feels like it takes an eternity. One foot in front of the other. Step by step. Shedding the invisible links to this life one at a time.

Trembling fingers remove the front door keys from my key ring. I drop them on the rickety table next to the entryway and step across the threshold into the hallway.

I don’t want to take another look. I want to pretend that this doesn’t hurt at all.

My neck muscles burn from the need to look back.

I try to wait it out.

I really do.

It’s futile, yet I do it any way.

If I can manage this, the stubborn resolution will see me through the hard days to come.

“Mom’s calling me,” Polly says. I jerk, and her voice rips me out of the daze I’ve fallen into. “I’ve got to answer her, but I’ll call you back.”

“No,” I snap at her. “Don’t tell her that I’m coming. I want to surprise her.”

“Ah, okay.” Polly sounds reluctant, but she agrees. “I’ll keep it to myself. For now.”

The tentative qualifier added to her promise doesn’t escape my notice.

“I won’t let you down,” I vow. Movement catches my attention and I look back into the apartment.

“Good,” my little sister sounds relieved as she ends the call.

Little does she know, but my oath is not just for her.

Luci is standing in the middle of the living room. She’s clutching a thin towel around her body. Her hair is wet, her face pale, and her expression telegraphs her confusion at finding me outside our home holding my bags.

When she opens her mouth to speak, I shake my head. Luci presses her lips together in a tight line, then she looks between me and her bedroom door.

As usual, she’s torn between me and Bax.

That ends today.

“I’m leaving, Luci,” I state, matter-of-factly. “But I will be back. Once I can give you freedom to choose, I’ll be back for you, I promise.”

Searching her face for a sign that she agrees, shock reverberates the length of my spine when I spot twin trails of tears running down her cheeks. When our eyes meet, I try to remain unblinking for as long as I can. I hope she can see the naked truth in my face because I meant every word I said.

The trance-like connection between us lingers for what feels like an hour.

In reality, it wouldn’t even be half a minute.

A noise from the direction of Luci and Bax’s bedroom brings us back to the here and now.

“Go,” Luci mouths.

I nod. It’s a cop out, but the ability to speak to her eludes me.

She smiles, a half heartbroken, half peaceful rendition that sets my mind at ease.

Luci understands what I’m trying to achieve.

Now, I have to find a way to come through for her.

 

TEN

Luci

 

Living without your heart in your body.

Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it.

It’s been thirty-six hours since True left and I can’t seem to find the ability to draw in a full breath. There’s a heavy weight in the middle of my chest. It’s crushing me. Starving me of air. Stripping me of energy. My lungs will only expand far enough for me to drag in the bare minimum oxygen required to keep living.

My heart is gone, yet I’m not dead.

“You finished?” Bax calls to me. He’s on the other side of the bathroom door. The physical barrier—one I insisted on when I went to shower—is the only thing keeping him from shadowing me like I’m a toddler who’s just learnt to walk. “We’ve gotta get goin’ soon.”

Ah, yes. I lean my forehead against the cool mirror above the basin and close my eyes. The stupid party that Bax has been waffling on about since yesterday. The party at some music mogul’s house. The party that I’m pretty damn sure was the reason he sent me home with True while he wrangled invites from Amanda Jones.

With his dick.

In her elderly vagina.

“Sunshine?”

“Jesus! Just give me a minute.” My plea comes out louder and sharper than I meant it to.

Bax pushes open the door and takes two steps inside the bathroom before I’ve managed to lift my head from the mirror. I jerk upright, and swing around so I’m facing him.

“What’s wrong?” he demands.

With one hand, I hold the towel to the front of my body. The other hand I use as a shield when Bax advances. I take one step backward when he takes another one forward. My arse hits the basin when he moves forward again, and I attempt to evade him once more.

Bax’s eyes widen and he stops moving toward me. Holding his hands in the air, he freezes on the spot with his mouth open.

A vague wave of ridiculousness crashes over me. What am I doing? This is Bax. It doesn’t matter what he’s done in the past, at the moment he is the only person I have in this world to lean on. I let True go—truthfully, I forced him to leave me—now it’s time to put my faith in the logic that led me to choose Bax.

My will is not my friend. It falters long enough for Bax to take stock of the standoff we find ourselves in and formulate a way to manage me.

“I would never hurt you,” he states. “I would do anything for you.”

There’s an edge to his voice. A barely perceptible tremor that belies the half-truth he’s trying to pass off as complete honesty. We both know that he has hurt me—and chances are that he’ll do it again in the near future.

It doesn’t matter.

The man in front of me is my person. He understands where I came from, and he’ll protect me now that my past is back for revenge. The fact that he knows nothing about the circumstances that threw me and Alexander Adonai into each other’s orbit doesn’t matter.

Bax will do what Bax does best—save me from myself.

“I’m sorry,” I utter my apology with absolute sincerity. “I know I’m acting crazy. Yesterday’s meltdown did a number on my head. I’ll try harder.”

He smiles. It’s all teeth and rigid lips. Disbelief and latent anger.

I let the towel drop to the floor. As moves designed to make up go, it probably should have been my first tactic. Bax grins. His expression turns leering and he closes the distance between us with one stride.

“If this is your idea of trying harder,” he drawls. “I applaud your plan.”

Standing on my tip toes, I press my lips against his. “Well, thank you. You know I live for the applause.”

Strong hands run the length of my arms from my shoulders to my wrists. He circles them with long fingers and lifts my arms above my head. Bax uses one hand to hold my wrists together and trails the other hand down the length of my body. I shiver at his touch and my eyes flutter close.

I wasn’t lying when I said my mind is out of control. I’m flailing, on the cusp of total meltdown. Unhinged. Unbalanced. During sex with Bax yesterday, I was still be numb—the protective layer added by my mind to shield me from the emotional fall out of deliberately hurting True in full effect.

Now, I need to feel.

Bax pushes my legs apart with a gentleness I don’t deserve and runs his finger over my clit. I gasp when he pinches sensitive nub. Opening my eyes, I meet his pleased gaze. A smirk covers his face, and the hole in my chest reduces in size. Choosing Bax made sense and moments like this prove that it was the right decision to make.

My boyfriend is ruthless.

If anyone can keep me out of Alex’s grasp, it’s Bax.

And it’s with this certainty flooding my veins that I finally let go of the hurt and give into the pleasure Bax has to offer.

He lowers his face to my throat and nuzzles the ticklish spot under my ear. All the while, his fingers burn a path between my clit and my wetness, spreading it, lubricating his trail. I’m lost to the sensations on offer until he jolts me from them by wrenching my thighs apart and thrusting his cock into me without further preamble.

I’m not quite ready. The stretch and the burn—it’s uncomfortable.

It’s also exactly what I need.

The pain. The power. The penetration. It punctures my untethered psyche, deflating my panic at what’s to come like a pierced balloon. With each pump of his hips, Bax replaces my emotional turmoil with something stable. He gives me something solid to seize hold of. Him. The one person in my life I’ve always been able to lean on without fear of him crumbling under the weight of my needs.

This is why I chose him over True. Yes, I was scared to ask True to go toe to toe with Alex, but if I’m completely honest with myself, my main motivation was pure selfishness. True would leave eventually. Bax will never abandon me. No matter how much I fall apart.

“Yes,” I verbalise my enjoyment in a breathless voice. “Harder. Make it hurt.”

He doesn’t need telling twice. He lets go of my wrists and wraps that hand around my throat. Squeezing tight, Bax restricts my oxygen intake just enough to make my vision dim around the edges. My eyes loll back in my head and my body turns to liquid. Lava—hot, molten, slow-moving magma—invades my limbs. It burns the final remnants of my turmoil over Alex’s return, melting them into a pile of ash that I let blow away during the next pulsing wave of pleasure that washes over me.

“Come,” Bax demands. He thrusts into me, squeezing my throat, and biting my shoulder when his own body builds toward his climax.

“Come now,” he groans.

I try. I really do. Nothing he does pushes me over that last summit. My orgasm continues to elude me. My toes are grazing the tiled floor beneath me. I have next to no traction, stretched as I am by the awkward position I’m in—bent backward over the bathroom basin by a much larger body. Frustration overwhelms me. I dig my fingernails into Bax’s shoulders and swing my legs around his waist, lifting my arse until I can sit on the edge of the ceramic washbowl. I finally have the leverage I need.

“Choke me,” I plead. “Hurt me.”

“No,” Bax snaps. He pulls his hand from my throat and shoves against my shoulders until my back is against the mirror. Leaning over me, he lays his forehead against mine and looks me straight in the eyes. “Let me love you.”

His words hit me in the gut. I don’t want gentle. I don’t want love right now.

I need pain. I need grounding. I need Bax to own me.

“Please.”

Bax ignores me, closing his eyes and sighing. Large, strong hands grip my hips, holding me in place while he evades my begging gaze when he reopens his eyes. He pulls his cock almost all the way from my body, then slowly, ever so bloody slowly, he pushes back inside until he’s fully encased by my pussy. Over two dozen times, he repeats the same movements, and with each journey, a bubbling wave of ecstasy begins to grow within me. It starts like the smaller waves that you find between the safety flags at the beach then builds and builds and builds into raging tsunami of pleasure that floods me from the top of my head to the ends of my toes.

“Good girl,” Bax coaxes. He meets my eyes—finally—and the depth of emotion that burns in his gaze fills the gaping hole in my chest until it’s three-quarters full. True can keep his quarter of my heart, but the rest remains in Bax’s safe possession. “Trust me, sunshine, and let go. When you come, I’ll come. Together. Just like we always will.”

His crooning voice pushes away the final memories of True’s entreaties yesterday. The raging torrent of my climax strips me of the rest of my defences. Alex’s return no longer matters. True’s ultimatum no longer stings. Nothing matters, but me and Bax. The two of us against the world. Joined as one. Together for always.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I scream as I come.

“Fuckkkkk,” Bax groans as he empties himself inside me.

“Love you, sunshine.”

“Love you more,” I reply, breathlessly sincere, and completely conscious of the truth behind the statement.

“Not possible,” Bax mutters.

With a smile, I let him continue to live with his delusion.

Once we’ve regained our breath, we make quick work of getting dressed. The party calls for our best version of up-and-coming rock star clothing—and I’m happy to oblige. Dressing up is my version of adding an invisibility cloak. When I’m in my full war paint, I become Luci, lead singer of Miscreant Mischief. Confident. Talented. Welcoming of attention.

Lucille Williams—the neurotic, anxiety-ridden, panic driven bag of negativity I really am ceases to exist.

Bax emerges from our room with my overnight bag. I give my hair one last fluff, then cock an eyebrow and look between him and the bag.

“What’s that for?”

Bax’s throat work when he swallows. “We missed our gig last night. I’m hoping I can wrangle our way on stage sometime tonight.”

His reticence to answer makes sense now. Last night was the first time we’ve had to cancel a performance, and it was my fault because I let my feelings for True affect our band. Unprofessionalism doesn’t sit well with Bax, although he has hidden his frustration at my mistake with True better than I expected.

That might not hold if he knew the entire truth. I also gave True my blessing to leave—but Bax doesn’t need to know that.

Ever.

He holds the bag in the air and gives me a tiny smirk. “It’s always better to be prepared.”

The reflection that greets me in the mirror is satisfying. I look the part. I am ready.

“Very true,” I reply with genuine laughter. “If anyone can pull off a surprise gig, it’s you.”

We head downstairs. Bax has his arm around my shoulders. I expect to waste time waiting for a taxi, however a black limo greets us. The driver holds the door open and I follow Bax into the back when he climbs in without expressing any surprise at finding it waiting for us. The black-capped man closes the door on us, his expression carefully neutral of any opinion he might have about picking us up from this dodgy area in a vehicle that’s probably worth more than all of the contents of the apartments in our building combined.

“Wow, you didn’t tell me this party was so fancy,” I quip to break the silence that’s invading the limo.

Bax leans back against the leather seat and shrugs.

“This is just the beginning, sunshine.” He gestures around the elegant interior. “If I have my way, this will be our new norm.”

I scoff, a half laugh, half mocking sound. “Yeah, right. This is Bono-level shit. It’ll take us years to get out of the suburbs of LA, let alone into our own limo.”

The expression that flits across Bax’s face sets a shiver running down my spine. I’m about to question him on it when he replies with a pervasive calm that has me questioning everything I know about him.

“Not years. He’s getting one fucking month, tops.”

Alarm bells are ringing in my ears. I shuffle away from Bax, needing space between us so I can work through his cryptic response. Who is this “he” he’s speaking of? I know next to nothing about this party—nothing except for the knowledge that Amanda Jones is the sole purveyor of the guest list now that her husband has passed away.

There isn’t a man worth mentioning in her life—I should know, I’ve been stalking her in the tabloids since the first time I noted her interest in Bax.

Despite my clear need for space, Bax doesn’t let me go. He pulls me into his side and holds me tight. The arm that’s lying around my shoulders feels constricting, but it’s the hand he slides under the flimsy skirt of my black dress that is truly invading. The fingers that brought me such peace an hour earlier now appear threatening. He strokes me through my satin panties and purrs in my ear.

“You trust me, don’t you?”

“Yes.” My answer is a lie. One I’m telling myself as much as I am Bax.

“Good,” he replies. “I need you to remember that tonight.”

The questions that popped into my head solidify on the tip of my tongue.

“Who is—”

I don’t finish my sentence. The point becomes moot when the limo pulls to a stop and the door is opened seconds later.

“It’s good to see you again, Lucille. It’s been much too long.”

When Alexander Adonai stoops low and smiles at me through the open door, Bax removes his hand from between my legs and scoots away from me.

I blink.

Alex is still there when I reopen my eyes.

I blink again. This time slower.

He’s still remains.

Fuck.

“Let me help you.” Alex offers his hand to me. I stare at it. My skin crawls at the sight of his tanned flesh. My mind screams at me for getting in this limo. I should have known. I should have smelt Alex all over this turn of events. “Come now. I won’t ask again.”

Pressing against Bax, I turn to my boyfriend and let all of my desperation show on my face. “Please, Bax. Let’s go home.”

Bax’s expression is blank. He examines my face, then searches Alex’s before he looks back to me. Hope begins to build when I see confusion clouding his dark-brown eyes after his perusal.

“It’s okay, sunshine,” Bax murmurs. My heart jumps into my throat. Yes! Bax is going to put an end to this. “Alex wants to spend a month with you before he signs us to his label. I know you’ll knock him over with you voice so I agreed to his terms.”

Alex has a label? Impossible. The last time I saw him, he was a twenty-five-year-old layabout who was living off his father’s dime. He barely had any interests outside of call girls and too much alcohol. I doubt his father’s death changed him that much.

“It’s only a month. It will go quickly. You’ll be home before you know it.”

I don’t know who Bax is trying hardest to persuade. Me or him?

My heart drops to my stomach.

Shaking takes hold of my entire body.

My hope dies an unnatural death.

I picked wrong.

I should have left with True.

“No, I’m not going.”

Alex snorts. “Yes, you are. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

He grips me by the front of my dress and pulls me forward. I dig my heels into the carpeted floor of the limo, but it does nothing to stop my slide across the smooth seat. With frantic hands, I reach for Bax.

Any expectation I had that Bax would come through for me is killed in an instant. My boyfriend—the man I thought was my saviour—holds himself out of reach and watches Alex lift me out of the car. Just before he leaves my sight, I watch him turn his face, so he can’t see me any longer.

While I kick and struggle, Alex closes the door and slaps the limo on the roof. It speeds down a long driveway, the red tail lights illuminating briefly before the vehicle turns right and takes off down the leafy boulevard.

Bax is gone and I’m left here with my oldest enemy.

Alone.

“So, Lucille,” Alex drawls. “Let’s get this reunion started.” 

 

 

ELEVEN

Bax

 

The acceleration of the limo throws me back against the leather seat. We stop for a moment and I sit upright, ready for the door to open and Luci to climb back into the vehicle. Before I’m finished the movement, we take a sharp right and speed off again.

My head spins. Closing my eyes when my stomach tries to join the revolt, I ball my hands into fists and bang them against my thighs. All I can see with my mind’s eye is Luci’s face as Alexander Adonai leaned into the limo with his hand outstretched.

She was terrified.

He was smug in his victory

I’m hollowed out by my betrayal.

Punching my legs again, I try to refrain from blinking and concentrate on the pain instead. I can’t stand the visual reminders of her devastation. It’s hard enough dealing with the way I feel, let alone reliving it in my head. On her face, in her posture, emanating from her like waves, the pall of Luci’s devastation clings to me like an oily film of duplicity.

I lost her trust.

The one thing I always prided myself on keeping when everyone else burnt her.

One and done. Luci’s motto for the world. Everyone gets the opportunity to let her down once—and only once. After that, you’re written out of her life with the ferocity of a writer utilising the backspace button. Sure, she’ll be nice when she’s sees you next, but you’ll feel the distance between you both.

You’ll know you fucked up.

She might be fragile, but she’s also merciless.

Some of the lyrics from our song, Doing Time, flood my head.

 

There was a time.

When I thought you were mine.

There was a time.

When you co-opted my mind.

There was a time.

When you danced over the line.

Now, everything’s asinine.

Cos, it turned out you were saccharine.

Sweetly fake. Oh so serpentine.

Now you’re dead to me, and I’m doing time.

 

The words hit me in the heart.

Can me and Luci come back from this?

Have I proven myself a snake she needs to cut from her life?

How the fuck did this simple deal turn into something so much bigger?

Because I ignored the warning signs, that’s why…

Since I made the bargain with Alex, my gut has been screaming at me that there was more to it than a man lusting after a potential new artist. His excuses about needing to be professional once he signed us had made sense at the time—despite me giving into the urge to pound his face when he first suggested it. Luci’s meltdown, True’s departure, my own intuition—they’d all been pointing to one thing.

Alexander Adonai isn’t who he portrays himself to be.

The fear on Luci’s face made that clear. She knows him. Somehow. From somewhere. Without me.

Over the course of our lives together—almost twenty-one years—I can count on one both hands the months we’ve spent apart. Twice over the years, Luci’s mom landed a new boyfriend who enticed her to move with him. Both times, it had lasted a few months—six tops.

Each time she’s returned home to the trailer next to my families with her tail between her legs and enough bruising on her face to tell everyone who knew her that whatever drugs her latest man had on offer weren’t quite good enough to mask the price her battered body was paying. Luci always returned a bit quieter, a bit more fucked up in the head, a lot less trusting, and a whole heap more suspicious. It would take all my efforts, cajoling, pleading, promising, to get her to leave the trailer and play music with me again.

Composing, singing, playing her guitar—they’d been her lifeline for so long.

I’d always tried to pretend it was me who brought her back to life, but it wasn’t.

It was our music. Our mutual passion for melody.

She must have met Alexander Adonai during one of our forced separations.

How she crossed paths with someone like him? I don’t know. But, it’s now obvious that I’ve epically fucked up and returned her to a devil from our former life.

“Dumb motherfucker,” I snarl at myself. My fingers loosen from their tightly clenched fists, my gut spins and twirls like a tumble dryer, and my right eye begins to ache. It’s a throbbing pain. Reminiscent of a migraine, except worse. It heralds the return of my conscience.  

I’d been lying to myself when I said I was willing to do anything to make our dreams come true.

Turns out I had a line I wouldn’t cross.

Too bad I learned a little late where my boundaries are drawn.

Hurting Luci is okay when I’m the one doing it.

I know her limitations.

I know her secret desires.

I know her heart.

Letting someone else hurt her is a no go zone.

Pity, I danced over my own line without weighing the consequences.

Now, I can only pray I’m not dead to her while she’s doing my time.

 

*

 

Our apartment is dark and silent upon my return. Luci’s scent lingers in the air, as does True’s cologne. Their absence stings. My two sidekicks are gone—through choices I made during my game playing.

I pull open the fridge. Nothing inside—meagre as it may be—grabs my attention. Slamming the door shut, I lay my booted toe into it when it swings back open. The seal is broken. The door has to be shut just so, otherwise it won’t stay closed. Unfortunately, using my foot doesn’t work and it reopens once again when I step out into the living room. I catch a glimpse of it—ajar. Mocking me with its refusal to do as it should.

I see red. The scarlet red of rage. The burning anger of a man who’s lost control.

Spinning on my heel, I storm back to the refrigerator. My long legs eat the distance in three steps. With both hands, I grip the white rectangle on both sides and heave it out of place. It crashes to the floor, landing with a loud thud and a shattering of glass.

A tiny tingle of gratification hits me.

Destruction feels good.

I need more to fuel me.

My temper is unleashed. My control has fled the scene.

I’m not done yet.

Not by a long shot.

It takes two sweeps of my arms to knock everything from the counter tops. The stupid, colorful ribbons that Luci hung across the fire escape stand no chance against my mania. I rip them from their pins and trample them with my boots on the floor. Once the kitchen is ruined, the living room is my next target.

One kick breaks the glass coffee table. Two consecutive heaves upend the couches. The paintings—crude, rudimentary naked renderings by True—tear with ease. The sound is cathartic, and I wish I could shred his memory as easily as I can ruin his art.

From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of what remains in True’s bedroom. His drum kit—the one I know is his favourite—calls to me. Satisfaction mingles with the rage that floods my veins while I deliberately destroy every last piece of his equipment. Maple wood and pieces of steel quickly follow the strips of his drum skins to the floor.

The satisfaction doesn’t last long.

Like usual, he has to get the last word.

Each time I rip or bash or kick another item in True’s room, I hear his declaration all over again in my head.

“Your time is over. Luci’s mine and that means you will never hurt her again.”

“Your time is over. Luci’s mine and that means you will never hurt her again.”

“Your time is over. Luci’s mine and that means you will never hurt her again.”

Turning in a circle, I lift the mattress from his bed and toss it into the living room. It hits something—the hall stand maybe?—and crashes onto the floor. The wooden slats on True’s bed are next. I break them over my knee and throw the pieces after the mattress.

His words mock me. “Your time is over. Luci’s mine and that means you will never hurt her again.”

I yank the headboard from the wall and stomp it. It refuses to break. Kicking it, stomping it again, jumping on it. Nothing works.

Sliding to my ass on the floor, I bury my head in my hands.

“Where the fuck are you?” I mutter. “You said she was yours. You said she was safe.”

Tears, angry, aching, agonizing tears, break free from my burning eyes. They run down my face unheeded. Any control I had over myself is lost and I don’t know how to get it back.

True is gone.

I gave Luci away.

“You said you wouldn’t let me hurt her,” I sob. “You said my time was over.”

I wipe at my eyes with short, sharp agitated swipes. It achieves nothing. The fucking tears won’t stop.

“Fuck you, True,” I yell into the empty apartment. “Fuck you for leaving her with me.”

The words are as hollow as they are empty.

He warned me, and I refused to listen.

This is all on me.

This is all my doing.

“Yeah, it is,” True’s voice mocks me from inside my own head. “Now, what ya gonna do to fix it?”

As usual, he’s hit the nail on the head.

Today, I lost everything.

Tomorrow, I have to work out how to get it back.

 

TWELVE

True

 

Stepping foot back in the mansion after so long is surreal. Memories lurk in every corner, behind every door, in every room. If the walls could talk, they would scream blue murder and demand the presence of the police. My father’s power oozes from the walls, each spiteful insult and malevolent demand echoing around the vast interior.

If this is my sweet homecoming, I’m sincerely underwhelmed.

“Terry!” my little sister screams my name and bounds down the ornate staircase, taking the steps two at a time. “You came. I mean, I knew you would. I hoped you would.”

I drop my duffel bag onto the marble floor and open my arms wide. Polly throws herself into them and hugs me hard. Five years’ worth of affection pours from her. It hits me in the heart and reminds me that not everything in this house is wicked. I have almost as many good memories here as I do bad.

Most of them wrapped up in the tiny girl I hold in my arms.

My little sister, six years younger, and a whole heap wiser, buries her face in my neck. I relish her familiarity after spending so long living with constant transformation. Despite never letting myself acknowledge the fact, I have missed my life here.

The click clack of high heels fills the foyer and a shiver runs the length of my spine.

My neck feels damp when Polly lifts her head and steps away from me. She meets my gaze with a wry smile on her face, apparently having felt my reaction to the new arrival.

“Whatever have you done to your hair, Terrence?” My mother announces herself with one of her typical attacks on her ever-disappointing progeny. “And, Dorothy, do learn to contain yourself. Your behaviour is especially unbecoming in the circumstances.”

I laugh, a booming sound that reverberates off each wall. Our father is possibly dying, and I’m home for the first time in years. If any circumstances called for a few tears from Polly, I’d assume that this would be it.

“It’s nice to see you again, mother.” I try my hardest to make the grin I level at her as sincere as possible.

Mom sniffs, disdain dripping from every pore, even as she evades my gaze. Steady, perfectly manicured hands fluff her hair and smooths down the front of her dress before she finally meets my eyes.

“It will be, once you’ve changed,” she says.

A lump forms in my throat as I search her face for any signs that she’s happy to see. There is nothing to be found in her carefully preserved face. The blank countenance that meets mine is chilling in its simplicity. There is nothing maternal—my mother is all business.

“Shall I have Ivan show you to your room?” my mom continues, barely skipping a beat. “Or do you think you can possibly remember the way?”

“Mom, seriously?” Polly interjects in my defence. She puts her hands on her hips and glares at our mother. “Terry’s come back to help us. Surely, you could hold off on the passive aggressive insults for at least a few hours?”

The only answer we receive is another sniff before our mother turns on her heel and heads deeper into the mansion.

“Make yourself a little more presentable, Terrence,” Mom commands without slowing her exit or turning to look at us. “We have a meeting with your father’s doctors in an hour.”

Once she’s left the room, me and Polly look at each other. I lift my eyebrows and my sister lifts her to mimic me. A second later, we both burst into uncontrollable laughter.

“Well, that went well,” I quip after I’ve regained most of my composure.

Polly nods, wiping tears of mirth from her face. “Oh, yeah. It’s like you never left.”

*

 The automatic doors to the hospital entrance barely have the time to open before the board of the hospital moves to meet us.

“Just like vultures,” Polly whispers to me as we walk behind mom toward the entrance. “Can’t ask the almost dearly departed’s family to finance a new ward in their honour if you don’t press the flesh sufficiently before they pull the plug.”

“Retract your claws, Polly Pocket,” I reply. Tugging at the lapels of my gun-metal grey suit and then my tie, I try to push away the claustrophobic feeling that’s nearly overwhelming me. “Maybe they’ll drop the sycophant act once we’re inside?”

“Try to act your age,” Mom turns to glare at us and hisses through her teeth. “I won’t stand for you embarrassing your father.”

Without thinking, I reach for my dreads, only to come up empty. They’re tied in a pile on my head; an awkward attempt at “more presentable.” Dumbest idea ever because now my comfort blanket is gone—I can’t fiddle with my dreads when they’re contained out of reach.

Clad in a suit that’s obviously too tight, my hair a stark contrast to my surroundings, every part of me screams imposter. Whereas Polly and our mom fit right in, greeting the board members with a gilded ease that speaks of their comfortableness with this life, I have nothing left in me to draw on. Living in LA stripped away every piece of etiquette I had engrained in me from birth. I’m a fish out of water, and the judgement in the expressions of the board when they greet me just drives that point home.

“Mr. Anderson?” the chairperson of the board enunciates my name like it’s a question.

“Yeah,” I reply. “The fucking third.”

A hushed silence overcomes the board and my mom. Polly turns away and slaps a hand over her face, a stifled, barely-audible giggle escaping before she can stop it.

Mom steps forward and gestures at the entrance. “You’ll have to excuse my son. He’s jetlagged after his flight this morning.”

“Oh yes,” Polly jokes. “Those flights from LA are a killer for jetlag.”

Falling back into step with my sister, I follow the rest of the group through the doors and into the weirdly lavish lobby of the hospital. There’s a grand piano on a lifted stage in the middle of the room that’s being played by a semi-famous pianist, a coat check manned by a guy in something similar to what you’d expect a valet to wear, and vast arrangements of flowers on every flat surface. It’s appears more like a fancy, upscale hotel lobby than the hospital entry you’d expect.

It just another reminder of how far I am from my norm, right now.

If Luci and Bax were here, we’d be exchanging looks and sniggering at the way the other half live. Bax would make some comment about how this is in our future, and Luci would pretend that she believes him. When she’d start to waver in her façade, I’d make a quip about the obvious compensation at play, and we’d laugh like the insulated trio that we were.

Now, I’m no longer part of that threesome, yet I don’t truly belong with the other half either.

Regret hits me hard. I shouldn’t have come home. I should be in LA with Luci.

Slipping my phone from my back pocket, I open a browser and type in “flights NYC to LAX.” I can get a flight first thing in the morning, and I’m about to book it when the conversation between my mother and the chairperson of the board steals my attention.

“And, TJ has regained his ability to speak?” mom asks.

The chairperson shakes his head. “Not quite. He can say a few words, but they couldn’t be called a sentence.”

“The team is ready to go once he’s spoken with Terrence?”

“Of course, Cecelia. Everything is as you requested.”

Mom lays her hand on the chairperson’s arm and pats him twice. “I truly appreciate all you’ve done. TJ made his wishes very clear should he ever find himself in this situation. Maintaining his dignity to the end is imperative.”

To me, it sounds like my father’s outcome is already decided—yet everything I’ve been told contradicts that.

Has Polly been deliberately kept me in the dark or is she part of this?

What the hell could my father have to say to me?

Could it have something to do with his strange choice to list me as the new CEO in the event of his death?

We turn a series of corners, and I try to keep step with them, so I can hear more. It’s a futile quest. Mom shoots me a searching look when I get a bit too close, and the chairperson clams up straightaway.

“We’re here,” one of the other board members announces when we stop in front of a closed door. “Unless you wish differently, we will leave you alone. Feel free to drop by before you leave.”

“Thank you,” my mother says.

They have barely taken two steps away from us before she’s opened the door and motioned Polly and me inside the room. My sister goes first, and after dragging in a deep breath to steady myself, I move to follow.

With a hand on my chest, mom stops me. “Whatever you think you heard back there, I need you to forget it.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I reply.

She runs a searching gaze over my face. I keep my expression deliberately blank, and hope like hell she’s buys what I’m selling.

“Hmmmm,” she muses. “I want to believe you. Unfortunately, I don’t.”

I offer a shrug in response. “That’s your problem.”

“Yes, it is. Unfortunately, how you proceed from now on is also my problem.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I snap. My mother flinches, although she quickly regains her usual sneer. “I know I’m back here for a reason. I also know that it’s not the reason I was given by Polly.”

“Actually, Polly told you the truth,” mom says. “Your father did collapse at work. Your father has also named you as his successor. I am the executor of his living will, and I am trying to carry out his wishes exactly as he wanted them, and I will not have you upsetting your sister by telling her things that you shouldn’t know.”

“What things?”

“That your father doesn’t want to live in a diminished state and I will do everything in my power to ensure he gets what he wants. It’s the least I can do.”

Ho-ly fuck-sticks. Talk about dropping a bomb.

“Like assisted suicide?”

Mom snatches her hand back as if touching me has given her an electric shock. Her mouth drops open and her face turns pale under her expertly applied make-up. A wet sheen shines from her eyes and, for a second, I fear that my omnipotent, unyielding mother is going to cry.  

“He tried to say he loves me.” Polly announces after she’s yanked open the door and slammed it shut behind her.

Mom steps away from me and shakes off her reaction to my blunt description of what she’s planning to do to our father.

 “Now, now, Dorothy.” Mom approaches Polly like she’s a wild animal. “Come with me. I’ll get you something to drink.”

It scares the living shit out of me to see my sister throw herself into our mother’s embrace and our mom actually hold her like a mother should. It is a sight that will haunt me for a long time. Possessing a maternal streak is not something our mom has ever been known for.

“Go,” mom says over Polly’s head. “Speak to your father. Make amends. Show him that he’s made the right choice.”

As I watch them walk off, the reason for Polly’s meltdown hits me. Our father has never once told us that he loves us. My heart breaks for her, and I take a step to follow them. A muted cough from my father’s room stops me in my tracks and I abandon that plan. Mom is right. If this is the end, I have a truckload of shit to work through with my father. 

Starting with why the hell he wants me to take over his music empire.

“Hey, dad,” I whisper as I enter his room. “Long time; no see.”

My ridiculous greeting hangs in the air, a loud and obnoxious testament to my stupidity. I make my way to the side of the bed closest to me. Anxiety flows through my veins, clouding my ability to think of a next move.

How does one approach a father they haven’t seen for five years when he’s lying on his death bed?

Laying a hand on his forearm, I gently squeeze it. For such a large man—I inherited my height and build from him—he feels frail, skinny and much less substantial. His skin has a grey pallor like he’s already dead. The raspy sound from his chest when as he drags in slow breaths is the only thing that proves he’s still alive.

“Mom told me about your decision,” I say. The rest of the words in my mind die on the tip of my tongue when my father blinks and moves his head with infinite slowness until he is facing me.

I drag the visitor’s chair to the edge of the bed and sit down. Now, I’m on eye level with dad as he lies in his elevated hospital bed. Eyes the exact colour of mine—a piercing jade green that acts as a disguise for our emotions—meets my gaze. For once the shield is down, and everything he’s feeling is clear for me to see.

“Ju-n-ior.” His voice cracks, turning his nickname for me into a disjointed mumble.

“Dad,” I reply. While the word comes out of my mouth sounding strong, on the inside I’m weak with regret. My father hasn’t called me Junior since I turned sixteen and announced that I wanted to become a rock star instead of following family tradition and exploiting their talent to add another zero to our obscene bank balance. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I heard him say it again.

He attempts to smile. It’s a direct shot to my chest—a dagger to my heart that reminds me that I’m probably as much to blame for the divide that grew between us as he is. An unruly, headstrong son determined to outrun his birthright and an autocratic, tyrant of a father equally enamoured with preserving his legacy.

It’s a tale as old as time, and one with as many captives as there has been escapees.

“Stupid question, but how are you feeling?”

Sadness creases the sallow skin around his eyes and his forehead. “Dy-ing.”

“Well, that sucks,” I reply. “Polly said you collapsed at work. Mom tells me that you’re too incapacitated to recover so she’s going to handle it. Personally, I’d rather hear it from you—as much as you can tell me.”

“Nuh, no. CeCe is… right,” he answers, straightaway. When he tries to speak again, his mouth moves, but no sound comes out.

In bated silence, I wait, watching the cogs in his brain work while he swallows in an attempt to get his voice to work.

“Is, all compe-tishun,” he says.

“Competition?” I ask.

He nods. His expression changes from sad to angry and he lifts his head a few inches from the pillow.

“Alux Adun-eye.”

What the fuck?

“Are you talking about Alexander Adonai?”

Once again, my father inclines his head. I can see his energy lagging and I know I have to speed things up.

“Did he hurt you?” I bunch my fingers into fists as the possibilities begin to unfold. My father is the third person I know who’s somehow tangled up with Alex. That’s too much of a coincidence for me. “Is he the reason you’re so sick?”

“Ye-ssss.” Dad is as vehement in his stilted response. “Poison. Me… fake heart. Attack. Ruin my mind.”

“But why?” This shouldn’t be my first question, but it is. Nothing makes sense. Alexander Adonai couldn’t possibly challenge the power my father wields. Terrilliam Production has been around for four generations while Adonai Entertainment is a newcomer—so new in fact that I hadn’t heard of the label until Alex showed up at our recording studio.

“To ma-ke,” dad rasps. “Tay-k-ova.”

“To takeover Terrilliam?”

He nods, letting his head flop back on his pillow. The little bit of colour he gained in his face while he got his point across drains away. In its place is a sickly green that reminds me that our time together is limited.

“And, you named me your successor, so I could stop him?”

One final nod is all I get before his eyes flutter shut.

My hands shake as I unfurl my fingers and lay my hands on top of his. Bowing my head, I pray that this isn’t the end. I need time to fix this.

Well, time and one further thing.

“I won’t let you down,” I vow to my father. Each word is coated with promise.

 In my head, I follow my earlier prayer with a final request.

Please, God, help me keep my pledge. Help me cross this unexpected hurdle without falling.

Help me take down Alexander Adonai and keep my father’s legacy alive. 

 

PART TWO

 

THIRTEEN

 

Luci

 

“You’re grown up,” Alex remarks, his mouth so close to my ear that his warm breath touches my face. “Matured quite nicely.”

The limo is out of sight, yet I can’t stop myself from staring after it. Deep down, I know that Bax has sold me out for the chance of being signed to Alex’s record label, however twenty-one years spent expecting him to rescue me is a hard habit to break. He’s never let me down before. Why would he start now?

Because you never told him the truth. The voice from my subconscious refuses to let me blame this on Bax. If he knew the truth, he would have hit Alex harder than he did at Sunset Sound before he bundled me onto a bus and got us the hell out of Dodge. What’s happening now is on me. My inability to find the strength to explain why me and my mother had returned from LA eight years ago with a brand-new trailer, money in the bank, and an even fancier car to our name had led to this.

My mother’s sins and my part in covering them up will be my ruin.

“Pity my father’s not around any longer to appreciate how ripe you are now.”

I try to let Alex’s words wash over me. It doesn’t work. He knows exactly where to hit, his barbs digging into my nerve endings and reminding me that it is my fault his father isn’t around any longer. If I had been stronger. If I told my mother that her actions were wrong. If I had spoken up. If I had done anything other than what I did.

Charles Adonai would still be alive.

“When did he pass?” The moment the words leave my mouth, I know I shouldn’t have said them.

Alex lets go of my dress, practically throwing me away from him. I land on my ass on the hard driveway, the impact reigniting the pain from the bruises Bax has left on my body over the past few days. When Alex stalks off in the direction of the gigantic mansion that sits at the end of the circular drive, I scramble to my feet.

It’s a Catch-22. Follow Alex and try to explain? Turn my back on my monster and run?

The wrought-iron gates are still open. They haven’t been closed since Bax’s departure in the limo. I’m half-way from them. Half-way from the mansion. Half-way from paying the debt I owe. Half-way from freedom.

With one final look at Alex’s retreating back, I make my decision. Screw him. He might have lost his father in the end, but he’s still doing better than I am—than I’ve ever done. When we returned to Ripley after my mother saw her ugly plan to fruition, Alex was left with his billions and his ailing father. I returned to nothing. A revolving door of my mother’s men. The depths of her addiction driving a bigger wedge between us as she blew through the money she stole. Bax’s growing obsession with getting us out of there. My own inability to control my overpowering anxiety. The splintering of my soul as I realised that I’d stayed silent for naught—we were quickly worse off than we had been before she took us to LA to trap her latest suitor.

While he was safe in this mansion, I was living on the streets of LA with Bax as my sole comfort, protector, and saviour. Homeless. Hungry. Humbled.

Yeah, screw him.

My feet lead me toward the double gates. The iron barricades begin to move, swinging closer to each other with a cacophony of electronic creaks and groans. I hike the skirt of my dress halfway up my thighs, kick off my heels, and begin to run. Impossibly quick, the gates draw closer. With frantic feet, I sprint as fast as I can.

“No,” I scream. “No. No. No.”

The close two seconds before I reach them. Letting my skirt drop back to my feet, I grasp the smooth, cold, iron and try to climb the rails. My feet slip. My hands are unable to find purchase. I manage to make it up two rungs before I slide back to the ground. Refusing to give up, I keep trying. As I flail, tears of anger burst free from my burning eyes, rolling down my face with impotent frustration. My feet sting when they slap against the concrete drive. I climb the gate again. The palms of my hands slip, the skin burning as the unyielding iron grazes my skin.

“No. Please.”

Falling to the ground, I ignore the pain in my hip when I land awkwardly and crouch forward to hide my face in my hands. The tears no longer fall in anger. Devastation invades my veins instead. I am stuck. I always knew Alex would find me—he’d promised as much the last time I saw him. It’s just that I never thought I’d actually live long enough to get caught.

Bax has held my life in his hands hundreds of times. He could have snapped and ended my existence any time he wanted to with a hand around my throat or a mistimed strike. I’d always hoped I’d go that way—at the hands of the man I’ve loved for as long as I can remember and not at the behest of the monster who blames me because his father lost the dangerous game our parents had played.

“Why didn’t you kill me?” I whine through my fingers. Images of Bax’s face in the limo just before flutter before my eyes. “Why did you leave me? Why haven’t you come back for me?”

“I made him a deal he couldn’t resist,” Alex’s voice crackles, surrounding me, interrupting my pity party for one. “One month with you in exchange for a recording contract for your band. He didn’t like it, but he saw reason pretty quickly. I mean, you are exquisite. I can see why it would be so hard for him to share you. Offering him everything he’s ever wanted was cheap at half the price if it meant I finally got my hands on your deceitful body.”

Lifting my head, I search for the speaker. I find it attached to a pole on the other side of the gate. With shaking legs, I stand and move closer to the black box. As I lean against the gate, I try to make myself see this situation from Bax’s point-of-view.

The success of Miscreant Mischief has been his obsession for as long as we’ve been in LA. While True and I have been half-heartedly following him through the motions, Bax has been doing everything he could to make what he thought was our mutual dream into a reality.

When he agreed to let Alex have me for one month, I can guarantee he thought he was doing the right thing. That he thought it was a price I would willingly pay. I can almost bet my life on the fact that he was certain that I’d play along without complaint—that’s how we’ve always done things. Bax masterminds, True objects, and I cooperate.

Only one thing doesn’t make sense.

“Why go to so much effort?” I ask. “Surely you could have just had me arrested?”  

His laughter is crackly as it comes through the speaker, but I hear his satisfaction. “Because knowing that he willingly turned you over to me is just the first part of your punishment. I want you broken. I want you hurting. I want you scared. I want you to feel everything my father felt after you and your mother finished running your game on him.”

Thunder rumbles in the distance. The humidity in the air picks up significantly. Clouds darken the sky, the wind picks up, and one of LA’s patented summer storms begins to roll over. I lean my forehead against an iron rail and close my eyes. Biting the inside of my cheek, I carefully think over my next words before I say them.

“I’m sorry. I know I should have stopped her when I realised what she had planned.”

He scoffs, interjecting in a harsh tone. “Nice try. We both know you were in it up to your eyeballs. After all, you’re the one who—”

Two cracks of lightening interrupts his accusation. It’s quickly followed by thunder, before the skies open and heavy rain falls. Alex’s laughter rumbles through the speaker. Then it goes quiet. As the clouds dump their contents, I pray for the gates to open. Nothing happens. I’m soaked in minutes. My hair is plastered to my head. My dress clings to my body, the skirt being whipped around my legs in the monsoonal winds. My skin breaks out in goose bumps. Shivers wrack my frame, yet I refuse to turn back to the mansion and seek cover. Alex has made it clear that he blames me for what happened, and I can’t face his righteous anger until he lets me explain.

Not that I know how to make him see sense.

I don’t see how I’ll ever be able to make him understand that, despite my silence afterward, I was just as much of a pawn in my mother’s plan as his father was. I didn’t mean for what happened—it just did. We were all manipulated, some more than others, and we all paid a price we didn’t deserve.

We were all played by the addict masquerading as my mother.

Rattling the gates, I attempt to shake them open.

They stay stubbornly in place, strong and solid.

The rain picks up pace, pelting down in sheets.

I remain in my position, cold and drenched.

I will never turn to Alex shelter.

 

FOURTEEN

 

Alex

One hand props open the heavy front door while the other holds a large, black umbrella. My feet are solidly planted, hip width apart, refusing to go to her. I can’t. It would be weak. She deserves to stay in the rain. She’s earned everything that I’m going to dish out.

Her sins warrant more than a drenching from a storm.

“Sir?” my butler, Misha, enquires. “Should I bring her inside?”

Clenching my teeth, the muscle in my jaw works as I contemplate her. Luci is small in the distance, her short, skinny frame almost obliterated by the heavy rain. With her wet dress wrapped tight around her, the wind lifting her flared skirt to an obscene height, I can see every curve of her petite body. Her exposed skin is pale. Her blonde hair flattened against her head. I can’t see her face—she hasn’t so much as glanced in the direction of the mansion—yet I can picture her heavy makeup running down her cheeks as the storm wreaks its havoc.

“No.” I hold up the hand with the umbrella to motion him to stay put. “I’ll get her.”

One of us needs to break. One of us needs to make the first move that forces her to take her first step inside the mansion. One of us needs to set this game in motion. And as much as I’m loath to give first, that someone is me. Luci has proven too stubborn for her own good.

I’ll take the temporary step backward by giving in first. I’m chomping at the bit to get started. Holding her in my arms as I dragged her out of the limo awakened a burning in my gut that has had me re-evaluating my plans for revenge. I wasn’t lying when I told her that she is exquisite. Lucille Williams always had an ethereal quality to her, even as a thirteen-year-old. The twenty-one-year-old version before me hasn’t lost her fairy-like aura, if anything it’s increased. Her tiny hands. Her below-average height. Her slim limbs. Her delicate facial features.

She’s a doll-sized delicacy that sets my taste buds on edge.

Everything about her screams that she needs protection from the big-bad world we inhabit. Little does she realises that I’m the one planning on feeding her to the wolves. While I had planned to humiliate her—mind, body, and soul— much in the same way she had ruined my father—I find myself investigating new ways of achieving this. Maybe I don’t need to bring in third parties to do my biding.

Luci calls to my body.

Maybe I can satisfy my own desires while I do this?

“As you wish,” Misha murmurs, ripping me out of my perverse musings. He bows and retreats deeper into the mansion. “I will have her room readied.”

I adjust the door, so it will stay open. Opening the umbrella, I hold it over my head and make my way down the driveway to Luci. The rain pelts the nylon canopy, splashing on the painted concrete drive, and wetting the bottom of my pants. I let the wind camouflage my arrival, not that it matters much. Luci isn’t paying attention, at all. She seems lost in her own head, staring with seemingly unseeing eyes between the gate railings at the road that leads out of my estate.

 For a long moment, I stand two steps away from her with the umbrella laying uselessly at my side. The rain continues to fall. It soaks through my clothes until I’m as drenched as she is. Lightening streaks across the sky, and Luci trembles from the sound. Thunder follows seconds later, and she shudders. Stepping closer, her sobbing invades my hearing. Her shoulders shake, and she leans her forehead against the gate. After another step, I’m close enough to touch her. Close enough to soothe the panic that seems to coat her from head to toe. Moving closer still, my much-larger body crowding hers, I can almost taste her need to escape.

This should feel like victory. Her desperation should fulfil me. It is what I want, after all.

Instead, my stomach knots with guilt. A lump grows in my throat. I softly lay a hand on her shaking shoulder.

“You’re cold and wet,” I state, quietly. She stiffens beneath my touch. “Come inside.”

Luci swings around to face me, leaving the hand that was on her shoulder hanging in the air. Her eyes widen, and she steps backward, pressing her back against the gate to put space between us. I move closer. She plasters herself against the wrought iron gate and attempts to side step me.

I follow. Luci side steps again. I block her with my body. She is barely chest height. I could crush her without effort. At the same time as this thought enters my head, I see the same knowledge dawn in her eyes. The panic I felt from her before triples in intensity. It flows in giant waves, coating me, teasing me, begging me.

“Come inside.”

She swallows, shaking her head. I wait for her to begin crying again. Instead, Luci’s face turns white and her eyelids flutter shut at the same time as her legs appear to give out. I let the umbrella drop to the ground and catch her under her arms before she slides all the way to the ground.

“Shit,” I mutter. Scooping her into my arms, I hold her with an arm under her knees and the other around her back. She weighs next to nothing. Her head lolls back against my shoulder and I cradle her against my chest. Making my way through the rain to the front doors, I try to ignore the niggle of warning that’s tingling in my spine.

Nothing works. Holding Luci like this is the antithesis of my plans to wreak havoc on her.

I should sling her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, instead of holding her like she’s precious. Not that my arms will cooperate as I head for the house. She remains passed out and I continue to hold her like she means something to me. It’s the classic bridal hold. It’s also familiar and vaguely annoying to me.

A heavily suppressed memory breaks free. One of me carrying Luci like this one night, many years ago, back when I was her step-brother for a hot minute. She was thirteen. Asleep in the back of a taxi. Tiny and blonde, just like she is now, and my dad had asked me to carry her inside while he tried to work out how to deal with her drugged-out mother.

That was the first night my father had realised that I might be right. His new wife was an opportunist who came with more baggage than he’d assumed. Pretty and petite, she was also a petty thief and a drug addict. Overpowered as he had been by her pussy, he’d jumped straight into his third marriage with an inadequate prenup and moved his new family into my home without so much as an explanation.

My objections to the blonde stripper from Tennessee had been written off as jealousy. A symptom of my demotion from only child to big brother of a barely teenage girl. The fact that I had been a lazy layabout content to live off my father’s name at the time hadn’t helped my case. It was only after—once Luci’s innocence had allowed her to worm her way into both mine and my father’s hearts—that we both discovered that we had underestimated the Williams women.

Stopping the scandal in its tracks had seemed worth the price Luci’s mother demanded for her silence. Half a million dollars a year for the rest of her life, a new trailer, and the latest Beamer—it was pocket change to us. We hadn’t taken into account the lingering damage wrought by Luci’s knife after she’s stabbed my father for accidentally wandering into her bedroom after her mother had drugged him.

He’d never been the same. Deteriorating quicker than he should have for his age. An empty husk of his former self. Unable to live with the guilt of the mistake he’d almost committed. He had died from a broken heart he didn’t deserve.

Despite his pleadings for leniency, I had vowed to have my revenge. The only concession I’d made had been to wait until he was gone.

Tracking down Luci’s mother once he’d passed had been easy. She hadn’t bothered to cover her tracks. Finding Luci had been a lot harder. She’d disappeared one night, a year or so before I started looking, and hadn’t been seen since. Four futile years of searching later, I had all but given up. Until I’d received an irate phone call from my older half-sister about a wannabe rock star she wanted brought to heel and Luci’s name had fallen from her lips as part of her proposed pay back.

Which brings us to today…

In the rain. With Luci as my unconscious and unwilling captive.

And, me. A man with a plan. A man with a whole lot to lose if this sorry tale ever got out. A thirty-six-year-old music mogul hell bent on using the tiny woman in my arms to satisfy my lurid need to avenge my father’s early death.

No matter how much the feeling of her in my arms tried to convince me otherwise.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 Thank you so much for reading Rough Mix! Make sure you keep an eye on your inbox for the next episode on December 13th, 2018.