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Stepping out of the shower, I grabbed a towel, ran it over my head, face, and torso, wrapping the damp material around my waist while walking through the billowing steam. At the vanity, I swiped my palm in an arc on the fogged mirror and met my gaze.
Hands resting on the edges of the sink basin mounted atop the dark cabinet, my fingers curled into the snow-white porcelain. Leaning forward, I stared at the damaged creation looking back at me. “You,” I said accusingly. “You had to. It was either destroy her heart or destroy her. You know that. Ripping Tin’s heart apart was the lesser of the two evils. Let. It. Go.”
I needed to find a way to stop thinking about Tinsley. Forget the things I’d said and done. The things I hadn’t but wanted to. Erase the vision of those silent tears that streaked her face in shimmering lines highlighted by the lot light after I shattered her with my callous “No.”
Gritting my teeth, I wished to wipe away the picture in my head of Tin’s desolation when she and her friend Emma boarded Delta Security’s jet two days ago, their destination, Greece. She didn’t know I’d been there to see her leave. Nonetheless, I’d located my cold indifference and wore it like my Prada suit that day, but the façade didn’t last.
Shoving off, I strode into my bedroom, my gaze falling to my bed. Memories now haunted the place I couldn’t exorcise. But I’d created this problem. I’m responsible for everything because I should never have brought her here. When it came to her, I knew better than to do half the things I did, yet I did them anyway.
The first time was a spur-of-the-moment decision that turned into a crap-show when one of our cases unexpectedly collided with my New Year’s Eve party. I had no choice but to work on one case while managing another, leaving Tinsley with my brothers. Then I came in here to drop off the zip drive Violet had passed me. She was the plant we’d placed at a private gentleman’s club. Only Tinsley had been in front of the fireplace, sucking on a freaking piece of ice, studying my pictures on the mantel, looking like an angel. I wanted to muss her up and crack that halo. Yeah, I said I was damaged. And I had been well on my way to tarnishing her shine, commanding her to suck the ice I took from her glass right from my fingers.
Placing those fingers to my lips, I recalled the warmth of her plush, pink mouth, how she lightly suckled, the way her throat worked when she swallowed, the delectable scent wafting from her skin. Mm…she’s always smelled of sweet citrus blossoms, peaches, and something more exotic.
You need to get a grip. I’d been telling myself that since she’d boarded our company jet. Still, my mind bounced to the night I brought her here after she ran from a bad situation, putting herself in danger, alone, in a dark alley on Halloween of all nights. Thinking of it now made me want to smash something like I did Luke Evans and his sidekick Trent Myers, the two responsible for putting their filthy hands on her. It hadn’t been hard to find out who Thor and Captain America were, then track them down like dogs. Straight up? They owed their pathetic lives to Hawkeye stopping me after snapping a few of their bones, lucky I hadn’t started with their necks.
I might have first-hand knowledge of being pinned down in firefights, tossed into hand-to-hand combat without a thought, hold accountability for dealing death, even faced it once or twice. Nevertheless, when she called, voice quavering, saying she needed me, and I heard where she was, that scared the crap out of me. I had to make sure she was okay, to give myself some peace of mind, so I brought Tin home with me.
Skimming my hand over the pillow, that portrait framed in my head was crystal clear. She was lying there, wearing one of my Navy embossed T-shirts, face scrubbed clean of makeup, glossy obsidian hair splayed across my sheets, looking up at me with those eyes as if I were every dream she ever had come true. No one has ever looked at me as she did. Ever. It took every bit of willpower I possessed to leave her that night, go to the spare bedroom, and not return.
It was wrong, I knew it, but the want, the need, the longing to swathe my hands in all those long silky locks and take her, envisioning Tin’s long legs wrapped around me, hearing her moan my name, absorbing her shakes, watch her fall apart in my arms, held on tight and didn’t let go.
I’ll say this; I didn’t sleep well that night.
Tipping my head back, I stared at the coffered ceiling. No one knows how genuinely hard it has been to stay away from her for as long as I have. And like she didn’t make things for me tough enough, she sat in my car a few months ago, spilled her beautiful heart out, telling me how sorry she was for the loss of my father, then offered me everything.
“I love you,” she’d said in a rush as if she couldn’t hold it back any longer, messing me up. “I don’t expect you to feel the same about me, and I’m not asking you to. Just let me love you. Let me touch you. Kiss you. Hold you. Make it all okay. Tell you I would do anything, be anything. Let me prove I’m not that kid with a crush but a woman who would gladly give you everything I am and all I have without requiring anything in return.”
The thing was, Tinsley should require everything from a man; anything less would be a complete travesty. She needed someone to give her the world, his devotion, tenderness, his untwisted love. But I wasn’t the person to provide her with those things, never would be. Regardless, the temptation to try had me closing my eyes that night, willing myself not to touch her, tug her sweet little body into my arms, smash my lips on hers, and drown myself in her taste. Oh, yes, her taste, fresh, pure, a drug to a man like me jonesing to mainline clean.
Then came the final blow, her breathy, “Please, Jesse. Let me be what you need.”
Tin had no clue she was everything I needed but didn’t deserve or how close I came to taking what she’d freely offered—screw the consequences. But if I so much as let another one of her “Please, Jesse,” fill my ears, I would have snapped my restraints, doing things I couldn’t undo. I had to stop that from happening. I had to stop her. And I did.
Heaving a sigh, I popped my jaw, feeling the momentary relief.
My pretty girl would never understand the danger I posed, so I’d given her something she could comprehend—our ages. Yes, the fifteen-year difference wasn’t optimal, I am too old for her, but more than that, nothing about me was or is good enough for Tinsley Southerland. No. I’d ruin everything wholesome and innocent about her, and the thought of that sickened me. I refused to be the person to take such unblemished beauty, distorting it into something as disfigured and ugly as what lurked inside of this body. It wouldn’t happen. I’d make sure of it. I would remain a fierce protector of that beauty, even if it meant protecting her from me.
Glancing at the time on the bedside clock, I did a quick calculation—12:32 A.M. here meant it was 10:32 in the morning over there.
Raking my fingers through the semi-dry strands of my hair, I went to snag my phone, hit the speaker option, and tapped his icon.
Two rings later came Reaper’s, “Talk to me.”
“How is she?”
“In a word? Heartbroken.”
Closing my eyes, I blew out a breath. “She still crying when she thinks she’s alone?”
“Yes and no.”
“You sticking close?”
“All right.” I gazed out my floor-to-ceiling windows. The city lights and myriad boats on the dark water were familiar sights.
“You should know she took her ring off and left it behind.”
Rubbing my throbbing temple, I asked, “Where’d she leave it?”
“On the terrace where you two danced.”
My chest tightened. “You retrieve it?”
“No need for thanks. I’ll give it to you when we get back to Seattle.”
“Okay,” I said, sounding tired even to my ears. “I’ll check in again tomorrow.”
“Doing what I got to do.”
“Sucks. Doesn’t it.”
He hadn’t been asking but stated his knowledge, though I answered with, “Does. But what other choice do I have?”
“You could let yourself love her.”
While Cooper and I shared much and were closer than siblings, Reaper and I shared not exactly the same but a jacked-up past. He knew, without ever having the conversation of my struggle when it came to Tin.
“How well did loving Lyric work out for you?” I asked.
“There’s the answer, brother.”
“But it doesn’t have to be yours.”
“No other outcome.” I palmed the back of my tense neck. “Not for me.”
It was quiet a moment, then came his, “If you say so.”
“Guard your six, and keep the girls safe.”
“Yeah,” he said and disconnected.
Leaving my phone on the bedside table, I strode to the stereo. Tapping the power button on my Bose, I listened to the D.J.’s husky voice drift from the speakers, then grabbed a pair of sleep pants from the dresser drawer. Music might help my mind drift to other places. At least, I hoped it did.
The sound told me I had a text, so I tossed my pants on the foot of the bed, went back to pick up my cell, tapped the notification, and read:
A.C.: We need to talk.
No. We’ve said all there is to say, I thought, gritting my teeth.
I hit delete, then tossed my cell on the table, watching it slide across the black oak. My father’s murder set many things into motion, including her unwelcomed reemergence at his funeral.
Brushing my fingers over the reminder I had encased within inked barbed wire over the scars on my chest, I met the faded image of my reflection in the glass, no longer seeing the lights twinkling in the velvet night.
Eventually, I pulled myself away from the window, finished up in the bathroom, tugged my sleep pants on, and went to bed.
The strap around my throat constricted.
Gasping for breath, I tried to release my hands from the restraints, needing to claw at the leather choking me, but I couldn’t free myself. Evidence of her proclivities was usually left behind on my chest where no one could see, but today was different. I’d have marks I wouldn’t be able to hide. But I supposed I could pass them off as something I got from a fight. Those always bruised me up.
I jerked, the iron headboard rattling, my back bowing.
Four years was a long time to be a walking zombie, numb, so I’d looked for ways to remedy that because seeing the shrink hadn’t helped. The smash of a fist against my gut, the split of a lip, the blackening of an eye I could feel for a little while. But this, what I willingly participated in, stretched out on my back, arms secured above my head, I felt the longest.
More destruction bounced like rubber balls, whispering debauchery in my ear.
Fire lapped up my windpipe. Claws scraped along my ribs. A wicked sting pierced the flesh of my right pec, drawing blood. For that one exquisite moment in time, the nothingness was replaced by twisted perfection. Pleasure. Pain.
I drifted in the scent of sex mixed into Chanel No. 5.
Soft lips grazed my cheek.
My father’s horrified bellow yanked me from the hazy space I’d been floating in. He shouldn’t have been there. He should have been away for a couple of days—gone on a trip for work.
The mattress jostled beneath me.
The pressure encircling my neck loosened, then my hands were released before Dad tossed a rumpled sheet over my exposed lower body and spun.
Head turning to the side, wide sky-blue eyes met me as she backed away, clutching my discarded T-shirt to her chest, partially obscuring her nudity from view.
Caught. We’d been caught.
Crimson seeped from my puncture wound and dripped on the bed to bloom beside me.
Humiliation. Degradation. What had I allowed myself to become?
Dad growled between clenched teeth, advancing on the woman he was engaged to marry, “I will destroy you.”
Sick. I was going to be sick.
“Hu-u-uh!” Sucking in air, my eyes popped open.
It took a second for the disorientation to clear, but when it did, I leaned to my right side, reaching in the shadows for my phone like a falling man tossed from a plane grabbing wings. My fingertips pressed onto the smooth glass, dragging the electronic device toward me.
Shooting up in bed, the Egyptian cotton slipped down my sweaty skin to pool at my waist. I snagged my cell and started scrolling through the pictures on my phone, fighting to replace the residual revulsion of my dream. I wished they were only nightmares made up of imaginative fantasy, not steeped in horrifying reality. But, to my shame, they weren’t.
The light emanating from the screen became a spotlight in the room.
The lake at Cedar Point passed, grazing deer, a brooding Reaper cracking a smile when he walked into his office filled with colorful balloons, Bones flipping me the bird. Frantically, my finger kept scrolling. No, no, no… There, like a ray of sun entering a dark room, her smiling face appeared, waist-long hair disturbed by the sea-salty breeze, those gorgeous caramel-colored eyes looking at me as I stared at that snapshot frozen in time on the tiny screen.
Swiping the pad of my thumb over her photograph, my breath slowly started to return to normal. The phantoms haunting me dissipated. The pain of oxygen deprivation lifted. My lungs expanded.
Lying back, I lifted the phone overhead, eyes fastened on the glowing pic. Tinsley never knew I’d snapped a picture of her that day at Cooper’s wedding, a vision, ethereal, shining in the Aegean sun in a strappy dress with sparkling high heels. So utterly breathtaking, and so utterly off-limits to me, my eternal struggle—salvation or damnation.
Free hand gliding across my abs, willing my heartbeat to slow, I scrolled to the following out-of-sequence picture, Tin seated in front of the fireplace at Cooper’s, completely lost in a book, licking her finger to turn a page. The next, her head tipped back, laughing at something Bones had said. Standing in her dorm, my pretty girl was sticking her tongue out at the guys and me. Asleep, stretched out on her stomach, wearing a skimpy bikini, her body glistening, a gift in the sun. Later that afternoon, with a dandelion positioned at her pursed lips, Tinsley’s pink sunglasses perched on her perfect nose, fluffy white seeds floated away.
I smiled. This was all I could have with her, lying there in the darkness—stolen moments, captured memories. I couldn’t have what I wanted, and I didn’t want what I had, an ongoing dilemma. But the thing I did have a firm grip on was this; Tin would never know she’s been the one to get me through the nightmares that, eighteen years later, continued to plague me.