ROUGH MIX WILL RELEASE IN eBOOK, PAPERBACK, AND AUDIO FORMATS IN AUGUST 2019 

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 chance encounter with a music mogul from her past and an underhanded deal made behind her back 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 comes 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 killed 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 their 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; annoyed 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’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 herself 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’d 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 years old.

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 long-term 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 my 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 my 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 controlled, 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 out 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 top 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 for 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 him 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 taut atmosphere 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 ambience 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 a 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, sis, I’m—” I reply, readjusting my phone so it’s in my hand.

“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 apartment 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 the 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 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 your 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—and tormenting me. 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 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 Luci’s mom returned home to the trailer next to my family’s 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 hers 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. It’s also unfortunate that how you decide to 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 Productions 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 all 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 kicks 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, Mirko, 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,” Mirko 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 hanging 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 concrete 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 tries to convince me otherwise.

 

FIFTEEN

 

Luci

 

When I open my eyes, my heart starts to thud in my chest almost immediately. I don’t know where I am. The ceiling above me in ornate in design and cream in color. It’s familiar yet unfamiliar all at once, sending a shudder through my body as my brain screams at me to get out of here.

I can feel the remnants of a panic attack flooding my nervous system. It’s a curious mix of panic and fatigue. It lingers, taunting me with my weakness, while it mocks me with the overwhelming need to flee. I hate it. My fragility—of mind and body—has been a defining characteristic of mine since I was a teen.

Only once have I ever thought that I might grow stronger.

Back when my mother first married Charles Adonai, and I thought that I might finally have a father figure I could trust, I had hope that I could get better. Until everything blew up in my face, and I found myself back to square one.

Frail. Fearful. Flailing.

Rolling over in bed onto my side, a small squeak leaves my lips when I discover that Alex is asleep in the oversized arm chair next to the bed. His head lolls back, resting against the plush backrest of the burgundy recliner, while he keeps his hands clamped together on his lap. His shoulders move subtly with each breath he draws into his lungs from between his slightly parted lips. His dark-blonde hair flops over his forehead, the longer strands at the top a stark contrast to the buzzed sides. The expensive-looking, dark suit he wears is a contradiction to his less than business-like haircut, yet he pulls it off with ease. His gorgeous, perfectly symmetrical face has barely changed. He remains handsome as ever, although nowadays he’s good looking in a different way. Before, as a young man, he was beautiful with a sneering, snobby manner. The music executive who greeted me by name at Sunset Sound was cold and calculating, the demon from my past who wrenched me from the limo was scary and demanding, the slumbering man across from me is a conundrum.

Curiosity consumes me. Why has he chosen now to return? What does he have in store for me? I have little to offer him aside from my body, however I can’t see that interesting him when it was the cause of everything that went wrong—the bait at the crux of my mother’s carefully laid trap.

Eight years ago, Alex was a walking stereotype. The self-made billionaire’s layabout son. The second-generation failure. Devoid of his father’s hallmark tenacity and Pitbull mentality toward making money, he was going to amount to nothing. Rising before noon was out of the question. Showing interest in his father’s business wasn’t on his radar. He was a partier. An agitator. Determined to live the high life without actually contributing to the financing of it. He’d been furious at his dad for marrying my mother without telling him and he’d tormented me mercilessly as a symptom of his upset, acting more like a teenage boy than a man in his late twenties—which he had been at the time. Despite his tormenting, I’d always felt safe with him until the night my mom drugged his father and set in motion the horror that still haunts me to this day.

The physical changes in him are clear to see, yet I can’t help but wonder how much of that boy remains underneath.

Nobody changes that much. Not a complete one-eighty in personality, drive, and passion.

Maybe he’ll mess with my head a bit, ramp up my guilt until I’ve apologised enough to satisfy his morbid need to exact punishment from me for our parent’s misdeeds, and then he’ll lose interest and let me slink off into the darkness?

Back to my life with Bax. Back to my music. Back to True if he’ll have me after what I said?

The Alex I remember wouldn’t have the staying power necessary to see whatever plan for retribution he has concocted through to the end. He’ll get part way through and some other shiny thing will capture his attention, letting me off the hook.

Satisfied with my assessment of the situation, I silently vow to keep my wits about me from now on. No more dying swan act, no more panic attacks, no more passing out. I’m going to be strong for once in my life. I’m going to rely on myself instead of the nearest man I can get to feel sorry for me.

“Like what you see?” Alex’s voice is crackly, full of sleep, although his face is clear of all signs of slumber. His hazel eyes are bright; their depths filled with a strange mixture of deviousness and carnal delight. “If you’re a good girl and you ask nicely enough, I might give you a taste.”

I scoot away from him, all the way back to my original side of the bed. Clutching the covers to my chest, I shake my head.

“You’re delusional,” I reply as evenly as I can. “I wasn’t looking at you like that.”

Unfortunately, my nerves get the better of me and my body starts to tremble. My earlier conclusion that he wouldn’t be interested in me in a sexual way is beginning to collapse. Alex runs his gaze over my face, dropping his rude inspection to my shaking hands, before lifting his gaze to meet my eyes again.

“Or I could take a taste,” he continues with a smirk that compounds my fears. Pausing for a second, he shakes his head and dismisses me with his next words. “Nah, I’m not into pathetic wenches who tremble at the first sign of a man’s interest. I prefer a woman who knows what she wants, not a little girl.”

Keeping my eyes on his, I try to contain my response when he rises to his feet and walks around the bed. He invades my space, squatting on his haunches close enough for me to smell his musky cologne. I press my back against the bed head and hold my breath.

His proximity and his understated scent are doing strange things to my mind.

“Although,” he says with a drawl. “I’m sure I could turn your fearful trembling into something a lot more pleasurable for us both if I wanted to.”

“No.” The word is strangled in my uncooperative throat when Alex runs his hand down the side of my face. Cupping the back of my neck, he drags me closer to him. “Please, Alex.”

“Please, what?” he asks. Our mouths are inches apart. The warmth of his breath rushes over my face. “Please go away or please kiss me?”

Alarm bells go off in my head as my mind provides visual aids to his question.

I wonder what it would be like to feel what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye.

Would he be rough or gentle? Would he devour me with hunger or taste me sedately like an expensive delicacy?

“I think you want me to kiss you,” he growls, his grip tightening on the back of my neck.

Before I can respond, Alex makes his move. With his grip on my nape, he guides my mouth to his. They touch, joining together like matching jigsaw pieces. His lips are soft and pillowy. Mine are dry and tightly pressed. Alex prods the seam with his tongue, forcing his way between my lips with assured movements. I yield instantly, parting my lips and allowing him the entry he seeks. My tongue meets his; timidly tangling, before I lose myself in his taste and kiss him back like a woman possessed.

My hands cease their death grip on the bedspread. I run my finger tips over his shoulders, testing the tight muscles with my grip, before wrapping my arms around his neck. Touching him is a revelation. There is nothing tenuous in the way he handles me. He treats me as an equal. Demanding that I meet him halfway. Refusing to coax me. He treats me like a woman, not a fragile girl, and for the first time, I understand what I’ve been missing out on.

In spite of his violent needs, Bax has shielded me at the same time. He has always treated me with kid gloves, slowly initiating me to his desires. True was much the same, bending to Bax’s unvoiced expectations, he always held a little of himself aloof from me. They both thought I couldn’t handle the full force of their passion.

Alex doesn’t have those reservations.

Letting go of my neck, he pulls me away from the bedhead and, without breaking our kiss, he uses his big body to force me onto my back on the mattress as he climbs onto the bed. Alex shoves his hard thigh between my legs, resting against my aching entrance. I spread my legs for him without thinking. The t-shirt I’m wearing—what happened to my dress?—bunches around my waist, exposing me to his touch. His bulge rests on my thigh and I tighten my legs around him and rock my bareness against his chino-covered, muscled thigh. Sparks fly from my clit to my lower belly, heating my tummy and sending me crazy with need.

My fingers seek his hair. I knead his scalp, scratching with my nails, and hold his mouth against mine, kissing him with every ounce of expertise I can muster. 

“Nuh uh,” he chides me, lifting his face from mine. I use my grip on his blonde locks to pull him back to me, only to have him move completely out of my reach. Immediately, the absence of his weight on me sends a stark sense of loss spiralling through my chest. “I set the pace here.”

Shock takes hold of me when the realization of what I was about to do hits me. My body becomes rigid and I close my eyes to block out the sight of him above me. This is wrong. Eight years ago, Alex was my step-brother. He is the last man I should be lying beneath. Our past interactions are wrapped in anger and sadness. All future exchanges will be tinged bloody by our shared horror-filled memories.

What the hell was I thinking?

What the hell was he thinking?

Opening my eyes, I’m about to ask him exactly that only to find him heading for the door. I push myself upright, yanking the t-shirt down to cover my body. I’m scrambling to find my wits, unsure whether I should call out to him or let him go, when he turns back to face me.

“I’m onto you and your games,” he snarls with hate in his voice. His hazel eyes are filled with so much condemnation and scorn that I can feel it flowing over my skin like ugly magnetic waves of revulsion. “My father might have fallen for your tricks, but I’m a hell of a lot wiser than he was. I’ve already seen how poisonous you are, first hand. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

He shuts the door behind himself with a bang. I stare at it for a few seconds, my eyes burning and my heart racing as part of me wills him to return so I can explain that I never meant to hurt his father, while a much larger part of my soul screams for Bax and True to come and rescue me from this nightmare.

When it becomes clear that he’s not going to come back, I shuffle under the covers and pull them over my face. Hot tears spring forth, running down my cheeks and pooling in my hair line as great big sobs bubble in my chest and erupt from my mouth.

All bets are off in this scenario.

I don’t know this version of Alex, at all.

 

SIXTEEN

 

Alex

 

I lean my back against the closed door and silently curse my own stupidity. Fisting my hands at my sides, I tilt my head backward and open my mouth in a soundless scream as her heartbreaking sobs breach the barrier between us.

“Fuck!” The curse is quiet, but the emotion behind it isn’t lessened by the lack of sound. Crouching down in my haunches, I bury my face in my hands and mutter, “Stupid, stupid idiot.”

Luci Williams is dangerous. I knew this already and thought I’d adequately prepared for her. Apparently not. When she’d passed out in front of me at the gate, I’d carried her inside and waved aside all of Mirko’s concerned offers to call an ambulance. In my head, I had this all under control. That was until I’d stripped off her wet clothes and dressed her in one of my t-shirts. Her lush curves had filled my hands while her petite limbs had induced my protective instincts. She is a contradiction. Sensual but innocent.

Luci is too small and fragile to pose the threat she does.

She appears inconsequential, yet she’s capable of bringing grown men to their knees.

Silly but true.

I’d watched her do it to my father. I’ve also witnessed the affect she has on Baxter Johnson and Terrence Anderson III. If two men were ever headed for a showdown over a girl, it’s those two.

Although I knew rationally that I had to, when the time had come to leave her alone in the room, I couldn’t do it. I’d told myself that it was because I didn’t trust her. That’s why I’d sat in the reclining chair and watched her sleep—ostensibly to protect my house from the viper I’d deliberately invited inside—until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and I’d given into my own tiredness to spend the night in the chair next to her bed.

I know. I’m an A-grade fool.

Even now, I can’t bring myself to be wholly truthful and admit that staying in the chair was better than giving into the real urge that I was fighting. The desire to climb into bed with her. To wrap my body around hers and soothe her as she trembled and groaned in her sleep. To kiss her awake and tell her that it was okay when her eyelids twitched, and she balled her little hands into fists to ward off the monsters in her nightmares. To pry her legs open and sample the honeyed perfection I’d spied when I undressed her.

It’s sickening to have these thoughts about her now.

She was once my step-sister.

As a thirteen-year-old, Luci’s upset had pricked my conscience whenever I’d let my frustrations at our parent’s marriage spill over in her direction. Being around her now is something else entirely. Seeing her fear and panic makes me want to protect her from anyone who so much as wishes harm toward her.

Yet, right now, the only person out to get her is me.

How fucked up is that?

“Sir?” Jerking to attention, I raise my head to find Mirko standing before me. All thoughts of monsters and Luci fly out of my head with his next words. “It’s happened.”

Standing, I clap a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“The news has announced it,” he replies. “Terrilliam stocks are crashing. They’re waiting for an official announcement about the new CEO.  Once Cecelia is installed, they’ll be ripe for the picking.”

Mirko grins once he’s finished his pronouncement. The smile lights up his craggy face, stripping decades from him. He’s like a puppy determined to tear apart his new toy and watching his happiness at the news reminds me of all the times I saw him and my dad in this exact situation. Celebrating the takedown of yet another business, readying themselves to strip another man’s life work to the bare bones, to sell off the various parts and keep only the most fruitful for themselves.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that Mirko is more than a mere butler. He is my father’s former right-hand man and my current advisor. It was his suggestion to downplay his role in my life to the outside world after dad’s passing. He’s an expert at shrinking into the shadows—a skill he honed to perfection throughout his decades at my father’s side. The amount of information he has gathered by merely acting the part of a servant is astounding.

Case in point: the night he overheard Terrence Anderson II lamenting the dire circumstances he found himself and his company, Terrilliam Productions, sinking under after the death of his partner and brother.

One hint in my direction from Mirko, and we had put our plan into action.

Crippled companies and forced fire sales are two of my favorite things in this world.

The riches that can be reaped in that particular scenario is second only to the enjoyment I gain from destroying the legacy of pompous pricks like TJ Anderson. It’s always fun to see their faces when they realize that Adonai Entertainment and it’s much scorned “new money” was the mastermind behind their downfall.

Although, in TJ Anderson’s case, I’ll have to settle for watching his bitchy wife crumble beneath the knowledge.

Dead men aren’t exactly known for their emotional displays.

More’s the pity.

“Shall I ready your office?” Mirko interrupts my internal gloating. “You can strike while the iron is hot as one would say.”

“Sounds perfect,” I reply with a smirk. The tension that had invaded my body after my idiocy with Luci has completely dissipated. My mind is ready for the battle that’s to come. “Although, I can’t see Cecelia Anderson going down without a fight.”

“If she refuses to cooperate, I can have various media outlets on the phone within the half hour.” Mirko narrows his eyes, cruel calculation gleaming within the dark depths. “I’m sure she’ll see sense once you’ve explained how damaging her little secret would be to her standing within her circle if it ever got out. I anticipate having the takeover completed by dinner time.”

“Your eternal optimism never ceases to amaze me.”

He chuckles. “Optimism is for fools. I believe in reaping the rewards of careful planning.”

We’re both laughing as he heads off toward my office, I take in his hobbled gait and bent shoulders. His outward fragility disguises his internal fortitude. Underneath the wrinkled skin and the balding head is a man hellbent on wreaking as much destruction as possible on the corner of the world that rejected him at birth for circumstances out of his control.

It’s a timely reminder.

Looks can be deceiving.

Those who appear weak can possess hidden weapons. Like the water hemlock, a beautiful, innocent exterior that calls for your touch can hide a poisonous interior so vile it will kill you within hours should you give into its allure.

It’s with that warning in mind that I sigh before I force myself away from the door that separates me from a still sobbing Luci and down the hallway to my office.

She can cry all she wants. I know the truth behind her tears.

Beneath the fairy-like façade is a devious woman who’s more than equipped to bring me to my knees if I drop my guard for an instant.

Her junkie mother taught her well and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I let another Williams’ woman destroy an Adonai.

 

 SEVENTEEN

 

Luci

 

Voices speaking on the other side of my door cuts through the sobbing that fills my ears. One of the voices is older, filled with glee, and a morbid sounding kind of excitement. The other is Alex. The words are hard to make out, and although I shouldn’t care what they’re discussing, I kick back the bed covers and tip toe to the door. In this situation, knowledge is power—and I have neither knowledge or power. I’ve been sent in blind, and I need to start delving into the how’s and why’s and who’s and what’s so I can find a way back to my old life. 

I listen, the words faint but clear enough to hear. It seems that they’re discussing business. The meaning behind their words is outside my understanding until I hear them mention Terrilliam. It’s a production company, specializing mainly in recording contracts, but also dipping their toes into movie scores and soundtracks, and a music streaming service. In the music industry, they are one of the behemoths. A little family company that became a major player. Musicians who want to be stars would sell their soul to sign with them while true artists steer clear of their commercial, moneyed approach to our art. Bax had tried to get their attention for a while until they’d proved spectacularly uninterested and his contacts began to get hostile when he tried to manipulate them into setting up further introductions. 

At the time, True had seemed relieved that the pressure was off, and I had only cared about keeping my boyfriend from spiralling out of control when his latest plans for our musical stardom were thwarted. Now, listening to Alex discuss their downfall, I begin to reconsider just how powerful he has become. If he’s looking at buying Terrilliam, it makes sense that Bax would give Alex whatever he requested in exchange for him signing Miscreant Mischief. 

Unfortunately, that’s me. On a platter. For a month. 

Once again, I mentally kick myself for never telling Bax the true story about my mother’s short-lived marriage when I was thirteen. He would never have agreed if he knew why Alex wanted me all to himself. 

At least, I hope not… 

“Although, I can’t see Cecelia Anderson going down without a fight,” Alex says when the person he’s speaking to lets him get a word in edge wise. 

The woman’s name is familiar. Bracing my palms against the door, I stare at the floor and try to remember why. A frown forms between my eyebrows and a shard of pain sparks in my forehead. I’m on the verge of giving up and tuning back into Alex’s conversation when my mind spits forth the memory I need. 

A letter in True’s bedroom. Hand-written and perfumed, it had piqued my curiosity. True has never shown anything more than casual interest in any woman outside me—a casual encounter here and there, the occasional groupie in the back of a club or at a music festival—so I hadn’t been able to resist carefully prying it out of the lavender envelope and reading its contents. 

It was a plea to come home. An entreaty to bury the hatchet with his father. A reminder that he had responsibilities that trumped his need to pretend he was a rock star. Complete with a bargain—come home and she’ll try to talk his father around. The letter was signed by his mother. The name and address on the back of the envelope listed Cecelia Anderson of one of those fancy numbered street addresses in New York as the sender. 

True is from New York. 

Cecelia Anderson is from New York.

Terrilliam Productions is based in New York. 

Cecelia Anderson is True’s mother and True has just run back home. 

Maybe his abrupt departure wasn’t because of the way I turned him down? 

Maybe he’s gone home to help his mother save their family record label? A major record label that he has deep connections with yet never once mentioned to me and Bax. A record label that could have answered all our dreams. A record label that could have taken our band from seedy night clubs and noon slots at second tier festivals and our living circumstances from a dingy, cockroach infested apartment building to somewhere with a working elevator. 

Seems I don’t know the man who’s stole half my heart as well as I thought I did. 

The sobs that I had contained return with vengeance. Plump tears run down my cheeks. My shoulders shake from the effort it takes to contain the sound of my crying. A desolate loneliness, the likes of which I haven’t felt for years, overwhelms me. The emptiness in my chest. The churning heaviness in my stomach. The ache in my heart. The racing of my mind. They mock me without relenting. 

Bax sold me out for a chance at success. 

Everything I believed about True is a lie.

My mother’s evil has painted me as a person that Alex will never believe. 

I am alone. 

All I have left is me.  

A broken shell of a woman who never learnt to stand on her own two feet. 

Alex’s companion murmurs something and they both laugh. Their mirth is a dagger to my heart. Muted, shuffled footsteps fade, then I hear a long sigh. It’s Alex. The sound is tired. It’s lonely. It’s confused. It’s angry. It’s sad. It’s everything I’m feeling right now, and it makes me wish I could explain the truth of what happened back then to him. 

Not that my excuses will change the circumstances that haunt us. We all fell victims to my mother’s machinations, and we have all paid a price in one way or another. Alex made it quite clear that it’ll be a cold day in hell before he willingly listens to my version of events and I don’t know if I have the strength to make him hear me. 

The second set of footsteps fade quickly, and I can’t hear any further noises near my door. With a shrug, I move deeper into the bedroom. While this mansion isn’t the same one I lived in during our parents fleeting marriage, it’s furnished with a familiar understated elegance that pays equal attention to appearance and comfort. 

Everything about the room is warm and welcoming. 

Yet it does nothing to comfort me. 

After drying my face on the bottom hem of the t-shirt I’m wearing, I drag in half a dozen steadying breaths and yank open the nearest door. I find a walk-in closet. It’s filled with clothes—flashy dresses, casual wear, and too many shoes. They aren’t mine, however after a quick inspection, I determine that they will fit me. I can’t find a single item of black clothing or anything with leather and lace. The clothes might fit my body. They’ll never fit my personality. 

The bag I packed isn’t in here. I can’t remember if it even made it out of the limo, but I need it. My phone is in there. My journal and my notebook full of half-finished lyrics are in there as well. Right now, I’m not sure what I need most. A way to contact the outside world and my old life or to purge the emotional turmoil inside me through ink on a page? 

In the end, I choose to be practical. Despite their various sins and the hurt they’ve rained down on my head, I need to get back to Bax and I need to let True know what Alex is planning to do to his mother and her company. He deserves that much from me at least. Payback for the many nights he took care of my needs before his own. 

Closing the closet with a soft thud. I pull open the other door and find an ensuite. Its stark white opulence is blinding, reminiscent of an expensive hotel. Toiletry products, make up, and sanitary items fill the drawers. As before they aren’t my usual brands. The claw-foot bath calls to me for a moment, but I don’t have time to succumb to the decadent distraction because my bag isn’t in the bathroom either. Slamming the door shut, I drop to my knees and look under the bed. I find nothing. Searching through the drawers of the bedside tables yields nothing of mine either, as does my inspection of the tall boys. The bedroom and its adjoining rooms are filled with every necessity I could possibly need, yet not one thing is what I would have picked for myself. 

I don’t know if this is Alex’s doing, but it doesn’t sit well with me. Whoever organized to stock this room either hasn’t a clue about me or it’s some sick joke to erase my personal preferences. Either way, I don’t have time to dig deeper into the implications. My need to speak to True is growing by the second. 

Entering the closet again, I select a simple pair of soft light-blue tailored pants and a white button-down shirt. The underwear options are as classy as the clothes. A set with a white lace bra and matching panties are added to the pile. Blue ballet flats quickly join the other items and I move into the ensuite bathroom. 

Once I’m dressed, I brush out the tangles in my long hair and pile it into a messy knot on the top of my head. The remnants of the make up I was wearing when I arrived is streaked down my face. I remove all traces with the cream cleanser but refrain from redoing my face with the muted color palette that’s been provided. 

Devoid of my trademark pale foundation, winged eyeliner, and heavy black lip, the woman who stares back at me in the mirror is a ghost. I haven’t seen her in years. If I’m honest, I never really got to meet her properly. She is the woman I could have been if my mother hadn’t torpedoed her marriage for a quick buck. She is who I was becoming before my life was thrown upside down and inside out and I ended up back in Ripley, scared, confused, and jaded about life. 

It hurts to see her. I jam a hand over my eyes to block her from sight and head back into the bedroom. Dragging in a lungful of air, I hold it deep, and concentrate on letting it out slowly through my nose. It works to relax me, so I try to create a game plan. 

In the end, I decide that I’m going to leave this room and walk about the mansion like I should be here. Hopefully, Alex is preoccupied—I heard them mention something about his office earlier—and I can get to a phone without much effort. There is no way that Alex plans to hold me captive. Not with a home full of servants and a business to run. 

I hope… 

My hand is sweaty when I try to twist the door knob, so I wipe my hands on my thighs. This time it turns easily, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Part of me expected it to be locked, I guess. I should have known better. This proves that Alex hasn’t changed as much as I’d feared—he’s just better at hiding his true layabout nature nowadays. 

With the upcoming ruination of Terrilliam, I’d bet he’s already lost interest in me… and that silly kiss we shared. 

With positivity in my mind and a spring in my step, I turn left out of the bedroom and walk with confident movements down the long hallway. All other doors I pass are closed and the mansion is eerily quiet. Coming to the end, I find a wide staircase that leads down to heavy looking double doors that must lead outside. 

“Shit,” I mutter in a hushed voice. “It can’t be this easy?” 

My heart rate spikes when I hear a door open a little way behind me. I scramble down the stairs with nimble feet silently thanking the ballet slippers on my feet when they muffle my movements. Stopping before I become exposed in the foyer, I look around me to make sure no one can see me. 

The coast is clear. 

When I stride across the marble floor of the foyer, the double doors close enough to touch, I spy a black, old-fashioned landline phone sitting on a low table in the sitting room. I pause. Do I call True from the mansion for help? Or do I concentrate on getting out of the mansion and back to Bax before I let True know what’s heading his mother’s way? 

My feet make the decision for me. I lift the handset from its cradle and jam it against my ear. Balancing it between my shoulder and my chin, I dial the number I know by heart and pray that he’ll answer quickly. The phone rings for what feels like an eternity, then the line connects. 

“Hello?” Hearing his voice again unknots all the worry I’ve been carrying in my stomach since I watched him leave. “This is True, ah, I mean Terrence.” 

Biting down on my bottom lip, I fight back the tears that threaten to fall. My eyes burn and I force myself to hold them open because I know if I blink it will send me over the edge. 

“Hello?” 

I cough to clear my throat and open my mouth to speak. “It’s—” 

A hand reaches across me and presses the switch hook to end the call. Jerking away from the intruder, my evasive move is rebuffed when the handset is snatched out of my hand and slammed back into the phone cradle. 

“Hey!” I jam my hands on my hips and whirl around to face them. “What the—” 

The words die before they reach the end of my tongue. Alex’s face is filled with rage. His eyes bulge and his shoulders shake. The rigidity in his posture sends fear skittering up my spine. It nests in the nape of my neck and takes control of my body. My legs turn to jelly and I feel the beginning of a panic attack grip me. I drop my shocked gaze from Alex’s toward the floor and my eyelids flutter shut when dizziness takes hold. 

“No. You. Don’t. You’re not fainting on me again.” Alex enunciates each word from between gritted teeth. He takes hold of my upper arm and drags me to the closest settee. My legs aren’t cooperating and by the time he thrusts me onto the Italian leather, the only thing keeping me upright is his strength. “Put your head between your knees and breathe.” 

I do as he commands. The symptoms slowly start to subside. When I lift my head to tell him what I think of his heavy-handed tactics, he places a big palm between my shoulder blades and pushes me until my knees are touching my ears. 

“Breathe in,” he demands. I inhale and hold. “Now breathe out.” 

At his urging, I remain in place, breathing in time with his calm instructions until he removes his hand from my back. Slowly, I lift my head so I can see him better. Alex is perched on the arm of the settee next to me with his arms crossed over his chest. He towers over me, and I feel like a naughty little girl who’s about to be scolded by her daddy. Thankfully, when I peer at his face the rage that I saw earlier is gone, replaced by a placid, overly attentive expression. 

I’m not fooled. The muscle in his jaw is working overtime and his posture is still too stiff. 

Now that I feel more in control, the reckless part of me wants to make his lose his shit again. 

“You do realize that you can’t make me stay here? I’m a grown woman. I’ve done nothing wrong.” 

He smirks. I arch an eyebrow. His lips curl further in a shit-eating grin. 

“Is that so?” 

Standing, I shift in front of him and mimic his posture by folding my arms across my chest. “Yes. It is.” 

Even when I pull myself to my full height, Alex is still taller than me. 

“I want to go home,” I state firmly. It takes all my willpower not to cave into his intimidating closeness. 

Wordlessly, Alex uncrosses his arms, then stands on his feet. I’m forced to concede ground by taking a step backward so I can continue to look him in the eye. His size is unnerving, from his ridiculous height to his big hands and his muscled thighs, everything about him is over-sized and intimidating. I’m used to being smaller than everyone else, but I’m not comfortable with the way Alex wields our size differences like a weapon. 

He steps forward. I take another step backward. He keeps pushing his way into my space and I keep yielding more ground to him. It’s reminiscent of his tactic back at the main gates before I passed out, and I can feel the familiar tendrils of panic taking hold of my throat. My chest feels tight and it becomes harder to draw in a full breath. 

“Stop it, Luci,” Alex demands. He takes hold of my shoulders and pushes me against the wall next to the table the phone sits on. “There is no need for your panic.” 

I let my weight sag in his grip and stare at the tanned skin at the base of his throat. 

Wedged as I am between Alex and the wall there’s no way for me to fall… or escape. 

“Look at me.” I swallow before I lift my head high enough to look at him. His hazel eyes are filled with fierce reproach and I’m grateful when his features waver as the dizziness kicks up a notch. I don’t need to hear his thoughts about my panic attacks. He’s not going to say anything I haven’t heard a million times before. “This needs to stop. You can’t simply pass out every time someone says something you don’t like.” 

“It’s not like that,” I protest. It’s useless. Until someone experiences an attack, they’ll never understand. “I can’t help it.” 

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah.” 

Alex wraps his hands around my upper arms and lifts me in the air until we are eye to eye. He rests his forehead against mine and smiles. It’s not a happy grin or a threatening grimace. It’s not even a snarky smirk. No, Alex’s smile is filled with infinite patience and endless confusion. 

“I don’t know what you’re doing to me,” he states quietly. “But I know I don’t like it.” 

I bite down on my bottom lip and wait for his violent accusations about my part in the events of eight years ago to begin once more. Nothing comes. Instead he steps away from the wall and scoops me into a classic bridal embrace. I’m quiet, focused on evening out my breathing so I can finally defend myself when he starts throwing about his indictments about my character and upbringing. 

After we’ve climbed the stairs and walked a little way down the wide hallway that leads to my bedroom, Alex stops and pushes open a door with his foot. He enters the room, pausing only to close the door with his heel. The smell of the room matches the scent of the chest I’m being held against. Looking around me, I find that we’re in another bedroom—a man’s bedroom if the dark colors of the décor and the sheer size of the massive bed that dominates the middle of the room is any indication. 

“Is this your room?” I ask. 

“Yes,” Alex replies. He lowers me onto the bed, then steps back to peer down at me. “I want you to stay here.” 

Blinking fast, I shake my head. “I can’t. I won’t.” 

Alex sits on the edge of the bed near me. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and cupping his chin in his hands. That same sigh I heard outside my bedroom door earlier escapes his lips again. The sound hits me right in the heart. I want to move closer to him. I want to comfort him in the same way he comforted me when my first panic attack started, but I don’t think he’ll accept my touch, let alone my sympathy. 

“This isn’t going to way I expected it to,” Alex murmurs. “I hate you. I want you to pay for your part in the mess your mother created. I had a plan, yet seeing you again has…” 

When he trails off, I shuffle closer to him. The harsh words he just said aren’t matched by the emotion in his tone or the hangdog air that clings to him. Laying my hand on his shoulder, I wait for him to continue. He doesn’t. The silence grows until it fills the room like an over-sized spectre of judgement. 

 

“It’s weird for me, too. Seeing you again,” I venture in a quiet voice. Alex’s shoulder stiffens beneath my palm, but he doesn’t pull away from me. “It was the happiest time in my life. You. Your dad. The routine and comfort that came from being a part of your lives. I was content… until my mother did—” 

Springing to his feet, Alex stands over me and leers down like a conquering king. I grit my teeth and try my hardest not to wilt under the intensity of his outrage. For the most part, I am successful. My trembling bottom lip offers the only outward sign that he’s scaring me. 

“I’m sick of your excuses,” Alex shouts. I flinch, my heart thumping in my chest and my mind screaming for me to run away, before I force myself to remain in place. He lifts his face toward the ceiling and jams his hands in his hair. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. Like I said, I had a plan. Just because you’re this tiny, perfect, little fairy… goddess.”

Strong hands grip my shoulders and Alex tilts me backward until I’m looking up at him. 

“The woman you became shouldn’t have this effect on me. I shouldn’t give a shit about your panic attacks. I shouldn’t care that you’re shit scared of me. And, I definitely shouldn’t be wondering if kissing you again would fill the crater that’s been in my chest since I kissed you this morning.” 

His thumb brushes over my bottom lip. I swallow hard and press my lips together because his tender touch has me wanting to suck his thumb into my mouth and taste his salty essence. 

“Seeing you again has changed everything. I still want revenge. I still want to break you,” Alex is vehement as his states his intentions. “Only now, I want to rebuild you once I’ve ruined you.” 

My breath leaves my lungs with a hiss as the meaning behind his words sinks into my muddled mind. First Bax, then True, now Alex. What is it with the men in my life—if you could label Alex as in my life—wanting to make me into what they want? Can’t they see that underneath the eyeliner, the lipstick, the leather, and the anxiety attacks, I am not a whole person? Something broke in me, long before I can remember how and why, and there is no rebuilding me. 

Accept me as I am or leave me the hell alone. 

I want to yell at him that I thought he was different. When he kissed me this morning, I was his equal. Now, I’m relegated to the role of delicate, broken project girl once more, and he’s going to treat me with the same kid gloves that Bax and True use. 

There’s a knock on Alex’s door. It breaks the tension in the room and Alex immediately releases his grip on me and steps back. That telltale muscle in his jaw begins to work again and he looks anywhere but at me. I sit and wait, knowing deep in my marrow that this isn’t over. He’s going to keep wavering between hatred and kindness until he discovers what everyone else I’ve ever trusted with my truth already knows. 

I am unfixable. 

“You’re going to stay here,” Alex commands. He finally meets my eyes again, but they’re blinkered. Whatever he’s feeling now isn’t showing on his angular face. “I have more important things to attend to right now, but mark my words, this isn’t the end. I’m going to take what you owe me. One way or another.” 

With his declaration hanging in the air, he strides out of the room and slams the door shut behind himself. A key is inserted, and a decisive click echoes off the walls with a stark finality that punctuates his unveiled threat. As his footsteps thunder down the hallway, growing softer when he leaves my hearing range, I shake my head and close my eyes. 

I might not know this version of Alex; however I do know one thing. 

He’s locked the door this time and I am trapped until he decides otherwise. 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

Alex

 

I know I overplayed my hand in this latest confrontation with Luci. Baring my soul to her was temporary insanity at its best. Thankfully, I feel like I pulled back some of the ground with my final promise when I left her alone in my bedroom just now.

“You’re needed, Sir,” Mirko steps out of the shadows moments after I lock my bedroom door. “A call—”

“Not now.”

Without stopping to offer an explanation, I stride down the hallway, taking the staircase to the ground floor two steps at a time, until I back in the living room. Lifting the handset from the cradle, I press redial and hold it to my ear. The time it takes for the call to connect is long enough for my paranoia to grow much too large in proportion to the actual drama Luci’s unsanctioned contact with the outside world could create.

Chances are she called home and Bax left her hanging again.

Despite that, leaving her room unlocked was an amateur move. It never once crossed my mind that she would try to leave. Now that I’ve discovered the steel core beneath the weak façade, I know better.

She can’t be trusted to yield to my right to revenge without a fight.

In some ways, her spirit makes the pursuit that much more exciting.

Mostly, it’s an annoyance I don’t have time to deal with.

“Hello.” A male voice answers. Surprise closes my throat when they identify themselves and I find myself temporarily mute. “This is Terrence.”

Luci called True?

I would have laid money on her running straight back to Baxter Johnson. Every inquiry I made into Luci and her band after my half-sister inadvertently revealed her presence in LA had led me to believe that Bax was her boyfriend and True Anderson simply provided the beat in their band. My short encounter with him at Sunset Sound had unearthed which I’d assumed was an unrequited crush on his behalf, but that was it. Not one thing I’d learned about Miscreant Mischief had led me to factor the drummer into my risk assessment. If anything, I’d laughed at the animosity between him and Bax because it had all seemed so juvenile.

Fighting over that waif seemed like a waste of time.

Now, having spent time in her orbit, I should know better.

Luci has that “thing” about her that drives me crazy.

Me, included; it would seem.

“Look,” True interrupts my reverie with some snark. “I’mma bout sick of these crank calls today. Just because your number is blocked doesn’t mean I can’t trace you. So hang the fuck up and find someone else to annoy. If you ring back, it’s gonna be game on motherfucker.”

Thrusting the handset onto the cradle to disconnect the call, I back away from the phone with quick steps. My jaw complains about the way I’m grinding my teeth. The sharp pain that shoots from my teeth to my temple is barely enough to bring me back to reality and stop regarding the phone like it’s a poisonous snake ready to strike at any moment.

For the first time in a very long time, I’m out of plots, and games, and plans, and immoral maneuvers.

This hasn’t happened to me since the Williams’ women wreaked havoc on my family eight years ago.

I pride myself on seeing all angles.

This I didn’t see coming.

I have two seedy campaigns in play—one personal, one business. On a personal level, I plan to ruin Luci for ruining my father. Destroying Terrilliam Productions was just sport—a business pursuit that would make me richer yet again and take out another piece of the sneering, snobby, and entitled fabric of the music industry at the same time.

Everything was in place. Both strategies solidly mapped out. The fact that Luci’s drummer was the disinherited son of the co-founder of Terrilliam hadn’t seemed like an obstacle. Living the life of a wannabe rock star hardly made Terrence Anderson the III a threat. In all my assessments, his mother, Cecelia was the only opponent I’d identified capable of undermining my takeover plans, and we had enough dirt on her to head off any objections she had before they’d even left her deceitful mouth.

All that may be for nought with this unexpected intersection of the two facets of my life.

“Shit,” I curse out loud.

Striding to the base of the staircase, I rest my hand on the banister and call out for Mirko. He appears moments later, his hobbled gait becoming more pronounced in his haste to answer my summons.

“Yes,” he answers in a breathless rush.

Normally I would have sympathy for his limitations. Right now, witnessing his physical weakness makes me irritated.

“I need everything you have on TJ Anderson’s son,” I snap, the anger-tinged censure in my voice making it clear that I blame him for the oversight. “Seems he’s come into play without warning. I need to take him out before he accidentally discovers anything useful.”

With a nod, Mirko makes his way down the stairs. He stops next to me, a deep frown wrinkling his lined forehead. He can feel my condemnation as it flows from me in waves, yet in return, I see his own misgivings at just how responsible he is stirring an undercurrent of disapproval toward me.

It’s not something I want to examine too closely.

Deep down I know I’m lashing out at the wrong person.

Once again, it’s Luci’s fault. Ever since I learned she was right under my nose in LA, I’d thrown my usual caution and consideration out the window and had jumped headlong into my scheme to get my hands on her without taking the time to weigh up all possible scenarios.

I’d wanted her. I’d taken her. Now, I had to work out how to keep her… all without destroying the Terrilliam takeover and permitting my carefully hidden proclivities from becoming fodder for my enemies.

When one is as ruthless as I have been, it’s imperative to keep a clean reputation.

One hint of scandal and I could find myself on the receiving end of my own favourite tactic.

Ruination through idle gossip.

“In what capacity should I be investigating the junior Anderson?” Mirko asks after the silence between us has grown into a deafening indictment. “As the potential heir to Terrilliam or something a little more personal… the companion of the young lady upstairs, perhaps?”

My eyes narrow and I glare at him. His astute observational abilities have never been turned on me like this. I don’t like it, I don’t appreciate it, and I refuse to accept it.

It may be my due, however it is not his place to offer it.

“As a person, Mirko,” I reply in a voice that’s much steadier than it should be considering the emotional tsunami that’s currently spiraling within me. “As a man whom we need to know everything about. As someone you should have already researched before you moved to take out his father.”

Addressing Mirko’s part in the untimely demise of TJ Anderson is a calculated move on my behalf. My hands are clean when it comes to the less legitimate aspects of our collusion.

His, however, are not.

Mirko’s hands have been stained red for decades. First at my father’s behest, then later at mine.

At the end of the day, it’s all semantics.

But, a little reminder of the dirt you hold over someone’s head never hurts.

“As you wish,” he concedes with a head tilt and a slow blink. “I shall—”

I ignore the rest of his statement and make my way up the stairs. Having Luci here could become dangerous if True works out the connection between his missing lead singer and my phone number calling him then hanging up. I hold little hope of Baxter Johnson having the smarts to play off her absence in a way that doesn’t arouse suspicion.

Stopping at my locked bedroom door, I shimmy the key out of my pocket. Before I insert it into the keyhole, a noise catches my attention. I pause and lean closer to the wooden barrier that separates me from her.

At first, it seems like she’s talking to herself, then it becomes clear. Luci is singing, soft and low, and in a stilted way that makes me think she’s making up the lyrics as she goes.

“Confusion flows through my veins,” she sings quietly. “It burns and stings and torments, in vain.”

Her voice is beautiful, angelic almost, yet there’s a raw quality that makes the hair on my arms stand on end.

“I shouldn’t say sorry for things that aren’t true.

Not that it ever mattered to you.

For most of my days you’ve haunted me.

A ghost from a past that taunted me.

I shouldn’t say sorry for things that aren’t true.

Even though, I’ve always wanted to.

Time has no way of healing the past.

Promises have never been meant to last.

Why would I want to say sorry for things that aren’t true.

Maybe because I never stopped loving you?”

Listening to the words she croons is better than reading her diary if she had one. I don’t know if she’s referring to me or Bax or True, but I do know that she’s given me the key to what I need to do next…

Let Luci perform.

An impromptu performance of Miscreant Mischief at the party Bax worked so hard to wrangle invitations to from my half-sister is the perfect antidote to anything True could conjure about me and Luci if he puts two and two together and equates it to five. The boys of Miscreant Mischief would be sitting in LA twiddling their thumbs while Luci’s gone for the month anyhow, so this makes perfect sense. True and Bax would almost certainly jump at the chance to join that party in a professional capacity—it is one of the biggest private events in the industry—and any band who plays it is sure to receive significant attention. More than enough inquiries to keep Luci’s band mates busy while I work out what to do with her and the way she affects me.

For the first time since Luci arrived, a stark sense of relief begins to settle over me. It’s a good plan.

After all, what’s the point of possessing all the money and power that I do, if I can’t put it to good use for my own purposes?

Giving Miscreant Mischief an opportunity to shine is a small price to pay if it keeps Luci in my clutches and distracts True Anderson from the upcoming dismantling of his legacy. 

 

NINETEEN

 

Luci

 

The sound of a key in the door is the only warning I have before Alex bursts back into his bedroom. With quick hands, I shove the scrap of paper I ripped from the notepad next to his bed and the lead pencil I borrowed from his top drawer under my thigh. There’s barely enough time to sit up straight before he’s in front of me, glaring down like a disapproving father.

Dragging a calming breath deep into my lungs, I regard him steadily. He’s annoyed, but he’s also hiding something. Something changed while he was gone. Something bad. Alex’s pupils are slightly dilated, his lips thinner than usual, and as much as he tries to hide it, it’s clear that he’s spooked. For some reason, this buoys my flagging spirits.

I like it when he’s as off balance as he makes me.

“Yes,” I ask, arching an eyebrow as I fake disinterest in his abrupt return.

Alex licks his lips but doesn’t reply. Instead, he returns my perusal with an intensity that makes me wish I could make myself invisible. Writing out my feelings after he left, twisting and turning my emotional turmoil into lyrics, had centered me.

I was feeling a little better.

Until Alex returned and reminded me of all the reasons why I was spiraling in the first place.

“Seriously,” I snap. The façade drops in an instance. “Just say what you have to say, then get back to your more important things.”

Throwing his rude insult back at him gives me a moment of satisfaction. My spiteful words pierce his blank countenance and he closes the few remaining feet between us with fast feet.

“Shut. Up.” There’s is no sign of the Alex who cared for me when I had yet another panic attack in those two words. “Just shut your fucking mouth.”

Profanity is appealing on his lips. Maybe because it sounds more natural than the stilted, business-like tone he usually affects.

“Or what?”

I expected some verbal sparring in response to my challenge. Another bout of silent treatment. Him storming out of the room again. What I didn’t anticipate is what happens next…

Alex place his hands on the inside of each of my knees and pries my legs open. In one smooth movement, he knocks me onto my back, wedges his hips between my thighs, and uses his big body to move me up the bed before he flattens me between his weight and the mattress.

My stomach fills with fluttering while my pulse pounds in my ears. Part of me—a teeny part—wants to push him off, but the bigger part—the woman in me—demands that I yield to his rough handling immediately. I had raised my hands to push against his shoulders. Now, rather than resisting like planned, I wrap my arms around his neck and pull his seeking mouth against mine. Lifting my left leg, I hook my thigh over his hip and grind myself against the hardness he’s pressing against the warm center of my womanhood.

“Alex,” I breathe his name against his lips when he pauses his assault of my lips. “Don’t stop. Not this time.”

My plea hangs in the air. Lust. Need. Desire. What I want is clear.

Will Alex finally give in?

My answer comes less than a heart beat later.

Alexander Adonai—Ex-step brother for a hot minute. Victim of the same woman who ruined me. Monster who haunted my past with his promise of retribution—hauls his weight off me and puts some sorely needed distance between us.

It’s not much. Half a foot or so. I remain caged in his arms, his hands planted either side of my body and his face mere inches from mine. But it’s enough to telegraph his intentions.

He’s going to leave me hanging again.

He’s going to be the better person and walk away from this ridiculous attraction between us once more.

“Tell me who you were singing about?” he asks in a raspy voice.

Blinking fast, it takes me a second to get my bearings straight enough to understand what he’s talking about. He must have heard me singing before he entered the room. The piece of paper with the half-written song that is now squashed somewhere beneath us on this bed was my cathartic attempt at making sense of the situation he has me in. It was my feelings—past and present, and future worries—straightening themselves out in the only way I know how.

Through my music.

The tempo. The melody. The rhythm. It all comes to me with the words. Not the other way around like it does for Bax.

“Luci,” Alex says my name as a warning. It pulls me out of my head and back to the here and now.

Inwardly, I curl up in a ball and prepare to lick my wounds when he finally completes his latest rejection of me. On the outside, I try my hardest to project nonchalance when I give him the answer he seeks—the response that will seal the deal and send him scuttling from the room for the final time.

“You.”

He swallows, eyes widening, lips parting slightly. “Me?”

“Yes,” I reply, softly. Dropping my gaze from his face, I concentrate on the movement of his Adam’s apple when he swallows again. “Every word was about you. When I was part of your family, when we were apart, and now… this stupid, impossible clash of my old life and my new reality that you’ve engineered to torment me. It’s all wrong.”

They may be the truest words I’ve let flow from my heart and out my mouth in my living memory. When they hover between us, unanswered by Alex, I begin to feel naked. Exposed. Ripe for his ridicule.

Expressing my real emotions doesn’t come easily to me.

So, why in Hell would I choose Alex to unload on?

“Stupid.” Alex punctuates the word with a kiss, and I accept it without argument.

“Impossible.” He tears the buttons from my shirt, and I let him with a sharp gasp.

“Torment.” The weight of his body returns to mine, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

“All true.” His warm breath covers my face when he kisses me for a second time. I kiss him back and he offers me a small smile. “Still doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

During our interlude, my arms had fallen almost forgotten to my sides. When Alex unbuttons my pants and rips them down my hips, my hands develop a mind of their own. Pulling him close. Pushing him away. Tearing at his clothes. Holding him tight against me.

For the first time, I let go. Completely. Wholeheartedly. Without panic, anxiety, or reservation.

And, the entire time… Alex meets me. Movement for movement. Discarding my clothing as I remove his. Kissing me when I kiss him. Lifting me when I need to rise. Letting me go when I need to breathe.

Eventually we find ourselves where we knew we would from the moment we first acknowledged that he was no longer my twenty-five-year-old quasi-stepbrother, and that I had grown from a thirteen-year-old girl into a woman.

Naked. Intertwined. Panting. Wanting. Willing.

“Like a fairy,” Alex murmurs, making enough space between us for him to run his hungry eyes over my exposed body. “A perfect, sexy, little goddess sent to earth to ruin my plans.”

The sentiment in his statement should hurt. It’s not exactly a compliment, yet it feels right for this moment.

I say nothing in return. Instead I widen my legs and press my palm down on his lower back. What I want is clear, and Alex doesn’t leave me hanging.

He presses the head of his hard cock against my entrance and pushes inside my body in one slow, seemingly never-ending thrust. It’s a foreign sensation—Bax and True and one random in a nightclub that I barely remember are the sum total of my experience—yet it’s familiar at the same time. Once he’s fully seated within me, Alex places his hands on either side of my face and peers down into my eyes.

“Absolutely divine.”

Lifting my head, I press my lips against his and whisper, “Absolutely perfect.”

With unhurried movements Alex teases me with his cock. He picks up the pace as I become more vocal. Thrusting harder and with more intent. I ride the wave, following his rhythm, tilting my hips to meet his, clutching him to me when it becomes too much to bear.

The sensations are overwhelming. The burn. The stretch. The flooding ecstasy. My lower belly heats. My muscles grip his length, spasming around his cock when he finds the angle that hits all my sweet spots. Lights flash behind eyes when I screw them shut, and I arch my back to give him full access to my body.

Throwing my head back, an unearthly groan is ripped form my lips as Alex’s pace becomes less about my pleasure and more about him reaching his release. Not that it matters any longer. Not when he mashes his thumb against my clit and drives me over the edge moments before he spills inside me.

I lay there—panting, trembling, completely undone; yet never more whole—anticipating his weight over mine.

Needing it if I’m honest.

In my mind, I’m ready for whatever else he has to offer me. Mentally. Physically. Spiritually.

This is what’s been missing from my life. Someone to treat me as an equal, not a damaged damsel.

The heavy reminder of his solid presence never comes.

Instead, Alex pushes to his feet and gathers his clothes from the end of the mattress and the floor by the bed.

“Finish my song,” he commands in a tone that brooks no arguments. “You’ll sing it at my party with your band. It’ll send interest in Miscreant Mischief through the roof.”

Pushing open the door to his ensuite bathroom, he steps out of the room without looking at me. The door slowly swings shut behind him, a low creaking sound that echoes the fissure rupturing down the middle of my heart.

What a fool I am.

This was always his plan.

Alex has had his revenge.

I freely gave him what his father tried to take with force.

Now, he’s returning me to the life he took me from without so much as a backward glance. 

 

TWENTY

 

Bax

 

Jabbing at the screen of my phone, I don’t bother to check if the call has ended before I pitch it across the room. It breaks the mirror over my dresser, clatters to the floor, and skids under my bed.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” the blonde in my bed screeches as she jack-knifes upright with her arms in front of her.

“Fuck me.’ I flinch, lifting my knee like I’m warding off an attack and shrieking. “Shit. Argh.”

She resembles a zombie come back to life. Pale face. Bleary eyes. Her make up is smudged all over her face and her hair sticks out in all directions.

The girl is a mess.

And she’s pissing herself laughing at me.

“Did…you…” she splutters, gasping for air between laughing sobs. “Just scream… like a girl?”

Dragging in a shuddering breath, I screw up my nose and regard her like I would a cockroach I just found in my soup. “Get out.”

“Huh?” frown line forming between her eyes, she seems genuinely perplexed. “What?”

“Get the fuck out.” After ripping the covers from the bed, I point at the door. “Fuck off.”

With calculation on her face, she crawls across the mattress toward me like a cat. “Don’t be a stick in the mud. I only laughed at you a little bit. Come and let me make it all better.”

Her tits sway as she moves. Long hair brushing the sheets, she arches her back so her ass sticks in the air and wriggles it from side to side. Blonde hair, visible bones, and pale skin. Everything about her is a skanky knockoff version of Luci.

Fuck I miss Luci.

With a shake of my head, I banish the thought.

Thinking about my girlfriend is not something I want to do after that phone call.

Instead, I grind my teeth and fight the urge to throw up. A pile of clothes covers the carpet at the end of the bed. I assume they’re hers. Scooping them up, I drop them on her head.

“What the fuck?”

“I need to take a piss.” Turning around, I head out of the room. “Be gone by the time I get back.”

One of her stiletto’s follows me out the bedroom. It barely misses hitting me in the back. Something crashes to the ground in my bedroom, quickly followed by the sound of breaking glass. I don’t bother going back to stop her tantrum.

There’s no point.

I’ve already fucked everything up.

What else could she break?

Slamming the bathroom door shut behind me, I flip the lock. After knocking down the toilet lid, I collapse on top of the cold plastic and bury my face in my hands.

The pounding in my head and the dryness of my mouth mock me. I’m hangover to hell, sick as a fucking dog, which is just more evidence of my inability to do the right thing. My life has been out of control since I dropped Luci off at bloody Alex Adonai’s mansion. First, I trashed our apartment, then minutes after I’d decided to go get Luci back, I found myself pawning my grandfather’s guitar instead.

Cash in hand, the bender started.  

That was three, maybe four, nights ago.

Snorting and sucking. Punching and pumping. Fighting and fucking.

I’d done it all, without discrimination, and then done it some more.

Now all I had to show for it was a bruised face, a thumping headache, and a party girl whose name I don’t know in my bed.

Something else breaks. The front door slams shut. Puffing out my cheeks as I drag in a deep breath and lift my head. My eyesight swims, before it clears when I exhale slowly, and I get a good look at myself in the mirror that hangs over the smudged basin in front of me.

Remorseful shame clouds my eyes. My cheek bones seem sharper in my face than usual. The skin is pulled tighter. The hair that Luci loves so much sits like a rat’s nest around my shoulders. But, it’s the hangdog air around me that truly drives home how far I’ve fallen in the last few days.

My eyes duck and weave every time they meet in the reflective glass.

I can’t hold my own reflection’s gaze.

I’m beyond a mess.

I’m fucking ruined.

And, now, thanks to that phone call from Alexander fucking Adonai, I have to find True, replace his busted drum kits, get my guitar back, and work my head back straight on my shoulders.

All within twenty-four hours.

All with no money.

All with no hope.

Because in one day—less than that, really—I’ll be seeing my girl again. I haven’t a clue what magic she worked on Alex, all I know is that Miscreant Mischief has been given the big break we’ve been searching for over the past five years.

Honestly, I can’t bring myself to examine the how’s and why’s.

There’s only one way to a man like Alex’s good side.

Sex.

The thought of his dick inside Luci makes me sick—sicker than the images that assail my brain to remind me of my own hypocrisy.  

Doesn’t matter who has fucked who, anyway. We’re performing at Adonai Entertainment’s annual party tomorrow night. The invitations I worked so hard to get are no longer required—our name is down as a main act. Deep diving into Amanda Jones’ ancient pussy was apparently unnecessary since it took Luci all of three days to get us the breakthrough we needed.

All the bad shit that came from that decision is now moot. Pointless destruction. A symptom of my own downfall.

Ready or not. Drum kit, guitar, or no instruments at all.

We’ll be on the main stage.

Performing a new song Luci’s written while she’s been gone.

In front of anyone who matters in the music industry.

I should be excited. This is everything we’ve worked for. True will have to come back for this. He’ll help me get my hands on something to play if we have to beg, borrow, or steal. Luci will be ecstatic to see me, despite how I left her.

But, will she?

“Of course she will,” I mutter to myself. My gaze looks anywhere but at the mirror when I try to make myself believe the bullshit I’m selling. “She loves me.”

Her love has never been up for debate. I know I have her heart. Plus, this is the longest we’ve been separated since we left Ripley. Luci must be close to spiralling by now, if she isn’t already, and her need for me to make her better will supersede any residual anger she feels at me for leaving her with Alex.

Slowly meeting my own eyes in the mirror, I nod. “Everything will be fine.”

If I feel like I’m missing half my body without her by my side, Luci must be feeling so much worse.

Yeah, I should be happy that I’m going to see her soon, not worrying about all this superfluous external crap.

Me and Luci are good.

We’re forever.

So, why am I drowning in nothing but dread? 

 

TWENTY-ONE

True

As the casket is lowered into the ground, I tighten my hold on Polly’s hand. My little sister returns my grip with a fierce squeeze of her own. Leaning into my side, she rests her weight against my body.

“It’ll be okay, Polly Pocket. I’ll look after you.” I say the words, but they are hollow because I don’t know if it’s a promise I can keep. So much has happened in the past four days that my head is at risk of spinning off my shoulders. “Dad would’ve been happy with the turn out.”

Gazing at the assembled crowd, I nod to myself. I’m right. The hundreds of mourners who gathered outside the church where the service was held have followed us to the cemetery, and everyone seems united in their collective grief at the sudden passing of a man who did so much for the music industry.

Well, everyone is united in their sorrow except for my mother. For some reason she appears almost apoplectic with rage. I follow her gaze in the direction of her glaring and my heart lurches to a stop in my chest before it performs a back-flip and begins pounding in my ears.

Alexander Adonai stands about four rows back from the front of the crowd. That in itself isn’t all too troubling. He’s part and parcel of our world. It’s the person who stands next to him who’s sent me spiraling.

Luci is here.

She’s holding Alex’s hand. Her head is bowed. A sheer black veil covers her fine-boned face. I don’t know what to make of her appearance… and with Alex of all people?

Where’s Bax?

What the hell has happened since I left?

This feels wrong.

Unfortunately, there’s no time for me to seek answers. The graveside portion of the service is over. My father has been interred next to his brother, and we have an appointment with our lawyer as soon as we arrive home for the reading for the will. The mass gathering converges on me, Polly, and our mother. Everyone offers their sympathies and mutters offers of assistance and promises to keep in contact.

I know that they won’t. The crowd may be a who’s who of the music industry, but I know they’re all shallow as fuck. Unless we can keep Terrilliam at the forefront and continue to make money hand over fist, the mourners who are currently offering their sincerest condolences will be the first to take their interests and their artists elsewhere should our grief impact their fame, fortune, or future profits in any way.

That’s the way of the world I grew up in.

Loyalty is contingent on the value you add to their bottom line.

“I think we should meet,” a deep male voice murmurs to my mother who’s standing next to me. “Discuss the finer details before things get too messy.”

A quick glance confirms my suspicions. I move out of the perfumed embrace of the woman currently hugging me, palming her off on Polly when she starts weeping again, and edge closer to Mom to hear her answer.

“As I told your man over the phone,” she replies with steely intent in her voice. Her eyes shoot laser-like rage at him. “It will be a cold day in hell before I capitulate to your craven extortion attempt.”

The man she’s talking to is Alex. He’s dressed in a black suit. His presence as commanding and assured as it was back at Sunset Sound. He smirks at my mother’s answer, before inclining his head and moving down the receiving line to me. Luci clings to his side like a limpet. Under the veil she is pale and her hands tremble when she clutches at Alex’s arm to stop him leaving her alone with my mother.

“Terrence,” Alex speaks my name as a challenge. “Your father was a formidable opponent. A rain maker in this industry. He will be sorely missed.”

Staring at the man my dad fingered as solely responsible for his untimely death, I try my hardest to tamp down on the need to take him in a choke-hold and squeeze his throat until he quits breathing. My fingers curl into fists. I straighten them. They bunch together again, and I give up. Alex’s smarmy gaze following my limbs when I fold my arms across my chest to stop myself from giving into the urge that hungrily consumes me.

Hitting him will solve nothing. All it will do is alert him that I’m on to him.

I need to keep my cards close to my chest.

The only thing that stops me in the end is Luci.

She lets go of Alex and falls into me. I barely have time to free my arms to catch her before she’s sagged against me. Closing my arms around her, my eyelids flutter closed, and I drag in the first full breath I’ve been capable of since I left her standing in the doorway of our apartment with tears running down her face.

It feels like heaven to touch her again.

“How did you get here?” I ask, reopening my eyes. Planting a kiss on the top of her head, I relish the shudder that runs through her body. We tighten our grip on each other and breathe deeply in unison. “Where’s Bax?”

“She’s with me,” Alex replies before Luci can speak. Her head moves up and down against my chest. “Bax is in LA. We have a proposition for you.”

With a quick glance, I size him up and find him lacking. At first glance, he seems certain in his own power. If you peer a little deeper, it’s obvious he’s hiding. What? I don’t know. I just feel it in my bones that there is nothing sincere about this man. Not his condolences for my father’s passing, the way he presents himself to the world, or even the explanation he offers for dragging Luci all the way from LA to New York.

Alex’s expression is benign. His posture is confident and relaxed. On the surface he appears calm. Yet, I see the fire burning just below the surface when he observes the way Luci holds me and finds none of the nervousness she demonstrated around him.

Luci knows I won’t hurt her.

It’s Alex she doesn’t trust.

Ignoring him, I gently move Luci until there’s enough space between us for me to see her face.

“Tell me the truth,” I request in a firm voice. “Why are you really here?”

She licks her lips, then tries to turn her head to look back at Alex. I hold her in place and refuse to allow her to drop her gaze from mine.

“Luci?”

Wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue, she offers me a one-shouldered shrug. Her non-committal attitude is confusing. Why won’t she speak? I take the time to really inspect her. A gaping chasm of worry grows in the centre of my chest when I catalogue the changes in her appearance. Her hair has been professionally dyed platinum-blonde, her make up is toned down yet accentuates her features better than ever, and her simple black clothes drip with the kind of class that can only from expensive fabrics and world-class designers.

In a nutshell, she’s been turned into the upper-class version of her wannabe rock star self.

Coupled with the curious company she’s keeping, that can only mean one thing.

Adonai Entertainment is looking to sign us.

The receiving line has built up behind Alex. My mother is frowning at me, in between shooting glares at Alex and Luci, and Polly is wilting under the pressure of the day.

My hands burn with regret. My body demands that I cease all movement. My brain screams at me to keep her. I listen to none of them, instead maneuvering Luci until she’s back in Alex’s clutches.

“You have my number,” I direct my response at Luci, however we all know it’s for Alex’s benefit. “Give me a call in about two hours. I’ll be free then. We can meet somewhere to chat.”

“Okay,” Luci says at the same time as Alex replies, “Done.”

He shoots her a strange look and she presses her lips together then lowers her head beneath the black lace. I try to get her to make eye contact, however she’s suddenly focused on the grass beneath her feet. Alex inclines his head in farewell. Luci keeps her gaze concentrated on the ground. They leave the line without approaching Polly. With one eye I watch them retreat, a stark sense of victory invading me when Luci walks on her own and rejects Alex’s attempts to hold her hand. When there’s a gap in the mourners, my mother leans close and pinches my cheek.

“I see the way you look at her,” she stage-whispers. Polly doesn’t disguise her obvious eavesdropping, moving a step nearer so she can hear better. “Anyone who gets tied up with the Adonai’s is either a fool or a puppet. Don’t trust her and stay the hell away from him. He’s poison.”

If Dad’s final words to me were the truth, my mom is more correct than she realizes.

Alexander Adonai isn’t simply poisonous.

He is lethal.

And I need to do everything in my power to get Luci out of his clutches. 

 

 

TWENTY-TWO

Luci

Alex takes hold of my hand after we leave True and his family to walk through the cemetery toward his limo. Without thinking through the potential repercussions, I yank my fingers free and wrap my arms around my stomach. Hugging myself does nothing to alleviate the nauseating churning that’s taken up residence in my gut since I laid eyes on True not even an hour earlier.

“You’re playing a dangerous game,” Alex mutters. Animosity, and something else that I can’t quite identify, billows from him with storm cloud-like intensity. Instinctively, I hold myself tighter in a futile attempt to ward off his anger. “I told you to keep quiet and to stay away from Terrence. Apparently, you’re incapable of following even the most basic of instructions.”

“His name is True,” I reply before I can stop myself. “He hates being called Terrence.”

“And I hate having simple instructions ignored so neither of us are getting what we want today.”

The level of malice in his voice is out of proportion to the situation. I barely uttered one word to True and, as much as Alex tries to assert his annoyance at my disobedience, I’m certain that he never told me I wasn’t allowed to touch True when I saw him. His oblique directive to stay away from him had led me to believe that we shouldn’t be alone—not that any psychical contact was off limits.

“I could hardly ignore him at his father’s funeral, could I?” I admonish him with censure in my tone. “That would’ve seemed pretty strange since he’s one of my best friends.”

My bitter response has Alex quickening his pace. I struggle to keep up with him; my thin heels digging into the soft grass beneath our feet and making me unsteady of my feet. Alex takes hold of my elbow and drags me with him.

As we exit through the ornate gates and the crowd thins out, Alex slows down and presses closer to my side.

“You’re pushing it today,” he murmurs. “I can promise that you won’t like the consequences should you continue down this path.”

His terse statement gives me pause. I know he’s going to get pissed at me if I disobey so why am I acting like this? Is it the familiar comfort I feel knowing that True is close by? Whatever it is, it seems like I can’t keep from making things worse today with my unruly mouth and my inability to cease pushing Alex’s buttons.

We approach the limo. Alex’s butler slash hired gun, Mirko hops out of the driver’s door and rushes around to open the passenger side back door for us. With a stiff gesture, Alex motions for me to enter before him. Meeting his narrowed gaze, I drop his angry eyes a second later and bend to enter the vehicle, ducking my head beneath the door jamb, and holding the skirt of my short black dress down so I don’t expose myself.

I have one foot inside the limo when I’m seized by the waist and hauled backward against a hard bulge. Gripping me with one arm, Alex’s other limb snakes inside the limo and he wraps my hair around his hand. Bent in half, my head and upper body inside the limo while one leg and my lower body remains outside, I am trapped.

“I think you need a reminder of who’s in charge here,” Alex snarls. He tightens his grip on my hair, then uses his arm around my waist to grind me against the front of his pants. “If I remember correctly, my cock took the sting right out of you the last time you tried to act out like a little brat.”

This is the first time he’s mentioned the day we had sex. After dressing in the bathroom, he’d left the room without so much as another glance my way. Since then he’s left me alone, apart from a couple random visits from my new stylist and Mirko; locked in his bedroom to work on the song he’d ordered me to get ready for his party in a few days.

I’d obliged, happy to get lost in the lyrics.

All the while, Alex had remained absent throughout the day, only to return each night to sleep with his big, naked body spooning mine in his bed. I’d be lying if I said that the nights we’d shared hadn’t gone some way toward making up for the lonely days he’d inflicted upon me.

Without my band mates or instruments, I’d done the best I could with the song. For once in my life, I had rallied. I hadn’t had a panic attack. I had made my way through the darkness on my own. I had found an inner strength I didn’t know I had, and as devastating as his coldness afterward had been, I was proud of the way I’d held myself together. It had taken all of my energy to stop myself from giving into the urge to cry and rail against him for using me like that, but I’d managed to meet his silent disdain with a matching level of scorn.

I could tell that my lack of reaction had unnerved him because, until we’d flown out of LA for New York this morning on his private jet, all communication had been made through Mirko. Alex could barely look me in the eyes, let alone speak to me. Even at night, he snuck into bed after I was asleep.

 “Your memory is faulty,” I retort when Alex lifts the hand he has around my waist and pushes it inside the V-neck at the top of my dress. “It was barely a blip on my radar.”

Pinching my nipple with his fingertips, Alex grinds against my ass once more. “Is that so?”

His touch sends heat swirling in my lower belly and my thighs tense involuntarily. My back arches and I gasp when the movement forces my ass harder against his bulge and I discover that he’s fully erect.

Alex chuckles. “Personally, I wouldn’t call that a blip.”

“You’re disgusting,” I exclaim. “Let go of me.”

Slapping at his hand, I strain forward in an attempt to get away from his body. Alex lets me go, untangling my hair from his grip and removing his hand from my breast in an instant. Bereft of his support, I land awkwardly on the softly carpeted floor of the limo with a muted shriek. Alex calmly steps over me to get into the limo. He settles himself on the seat and Mirko slams the door shut.

The limo drives off before I have time to get myself off the floor. As I’m picking myself up, we turn a sharp corner and I slide toward Alex’s legs. He spreads his thighs and lifts me onto his lap. Forcing me to straddle him, he grins when the tight skirt of my dress rips up one side and exposes my legs to his inquiring fingers.

“I’d bet you a million dollars that you’re wet for me, despite your protests to the contrary,” he says, breathing the words over my face. Delicately tracing a pattern over my upper thigh, Alex’s grin morphs into a smirk when he halts his journey inches from the outer seam of my panties. “But I don’t bet on sure things because there’s no fun in that.”

In my head, I try to rally my mental defences. It’s impossible. There’s just something about the way he takes what he wants from me without asking that sends every logical thought in my head floating away like a feather on a stiff breeze. My body is a bigger traitor. It cedes to his demanding fingers the moment they breach the silk barrier of my panties without so much as an afterthought.

“See,” Alex whispers against my lips. He dips one finger inside my heat. “Wet as fuck. You’re more than a sure thing, Luci… you’re mine.”

The final two words he says echoes around my head.

I couldn’t possibly be his.

I love Bax.

I’m in love with True.

Alex is nothing but an unhappy reminder of a childhood I barely survived.

“Tight,” he grunts, pumping that single finger in and out of me. “Wet. Warm. Willing.”

His words are crass and there is nothing romantic about the way he invades my body like he owns it.

Yet, tell that to my addled wits. They’re swooning like a damsel in a historical romance.

Placing my hands on his shoulders, I hold tight, digging my fingernails into his suit jacket. Alex rubs his thumb against my clit with soft fluttery movements because he’s constricted by my panties. I lower my mouth to his. He parts his lips and mimics the movement of his finger inside me with his tongue. My hips match his pace with subtle jerks that take him deeper inside.

“Fucking hell,” he groans. “Knew I should’ve stayed away from you.”

Before his statement registers with me, he tosses me on my back on the seat next to him and forces my legs apart with his hands on my inner thighs. Spread before him, a teeny bit of embarrassment begins to creep into my mind. It dies a quick death when my dress is ripped down the front and the front clasp of my bra is broken with an impatient jerk of his hand. Those same fingers bunch my panties into a tight grasp and twist until they tear free of my hips.

I’m bared to him. He’s still fully dressed.

This perfectly sums up our ongoing predicament.

Irony at its finest.

“Hold on,” he promises. “This is going to get rough.”

“But, wait…”

My objection is swallowed by his hungry kiss. Alex jams two fingers back into my warmth and finger fucks me at a furious pace. Moving his mouth from mine, he bites his way down my neck to my right nipple. He sucks it into his mouth and works it into a hard peak, then runs his teeth over the sensitive nub.

“Alex,” I scream. Pushing at his shoulders with both hands, I scream again when he bites the fleshy part of my left breast then nibbles on my other nipple. “Stop. Shit. That hurts.”

His only response is to pin my hands above my head. Plunging his fingers in and out of me, Alex angles them so they hit the spot deep inside me that makes my walls clench.

“Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my.” I can barely speak, let alone think, as a delicious warmth begins to flow from my pussy and spread through my lower belly. My inner walls spasm around his fingers and he pumps them into me impossibly faster.

As I arch my back, he takes hold of my right nipple with his lips. When my orgasm hits like an out-of-control freight train that’s speeding down hill, he bites down on the hardened peak and runs his teeth back and forth.

It hurts.

It stings.

It adds a painful cast to my climax that steals my breath and makes sparks of lightning appear behind my eye lids when I screw my eyes shut to block out his smug face.

“That’s it,” Alex commands. “Ride my hand, my little fairy.”

Ecstasy courses through my veins. It barely abates before Alex lets go of my hands and yanks me down the seat by my hips. He forces my legs over his shoulders, and with one savage thrust, he fills me with his cock.  

“Holy. God. No. It’s too much.”

The frantic pace he sets sends me spiralling into another orgasm before the first one has finished. Alex jams a hand between our bodies and rubs at my clit like a man possessed. It’s too much. Too everything. I try to clench my thighs shut to make him stop. I slap at his shoulders to push him off me. I scratch at his biceps to gain his attention.

He ignores me.

My entire body stiffens and shakes. The waves of my climax hold me in their powerful surge and send me tumbling over into darkness. Great wracking sobs are torn from my throat when my inner walls tighten around his angry cock and his thrusting takes on a violent, uneven, staccato pace.

“See what happens when you disobey?” he asks me in a ragged voice, pumping into me harder with each word. A languid liquidity that sends me body limp beneath him also takes hold of my tongue and I can’t answer him out loud. Alex buries his face in my hair and shudders as his release hits and he empties himself inside me. “See what you made me do because you wouldn’t listen? This is on your head. This is all your fault. All I want you to do is sing with them. Distract them. That’s it… nothing more. Nothing less.”

Dizziness floods my head when I try nod in response to his questions. It doesn’t matter because Alex isn’t looking at me anyway. His eyes are shut, and his lips are moving as if he’s talking to himself. I give into the overwhelming tiredness that’s claimed my overwrought body. I’m hardly aware of Alex withdrawing his cock and scooping me into his arms so he can hold me on his lap.

“Here,” he says in a voice that sounds as weary as I am. “Take this. It’ll stop you from hurting and let you rest a little.”

I let him push the small pill between my lips and I swallow down the champagne that he offers me afterward. Laying limply in his arms, I let the rocking of the limo lull me into a semi-dazed state. Still naked, yet warm in his embrace, I try not to examine what just happened between us.

Instead I concentrate of the sound of his heart racing in his chest against my ear and promise myself that I won’t push his buttons, so he loses control like this again.

If I have any chance of getting out of this with my heart and soul intact, it’s important that I play this game smarter.

Alex could become addictive if I let him.

An electronic whirling fills the interior of the limo.

“Where would you like to go?” Mirko’s voice invades my head.

I feel Alex sit up straighter before he speaks. “Just keep driving around until she’s out. I’m not waiting for Terrence Anderson and Terrilliam to come to me. Once Luci’s taken care of, I’m going straight to them.”

His tone is terrifying. There’s an undercurrent of malicious intent that makes me fear for True and his family. I should have known that there was more to this than True’s father passing and Alex coming to New York to pay his respects. I need to say something. I need to find a way to warn True.

My body refuses to listen when I demand that it move off Alex’s lap. I can’t even lift my head when I try to look at him. A warm fog is clouding my mind and pinning my body in place. I force my eyes to open the barest of millimetres, yet I can’t see anything apart from the dark film that’s invaded my vision.

“A… lex,” I whisper.

He jostles me in his arms and cuddles me closer to his chest. “Just go with it, little fairy. This is for your own good. If I can’t trust you to act in your own best interests, then I can offer you the next best thing. Me.

I don’t know what this is… but I believe him. His voice has changed again. Gone is the spite I heard when he spoke about True, and in its place is affection.

My mind may be muddled.

My gut instinct might be screaming at me not to trust him.

But the warm blanket of the pill that I swallowed is stronger than both of them, and it’s telling me that Alex cares about me and he’s not going to hurt me any more than he just did.  

 

TWENTY-THREE

Alex

Once Luci is out to it, I lay her on the seat next to me. I tuck my still-hard cock back into my pants and re-button them. It takes every ounce of willpower I have to ignore the naked woman who’s sleeping next to me, yet I know I must. Time is of the essence if I want to get Terrence Anderson out of New York in time for his band’s performance tomorrow. A repeat performance with Luci is not on the cards.

Today or ever again.

Pressing the button that lowers the tinted window between the front of the vehicle and the back, I barely wait for Mirko to meet my gaze in the rear vision mirror before I speak.

“She needs a pillow and a blanket.”

His eyes narrow, then he jerks his head to the right. “In the drawer next to the refrigerator.”

I drop to my knees on the floor of my rented limo. The action causes memories of Luci in this position scarcely half an hour ago to spring forth in my mind’s eye. While my hands are steady as I rummage through the deep drawer in the well-stocked vehicle, my mind is a muddled mess.

Luci is under my skin. That’s why I left her alone after the first time I fucked her. I can’t deal with the way she makes me feel. It’s not something I’m used to and it’s definitely not something I’m willing to accept. Her effect on me is poisonous. She’s becoming a malignancy that I need to have excised before it grows cancerous. I cannot afford to lose control, not while I’m in the middle of the biggest takeover of my life.

She makes me weak.

She sends me spiraling.

She’s going to ruin everything.

My teeth ache from grinding them as I lift her head to place the pillow beneath her. Ignoring the way my cock hardens further in my pants when catch a glimpse of the dark blonde curls between her thighs as I move her onto her side and closer to the middle of the seat, I flutter the blanket down over her then tuck the edges under her body. She makes a small noise—a sigh crossed with a moan—and I jerk my hands away from her like a kid who’s been caught at the cookie jar.

With my heart in my throat, I wait for her to wake up and begin screaming at me. The seconds drag while I keep my attention focused on her and when she doesn’t stir, I smooth her hair down and run my finger over her full lips. She is soft and warm. Her breathing is even. An aura of fragility coats her, highlighting her pale skin and her fine boned features.

She would be easy to break.

And, that’s the reminder I need.

This will be the last time I touch her. Objectively, I know that. It’s a vow I must uphold. Doesn’t mean my gut stops churning at the realisation and the emptiness in my chest goes away when I think of her back with her band mates. I want to keep her, and I think she’d let me.

But, I can’t.

If the pill does its job, she’ll sleep for a few hours before she wakes with a vaguely foggy memory of what happened in this limo. If I’m lucky she won’t remember it at all.

I truly hope that Luci will escape this nightmare. I know I won’t. Because I’ll still remember what I just did to her, how I took her without asking, and hurt her without a second thought. I deserve for the memories to haunt me.

That’s what she does to me—strips me of my control and turns me into a green-eyed monster.

That’s why I need to get away from her.

That’s why I need to find a way to purge her from my soul.

Starting now.

“Head to the Anderson mansion,” I direct Mirko. “It’s time to get this over and done with.”

Our gazes meet in the rear vision mirror again. He inclines his head yet maintains the same sedate driving speed.

“What are you waiting for?” I snap.

He drops my gaze and stares straight ahead. “We will need to take the freeway. It might be wise the retake your seat for the journey.”

It takes a second for his softly spoken directive to sink into my head. When it does, I swallow hard and grind my teeth some more. I’m still on my knees before Luci, on the floor of a vehicle that costs more money than she’s ever earned in her life, and I’m afraid of what I will do if I’m forced to sit next to her.

Even as she sleeps, she taunts me.

“Of course. No get a move on,” I reply. My voice is low and curt. The censure is clear.

He lifts his gaze back to the mirror, but I press the button that lifts the divider without meeting his eyes. Mirko has been around too long for me to effectively bullshit him. If he hasn’t already worked out that Luci is twisting me in knots, he will soon enough, and that’s dangerous in my line of business.

An ally is only an ally for one of two reasons.

You’re useful to them or you scare them into towing the line.

Right now, I am both to Mirko, and I intend on keeping it that way.

As the limo picks up speed, I move toward the end of the seat where Luci’s feet are, only to change my mind at the last moment. Instead, I remove the pillow from beneath her head and lower her onto my lap. This time she doesn’t stir at all. Leaning my head back against the cushioned head rest, I mentally urge myself to resist the waves of satisfaction that mock me at the sight of my hand resting on her blonde hair.

Where I am big, she is small. Where my skin is dark, she is fair. Where I am conscious, she is unaware.

I know I shouldn’t do what I do next. It is wrong in every way that matters. Yet I couldn’t stop myself even if there was a gun to my head.

Lifting the blanket from her upper body, I gently roll her onto her back. Her long hair falls down over her shoulders, half covering her breasts. My hands are steady, and my touch is light, as I explore her face. With one hand, I run my fingertips over her closed eyelids, then down the gentle arch of her nose. The other hand pops open the button of my trousers and frees my throbbing cock. I dip my finger along the crease of her lips and move softly down the column of her neck until it comes to a rest in the ridge between her collar bones.

My grip is strong as I take hold of my dick and squeeze. The weight of Luci’s breast as I grasp it in my hand and test her supple skin with my hold sends potent shock waves through me. Pumping my hand the length of my cock, I explore her other breast, pinching the nipple until it peeks and circling her areola with the tip of my fingernail. She stirs when I trail my fingers over her ribs and down her stomach.  I don’t bother to check if I’ve awakened her.

I’m too far gone to care.

Shifting so I can lean over her body, I nudge her thighs apart while I rock my hips and move my hands quicker over my length. Without looking, I find her heat and push two fingers inside her. Luci moans. Her hips gyrate subtly, matching the ministrations of my hand on her pussy. I pump my hand over my dick, from the base to the top, stopping only to squeeze the head before I bring my hand back down to repeat the movements.

I work us both over. The thrusting of my fingers inside her lush warmth perfectly complements the pumping of my hand over my cock. Luci’s thighs begin to tremble. Her inner walls clench and release around my fingers.

She groans once more and this time I look down at her. With her eyes shut and her features calm and rested, she appears to be still asleep. The only telltale sign I can find that she’s enjoying what I’m doing to her is the slight flushing of her cheeks. It’s a pretty pink. One that I know well.

When I push my fingers inside her faster, her lips part and she lets out a low moan that I feel deep in my gut. Her thighs squeeze shut around my wrist, hampering my movements. I persevere. She is no match for my strength. I pump my cock with angry strokes. Luci’s hips jerk and her body shakes. A sweet whimper leaves her lips when she clenches my fingers and it’s enough to send me over the edge.

“Fuck. Yes,” I growl as my release hits. “God. Luci.”

Ribbons of cum spurt from the head of my cock and land in her hair. Pleasure from my climax overwhelms me and I orgasm like I’m thirteen again. Waves of ecstasy that feel like they come from my very soul pound through me, stripping my lungs of air and making my entire body weak with need.

Once I’ve finished, I stop and survey the scene before me.

Guilt hits almost immediately when I discover the mess I’ve made. Quickly re-buttoning my pants, I pretend I didn’t notice the twinge of need that remains, despite my recent release.

It is a miracle, but Luci remains sleeping. Even when I pull my hands away from her beguiling body and wipe her down with the small hand towel that sits next to the champagne bucket. After cleaning her up the best I can, I replace the blanket over her and lean back in my seat with my arms folded behind my head.

Her scent surrounds me.

The weight of her head on my lap taunts me.

Intertwining my fingers, I push my head hard against my hands to trap them. The urge to shake her awake so I can take her again is almost too much too bear. Luci isn’t just under my skin. She’s short-circuited my morals and stripped me of humanity.

I’m a fucking deviate. A monster of the highest order.

And, I need help finding a way out of this.

There is no way that I could keep her—not when she affects me like she does.

At the same time, I refuse to let her go either.

The limo starts to slow. Mirko’s voice comes through the speaker as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“We’re here, Sir,” he says. The tone he uses to speak is devoid of all emotion—a sure sign that he knows what I just did. “Would you like me to notify him now or do you need a few minutes to yourself?”

Fuck. His judgement doesn’t sit well. If I lose his allegiance, I’ll lose this deal.

“No,” I reply, pressing the button next to the speaker. “I’m ready.”

Dragging in a steadying breath, I studiously avoid looking at Luci as I exit the limo through the door that Mirko holds open. I pull myself to my full height and smirk. This is going to be fun. Surveying the dozens of cars parked around the long circular driveway—I like the idea of witnesses to their downfall—I pause long enough to take in the enormity of the building the Anderson family call home. It is three times the size of my house, and it is the reminder I need to get my head back in the game.

This will all be mine, if I play my cards right.

My plan is solid. My strategy is foolproof. I simply need to stop concentrating on the things that don’t matter.

Luci being number one on that list.

When it’s time, I’ll work out how to proceed with her.

Until then one thing is for certain, I mightn’t know what I’m going to do about Luci right now, but I will not leave this house until Terrence Anderson has agreed to return to LA with me.

I need him as far away from Terrilliam Productions as he possibly can be so I can take down his greedy mother.

 

TWENTY-FOUR

True

“Please,” the older lady patting my hand says. “Reach out if you need anything. No matter how trivial, we’ll be there. Your father was like family to us.”

Widening the fake smile I’ve had plastered on my face a little more, I incline my head with apparent agreement, then lead her toward the front door. I must resemble a crocodile by now—all teeth and tight lips—yet no one seems to sense my inauthentic responses to their empty promises.

“Goodbye. Have a safe trip home.”

She lets go of my hand and pats my face. “You’re so much like your father. A sight for sore eyes. Farewell, Terrence.”

The lady and her companion have barely made it through the door before I push it shut behind them. Her departure was timely. I’m about ready to lose my shit. Ever since I saw Luci at the cemetery, a sick feeling has invaded my bones and I haven’t been able to shake of the desire to ditch the reading of the will to meet with her and Alexander Adonai. Add that worry to the sadness of burying my father and it’s a wonder that I’m still standing, let alone acting like the host of the wake.

As much as I want to run out the front door, I’m stuck here.

Because while it’s obvious that Alex is up to something not related to our music with Luci, it’s equally apparent that I’m needed at home until this farce is over and my mother has been instated as the new CEO of Terrilliam after I turn the role down. Poor Polly is wilting under the pressure of the occasion and our mother has almost drunk herself into a coma to escape the never-ending line of well-wishers. I’d like to think her guilty conscience is eating at her; unfortunately I know all too well that she doesn’t possess one.

“Who was that?” Polly asks when I reluctantly move away from the front door.

I shrug. “No fucking idea. Apparently, she thought of dad as family—though, I can’t say I’ve ever seen her before.”

“Me, either,” Polly replies. She closes the distance between us and rests her head on my shoulder. I hug her to me and try to block out the noise of the gathering. “I wish this was over.”

“Ditto, kiddo.”

Another couple approaches. I let Polly slip off upstairs and intercept them. After another round of sympathy and promises to keep in touch, I lead them to the front door. This time when I shut it, I lean my back against the heavy, ornate wood with my eyes closed and allow a long sigh to escape my lips.

“It’s time,” Mom says. Standing straight, I regard her with my head titled to one side. She’s a mess. Her hair has fallen out of its clasp and her black cardigan is unevenly buttoned over her chest. Quirking an eyebrow, I silently request that she elaborates. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You know what I mean. The attorney said it’s time to read the will.”

Her snappy response is what I need to remind myself that this situation is only temporary.

“Let’s do this,” I quip. “I’m sure we both have better places to be.”

We are halfway up the stairs that Polly just climbed when the front door is opened and a tall man steps inside the mansion. He shucks his suit jacket from him shoulders and passes it to the doorman, who’s been dealing dutifully with the overworked cloakroom since the hordes arrived. When he turns to in our direction, I take the steps three at a time to get to him before he heads further into my home.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

Alex turns to me with a smug grin on his face. “Looking for you, actually. We have business.”

Folding my arms across my chest, I snort. “Yeah? Well, you’re not welcome here. I told you to ring in two hours and I’d meet you somewhere. It’s barely been more than an hour.”

He doesn’t answer me. My hands ball into fists when I see that he’s looking past me. Alex smirks at my mother, who’s still coming down the stairs behind me, then steps around me to move closer to her.

“Cecelia, please accept my apologies for intruding,” Alex murmurs. He would seem sincere except for the mocking lilt in his voice. “Dealing with all this without TJ must be terribly hard on you. I can’t imagine how you’re coping knowing he’s gone.”

There’s something in the way he says that last sentence that makes me believe he knows that my mother hastened along Dad’s demise. The startled look in Mom’s face tells me I’m on the right track. She stops descending the stairs and points at the front door.

“Get out.”

Alex shakes his head. “I fear that’s impossible. My attendance was requested for this meeting.”

My mother blanches. All color drains from her face. The hand she had resting on the rail of the staircase flutters to her heart.

“No. That’s impossible.”

My father’s attorney, Simon strides into the foyer. He makes an exaggerated double take, his wispy comb-over blowing away from his bald head with the motion.

“Good you’re all here.” Clapping his hands together with the grace of a baby seal, he seems to go out of his way to avoid meeting mine or my mother’s eyes. Instead he concentrates on Alex, ushering him toward the stairs. “Let’s take this to the office. I’m sure you’re all busy. This won’t take long.”

Alex and the attorney side-step my mother and lead the way to Dad’s office. Like a pair of orphaned ducks, me and mom follow them. Polly is already in the room. She’s taken the seat closest to the window. It was Dad’s favorite reading chair and it engulfs her tiny frame in its leather cushions.

“Oh, hi,” she says when she sees that Alex is with us. “I’m Polly. You’re Alex, aren’t you?”

Standing, Polly holds her hand out to him. He walks over to her and, without a saying a word, offers her the barest hand shake. I watch her throat work and her lips droop when he gives her his back to turn his attention to Simon, and vow to kick his ass at the first opportunity.

“Alex, Cecelia, Terrence,” the attorney mentions us all by name. “TJ’s final wishes are quite simple.”

Perching on the arm of the seat Polly’s sitting in, I stay silent and observe obvious disdain my mother holds for Alex. She’s angled her seat so that he can’t see her face without leaning forward. Her attention is on Simon; heavy expectation emanating from her that almost engulfs the office.

“He has left all personal assets, bar a few notable exceptions, to Cecelia. This also includes his express instructions for their bequest upon her death in equal shares to their children, Terrence and Dorothy.” Mom inclines her head, then looks at me and my sister. Simon continues, his voice taking on a breathy quality the further down the list he gets. “Dorothy has been bequeathed her late grandmother’s jewels and smaller property in the Hampton’s. Terrence was left the two properties in Los Angeles and the Manhattan penthouse plus the entirety of the personal catalogue of music rights owned by the Anderson brothers, and TJ has named…”

When Simon trails off with a frown on his round face, Alex sits up straighter in his seat. Polly nudges me, but I ignore her. Something has happened that’s taken Simon by surprise and it’s making Alex nervous. The only person in the room who seems completely at ease is my mother.

Simon shoots Alex an apologetic look before he continues reading the will. “TJ has named his son, Terrence Anderson the III as the next CEO of Terrilliam Productions. It is his wishes that Cecelia stay on in her role as President of Acquisitions should she choose to and for Dorothy to remain as Vice President of Artist Management. Formal changes to these arrangements can be made at the sole discretion of the family—”

A loud bang interrupts Simon. Alex has slammed his fist down on the desk and pushed to his feet so quickly that his chair has fallen to the ground behind him. He leers down at Simon with his hands firmly planted on the top of the desk. A black cloud of menace surrounds him.

“Why the fuck am I here?”

The attorney sits as far back in his seat as he can. He shuffles the papers in his hands then clears his throat.

“It seems that TJ has added a clause in final wishes that required your presence.”

Alex’s shoulders straighten. “Well, get on with it.”

“The addendum inserted approximately a week before his sudden illness,’ Simon ventures slowly. “By a different attorney, I may add, is a legally binding application that Terrilliam Productions is unable to be sold, in whole or in part to any party, corporation, or business entity in which either yourself, Alexander Adonai, or Adonai Entertainment holds a financial interest.”

“That motherfucking prick,” Alex curses, then storms out of the office.

My mother bursts into laughter. It’s a hysterical burst of humor that’s filled with as much sorrow as there is victory. When I stand Polly clutches my arm, tugging my sleeve for attention.

“What does this mean?” she asks.

Shaking my arm free, I chuck her under the chin and grin. “It means Dad didn’t die for no reason. We won.”

Confusion clouds her eyes. She doesn’t understand. And for that, I’m fucking grateful.

“You’re fucking fired,” I snarl at Simon. He places the will on the desk, drops his chin to his chest, and pushes his chair back. Once he’s rounded the side of the desk, I seize him by the front of his shirt and lift him until he’s forced to stand on his tip-toes. “If one word of what just happened finds its way to the papers, rest assured that I’m gonna bring the full force of Terrilliam down on your head.”

“I, ah. What I mean is, my apologies,” he stammers. For sheer shits and giggles, I lift him so he’s feet aren’t touching the ground. He kicks his legs around and squeals like piglet. “Can’t… breathe.”

I toss him to the ground. He lands with a muted thud. “Get the fuck out of here.”

He scuttles along the floor, reaching up to open the door then pulling it shut behind himself. Once he’s gone, the door creaks shut behind him, and the office is left in silence. It’s time to make my choice—to decide what’s more important to me after the huge bombshell that just exploded in this room.

I have two options. Stay or go. By rights, I should choose the latter.

Tell that to my heart, though. It’s screaming at me to leave now.

“I promise I’ll be back.” I drop to my knees in front of my mother. “A year, tops. I just need some time to get my life in order.”

In a rare show of motherly support, she places her hand on the side of my face. Her expression is filled with sympathy and a muted kind of understanding. “It’s that girl, isn’t it?”

Nodding, I offer her a small smile. “Yeah. She’s with Alex and I need to make sure that it’s her choice before I give up my dreams to fulfil a dead man’s final wishes.”

Mom pats my cheek. Leaning forward, she presses her lips against my forehead. “I can’t lie to you and say that I understand, but I will support you. Terrilliam is safe with me for now.”

Polly must have joined us while we were talking. She matches my position in parallel, coming to rest on her knees at our mother’s side so she’s facing me. “You’re going to come back… aren’t you?”

“I will,’ I vow.

Here’s hoping it’s with Luci by my side.

Leaving the two women in my life clutching each other, I jog out of the office and down the stairs. The front door is ajar, and the doorman is busy dealing with Simon’s demands for his hat and coat. As much as I’d like to pound the traitorous piece shit to a pulp, I resist the urge. We won despite his best efforts to shaft us.

Instead, I yank the door open and run down the front steps.

A black limo sits at the end of the driveway with the back door open. An older man with a limp closes it, then makes his way around the front of the vehicle.

“Hey!” I yell. “Wait up.”

He spins back to face me. I run the length of the drive as quickly as I can.

“Can I help you?” he asks in a slight accent.

The limo door re-opens, and Alex emerges. He waves the older man away. “I’ll deal with this, Mirko.”

“Where’s Luci?” I ask before he can speak again.

Alex beckons me forward. He has a strange look on his face—possessive intent meets delighted deceit. Holding open the door, he waves me inside the limo. I duck my head, fully expecting Luci to greet me.

Rather than her beautiful face filled with excitement at seeing me for the second time today, I find carnage. Not the bloody type. The soul destroying kind. The vehicle smells like sex. Luci is naked and asleep on the seat; the remnants of a shredded dress hanging from her shoulders, torn panties lying on the carpet, and a blanket barely covering her. Every inch of her pale skin that I can see is red and lightly bruised. Her wrists. Her throat. Her shoulders. Her breasts. Bite marks. Finger prints. Scratches and welts.

He’s fucked her into unconsciousness.

Alex is worse than Bax.

Without thinking, I turn and swing at him with my fist.

He must have seen it coming because I miss him. Catching my forearm in an iron grip when I take another swing, he shakes his head and tuts at me.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he states.

Glaring at him, I screw my nose up and shake my head. “You’re a fucking monster.”

“I am,” he replies with a shrug. “But what I do with Luci is none of your business.”

I wrench my arm free. “We’ll see about that.”

Again, nothing I say affects Alex. He simply smirks and says, “Does that mean you’re coming back to LA to re-join your band or do you need time to think?”

The answer is clear. Time will change nothing. The image of Luci, battered and bruised by yet another man who can’t control himself, is the only motivation I need to make my decision.

She might have once chosen Bax over me, but I’m not going down without a fight this time.

Not to Bax.

Not to Alex.

And, especially not to Luci’s inability to see what’s right before her nose.

Me. Ready, willing, and able to treat her the way she deserves.

 

 

TWENTY-FIVE

Bax

I hand the taxi driver a twenty-dollar bill—the last of the money I possess—then tap the roof of his cab so he can drive away. Pausing with my back to the Mac-mansion, I open and close my fingers in front of me and pray that the shaking will stop. Eighteen hours have passed since that phone call and I’m still a mess. When I have some semblance of control, I pop a piece of chewing gum in my mouth, scoop my guitar case from the ground and sling the strap over my shoulder.

Turning to face the mansion, I swallow down the dread that attempts to choke me. D-day is here, whether I’m prepared or not. I know True’s already here. He flew in from New York, of all places, last night. I’m sure there’s a story behind that. Anyhow, the single phone message he left me had been short and sweet, but it had lifted a weight from my shoulders. With him by my side, I’m positive that Luci won’t be able to hold onto any grudge she’s carrying toward me.

Everything will go back to normal once we’re playing together again.

Me and Luci with True as our amiable third wheel.

My feet move with reluctance. Every extremity heavy with the desire to run, despite the pep talk I just gave myself. After knocking with short, sharp raps of my knuckles against the wide front door, I wait for someone to let me in.

“Can I help you?” a crusty old dude says once he’s heaved one side of the doors open.

Snapping my gum, I draw my eyebrows together and stare at him. For some reason this guy seems familiar. A chill runs the length of spine before it settles in the base of my neck like an icy boulder of doom.

“Do I need to call security?” The heated glare he gives me would vanquish me on the spot if it was a laser.

“Seriously, dude,” I drawl. Shuffling my guitar case out of the way, I hold out my hand. It’s always been my motto to keep my friends close and my enemies closer, and since this old man looks on the verge of hiring a hit man to take me out, I figure it’s time to play nice. “I’m Baxter Johnson. Was invited here by Alex to practice with my band before the big party tonight.”

Rather than shake my hand, he pointedly ignores it and pushes the door open wider.

“I believe your instruments have been set up in the guest house.” He waves me forward. “Follow me.”

I trail him through the cavernous entry and deeper into the house. Every wall is covered with old looking arty shit in gold frames, the furniture all looks heavy as fuck, and the colors of the furnishing are muted and classy. Luci must be dying for some normalcy if this museum is where she’s spent the past five days.

“Here you are,” the mute man servant finally states once we’ve walked around the huge pool that dominates the front of the back yard. Pointing at the red door to the cottage, he sniffs, “Try not to break anything.”

He walks off and I flip the bird at his back. For someone who’s employed as domestic help, he’s certainly got an attitude about him.

“Here goes nothing,” I mutter to myself.

Guilt at what I’ve done over the past week tries to trip me up, but I manage to find a small amount of my usual couldn’t-give-a-fuck-ness and put a bit of swagger in my step. Pushing open the door, I enter the cottage. My bravado was for nothing. It’s pretty much silent at the front so I work my way through the first rooms until I’m at the back of the house.

Finding no one else, I’m about to give up and head back into the mansion when I hear a muted rhythmic thudding and I realise that the very last room in the cottage is almost soundproof. Without stopping to think, I twist the handle and open the door.

Luci is sitting on a stool in front of a brand-new looking drum kit and she’s singing acapella apart from the single drum beat that True’s providing. When I let the door slam shut behind me, they both stop and stare. My girl is the first to move. She hops of her stool and delicately picks her way over the electrical cord covered floor until she’s standing in front of me.

I open my arm wide and she doesn’t disappoint. Stepping into my embrace, Luci slides her arms around the small of my back and holds me tight. I return her embrace with a fierce grip of my own. True wanders over, a strange expression creasing his face, and I brace for animosity from him. It doesn’t eventuate.

He holds out his fist and I let go of Luci long enough to bump it with mine.

“Feels like it’s been longer than a week,” he says with a laugh.

“Fucking oath,” I reply. “Too long between drinks.”

We look at each other with open eyes and clear minds. Our expressions say the same thing—this truce is only temporary. We both know that there will be a reckoning coming. There’s too much water under the bridge to let it go for too much longer, however for now, we’re here for Luci and our music.

While we silently communicate, Luci clings to me. Once True concedes our staring contest and heads over toward the big stainless-steel fridge that dominates the corner of the room, I drop my face into Luci’s hair and breath in her essence.

She smells the same. Innocence, iniquity, and anxiety. Luci’s unique blend of humanity. Taking hold of her upper arms, I move her back so I can look her over. Outwardly, she’s changed. Her hair has been professionally dyed and the clothes and make up she’s wearing are Luci-esque, but in a more expensive way.

I want to question her about the make-over.

I don’t, though. We have bigger fish to fry—plus I’m sure mine and True’s turn with the stylist is coming shortly.

“Fucking missed you.”

“Me, too,” she says in her breathy voice. Her eyes shine wetly, and she sinks her top teeth into her bottom lip. “Too much.”

“I fucked up,” I confess. The threatening tears breach her tenuous hold on them and run down her pretty face in a single stream that falls from each eye. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve told you. Forgive me?”

“Of course,” Luci promises without pause.

I lean down to kiss her. Desperate to taste her again.

True slams the fridge shut with too much force and Luci jumps out of my hold. My lips brush the edge of her mouth. Over her shoulder, I pin him with a glare. He shakes it off with a half shrug and comes back over to us.

“Here.” He hands me a beer which I take without a hesitation. Turning his attention to Luci, he holds out a bottle of Pepsi. “Thought you might want this.”

“Thanks, True,” she replies. Pulling completely away from me, she tucks the bottle under her arm so she can wipe her tears from her face. “I’ve written a new song which Alex wants us to perform last. He’s also picked out two others for our set. We really need to get cracking if we’re going to have them perfected by tonight.”

Seems like Luci is all business. I’d expected to be rebuffed until she couldn’t stand the tension any longer and broke down into a panic attack that only I could help her get back under control. This cool, calm, and collected girl isn’t the Luci I let Alex Adonai drag out of the limo less than a week ago.

I’m lost in a cloud of confusion when me and True follow her back to the stool she was sitting on when I arrived.

“Don’t worry,” True murmurs before we reach her. “It gets better.”

His cryptic comment doesn’t make sense.

Luci hands us each a sheet. True sits behind his kit and sips at his beer. He barely glances at the pieces of paper. I, on the other hand, study it like it contains the secret recipe to the Colonel’s chicken. The lyrics are new—in style and expression. They’re more like something Luci would write in her journal about me than the basis of a Miscreant Mischief song.

“What’s this?” I ask, holding the sheet in the air. My hand shakes, the paper fluttering visibly, until I scrunch it in a ball and throw it on the floor. “We don’t do love songs… especially sappy shit like this.”

“Bax, it’s not that bad,” True interjects. Swinging to look at him, I frown when I spot the lie in his eyes even as he continues to defend it. “I’ve got some ideas for the beat. We can make it a banger if we put our heads together.”

Coming hot on the heels of his earlier enigmatic remark, it’s clear that he’s trying to tell me something. Unfortunately, I still haven’t the first clue what he’s on about.

“It’s okay,” Luci ventures in a small voice. “I can change—”

“No,” a deep voice cuts her off. “The song stays how it is.”

Scowling, I spin and face the intruder. It’s Alexander fucking Adonai, in the flesh. The smug bastard sounds more up himself than he did on the phone when he demanded I come to his house. I guess money and an inflated ego go hand in hand.

“No. This band has a sound and that’s not it.”

He rubs the back of his neck. I wait for him to roll his eyes because I can see he wants to. He refrains, turning his attention to Luci.

“It’s time for a break,” he commands, beckoning her to him with a crook of his finger. “Let’s go and have an early lunch while the boys catch up.”

Like a dutiful little puppy, Luci trips her way over to him. Alex wraps his arms around her shoulders and uses it to lead her to the door. Blinking fast, I try to comprehend what my eyes are seeing.

“What the fuck?” I protest. “Luci?”

Neither of them falters in their footsteps. Luci doesn’t even appear to hear me.

The door closes behind them and I’m left alone with my confusion and an obnoxious drummer.

“I won’t say, I told you so,” True muses, breaking the silence they left in their wake. “But I did.”

Plonking my ass on Luci’s stool, I scan True’s face for clues. He’s busting to tell me what he knows, except I’m not sure if I’m ready to listen. Is this my karma for fucking around behind her back? Am I about to lose my girl to the guy I basically gave her to?

Fuck no.

Over my dead body.

Luci’s been mine since the day I met her.

With the promise of severe retribution in my eyes if he misses a detail, I pin True to the spot with my narrowed gaze.

“You better start talking, drummer. I wanna know what the fuck just happened.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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