(((Authors note- This book is still in edits, so please forgive any typos you may find in this sneak peek))
The leathery-skinned guard manning the little white booth behind the elaborate black iron gates looked from me, to my license, and back again with far more scrutiny than I think the situation warranted. His bushy grey and black brows furrowed as he spoke softly into the microphone strapped to the shoulder of his uniform. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but it was in Spanish and he was kind of creeping me out. Usually, the booths at gated communities were manned by lazy rent-a-cops, but this guy reminded more of someone you’d see guarding a military base. He was one hundred percent no-bullshit and obviously regarded me as someone unworthy to pass through the flowering desert cactus lined gates.
“I look different with my hair down,” I smiled at the guard holding up my license and comparing it to me, trying to appear harmless.
Ignoring me, he looked down at something inside the booth and spoke into his mic while shooting me a quick glance. I forced what I hoped was a sweet smile, and he grimaced in return. Okay, maybe trying to look sweet when I was inwardly fuming wasn’t the best idea. I’d had a couple hours to stew over the injustice of this situation during the drive from Phoenix to Sedona, and my already hot temper was at a slow boil.
If there was one thing I hated, it was being taken advantage of.
He slid the window between us shut while still holding my license. I was tempted to bang on the glass and yell at him to let me through, but that probably wasn’t the best way to handle this situation. My twenty-year-old silver Honda Civic—one year younger than me—gave a hard rattle and my gaze darted to the dashboard. I wondered, again, if taking a car with over two-hundred thousand miles for a drive through the desert was such a great idea. Without looking away from the guard shack and the guy still examining my ID, I gave the sun-bleached dash a little pat, mentally encouraging my ride to keep on chugging.
Normally I didn’t drive outside the greater Phoenix area, other than to go back home to Tucson, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
Finally, the window slid open again. The uniformed guard leaned out, handing me my ID back with an impassive expression. “Thank you for your patience, Ms. Holtz. If you’ll follow the drive up to the main house, Mrs. Roja is expecting you. Just park out front.”
I gave him a toothy smile with no warmth. “Thanks.”
As the mammoth wrought iron gates smoothly slid open, I put my car into gear and eased up the long, winding asphalt drive that led to a massive Mediterranean style home perched on the edge of a big hill, dominating the red stone landscape. The entire property was gorgeous and well maintained, like something you’d see on TV about celebrity homes.
I knew Jacob’s family had money, but not this kind of money.
Growing up in wealth like this would certainly explain his ‘entitled little shit’ behavior.
The nervous clench of my stomach increased. I was sure that, if I touched my abs, I’d find them rock hard with tension, something they never were.
Nope, I was a curvy girl, about thirty pounds over my ‘ideal weight’ as my doctor liked to put it, and soft all over. It wasn’t that I was lazy and sat around eating crap all day. I was pretty active and tried not to pig out too much, but my body held onto those extra thirty pounds like my life depended on it. No amount of dieting seemed to make a difference. Thankfully, most of that weight was distributed between my breasts and ass. But my belly always had a pooch, no matter how many salads I ate, and the last time my thighs didn’t touch when I walked was when I was ten.
The landscaping was beautiful, all done to compliment the desert surrounding the driveway, with big cactuses and flowering succulents brightening the red rock boulders surrounding the house. Overhead, the clear sky burned an impossibly bright blue and I was thankful the weather seemed to be at lease twenty degrees cooler here. Back home in Phoenix, I baked anytime I was outside and longed for the days when I had nothing better to do than hang out in my parent’s backyard and swim in our small, aboveground pool.
What I wouldn’t give for a dip right now—but, no, my moral compass demanded I address injustice immediately. Instead of sleeping in on Saturday morning like any sane person with my busy schedule would, I decided to get up at the butt crack of dawn and drive my ass north. I had to be crazy if I was willing to sacrifice the one day I had to myself and waste thirty dollars in gas for the trip, all because some punk ass little spoiled rich kid lied to me.
To my face.
My palms were sweaty as all hell beneath the bright morning sun. I felt completely out of place surrounded by such luxury, but I put some steel into my spine as I parked behind a black Range Rover with sweet matte black rims and tinted windows.
Money, something I desperately needed and this family had in abundance.
Money that they owed me or, more specifically, what that little fucktard Jacob owed me for tutoring services.
Doubt tried to worm its way into my head, telling me that maybe driving up here unannounced wasn’t the best idea, but I was out of options. Jacob had skipped our last three sessions. If he didn’t show up, I only got paid twenty percent of what I would have earned. I knew he was trouble as soon as I was assigned to him—another spoiled pretty boy who didn’t give a damn about academics, because Mommy and Daddy paid for everything. He drove a BMW, wore fancy clothes, and I’m sure his designer sunglasses were worth more than my car, but that didn’t mean he got to blow me off.
Worse yet, he played me. I have a kind nature—it’s who I am, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I like helping people and taking care of them. I pride myself on trying to give everyone a chance and trying not to stereotype. Who knows? Jacob could have been going through some serious shit, like a death in the family or something. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and he played me but good.
When Jacob first gave me a sob story about being sick, I believed him and emailed him a study guide then coached him through it. The second time, he allegedly got food poisoning, and once again I took time I didn’t have to spare to try and help him pass his class. Stupid me, he probably didn’t even glance at the study guides I spent so much time putting together. His shitty grades certainly didn’t reflect a person who’d reviewed the material I carefully compiled for him.
This last time, he swore up and down that he’d be there, that I didn’t have to worry, that I had his word. Yet, at 7 pm on a Thursday night, I sat in Arizona State’s library waiting…and waiting, and waiting for his ass. Finally, at nine, I gave up and went home, but I was pissed. Really pissed. When I get pissed, I do something about it. But this morning when I arrived at his frat house, ready to ream him a new one, they told me Jacob went home to Sedona for the weekend. Instead of waiting until he came back on Monday—like any normal and well-balanced person—I pulled up his personal file, got his home address, then hopped on the freeway and drove, fuming the whole time.
If Jacob didn’t give a shit about failing out of college, maybe his parents would make him care.
My door creaked as I opened it, the hot breeze instantly drying the nervous sweat that had beaded my nose as I tried to look poised and professional, not the easiest thing to do when you’re built like a chubby porn star.
I hit puberty early at eleven, grew quickly into a full double D cup, and since then, my breasts had been the bane of my existence. First, they drew the attention of any tit man who happened to be in my immediate area—and the vast majority of them saw nothing wrong with staring at some strange woman’s chest, even if she was just a teenager. Second, it was hard to dress with a hourglass figure in a world that seemed to cater to women without curves. Shirts never fit right, because my breast to waist ratio was on the extreme side. They were either fitted on top and super loose around my waist, or fitted around my waist with my bewbs about to bust out. Third, some people looked at my body and instantly assumed I was a slut or a bimbo. Having curly naturally dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimples didn’t help people take me seriously, nor did the fact that I was only 5’3”. People liked to judge, so when they looked at me, their first impression was rarely flattering.
The world isn’t kind to people who didn’t fit society’s narrow stereotypes about how a person should look. Fortunately, I had a strong mother who equipped me well for dealing with a world full of assholes. And my evil bitch older sister had flayed my soul alive with her foul words when we were teenagers, so it took a lot to piss me off. Going through the hell my sister had put me through, and coming out the other side alive, gave me the strength to pull myself together and not chicken out.
I’m a big girl. I can be professional, and I can do this.
I smoothed the black blazer I wore over the coffee brown silk shirt, resisting the need to check my hair. As usual, when I was trying to look like a grown up, I had my mass of hair pulled back into a tight, high bun and wore more makeup than usual. For a moment, I considered grabbing my briefcase. It was like a safety blanket for me, a visible icon that said I was a serious businesswoman, but thought it might be overkill for this situation. I was simply going to ask Mr. and Mrs. Roja to please make sure their offspring showed up to his tutoring sessions…otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to afford my books next semester.
Well, I probably shouldn’t mention my tale of financial woe to people with a three-story mansion, but I was out of options.
Wide, grey and white marble steps led up to the dark maroon painted front door of the house. Beautiful cut glass inserts flanked the entrance on either side, and potted flowers added a touch of color.
I pressed the button for the doorbell, mentally berating myself for the crappy condition of my nails with half the pink polish worn off.
When no one answered, I rang again, wondering if anyone was home, or if it just took twenty minutes to walk from one end of the massive place to the other.
I was just getting ready to ring a third time when the door opened with a rush. My breath caught as I took in the man standing before me. Probably in his late twenties, I swear he was the sexiest and most dangerous man I’d ever seen, but the sneer curving his beautiful, full lips wasn’t exactly welcoming.
When I glanced up, I caught a glimpse of his eyes—gorgeous dark brown flecked with amber and green, highlighted by his cinnamon brown skin. He studied me with a cold detachment that made me want to shrink into myself, those intense eyes framed by wide cheekbones and well-arched brows. His dark black hair, long enough that it swept over his forehead, almost covered his eyes as he cocked his head to examine me. I allowed myself a quick darting look down his body, taking in the wide shoulders hidden behind his black, button up shirt, the thick chest, and powerful arms all tapering down to a trim waist. His black dress slacks fit him perfectly and, as he leaned against the doorframe with a bored expression, his gold watch flashed in the sunlight. A hint of a tattoo on the side of his neck peeked through, and I could see the shadowy suggestion of more ink on his wrists that trailed down to the back of his left hand in the form of a stylized climbing rose vine.
Across his square jaw, he had a thick, dark shadow that only grown men got when they haven’t shaved in a few days.
Damn, he was sexy, dangerous catnip to any woman with a single working hormone in her body.
Then he totally ruined my pervy fantasy by opening his mouth. “What do you want?”
His lightly accented, harsh tone and arrogant, disgusted expression snapped me out of my admiration. “I need to speak with Jacob, please.”
“He’s busy. You can talk to me.”
I gritted my teeth but forced my hands to remain relaxed at my sides. “Fine then, Mr….?”
“My name is none of your fucking business.”
I jerked back. “Excuse me?”
He gestured to the drive behind me, his gold watch reflecting the light. “Look, bitch, whatever you’re selling out of your piece of shit car, we ain’t buying.”
“What? No, I’m here about Jacob. I’m not selling anything. He owes me money.”
His pretty upper lip curled in obvious distaste as he scanned me up and down, his eyes lingering on my breasts for a little too long before he sneered. “Let me guess, he knocked you up? You need money for an abortion?”
His Latin accent thickened as he crossed his muscled forearms over his broad chest, the gold and diamond watch on his wrist catching my attention again with its sparkles. “Whatever bullshit you had in mind coming here, you can forget it now. He’s never gonna be your baby daddy, so I don’t know what strip club or escort service—”
“Escort service! Did you just call me a whore?”
“I see how you’re eyeing my watch, trying to figure out how much money you can get from it. But you can forget that shit, because I would never touch a puta like you.”
My hands clenched down painfully into fists and I took a step forward, crowding him in the doorway and catching a hint of alcohol on his breath. Great, I get to deal with a drunk asshole. Why me? Seriously, what did I do to piss off karma to deserve this?
Gathering myself, I hissed out, “I’m not a stripper, you arrogant fuck. I’m short and I have to wear heels to come even close to looking people in the eye. I’m Jacob’s tutor! Not his ‘baby mama’ or a whore, thank you very much.”
His snort of derision made me see red. “Right, tutor? With those tits? Get back in your car, trailer park Barbie, and drive away, before I make you leave. You’re not the first gold digging stripper to show up claiming he’s the baby’s daddy.”
“I am not a stripper!”
He took out his wallet with a sigh, pulled out a few one hundred dollar bills, then tossed them at me where they fluttered to the ground between our feet. “There, that should cover his lap dances. Now, get the fuck out.”
As I stared at the money laying on the glowing wood floor between our shoes, something inside of me snapped.
I don’t think I’ve been so mad in my entire life. He actually took a step back when I moved into his personal space then grabbed the front of his shirt to keep him from backing up further as I stared up—way up—at him. “I don’t know what kind of messed up, misogynistic world you live in, but a woman’s breast size has nothing to do with the size of her brain. I am not a fucking stripper! I am Jacob’s tutor at ASU, an honor student working on eventually getting my PHD in education. Jacob hasn’t been showing up to his appointments for the last three weeks! He promised me he would be there, and he broke his word. Now, I need to speak to Jacob, and I need to do it right fucking now, or so help me…” I trailed off for a moment, not sure what his name was, then went with my initial pet name, “You arrogant dick, I will make you regret the day you were born.”
“Too late,” he said in a bitter voice, but something in his eyes sparked to life. The sneer curving his rather nice lips softened. Hell, his entire face warmed in a way that made me distinctly uncomfortable. “Do I know you?”
I wanted to look around to see if I was on one of those prank shows with the hidden cameras.
His pupils widened as he slowly examined my face, that disconcerting warmth turning to full on heat. “Do I know you? You seem…familiar.”
“Are you high?”
“Excuse me.” A woman’s husky voice came from my left. “I’m Mrs. Roja, and who might you be? And why are you roughing up my nephew?”
I turned to see an older Hispanic woman with long black and grey streaked hair standing at the base of the stairs. Her cheeks were nicely rounded, which should have given her a kind old woman look, but her gaze was pure ice. A flush burned my cheeks as I realized I was still holding onto the arrogant asshole’s shirt, which I quickly released and then smoothed into place. As I did that, I realized the man’s heart was thundering beneath my palm, and that his skin was warm, so warm. Mrs. Roja cleared her throat, and I snatched my hand away from his chest, feeling guilty like I was caught groping him instead of trying to fix the damage I’d done to his pristine look.
“Ah…uh, I’m sorry. My name is Joy Holtz, and I’m Jacob’s math tutor at ASU.” I cleared my throat then licked my lips, trying to gather myself after my temper tantrum. “He hasn’t shown up to his tutoring appointments for the last two weeks, despite his promises to do so. Normally I wouldn’t bother you with this, but I don’t get paid if he doesn’t show up and…well, I need the money for tuition next semester. He’s missed three sessions. I could have used that time to tutor other clients, but each Jacob swears he’ll be there, then he isn’t. I’ve tried to hold him accountable for this, but he’s avoided me at every turn, which left me no alternative but to come here. I’m so sorry for interrupting your day, but this is important. Not just for me, but for Jacob. He’s going to fail out of school, and I’d hate to see that happen to anyone, but he’s going to leave me no choice but to report him to the school.”
Her lips thinned, and I swallowed hard at the anger filling her deep brown eyes. “No, I completely understand. I’m so embarrassed you’ve had to take time from your no doubt busy schedule to come here. I know who you are, Ms. Holtz. You were highly recommended by the Dean of the Education Department. I was hoping you could perform a miracle with Jacob and get his academic affairs in order.”
I couldn’t help but glow a bit about the words of praise from my usually prickly boss. “Thank you, but I’m afraid it’s going to take a miracle for Jacob to pass at this point, unless he really applies himself.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Roja said in an ominous voice that made me faintly alarmed for Jacob, “that won’t be an issue. I’ll be having a talk with my son about responsibility, and I assure you he will be most eager to do whatever you wish. You have my word.”
I let out a mental sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“Ramón,” she snapped. I darted a glance at the handsome, brooding man now staring at me in a rather disconcerting manner. “Pick up that money. This poor young woman is going to think all the men in this family are ill-mannered animals. Dios, wait until I tell your mother about this.”
I gave Ramón a good glare as he picked up the money he’d thrown at me, then mouthed the word ‘asshole’ at him.
Instead of looking pissed or embarrassed, he smiled at me suddenly in weird way that made the hair on the back of my neck want to stand up. His entire face softened, and I swear his dark eyes were near dancing with laughter. When his gaze dropped to my lips, my stomach filled with a thousand tingling, bursting bubbles. Something…powerful passed between us as he stood and gave me a long, slow look. Before I could protest, he crossed the room and took my hand gently in his own.
The moment our skin touched, a riot of pleasant tingles raced through me. I found my breath picking up. This close, I could smell his sinfully spicy cologne, could admire the perfectly sculpted bow of his upper lip. He had a great mouth, almost pouty, the kind that reminded me of stars from the silent movie era. I bet those lips would feel like velvet against my own. Soft as pillows.
“Please, Joy,” he said in a low voice that seemed to flick my clit. “Accept my apologies. I—well, there is no excuse for the way I treated you. I was an ass. You can smack me if you want. I know if my mother was here, she’d be whacking the back of my head right now for being such a—what did you call me? Ah, yes, an arrogant dick, wasn’t it?”
“No biggie. I mean you aren’t the first guy who looked at me and assumed I was a whore.” My voice came out sounding like I gargled with glass as he continued to hold my hand, my brain short circuiting as I tried to do something other than think about how hot he was, how sparks seemed to flare across my skin at the simple caress of his thumb.
He flinched like I’d hit him in the gut, then gently squeezed my hand before dropping it. “I normally have much better manners than this. Life has been…not good, and I haven’t been sleeping much, but that’s no excuse for the way I treated you.”
“Really, it’s okay.”
“Ramón,” Mrs. Roja interrupted him. “Why don’t you join us after you find Jacob? You can give Ms. Holtz a tour of the grounds to make up for your earlier behavior. Or maybe you could take her out for dinner before she has to drive back.”
Just like that, he went cold, as if someone had thrown a bucket of ice water on his emotions. “Nah, I gotta run.”
Mrs. Roja looked between myself and her nephew, her hands clasping together as concern tightened her brow. “Are you sure?”
He replied in Spanish, obviously assuming because of the blonde hair and blue eyes I had no idea what he was saying. “Don’t push me. You know I can’t go there, especially with someone like her.”
Stung, I tried to pretend I didn’t comprehend his hurtful words as Mrs. Roja replied, “But she’s sweet, Ramón, and—”
“I said no,” he snapped, but I swear he looked at me for a moment with a longing so intense it made my breath catch. “No.”
I pretended to be confused by their exchange as Ramón strode away and Mrs. Roja forced a smile. “I’m so sorry about that. We suffered a loss in the family. My great-nephew passed away, and Ramón loved him very much. He’s very protective of his family and tends to assume the worst in people.”
“It’s okay,” I fibbed, my pride and feelings still stung by Ramón’s harsh words. “I’m very sorry for your loss. Maybe that’s why Jacob’s having some issues in school. If you want, I can check around for a good therapist at school, if he wants.”
“You’re very kind,” Mrs. Roja said with a thoughtful look. “Come with me, Ms. Holtz, and have some coffee. I’d like to talk with you more about your work at ASU while we wait for Jacob to arrive.”
Nine Months Later
I was pissed, so pissed I don’t think my butt cheeks had unclenched since I read the notice taped to our front door. I couldn’t believe that Kayla, my third roommate and an all-around selfish bitch, hadn’t paid our rent on our apartment in four months. We were going to be evicted.
Yeah, our small three-bedroom place wasn’t anything special. There were water stains on some of the ceiling tiles in the kitchen, and our furniture—with the exception of Kayla’s pricy stuff—was secondhand, but it was our home. We lived close to school, within walking distance on a good day, and that saved me much needed wear and tear on my car.
Unlike Kayla, I didn’t grow up with money. Four kids in the house meant things were always tight and both my parents had to work. We struggled, even with help from my maternal grandma watching us after school, and there was no way they could afford college for us. My abuela had offered to put a mortgage on her house to pay for our schooling, but none of us had taken her up on her offer. Like my mom often said, we might not be rolling in money, but we had our pride. We all paid for our own schooling in one way or another. While it did give me the gift of feeling independent, some days I really, really wished I had a family that could help me out financially.
Especially when I realized with growing horror that we would be expected to come up with three months back rent and the next three months paid in advance.
Even if I drained my bank account, it wouldn’t be enough.
A tremor went through me and the threat of overwhelmed tears burned my nose.
Hannah, my best friend in the world and second roommate, stared at me with shock as I paced. She was dressed to the nines in a cute pink and white shorts and tank top set that no doubt cost bank, and she looked like a million bucks, while I was sweaty and stressed in my polyester clearance rack pants that didn’t fit right and fake silk shell top. While Hannah had smooth, dark hair that flowed like silk, my crazy ass curls had decided to frizz out. I’d given up on taming them and had thrown my hair into a sloppy bun.
Hannah’s very, very rich and very, very devoted boyfriend had given her those clothes, and I had no doubt he’d help us out with rent if we asked. After all, Leo Brass worked for one of the biggest business conglomerates in the western United States as a security expert, and he was rolling in dough. A pang of worry went through me as I wondered if Leo would use us getting evicted as an excuse for Hannah to move in with him. I was woman enough to admit that I was jealous of their relationship. Not only did it take away my best friend since kindergarten for increasingly long amounts of time, I also had to watch them fall deeply in love. The epic kind of love that they wrote fairytales about, while my dating history was craptastic.
The door to our apartment opened, and Kayla stumbled through wearing a sexy little glittery emerald green dress and nude high heels. While the dress and heels were nice, Kayla was a hot mess. Her normally razor sharp black bob was totally fucked up in the back and pieces stuck to her sweat soaked forehead. She’d lost so much weight that the thigh gap between her legs had become the Grand Canyon and, when her bleary eyes swept through the living room to us, I noticed her pupils were all blown out. As if her stumbling home high as a kite wasn’t bad enough, three men followed her inside and they were dangerous. The hair on my arms stood up, and I suddenly found myself struggling to catch my breath. The men were all in their late thirties and looked like they’d lived hard lives. It showed in the lines of their face, permanent frowns marring their skin as they stared at us.
The one in the middle smiled, and gold winked from a false tooth as he smirked. His grey peppered brown hair was swept back with a ton of gel, and he just reeked of sleaziness. More gold adorned his thick neck, and he wore rings on every one of his fingers—big diamond encrusted, gaudy ones that sparkled in the light. I’d never seen a man who wore so much jewelry before—outside of a movie, that is—and the guys in the movies who wore rings like that were always big, big trouble. I felt a sharp, paralyzing fear like nothing I’d experienced before. Some primitive fight or flight instinct kicking in, telling me danger was near.
For a long, scary moment there was complete silence. Well, other than our neighbor above us playing screaming heavy metal loud enough that I could easily make out the words. The studied us with the focused intent of a true predator and I tried to keep from freaking out.
These guys were trouble, dangerous. I’ve always been proud of the way I could stand up for myself, keeping my head in tense situations, but these men terrified me into silence. I froze, hoping to avoid drawing their attention as they tried to get Hannah and myself to do drugs with them. The more we put them off, the more insistent they became, and my heart raced with fear as they closed in on us.
Then I made an epic mistake.
Manny, the guy who seemed to be in charge, was manhandling Hannah. He had a gold tooth that kept on flashing when he smiled wide like a shark, and his huge, overweight frame dwarfed my fragile friend. His two friends, Doug, a tall guy with pale brown hair and a serial killer’s smile, and Ray, a short and thick man with dark hair and small, dead brown eyes, watched with matching smirks.
The mood instantly turned deadly as Manny, pissed that Hannah wouldn’t confirm that she was dating Leo, smacked her hard. “I asked you a fucking question, bitch, use your fucking words or I swear to God you’re going to regret it.”
He hit her again, drawing blood from her lips with the power of his blow, and I broke.
“Yes,” I blurted out, trying to spare my friend another slap. “She’s dating Leo Brass. Big guy, long blonde hair, scary. Rides around in a Rolls. Please, don’t hurt her. They’ve only been together for a few weeks. She hasn’t done anything.”
Ray, the guy with the dead eyes, grabbed me by my hair. To my complete shock, he began to slap me around, hard. This was the first time anyone other than my brother or sisters had smacked me, and they’d never done it with their full strength. Pain exploded in my face and I cried out, clawing at the hand holding my hair as Kayla’s scream cut through my own high pitched sobs. Ray ignored my pathetic attempts to get away and hauled me, along with Kayla, down the hallway to my bedroom.
He threw both of us to the floor where we landed in a tangle of limbs. Kayla tried to get up, but before she could do more than get to her knees, Ray had a gun out and pistol whipped her with it until she collapsed with a terrifying gurgle.
Screams were pouring out of me at this point as I tried to scramble to Kayla’s side to protect her somehow, but I was so terrified I was clumsy, getting caught up in my own feet as I struggled to pull myself up on my bed. I was going to grab something, anything, to defend myself, but Ray was on me before I got further than my pillows. He grabbed me by the hair again and threw me to the ground, kicking me in the stomach and back until all I could do was curl up in a ball and try to shield myself.
It hurt to cry, and I struggled to draw in a breath, my gasps choking for air.
Ray hauled me up by my hair and grinned as I heaved with sobs. “That’s right, cunt. That’s what you fuckin’ get for scratchin’ up my hand. Think I’m gonna keep you so I can fuck you to death. Yeah, you’re gonna make me some money. Gonna make you famous for dyin’ with my cock stuffed in your heart. Watching your heart stop beatin’ while I fuck it through the hole in your chest’ll make me cum hard. In fact, I think I’ll jizz on your heart as it beats its final pump. My fans’ll love that.”
The vile picture his words painted made my stomach heave. I tried to use my feet to push away from him, but he merely laughed and hauled me back, clearly enjoying my useless struggling.
He leaned down, and I wanted to wretch as he pulled my hair out of my face, studying me. “Gonna keep you pretty before the fun starts. Cute girl like you? My fans’ll love it when I fuck your face up. Cut your eyebrows off, then your eyelids so you have to watch, so you have to look me in the eyes while I fuck your wounds. I’m gonna cut you from pussy to asshole and, then I’m gonna let my dog either eat you alive or fuck you, his choice.”
Bile, hot and bitter, filled my mouth. My brain short circuited, overwhelmed by fear and revulsion, and it seemed to stop working. I’d read about being struck dumb by terror, had seen videos on the nature channel of it happening to animals, but I’d never grasped how horrible of a thing it was until it happened to me. My flight or fight instincts didn’t even kick in. Instead, I just lay there in shock when Ray gave me one final smile before smashing his gun against my temple and dissolved my world into bright white and black sparks.
My older brother, Fernando, thrashed against the padded leather cuffs we’d had to restrain him with, his agony pouring off him in waves. Sweat beaded his exhausted face, and his black hair was plastered to his skin. He’d fought us so hard, every tendon on his body seemed to stand out with sharp relief. His lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl of anger as we secured him. The man who’d once been my kind, compassionate older brother—the best out of all of us, to be sure—was reduced to an animal, crazed by grief. Nina, his late wife and mother of his only child, had betrayed us all in the worse way, her attempt to extort money from the family resulting in her child’s death at the hands of a rival cartel.
It had been close to a year since we lost Jason, my bright eyed and loving nephew who’d been one of the few sources of real happiness in my life. To say he’d been adored was an understatement. From the moment I first held his tiny form in my arms and looked into his baby blue eyes, I’d lost my heart to the kid. And I wasn’t alone.
While Leo had extracted his pound of flesh from Nina before my mother tortured her to death, there was a list of people a mile long who wished Nina was still alive so they could make her suffer. Even in the fucked up criminal world I lived in, a mother getting her kid killed for money was shocking, and they all agreed that my mother’s slow dismemberment and slaughter of Nina, with me and my cousin’s physical help, was a fitting end to a ruthless bitch. Some may say we went too far, but I promise you, if your child was tortured to death, your outlook on justice would swiftly change.
While her end was fitting and swift, the destruction Nina wrought while she was alive continued to hurt us, day after day, with her evil actions. My nephew’s death changed me, hardened me in a way I knew could be dangerous if I didn’t find some way to bring some light into my life. In many ways, I’d never experienced unconditional love until I met my nephew, never really knew what it was like to love someone like I loved him.
But no matter how tormented I was about Jason’s passing, for my brother Fernando…well, his life was living hell.
Sorrow filled me as I sank to my knees next to the bed my older brother. He continued to fight weakly against his bonds while my mother’s personal physician, an elderly Asian man who worked miracles, sank a needle into Fernando’s arm. The doctor’s expression was tight with sadness and anger as he gave Fernando’s shoulder a soothing pat. Like most of the people that worked directly for my parents, he’d known us since birth and, also like the rest of us, it hurt him to see my brother reduced to this.
My heart ached as I looked at Fernando’s gaunt cheeks, his full lips pulled into thin pale slashes as he sobbed and cursed us. “Please, Dad, I’m begging you. Let me die.”
“I will not,” my father spat out. He struggled to hold himself together and remain calm despite his visible tremble. “I’m tired of this shit, Fernando. You have to stop trying to hurt yourself.”
The drugs must have hit my brother’s system, because he slowly relaxed. He looked over at Leo, the Cordova cartel’s torture master and one of my best friends, then slowly shook his head. “Leo, you have to let Hannah go.”
“Never,” Leo replied in a cold voice, his dark eyes menacing as he glared at Fernando. “You’re lucky as fuck you’re insane, or I’d be beating the shit out of you right now for what you said to Hannah tonight. This was supposed to be a nice dinner, to introduce you all to her, and instead we have to deal with yet another fucking suicide attempt, another drunken rage where you hurt everyone around you. Hannah didn’t deserve all that bullshit you flung at her. Enough, already.”
Fernando flinched, but continued to hold Leo’s gaze. “You brainwashed her into loving you, brainwashed her to be loyal to the cartel, and you expect me to just be okay with it? To be all right with the fact that you and my mother messed with her mind? You turned her into a fucking sheep. If she’s smart, she’ll run as far away from you as she can and never look back.”
“You know that’s not fucking true,” Leo roared. “You can’t brainwash someone into loving you. It doesn’t work. My Hannah loves me because I worship the ground she walks on, and she knows it. I give her what she needs, I take care of her in every way, and I love her more than anyone in this world. So, watch your fucking mouth you pathetic piece of shit, and man the fuck up.”
Clearly glassy eyed with drugs, Fernando snorted, then said, “Baaaa.”
I leapt up to restrain Leo as he lunged for Fernando, my moron brother cackling in the background like a lunatic.
“Easy, my friend.”
“Enough,” my father growled as he straightened the cuffs of his shirt, his bald head gleaming with perspiration.
It had taken all three of us to wrestle Fernando into the restraint bed, my drunk and high brother insisting we let him kill himself so he can join his dead son in heaven.
Stupid fuck was too drunk to realize that when he died, he was going right to hell with the rest of us.
“Hey,” I said while tapping Fernando’s cheek, forcing him to open his eyes. “You can’t keep doing this, man. You can’t keep trying to destroy yourself. Every time you do it, you tear me up inside.”
With a weary sigh, Fernando nodded slowly, his eyelids drooping. “It hurts so much. I miss Jason every second of every day. Sometimes, I dream about him. It feels so real, so amazingly good to hold him again, to tell him how sorry I was and how much I love him. I can feel him, Ramón, feel his warmth and the softness of his hair against my chin. Then I wake up, and I’m so alone. We failed him…all of us…”
With that, he mercifully went to sleep and Diego, Fernando’s twin, pushed himself up from the chair he was sitting in across the room, his long hair mussed from being pulled on while we fought to get Fernando’s into bed.
As he got closer, I noticed a nice bruise coloring the side of his face and wondered if I bore a similar mark. Even wasted, Fernando was a fierce fighter, and we’d had a fuck of a time getting him down without beating him to death. My back ached and I stood, moving to my dad’s side so I could rest my hand on his shoulder. He was a quiet man, patient and even kind in his own way, but he was a man of action and it bothered him down deep that he couldn’t heal his son. None of us could, no matter how many shrinks he saw or what kind of drugs he was on, or not on.
“We need to get him a different nurse,” Diego said as he removed one black leather cuff from Fernando’s wrist. “I think he’s palming his meds again, and the bitch you have with him now thinks she’s in love with him.”
Rubbing my face, I pushed my hair back and thought again about getting it cut. Before all this tragedy happened, I wore my hair long because the ladies loved it, and I loved the ladies. After Nina’s betrayal, I couldn’t stand the thought of touching one and hadn’t been laid in eleven months, a record for me. The only way I’d been able to relax enough to get hard was when I had the woman tied down and a bodyguard watching me—literally watching me—fuck her. The tying down part was completely normal. I take charge during sex; I run the show, and binding women is part of what I like to do. But I don’t share my women and I sure as shit wouldn’t let a bodyguard watch me fuck my submissive, but times had changed.
I had changed and not for the better.
With Fernando basically losing his mind with grief, I had to step up in my role in the Cordova cartel, taking on some of my brother’s duties, even though I kept my main role as assassin. As far as the public was concerned, I was the heir apparent, being groomed to someday take over my father’s role as President of the Cordova Group, a multi-national conglomeration of pretty much every profession under the sun, all encompassed in one corporation. The legitimate money we made wasn’t anything to be sneezed at, but our real income came from drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Not just ones that get you high, but also drugs that the FDA has yet to approve, or ones that’ll never be approved but nonetheless have a huge market.
Real medical miracle treatments that could save lives…for the right price, of course.
Cracking his neck, Leo frowned at his phone then said in an preoccupied voice, “Judith said Hannah went home, but she’s not answering.”
I absently fingered one of the sore spots on my face where Fernando’s elbow had caught me. “She’s probably busy talking with Joy. What’s today…Thursday? Isn’t this around the time Joy gets home from tutoring? She usually grabs some food on the way, so they’re probably hanging out. You know how much she misses Hannah, so she’s probably talking her ear off.”
Everyone in the room stared at me, and I fought to keep my expression blank. They all knew I was slightly…possessive of the blonde, brilliant, super curvy, and mouthy as hell woman who happened to be Hannah’s roommate. And they all knew I watched Joy via the cameras hidden in the apartment she shared with Hannah and their bitch roommate, Kayla. They were also no doubt aware of the cameras I’d set up in Joy’s bedroom, cameras I’d forbidden anyone else from watching.
While I admit I violated Joy’s privacy on every level by recording her while she was in her bedroom, I didn’t analyze every minute of her day. Mainly I watched her at night, when she was either sleeping or getting ready for bed. I wasn’t spying on her, I just found a peace I’d yet to encounter anywhere else when I looked at her. Due to her lack of dating lately, I’d also gotten the occasional treat of watching her masturbate, a torturous affair for us both. Me because I’d give anything to be the one to satisfy her, and Joy because it took her forever to orgasm.
That wouldn’t be an issue with me. She flat out had the worst luck in finding a competent sexual partner. From what I’ve learned while watching her, she would always choose needy, lazy men who wanted her to do all the work and rarely reciprocated her efforts—guys who took advantage of her giving nature. They’d let her do all the work, cum, and that’d be it. Selfish fucks. Once I got her in bed, she’d finally learn that there wasn’t anything wrong with her, that the fault lay in her partner’s lack of giving a shit if she climaxed or not. That wouldn’t be the case with me.
I fucking loved watching her cum, and just the memory of her sultry moan as she came with her vibrator has my cock twitching.
Leo gave me a wry smile, then returned to his phone. “Yeah, they’re probably watching some zombie movie and eating Chinese. What is it Joy always gets?”
“Almond chicken and fried dumplings,” I replied instantly and ignored the chuckles around me.
My obsession with Joy was the worst kept secret around, but I wanted my family to stay the fuck out of it, so I pretended I didn’t know everything about her in the way only a true stalker could.
My mind turned to the suit Joy had been wearing before she left for her tutoring job, the professional armor she put on to try and minimize her mouthwatering curves, to make people look past the fact that she was built for sex. Not that it worked. In a way, she resembled a really young Dolly Parton, who was, oddly enough, one of my mother’s favorite singers. My first hint of a sexual awakening was looking at the covers of one of my mother’s country albums and staring at Dolly’s magnificent rack as I got wood. When I was fourteen, I watched The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and my dick fell in love. From that moment on, I’ve been fascinated by dimpled natural blondes with large breasts. Joy’s tits were magnificent, and her dimples drove me crazy. While her tan and black suit had been built to minimize her sex appeal, nothing could hide her perfect, exaggerated hourglass figure.
My dick started to fill, and I quickly shifted my thoughts back to the present, ignoring my base urges to possess, to own Joy.
An odd noise came from across the room, and I turned to find Leo sagging to his knees. He’d paled so much, he’d turned yellow, and I do mean a pallid, cheesy yellow that made my stomach sink. I’d only seen Leo go pale with emotion once, and that was when we’d found Jason. My heart raced as sour, rancid fear filled my mouth.
“Son?” my father said as he took a step closer to Leo. “What is it?”
Leo let out a roaring scream of anger that raced up my spine like ice and stilled even Fernando. “Hannah!”
Less than forty minutes later, even though it felt like forever, I was shoving my way to one of the guest rooms in my parent’s palatial mansion, cursing my mother’s need to have a house that resembled a hotel with its amount of guest rooms.
Hannah and Joy had been attacked by a snuff porn producer named Manny Santiago, a relatively high-ranking member the Santiago cartel. Those evil motherfuckers specialized in human trafficking and sex slavery. Thanks to the power of the Dark Net, they profited from sick fucks around the world willing to pay huge sums of money to watch women fucked and killed. They were lower than low, in my family’s opinion. We’d gotten into battles and skirmishes with them in the past, but they’d never fucked with us directly—that we could prove—so we couldn’t retaliate without starting a war.
Kayla—Joy and Hannah’s drug addict roommate—brought Manny and his bodyguards home with her. They’d hit on the girls and had learned of Hannah’s involvement with Leo. Unfortunately, one of Manny’s bodyguards had a brother who Leo had tortured to death for kidnapping and killing one of the escorts under the Cordova Cartel’s protection. My stomach lurched as I tried to keep my overactive imagination from running through different scenarios in which Joy had been hurt much, much worse than the beating she’d received.
When I burst into the room, I fought back a growl at the sight of my mother’s personal plastic surgeon, Dr. Gato, stitching up a gash on Joy’s temple.
“Ramón,” my mother snapped from behind me. “Control.”
The word, drilled into my head since birth by my rather fearsome mother, had me freezing in place and trying to force down the primal urge to maim, to shred and destroy everything and everyone that had hurt my girl.
Unable to keep myself from her any longer, I went to the side of her bed and sank to my knees, my chest seizing as I studied her bruised face.
She appeared incredibly pale beneath the bright light streaming from the physician’s lantern on the brass and glass table next to the bed. Even against the warm backdrop of the rose silk headboard and blanket, she appeared nearly colorless. The tan freckles on her nose and cheeks stood out against her parlor, adorable spots Joy usually hid beneath makeup. Part of the shield she used to protect herself from a harsh world driven by men greedy for a taste of her beauty. While I may be slightly enamored with her, there wasn’t a heterosexual male who saw Joy and didn’t take note on some level. I wondered if the doctor had taken liberties with Joy while he examined her, then cursed myself for being an insane dick. Dr. Gato was seventy-five years old and happily married for the past fifty years—of course Joy was safe with him. He was an honorable man who’d saved my life over and over again.
Shit, I’ve never had to deal with feelings of jealousy like this for a woman, and it was screwing with me.
Mom had Joy put in the guest room next to my bedroom at my parent’s house, something I decided not to comment on at the moment. Part of me wanted to protest, to play off any feelings I had for Joy, but dried blood matted her curly, dark blonde hair and there was bruising around her throat and upper arms from where someone had manhandled her. Her full, cupid’s bow lips parted as she began to stir, and the doctor quickly finished stitching her up.
“There,” he said in Spanish to my mother, “Mrs. Cordova, good as new. There will be very little scaring, nothing that will detract from her beauty. The accelerated healing cream will have most of the bruising gone in a few days.”
“Get your hands off her,” I growled while my mother sighed with exasperation.
The rise and fall of Joy’s chest calmed me as my mother said, “Thank you, Dr. Gato, for your time. I appreciate you coming all this way.”
She gave me a censoring look, the silver streaks in her black hair shifting as she tilted her head, but I ignored her and tried to get control of my guilt. I should have realized that no one was watching Joy, that she was vulnerable, but I’d been too caught up in Fernando’s bullshit. I briefly wondered if someone was with him as he slept off his latest episode, but then decided I didn’t give a fuck. He was a grown man who needed to deal with his shit.
Joy stirred again and made a sleepy, unhappy sound.
“Did you give her a painkiller?” my mother asked.
Dr. Gato nodded as he turned the bright light off, leaving the room softly illuminated by a cream porcelain lamp near the door. “Yes, just a mild one. She will sleep deeply for at least the next four hours. She’ll be sore, but nothing permanent.”
My mother’s voice came out tight with anger as she said, “Jose will see you out. Goodnight, Dr. Gato, and thank you again.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Cordova.”
After he left, I spared my mother a glance. Her soft, rounded face appeared heavy with grief and guilt as she gazed at Joy. “I’m so sorry, Ramón.”
Part of me wanted to rage at her, to yell and scream that it was all her fault that Joy had gotten hurt, but those would be the words of a cowardly child, not the man she’d raised me to be. “It’s okay. You had no way of knowing that their roommate would bring filth like Manny Santiago into their home.”
She touched her bloodstained fingertips to her forehead as her shoulders sagged further. “Poor Hannah. She’s…they hurt her.”
I liked Hannah. I had the ability to trust her because of her brainwashing, so she was fast becoming a true friend. “How is she?”
“As good as can be expected. She hasn’t woken up yet, and Leo is beside himself. I understand your desire to stay with Joy, but I will need your help dealing with the animals who did this to my girls. I can’t ask Leo to leave Hannah’s side, and I’m afraid I don’t have the strength to give those men what they deserve.”
“Absolutely. Are we gonna face blowback from the Santiago Cartel?”
“I hope they’re foolish enough to try and take us on. I’ve been waiting years for an excuse to go after the Santiago cartel.” She turned her anger filled eyes to Joy’s bed and tears trailed down her cheeks as her breath hitched. “It tears my heart apart to see these sweet girls hurt by that filth. I want you to make them bleed. I need you to make them hurt. Make them scream for me, Ramón.”
The suppressed fury in her voice had me turning away from a battered Joy to find my mother looking at the girl with what I can only describe as maternal affection.
That was bad for Joy, very bad.
If my mother liked her, Joy’s chances of every returning to a normal life were reduced to zero.
“Mom, don’t get attached.”
“You mean like you already are?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
My mother’s dark gaze sparked, and I wanted to groan, but managed to keep my face blank as she said, “Ramón, don’t lie to me. You care about her, deeply, and I can see why. She’s a good woman, strong and protective, but also very sweet. Someday, Joy will make an exceptional mother and wife. I understand your need to take things slow, to be sure, but you’re running out of time. By your age, I was married. I already had Fernando and Diego. You need a wife, Ramón, someone to love. I worry about you, worry about you only feeding the darkness in your soul, not the light.”
“I’m not interested in her like that.”
The lines around my mom’s mouth deepened as she frowned, and I bit my tongue before I got myself in real trouble. If there was one thing my mother hated, it was being lied to. This was something she’d taught me over and over again when I was growing up, but I must be a slow learner cause the lesson never managed to take.
The warning in her tone was clear as she toyed with the large diamond pendant adorning the hollow of her throat. “I suggest you think very carefully before you say anything else. I’m not a fool, Ramón. Don’t start treating me like one now.”
Straining to control my temper, the back of my neck prickling, I muttered, “I’d rather not discuss this.”
For a moment, I thought she was going to push it, to try to force the jumbled, dark mess of my tangled emotions to the surface, and I resented her prodding. I was at war with myself. One part of me wanted to keep Joy, to make her mine forever, and to bind her to me in every way known to both man and God. I wanted to get her pregnant, to watch her already rounded belly grow bigger as she nurtured our baby inside of her. She was going to be an excellent mother and wife.
There was the other part of me, like my conscience, that occasionally spoke up on matters of right and wrong. I’m not amoral; I just don’t usually give a fuck. When I want something, I take it. But Joy was different. I cared about her, deeply, and wanted what was best for her. The ugly truth was loving me was dangerous. Being associated with my family was clearly hazardous, and the thought of Joy’s bright, warm light being extinguished from the world drove me to madness.
But I’d almost lost her anyway, despite the constant ache in my chest that came from denying the need to touch her. Hold her. Love her.
The woman I was hopelessly obsessed with had almost been taken from my world before I’d had a chance to kiss her, to taste her, to feel the hot clasp of her body around my cock as I fucked her. I looked away from my mother and took in Joy’s still form. The chance for those moments to happen had almost been taken almost disappeared, and I felt something inside of me start to shift, a new purpose being born somewhere deep in my psyche.
I had to protect her, from everyone.
Including my mother.
With a sigh, my mother began to walk away after she made sure Joy was tucked in tight. “Fine, fine. I’ll need you downstairs in twenty minutes to help Leo in any way he needs dealing with the men who did this.”
My blood sparked at her words, the need for revenge trumping all other emotion. While I wasn’t as savage as my mother and Leo about torturing someone, I did have a highly refined sense of justice, of honor, and both demanded a blood price from those that had hurt the beautiful girl who tried to save the world. Images from the surveillance video of Hannah getting beat up while Joy was dragged out of the room by her hair, her face stark with terror, sent a tremble through me, and my heart pounded with the need for action.
“Calm,” my mother urged as she gently cupped my cheek, her dark eyes filled with love and worry. “You’ll have your chance, but you’re in a sick room and there is no place for anger here. Stay with her, but make sure your thoughts, your heart, is gentle. It will sooth her to have you close.”
Rolling up the sleeves of my shirt, trying to find the self-control to let go of my anger, I nodded. “I’ll meet you downstairs in a little bit.”
With a soft sigh, my mom paused, her hand on the door and a rare flash of guilt tightening her face. “All I want is for you to be happy, my heart. That is all I want for all of my boys—all I’ve ever wanted.”
Knowing that it really tore her up that my brothers and I had pretty much sworn off relationships because of Nina’s betrayal, I fought the urge to try and reassure her I was fine, knowing she’d see through my lie. “I know.”
I could tell she wanted to say more, but held back, satisfying herself with a brief hug before releasing me. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
As soon as she left, my phone rang. I growled with irritation before answering it, turning my gaze back to Joy’s still form. “This had better be good news.”
Terrance, one of my enforcers, replied in a tight voice, “Got another girl beat to shit tonight. Guy matches the description of one of the Salvatore cartel’s pimps that’s been trying to lure our girls away. What do you want me to do?”
My brother Fernando used to deal with our high-end escort business, but when he’d lost his son due to his bitch wife’s treachery, he’d also lost his mind.
Now, in addition to being in charge of the nightclub branch of my parent’s empire, and in charge of head hunting for new talent and doing the occasional assassination, I also helped out some with keeping the high-end escorts that worked for us safe.
From what Terrance said, I’d failed at that as well.
With a heavy heart, I watched Joy sleep. “I have some things I have to deal with here. Have David take care of it and tell him to make a statement. How bad was our girl hurt?”
“Not too bad. The training we gave her when she signed with us kicked in, and she managed to mace the guy before he did much more than slap her around. She has some bruises, but nothing big.”
“She got kids?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Send her to our spa out in Laguna Beach for two weeks. Give her one of the bungalows and let her rest and heal up. If she has someone she wants to bring with her for support, that’s fine. Either way, make sure she has a nurse and a therapist available to her.”
“Call me if you have any problems.”
After I hung up, I took in the silence of the room and the soft sigh of Joy breathing in her sleep. The reality of the situation sank in and a tremor shook my hands as I tossed my phone on the couch. My girl was hurt, and I fucking hated myself for not claiming her earlier like I’d wanted. Instead, I’d let my fear of trusting a woman almost rob me at my chance at happiness.
Looking down at her, I tried to resist the lure of touching Joy, knowing I should let her get her rest, but I couldn’t.
For months I’d watched her, studied her, observed her life with a single-minded focus that baffled even me. I’d fantasized about what it would be like to just happen to run into her on the street, wondering if she’d recognize me, if she’d find me attractive. If she’d even speak to me. Our first meeting at my Aunt’s house had not gone well, so I kind of hoped she didn’t remember the fact that I’d assumed she was an exotic dancer or a gold digging whore.
I’m ashamed to say I judged her solely on her body and looks, two things she’d been born with and couldn’t help. Unfortunately for her, in many ways I am a sexist pig, and when I see a woman built for sin, I assume she’s aware of that gift and uses it to her benefit. Beauty makes men dumb; it’s a proven fact. I know some women who use their good looks to manipulate and scam their way through life.
Joy, however, secretly hated the way she looked. I saw it when I watched her, alone in her bedroom, standing naked before her mirror and sighing with dissatisfaction as she tried to suck in her adorable round belly or jiggle her ass with a scowl. If only she knew how fucking beautiful she was; if only she could accept that she was literally a goddess. I’d never imagined a body as perfect as hers, extra curves and all, existed. Those big, heavy, brown tipped breasts of hers were constant stars in my jerk-off fantasies, and I’ve imagined a thousand and one ways I’d defile her tits.
My gaze had wandered to the rise of her chest, covered by clean sheets, before I forced my attention back to her swollen face.
No, she was out, as in O-U-T out and I wasn’t the kind of guy to take advantage of any woman, especially Joy.
But I had to touch her.
I moved to the side of the queen-sized bed and sat down next to Joy, the depression of the mattress making her lean against me.
Just the contact of her soft, warm hip against mine sent my blood boiling, and I fought myself, wrestled with this roaring need to hold her close and never let her go.
Instead, I allowed myself the pleasure of stroking her curly golden hair away from her sleeping face, the ringlets still holding traces of dried blood. A tremor went through me as I gently ghosted my fingers over the clean bandage covering her temple, an ugly bruise rising around it. My heart thundered in my ears as I continued to gently stroke her face, dusting over her freckles, rounding down to her pouty little lips. They weren’t large, but they were perfectly shaped and begged for a man’s kiss. As usual, she wore very little makeup and I leaned closer, running my nose along the curve of her jaw, drawing her scent in.
Fucking peaches and strawberries. She smelled like a goddamn pie, and I wanted to eat her so bad, my mouth filled with saliva at the thought of tasting her. Just one small taste, one lick, one kiss against those softly parted lips.
With a growl, I tore myself away from the bed, running my hands through my long hair and clutching it so hard my scalp stung. What the fuck was I doing? I was about to kiss her while she was passed out, after she’d been attacked, without her consent. Jesus, the sweet temptation of her drove me insane. Sweat prickled over my skin as I swore I could still smell her. When I lifted my hand that I’d touched her with to my nose, the faint hint of strawberries and peaches lingered. My already hard dick pressed painfully against my pants and I turned around, unable to resist the lure of looking at Joy from up close.
In an almost trance-like state, I approached her again. This time, I sank to my knees beside her bed and took her small hand in my own. I began to gently stroke her exposed arm with the tips of my fingers, marveling at the light golden hair, soft as rabbit’s fur, on her forearms that only added to the silky feel of her body.
I knew from watching her, Joy slept naked. She had hair a few shades darker between her legs, the curls trimmed into a neat v with her vaginal lips waxed bare. She had such a pretty, tender little pussy. Joy stirred a bit and I stopped, freezing when she opened her eyes, confusion and sleep still filling their beautiful green depths. With a slow blink she studied me, and I stared back, unable to do anything but dumbly gape at her like a fool.
A little line formed between her brows as she frowned at me. “Who’re you?”
Her voice came out slightly slurred as she said, “Don’t stop touching me, friend. It’s nice.”
A real smile warmed me from the inside out, and I nodded. “Go back to sleep, mi amor.”
She blinked twice, her eyelids getting heavier as I caressed her arm, marveling at the sparks that seemed to tingle across my fingertips with each stroke.
“Why did you call me your love?”
I didn’t want to admit the real reason—that I’d been watching her, learning about her, and falling in love. And I sure as shit didn’t want to admit that when I looked at her, I saw a woman with so much potential, locked behind emotional shields that had turned from something that protected her to something that inhibited her growth. Joy needed a strong man in her life, someone she could trust, someone to protect her. Someone like me. I would take the time needed to nurture her, adore her, and give her the life she always wanted and the love she’s always craved.
She was almost asleep when her body jolted and her eyes opened up wide. Panic flooded her face, sending an ache through my chest as everything inside of me focused on her, on the unacceptable fear darkening her jade green eyes. “Hannah!”
“Shhhh, it’s okay. You’re safe.”
Her frown would have been adorable, if she hadn’t flinched in pain then touched her head. “I’m hurt.”
“Go back to sleep, sweetheart.”
“You’re nice.” Her lips pursed and she reached out, holding my hand in hers. “You’re also very big and scary, but you seem nice. And you’re hot. You’ll protect me if I go to sleep? Won’t let them hurt me?”
Unable to resist, I raised her hand to my lips and softly kissed her knuckles, satisfaction filling me as she relaxed, as the fear left her face. “I swear it. Nothing will harm you when I’m by your side.”
“I believe you.”
My heart filled with pride as she visibly relaxed.
The edges of her pink lips tilted slightly and her hand began to go limp in mine. I have no idea how long I knelt next to her, just watching her sleep as she continued to hold my hand. Every once in a while I’d try to pull away, but she’d grumble in her sleep and not settle until I returned to touching her, returned to the feeling of her warmth flowing into me. I’ve been with women, lots of them, and I’ve never denied any of my carnal desires, but Joy stirred something in me I’ve never felt, never imagined. A bone deep feeling that was an odd mixture of pleasure and satisfaction, like I had the ultimate prize in my grasp.
My phone buzzed, and I reluctantly let go of Joy’s hand, darkness filling me at the words on the screen. It was time to deal with the motherfuckers that did this to Hannah and Joy. Kayla, their third roommate, was still high out of her fucking mind on heroine and being dealt with by Leo’s men. That stupid bitch hadn’t just brought a drug dealer and his friends home, she’d brought home a snuff porn producer, the real kind that thrived on the evil side of the Internet, and was a blood family member of the Santiago cartel.
With the utmost care, I ghosted a kiss over Joy’s round cheek right over her dimple, and forced myself to leave her.
Justice had to be served, and I was just the man to do it.