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Published by Nyx House Press, 2016.
Current copyright 2010-2016 by Tonya Kerrigan
All rights reserved
Published in the United States by NYX House Press
First published September 2016
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews, promotions, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
For Thing 1, Thing 2, Thing 3, and Thing 4.
You guys are my world.
There are so many people who inspired me or helped me write this book: first and foremost, my friends and family who have always believed in me and cheered me along the way.
There are many writer friends I’ve made, including Jordanna East and Victoria H. Smith to name a few; the ladies at the Chicago-North Romance Writers of America® for putting on the amazing Spring Fling Writer’s Conferences where I have learned tons and met so many great authors, and my amazing beta reading team consisting of Betty G., along with Sheila Haab of Sage Editing.
I'd also like to give a huge thank you to my niece, Olivia, for being my professional proofreader.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, locales or establishments—business or otherwise—is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by germancreative|Fiverr
Photo by katalinks|depositphotos
Under the rising sun in Grant Park, I bent down into a calf stretch, reminding me once again I’d forgotten to put underwear on. I’d gotten to bed just a few hours earlier after spending a night out with Mia at a new club, Z’s, only to wake up after falling from my bed onto the floor, terror seizing my breath while blood rushed through my ears and my heart galloped out of my chest. It’d taken a few heart-stopping minutes to realize it’d only been a nightmare. I couldn’t remember much other than the primal fear of being chased by a beast with a desire to rip out my throat as I screamed for my life, and then relief at being saved by a man in black. It’d left me unsettled enough I couldn’t go back to sleep, so here I was. At six in the morning. Apparently trying to run off my dream.
I stretched my other leg, again reminding me of my wanton state. Maybe it’ll make my run more exciting.
With Buckingham Fountain as my starting point, I jogged at a slow pace with the skyscrapers of Chicago a backdrop behind the trees. Already the heat rose up from the ground, though it wasn’t muggy, not yet. As I rounded up to the fountain, a figure emerged from the grove of trees and waved me over. My eyes flicked over him, but I ran on.
“Tora!” a deep voice yelled.
Breath heavy, my muscles tightened at the sudden stop. I looked back at the man in the shadow of the trees. I didn’t recognize him, but something about him seemed vaguely familiar.
“Don’t worry. I won’t bite. I simply want to talk to you.”
“Yeah, right.” I snorted. “Isn’t that what the boogey man says before he murders little children?”
“As I said, I won’t hurt you.”
He was at least six feet or taller. His dark hair waved past his shoulders, and he wore a suit. Who the hell went out to the park at six in the morning wearing a damn suit? God, wasn’t he roasting in that?
He motioned me over again, but before I could come up with another wiseass retort, he retreated into the trees.
I ran a hand through my hair. I could simply turn away and leave, but then I wouldn’t know who he was, what he wanted with me, or more importantly, how he knew my name and followed me here.
Isn’t this just craptastic. If I wanted information, I’d have to go to him. There went my plan of running away from danger. Apparently, I was stupid after all.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I cautiously approached him.
As soon as I entered the grove, he stepped back and disappeared. Shit. I was probably about to get myself killed by a murderer with a penchant for well-tailored suits.
He stood a ways ahead in the dark of the trees. I could only see his silhouette.
My gut did a somersault and my mouth went dry. Should I stay or should I go? Now the damn song was in my head. “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer.
“What do you want?”
He hadn’t answered my first question so it was unlikely he’d answer the second.
Gazing at me, he stood very still.
I hadn’t seen anyone else on my run. If I screamed until my lungs collapsed, chances were good no one would hear me. Should I stay or should I go?
My curiosity won out and I decided to stay. Yeah, I’d probably just signed my death sentence, but from here he looked kinda hot, and not because he was overdressed for the weather. Plus there was a niggling thought in the back of my head telling me I knew him...somehow.
Keeping my gaze steady on him with every sense on high alert, I trudged deeper into the grove. Butterflies flew in the pit of my stomach. Why did he seem so familiar? The closer I got, I could make out more of his features...piercing eyes that seemed to burn through me and a face sculpted by angels on a very good day of high cheekbones, a strong jawline, straight nose, and full sensuous lips I was sure could make a woman scream.
His lips turned up into a slow, seductive smile.
That’s when it struck me. That smile. Holy shit! He was the hero in my dream!
My eyes roamed over him. No friggin’ way. I didn’t even know the guy and I’d dreamt of him? Had I met him last night? My mind raced, trying to remember. I didn’t recall anyone slipping anything illegal into my drink, and as far as I knew I hadn’t smoked, snorted or shot up anything. At least, I didn’t think I had. Then why did I dream about him?
My stomach dropped all the way down to my feet in a state of being utterly flabbergasted. “You’re real.” I moved my bangs out of my eyes. “How are you real?” I winced at how stupid that sounded. Of course, he was real...or I was majorly hallucinating, which brought me back to the question of whether or not I’d had anything illegal the night before. If so, then it must’ve been some reeeaaallly good shit. “I mean, do I know you?”
He gave a low chuckle. “Why wouldn’t I be real? And no, while you may not know me, I certainly know you, Tora.” He gave that slow smile again.
A blush rose over my chest, all the way up to my forehead.
He looked inhumanly beautiful, like a fallen angel with an air of dangerousness about him. He had the most amazing, deep, seductive voice I’d ever heard. It settled over me like a blanket. Just hearing his voice made me really—
Wait...did he say he knew me? He didn’t just know my name. I stepped back a number of paces to put space between us. “Who are you?”
No wonder why he seemed so familiar. I relaxed a smidge. Just some business tycoon. Though I’d never met him, I’d heard the name...which didn’t explain how he knew me or why I’d dreamt of him in the first place. I tensed up again and narrowed my eyes in suspicion. “How do you know me?”
“I’ve been watching over you since the day you were born.”
Goosebumps sprang from my scalp down to my toes and I hugged myself. “Since I was born? In other words, you’ve been stalking me. That’s the worst pick-up line in the history of man.”
With a laugh, he shook his head. “No. I’ve never stalked you, nor am I trying to hit on you. I’ve only wanted to keep you safe.”
Keep me safe. He’d saved me in my dream. Placing a hand on my hip, I flipped my hair back. “So how do I know you’re actually telling me the truth and aren’t some whacked out guy?”
He rubbed his chin and his brow furrowed. “Do you remember when you were fourteen; you’d run away from your foster family, again, late at night?” He tilted his head and regarded me. “You ran into an alley, which, by the way, why did you run into a dark alley in the middle of the night?”
“I remember that, though I don’t know why I did that. I think I was trying to hide.” I shrugged. “I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“What else do you remember from that night?” Voice soft, he nudged my memory.
That was something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. I hadn’t necessarily locked the memory away. If anything, I’d thought about it often afterward simply because it’d been so strange. “This guy...he came out of nowhere and slammed me against the side of a building. I was sure he was going to rape and kill me.” I wrapped my arms around my middle as I relived the feelings of helplessness and fear. “But he didn’t.”
My attacker’s face swam up into the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t perfectly recall his features, but his eyes I distinctly remembered. Though it’d been dark, his menacing leer shifted into absolute shock and terror as his own nightmare unfolded before him. “Instead he acted like he was having a seizure. He couldn’t breathe at first but then started screaming and ran like hell was after him.” My gaze sharpened on Ryk. “How did you know about that?”
“I was there.”
“You...” I stared up at him, unable to comprehend what he said. “But I never saw you. How could you have been there?”
He blew out a breath. “I guess it’s about time someone knew one of my secrets, but to explain how...” He shook his head. “Part of it is that I can move faster than the human eye can see. To explain it more might frighten you.”
He had to be crazy. I felt sorry for him. The beautiful man before me had a raging case of psychosis.
“I’m not crazy or psychotic, Tora. How could I have known what happened if I hadn’t been there? Yet, you didn’t see me.”
What he suggested was impossible. To believe it meant there was something mentally wrong with me. “It was dark. And I was scared up to my eyeballs. Obviously, I didn’t notice you.”
“How right you are. You didn’t notice me.”
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. To accept the alternative meant...he wasn’t human. That was something I couldn’t believe, not yet anyway.
Instead, I focused on other things. “You said you’ve been watching over me to keep me safe. You knew about the incident when I was fourteen. Do you know about other times—other things that’ve happened to me?”
His eyes bore into mine. His jaw clenched right before he gave a slight nod.
“You do know.” Memories I’d thought were locked away started to escape. My heart beat faster. My skin became clammy, and my breath came out in little pants. Craptastic didn’t even cover it—more like fuck—a panic attack was coming on.
“Tora, stop. You’re stronger than the past. Don’t let it have power over you.” He touched my hand, bringing me back to the present. “Come back.”
Clenching and unclenching my fists, I took deep breaths and counted to ten. Don’t lose it. Get under control. It was easier to gain control when I was mad, so I directed my anger at him. “Then I’d say you pretty much failed.” I lifted my chin and gave him an icy glare. “Why didn’t you ever save me from the childhood I’d had?”
He lowered his head without breaking eye contact, looking at me with such an intense gaze it made me squirm. “I know you’ve had many trials, Tora. Trust me when I say I wish I could’ve whisked you away from them. But if I had, you wouldn’t be the person you are today.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” His words only incensed me more. “You mean to tell me I was supposed to be abandoned, mentally and physically abused by people I should’ve been able to trust, almost...” I spun around and paced away. The memories wouldn’t go back into their lockbox. More and more kept coming. Heart pounding, stomach heaving, I wanted to hurl. Turning back to him with my fists clenched, my body vibrated with rage. “I was almost raped numerous times. I was fucking ten, fucking ten years old the first time someone tried to touch me, and you’re going to stand there and tell me it was supposed to happen?” Angrily I wiped at my eyes. I was not going to cry in front of this stranger.
“No. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and I made sure certain things didn’t happen. But I couldn’t protect you from everything, and for that I’m truly sorry.” For a fleeting second, a look of pain crossed his face. “Every time you were hurt, I made sure you were put into a different home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to me which homes you went to. I know a few of them were good, but most of them were bad.”
Did he mean I had to suffer to make a better therapist? What was the saying—therapists and counselors were screwed up people too. If only he’d saved me from the heartache I’d lived, I was sure my life would’ve been better.
“Because you’ve been through so much, you feel others’ pain,” he continued. “You are compassionate almost to a fault, and you have the ability to help others better because of it.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Your experiences will also make you a better leader as well. And I did help you when you’d needed it most, but I’d had to keep my presence largely unknown.”
Shaking my head, I mumbled, “That’s insane.” None of this made any sense at all, but hearing him say he helped mollified me a little, though I was still pissed. “Why have you been watching over me? Are you some long lost cousin of mine or something?”
“No long lost cousin. More of a...family friend, you could say.”
“Uh-huh.” I eyed him skeptically. There was no way my mother sent him to watch over me, and I doubted my father knew him. “Who?”
He clasped his hands behind his back. “Your great-grandmother, Viktora.”
My breath came out in a rush, and my chest caved in as if being crushed. My great-grandmother died many, many years ago, like about seventy. There was no way in hell the man standing before me was over seventy years old. He looked to be in his early thirties at most. “You knew my great-grandmother?”
“I did, yes.”
Licking my lips, I pushed a lock of hair behind my ear. “But you couldn’t have. She died years ago.” It was impossible he’d known her. But if he’s not human. Would he chase after me if I tried to run?
“Don’t be afraid of me, Tora. Please. There’s a lot I want to explain to you, and if you want to run away after I’ve had my say and never see me again, well...” he spread his hands out in front of him, “then that’s your choice and I won’t stop you.” He took a cautious step toward me.
Instinctively, I took a step back.
He stopped and raised his hands, palms out. “Please, Tora. Hear me out.”
Run, you stupid bitch, run! It took everything I had to stay put. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” I couldn’t keep the waver out of my voice.
He nodded and let his arms fall slowly at his sides. “I was with Viktora when she died. I didn’t let her die alone. She asked me to watch over her family, and that’s what I’ve done since. I made a promise to her to guard you.”
“Me?” I squeaked. “But. . .” That made absolutely no sense at all. “How could you make a promise to look after me when I hadn’t been born yet? Not even conceived?”
“Not you personally. As you said, you hadn’t yet been conceived. More like her descendants, which you are one.”
I studied his face. He had to be lying. There was no other explanation. Unless...nope. I couldn’t think of anything and shook my head. “There is no way you could be old enough to have known my great-grandmother.” I defiantly crossed my arms over my chest.
Relaxing his stance, he gave a half-smile. “How do you know that?” He held out his hand to me. “Walk with me, and I’ll answer more of your questions.”
I flicked my gaze down at his outstretched hand and then looked into his eyes. There was amusement in them, and he smiled. If he was truthful, then he wasn’t out to hurt me. If he was lying, then I was already dead. In his own words, he was faster than the human eye could see. If he wanted to kill me there’d be no way for me to escape, so what did I have to lose?
Reluctantly, I closed the distance between us and took his outstretched hand. “All right.”
His hand was warm and his grip gentle. He smiled at my acceptance. “Walk with me.” We strolled out of the grove and along the edge of the courtyard. Neither of us spoke for a minute. He tried putting me at ease, but still my heart pounded against my chest.
I slanted a look at his profile. “So...what was up with hiding out in the trees?”
He gave a crooked smile so boyish, it made my heart melt. “I like my privacy. Luckily it’s fairly deserted this early. I didn’t want anyone to overhear our conversation.”
Looking down at the ground and then our entwined fingers, I mulled over his answer. For someone who liked his privacy, he certainly stood out.
“Why didn’t you let me know about you before?”
“It wasn’t time. Now it is. Besides, I didn’t want to frighten you by showing up at your doorstep.”
No. Instead you got in my head.
My heart raced though not so much from fear. I was still a little afraid of him, but now it was more of an arousing fear. I was so screwed up. “So what are you? My guardian angel?” I joked.
He laughed long and low at that. His laugh was amazing and made me want to hear it again. I couldn’t help but smile in return.
“No. No angel indeed.” Chuckling, he shook his head. “I’m definitely not that.”
My mind drifted to him being a fallen angel again. “Okay, that obviously amused you. Then...my guardian?”
“That’s better.” He nodded once. “Yes, I suppose you could call me your guardian.”
“But not an angel.”
“No. The damned can’t be angels,” he said, voice soft.
Hmm. I filed that tidbit away. There were only two species I knew of who were so-called damned. “Why did my great-grandmother want you to keep an eye on me?”
He stopped walking and turned to me. “I promise I will tell you in due time. But first, there’s more you need to learn about yourself: who you are, where you come from; your history.”
“You already know everything, and I really don’t mind if you tell me.” I put on my most pleading expression. “In fact, I wish you would.”
He slowly shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he brought his hand up, effectively stopping me from saying more.
“I wish I could tell you everything. But trust me when I say you wouldn’t even consider it.” He dropped his arm and lowered his gaze, giving me that intense look again.
Now that we were in the sun, I could see his eyes were a deep sapphire blue ringed by long, thick, black lashes. Mmm, bedroom eyes. I quickly blinked that thought away. Hopefully, he couldn’t read minds, though I had an inkling he could.
“There are certain things you need to discover on your own, so you’ll have no choice but to believe. If I told you outright, you’d probably run, leaving me in the dust.” He reached up and gently stroked my cheek with the tips of his fingers, his voice barely a whisper. “I don’t want you to run.”
Tingles ran through my body at his touch, and I inhaled sharply.
“If you find out your history on your own, you’ll not only accept it, but you’ll understand it and make it yours.” His fingertips slid down along my cheek to the side of my neck before they dropped away completely. “I’ll be there along the way to help, but I won’t freely give out information you’re not ready to hear.”
I pulled back. Granted, I was still on the fence about his humanness and state of mind, but he could at least tell me. “If what you’re saying is true, then you’re the one person who should know I make my own decisions. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was ten. It’s up to me to decide whether or not I’m ready. Not you or anyone else.” Pressurized anger built in my chest. “You gave me the tidbit about Viktora, told me you knew about the incident when I was fourteen, admitted you’ve got some superhuman skills, and yet think I can’t handle some jaw-dropping information about myself?” My nostrils flared as I glared at him. “I’d call that being an asshole.”
He sighed but didn’t rise to my anger. “You need to understand the sacrifices that were made rather than wallow in self-pity. That won’t happen if I simply give you the details.” He took my hand and gave a gentle squeeze. “I want you to become what you’re meant to be and rise to your fullest potential.”
Rise to my fullest potential? The pressure in my chest started to wane, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my anger just yet. “So, what, this is like a journey to self-discovery?” The snide remark popped out of my mouth.
He grinned. “Exactly. That’s exactly what this is. Of course, once you discover the secrets of your family, you’ll still have the option to walk away if you so desire.” He stepped close to me, so close I could feel the heat of his body radiate to me. He slowly raised his hand, but then made a fist, dropped his hand and stepped back.
I narrowed my eyes. What the hell was that about?
“You need to be careful, Tora. There are those who don’t want you discovering who you are. The more you find out, the more danger will lie ahead. I’ll try to be there for you and to keep you safe, but not even I can be everywhere at once.” Nodding, he smiled and started to turn away.
“Ryk!” I called.
He pivoted back and tilted his head.
“How can I get a hold of you if I need to?” Not that I believed him yet, but at least I’d get his number.
Smiling, he held out his hand. “Your phone?”
I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and handed it to him.
He tapped a few buttons. “There, I’m number one.” Giving me a quick grin, he turned away into the trees and then seemed to just...disappear?
I checked my contacts and found him. I stood there for a minute longer, taking everything in but yet still unsure as to what to make of the situation. He was old enough to have known my great-grandmother. How?
He’d known about the incident when I was fourteen. He said he wasn’t an angel but my guardian. What in the world was he? Holy hell, this was too much information for my brain to process.
“Oh, crap.” I noticed the hour and realized I’d spent way too much time here. Class started in half an hour, and I’d barely have time to get home to grab my books. I glanced down at my red tank-top, jean cut-offs, and sneakers. Oh yeah...and no underwear.
My run had turned out to be exciting after all. Snickering, I headed for home. Since I didn’t have time to change, I wondered what would be in store for me at school.
Maybe I should go braless too.
Yawning hugely, I rubbed my hand over my eyes and tried to pay attention. Mr. Snyder droned on and on about the Norns in Norse lore and the Fates of Greek mythology.
Somnolence threatened to overtake me. I sat up straighter and eyeballed the doodles in my notebook, proof my mind was not in the same place as my body. Glancing at the clock, I groaned. Only forty minutes had passed...I still had another fifty minutes to go. I’d just copy off Mia’s notes after school. I turned to her and scowled. How did she manage to look so fresh and perky? Obviously, she hadn’t been woken up by strange dreams.
In fact, she’d gone all out and actually beautified herself. Her light-brown hair with honey highlights was perfectly coiffed with gentle curls. Her large, soulful brown eyes were made up in colors of blue, her cheeks rouged, and her lips pouty and pink.
I cast my gaze down and scrutinized myself. I hadn’t even had time to run a brush through my hair, which currently hung limply at my waist. I probably reeked too, considering I’d built up a sweat during my run. Maybe Ryk liked stinky girls seeing as he’d actually held my hand, or maybe he had no sense of smell. I felt grungy next to Miss Perfect beside me.
Letting out a loud sigh, I tried to pay attention to Mr. Snyder as his lecture switched to Norse gods and the Valkyrie. The subject material was interesting though I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, my mind kept drifting to my dream from the morning along with meeting my...guardian of all things. I still wasn’t sure if I believed him. Seriously, how could he have known my great-grandma, Viktora? If she died almost seventy years before and he looked to be in his early thirties, then he’d have to be at least a hundred years old.
Maybe he was psychic or psychotic or—a psychotic psychic. Yeah, I’d go with that for now, because to think of the alternative was simply too crazy to comprehend.
“Ouch!” I yelped at the sharp smack on the back of my head and glared at Mia. Her eyes traveled from mine to the class. Blinking a few times to clear my vision, I squinted at the sea of faces staring back at me. This can’t be good. How embarrassing.
Mr. Snyder leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms over his chest and smirked.
I knew I was in trouble. He had a reputation for being an ass. In fact, I’d witnessed his assholishness myself with other students.
“Why don’t you tell us where your mind wandered to, Ms. Hayden?”
“Uh...um.” I licked my lips and my gaze drifted about the class. Bringing my attention back to Mr. Snyder, I swallowed hard. What to say? Let’s see...today I discovered I have a humanoid guardian who claims to be faster than the eye can see?
Clearing my throat, I prepared to make more of an ass of myself. “I...um...was so engrossed in your lecture I guess I sort of zoned out.” Jesus. Not even I’d believe that.
“Really.” He drew out the word and raised a brow.
I heard some snickers but didn’t take my eyes off him. “Y-yes.” My face flamed from embarrassment.
“And what do you recall my lecture being, Ms. Hayden?”
My mind raced as I tried to remember what his lecture was about, seeing as how I’d been zoned out for most it. “Well...” I squirmed in my seat as he stared me down. “You were talking about Norse gods.”
His gaze narrowed. “And who was the last god I mentioned?”
Christ! I wanted to slam my head on the desk and knock myself out. I recalled seeing a picture of a god while flipping through the book the day before. What was his name? “Odin?”
He continued to regard me suspiciously for a few seconds before addressing the class. “Don’t forget your analyses of three different gods from the three different pantheons are due Wednesday.” He looked pointedly at me. “Let’s see how well you paid attention, Ms. Hayden. Class dismissed.”
I quickly hopped up and jostled my way out while Mia trailed behind. “I can’t believe I’d spaced out.”
Mia snorted. “Spaced out?” She glanced down at me from the corner of her eye. Even though she was rather short herself, she’d lord it over me that she was two inches taller. “What happened between you taking me home last night and this morning?”
“Nothing much, really.”
“Mm-hmm. You came to school looking like you’d just rolled out of bed, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Honestly, Tora. Did you even comb your hair?”
I ran my fingers through my tangled, snarled hair. “Maybe not.”
“If I didn’t know you any better, I’d say you were high.”
“It’s...complicated.” God, complicated didn’t even cover it. “Extremely complicated. Hallu-cated, basically.”
“A complicated hallucination? What did you do?”
“If you’re thinking I’d purposefully doped myself up, you’re wrong.” I dropped my bag on the floor and plopped down in one of the overstuffed chairs in the hallway sitting area and leaned my head back, trying to figure out how much to tell her.
Mia sat in the chair beside me, a worried look on her face.
I picked at the frayed edges of my shorts. “I had a weird dream this morning. I remembered being saved by a guy, but I couldn’t go back to sleep afterward, so I went to the park for a run.”
“What did the guy look like? Was he hot?”
I shot her a look. “What does that have to do with anything?”
She leaned back in her chair and shrugged. “You dream about a hot guy saving you. You need a man, Tora.”
I scowled at her. “No. I don’t. Besides, the dream is only part of it.”
She raised her eyebrows, intrigued.
“He was at the park. I mean, actually there.”
“You were hallucinating?”
“No!” I threw my hands up. “He was actually there. I talked to him.” I rubbed my forehead to will away the coming headache. “I don’t understand it. I’ve never met him before; pretty sure I’ve never even seen him. But why would I dream about him and then meet him?” I stared at the ceiling. “Maybe he was a hallucination. I don’t know.”
Mia scrunched up her face. “I think you should see a shrink.”
“Yeah, right.” I put my feet up on the coffee table. I’d spent countless grudging hours in therapy while growing up. Talk about irony my major was psych. “I don’t need to see a shrink.”
I pulled my phone out to check the time and noticed two missed calls. “I need to get going.”
We walked in companionable silence to the Metra at Fifty-Ninth Street a couple of blocks off the University of Chicago campus.
“Are you still going to Unforgettable today?” she asked.
“Yes. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” The thought of a day of pampering lifted my mood.
“You’re so lucky. I could use some pampering. This wedding planning stuff is stressing me out. Don’t get me wrong—I love it. It’s just...” she stopped walking and grabbed my arm, “I’ve only got a month until I’m a married woman.” She slowly shook her head back and forth and looked both amazed and scared at the same time. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“About getting married. Am I doing the right thing?” She bit her lower lip and looked uncertain.
I stared at her in amazed shock. “You’re seriously asking me if you’re doing the right thing? You do realize how anti-man I am?” Getting serious with anyone was the absolute last thing I wanted, especially after Aiden’s cheating ways.
Mia giggled. “You sound like Dr. Seuss. Anti-man, I’m anti-man, anti-man I am.”
Grinning, I laughed along with her. “Okay, okay. Look. Can you see yourself with him fifty years from now, still stupid in love even though you’re both saggy and old?”
Her eyes took on a dreamy quality. “Yeah.” She smiled a little and then her focus sharpened back on me. “I can see it. We’ll both be old, wrinkled, and gray. He’ll be balding and have this potbelly and my boobs will be hanging down to my waist, but I’ll still be stupid in love with him. Thanks.”
She twirled around and I looked past her shoulder. Her fiancé, Gabe, stood ahead next to a shiny red Nissan Cube parked along the street. The sun reflected off his watch creating blinding rays as he fervently waved to get her attention.
She waved back to let him know she saw him, turned toward me and started walking backward away from me in his direction. “Go and relax. Get your mind off Aiden, the cheating bastard. I’ll see ya at work tonight.” With a huge grin, she pivoted around and ran to Gabe. When she reached him, she jumped into his waiting arms with enough force to knock him back against the car.
And then she attempted to suck his brains out through his mouth. At least, that’s how it looked.
Smiling at their public display of affection, I quickly made my way through the crowd to the Metra, making it to the platform with barely a minute to spare.
After boarding the empty train and dropping my bag on a seat, I leaned back and closed my eyes. Luckily it would take less than ten minutes to get home since I lived on Marquette Road which was only about a block from the Sixty-Seventh Station.
My thoughts strayed to Ryk. On a whim, I pulled out my phone and looked up Ryk Xander. A picture of him popped up for R. Xander Industries. “Huh,” I breathed and stared at his picture. He’s actually a living, breathing, nonhuman, male...thing, species, whatever. The main point was he was real and not some awesome, amazing figment of my imagination. My thoughts stayed on our conversation for the rest of the train ride, my walk home, and as I trudged up the narrow stairs to the second floor of my apartment building. Little puffs of dust sprang up with each step as I made my way through the dimly-lit halls toward my apartment. All thoughts of Ryk flew out of my mind when I passed Aiden’s door.
What an asshat.
I strode to my apartment and unlocked the door, ambled in and dropped everything on the floor by my faded brown couch.
Frankie, my twenty-pound pudge of a brown tabby, leapt up on the couch and meowed loudly.
I scratched him behind the ears and instantly felt myself relax. I’d adopted him and Leo, an orange Maine Coon from a shelter, vowing to take better care of them than anyone had for me. Being passed around from foster home to foster home where I’d had to protect myself from sexual advances and endure physical and emotional abuse was not an ideal way to grow up. I was considered a problem child and labeled with all sorts of disorders—conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, attention-deficit disorder—and at no time did the therapists and social workers look at the reasons behind those disorders. After all, they told me living with a foster family was so much better than living on the street. In my perspective at the time, living on the streets would’ve been a hell of a lot better.
I didn’t want to dwell on my past and what I conceded to be the system’s shortcomings. It made me melancholy, and it was all in the past. Since I’d graduated from high school and taken control of my life, things were better now. For the most part, I was happy.
Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I checked my messages. Summer’s throaty voice drifted into my ear. “Hey, sexy. Just calling to remind you of your pampering session today, though I doubt you’ll forget. I can’t wait for you to see the new nail colors. I think you’ll love the Like A Virgin.” Her laugh echoed in my head. “See you then.”
I smiled at the thought of seeing her, and my mood instantly shifted. Summer and I met back when I’d started college when I was a young, wide-eyed, eighteen-year-old freshman three years before and we’d become fast friends. She owned Unforgettable, a hip and trendy salon and day spa, and lived with her lover, Aveya. They were bi, which apparently kept things interesting between them.
The next message was a hang-up. Probably the asshat. Just to be sure, I checked my recent calls. Sure enough, a missed call from the asshat.
Strolling to the bathroom, I pulled my shirt off and dropped it and stripped out of the rest of my clothes along the way, leaving a trail as I went. The only thing I kept on was my necklace; that I never took off.
After showering, I ransacked my closet and settled on a flowing, soft-ivory tank with a ruffled neckline and see-through top layer which I matched with tan-colored khakis. I was meeting with Summer at Unforgettable for a haircut, mani and pedi, all at no charge to me for some pampering and girl-time after my breakup with Aiden the week before. We’d been together seriously as a couple for six months but had been friends for about a year. He’d betrayed me by having a drunken, one-night stand with some woman he’d picked up at a bar.
After dressing, I carefully lined my hazel, almond-shaped eyes with black liquid liner and pulled my long auburn hair back into a ponytail. I assumed my Asian cast came from my mother, but since I never knew her, I didn’t know for sure. Lastly, I slipped on some three-inch spiked heels. I’d considered the six-inch ankle breakers, but since I had a ways to walk, that probably wasn’t the best idea.
I grabbed my purse and keys and strutted out the door hoping I wouldn’t run into Aiden. He lived three doors down, which was a real pain. For some reason, he thought he could still keep tabs on me. Obviously, he knew nothing about The Breakup Rules.
“Speak of the devil.” Of course. The second I stepped out of my apartment, Aiden’s door opened and he popped out of his.
He froze in his doorway for a second, his hand still on the knob, and then his eyes narrowed. “Where’re you goin’?”
Perturbed, I shut my door a bit harder than I’d intended to. “Out.”
He sneered and shut his door. “Out? Dressed like that?”
I had to look up since I didn’t even reach his chin. His white blonde hair and pale skin gave him an almost ethereal look, though he was anything but. His aqua blue eyes darkened with desire and roamed over me. My breathing increased and my body heat rose. Dammit, why was I still attracted to him?
He shook his head as if to clear his mind, leaned his slim yet muscular frame back against his door and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His lip curled up. “So, who are you meeting?”
I slowly let out a breath and thought of my happy place on the beach in Bali. At first, it’d been great having my boyfriend live in the same apartment complex and only three doors down. In hindsight, I never would’ve dated him if kicking him out of my place meant I still had to see him every day.
“I’m going to meet my three Spanish lovers.” I ticked their names off on my fingers. “Alejandro, Luis, and Julian.”
“Since when did you turn into such a slut?”
My eyes bugged out in shock. He believed I’d do three guys at the same time? And here, I thought he was one of the few people who actually knew me.
Agitated, he ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. I told you I was sorry. How many times do I have to say it? I didn’t do it to break us up.”
“Oh, really?” I imagined his head exploding. “So, a night of carnal bliss with someone other than your girlfriend was merely an accident?” My eyes narrowed into a glare. “If you weren’t fucking the barmaid to break us up, then may I ask why?” I tried to keep my voice mild, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d pissed me off.
“I was fucking drunk!” he exploded, his hands gesturing wildly. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Fuck, I probably thought I was doing you!”
My blood boiled through my veins. My heart pounded in my head, and I actually felt heat escape from my ears. “Ooooh, nice. Reeeaaal nice.” Steamed, I shook my head. Unfortunately, I had to walk toward him in order to get past him.
“God, Tora. Isn’t it about time you got over it? It was only one time!” he shouted.
“What the hell does that mean? You only did her one time, or it was only one night? You know what? I don’t want to know.”
“Only one time,” he whispered as I angrily strode past him.
Seeing red, I stopped, came back, stood in front of him and gave him the stink eye as he glowered down at me. The control I’d worked so hard to keep snapped. My leg seemed to come up of its own accord, and I kicked him square in the balls.
His eyes teared up. His mouth made a wide O, and he doubled over in pain. “Bitch, that hurts! What the fuck was that for?” he managed to gasp out.
“Yeah, that’s the point, and why? Well, genius, for that comment you made. And if I want to fuck three guys at the same time, I will. Oh yeah, and fuck you.” I turned on my heel and stomped away. I didn’t know where that reaction had come from, but it felt good to kick him where it hurt and see him in pain. Serves him right. “Well, would you look at that?” I ran a hand down my shirt. “I didn’t even muss up my outfit.”
As I made my way through the hall and down the stairs, I took deep breaths and counted to ten...over and over again. Once outside, I briskly paced to the Metra. I’d contemplated moving, but where would I go? I loved my five-hundred-square-foot apartment in South Chicago. It was cheap, only five-hundred-seventy-five dollars a month plus utilities which was way better than the three-thousand-dollars-a-pop-condos downtown.
The Metra was exactly on time, as usual. I quickly boarded and then hesitated. The car was completely crowded. My choices were to either sit next to a woman bawling her eyes out or stand next to a dude eyeballing me, decked out in leather, chains, studs all over his face and covered in tattoos. He stroked his crotch and licked his lips. Needless to say, I decided to sit next to the woman.
She carried on a loud conversation with someone on her phone. I tried not to listen but couldn’t help it, not with how animated she was. Her eyes were red and swollen from bawling so hard, and she could hardly breathe from the exhaustion she’d put in her conversation. To top it off, she was snotting and wiped her nose on her bare arm, leaving a snot trail that gave me the dry heaves.
“Please, Vinny. Don’t leave,” she begged. “I’ll die if you go.” She carried on, bawling and snotting some more. After a couple minutes, her entire demeanor changed. Her eyes turned to ice, and her tears miraculously dried up. “You fucked around on me? With my best friend?” Her voice got very quiet and lethal. “I’m going to kill you both. I’m going to slit your throats, slice off your dick, and feed you to the dogs,” she said calmly into the phone.
Holy shit. She was like Jekyll and Hyde. Secretly, I wondered if Vinny hadn’t told her he’d cheated just to get rid of her. Maybe I should’ve stood next to Masturbating Guy rather than sitting beside Murdering Bitch.
She slammed her phone shut and turned in my direction, her eyes wild and her mouth in a snarl. “Men, I hate them.” She then wiped her nose, again, this time with the other arm.
How disgusting. I could all but see the germs gleefully jumping from her arms to me. Unfortunately, there was no place else to sit or stand, and I seriously contemplated spending some quality time in a decontamination chamber.
She finally lumbered off at her stop, and the rest of the train ride was blessedly uneventful. Another two stops and it would be my turn to disembark at Millennium Station.
Still edgy from meeting Ryk, my run-in with Aiden and then having to endure sitting next to Murdering Bitch, I got off the train and trekked north on Michigan toward Unforgettable.
An elderly man tramped toward me wearing a dirty, wrinkled, white, ripped-up shirt. His pants looked about two sizes too big and were cinched at the waist with some rope. He struggled to carry an easel, an art canvas, and a container of chalk. The container fell out of his hand and slammed against the concrete sidewalk. Some of the pieces spilled out, and a blue one rolled to the edge of the sidewalk and plopped down onto the street. He hastily dropped the rest of his things, crouched down and tried to edge his way onto the street to get his chalk.
I strode over to see if I could help before he got himself smeared on the road. Kneeling down to his level, I stretched out my hand in case I needed to pull him back. “Sir, can I help you?”
He peered at me over his shoulder, eyes narrowed, mouth in a thin line. With a scowl, he glanced at my outstretched hand. Right then a taxi went streaming by and ran over his chalk, crushing it to smithereens. His mouth dropped open with an intake of shocked breath as he took in the scene before him. His shattered chalk made a long smear line at the edge of the road. Glowering, he turned back to me, lifted his fist in the air and shook it while yelling, “Damn woman! If you hadn’t bothered me I coulda grabbed my chalk before that taxi ran over it.”
I quickly stood and stepped back. God, this old douche was crazy.
He huffed as he picked up his belongings, mumbling loudly, “People. I hate them. Need to mind their own goddamn business and leave everyone else the fuck alone.”
Yes, I loved Chicago.
Grinning, I turned onto Pearson and strolled past Hershey’s toward the salon. For some strange reason, that grumpy old man had put me in a good mood though I didn’t know why. Did the why matter? No, I decided, it didn’t.
I passed Hershey’s and was almost to Unforgettable when I felt it, an itch between my shoulder blades causing a tingle down my spine.
Someone was keeping tabs on me.
I turned my head to the left and casually tucked my hair behind my ear. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him.
Ryk stood a ways back at the corner edge of Hershey’s.
So he is stalking me. Once I got to the salon, I sauntered to the gleaming glass French doors and took hold of the brass handle. Making eye contact with him, I blew him a kiss.
His lips quirked up.
“See ya later alligator,” I whispered.
His smile widened in response, and he whipped out his phone.
As I pulled the door open, a tinkling chime signaled my entrance. A couple steps in, my phone beeped a text. When I looked at the display, my heart stopped; it was from Ryk. Swallowing hard, I opened the text.
In a while crocodile, it read.
Holy shit. Not only did he have a sense of humor, but either he was exceptional at lip reading or he had bat ears. Bat ears, I bet.
I strode past the counter to the styling floor and settled in an empty chair.
Summer lifted her eyes from the guy she was giving a haircut to and grinned. “Hey, Tora. You’re just in time. I’m finishing up here. Look who I’ve got in my chair.” She whirled the chair around.
Kaige took me in with his hazel-green eyes. He, Summer, and Aveya were friends, though I’d hazard a guess they were more than friends...part of the bi thing Summer and Aveya had going on.
Kaige and I had gotten to know each other over the past year. He’d tried getting me to go out with him but I’d always refused. I had no interest in dating someone who had a different girl hanging off his arm every time I saw him.
He’d once asked me why he should stop at one girlfriend when he could have two, three, four or more, all at the same time.
My response? Obviously, he was a manwhore if that’s what he did.
“Hey Kaige, what’s up?”
He gave me a quick, wicked grin. His wavy, dark-brown hair was slicked back away from his sculpted face, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “Interesting choice of words; you can imagine what’s been up, Tora.”
I smirked at him. “Are you still working on that life goal of yours to bed every woman in Chicago or possibly the world?” My voice dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe I should rephrase. What have you been doing lately?”
He laughed, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “This and that.”
I couldn’t help the snort. “Such a typical male response.”
“How was class today?” Summer asked between snips.
“My professor’s an ass.”
“Oh?” She held the scissors and comb aloft. “What happened?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll admit it was my fault. I wasn’t exactly paying attention...you know... daydreaming and all that. He called me out on it.”
“But yet, he’s the ass,” Kaige said.
Twirling my hair around my finger, I narrowed my gaze at him. “Yes. Everyone was staring at me. You know how much I hate that.”
Summer combed a section of Kaige’s hair, pulled it up and snipped the ends. “Daydreaming, you said?”
“I met Ryk Xander while on a run this morning.”
Summer froze for an instant and quickly recovered, while Kaige straightened up. A flash of unease when through me, and I wondered what they knew.
“Ryk Xander?” Kaige asked, an incredulous look on his face. “The billionaire mogul, Ryk Xander?”
“Um, well, I guess.” I shrugged. “Is there another Ryk?”
Kaige snorted. “Yeah, right. Another Ryk.”
“It was pretty weird, actually. He starred in my dream this morning and then showed up at Grant Park.”
Summer’s eyes lifted to mine, but she uncharacteristically didn’t say a word. How odd. She purposefully ignored the topic. I’d get something out of her later. Maybe she didn’t want to talk in front of Kaige.
Kaige eyed me suspiciously. “Hmm.”
“What?” I asked after a minute. “Would you stop staring?”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Seeing as how he’d introduced himself, yes.”
“All done.” Summer set her scissors and comb on the cutting station and pulled the cape off him with a flourish. “Wah-lah,” she sang. “Look at this hunk.” She stood behind him, leaned over his shoulder and rubbed her hand down his chest. “Isn’t he gorgeous? Am I good or what?”
Gazing at him, I had to agree he definitely was gorgeous.
In one fluid move, he stood, shook his head, and raked his fingers through his hair. He wore old, torn, faded jeans that looked soft to the touch and sexy as hell, leather biker boots, and a black, tight t-shirt, showing off his muscled biceps but unfortunately hiding his pecs and abs. Gauging by the biceps, I’d bet he was ripped.
Summer sauntered around from behind him and handed him his sunglasses.
It was then I noticed what she had on.
She was what I considered drop-dead gorgeous. She was tall, curvaceous, and had what looked like a waterfall of white silver cascading to her mid-back. Her eyes were deep green, her skin a light honey. Her outfit screamed, “Look at me!” It consisted of black leather pants, black leather knee-high boots that laced up the front, and a murderous red bustier in which her impressive breasts spilled out.
If only I could wear something like that. Heck, I’d be happy just to have the boobs.
Kaige slid his sunglasses on the top of his head and stalked to me with a devilish grin.
As he stood in front of me, my eyes trailed up his chest to his full lips and finally his sparkling eyes. I had to crane my neck up to see him; he was so tall. Though I’d never date him, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be titillated with his physique and male hotness and sex pheromones he exuded. Damn.
“Feel like going out for brunch?”
“What?” I couldn’t think, not when those hazel eyes captivated mine. From this close, I could see gold flecks in them. No wonder why it looked like they sparkled; they literally did.
“How about brunch, nothing more. Just two friends going out to eat.”
“Actually, I’d rather not Kaige. I’ve got a date with Summer.”
His eyebrow rose. “Can I watch?”
I rolled my eyes. “Not that kind of date. But sure, have a seat if watching Summer cut my hair is a turn on for you.”
He pulled his shades down over his eyes. “Nah. I’ve got more exciting things to do; maybe next time. See you around, Tora.”
Summer led him to the front of the salon to check him out while I took a seat at the shampoo station. As they murmured to each other, Summer looked back at me a few times while Kaige looked up in my direction, giving the impression their conversation was about me...and Ryk, possibly?
Summer came back, picked up a black cape and fluttered it about me, buttoning it at the nape of my neck. She turned the water on and let it heat up.
I laid my head in the bowl and closed my eyes, but not before seeing the grim set of her mouth. Something was up.
After the shampoo and rinse, she led me to her chair. “Your hair is so long, Tora. It’s so thick and luxurious. Half my clients would kill for locks like this. Do you only want a trim today?”
“I don’t know. I’m thinking about layers.”
“Ooh, layers would be good. They’d bring out the natural wave even more.” She pumped up the chair and turned it so I faced away from the mirror. She pulled my hair up, sectioned off a part a couple inches above the nape of my neck and clipped the rest on the top of my head.
I could hear the snick, snick of the scissors.
She let down a section, combed it and cut. “I know you don’t think too highly of Kaige, but he’s actually a pretty decent guy.”
“I know he’s a decent guy, but I can’t date someone who pimps out his dick on a nightly basis.”
She laughed, her emerald eyes twinkling. “Who knows? Maybe you’d be the one to make him settle down.”
“Oh, god. Please don’t talk to me about settling down. I’m sooo not ready for that.”
She was done with the trim and started layering. Long chunks of hair fell as she cut making me a bit nervous, but I trusted her.
“You’ve been so uptight ever since the breakup with Aiden. I think part of the problem is you guys live in the same building, so it makes it harder. You need to loosen up. Have a fling.” She was quiet for a while as she added more layers. “You know there’s never going to be anything serious between you and Kaige. It makes things easier when there are no expectations.” She turned my chair toward the mirror so I could see my reflection. “Ta Da! You look mahvelous, dahling,” she said in an exaggerated accent.
I gawked at the image looking back at me, my eyes wide in wonder. “Wow. This is awesome.” The length was the same, but now it framed my face in soft waves.
Summer fluffed my now-luxurious locks with her hands. “I’ll dry it and it’ll look even better.” She poured a little mousse into her palm, spread it throughout my hair and then dried it using a diffuser. When she was done, I ran my fingers through my hair.
Summer put her hands on her hips. “Stop that, Tora. Unless you want me to lay you on the floor and do you right here, stop messing with your hair.”
I straightened up in surprise. “Sorry. I’m not trying to turn you on. You know I don’t do girls.” I dropped my hands into my lap.
She put the hairdryer away. “Someday I’ll bring you to the dark side.”
“Whatever.” I ran my fingers through my hair again, not able to help it. “You’re a magician, Summer. Really, you are.”
“Well, I’m not really a magician. But yes, I can do magic as you can see for yourself.” She unbuttoned the cape and took it off me. “It’s mani and pedi time.” She lowered the chair and led me to the pedicure area.
Aveya rolled a cart of supplies over and set everything out for my manicure. She looked like a pixie with her tiny face and pointed chin, large aqua-blue eyes against mocha skin, and short, dark-brown hair that feathered about her features. She also had a tiny build and was the same height as me. “What color do you want, Tora?” She held up the bottles as she said their names. “Our new colors are Like a Virgin, Italian Sunrise, Cool Water, Blue Velvet, Ice, and Adventure.”
I studied the colors as she placed my hands in finger bowls to soak. The Like a Virgin was a pearlescent, light, delicate pink. I also liked the reds: Adventure and Italian Sunrise. “I think I’ll go with Like a Virgin.”
“I love that one.” She set the other polishes aside. Holding a tube against my right hand, she squeezed a greenish-colored scrub that smelled like seaweed onto my hand, trailing a line up my arm to my elbow. She set the tube down and started to massage what felt like wet sand into my skin.