Swimming pools creeped me out.
It never used to be like that—and if I weren’t alone, it wouldn’t be so nerve-wracking—but I hated being by myself in a pool now. Or probably in any body of water.
Which is exactly why I forced myself to use Delcour’s indoor pool at least twice a week. Ever since Pithom and Trevor and the cinderblock tied to my ankle, I…
I ground my teeth together, blowing out a hard breath as I slammed my hand across the water, sending a small wave crashing against the side of the pool.
Damon could go fuck himself.
And wherever he was I hoped he was in a lot of pain.
I was constantly walking around with one eye trained over my shoulder, and all the happiness I’d felt the past several months was only ever overshadowed by a tinge of black cloud that would pop up here and there to remind me that I wasn’t safe. Not completely.
He was still out there, and I hated it.
While I tried to deny the fact that he rented a space in my head, there was a part of me that understood more and more that the threat of him might be a good thing. He kept me on my toes, and I was grateful for that.
Damon or no Damon, I shouldn’t get too comfortable. I shouldn’t relax. I should always keep in mind that the rug could be swiped out from under me at any time, and while I could lean on Michael, Kai, and Will…my survival, my success, and my life were ultimately in my own hands. I had to know how to take care of myself.
I hadn’t realized that last October when Michael and the guys came after me, and I hadn’t been prepared, but now I understood.
Don’t be lazy. Don’t be quiet. I’m in charge. I set the pace.
Thank you, Damon.
Walking through the water, I climbed the steps out of the pool, ringing out my hair as I dripped all the way to my towel.
Grabbing my cell phone, I checked the time, seeing that it was after six. Michael would be home soon.
I dried off quickly and slipped on some shorts before swinging the towel over my shoulder. Grabbing my phone and water bottle, I jetted out of the pool room in my bare feet and into the elevator, holding up my card key to scan for the penthouse.
As the elevator ascended, my stomach dropped a little, and I couldn’t help but smile as the butterflies took off. Michael had left town for a game, and I hadn’t seen him in three days. I didn’t care that today was Valentine’s Day or about the opera tickets he got for tonight, or even if we went out at all. I just wanted him.
I hated him being gone, but I loved him coming home. It was a conundrum.
The doors opened, and I stepped inside our apartment, immediately hearing music cranked up to an ear-splitting level. It echoed down the hallway from the apartment, and I stopped, every hair on my arms standing up in sudden awareness.
Music? I hadn’t left music on.
But then I noticed the song. Bodies by Drowning Pool.
I let out a sigh and rolled my eyes. Of course.
Michael never took his key away, so he’d show up at any time and raid the refrigerator or we’d find him in the middle of the night using the court.
Walking into the apartment, I spotted him sitting on the couch, slouched back in his crisp black suit and holding a sandwich in one hand and spinning a basketball on the finger of the other.
The music screamed. “Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor!”
Dropping my stuff on the counter, I grabbed the remote and turned off the music. How could he listen to that song ALL the time?
He dropped his basketball, finally noticing me. “Oh, hey,” he greeted and then took a bite of sandwich.
His green eyes were always so big and puppy dog-looking that I couldn’t help but melt a little. Despite his behavior. It aggravated me that he always just showed up—I could just be getting out of the shower, after all—but he always gave the impression of a child who just drew you the worst picture but did it with the biggest heart.
See, mom? Did I do good?
I gave him a half-smile and made my over to him, nudging his feet off the coffee table. “Michael’s not here.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So why are you?”
He took another bite of sandwich and set the rest down on the sofa before sitting up and grabbing the towel off my shoulder to wipe off his mouth.
I scowled, about to scold him if he didn’t get his food off our furniture.
But he stood up, swallowed his bite, and smiled down at me, only a couple of inches from my face. “I’m picking you up,” he announced. “I’m under strict orders to bring you to Michael and Kai, so go get ready.”
I stayed rooted, staring up at him, confused. Picking me up?
Michael AND Kai? What?
It was Valentine’s Day. Michael and I had plans.
“I don’t understand,” I argued.
But he just smirked and swung the towel around my neck and pulled me in, playing. “Didn’t Michael warn you?” he taunted in his smooth voice. “You’re everyone’s valentine tonight, baby.”
I cocked an eyebrow and swatted his hands away.
He walked off, chuckling. “Get cleaned up, Little Monster.”
“So should I be scared?” I asked, sitting in the back of Michael’s G-Class, slipping on my stockings as Will drove.
Shower, hair, make-up, and squeezing into my evening gown took nearly an hour, so Will had rushed me out the door before I was even fully dressed.
“You don’t get scared,” he retorted. “You get excited.”
I smiled to myself. “Touche.”
He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but from what I could see out the window, we were off to the other side of town. To Kai’s side of town.
Maybe we were finally going to be able to see inside his house? Probably not, but the prospect had me intrigued.
I slipped on my heels and fluffed the long black gown down over my legs as I inched up and double checked my hair and make-up in his rearview mirror.
I’d put in some loose curls and pinned back the top half, leaving my shoulders exposed in the halter-style bodice. The opera was much fancier than our usual outings, and I’d really enjoyed shopping for the dress, with its array of beads, jewels, and the sexy cut and the way it moved when I walked.
Will met my eyes in the mirror. “You look great, by the way.”
“Thanks. So do you.”
He turned his eyes away, breathing out a small laugh as if that was the farthest thing from the truth.
And I knew. While Will always looks healthy and happy, I knew how he looked on the outside wasn’t even close to what he felt on the inside.
“How are you?” I looked down, trying to avoid his eyes and not be too invasive as I went through my small clutch purse to make sure I had everything.
He grabbed a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth, lighting it as he spoke. “Fuckin’ awesome. Did you see my pictures from Mardi Gras on Facebook? I could be that drunk every day.”
He inhaled and blew out a cloud of smoke. I leaned forward and plucked the cigarette out of his fingers, flinging it out the window. “You are that drunk every day,” I shot back.
He caught me in the rear view mirror, shooting me a winning smile like it was all fun and games.
But the people who smile the most are also covering up the most. And I knew…
All the times he sneaked into Michael’s and my apartment to hang out, all the partying, all the nights with girls he didn’t even know, trying to avoid ever being alone, Will was not okay.
I leaned forward again and hooked my arms over his seat, sitting my chin down on the leather as I peered at him through the mirror.
He sighed, continuing down the street. “Stop looking at me like that,” he quietly scolded. “I’m only twenty-three. I’m fine, and I’ll find something to do with my life. Don’t worry.”
I grinned, sliding my hands around his neck and locking them in front of him.
He glanced at me through the mirror and pinched his eyebrows together, looking confused. “What?”
“Well, I have an idea,” I teased.
“Oh, you do, do ya?” He challenged. “Well, stand back everyone. The blonde’s brain is working.”
I scowled playfully. “Ass.”
His chest shook under my hands, and I watched as he turned on the windshield wipers, the sprinkles of rain when we got in the car turning heavier now.
“So what’s this idea?” he mused. “You want me to go to college? Or maybe put myself in my dad’s and my grandfather’s hands and see what office they can hide me in for the next ten years? Or maybe…” He grabbed another cigarette, sticking it into his mouth, “I should strap on a backpack and go off to explore the world. I always wanted to be Indiana Jones.”
I snatched the cigarette again, snapping it in half, and dumping it in the cup holder. “Yeah, I can see that.” I indulged him. “You’d work that whip like a champ.
He shook his head, laughing it off.
Wrapping my arms around his neck again, I snuggled in close, peering at him through the mirror. “But actually, I was thinking something different.” I dropped my voice, staring at him as he
stared at the road. “I was thinking…you could rebuild the gazebo.”
I watched him closely, seeing his face still and his smile slowly fall away. He didn’t say a word as he continued to stare at the road in front of him.
Okay, maybe that was going too far, bringing up the past.
Maybe I’d finally found Will’s trigger, and pushed the wrong button.
I flexed my jaw, narrowing my eyes on him.
He needed to be pushed. Michael and Kai covered for him, never making him stand up and deal, figuring he’d handle his shit when he was ready, but I refused to enable him. I’d done it for my mother, and I wasn’t following their lead on this one.
“Well, what do you think?” I pressed.
But he remained silent.
All I could hear was the rain kicking up under the tires outside as the bustle of the city fell away and we entered what I liked to call “the dark zone.” It was the East District, an area of Meridian City that was once vibrant and busy, but now it was just…well, dark.
And abandoned. Kai had purchased a huge turn-of-the-century house over here, and while I knew he had his work cut out for him renovating it after years of neglect, I was suspicious as to why that was a good enough reason to keep us away. Were we going there now?
“She wouldn’t see it anyway, Rika,” Will finally spoke up. “I hear she hasn’t been home since high school.”
I looked back up, seeing him in the mirror.
The gazebo. She. Emery Scott.
“So it’s only worth doing something good if people are around to see it?” I prodded.
I looked at his face, the lost, forlorn look he seemed to always have when he didn’t think anyone was watching, and I let out a sigh, dropping a trail of cookies for him.
“And she doesn’t need to see it,” I teased, leaning in to whisper in his ear. “She just needs to hear about it.”
He broke out in a huge grin, turning down a dark alley as the rain made the street shimmer under the streetlights.
“You’re almost as good a talker as me.”
I leaned back and peered out my window as he shut off the car. “Almost,” I mumbled, suddenly forgetting our conversation.
Chills spread down my arms as I gazed up at the old black building. There were no lights on, no cars around, no sign of life…where the hell were we? Where were Michael and Kai?
Will opened his door, the sound of rain rushing in and making me immediately rub my hands up and down my arms to warm myself.
“Hang on, I’ve got an umbrella,” he said, reaching over to the passenger’s seat.
Popping it open, he dived out into the rain, the drops pummeling the umbrella as he hurriedly closed his door and swung mine open. I stepped out, hunching over as he closed my door and we both hustled to the small awning hanging over a narrow black door on the side of the building.
“What is this place?” I asked as Will opened the door.
I went in first, while he closed the umbrella and shook it out.
“It used to be apartments,” he shouted over the rain before dropping the umbrella on the floor and closing the door, “around the turn of the century, I think. Then someone bought it, knocked down all of the walls, and turned it into an art gallery in the 60’s.” He gazed around the dark space lazily. “Now it’s abandoned.”
I couldn’t see much with the lights off, but there was a small amount of light coming in through the windows, and I spotted a stove, a make-shift island, and some counters. I guess, whenever they renovated it from apartments, they decided to keep one of the kitchens.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on now? Where’s Michael?”
I was starting to grow aggravated that Michael’s first stop back in the city wasn’t me.
But Will simply turned to me, held out his arm, and gestured for me to go ahead. Looking to where he was directing, I stared down a long, black hallway and straightened, hesitating a moment.
I couldn’t tell where the dark abyss ended, but I straightened my back despite the flutters hitting my stomach.
Michael, Michael, Michael. And here I was, thinking the games would get boring after a while.
Shaking my head, slightly amused, I went first, slowly walking down the long hallway and passing a few doors on both sides with a narrow staircase on my right. The air was chilled, and I wished I’d worn a coat or a cover-up.
Coming to the end, I stepped over a threshold and into a larger room. I immediately spun around, taking in the rafters crisscrossing through the air high above and the windows lining the walls all the way up to the ceiling, proving that, yes, at one time there must have been apartments here.
Everything was dark and old. The wooden floor creaked under my steps, and the steel beams around the room were the only things breaking up the massive space.
This would be perfect was a dance studio.
Off to the sides of the room sat more doorways, and I also spotted a few hallways with more staircases.
“I love places like this,” I mused to Will. “Lots of nooks and crannies to explore.”
I turned to look at him but then my smile fell.
He wasn’t there.
Where the hell…?
“Will?” I twisted around, trying to search the room in the near-darkness.
My breathing picked up pace. Goddammit…
The rain tapped against the windows, the sound surrounding me like I was in a tunnel, and I shot my head up, hearing the wind howl in the rafters above.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Will?” I shouted.
“So do you like it?” a smooth voice asked.
I whipped around, searching the space behind me. No one was there.
But a flash of movement caught my eye above, and I looked up, seeing a dark figure standing still on the second level as he leaned against the railing.
“It’s important that you like it,” he went on. “You’ll be here a lot.”
His hand—the only part of him to catch the light—moved across the railing, and I knew he was walking.
“Turn on the lights,” I demanded.
“Can’t,” he replied. “Power went out. So what do you think?”
I squinted, trying to see him, but even more, trying to understand what the hell was going on.
“What do I think about the space?” I asked. “Well, I guess it depends on what it’s used for.”
“A lot of good things could go down in a place like this,” a husky whisper hit my ear, and I jumped as long arms wrapped around me, pulling me in.
“Michael,” I gasped out, smiling in relief as his warmth and smell fell over me. “What are you guys doing? Someone turn on a flashlight. This isn’t funny.”
“Feeling a little déjà vu?” he teased against my neck. “I know you like it.”
I turned my face to him, brushing my lips against his. “Turn on a lights and tell me what all this is about,” I whispered, “or I’m going to go pick up Alex and she can be my valentine tonight.
Now what are you all up to?”
“We’re saying we love you,” he replied, turning me around in his arms and holding me close. “And we have something for you.”
“You promised me forever,” he reminded me. “Are you still sure about that? You’re in this for the long-haul?”
I narrowed my eyes on him, wondering what this was about. “You don’t have to ask that any more than I need to answer it,” I maintained. “There is no choice. Now what is going on? What is this place?”
“It’s ours,” Will answered, strolling up to us and handing me a flashlight.
I took it and looked at Michael, confused. Ours?
But it was Kai’s voice that came next. “You were looking for a fencing club when you first came to the city,” he explained, coming down the stairs and strolling over to us, “so we thought, why not start your own?”
I just let the flashlight sit in my hand as Kai, Will, and Michael surrounded me.
“A fencing club?”
“You don’t like it?” Michael asked.
“No, I do…” I looked up again, now seeing more than just a big, empty space. “But…”
“But?” Michael pressed.
“But I have school,” I continued. “And I have FANE and my mother’s house to manage, and we’re overseeing the reconstruction of St. Killian’s, and I don’t have any experience teaching fencing—”
“Have you ever heard of Kendo?” Kai spoke up, stepping closer.
I finally caught him in the light and took in his black suit, the way the crisp white shirt and black tie sat against the smooth, olive skin of his neck. His hair was perfectly styled, not that it wasn’t always. Kai rarely had a wrinkle on his clothes or a hair out of place.
I called him anal to his face. Alex called him a serial killer behind his back.
“Kendo,” I repeated. “Japanese fencing?”
He nodded. “My father taught it to me. As well as Jujutsu and Aikido. I could teach you.”
Teach me? But what did that have to do with—
And then realization hit, and I froze.
Why were they all here? Why would Kai offer to teach me martial arts, and why would he offer now?
I held out my hand to Michael. “Let me see the deed.”
But I snapped my fingers, losing patience.
He reached into his breast pocket and took out a fold of papers, placing them in my hand.
I quickly opened them up and turned on my flashlight, scanning the papers. I spotted all the guys names…and then I spotted mine.
This wasn’t a present just for me.
I looked up at them. “We all own this building.”
Michael hooded his sexy eyes. “Of course. ‘We all go. That’s the rules.’”
And then he smirked, knowing I would remember the words he’d said on Devil’s Night more than three years ago.
“So it’s not just me starting a business, it’s all of us.”
They all watched me, and I turned in a circle, full understanding dawning of what the plan was. “A dojo—with fencing,” I said to myself, trying to see how all this was going to work.
Michael had no interest in fencing. Or martial arts. He got plenty of exercise with basketball.
But Kai would be here a lot, taking a vested interest in the business, and Will would be here, the other guys probably trying to keep him busy.
But I still didn’t get it. Michael and Kai were already overloaded with projects, so why would they take on this as well?
And then I realized something else.
I turned back around, cocked my head as I handed the papers back to Michael. “So…”I started. “This place, the dilapidated office building you bought a few weeks ago…” I ran down the list and
then looked to Kai. “Your little hideaway a few blocks away that you’re renovating, and then the lots on Darcy Street Will was scoping out yesterday…” I looked around, meeting all of their eyes. “Why are you buying up the East District?
This wasn’t just about giving me a place to fence. This was something else.
Michael quirked a smile, while Kai stood next to him, his arms crossed over his chest. “The Horsemen are building their empire, Rika,” he answered. “Will you join us?”
“We have an opening,” Will teased as he walked passed me, nudging me with his shoulder.
I hooded my eyes, trying not to laugh. Oh, for crying out loud.
“I was going to save this for tomorrow when we had more time to discuss it,” Michael said, taking out another set of papers, “but you may as well see it now.”
I took the papers and opened them up, scanning the documents. Again, all of our names were on it, and while the legal jargon was difficult to understand, my heart started to pound harder anyway.
“Graymor Cristane?” I questioned, looking up at them.
Michael just stared at me, waiting.
These documents were the establishment of a partnership between Kai, Will, Michael…and me. Everything was here. Who would manage what. The division of any profits. How decisions would be made, and even the details of the bank accounts that had already been set up to keep everything separate from our personal accounts.
Jesus. They were really doing this? Graymor Cristane was us. Parts of our last names to name the partnership.
I drew in a long breath, not realizing I’d stopped breathing as I continued to study the papers. “Your fathers won’t like this,” I warned.
Michael’s father, especially. They had built their own legacies and would expect their sons to continue their work.
“We’re counting on it,” Michael replied. “So what do you think, Little Monster? You wanna have some fun?”
I heard Will laugh and I glanced up, seeing the three of them looking amused like they just couldn’t wait to jump from one fire to the next.
The limo sped through the city streets, the view outside getting brighter and busier as all four of us travelled to the opera house. I sat staring out at the rain with Michael next to me and
Kai and Will across from me, working on their phones.
But the next thing I knew arms were scooping me up, and I gasped as Michael hauled me into his lap.
“Michael!” I whisper-yelled.
“Come here,” he whispered, pulling me close.
But I tried to pry myself out of his grasp. “Stop it.”
I ignored Will and Kai behind me, not caring to look and see any wise-ass grins as I spoke low right in Michael’s face. “If you want a partnership with me included, you can’t manhandle me in front of them. I won’t be seen as a pliable little girl who bends whenever you touch her.”
“They don’t see you that way,” he soothed, staring at my lips. “They see me that way.”
His fingers at my back slipped into the side of my dress while the other hand caressed a trail up my leg and disappeared under my dress.
“What are you doing?” I charged, trying to ignore the way my skin instantly tingled.
“You didn’t like your present,” he said.
His fingers brushed under my knee, and I ignored the shiver shooting up my spine. I was at least grateful that the dress was long with lots of layers to hide what he was doing.
“Yes, I liked it,” I replied.
“Well maybe you’ll like this one more.” He dug into a compartment on the door and pulled out a small box, handing it to me.
I forced myself not to smile, but I think a little one escaped. I was mad at him. Not only had he sprung the dojo and partnership on me, putting me on the spot in front of the guys, but I worried about his reasons for doing it, too.
I took the box and opened it up, seeing a beautiful silver case with designs carved into it. I picked it out and opened the lid to find matches. I laughed in surprise.
It was an antique match safe. An 1800’s version of a match box to join my collection. Only Michael knew me well enough to know how much I’d appreciate this.
Lifting it to my nose, I inhaled, smelling the phosphorous and sulfur.
“Christmas and fireworks,” Michael mused as he watched me.
“It’s beautiful.” I closed the lid and held it tight in my hand. “Thank you.”
“You’re nervous about the partnership, aren’t you?” He kept his voice low, keeping our conversation private.
“No, not really.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
I stared down at my hands and then took a deep breath, raising my eyes to his. “I’m worried you bought the dojo—and established the partnership—to keep me close.”
“Why would I not want to keep you close?”
“You know what I mean,” I retorted, glancing over to see Will still buried in his phone and Kai staring at his. I had a feeling he was listening, though. Turning back to Michael, I whispered,
“I mentioned finding a part-time job, and oh look, you suddenly have something for me to do when I’m not in school. You’ll always know where I am now, and if you’re not there, your friends will be to keep an eye on me.”
He sat back, regarding me. “You think I don’t trust you?”
I remained silent, not sure what to think. A few weeks ago I’d told him I was thinking of getting a part-time job for experience, and he seemed to get nervous. I don’t know if he was just aggravated my schedule wouldn’t revolve around his anymore or if he was afraid of me having a life that didn’t involve him, but I suspected it was the latter.
He heaved a sigh, eyeing me. “If I didn’t trust you, would I put you in the same space as Kai day in a day out and tolerate him offering to give you private Kendo lessons?”
I frowned, knowing he had a point. We rarely talked about what happened between the three of us, but Michael knew where my heart was, and I was glad he hadn’t doubted it.
“There’s no one I trust more than you,” he whispered.
And then I saw his eyes flash over my shoulder to Will and Kai before coming back to me. “No one,” he repeated.
Warmth flooded chest, and I felt relieved. I knew he cared about his friends, but it was important to know that I came first.
“But you’re right,” he continued, his hazel eyes hard on me. “I want you close. I’m gone a lot, you’re alone a lot, and if I can’t be there, I feel a lot better knowing they are. Damon is still out there, after all.”
I let out a breath and nodded. “I know that, and I understand, but you don’t micro-manage their safety.” I jerked my chin to the guys behind me. “And if you want Graymor Cristane to work, I can’t be coddled.”
“Okay,” he allowed. “I’ll lay off.” And then he leaned in to kiss me, whispering over my lips, “Just as soon as Kai teaches you some Jujutsu moves.”
I snorted, pulling away, but he wrapped his arm around me tighter, his hot breath growing heavier.
“Stop,” I scolded quietly.
His other hand trailed up the inside of my leg again, disappearing under my gown as he caught my bottom lip between his teeth. “Just a taste,” he breathed. “Please?”
His hand snaked up my thigh as his lips and tongue took over my mouth.
“Michael, no,” I whisper-yelled, trying to push his hand down through my dress.
But his fingers suddenly met skin and a stunned look crossed his face. He continued to trail his hand up, up, up, near the now very wet heat between my legs, and I whimpered, his fingers caressing my bare skin.
Heat filled his eyes as he glared at me. “Lace stockings and nothing else?” he charged. “That isn’t very nice, Rika.”
Shit. I felt his bulge underneath me thicken and harden, and he pulled me in, our lips grazing each other as his fingers curled around the inside of my thigh, so very close to where they shouldn’t be right now.
I thought it would sexy to tease him a little tonight by not wearing anything except the stockings underneath the dress, and while I was surprised that we were meeting up with Will and Kai, I didn’t think he’d try to finger me five feet from them.
“Goddamn,” he gasped, baring his teeth as I tasted his breath. “This is a problem.”
He closed his eyes, grazing the tip of his nose over my cheek and down my neck as he inhaled deep. He left a trail of small, soft kisses over my skin, and heat pooled in my belly as my
breathing turned shallow.
I quickly glanced over my shoulder, seeing Will still clueless about what was going on as he poured himself another drink and Kai still staring at his phone. But the curl to his lips told me he wasn’t at all clueless as he respectfully averted his eyes.
But just then Michael’s fingers brushed against my pussy, and I sucked in a breath as I turned my eyes back on him. “Stop,” I mouthed, my heart racing.
“Look at me, baby,” he whispered, taking my lips in short, quick kisses. “God, I love you.”
“Michael, please,” I begged, closing my eyes and groaning when his fingers, hidden in the layers of my gown, started rubbing my clit in taunting circles.
“Please what?” he teased, nipping at my lips again. “Your mouth says ‘no’, but your body is saying something else. I’m confused.”
The pulse between my legs throbbed harder and harder, and I wanted to spread my legs so fucking bad.
“We’re. Not. Alone,” I growled.
“I know.” He grinned, loving my distress. “And I can feel how much that’s turning you on right now. Cut me some slack. It’s been days since I’ve had my tongue and cock buried in you.”
I winced, trying to hold back the moan wanting out. The memory of waking up four mornings ago with my legs spread wide and his tongue going at me like a he was starved was still so damn vivid I could feel it.
“Keep whimpering like that,” he taunted. “It’s so fucking hot.”
His fingers swirled around and around, and I was so wet and frustrated.
I licked my dry lips and fisted the lapels of his jacket. And then I shouted, “Pull over, please!”
Michael’s chest shook with a laugh, and I glared over my shoulder at the driver. “Now!”
Kai and Will’s eyes were on us, Will looking confused. Michael buried his lips under my ear as the driver pulled over to the curb, and I looked to the guys. “The opera house is only a few blocks away. Walk.”
Michael’s breath was in my ear as Kai chuckled to himself before shaking his head and sitting up.
“Hurry up,” he urged and opened the door, both he and Will climbing out. They slammed the door and Michael pushed the button, drawing the privacy glass between us and the driver.
“Drive around until I tell you to stop,” he ordered before the window closed.
As soon as the glass was up, Michael’s lips crashed down on mine, and his hands were already out of my dress and around my back, working the zipper.
“Fuck, I missed you,” he growled, pulling the zipper down and opening the back wide.
I pulled away and stood up, leaning over him as I squirmed out of the gown. It fell to the floor of the limo, and Michael pulled me in, kissing and nibbling my stomach before taking one of my breasts in his mouth.
I groaned, not bothering to keep my voice down this time. “I missed you, too.”
He ate me up, biting my nipple and making it hard as he drew it out with his teeth. I shivered, feeling a cyclone swirl in my stomach as he ran his hands up and down my thighs.
“These stockings are killing me,” he said, squeezing my ass and yanking me in. “Lay down.”
“No, I want to ride you,” I told him, climbing on and straddling him.
“Are you sure?” he asked, unfastening his belt and opened his suits pants.
I nodded quickly. The windows were tinted, but he knew I’d still feel exposed. I was too excited to care, though.
He pulled out his cock, and I sucked in a breath as he took the head in his hand and rubbed it around my clit, teasing me.
“Real fuckin’ romantic, huh?” he chastised himself. “I’m sorry, babe.”
“Don’t apologize.” I stilled, easing myself down on him and loving every fucking second of him sliding inside of me. “That’s not the guy I fell for. I don’t need sweet. I just need this.” I rolled my hips back and came in again, feeling his groan vibrate though my hand on his chest.
And then I kissed his lips, tasting the first time he ever touched me down in the catacombs and the first time he kissed me in the warehouse. The first time he held me in the cemetery when I was thirteen, and the first time he was inside of me. “Don’t ever stop.”
I moved faster and faster, rolling my hips into him and both of us groaning and grunting until we’d worked each other up into such a frenzy that I felt a drop of sweat glide down my back.
“Come on, baby,” he growled, gripping my ass so hard I thought I’d have bruises.
His mouth caught one of my breasts, and I rode harder, feeling him hit that spot so deep I just wanted it to go on forever. Nothing felt better than him.
“Don’t ever stop,” I gasped, feeling the pressure and heat and need building up that I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.
“Never,” he said through bared teeth, pulling my hips in harder. “I want your pussy more than I want to fucking breathe.”
I smiled, unable to keep myself from laughing. “Now THAT was romantic.”
He broke out into a laugh, too, his whole body shaking and breaking our rhythm. “Screw you, Little Monster. I tried.”
I shook my head, wrapping my arms around his neck and looking at him. “Don’t,” I instructed. “You know what I like. Just slap me on the ass and wrap a hand around my neck in my morning shower.”
He grinned, leaning his head back and closing his eyes I picked up pace. “That’s my girl.”
Where the hell were they? The show was going to start soon.
I brought he glass to my lips and let my eyes slowly drift around the room, far from interested in who was here and more interested in noting the people I wanted to avoid.
Women held on to the arms of their husbands, while the men’s laughter and burly voices filled the lobby of the opera house—which was really just a poor imitation of one of the old Paris theatres. Much smaller, much cheaper, and a whole lot tackier.
I sipped the vodka and soda, but my lips touched something soft, and I stopped, pulling the glass away. Looking down, I spotted a wedge of lemon in the drink, and I immediately picked it out, flinging it into the garbage on the side of the bar.
That’s not a twist.
I sighed, checked my watch again and wondering if they had just decided to blow us off. Will was chatting up some young college girl off in the corner, and while I didn’t mind being alone, I’d rather be alone at home.
The more time I spent trying to rejoin the rest of the world, the more time I spent wondering why. I was growing more and more impatient with their eyes and their questions. I was sick of playing of nice to people who really didn’t want to have anything to do with me but only tolerated me for my father.
But no…Michael wanted us to come tonight, so we came.
I turned my head and looked down to see Rika at my side, flushed and glowing as her bright eyes smiled up at me.
My heart skipped a beat, but I ignored it, jerking my chin over to the far corner.
She followed my gaze, spotting Will exchanging numbers with the girl.
“You’re blushing,” I teased, taking another sip.
But she just laughed, sounding beside herself. “I’m shameless.”
I peered back down at her, seeing only a few hairs out of place as she bowed her head and smiled like she couldn’t help it.
She took my arm, holding it with both of her hands as she blew out an exasperated breath and flushed with embarrassment. “I won’t. I’m too happy,” she said sweetly.
If I ever considered trying to steal her away, I couldn’t. She was head over heels for him.
“We were over there waiting for you to come over,” a woman’s voice, all too familiar, said, “but the show is starting soon, so…”
I looked over, seeing my mother approach and holding onto the arm of my father. She leaned in, and I kissed her on the cheek.
“I was working up to it,” I said under my breath.
She pulled back, offering me a kind smile, and I quickly glanced at my father, seeing him regard me in his usual manner. Silent, observing, and as if he were trying to figure out a puzzle.
“Good evening.” My mother held out her hand to Rika when I didn’t make introductions.
“Hello,” Rika greeted back and then held out her hand to my father.
“Rika, this is my father, Katsu Mori,” I said as they shook hands. “And my mother, Vittoria.”
“Oh,” she replied, sounding surprised. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“You’re Schrader Fane’s daughter.” My father’s eyes studied her under a stern brow.
“Yes. You knew my father?”
He nodded. “Very well. He was a good man.”
“Thank you.” Rika’s hand returned to my arm, and I saw my father notice.
But then she glanced behind my parents, saw Michael talking to Will, and politely excused herself, squeezing my arm one last time before walking off.
My father leaned in, kissing my mother’s forehead. “Would you give us a moment, please?”
My mother looked between us, her deep brown eyes hesitant as I braced myself. My father and my relationship hadn’t even come close to returning to what it was three years ago, and I knew she was worried. Every time we talked, it didn’t end well.
But she trusted my father, because he was almost always right. So she nodded and shot me a quick smile before walking up the stairs, probably to their private box.
As soon as she was gone, he moved to my side, standing level with me. “So Erika Fane?”
“Don’t.” I shook my head, hooding my eyes and knowing exactly where this was going. “She’s not for me. She’s taken.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, shrugging. “So was your mother when I met her. That didn’t stop me from getting what I wanted.”
Yes, I’d heard this story many times. How he had nothing, not even a ring to put on her finger, and how he still stole the Italian girl away from the wealthy fiance her family had chosen for her. And how together they built everything from nothing.
Yeah, my father was an amazing man, and I was nothing. I’d dishonored him when I’d been arrested.
I’d dishonored my whole family, and they didn’t even know the half of it. Not even Michael knew the half of it.
I was the worst of us. Not Damon. I was the worst, and I hid it the best.
“She’s Michael’s,” I clarified, sipping my drink.
“Yes, of course she is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I heard him draw in a long breath before turning his head to look at me. “It means Michael always takes the prime cuts of meat first, doesn’t he?”
I tightened my fist around my glass, feeling the muscles in my hand ache as my father walked off, following my mother up the stairs.
He always stayed just long enough to remind me how much I didn’t measure up and then left.
Yeah, Michael always takes the prime cuts of meat first. That’s what my father said, but it wasn’t what he meant. No, what he meant was Michael always “gets” the prime cuts of mean first, because he doesn’t waste time hesitating, Kai. He knows his mind.
And that, above anything else, was what my father tried to always teach me. The one thing I never seemed to grasp. “Where there’s clarity, there’s no choice, and where there’s choice there’s misery.”
It’s written on the wall of the dojo at my parent’s house. Making choices meant always being slightly disappointed that you had to give up one thing to have another, but if you know yourself well enough, there’s never any choice to make. You already know what you’re going to do.
Michael chose Rika over us in that kitchen that night, and when the choice was forced on him, it wasn’t hard. He knew what he wanted.
Everything for me was difficult.
The lights dimmed, and I caught sight of Will, Michael, and Rika making their way up the stairs, Michael looking down and finding me, motioning for me to follow.
Reluctantly setting down my drink, I moved across the lobby and climbed the stairs, ignoring the eyes following us as we made our way upstairs.
My parents had a box on the other side, but Michael had reserved a lower one to give Rika a better view. She had never been to the opera.
Walking quickly down the hallway, I followed them onto the small balcony, alight with the soft light coming from the wall sconces. We all neared the balcony, looking down at the crowd and taking in the view.
It didn’t take long for curious eyes to find us and whispers start to spread from one clique to then other. Most of these people probably knew Michael, given his status, but they’d only heard of Will and me and what they knew had been whispered into their ears.
And then all attention eventually fell on Rika. They looked at her, whispered about her…
Who was the beauty with three men in tow? I smirked, looking over at her and seeing her amused expression as she looked down at them, unafraid.
I took my seat, placing Rika between Michael and me, while Will sat down on my other side. After several minutes, the lights lowered, shrouding the theater in black, and the performance began.
I didn’t really enjoy opera as much as I enjoyed symphonies and concerts, watching the skill of dozens of instruments working in sync to create something beautiful, but I couldn’t help but watch the look of wonder on Rika’s face out of the corner of my eye. The way her lips parted and she sucked in a tiny breath when the music hit her, and the way she watched so intently through her theater glasses.
She was mesmerized, and I had to admit, I liked living vicariously. It was better than nothing.
But then something hit my foot, and I looked down, seeing that she’d dropped the glasses. She let out a small gasp, and when Michael and I turned to her, her eyes weren’t on the performance.
“There’s someone watching us,” she said.
I followed her gaze, seeing boxes across from us filled with people, but I had no idea what she was seeing.
“Who?” I asked, swiping the theater glasses back off the floor.
“I don’t know,” she answered, standing up. “They were in that empty box up there.”
I raised the glasses to my eyes and found the empty box she was talking about. But it was empty.
“There’s no one there.” I handed the glasses to Michael who quickly took them.
“I think it was a woman,” Rika told us. “And she was wearing a mask.”
She spun around and left the box, all of us quickly jumping to our feet and following her.
“Rika, where are you going?” Michael demanded as all of us chased after her.
She lifted her dress off the ground and powered down the hallway, calling over her shoulder in a stern voice, “She was slender. Dressed in black with a ski cap covering her hair. Will, scope out the Mezzanine. Kai, check the lobby.”
Will breathed out a laugh. “Yes, ma’am.” And he took off to the right, heading up a flight of stairs.
“Rika, are you sure?” I prodded. What this really necessary?
“They were wearing a mask,” she pointed out again as if that meant something. She continued down the hall with Michael to the elevators while I stopped at another flight of stairs.
A mask? Half the cast in the opera were wearing a mask. It could’ve been anyone.
Nevertheless I trailed downstairs, heading back down to the lobby as she and Michael disappeared into the elevator, probably heading up to the empty box where she’s seen the mysterious person.
But after searching the entire lobby, watching the front doors, and waiting to see if anyone came out of the restrooms, I eventually just shook my head and climbed the stairs to search them out.
Rika was on edge. That’s all this was, and it was our fault after we’d fucked with her head so much. She was diligent about not letting it hold her back, but she was paranoid, seeing things that weren’t there.
Making my way up to the top floor, I noticed that the entire level was closed off for renovation. Every box was vacant, and I finally found Rika, Michael, and Will in a large room which sat off to the back of the balcony where she’d seen the masked person. The room was filled with crates and boxes, and a massive circular window covered the far wall with only the moonlight pouring in.
“Did you find anything?” I asked them.
But no one answered me.
I looked around at all of them, confused, and finally noticed Michael, holding a mask in his hands. Rika and Will stared at it like it was a bomb that would go off at any moment.
“Where’d you get that?” I questioned.
“The chair.” Michael tipped his head toward the balcony where two chairs sat.
“Well, that’s not one of ours.”
“It’s mine,” Rika piped up.
Michael narrowed his eyes on her. “What?”
A thoughtful look crossed her face, and she reached over, taking it from him. “I made my mom buy it at the sporting goods store in Thunder Bay when I was fourteen.” And then she smiled small, looking up at him. “I wanted to be like you.”
She turned the mask over in her hand, thinking. “But no one knew about it, and I kept it stashed away in my closet at home. I’ve never used it.”
“Well they mass produce those things,” I explained. “It might not be yours.”
But she raised her eyes and flashed me the inside of the mask, showing me her name written inside.
Her name that she must’ve written.
“When’s the last time you saw it?” Will asked, moving in.
She shook her head. “Not since…before the fire, I guess.”
And she looked up, all of us probably drawing the same conclusion.
The fire. My body tensed, and every muscle felt on fire.
“You’re sure it wasn’t Damon you saw?” I gritted out.
Damon, Will, and I had all been in her house that night. Maybe he found it?
“I’m positive,” she said, still looking worried. “She was petite. It was a girl.”
I took the mask from her hands, inspecting it. “Well, who the hell was she?” I said more to myself. “And why was she in your house?”
But she didn’t answer, simply turning for the door. “I need to call my mother.”
Will and Michael hesitated only a moment before following her out of the room. “Let’s go,” Michael urged.
I stared down at the mask, nearly identical to ours, only white with a small red heart on the forehead. A million ideas ran through my head as I searched my brain for an explanation.
There were plenty of people we’d pissed off over the years, but I couldn’t think of a woman that had issue with us.
Or maybe…she was working for someone else. Someone that wanted us fucked with.
Damon immediately popped in my head, but I quickly dismissed the idea. No, he wouldn’t work with a woman or hire one.
But his father might.
Gabriel Torrance was ruthless but clever. I’d already had a run-in with him where he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted his son back.
And I told him that his son was as safe as could be.
Unless he stepped a fucking foot in Meridian City or Thunder Bay.
And I almost hoped he would. Life was getting a little sedate for my taste.
I made my way for the door, bringing the mask with me, but just then I heard a shuffle from somewhere behind me, and I halted.
The floor creaked, and the corners of my lips curled in a smile.
She was still here.
I inhaled a deep breath, smelling a hint of her. The adrenaline heated my blood, and I debated going after her, but for some reason…I remained still.
Maybe I wanted to draw her out. See who was behind her.
Or maybe I wanted something to look forward to.
But I didn’t want to move. Not yet.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Little One?” I called out, not turning around. “Whoever hired you should’ve warned you. Once this starts we won’t stop until we say it’s over.”
The music from the opera drifted in, but the room was eerily silent as I felt her watching me.
“Well, if you’re sure…” I taunted, loving the rush of fucking power coursing through my chest.
If she was in this, so were we. But I wasn’t going to act. Not yet. Showing up at the opera, the mask…she was playing with us. Let her surprise me.
No one knew how bad I could be, but she’d find out.
I stepped forward, continuing for the door. “I would stop wearing that perfume,” I advised, “I’ll be able to smell you coming next time.”
*If you’d like to see my visual inspirations for Kai’s parents, Rika’s dress, her mask, Kai’s hideaway, and the new fencing club, go here!!