Bad boys break hearts, but I'll make sure it's not mine.
After my nightmarish past, starting fresh should be a dream come true. But when my father’s death leaves me on the run, I have no choice but to seek shelter with the only family I have left. An uncle I’ve never even met.
My uncle has a bad attitude and pack of friends that remind me far too much of the toxic life I left behind.
Cruel, sexy Kai Stone is the worst of them. Occasionally, when the moon is high and full, I swear there’s something even beastlike about him. A monster who thrives off the mayhem and chaos that surrounds him. But no matter how hard I fight it, something about him tugs at my very soul.
The worst part is, I have a secret. And when Kai discovers it, I have to convince him to let me stay. Worse, I’ll have to trust him. And make him trust me.
Because I know he’s keeping something from me as well. And when I learn the truth, it will change everything.
If there’s one thing Kai refuses to allow, it’s outsiders.
Too bad neither one of us knows how to resist a bad idea.
My muscles tensed until they hurt as I huddled on my sagging mattress. In the darkness of my tiny bedroom, every shadow cast felt like a threat. My thrift store dresser sat sadly against the far wall, taunting me with its larger-than-life silhouette. The secondhand mirror propped beside it offered a reflection of me that looked like something out of a horror movie looming up from my twin bed. Wild dark hair. Wide, worried eyes. But it wasn’t the dresser that scared me.
A car had parked outside our trailer.
The time on my phone read two in the morning.
Considering we rarely, if ever, had guests during the day, it couldn’t be a good thing to have anyone coming over this late at night. Dad would be beside himself with paranoia, and in this case, I couldn’t blame him. Years’ worth of his rants about “those people hunting us” had taught me it was best to keep him away from strangers.
Fat chance of that now.
The voices outside were loud as the uninvited visitors climbed out of their car and crossed the gravel drive toward our trailer. This place had thin walls to begin with, but after a lifetime of vigilance, I’d woken the moment the headlights had pointed through my window.
Already, my heart was threatening to beat right out of my chest. Dad was always going on and on about enemies everywhere. One long look from a shady stranger, and he’d declare it too dangerous. We’d moved fourteen times just in the last five years alone. No public school. No college either unless you counted that one class I took before we went broke again. No friends. Which was honestly just as impressive as it was pathetic for a nineteen-year-old to have literally zero friendships.
“Don’t let anyone get close enough to see you, Ash,” my dad had always warned me.
I was over it. Or I had been until strangers had driven up to our doorstep in the middle of the night.
What the hell did they want?
I crawled over and peeked out of the cracked blinds covering my window. Three men were making their way to our front door. I couldn’t make out their faces in the darkness, but something glinted, and I zeroed in on whatever object had reflected against the streetlight.
My breath caught.
One of them carried a metal bat.
I scrambled back, letting the blinds fall into place. This was bad.
Really, really fucking bad.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and I knew from the slow, heavy rhythm they made it was my father emerging from his bedroom at the end of the hall. He stumbled once. The wall creaked underneath his weight as he caught himself.
Shit. He was drunk. As usual.
Outside, someone knocked, just a quick two-rap with a knuckle. But it sent my heart rate soaring.
“I’m comin’, asshole.” My dad’s gruff voice was easy to hear through our thin walls.
My hands fisted around my blanket at that. I wanted to scream at him to stop. To hide.
Whoever was out there at two in the morning couldn’t be friendly.
The fact that my father was actually going to answer the door was proof of how far he’d fallen.
It was all mom’s fault.
If she hadn’t left us seven years ago, Dad would never have gone off the deep end. He’d still be my protector. My safe place. Instead, it felt like I’d been the one protecting him these last few years. And now, he was about to open that door and invite the devil inside.
He was going to get us killed.
A pounding on the front door shook me loose of the frozen panic that gripped me. I got to my feet and rushed from my bedroom. I made it into the tiny living room just as my dad opened the front door. The smell of alcohol clung to him like a second skin, knocking me back a step.
“Whatever yer selling, we ain’t buyin,” he said in a sleepy, slurred voice.
Over my dad’s shoulder, I counted three figures standing on our sagging porch. The one carrying the bat stood at the very back, but none of them looked like they were selling so much as demanding. A pair of beady eyes landed on mine. His hands were empty, but the man standing in front of the others didn’t need a weapon to convey his intentions. I rushed forward, pressing my palms against the back of the door as I slammed it closed again.
Securing the deadbolt, I whirled on my dad.
“What the hell are you doing?” I hissed.
My dad swung his bloodshot gaze to mine. “Ash,” he said, and a flicker of awareness shot across his slackened face.
“It’s two in the morning, Dad. Those guys can’t be here for a good reason.”
More awareness. Then alarm.
My heart rate accelerated until it hurt my ribs.
“Should I get the go-bags?” I asked.
Dad insisted we keep a bag packed underneath the kitchen counter. If we’re ever found—by whom, I still had no idea—I was supposed to run, with or without him. I never actually thought that would happen, but now I wondered if maybe Dad had been right about monsters chasing us all along.
“It’s Vorack. Open the door, Joe,” one of the guys outside called. Not yelling exactly. Confident. Calculating. But no volume. Like a predator who knew he’d cornered his prey.
My dad scowled as some of the panic faded from his taut expression.
“Nah, we don’ need the bags,” he said, unable to meet my eyes. “This is something else.”
“Who’s Vorack?” I whispered.
“Get the hell off my property,” my dad yelled, ignoring my question.
“Not happening,” the man called back. “It’s time to settle your debt.”
“Shit,” my dad whispered, his eyes suddenly wide and no longer dilated.
“What debt?” I demanded in a heated whisper. When he didn’t answer, I grabbed his shirt sleeve and forced him to focus on me. “Dad, who are those guys?”
“Jus’ some guys I met at the bar,” he said, waving me off.
His answer should have made me feel better. Whatever ghosts my dad was convinced were chasing us from town to town and state to state, these guys weren’t it. Local bookies were not the demons my dad forced us to run from constantly. No, these guys were a very normal-looking evil; the kind my dad could have only brought on himself.
Anger eclipsed my fear, and I aimed it all at the one who deserved it.
“How much do you owe them?” I demanded, my breaths coming in short, raging bursts.
“Don’ worry ’bout it,” he insisted.
“Don’t worry about it? There are three angry bookies outside our door in the middle of the damned night, and you want me to not worry about it?”
My dad scowled. “Ash, go back to bed. I got this.”
He swayed, and I used my grip on his arm to steady him. Not easy, considering how much bigger he was than me. My dad had always been tall and built, but after years of drinking away his constant stress, he wasn’t the solid wall of muscle he used to be. Instead, he was a solid beer belly with a spare tire made of fast food—and a brain with a penchant for making stupid bets.
We’d already moved once because of his stupid gambling habit and his inability to pay up. Looked like we were doing it again. This time with nothing but the clothes on our backs. At least I had sweatpants on instead of just the nightshirt I sometimes wore.
Dad, on the other hand, wore nothing but a white tank and a pair of dirty jeans. And he was in desperate need of a shower—a luxury that was probably a long way off for us right about now even if we did make it out of here in one piece.
“You’re not opening that door,” I told him firmly.
My dad waved me off. “Id’ll be fine. I’ll jus’ git ’nother ’stention”
Shit. The slurring was not a good sign.
For a moment, I’d thought the danger of three goons on our doorstep in the middle of the night would sober him. But no such luck.
“Joe, I know you’re in there,” called the man outside. Vorack. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
“Dad, those guys aren’t going to give you another extension,” I said, half-pleading now.
Why couldn’t he be stronger? Better? Why couldn’t he stop letting her absence break him? Ugh. I hated seeing him let himself go. I hated my mother more for causing it.
“Go get the rifle,” he said.
My jaw fell open. Was he kidding? There was no way he could shoot straight right now.
“What? No, come with me. We’ll go out the back. Run to the car—”
Something hard slammed into the outside of the front door. I jumped and looked down to see a small dent had appeared on our side. I stared at it in horror. Stupid, cheap-ass, plastic door.
But really, what did I expect in a trailer? This thing was not exactly fortified against invasion.
“Joe, you can either come out or we’re coming in,” Vorack called.
My panic rose.
Urgency gripped me.
“Dad,” I said, tugging on his arm. “We have to get out of here.”
He hesitated. I could see some sort of indecision in his eyes. Like he was trying hard to access a clear thought.
“Okay,” he said finally. He reached over and grabbed the car keys off the wall hook and pressed them into my hand. Then he looked at me intently, the glassy look turning fast to fear. “When I say go, run for the back door. Start the car.”
“What about you?”
He reached out and pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “I’m right behind you, kid,” he said.
I nodded, my chin bobbing incessantly. This would work. It had to work. Forget the bags we had stashed. We needed to get the hell out of here.
Something slammed into the door a second time.
“You have to be fast,” I warned him.
“Kid, I’m the fastest,” he shot back. It was an old argument and hardly true anymore. But I didn’t say so. “Ready . . . set . . . go!”
With the car keys clutched in my fist, I took off at a barefooted sprint for the back door. My dad shuffled, but the noise was lost to the roar in my ears as panic drove me onward.
In the kitchen, I flipped the lock free and yanked the back door open only to crash into someone waiting on the other side.
Hands came up to grip my wrists, and I immediately started kicking and fighting. A male grunt sounded, and my attacker released one of my wrists to grab at his shin where my foot just landed. I tried turning and twisting away, but then a fist smashed into my cheek, and I went down to my knees as pain radiated through my skull. I blinked, my vision closing in until I saw through a narrow tunnel.
I fell to the floor and covered my face with my hands, my eyes filling with tears.
God, that hurt.
A loud crash came from the front, followed by yelling. Then grunts like the one my attacker had made. Except the voice sounded exactly like my dad’s.
“You always choose the hard way, Joe,” Vorack said—except this time, his voice came from inside the house.
I scrambled up and rushed toward the living room only to be grabbed again before I could make it across the tiny space.
“Let me go,” I demanded, twisting and kicking and scratching at the body currently blocking me from getting to my father. In the darkness, I could see the way the man’s eyes lit every time I fought back. Bile rose in my throat as I began to imagine just how they planned to extract this debt my father owed.
We damn sure didn’t have any money to give them. Or not enough anyway. I had no idea what Dad owed them, but judging from our middle-of-the-night visit, it was probably a lot. If not, he would have paid them already.
That meant they’d have to take payment some other way.
I fought harder.
“Got a live one, boss,” said the man holding me—or trying to.
More grunts and scuffling from the living room. Something hard hit the wall, and the few pictures we had hung rattled in their frames.
“You bet the wrong house, Joe,” I heard the man say.
“Screw you, Vorack,” my dad said from where he’d slumped to the floor against the wall.
My heart broke at the defeat I heard in those three words.
“No thanks,” Vorack said. “Your daughter, on the other hand, might have better luck with such an invitation. Might even be enough to call us even.”
Horror filled me. My voice broke on my next scream.
“Don’t even think about it,” my dad warned.
“Bring her here, Frank.”
The man holding me gave me a rough shove, and the momentum sent me sprawling onto the stained carpet. I rolled onto my side and looked over at my dad slumped against the wall by the smashed front door. The dim overhead light revealed his nose was bleeding, and both eyes were already swelling.
Vorack’s other goon stood over him, brandishing the baseball bat and making sure he didn’t get up.
“If you touch my daughter,” my father started.
A heartache so deep I knew it would never heal ripped through me. My father’s threat was empty. Everyone here knew it. Hell, he didn’t even try to get up when he said the words.
“What?” Vorack taunted. “Tell me, Joe. What will you do?”
Vorack stalked over to me and prodded me with his boot. “What’s your name, princess?”
“Get away from her,” my dad snarled.
“Happy to, Joe,” Vorack said. “But that’s up to you. Pay me, and I’ll be on my way. Otherwise, I’ll take what’s owed by other means.”
He gave me a look that made it clear he hoped for the latter.
“There’s five hundred in the freezer,” I blurted. “Take it and leave us alone.”
My dad shot me a look.
I worked four nights a week at the diner around the corner. Just like I had in every backwoods town we’d lived in. Most of my earnings went to keeping the lights on, but I’d hidden some extra cash in a bag of frozen peas since I knew it was the only place he wouldn’t find it.
It was my ticket out.
If Dad wanted to drink himself to death at a new address every three months, that was his choice. I planned to pick a spot and plant roots. Build a home. Screw whatever ghosts he was convinced were hunting us. Parting with it for Dad’s bad habits was the last thing I wanted, but if it meant getting Vorack out of here, I’d let it go.
Unfortunately, Vorack merely grinned. “That’s cute, princess. You think I’d get out of my warm bed at this hour for five hundred bucks?” He snorted and shared an amused look with his goons.
They all laughed and not in a fun way.
Then Vorack looked down at me again. “Try ten thousand, and that’s not including interest.”
The bit of hope I’d let myself feel drained away.
“What kind of idiot loans ten thousand to a guy with no collateral?”
The words were out of my mouth before I could think them through.
Vorack’s eyes narrowed. He took a step closer, and I curled around, bracing myself for a kick or a punch or something equally painful.
He leaned down, and I squeezed my eyes shut, preferring not to see it coming.
“Take the five hundred as a down payment,” my father said quickly. “I’ll get you the rest tomorrow.”
Vorack shook his head. “We’re way past down payments, Joe.”
My father didn’t answer. I could hear the defeat ringing in his silence.
“Have it your way then.” Vorack reached down and grabbed my wrist, squeezing painfully as he pulled me to my feet. With his other hand, he yanked my long hair back so I was forced to look up at him.
“How about it, princess?” he drawled. “Want to help save your daddy?”
Panic clawed at me as I realized my worst nightmare was about to happen. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop them. The worst part was that this had nothing to do with the actual reason we’d been running all these years. All of it for nothing because, in the end, my father had fallen apart.
If I wanted to survive, it was up to me now.
Knowing it would only make things worse, I pulled my leg back and shoved my foot into his groin.
Vorack groaned and doubled over, stumbling away. “Bitch,” he roared.
The guy who’d hit me, Frank, chuckled. “She sure has some fire in her.”
“I like a good firecracker,” Vorack said, his expression twisting to something cruel and sinister as he straightened.
He reached for me again, and this time, whatever struck him, it wasn’t me.
Thunder boomed, and the trailer shook. Windows shattered, sending glass flying in all directions. I closed my eyes and shielded my face as tiny shards landed in my hair and against my forearms.
The men around me yelled and rushed at my father.
I opened my eyes and froze at the scene before me.
My father had . . . transformed into some sort of monster.
Either that, or the demons we were always running from had caught up and taken over his body.
His skin was broken open with bones sticking out at unnatural angles. Blood leaked from the wounds, but the worst was his eyes. Glowing and without a hint of humanity left, they were trained on Vorack. He hopped up onto all fours and bared his teeth—canines that had elongated to look like fangs.
Fear gripped me, unlike anything I’d felt before. My father was gone. In his place was a demon from Hell. And I couldn’t be sure he didn’t want to drag all of us—me included—back there with him.
My father—or the monster inside him—snarled while thick drool dripped from his sharpened teeth. At the sight of him advancing toward them, Vorack and his men fell over one another in their scramble to get out.
“Go,” Frank screamed, shoving past the others.
Glass crunched underneath their boots, and I watched, unable to tear my eyes away, as my father—or the monster he’d become—moved slowly toward the open door. He watched as Vorack and his men raced into the yard and across the driveway toward their car.
I took a slow step backward, terrified of whatever that thing was. Fur had sprouted in some places, obscuring the protruding bones. And his mouth was elongating into a kind of snout. He looked like a demon straight out of a horror movie.
Except this was real life.
What the hell had happened to my father? And how was I going to fix him?
“Dad?” I called tentatively.
The thing swung its red-eyed gazed toward me.
Fear sent me backing away. My father—the demon—didn’t move.
That was a good sign.
Recognition flared in his glowing eyes. “Ash,” he said, the sound of his voice distorted.
Still, it was him. And he recognized me.
Maybe he wasn’t going to hurt me after all.
I took a step toward him.
A gunshot rang out, loud and sharp enough to make me jump.
I sucked in a breath and watched as my father, or the monster that had taken him over, flew backward into the wall. He hit hard enough to leave a hole the size of his broken body before sliding to the floor. Blood poured from a hole in his chest, and right before my eyes, the demon-form receded, and my father’s body and bones returned to their normal appearance.
He lay limp and still, in a growing puddle of his own blood.
“No!” I rushed forward, forgetting Vorack, forgetting the demon my father had just become. Forgetting it all.
Nothing else mattered except saving him.
“We’ll be back to collect,” Vorack yelled. “One way or another.”
Outside, the engine revved, and Vorack’s car spewed gravel as he hit reverse and drove off like a bat out of hell.
I didn’t even look up to make sure they’d all gone. Instead, I collapsed to my feet beside my father and pressed my palms to the gunshot wound on his chest. Already, his shirt was drenched in blood. This wasn’t good. I had to call for an ambulance.
“Dad,” I called, half-sobbing. “Dad, please hang on.”
My voice broke, and I started to climb to my feet, to find the phone. My father’s hand shot out and gripped mine, holding me in place. His eyes flew open, and he looked up at me, his gaze intent and not at all like that of a dying, drunk man.
It was the clearest I’d seen him in months.
“Ash, listen to me. Take the money in the freezer,” he said, his voice strained. “Take it and the car and go. Now, tonight. Don’t wait for Vorack to come back.”
“Not until you get to the hospital,” I said.
“A hospital can’t help me,” he said, wincing and then gritting his teeth.
Every time he spoke, the blood seemed to spill faster.
“Dad, please,” I said.
“Ash, listen to me. Go to Ridley Falls. Find Oscar, my brother. He’ll help keep you safe. Your mother—”
He broke off, squeezing his eyes shut, and his head lolled to the side.
“Dad,” I sobbed, still pressing my hands to his wound, for all the good it did.
My dad took a ragged breath and looked at me again. I could see the pain reflected in his eyes. This was costing him.
“Dad, don’t say another word,” I told him. “I’m going to call for help. I’ll be right back. Stay with me.”
“Ash.” His hand gripped my wrist with not nearly the force needed to stop me. But I didn’t move. I couldn’t make myself walk away. In the back of my mind, I knew he wouldn’t be breathing by the time I returned from making that call.
A sob built in my throat at the thought.
“Ash, I love you. I’m so damn sorry. For all of it.” He sighed, and it was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. “Your mother thought it best, and I . . . all I ever wanted was to protect you. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough. For her. For you.”
“Forget Mom,” I nearly screamed. “I’m here. Do this for me. Survive for me.”
Stay sober for me.
It was everything I’d wanted to say for years. But I bit my lip and pleaded instead with my eyes.
With shaky fingers, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a familiar pendant. “Take it,” he rasped.
I started to shake my head.
“Ash, I’m not asking.”
“I told you I refuse to wear anything that came from her,” I spat. Even now, he was trying to bring my mother into this. To make it seem like she was still a part of this family. She wasn’t.
“Not for her,” he insisted, shoving it at me. “For me.”
I took the pendant, squeezing it inside my fist with one hand while still holding pressure to the gunshot wound on his chest with the other hand.
“It’s important,” he said, his eyes intent on mine now. “Put it on, and don’t take it off, okay? No matter what. Promise me.”
For once, I didn’t argue or roll my eyes at the one thing my mother had left when she abandoned us.
“Promise, Ash,” he repeated.
“I promise,” I said quickly.
He reached up with his free hand and cupped my cheek, calloused fingers brushing over the bruise I could still feel throbbing from where that asshole had punched me earlier.
“No matter what happens, don’t let them cage you,” he whispered roughly.
Then his hand fell, and his expression went slack.
A sob ripped from my throat, and this time, I didn’t bother holding it back. For a long time, I sat there, hands still pressed to a wound that couldn’t be healed. Blood pooled until I was covered in it. My face swelled until it pulsed with my own heartbeat. The only heart in this room still beating.
Finally, the sky behind me began to lighten.
Something about the breaking of a new day snapped me from my grief, and I forced myself to accept what had happened—and to get up. I moved like I was in a haze. Brain fog made my thoughts fuzzy, my movements methodical.
Vaguely, I supposed I was in shock. But what could I do about that? What could I do about any of it?
On autopilot, I grabbed the cash from the freezer and a bottle of water from the fridge. Then, I snagged the car keys from where I’d dropped them hours ago.
It felt more like days. Like last night had been a nasty nightmare. Not real. But then I saw my father’s body lying in the entryway, and I had to face the reality of what had happened all over again.
Pausing at the back door, I used our landline to dial emergency services and report my father’s body. He would have told me not to bother, but I couldn’t leave knowing he’d be lying here for who-knew-how-long before someone found him. When they asked my name, I hung up.
In the light of dawn, I stumbled my way to the aged sedan Dad had hustled from a desperate used car salesman back in Kansas City a few months ago. The air conditioning didn’t work, but the windows did. I slid into the driver’s seat, numb and lost.
After a long moment, I pulled out the pendant and fastened it around my neck—a white crystal carved into the shape of a crescent moon. It sat cold and still against my chest, a weight I’d long refused to accept no matter how many times Dad had tried talking me into it before.
My mother couldn’t be bothered with raising me, so why should I let her off the hook by accepting her stupid necklace?
But it was different now. It was all different now.
Reeling and completely drained, I stowed the cash in the glove box and started the car. At the main road, I hesitated, trying to decide where to go. Dad’s instructions rang in my mind. Ridley Falls. His brother. Oscar. Whoever the hell that was. He’d never mentioned any family before. It had always just been us. Him and me against the world. And Mom. Until she decided not to include herself.
I opened the glove box and checked the map Dad kept there. A cell would have been easier but our minutes had run out two months ago and there hadn’t been money to afford more.
According to the map, Ridley Falls was nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Right smack in the middle of nowhere from the looks of it. More rural than even this town.
That’s where Dad wanted me to go?
Somewhere so remote I’d have zero chance of blending in? This from a guy who’d always insisted that I not let myself be seen for fear it would bring monsters to our doorstep.
I almost decided against it, but then I thought of Vorack and his parting promise to return. The monsters had already come to my door. They’d kicked it in and taken the one person I had in this world. If I didn’t get someplace safe, somewhere off that asshole’s radar, I was going to end up like my father.
And the one thing I refused to become was my parents.
With resignation and a heavy heart, I made the turn that would take me to Ridley Falls. To a family that couldn’t possibly be any more terrible than the one I’d left behind.
The drive took me two days. Even that was probably impressive considering how many times I had to pull over and cry. Altogether, I made it through three states and four mountain passes—nearly all the way to Ridley Falls—before the car gave out. Steam leaked out from underneath the hood but more concerning was the thump-thump-thumping of something that went along with it. I’d ignored the noise for the last hour, but there’d been one last loud thump and then the engine had died. I barely managed to pull over to the shoulder before the tires stopped coasting.
By then, according to the last sign I’d passed, I was five miles out from the town’s limits. The last car that passed was miles back, and in the fading light of dusk, the tree-lined road had a quiet sort of vibe that was comforting.
With no other choice, I stuffed the cash from the glove box into my bra, re-adjusted my sunglasses, and started walking.
It wasn’t long before the night sounds of insects surrounded me and my footsteps faded into the background until all I could hear were my own thoughts and the cricket’s song.
Images flashed in my mind as I followed the road. The memory of my father being shot. The way he’d transformed into some sort of demon beast.
I might have begun to believe I imagined that part if Vorack and his men hadn’t fled the way they did.
A few tears slid down my cheeks as the loss hit me square in my chest. A hollowed-out hole formed where once there had been love, safety, security. My father had been paranoid, terrified, and erratic, but he’d been mine. And now he was gone. And I was alone. Surviving was all on me now.
Inevitably, my thoughts drifted to the bookie. Vorack. He’d promised to be back, and I had zero doubt he meant it. Ten thousand plus interest. I’d been in my father’s toxic world long enough to know it would take twice that to get those assholes off my back, and even then, they could just as easily kill me as let me walk away.
A cool breeze whispered through the trees and down my spine, making me shudder. Suddenly, I was keenly aware of how quiet it had become. No more night sounds. No more anything. Just…stillness.
The feeling of eyes on me scraped along the back of my neck.
When I turned to look, there was no one there.
I forced myself to keep moving.
No running or I’d only attract whatever predator was out here. Absently, I clutched at the pendant I wore. My last promise to my father. I wasn’t about to take it off, no matter how much shit he’d put me through.
I still wasn’t ready to accept he was really gone.
Or that this Oscar guy I was headed toward was my only family left.
Although, whatever awaited me in Ridley Falls had to be better than my life leading up to this. That’s what I told myself as I forced one foot in front of the other.
The feeling of being watched never went away, but soon, lights from town came into view, and I relaxed. If someone or something was going to try and hurt me, they wouldn’t wait until I’d strolled into public to do it.
The first building I came to was a gas station.
Pushing my way inside, I approached the clerk and waited for him to notice me. The kid couldn’t have been older than sixteen and was just beginning to sprout that first attempt of facial hair.
It didn’t take long for him to finish stocking the cigarettes and turn around. When he did, he stopped and stared, eyes wide.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Um.” I glanced down and realized I still wore the same clothes—sweatpants and an oversized tee covered in blood. Shit. At least I still had my sunglasses on. “I’m looking for Oscar.”
Weird. My last name was Langford. Shouldn’t they have the same name? I didn’t have the energy to decipher it though.
“Is there another Oscar in this town?” I asked.
“Well, no,” he said after a pause, still staring at my face like he’d never seen a chick with a swollen cheek before.
I rolled my eyes. Or tried to. It hurt. “Okay, so Oscar Lawson…” I prompted when he didn’t say more.
“Right. Yeah, uh, he’s over at the shop.”
“What shop is that?”
“Oh, uh.” He closed his eyes and shook his head as if clearing the image of, well, me. Damn. I must have looked like a hot mess. “Twisted Throttle Repair Shop. Next block up on the left. Can’t miss it. Just look for all the bikes.”
I turned to go, and even without looking back, I had zero doubt the kid stared at me all the way out of the parking lot.
Despite the kid’s instructions, I did, in fact, almost miss it thanks to what looked like some kind of tailgate party parked nearby that blocked my view. I ignored the catcalls—from both men and women—and kept my head down and my sunglasses on despite the twilight hour. The smell of cigarettes and marijuana drifted toward me. Music blared from someone’s stereo—and a few girls in short skirts stood on the hood of a Jeep, writhing to the beat. Making a wide arc around the dance party, I strode past a couple making out in the bed of a pickup truck and a pyramid of beer cans poised on the hood of a Camaro.
Damn. For a Monday in a small town, this place was pretty wild.
Maybe it was a town holiday or something?
Just ahead, I finally spotted my destination.
Twisted Throttle had an aging sign hanging above a two-story building on the corner that looked old enough to be historic but was still well kept from the looks of it. And yes, there were bikes.
Except they weren’t bicycles like I’d expected.
Motorcycles were parked along the curb lining the front and side of the corner lot. At least eight that I saw. With more in the back, I noticed, from my quick view of a paved lot enclosed by a chain-link fence.
A set of two large garage doors faced the side street and were currently closed up tight. On my left, the side street dead-ended into thick woods that encroached on the side and back of the building. It made the place feel secluded despite sitting on the very edge of what looked like a quaint little downtown area just past the shop. Even from here, I could smell the pine scent of the forest wafting out to welcome me.
I looked away from the call of the trees to the shop’s front door and approached slowly. My exhaustion and the shock of everything that had happened muted my fear, but I knew enough to be watchful of my surroundings. A threat could be lurking anywhere.
The sign in the office window read Closed, but I grabbed the knob anyway.
I pushed my way inside and inhaled the smell of oil and engine grease.
Underneath all of that, the pine scent of the woods still lingered, and I appreciated the sense of comfort it brought even if I couldn’t understand it. I’d never felt comforted anywhere in my life.
Maybe it was because I’d finally stopped looking for demons and ghosts. Why should I keep worrying about being hunted down when my dad had turned out to be the beast we’d feared all along?
Absently, I reached down and brushed a hand over my right hip to be sure my shirt and pants covered the skin there. Habit. Then I plucked my sunglasses off and looked around.
I looked up sharply at the sound of the voice. A guy not much older than me stood behind the counter, glaring at me. If I hadn’t noticed the hostile tone, it was made plain on his face. A very handsome, very dangerous-looking face, I might add.
Tall, dark hair, dark eyes, a chiseled jaw that probably always came across as slightly angry.
Except for right now when he looked downright enraged.
I couldn’t imagine the sight of me—a complete stranger who’d never done anything to him—had sent him into a rage, but who knew. It had been a long day, and I knew my mind was still a fog after everything that had happened.
“I’m looking for Oscar,” I said.
The hottie rounded the counter, and I could see his angry response right there on the tip of his tongue. But then he must have gotten a good look at me, coated in two-day-old dried blood and probably bruised to a pretty shade of purple by now, and his eyes widened—only for a second before they immediately narrowed.
“What the hell do you want with Oscar?”
The energy coming off this guy was intense and threatened to break through the numbness that was keeping me calm.
“I just need to talk to him.”
My voice wobbled.
Of course it did.
His mouth flattened into a hard line. “I can give him the message.”
For some reason, his continued hostility made me braver. Rather than shrinking away, I straightened and held my ground. “No thanks, this is personal.”
The guy snorted. “Oscar doesn’t concern himself with outsiders.”
The way he said the word spoke volumes. Like being from out of town was a crime in itself.
“If that’s true, he can tell me himself. Is he here or not?”
The guy gave me a once-over as if assessing whether I was worthy or not. Whatever he saw must have been good enough because he finally leaned away and, without taking his eyes off my face, yelled, “Oscar! Get your ass in here.”
A second later, a muffled male voice came from out in the garage. “What?”
“Someone here to see you.”
“Take care of it, would ya? This piston is being a real pain in my ass.”
“Nah, this one’s for you.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Special delivery.” The angry hottie gave me a smug smile and crossed his arms, clearly content to wait for the show.
I rolled my eyes, aggravated and beginning to regret not eating all day. I hadn’t been able to conjure up an appetite before, but for some reason, this asshole was clearing my head and bringing me back to myself.
The side door opened, and a guy about my dad’s age walked in. He had salt and pepper coloring his dark hair, including his short beard, but his face was somehow still youthful. Maybe it was the hard set of his features or the sinewy arms that looked like they picked up more than just a bottle every night. But something about him seemed young and able despite the age his gray hair implied.
“What the hell is it?” he demanded of the asshole who looked like he was about to swallow his teeth with that smug ass smile.
Without a word, the jerk gestured to me.
“Who are you?” the older man grunted at me.
“Are you Oscar?” I asked, some of my bravado fading at the grumpy way he eyed me.
“Maybe. Who the hell wants to know?” he demanded.
His eyes cut the length of me, but he didn’t react at the blood like the others had. I had to wonder how much of this sort of thing he’d seen in his life if it didn’t faze him anymore.
“My name is Ash. My father was Joseph Langford.” I paused, waiting for the recognition to register in his eyes.
But there was nothing.
“I believe he was your brother,” I added pointedly.
Oscar’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
Uncertainty rippled through me. For the first time since leaving my father’s body behind, I wondered if I’d made the right choice.
What if he’d been mistaken?
What if the pain and whatever monster had infected him had made him crazy? Of course, he didn’t have a brother. He would have told me—
“Did Cohen put you up to this?” the hottie suddenly demanded.
He gripped a shop rag in his clenched fist, and I shrank back at the animosity that rolled off him.
“Who’s Cohen?” I asked, my voice suddenly not nearly so confident as before.
“Don’t play with me,” he growled. “You can tell Cohen sending some doe-eyed little ragdoll in here isn’t going to—”
“I don’t know any Cohen,” I said, shaking my head in frustration. Grief threatened to break me down. But my anger steadied me. I held onto that.
“Right. Just like that isn’t makeup all over your face. Give me a break.”
Fury swelled. He really thought I’d fake bruises like the ones currently making my head throb? I reached for my cell phone—which was basically nothing but photo storage since I didn’t have service—and pulled it out, sliding up and scrolling my photos until I found the one I wanted.
“Look,” I snapped, holding the phone up so Oscar could get a good look.
He blinked, his eyes glancing over the picture of my dad. It was from a couple of months back. He’d been sober, and we’d gone for a drive down to the lake and back. My throat closed up just remembering it—and knowing it was our last good day together. Forever.
In fact, these photos were the only reason I’d bothered bringing the damned phone at all.
Oscar did a double-take, staring at the screen, a frown frozen on his angry expression.
“This is bull shit,” the other guy went on. He was still looking at me like he was about to grab me and toss me out on my ass at any moment. “Tell her, Oscar,” he added.
But Oscar hung his head and shook it slowly before waving him off. “Kai, you can go. I’ll finish up here.”
The hot asshole was named Kai.
And Kai did not look happy with that order.
“Oz, you can’t be fucking serious—”
“I mean it,” Oscar snapped, rounding on Kai and pinning him with a glare that would have made me shit a brick. “I got this. Now go.”
Kai cast me a look that made it clear he was only more pissed at being told to leave. Muttering to himself, he tossed the rag onto the counter with more force than necessary and then turned and stomped out through the side door. I could hear him slamming a few tools around in the garage, and then another door slammed, somewhere in the back.
A few seconds later, an engine revved to life.
Even then, Oscar didn’t say a word. Instead, he marched around the counter and opened something down low I couldn’t see. When he pulled his hand up, it held a beer.
“You want one?” he asked gruffly.
My stomach sank. I shook my head.
He uncapped it and held it out anyway. “You look like you need it as much as I do,” he said. “Maybe more.”
I shook my head again, bile rising. If this guy drank as much as my father, how was he supposed to help me? It felt like I’d just walked into another version of the life I’d left behind.
“I’m good,” I said.
Oscar shrugged and tipped it back, emptying half the contents before he came up for air again.
Outside, the sound of an engine grew louder. Closer. I turned to see a black motorcycle rounding the corner from the back alley. The rider made the turn onto the main road way faster than he should have.
Even with the helmet he wore that obscured his face, I knew it was Kai.
He didn’t even look over as he sped away on two wheels.
I looked back at Oscar, unable to take the silence anymore.
“Are you going to say something?”
“My brother’s name was Caleb Lawson when I knew him.”
His voice was quiet, but there was an undercurrent of anger that kept me on edge, no matter how calm he appeared to me. Still, curiosity made it impossible to stay quiet.
“What do you mean ‘when you knew him?’”
He sighed. “I haven’t seen or heard from Caleb in twenty years.”
“Good question. Guess you’d have to ask him.”
“Well, I can’t because he’s dead.”
I’d meant to say the words in a flat voice. Uncaring. Untouched by it. But it was the first time I’d said it out loud, and my voice cracked on the last word.
Oscar’s expression fell. For a split second, I saw the pain he carried at having lost his brother, not once but twice now. Then the neutral mask slid back into place.
His eyes zeroed in on my face knowingly. “That isn’t makeup you’re wearing, is it?”
“Why the hell would I fake getting the shit beat out of me?” I retorted.
He softened. Only by a few inches, but it was enough.
I took a breath to steady myself, and before I knew what was happening, the truth was spilling out of me. Well, most of it anyway. There were secrets I would never utter, not for anyone. But this was close enough.
“My mom left when I was thirteen. After that, my dad became paranoid. We moved a lot, and he drank—to cope, I guess. A couple of years ago, he started gambling. Stupid stuff. Card games. Betting. Problem was he couldn’t afford it. Last night, a bookie came to collect.”
“Is that who did this to you?”
Oscar didn’t respond.
My head throbbed, and my body felt like it had been hit by a truck. The last two days were catching up, and I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could handle before my body simply gave out on me.
“Why did you come here?”
My temper rose at the question. The challenge in it. It was clear he didn’t want me here. Which meant I would have to figure out my next move. And I’d have to do it without a car.
“Before he died, Dad said to come find you. That you’d protect me.”
Ugh. Even saying the words felt embarrassing. I hated asking for a handout.
Oscar looked skeptical. Or maybe just confused. “From bookies?”
“I don’t know,” I shot back. “Dad was convinced there was someone after us. It’s why we moved so much.”
“Your dad was special,” Oscar said slowly, and something about it made me think of the beast he’d become right before…well, the end.
I didn’t answer.
“How’d you get here?”
I sighed, sick of the inquisition. “My car died a few miles back, so I walked the rest of the way in. Look, if you don’t want me here, fine. Just say the word, and I’ll go. But I’m not going to answer any more questions like I’m some sort of criminal or imposter. I just watched my dad get murdered in front of me, and before that he— Ugh. Never mind. I’m out of here.”
I started for the door, my balance wavering thanks to the exhaustion and pain I’d finally begun to feel. But I refused to stop now. I could do this. I could get a job. Find a hole somewhere to sleep. A trailer or maybe rent a room. I’d worked since I was fourteen, so that wasn’t a deterrent. I didn’t mind the work. It was the being alone part that would suck.
My hand closed over the knob just as I heard the words, “Hold on.”
I stopped but didn’t turn back.
“I have an extra room upstairs. You can have it if you want.”
I turned slowly, half-convinced he was kidding.
“You’re letting me stay?” I asked.
“Did the bookies get their money?”
“Do they know your name?”
“Then you’ll stay.” He pushed off from the counter and headed through a swinging door that led toward the back. “Come on. I’ll show you the way up, and you can shower. I’ll call a tow truck for your car.”
“I – I don’t really have money for—”
“Relax. Crater owes me a favor.” He turned back, eyeing me where I still stood by the exit. “You coming?”
I could have said no. Actually, a big part of me wanted to turn him down and waltz out of there. To prove I didn’t need some grouchy stranger of an uncle whom I didn’t even know existed before now. But the sad fact was that I did need him.
And a shower sounded way too good to pass up.
Not to mention a bed. It might even have a pillow.
“Yeah,” I said finally, “okay.”
Too tired and broken to argue, I followed him upstairs. To an apartment above the Twisted Throttle Motorcycle Repair Shop. My new home.
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