Main Bully Me This
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BULLY ME #1 A Best Friend's Brother Bully Romance Series By Lacey Heart COPYRIGHT ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 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, without the prior written permission of the publisher. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Lacey Heart holds exclusive rights to this work. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited. Copyright © 2019 by Lacey Heart Formatted by Bookaholic Formatting Books by Lacey Heart Damaged & Destroyed Reckless: A Damaged & Destroyed Novella #1 Amazon UK: https://amzon.to/2HZNCPX Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2DZzAd8 Ruthless: A Damaged & Destroyed Novella #2 Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2Db3ieo Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2DhaZQ5 Bully Me One Night Only – A bully Me Companion Novella #0.5 Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/34vDdCR Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2LqJsQJ Bully Me This: Bully Me #1 Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2YpcmbS Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2YEAI2h Bully Me That: Bully Me #2 Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2MeV2yX Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2Mcg1lK Dear Diary: Tales from Riverstone High January: Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2MldSD1 Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2VfTw2n To the strongest woman I know. Mum, this one's for you! I'll always remember his eyes. Cold, calculating, and as gray as wet stone. Beautiful, yet deadly. He used to call me his princess. A sign of endearment from an early age and that we’d get married one day. I foolishly believed every word he said. He was my best friend’s brother—totally off limits, and I loved him with everything I had. Then one day something changed. He changed and my love quickly grew into something darker… HATE. I didn’t know much, but one thing was certain. I hated Colby Carter almost as much as he hated me. PROLOGUE “I hate you.” Grittin; g my teeth, I ball my hands into fists and press them into my sides. My breathing comes in short, fast bursts as I try to contain the fountain of anger flowing inside me before it explodes. I want to reach out and smack the smug look from his face. I want to hurt him. I want him to suffer. I want to inflict as much pain on him to reflect the agony he’s caused me—but it doesn’t matter how hard I attacked him it wouldn’t even come close. “Keep telling yourself that, princess.” He smirks back at me, which only intensifies my anger. “Maybe one of these days you might start to believe it.” “Fuck you, Colby.” My teeth chatter as the cold wind penetrates my lungs, but I barely feel the icy burn from the adrenaline pumping through my veins. “If you don’t back the hell up out of my face, I’ll scream this park down.” I keep my voice steady, and with every frantic beat of my heart as it thuds in my chest, it does absolutely nothing to deter him. If anything, it probably heightens his amusement. Nothing phases him. Colby’s like a machine—indestructible and totally void of any emotions. His gray eyes sparkle with danger, and I can see the bright lights of the Ferris wheel reflecting back at me as he takes a step closer to me. He’s cocky, sadistic, obnoxious and totally full of himself. Colby isn’t short of friends, or his choice of girls but he still makes it his daily mission to make my life hell. “No you won’t.” My breathing falters when his hands connect with my hips and a gazillion vaults of electricity pulsate through my body as he slams me back against a ‘doh-so-good’ booth, adding to the chill in the base of my spine. Then the son of a bitch digs his fingers into my hips, and I gasp when his warm lips fall on mine. I hate him. I hate myself too because even though I shouldn’t, I can’t help but lose myself in all things Colby. I love the way he makes me feel. I love it when he touches me, even when we both know it’s wrong, and I love it when he pulls me aside and focuses all his attention on me—the way he used to do before he turned all moody and evil. Before he sold his soul to the devil. When he pulls back, I feel empty, like he’s sucked a vital part from me, and when I feel strong enough to open my eyes again, I see his are hooded. Hazed over with a hunger I know only too well. His eyes pierce into mine and I’m frozen to the spot, the heat of his crisp minty breath is hypnotizing. “Scream, princess. I dare you.” He snickers. “But we both know no one will hear you.” Colby raises a brow, daring me to argue with him but I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I’ve lost all ability to speak as I’m trapped under his spell. I’ve totally lost all sense of reason and he sure as hell knows it too. Once again, I’ve found myself at the hands of his mercy and he rewards me with a sweet smile of victory. Where the hell is Hadley when I need her? She’s supposed to be my best friend, on hand to ninja warrior her savage brother’s ass and keep him away from me. But instead she knows nothing about the silly games Colby likes to play when no one is watching. No one does. Hadley’s far too busy, probably embraced in Ryder’s arms somewhere deep in the park with zero fucks to give. Everything happens so fast that I don’t have time to act. Colby moves closer to me, sneaky and hypnotizing like a python luring in its prey. His hard, athletic body is flush against mine, our bodies aligning perfectly together, and his lips come crashing down against mine once more. Soft delicate lips. Lips I don’t think I could ever tire of. I don’t stop him or push him away even though I know I should. I have zero control when he’s this close to me. Colby is all kinds of wrong, but I don’t have the willpower to stop myself, and that scares me because I need more of him. Always more. My body goes lax as I allow him to taste me, his tongue searching for mine, desperate, hungry—like I’m the air he breathes, and I foolishly do the same. After a few moments I finally loosen my fists and allow them to glide up his hard, defined stomach, over his shoulders until they find their resting place; tangled in his hair as I pull him closer to me. I savor every moment, carefully storing this feeling in the forbidden box in my mind so I can come back to it and torture myself some more at a later date. A deep guttural groan rises in his throat as he rolls his hips into me, and I breathe him in—all of him—knowing this will be the last and final time. I hate him with every fiber of my being, but I love him with a fierce passion too. He’s the boy I shouldn’t want, but my heart chooses to believe otherwise. Either way, Colby Carter is no good for me. Mind, body or soul, and this sick and twisted game we’re caught up in has to end before it’s too late. CHAPTER ONE WILLOW “That’s everything.” I tell myself as I wipe my hands on my jeans while taking in the sorry sight before me. A few brown boxes are scattered at my feet and I finally take a moment to breathe. I pull myself up and relax my shoulders and I can feel the tension release and start to melt away. For the first time in forever they feel light and airy—a huge weight finally lifted. I’m surprised. I really thought this whole process would have been a lot harder, but it turned out to be far easier than I could have ever imagined. I think if I’d have known just how easy it was going to be then I probably would have made this move long ago. The irony isn’t lost on me either. In fact, it speaks volumes, firmly cementing in my mind that even through all the doubts, I definitely made the right decision. Consequences be damned. I shudder at the thought, a cold chill tingling the base of my spine and I offer a quick prayer to all the God’s that there won’t be too many consequences coming to bite me on the ass. Confrontation has never been one of my strong points. I’ve always been a run and hide kind of girl, and I’m at my most happiest when my head is firmly buried deep in the sand. It’s not something I’ll apologize for either. But this time something had to give. Something within me switched and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t shut it down. I tried. I really did, but I couldn’t handle the bullshit anymore. Way too much has happened for me to just sit back and play along like a ragdoll, being tossed to the side over and over again. I knew I needed to get away. I needed to start again. Wipe the slate clean and erase the past three years of my life, and what better way to do that than going back home—to my roots. Home is no longer a threat for me, and so long as I remember I’m doing this for my own happiness and wellbeing, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I have to be—and it’s not like I haven’t survived worse. The ghosts of my past may haunt me, but it’s the living who have the power to inflict the most pain. “Wow. You sure travel light, or is the rest of it in the truck?” I spin around as Hadley appears behind me and I manage a small smile. Her voice is warm and welcoming, and it sounds just like home. Something I didn’t realize how much I’d missed until now. “Nope. This is it. This right here is what three years of bullshit looks like.” I shrug not really knowing what else to do or say. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say these few boxes are all I have left to my name. I know materialistic things can be replaced and if I’m going to wipe the slate clean properly then I need to make sure I’ve erased all visible reminders. “Just the basics, you know?” because I have a shit ton of permanent reminders in my head. “Everything else can be replaced.” “Hey, you can bring as much or as little as you need.” Hadley’s eyes search mine and hers are filled with nothing but kindness and love. I reach out and squeeze her hand affectionately and say, “thanks. I know this is all last minute, but I really appreciate everything.” A hard lump forms in my throat preventing me from expressing what I really want to say to her. Instead, I nod my head to signal her humble abode, hoping she understands my unspoken words. “Don’t worry about it. That’s what best friends are for, right?” Hadley smiles and my damn lump grows bigger. The last thing I wanted to do was get all emotional, yet here I am fighting back the tears which are threatening to spill over and fall down my cheeks. “Look, so long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” I’m so not prepared when she drags me forward and pulls me into a hug. I’m caught off guard and lose my footing, almost sending us both flying over my discarded boxes. “I’ll get there.” I muffle into her hair as I continue to fight against my sobs and breathe her in. Her familiar floral scent calms me and sets my panic induced mind at ease. “I know I will.” I say, my voice full of conviction because I don’t feel as bad as I should given recent events, and that has to be a good sign, right? “Sure, you will.” Hadley pulls back and cups my face with both of her hands, her eyes searching mine, looking for some hidden clues. “But first, you’re gonna need to move these boxes before one of us ends up dead.” Her words make me laugh, and it feels incredible. I almost forgot what it felt like to laugh and to feel happy. But no matter what I can always count on Hadley to make me smile. She’s always been the overdramatic one, but I wouldn’t change her for a thing. Not even all the decent guys in the world. Actually, that one’s pretty debatable right now. Yes, she’s overdramatic but she’s also crazy, loving, fiercely loyal, protective, and the best bit—she’s mine. “Don’t worry, I’m already on it.” I tell her knowing it won’t take me long to unpack the few items I’ve brought with me. The majority of my boxes are filled with an endless supply of books and notepads, something I never leave behind anywhere—no matter what. And, I bet Hadley won’t even realize I’m here most of the time. CHAPTER TWO WILLOW I reach the end of the hall and lower the last box onto the floor. I hesitate before I reach out and push the handle down and push the door open. A wave of nostalgia hits me hard in the chest and knocks all the air from my lungs. I know this room. I know this room far better than I should do too. I guess I didn’t expect it to stay the same. I thought it would have changed a little over the last five years, but it’s just how I remember, like I was only here yesterday. I try to regulate my breathing as I take in the sight before me: the walls are still painted the same shade of light gray, and I know if I look in the far right hand corner there will be a huge crack in the plaster. The old oak bedroom furniture is still in the same position and the bed is still under the window. The only things missing are his belongings. I know I shouldn’t remember the small things the way I do, but it’s hard not to, especially now it feels like I’ve never been away. This room even smells the same. Fresh water with a hint of mint. Manly—but fresh, and old hidden memories begin to swirl in my mind, sending me dizzy with how clear they are. Hadley and I have been best friends since kindergarten, and I spent most of my childhood and teenage years hanging out at her place. I know this house like the back of my hand, but this room—the one I tried so damn hard to stay out of, has me feeling a mixture of emotions as they build and ripple through my body like a goddamn tidal wave. Happiness… Pleasure… Sadness… Anger… Regret… The list could go on and on, but I’m quick to shut it down and slam the door on that chapter of my life. I’ve moved on since then and I’ve come way too far to allow those memories to flood back in. I can’t allow myself to let him back in. There’s no way I can crumble, let everything unravel and reveal the hidden demons I’ve tried so hard to forget. My time here wasn’t all too bad though. Not if I erase all thoughts of him. Hadley and I had an incredible childhood here. Better than most in our town and surrounding areas, and that was all thanks to her parents. God rest their souls. My parents aren’t worth a mention. My dad was nowhere to be seen. He decided to up and leave town when I was only six weeks old, and my mom? Well, the less said about her the better. She sure as hell didn’t bring any happiness to my life, that’s for sure. But this house holds a ton of happy memories for me—for the most part at least. I’ve always been fine here, but I guess this room must be some kind of trigger for me. I never thought I’d set foot in here again, let alone use it as my own. Willow stop. I scold myself. I can’t and won’t allow my mind to go back there. It’s way too painful and it definitely isn’t worth the hassle. I was young, stupid and naïve. I’ve also had five years to break the habit of a lifetime. Five years to try to find out who I truly am and move on from his torment. It hasn’t been easy—not by a long mile, but I’m proud of myself for how far I’ve come. I’m a totally different person now. I’m nothing like the girl I was back then—back when he stole my heart, tore it out and shattered it into a million pieces just for shits and giggles. He made sure to leave me broken—damaged beyond repair. But none of that matters now. I need to remember he isn’t here anymore. He can’t hurt me anymore, just the memories, and without him I’m so much stronger than I ever thought I could be. There’s no way he can continue to hurt me, not if I refuse to let him in. “Hey, Willow. You down there?” I snap out of my thoughts as Hadley’s voice filters down the hall and before I know it, her tall, slender frame appears in the doorway. “So, what do you say?” “About what?” I turn to face her only to find her watching me expectantly, amusement dancing in her big brown eyes. “I asked if you wanted takeout.” My stomach grumbles in agreement before I have a chance to answer. “You bet.” I’m starving and it’s only now at the mention of food I realize I haven’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday. I guess that’s what happens when you wake up at three in the morning ready to plan your sudden and totally unexpected departure. “Come on then because this chick is beyond hangry and I’m getting worried for everyone’s safety.” I force a smile at my best friend while trying to remove the unwanted images of her brother from my mind, but I should know by now that he’ll always be there, simmering in the background ready to materialize at any given moment, ready to haunt my every move. “What do you feel like eating?” Hadley throws me an obligatory eye roll because she already knows what my answer will be. The same one I always give her, yet she always takes the time to ask me. She’s probably praying that one of these days I’ll venture onto the wild side and change my mind, but we both know that isn’t going to happen. “Taki’s.” I say on a pleading pout, hoping she’ll agree with me. “Jeez, Will. Don’t you ever feel like trying something different? You know just for a change? Mix it up a bit?” Hadley shakes her head, her big blonde curls bouncing around her petite face. “Why would I go and set myself up for disappointment? Taki’s is the best takeout this side of the coast and you know it.” “Babe, Taki’s will always be the best to you because you’re too chickenshit to try anything else.” She quips, but there’s still a sparkle in her eye and a faint smile on her lips so I know she’s not too pissed at me. Plus, she’s the one who asked me what I wanted when she already knew what the answer would be. Hadley sighs dramatically before turning around and retreating back down the hall, shaking her head as she goes. Now that she’s out of view, I’m quick to step out of the room that I’m now calling home and slam the door on my past—even if it’s only for a couple of hours. “That’s settled then?” I shout after my best friend while trying my damned hardest to keep my voice light and steady, when in reality I feel anything but. “Taki’s for the win.” She calls back and I can feel every ounce of sarcasm in Hadley’s voice bouncing from the walls, and I can’t help but smile as a strong wave of sweet victory swims through my veins. “I hope you don’t mind staying in Colby’s room?” My body stiffens at the sound of his name but I’m quick to pull myself together before Hadley notices something is off. Fortunately, when my eyes fall on her I can see she’s far too occupied with her phone to bother paying any attention to me and my internal struggle. I sure hope she’s checking the menu for Taki’s and not sexting her latest squeeze. That’s the only problem with Hadley, you can never be one-hundred percent certain of what she’s up to. I guess that’s one similarity she shares with her brother. “Everything was kind of rushed and his room was ready to go. It was the quickest option and it’s not like he’ll be needing it back anytime soon.” I know she’s right but that doesn’t make me feel any easier about this messed-up situation, and it’s not like I can just open up and discuss my issues with her either. That’s the hardest part. Holding something back from her—something I’ve never done before, but this time I wasn’t left with any other choice. Everything was totally out of my control and even though it hurts, tears me up on the inside, it also makes me realize how much of a bitch I really am. I just need to keep reminding myself that this is for the best—it has to be this way. When I realize she isn’t in any hurry to look up from her phone, I finally build up enough courage to put one foot in front of the other and throw myself down onto the sofa. “You won’t find any issues here.” I bite back on the lie and I can taste the poison on my tongue, and I know one of these days it will be the death of me. “I’m grateful you let me stay.” My breathing is labored and I’m so relieved she isn’t looking at me because she’d know something wasn’t right in a heartbeat. Colby Carter isn’t someone I like to think about, let alone talk about, but he’s my best friends brother and no matter how uneasy I feel about it—about him—he comes up in conversation from time to time and I’m left with no choice other to grin and bear it. “This feels good, right? Being back together again.” “Uh-huh. It’ll be just like old times.” I admit while pulling at the hem of my sleeves—a nervous trait I acquired when I was younger—something else Colby is accountable for. “It kind of feels like I’m back home, you know?” With one exception—the welcome absence of my tormentor. Yes, I’m anxious as hell about moving into Colby’s room, but Hadley and I have always been inseparable, so this makes sense—it feels right. We come as a package and everyone knows it too. We’ve always been together. We might have been blindsided by a few guys along the way, but now the dream team are back together, and nothing and no one will get in our way. I guess that’s one of the beautiful things about true friendship. Life happens and people grow and change all the time, but with besties no one and no amount of time can ever come between the bond you share. That’s how it’s always been for the two if us. We cheer each other on and pick each other back up when we fall. No sooner had I called Hadley in the early hours of this morning and asked for her help, she was there in a heartbeat ready and waiting to welcome me back home with open arms. No hesitation or questions asked. When she finally looks up from her phone, she tosses it to the side and shouts, “that’s because this is your home, baby. Always has been and always will be, so don’t you go forgetting it.” It doesn’t take long for our food to arrive and each mouth-watering piece tastes just as good as I remember. Taki’s is without a doubt one thing I will never tire of. Even if I had to eat it all day, every day. This is comfort food at it’s best and I don’t give a damn what Hadley has to say about it. “This is really good.” I mouth around a forkful of satay chicken and it sets my taste buds alight. “It’s just what I needed too. Food for the soul.” “It’s good,” Hadley confesses, “but you really need to start broadening your horizons, Will.” “Oh, shush. Don’t you dare start with that bullshit again.” I warn her playfully, but she’s quick to cut me off with a wave of her chopstick. “Speaking of broadening your horizons, I meant to ask earlier. What’s happening with Seb?” I almost choke on my noodles and my raging appetite almost vanishes at the sound of his name. “Seb?” I question, trying my best to play dumb, pretending I don’t have a clue where this conversation is headed, but we both know that’s a lie. “Uh-huh… Seb… the guy you’ve been dating for the past three years.” She says, emphasizing on his name. “How’s he holding up?” Hadley waggles her eyebrows at me while she waits for me to enlighten her and divulge all the details. Looks like she’ll be waiting for a hell of a long time because I am so not ready to go there. It’s all still too raw and I haven’t even managed to get my own head around the mess. I decide to stay quiet and I push my food around my plate as I avoid meeting her heated glare. But when it burns hotter and hotter, I’m forced to look up and answer her. “Honestly, Hads, I don’t know.” I tell her truthfully and my body’s coiled tighter than a rusty spring. I wish she’d let this drop, but this is Hadley we’re talking about and now that she’s brought him up that isn’t going to happen. She’ll keep pressing and pressing until it gets too much and I’m forced to tell her everything. I know I need to talk to her; to let her in. A problem shared is a problem halved and all that, but I’m just not ready. When I confess all, I know I’ll need to tell her the whole truth and nothing but the truth because if I don’t it will only come back around to bite me in the ass when she figures out what happened. “I don’t really care how he’s holding up either.” My voice is flat and totally void of any emotion, but it’s nothing but the truth. I couldn’t give a damn how he is. Now, or ever, and I have zero intentions of going out of my way to find out. Seb made his bed and now it’s time he learned to lay in it—without me. “You know what the first rule of friend code is, right?” Hadley enquires as she leans in closer to me. I knew she wouldn’t let this drop. She’s fucking relentless. “How about you go ahead and enlighten me.” I decide it’s best to play along because that’s the only thing I can do right now. Hadley’s in my face and she’s going to tell me anyway, whether I want to hear it or not. I discard my food, sigh heavily and lean back into the sofa while preparing my poor ears for a bashing. Hadley smiles and points a manicured finger in my face and squeaks, “the first rule is you’re supposed to tell me everything as soon as the shit hits the fan.” Damn. Well I hate to disappoint, but it looks like I majorly failed the friend code 101 many years ago. In fact, I failed it so epically that I’m making sure I never go back there again. I’ve survived this long without Hadley ever finding out what lies hidden deep in the depths of my dark and tarnished soul, and I’m more than happy for it to stay that way too. Why drag up the past when it’s all done and buried? Nothing good will ever come from it. Actually, even though I’ll never bring myself to admit it out loud to my best friend, nothing good can, or ever will come from her darling brother Colby Carter—period. CHAPTER THREE WILLOW I think I slept for a grand total of forty minutes last night. I spent most of it tossing and turning, desperately trying to shut down all aspects of my past, only to fail on an epic scale. It didn’t matter if I opened or closed my eyes, Colby’s cold gray ones were staring back at me, haunting my every move, like he’s done many times before. Only this time it felt more real—vivid as fuck. I could smell him… I could taste him as the air from his room filled my lungs. I could feel him—his sheets sliding over my bare flesh as though it was his hands caressing me. It all got a little too much and I couldn’t stay in his room for a second longer. I needed space, and lots of it. I needed air to stop his presence from suffocating me, and most important of all, I needed him out of my head. Colby’s taken up way too much space already. He’s not welcome anymore and it’s high time he disappeared once and for all. “Whoa… what the hell happened to you?” I lift my tired eyes from my coffee as Hadley stalks into the kitchen looking nothing less than perfect in her small shorts and tee combo. Her hair hasn’t even been brushed yet it still flows elegantly around her face, and I know I must look the total opposite when she steps closer to me to take a better look. “There’s coffee in the pot.” Hopefully I can distract her with the promise of caffeine. “It should still be hot.” I try again but it does nothing to deter her, not even for a second. Suddenly she’s all up in my face and her eyes grow wide with worry. “Oh, my, god. Are you sick?” she squeals, her hand flies to her mouth to protect herself from anything contagious. “I sure hope that it isn’t contagious because, damn, you look a hot mess right now.” “Gee, thanks.” I shake my head while trying not to take offence to her words. She’s blunt and brutal. Hadley’s never been one to beat around the bush. She’s always felt the need to speak her mind whether people like it or not. I’ve always loved and admired that about her, just not so much when she’s directing it at me. “Sorry to break it to you, but I’m not sick.” “Are you sure?” Her wide-eyed stare tells me she doesn’t believe a word I’m saying. “I’m fine, I swear. See…” I grab her hand and place it on my forehead so she can feel my non-existent fever. “Hmm, maybe you’re about to come down with something?” “Seriously?” For fuck sake. She still doesn’t believe me at all. “I’m not buying it, Will. Something’s off and I don’t want to be laid up in bed with the lurgies. I’ve got a hot date coming up and I need to be on top form.” “Hads, honestly, I’m good. I just didn’t get much sleep last night, that’s all.” I tell her truthfully while nursing the remainder of my coffee, willing it to fuel my tired and weary soul. I didn’t get much sleep last night because thoughts of her wild and unruly brother were spinning frantically in my mind, getting stronger and stronger until I felt like my head was about to explode. Everything just got too much to handle so I decided to get out of bed and come to the kitchen for a little peace and quiet—peace and quiet which didn’t last as long as I’d hoped. “Is it Seb?” Hadley’s voice pulls me out of my thoughts and once again I’m forced to look at her. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” Fucking great. Here we go again. I really wish she’d just drop it. I didn’t want to discuss Seb last night and I sure as hell don’t want to discuss him right now. I know I can talk to Hadley, and that’s great and all but I just don’t want to. I don’t feel ready. It’s nothing personal. I just haven’t gotten my own head around this mess yet. I know I’ll have to discuss all things Seb eventually. Sooner than I’d like because I know Hadley, and I know how determined she is to get all the juicy details, but I don’t want that to happen—not at my expense. But she’ll keep chipping away at me until I crumble—laid bare and vulnerable as I reveal every embarrassing detail. “No.” I say a little more firmer than I intended and my voice is coiled so tight I feel like I could snap at any given second and I don’t want Hadley to feel the brunt of it. I’m forced to watch as Hadley raises her eyebrows at me, concern dancing in her big brown eyes and I know she doesn’t believe a word I’m saying, but it’s nothing but the truth. Seb is the last person I’d lose any sleep over. I’ve done way too much of that already over the past three years and I’m so over it. From the moment I moved into Hadley’s place, Seb and I are done. I watch as Hadley backtracks toward the counter and pulls a mug from the rack before turning back to me. “Look, Will. I know this can’t have been easy on either of you, but you need to open up and talk about it. Trust me, leaving it all inside and allowing it to fester will do nothing but drive you crazy.” She’s telling me. I could actually laugh right now. I know better than anyone how damaging thoughts and secrets can be, but she has this so, so wrong and I’m the one who’s being the crappy friend because I can’t even bring myself to tell her. What the hell does that say about me? Hadley’s my best friend—the family I chose—the family who chose me and I can’t even break down my barriers—to confide in the one person who I trust the most in the whole wide world. As much as I want to, no matter how desperate I am to finally get it off my chest, I can’t do it. The truth hurts and if I start to unravel and reveal my issues then everything she’ll learn will shatter her into a thousand pieces and I can’t do that to her. I love her far too much to lose her. “I know, Hads.” I remain as calm as possible even though it’s a struggle to keep my emotions bottled up. “but there isn’t really anything to say. I promise you though, I’m totally fine over this whole Seb situation. Actually, I’m better than fine.” I’m finally free. I smile and this time the worry in her eyes fades a little. I know she cares, and I also know I’m super lucky to have someone as loyal as Hadley in my life. I also know I don’t deserve her kindness or friendship. “Okay, well so long as you know I’m always here. Do you want some more coffee?” I shake my head, relief floods through me now she’s finally dropped Seb from the conversation, and I glance at the clock above the window. “Shit.” I scramble to my feet as the panic begins to set in. “Have you seen the time? I can’t believe I’m going to be late.” “Late for what?” “I’m down for a double shift.” I wasn’t originally down to work the day shift and I’d planned on staying on the sofa all day binging on boxsets, but then Miley the fucking liability decided now would be a great time to have a mental breakdown. Guess who was the soft ass who agreed to cover? That would be yours truly. I swear one of these fine days I might just grow some balls big enough to tell them all to do one. “Can’t you stay?” Guilt floods through me, but I’ll be sure to see her later and tell her all about my upcoming dramatic day, because there’s always something going down at Sinner’s. “I’m really sorry, Hads, but I need to shoot. I’ll catch you later?” Even though work is the last place I want to be right now, at least it will give me a few extra hours reprieve from Hadley’s Seb fueled inquisition, and the relief burns through my tired and battered soul. CHAPTER FOUR WILLOW The sound of raised voices infiltrates my ears before I’ve even walked through the closed doors of Sinner’s—a bar by day and an exclusive strip joint by night. Something is always going off here, but this sounds a little bit more than your average bust up. Whatever it is, it sure doesn’t sound good and I need to shut it down before Bryson makes an appearance. Jeez, when I foolishly agreed to cover for Miley, I didn’t realize I’d be signing myself up for added bullshit too. If I did then the deal would have been a hard and fast no. I step inside, inspecting where the commotion is coming from and I shouldn’t be too surprised to find Ryder and Jett at loggerheads. I have no idea what they’re arguing about this time but it sure doesn’t look pretty from where I’m standing. I seriously don’t need this right now. I’ve got enough going on in my head to last me a lifetime. Either the two of them need to get a room and fuck their issues out of each other or stay the hell away from each other. “Hey, what’s going on with you two?” I shout out hoping to be heard over their raised voices, but it’s to no avail. They’re tearing chunks out of each other and the closer I get the more I see. Jett steps closer to Ryder—a panther ready to strike. Beautiful, full of grace and fierce as hell. Ryder isn’t holding back either. The vein in the side of his neck is pulsating and trust me, from experience I know that’s never a good sign. Ryder is like a bull on speed, and Jett must be feeling super brave to get all up in his face. “I’m warning you. Get the fuck out of my face.” He hisses but Jett, as stubborn as she is doesn’t back down. She doesn’t even flinch. “Make me.” She demands, her body rigid while she grits her teeth. What the hell have I walked in to? Why do I always end up getting dragged into all the drama? Enough is enough. If I don’t try to break this up, then things are going to get ugly pretty fast. “All right you two, break it up already.” I fly between the two of them, pushing my arms out wide to separate them but I’m only small and it doesn’t have as much as an impact as I would have liked. “Willow, get the fuck out of my way. I really don’t want to hurt you, but I will.” Jett barks down my ear but I ignore her. Instead I spread my feet and stand firm. “Back down, Jett.” My voice sounds calm but on the inside I’m raging so bad. I can feel my blood beginning to simmer under my skin, ready to boil and blow when I reach breaking point—and I can tell it’s close. Ryder laughs, and when I look at him my fears come true. His eyes are clouded, and intense heat simmering within them—dark pools of destruction, and I know there’s no way he’ll be the one to back down. “Why don’t you listen to little miss perfect here and walk the fuck away?” I know Ryder’s worked up, but I really don’t appreciate the tone he’s taking with me. I didn’t ask to walk into this goddamn shit storm, yet here I am. Pissed or not, none of this is my fault. I don’t even know what this is. All I’m doing is trying to avoid this from reaching a point of no return. Also, the last thing I want is any bloodshed while Bryson is away. “Enough!” I shout again and this time they both stop and look at me. “I don’t know what’s going on here and I don’t really care. But you two need to end whatever this is right now. You’re both grown ass adults, so work your bullshit out and stop acting like a pair of immature kids.” Jett’s the first one to stand down. Her black eyes are puffy and red—a rare sight if ever I saw one. It’s also a clear indicator that whatever Ryder has said or done has caused her enough upset to make her cry. Anyone who knows Jett knows she doesn’t cry for anyone. Yet the fierce scowl on her face tells me this issue between her and Ryder is far from over. “We open in thirty minutes and instead of making sure everything’s good to go, you’re too busy tearing chunks out of each other. You’re fucking acting like a set of bitches. Bryson wouldn’t put up with this bullshit and you both know it.” I hate being the one who has to deliver the low blows and home truths, but if I don’t do it, who will? “Either sort your acts out or get the hell out of here.” “There’s nothing to sort. We’re done.” Ryder barks over my head, all six-foot-two of him towering over my small five-foot frame. He mutters something else, but I struggle to understand it before he turns around and storms off, forcing both Jett and I to watch his retreating form disappearing out the door to only god knows where. “Asshole.” Jett calls after him but he’s already left the building and to be fair, I don’t think he’d give a damn about anything she had to say anyway. I turn back around to face her, hoping for at least some kind of explanation, but all she does is shrug her bare shoulders at me. Really? This chick is something else. Sure, she might be Bryson’s kind of stepdaughter, but she really needs to figure out what she wants from life instead of moping around and causing problems. “Are you being for real? Is that really all I’m getting?” I’ve just had to break the two of them apart and she isn’t even willing to tell me what it was about. “What do you want?” “I want to know what the hell just happened.” I demand, and I can feel what little patience I have left begin to wear away. “I want to know why I’ve been dragged in to cover Miley’s shift super last minute, and I also want to know why you and Ryder were ripping each other to shreds?” “Ask pretty boy. I’m sure he’s got all the answers.” “Pretty boy isn’t here, is he? Which leaves me another man down for today. Plus, I’m asking you, so you need to start talking.” A small, barely visible tear falls and rolls down Jett’s cheek and I suddenly realize something major must have happened between them. I just hope she wasn’t stupid enough to sleep with him. Ryder’s the biggest man-whore this side of the coast—always has been, and I’d like to think Ryder wouldn’t be stupid enough to risk his life by sleeping with Bryson’s stepdaughter. Sure, it may not be by blood, but he loves the bones of that girl and everyone knows Bryson would kill for Jett. No. It must be something else. Something bad all the same because Jett is our very own ice-queen. In all the years I’ve known her—way before she started working at Sinner’s, I’ve never once witnessed her lose the handle on her emotions. Those bad boys are locked up tighter than Fort-Knox. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on her? Maybe she’s going through some major stuff right now, but damned aren’t we all? “Do you want to talk about it?” I ask and I could kick myself. I’m turning into Hadley. But then what else am I supposed to say to her? She looks upset enough as it is and I’m the last person who should be questioning anyone’s morals right now. I decide not to push her, and I wait patiently for her reply. If she wants to talk then she will, if not I’ll leave her be and give her some space. I have no idea what to expect from Jett. On first glance it looks like she’s thinking about opening up and letting me in, but then her trademark blood red lips clamp shut, and she shakes her head. Something crazy has definitely happened, that’s for sure. I just don’t know what. One thing I do know is Ryder and Jett need to work out their differences and fast. Preferably before Bryson makes his grand return. Sinner’s is getting a new manager any day now. Bryson wants to take on a more backseat position. I’m sure he’ll still play an active role, just from behind the scenes. None of us know who this new guy is, but if these two don’t quit bitching I’ll bet my life they’ll both be out of a job. “Hey. How are you feeling?” The bar has quietened down some after a chaotic lunch rush, and Jett looks like she’s calmed some too. I wouldn’t approach her otherwise because I know better than to approach storm Jett. “Not really, but what can you do?” Jett’s eyes are sad, framed by her super long lashes, yet she still looks as beautiful and flawless as ever. “But I will be. You can be sure of that.” Her head moves toward the door and then she turns back to me. “I can’t believe that son of a bitch was all up in my face. I mean, seriously. Who the fuck does he think he is?” If I’m being honest, I can’t believe it either. But from where I was standing, they both looked like they were doing a damn good job of holding their own. The problem with Jett and Ryder is that they’re too similar. Neither of them will ever admit it, but until they can see it for themselves, I guess nothing will change between them. “Do you want to talk about it yet?” Jett sighs heavily and I know she’s still bubbling from her showdown with Ryder, only now she seems to be handling it a whole lot better. “Not really.” She taps her fingers on the bar before suddenly slamming her palm down. “Actually, yes I do.” I’m taken aback when she reaches into the refrigerator and pulls out a beer. In one swift flick of her wrist she knocks the cap off the side of the bar, then lifts the bottle to her vibrant red lips. And it looks like the Jett I know is back. But I’ve got one hell of a feeling this is going to be a long ass day. I’m regretting agreeing to cover Miley’s shift more and more as the day goes on, and by the looks of things it’s only me and Jett holding the fort until Rush arrives. “He’ll calm down. You know what he’s like. Ryder’s a hot head, but with time it will all blow over.” I tell her as calmly as I can, but even I’m not convinced by my words of encouragement. I haven’t seen Ryder as mad as he was in a long time. I’ve also witnessed Jett and Ryder argue heaps of times but today felt different somehow. Final. “I don’t give a damn if he calms down. Ryder isn’t my problem anymore and he’s only got himself to blame.” “But you two…” “Us two are nothing. Never have been and never will be. If we were then he wouldn’t be balls deep in Miley, would he?” Acid whips off her tongue, lethal and ready to strike anyone in her path. “Wait, Miley?” I was about to say that Jett and Ryder work together, but it looks like her anger goes a whole lot deeper. Ryder and Miley, though? No, I try but I just can’t see it. Jett must have this all wrong. There’s no way Ryder would go anywhere near Miley—or would he? Even if it is true, I don’t understand why Jett is so upset about it, unless… “Oh, Jett. Please don’t tell me you gave in to Ryder’s charm? Please tell me you didn’t sleep with him.” “Oh, I did.” She laughs, her eyes shine bright with delight and then once again her face drops, “but it mustn’t have done much for him because it seems our very own whore-bag has been keeping him warm for some time now.” I know Jett’s trying her damned hardest to hold back the tears, and she refuses to look at me. Instead she lifts her beer back up to her mouth, takes a long pull and then slams it back down before wiping her lips on the back of her hand. “Do you know what? They’re a match made in hell and they’re fucking welcome to each other. We’re done. Ryder is as good as dead to me.” Jett tells me this with so much conviction, but I know she doesn’t really mean a word of what she’s saying right now. The cracks in her voice are evidence enough. She’s angry and hurt but as soon as she’s had a chance to calm down, she’ll feel better about this whole messed-up situation she’s found herself in. “You’re angry. I get that…” “Angry…” Jett throws her head back on a howl and when she looks at me again her eyes are the blackest of black, misting over, warning me storm Jett is close by. Shit. She’s more than angry—she’s fucking psychotic. “Believe me, Willow, angry doesn’t have shit on what I’m feeling right now, and if Ryder and that bitch Miley know what’s good for them then they’ll stay the fuck out of my way.” I decided it was best to give Jett a wide berth for the remainder of her shift. I’ve seen her mad before, plenty of times but this is something else and it’s not something I really want to involve myself with. I have my own issues to overcome without getting dragged into another domestic shit storm. The more I watched her, the more I realize Ryder has well and truly crossed the line. Sure, he’s pulled some stunts in his time, but this one beats them all. By fucking Jett, he’s just signed his death warrant. There’s no way Bryson will let this slide when he finds out, and he will—because Bryson finds out about everything. I really hope they manage to work it out before he gets wind of it, but right now it’s looking really unlikely. So long as they keep it professional while they’re here, that’s all I’m asking right now because there is no way in hell that I’m about to start playing go-between. I wait until the bar is almost empty and settle my tired ass onto a barstool. Man, what a day. A small part of me thought Ryder would eventually come back through the door to finish what he started, but thankfully that hasn’t happened. Instead, while Rush is busy downstairs I’ve been forced to watch on in silence as storm Jett hurtled around the place, ready to take out anyone in her way. “Do you need me for anything before I leave?” I hear Jett’s voice somewhere behind me and I struggle to find enough energy to turn my head. I really need to start working on my sleep before it catches up with me. “I’m good.” I call back while feeling the early stages of a migraine building. Great, just what I needed. I swear I can’t wait for this day to end, then I can head home and climb into bed—Colby’s bed. Actually, the prospect of staying here suddenly sounds much more appealing. I’ve worked at Sinner’s for the best part of five years so I’m technically part of the furniture now, so… “You get off.” I tell her and them remember. “Oh, Jett…” “Yeah?” “I’ve took you off the next couple of nights. Hopefully with a bit of space you and Ryder will be able to sort things out. Help things settle a bit.” “What? But I need those shifts, Willow.” Jett comes closer and her voice is laced with panic. “Why am I being punished just because he couldn’t keep it in his pants?” This time I turn to face her, and I find her watching me wide-eyed. Any anger that was there previously has vanished, only to be replaced by fear. “No one is punishing you, Jett.” I tell her and I can’t help but feel for the girl stood before me. I’ve seen that look before. It’s a look of someone who will do whatever they need to do to survive, no matter the cost. Maybe I shouldn’t have switched the shifts, but Ryder isn’t here so I thought changing Jett’s was the best thing to do, only now I’m not so sure. “I just thought this would make things a little easier for you. You’ll still get paid. I’ll clear it with Bryson as soon as he’s back.” Bryson is our boss man. He’s been in charge of Sinner’s way before I stepped through the doors. He’s also Hadley’s uncle and Jett’s kind of stepdad too. Even though her mom’s not around anymore he still likes to make sure she’s okay and play and active role in her life. I think it’s really sweet. I’ve never had that, except when Hadley’s parents were still alive. Truthfully, I don’t think Jett realizes how lucky she is to have someone like Bryson looking out for her, rooting for her no matter what. That being said, you don’t tend to see Bryson a lot. He enjoys hiding and lurking in the shadows, yet he still manages to see and hear about everything. Trust me, there’s nothing going down at Sinner’s without him knowing about it. Damn, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already in the know about Ryder and Jett’s latest run in. I sure hope not, for Ryder’s sake. This won’t end well for either of them, least of all him. Bryson is well known for his intolerance to bullshit and drama. I guess that’s where the two of us are alike, but any similarities start and end there. If Bryson finds out that Ryder and Jett have been getting down and dirty, heads will roll, that’s for sure. Sinner’s is Bryson’s baby. This place is his legit business venture, but everyone knows a lot of illegal activity takes up the majority of his time, and I’m fairly certain that’s why he’s bringing someone else to oversee the running of this place. But hey, this is his business and what he does has nothing to do with me. So long as he continues to provide me with a paycheck, I’ll continue to turn an oblivious eye. “Thanks,” Jett whispers after a short while. “Please don’t tell him why.” I won’t. I don’t have a death wish, and I’m not stupid enough to detonate that bomb. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. But remember, Ryder isn’t worth it. He never has been. Jett, you’re worth so much more.” CHAPTER FIVE COLBY “It’s a done fucking deal so quit bitching about it.” I reach out and grab my short from the floor and pull it over my head. I can feel the heat of Tiffanie’s curious eyes burning into me, heating my skin. I fucking hate it when she tries to get all superior on my ass. Like I actually give a damn about her opinion. She means nothing to me. Never has and never will. Tiffanie Melrose is nothing but a thorn in my side, burrowing deeper and deeper, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it. Under different circumstances Tiffanie wouldn’t stand a chance around me. She’d be nothing but dust as I watched her blow away with the wind. I’m Colby Carter and I make the rules. I call the shots. The world is my playground. If people have a problem with that then they can fuck off back to wherever they came from. Well, at least that’s how things used to be. If only it were that fucking easy to dispose of her, my life would be a whole lot sweeter. “I thought you hated it there?” Tiffanie snipes and I snap my head toward her. Not as much as I hate it here, I want to say but I bite down hard on my tongue—knowing what’s good for me. “Remind me. What the fuck does any of this have to do with you?” The answer to that question would be nothing. Zilch. Nada. Jack fucking shit. My eyes roam over Tiffanie’s body. She’s lay on the bed, her legs wide open ready and willing for me to take her again, but my dick’s limp and I don’t have it in me to think of anything exciting to get my juices flowing. The truth is, I fuck her because I have to, not because I want to. “Baby,” she purrs, her blue hooded eyes warning me to tread very carefully because whether I like it or not, Tiffanie holds all the ammunition. “If you’re fucking this,” her hand slides up her pale thigh before stopping at her pussy, and she licks her lips seductively, “then you better believe it has everything to do with me.” I struggle to fight back a laugh as it rumbles deep within my chest. What a fucking chick. She’s got some fucking balls, that’s for sure. I’ll always give credit where credit is due, but she’d be nothing without her connections and she sure as hell knows it too. “You’d like to think so, huh?” I reach out for my joint on the bedside table and pull it toward my lips. I light it up and inhale deeply before turning back to her. I allow my lungs to soak it all up, welcoming the feel of calm as it washes deep into my soul and then I exhale, the cloud of smoke cutting her out of my vision for a period. “You’re good, Tiff, but you’re not that good.” My words must hit a nerve as she flinches and her body recoils as though I’ve just slapped her hard in the face. Man, how I’d fucking love to do that. I might be an ass at the best of times, but I’m not that guy. I’d never hit a chick. Tiff is quick to compose herself and she’s full of sass in no time. “You keep telling yourself that, but you and I both know you’d be nothing without me—period.” Nothing without her? Damn, is this chick shitting me? Tiffanie Melrose hasn’t the faintest idea who I am or what I’m capable of. I’ve only ever allowed her to see what I’ve wanted her to see. I’m a man of many faces and this dumb bitch doesn’t even know the half of it. Trust me, she doesn’t want to know because if she did then she’d run a fucking mile. Fortunately for her, she’s lucky enough to be in a position where she’ll never find out, but fuck if I haven’t come close. She’s infuriating as hell and she grates on my last nerve. I need the mother of all rewards for dealing with her bullshit every damn day. Not that I’ve been given any other choice. Daddy-fucking-dearest made damn sure of that little situation. My jaw ticks at the memory and the less I think about it the better. Instead, I focus on clearing my mind. I breathe in deep through my nose, relax my shoulders and count to three. One elephant… two elephant.. three elephant… stay calm Colby. Tiffanie really isn’t worth the ball ache. When I feel calm enough to open my eyes, I find Tiffanie on her knees before me, a look of hunger on her overly enhanced face. “You’re stressed, baby. Let me help you unwind.” Unwind? I’m coiled tighter than a fucking boa constrictor and I feel like I could blow at any second. I know that won’t be my greatest move, so I need to stay calm and keep my fucking mouth shut. I decide it’s better not to answer her. Instead, I take another pull on my joint before throwing my head back and allow Tiffanie to do her thing. I guess she has some uses. CHAPTER SIX WILLOW “How was work?” Hadley appears in the doorway as soon as I enter the living area. My feet are aching, and my head feels like it’s throwing its own private rave. “Do you want the long story or short?” I kick off my shoes and slide down on the sofa and my muscles ache from head to toe. The lack of sleep is really starting to have an effect on me, but I’m not about to bitch about it. Bitching leads to questions, and questions lead to answers I don’t want to confess out loud. “Oh, now that all depends on how juicy the details are.” Hadley falls down next to me on the sofa and I throw my tired legs over hers. “Spill.” Hadley claps her hands with glee and her brown eyes sparkle with excitement. “Nothing excites you more than drama, and sometimes that kind of scares me.” I confess. Hadley’s always been the same. She’s always loved being in the know—at all times. If shit was going down, then you could guarantee she’d be there watching from the sidelines with a flag in one hand and popcorn in the other. “Because drama makes the world go around. It runs in my veins. It’s the air that I breathe, and it feeds my needy soul.” “Maybe we should think about changing jobs? There’s always plenty of drama at Sinner’s.” “What, and breathe the same polluted air as Ryder? No thanks. I think I’ll pass. I’d much rather claw my eyes out.” Her eyes narrow and I could kick myself for being so stupid. What the hell am I thinking? Ryder and Hadley haven’t been in the same room for years, and for good reason too. The last time she almost got arrested, and she only escaped a conviction because Ryder was adamant that he wasn’t prepared to press charges. “I’m so sorry, Hads.” One of these days I might just learn to think before my mouth starts vomiting verbal diarrhea. And I am sorry. More than she will ever know because Hadley, still right up to this very day blames Ryder for Colby’s sudden and unexpected departure. I know Ryder isn’t to blame and he knows it too, but he plays along for Colby’s sake, and to protect me. I’m the real reason Colby skipped town, even if I don’t know why. All I know is that he stole my heart and shattered it into a million pieces purely for his own sick and twisted pleasure. But there’s no way I can tell Hadley about any of it. If I do then a whole next level shit storm will open up, unleashing its rage around us and this one won’t stop. These hidden truths will rage around us, tearing everything apart, leaving no one untarnished—this will destroy us all. “It’s not your fault he’s such a jerk, Will.” “Have you tried to speak to him?” “Are you fucking crazy?” Hadley looks at me like I’ve just grown two heads. “If I see him, I’ll make sure I kill him this time around. Ryder knows better than to come anywhere near me.” Ryder. Of course she’s talking about Ryder. I guess Colby isn’t always on everyone’s mind like he is with me. “I don’t mean Ryder.” I tell her flatly and I wish I’d kept my big mouth shut. I should have headed straight to bed like I’d planned. “I mean Colby.” I almost choke on his name. It’s been a hell of a long time since I last said it out loud, but thankfully Hadley seems far too busy with her own thoughts to notice my secret hell. When she finally brings herself to look at me, I see her brown eyes are full of unshed tears. Fuck. What have I done? The last thing I wanted to do was upset her. Me moving back here was supposed to be the start of something new—something fun. Just like old times, but I guess that’s hard to do when too much has happened along the way. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not the same person I was back then. A part of me wishes I was, yet a bigger, stronger part of me is glad I’m not. “Of course I have. But Colby doesn’t return my calls. You know what he’s like.” She sighs. “He’s a stubborn son of a bitch. When he doesn’t want to speak to someone, he’ll cut them out like they meant nothing to him. It hurts, you know. It hurts like nothing else. I’m his baby sister. We should have been there for each other when things got bad. He should have been here for mom and dad, but how could he when Ryder drove him out?” I feel terrible as I watch my best friend break down before me and it’s all my fault. Her breathing is labored and her fragile body judders as she tries her damned hardest to control her emotions. It’s so hard to watch, especially knowing this is all my fault, but I don’t know why and I sure as hell don’t know how to fix it. For whatever reason, totally unbeknown to me this is all my doing and I can’t make it right. And then just when I thought she couldn’t break me anymore, she says, “It’s like when he left, he took a huge part of me with him, but for what? He’s erased everything and anything that ever mattered to him—like we didn’t exist.” The truth is, I do know. I know exactly how she feels. Only I didn’t mean anything to Colby, I never did. I was just someone he could play with for his own sick and twisted games—to pass the time, but when he left, he took a huge part of me too. He took my trust. He took my heart. He also took my soul too, albeit unwillingly. But after all this time, I never knew about Hadley and Colby. I’d always assumed he would have done everything within his power to keep in touch with her. They were so close when we were growing up, even as we got older too. Obviously, he decided to cut all ties with Hadley too. I shouldn’t be too surprised, after all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that Colby Carter is the master of destruction. “Hey, he could still call.” I offer, but my voice is weak and lacks any trace of conviction. “I’m sure he has his reasons. You know he would never cut you off unless he felt like he didn’t have any other choice.” I don’t know why I’m defending him and telling Hadley this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. If anything, it makes me feel worse because here I am, lying to her once again. It’s becoming a bad habit, one that I need to get rid of and fast. I know Colby would have had his reasons, no matter how fucked-up they are, because I was one of them—probably the main contributing factor, but there’s no way I can tell Hadley that. No matter how much I want to and ease the burden of my guilt. I just can’t do it. Hadley hates Ryder as it is, and that poor guy. Yes, he has his faults and made my life hell when we were kids, but he’s the innocent party in all of this, so I dread to think what she’d do to me. Hadley gently dabs her tears away before they can fall and she turns to look at me, pushing a stray blonde curl behind her ear as she says, “Willow, it’s been five years. If he was gonna call then he would have done it already.” I decided against telling Hadley what happened at Sinner’s. Why add to her upset? I didn’t think she’d appreciate me discussing Ryder when she still harbors so much hate for him. That would be selfish of me, but not as selfish as I’ve been over the years. I don’t even know what really happened between me and Colby. We were best friends. All three of us, and then one day he just turned on me, and over time his games would grow nastier. I soon realized the more I let him affect me, the worse he became. He was evil and he didn’t care about anyone’s feelings but his own. In time he grew to hate me—absolutely despised everything about my being for something I had zero control over. It didn’t matter what I tried to do or say, he made it perfectly clear that our friendship was over. I tried so hard to understand him. To figure out his sudden change in mood, but if anything, that only made him hate me more. Jeez, I really thought I’d moved passed all this, but being back in this house, awakening old feelings, being back in his room—it’s done all things kinds of crazy to my head. CHAPTER SEVEN WILLOW “Mom and Dad are going out tonight. Some fancy event at work or something…” A mega watt smile takes over my face. This can only mean one thing. I love staying at Hadley’s place because it totally beats staying at home. I stay at hers most nights, but when her mom and dad go out, they always leave money behind so we can grab takeout. Taki’s is always the takeout of choice. It feeds my soul and makes me feel safe. “Is Colby going to be home?” I ask, my voice is weak, and my stomach drops while I wait for her reply. Colby and Hadley were inseparable and all three of us have always been super close. Their mom and dad call us the three musketeers, but recently Colby hasn’t been his usual friendly, carefree self. At least not towards me, anyway. He started to act differently toward me, like I suddenly didn’t deserve his time or the air he breathed which only heightened when his friends came around—Ryder especially. Ryder doesn’t like me much and I have no idea why. As far as I know I haven’t done anything to upset him. But he took an instant dislike to me as soon as we met, and he’s never been afraid to make his feelings towards me known. I thought Colby might have stood up for me. After all, he’s known me longer, but if anything, having Ryder around only feeds his darkness. When the two of them are together Colby always plays up to Ryder and he always takes his side. He loves to play along with his games—and it hurts. It hurts a hell of a lot more than it did when I found out my dad had abandoned me. It hurts a hell of a lot more than my mom’s ignorance of my existence too. I always thought Colby was part of the family which I chose, but he clearly doesn’t feel that way anymore. Instead, I try to focus on me and Hadley. I try my best to block out Colby and Ryder when they’re around, and no matter how much they taunt me or hurt me, I’ll never tell Hadley because I don’t want either of them knowing just how much their hurtful words and actions affect me. I won’t give them that power. I’ll never allow either of them to claim a hold over me. “I don’t think so. I overheard mom telling dad he’s staying over at Ryder’s tonight. Why, is Ryder hassling you again?” “No,” I lie. The truth is Ryder is always hassling me, but I guess it’s something I’m just going to have to learn to deal with. “I just thought we could have a girly night. No boys allowed and all that.” I laugh nervously as relief floods through me now I know Ryder and Colby won’t be jumping out of any hidden corners. They get a real kick out of tearing me down and recently while Ryder’s been around at Hadley’s place, I’ve found myself wanting to be at home, all alone waiting for my mom to surprise me with a rare appearance. “Oh, look who it isn’t.” My back stiffens at the sound of his voice and an icy chill trickles down my spine. I knew it would be too good to be true. Hadley must sense my fear as she whispers, “Ignore him. They’ll be gone soon.” She places her hand in mine and pulls, trying to edge me toward the door, but I can’t move. “I thought you said he wasn’t coming over?” I bite back, panic is laced in my voice and I know Hadley picks up on it right away. “I didn’t think they’d be here. Mom said they we’re out. Come on, we’ll go inside and leave them to terrorize someone else.” “Hey, Willow.” Ryder calls over to me. “Why are you running?” He snarls when he looks at me and the momentarily hold he had on me vanishes as I quickly spin on my heels to look at him. Colby is stood by his side, complete with an evil smirk etched onto his beautiful face, and his cold, gray eyes look deadly. “I’m not running. I’m leaving—learn the difference.” “Hey, Colby. Look like someone finally got their period.” Ryder nudges Colby in the side and they both laugh. “She’s feeling brave. You’re a feisty one, Willow. I like that a lot.” “Well, we don’t like you so how about you turn around and go annoy someone else?” Hadley shouts back and this time when she pulls on my hand I almost fall flat on my face. Fortunately, I manage to find my balance and compose myself just in time. The last thing I need is to give them something else to laugh about. “Wait. Don’t go.” Colby calls after us and there’s a tiny hint of something in his voice. Sadness? Regret? “Why don’t you come hang out with us?” “Because you’re friend’s a douche.” Hadley retorts and her face is fierce. I don’t think I’ve ever loved her more than I have right in this very moment. “I hate him.” I tell her as we cross the threshold into her house—my safe place and I know she thinks I mean Ryder. Sure, I hate Ryder too, but not as much as Colby. Ryder and I didn’t have a friendship before, we had nothing to lose, but Colby? We had everything to lose. I don’t know what Ryder’s problem is, but he always seems to bring out the worst in Colby, and I don’t have a good feeling about it at all. CHAPTER EIGHT COLBY Darkness encases me as I turn into the narrow alley. The bitter wind tears through my jacket, but adrenaline pulsates through my veins preventing me from feeling the full impact. A protection I wear well. I shouldn’t be here. This was never part of my grand plan, but life happens and if I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s easier to just roll with it. You need to look out for number one in this life because the ones who claim to care for you, where are they when you need them? Fucking nowhere. When you need them the most, they’re nowhere to be fucking seen. I’m living proof of that. I had everything. I have everything I ever wanted or needed and so much more. I had a family who loved me. I was the fucking golden boy to them and my friends. I had a mom, a dad, and a little sister who I loved more than anything. Nothing could ever tear me away from them—or so I foolishly thought. At the click of a finger everything can turn around on you and leave you with nothing. But the only solace I can find in this crazy fucked-up situation is that I did this for them. To keep them safe: mom, dad and Hadley. But just look at me now. Not a motherfucking person in sight. Get it together, Colby. That’s all in the past. You made your choice and now you have to live with the consequences. When I reach the bottom of the alley, I pause and run a weary hand down my face. “Game on.” I tell myself while plastering on my best poker-face before pushing open the door. The same as I do every time I’m here—like fucking clockwork. Only this time it feels different. The silence is deadly, clinging to my body, reminding me of what lays ahead in my not too distant future. “Deano.” I call out into the darkness and my voice echoes out around me. “Deano, are you in here?” I try again but once again I’m met with nothing but the echo of my own voice. What the fuck’s happening? Where is he? Deano told me to meet him here at eight, and that son of a bitch knows I’m always on time. The room is in total darkness—again, something else which is unheard of. I reach out and press the switch and the room fills with light. I focus my eyes, adjusting to the brightness and look around but there’s no sign of life. Everything is empty. The chairs are vacant when they’d usually be bursting at the seems this time of night. There’s always at least five or so guys knocking around, kicking back with a beer, or playing pool while waiting for a call, even when Deano isn’t around. There’s always someone here to oversee business. This place is dead. There’s no sign of life anywhere, and Deano can go fuck himself if he thinks I’m wasting my time sitting around waiting for the motherfucker to show up. I do enough for him already. Even if it is against my will, but I’ll draw the line at becoming anyone’s bitch. Just as I’m about to turn and get the hell out of here, I hear a noise. Nothing to shout home about, just a small groan coming from the far end of the room behind the pool table. Obviously one of the guys is taking advantage of Deano’s absence and enjoying some pussy. Man, it won’t be worth his legs if Deano catches him. This place has always been a whore free zone. A part of me feels like walking away. This isn’t my problem, but any decisions are taken out of my hands when I hear a familiar voice. “Can’t a guy get a couple minutes privacy?” “Deano?” I turn around and witness the sorry sight before me—Deano with his shorts down his ankles—a sight which will forever be burned into my mind. “What do you want, Colby?” he demands like I’m suddenly an inconvenience. What’s up? Did he just have his memories fucked out of him? “You said a time, it’s that time. I thought you were expecting me?” A small, young brunette appears from behind Deano’s round frame. Her body is completely bare, and she has no self-confidence issues about letting it all hang out as she slides up to me and presses her fake, hard breasts against my chest. “Hey, handsome. Have you come to play?” Her small brown eyes look up at me expectantly and I notice they’re hazed over, and not from her little hook-up with Deano either. No, she looks cracked up, but then that’s no fucking business of mine. “Like fuck I have.” I snap and push her sorry ass off me. I don’t have time for dirty, riddled, desperate crack whores. Never have and never will. They’re nothing but skanky little bitches. Deano finally follows behind her, and thankfully the motherfucker has put most of his clothes back on. I try to keep a straight face but it’s hard as fuck to unsee the image of him stuffing his wrinkle dick back into his slacks. Maybe I should have brought Tiffanie along after all. The look on her face when she realized daddy dearest is too busy fucking girls younger than her would have been priceless. It’s a real shame little miss perfect doesn’t know what daddy gets up to behind closed doors. As far as Tiffanie’s concerned, she thinks her father is some shit hot business mogul. Now, I’m not saying he isn’t because that wouldn’t be fair of me, but it’s far from the legit business she seems to think he has. In truth, Deano is a far cry from what she’d like to believe. If only Tiffanie knew her healthy allowance was nothing but blood money. I’m not going to enlighten her as it’s not my job but I’m sure she’ll find out soon enough. I know better than anyone that secrets don’t stay secret for long. “Get the fuck out of here.” Deano mouths to the brunette and for a brief second she looks hurt, but in her drugged state she’s quick to scramble around for her clothes. When she has them all in her hands, she saunters past me and her hand grabs my cock while she mouths, “Call me, big boy.” “Get the fuck away from me.” I hurl back at her, my patience tinkering on the brink of no return. I don’t feel like catching a dose of the nasties and I sure as hell wouldn’t stick my dick in her even if she paid me. “Come, ignore the broad. Take a seat.” Deano demands as soon as his dirty piece of ass is out of earshot. “I believe we have things to discuss.” “Where is everyone?” I ask, still feeling uncomfortable with how empty this space feels. “Don’t you worry yourself with things that aren’t of importance.” He bats me off with a wave of his hand and I shut my mouth on the subject. If Deano wanted me to know then he’d divulge. If not, I’ve learned not to press him on the matter. “Now, tell me. How’s that beautiful daughter of mine?” Beautiful? Now that’s fucking debatable. Sure, Tiffanie’s good on the eyes but her soul’s darker than mine and that’s saying a hell of a lot. “Yeah, she’s good.” Deano slams his hands down on the table and lets out a loud rumble of a laugh. “Now that’s what I like to hear. It’s good to see you taking such great care of her.” Yeah, like I have much of a choice in that. A soon as Deano waded into my life all those years ago, it wasn’t long until Tiffanie decided to stick her claws into me. And, what Tiffanie wants, Tiffanie gets because daddy makes damn sure of it. At first, I thought it was just a bit of fun. I won’t lie. I was up for it, because who doesn’t say no to pussy on tap? Plus, I thought I could use her as a decent leverage against her father, but then that backfired in my face big time, and now I’m the one who’s left to pay the price. I don’t answer Deano because there’s no point making pointless conversation and Tiffanie is top of the pointless conversation chart. Instead, I decide to get straight to the point so I can get the hell out of here. “What’s happening Deano?” I pull a cigarette from my jacket pocket and light it up. I inhale sharply and exhale, allowing the smoke to pour out and briefly cover his stern face. “Ah, yes.” He watches me closely, his eyes searching mine for only god knows what. “I need to call you in for a favor.” Fuck. Another one? Doesn’t he think I’m doing him enough favors as it is? As Deano taps his fingers on the table I can already tell I’m not going to like what’s about to fall from his mouth, but I’ll have to sit here and listen to it anyway. “I know it’s a big ask, but I need you to take Tiffanie back to Redlake with you.” I don’t even think about it before I tell him, “not happening.” Jeez, it’s going to be hard enough for me to go back there after all these years and now he wants me to drag his sorry excuse of a daughter along for the ride? I wasn’t happy about going back but I thought I’d at least get some reprieve from her demanding and needy ways. “Hey, Colby. I’m sorry but you must have misunderstood what I was saying. It’s non-negotiable. Tiffanie goes with you.” CHAPTER NINE WILLOW The sound of my alarm penetrates my brain and I pull the sheets up over my head, desperately trying to block it out. There’s no way it’s time to go off already. My head only just hit the pillow. I don’t know why I didn’t turn it off last night. Oh, that’s right. I kept it on because I decided today was going to be the day where I tried to get my life back on track. Like hell that’s about to happen. When it doesn’t stop and starts to grow louder, I reach out and hit the snooze button. If I’m being realistic, I don’t really have much to climb out of bed for today. Hadley should be out at work, styling rich brats beautiful, so that means I get the whole place to myself, and lord knows I’m in desperate need of some self-love—but first, sleep. A couple of more minutes pass and when I struggle to fall back to sleep I finally decide to drag my sorry ass out of bed, and no sooner have my feet touched the ground the door knocks. Fuck my life. I stand in the middle of the room and debate as to whether or not I should even open the damn thing. Chances are it won’t be for me because no one knows this is where I’ll be and that’s the way I want to keep it, at least for now. As I step out of the bedroom, the knocks grow louder, and more urgent. It looks like whoever’s on the other side isn’t leaving until they get what they came for. I look down at my ripped pajamas and laugh. If whoever this is wants to disturb the peace at this ungodly hour then you can bey your ass I’m more than happy to give them a big fat dose of reality—morning breath included. I open the door and freeze. Dread runs through my bones and I suddenly lose all cognitive thought. What the hell is he doing here? More importantly, how the fuck did he know this is where I’ll be? And I know he sure as hell isn’t here for Hadley. “Willow.” His voice is laced with so much bitterness and pain, and a hard thud starts to build in my chest. I try to close the door as soon as I can move again but he’s too fast for me. His hand pushes against the solid wood with more force than I expected, and I struggle against the pressure. “Not too fast.” He warns. “Go away.” I plead with him as soon as I find my voice. “You shouldn’t even be here.” “We need to talk.” His blue eyes pierce into me and a ball of nervous energy consumes me. “I have nothing to say to you. Please, for once in your life just do the right thing—just go.” What am I supposed to do now? I’m starting to regret opening the door with each second that passes. I knew I should have ignored it and stayed in bed. But I had no idea it would be him greeting me on the doorstep. To be honest I didn’t even think he had it in him to bother to look for me, least of all here. And now here he is, and now he’s found me there’s no way he’s just going to turn around and walk away. As much as I wish he were, he’s not programmed that way. “Ouch.” With one final push of the door he shoves me back and barges straight passed me. “I’m not going anywhere until you start talking.” He doesn’t even look back at me as he storms through Hadley’s house, lording it up and acting like he fucking owns the place. Quickly realizing I’m fast out of options; I slam the door in defeat and follow him into the living area. He’s right. I know he is, and I’ve been stupid to think otherwise. There’s no way he’ll leave here until he’s heard what I have to say but that’s not to say he’s going to like what comes out of my mouth. I know I need to get this over and done with sooner or later, but he could have let me have my morning coffee first. Priorities. “Seb,” his name leaves a horrible taste in my mouth, one I haven’t remotely missed. “you know this isn’t going to change anything.” I tell him. I try to sound strong and determined by my voice is tired and weak. It doesn’t matter how much he kicks and screams, nothing will change my mind. It’s set and it has been for way too long—it just took me longer to find the courage to do something about it. I’m over being exhausted all the time. Physically and emotionally. Going over the same conversations time and time again is draining. No matter what, everything I say just seems to go in one ear and straight out the other. It doesn’t matter how I say it, or how loud, he just refuses to listen to anything I have to say. “How can you say that? How can you just give up on me—on us, when you haven’t even given me a chance to explain?” He calls over to me and I notice he’s already made himself at home on Hadley’s sofa. It also sounds like he’s had a few to drink too judging from his slurs. “How did you know I was here?” I demand. With Seb it’s best to get straight to the point otherwise you’ll end up going over pointless crap and I’m so done with that. This time Seb laughs and he throws his head back like I’m the world’s funniest comedian. “Come on. Do you really need to ask?” “Yeah, actually, I do. I upped and left you in the middle of the night. I thought that would have been enough for you to understand that we’re over?” I sigh and press my back against the counter. He’s so fucking naïve. “We’re done. I’m not coming back, so you need to get that out of your head. This time I really mean it, Seb.” There can be no going back from this. Surely, he has to see that. Too much has happened for me to just roll over and forget. Is it so bad that I want to be happy again instead of playing second best to him all the damn time? I want to be first on someone’s agenda—just once. I want someone to ask me if I’m okay. To see if I need anything, but I’ll never get that from Seb. I can see that now. I’ve spent the best part of three years walking on eggshells, making sure he’s the one who was always happy. It may well have taken some time for me to realize it, but I’m so done. Seb wasn’t making sure I was happy. Oh, no. He was far too busy attending to his own wild and selfish needs. “Does it really matter how I found you?” Seb pulls himself up from the sofa and makes his way towards me. I realize my error instantly. I have nowhere to go. Fortunately, he stops at the island in the middle of the kitchen and he leans down on his elbows while never taking his icy glare off me, a sure ass grin etched onto his face. “Seriously, Seb. I really don’t have time for your mind games.” I warn him, but the two of us know I don’t hold much conviction. He’s pushed me around for far too long, so why change the habit of a lifetime? “Really, Will. I knew you’d be here. Where else would you run to? It took me long enough to drag your ass out of Redlake, so it makes perfect sense that this would be the first place you’d scurry back to when things got tough.” “Tough?” I shout, unable to hold back my anger. Is this guy having a fucking joke. “Is that what you want to call it? You don’t know what tough is.” “Oh, Willow. How about you quit with the dramatics and save them for someone who gives a damn.” He slurs around a laugh and it takes everything I have not to launch a heavy object at his stupid head. “I’m glad you find this funny.” “I don’t find it funny. It’s just you, Will. You always manage to blow things up into epic proportions. Me and you, it hasn’t all been bad, has it? We’re good together, and you know it. This is just a slip in the road, that’s all.” “Arguing over who’s doing laundry is a slip in the road. Getting under each other’s feet from time to time is a slip in the road, Seb. Constantly sticking your dick in other chicks just because you feel like it is not a slip in the fucking road. That’s just you being the true dirty dog you’ve always been, and I refuse to put up with it anymore.” Seb’s blue eyes grow darker, almost black around the edges as his eyes narrow and he chooses this moment to step close to me. His cocky smirk is still etched onto his face. My god, he makes my skin crawl so bad. I don’t know what I ever saw in him. An escape. My inner voice reminds me. Well, that was then, and this is now. The only escape I need is from him. “Oh, that’s rich coming from the bitch who works in a strip joint.” He snarls. “Having all those guys leering over you is just as bad. They’re undressing you and fucking you with their eyes. How the fuck do you think that makes me feel?” “Are you shitting me? How many times do I have to explain? How many times until it sinks into your thick skull that I don’t work the poles, but what would it really matter if I did? You get to do what the hell you want when you want, and I’m just expected to sit back and pick up the pieces every time you struggle to keep it in your pants?” “Whoa, see. There you go again, blowing things up so they sound so much worse than they are. You take everything I say way out of context. Do you know what your problem is?” he asks me, and all I can do is look at his sorry form. “You’re too sensitive, Will. Sure, you’ve had a shit childhood, who hasn’t? But you can’t keep using that and thinking people are out to get you.” “You don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about.” “Maybe not, but all I’m saying is, people know where you work, and obviously people are going to judge. Everyone thinks my chick sits on cock for a living. How do you think that makes me feel?” Wow. I actually cannot believe he’s trying to excuse his actions and turn this around on me. He’s fucking crazy. Why can’t he just be a man and own up to his mistakes instead of trying to pass the blame onto everyone else? “No, Seb. How about you cut the bull. The only person judging is you.” “Baby, you’ve got this all wrong. How about you come back home and we can work it out.” He pleads. He probably thinks a change in tactic will have some kind of effect on me, but he couldn’t be more mistaken. Sure, his face is relaxed, and he sounds genuine, but I know Seb too well to fall for this fake persona. For the first time I stand in front of him, full of determination and I’ve never been more certain of the words as they flow freely from my mouth. “This is my home. It always has been, you just wouldn’t let me see it.” And it’s nothing but the damn truth. Ever since I was a little girl Hadley’s place has always been my safe space—even if Colby did make life hard for me at the best of times. It sure beat staying at home with my crack whore of a mother, and even that will never change the fact that this house, this small town in home for me, and it always will be. I know the life I want is in Redlake, and I know it’s a life that Seb will never be able to give me. It’s taken me a while, but I can finally see that now, and I’m starting to come to peace with it. “Your home is with me, Willow. You’ve had your fun so how about you quit messing around. Go and grab your things and come home with me.” “No.” I tell him as firmly as possible, but I know there is no way he’s going to up and leave without putting up a fight. “All right.” Seb sneers and I can tell he’s almost at breaking point. Here it is, the nasty side he’s been trying to hide, but I know it’s still in there, festering under his skin, desperate to come out to play. “I’ve asked you nicely, and now I’m fucking telling you. Stop being such a dumb bitch and go and get your things.” Everything happens so fast. One minute Seb is stood in front of me, jaw clenched and fists balled at his sides, and then the next he’s knocked out of my vision as he’s thrown across the room, landing face down on the floor. “One more move, and I’ll make sure you won’t be talking again.” I watch on in disbelief as Seb tries to pull himself to his feet, his face a mess. Blood oozes from his broken nose and I don’t feel an ounce of sympathy. When he struggles to pull himself up he decides to drag his sorry ass across the floor instead. “This isn’t over, Willow.” He threatens, but I’m too shocked to register the meaning of his words. Not only has Seb found me, but when I turn to look at my savior, I find my tormentors cold, gray eyes looking back at me. “Did you miss me, princess?” CHAPTER TEN COLBY Welcome fucking home. I watch as the weasel drags himself across the floor and he’s lucky he can still use his legs. Fuck. The last thing I expected to find when I walked through the door of my childhood home was Willow, let alone some low-life jerk mouthing off to her. It’s been a long time since I last saw her, and I’m unprepared for the multitude of feelings as they creep up and consume me all at once. I don’t have anything to say, and all I can do is watch her as I see my own shock mirrored in her eyes. “Colby, baby. Are you in here?” The nagging sound of Tiffanie’s voice breaks me out of my trance and the weird connection, as strong as it’s always been between Willow and I, is broken. “Through here.” I shout back when I hear the click of her designer heels out in the hall, but I never once take my eyes from Willow. She hasn’t changed a bit. She looks exactly the same as she did when I left her. And I can tell from the look on her face she still hates me just as much. “I didn’t know…” she starts but I’m quick to cut her off. I’m not here for small talk. “Where’s Hadley?” I demand. I do a good job at keeping my voice on an even level, but on the inside, I’m feeling all kinds of crazy. Willow eyes me suspiciously before answering and if I’m being honest, I can’t blame her for being on edge. “Erm… she’s at work, I think.” She pulls on her sleeves, a nervous trait she’s always carried since we were kids and I’m pleased to know I’m not the only one who’s affected here. But I also don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it either. “You think?” I raise a suspicious brow at her. She thinks? Surely, she’d know where Hadley was? Those two are inseparable. I hope she’s not trying to bullshit me because if she was then that would really piss me off, especially after I’ve just punched some low-life for her too. “I’m not her keeper, Colby.” She bites back and I can see she’s still as fierce as ever. Man, how I’ve missed toying with her. Willow’s always been so pliable. Oh, yes. The Willow I love to hate is still in there, rooted deep inside of her. I bet she’s tried her damned hardest to change over the years too, but it’s clear to see that when I’m around she’ll always be weak. I’m her drug of choice—her addiction that she can’t shift. “Maybe if you’d stayed in touch with her, she’d be able to keep you informed of her whereabouts from time to time.” I can’t help but laugh as she stomps off. Obviously, that’s the best welcome home I’m going to get, and coming from Willow, I’ll take it. I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything different. But it’s no matter and I’m sure she’ll be relieved to find out that Willow isn’t the reason I’m here. “Colby, baby. You didn’t need to leave me in the truck.” Tiffanie waltzes through the door to the kitchen, a pitiful pout on her over enhanced lips, and I won’t lie. She looks a hot fucking mess. I should have stood my ground and left her with daddy dearest, not the damn truck, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I was majorly pissed I had to drag her along with me, but Tiffanie was fucking elated. She even gave me a celebratory suck on the drive over. Don’t judge me—a man has needs and this whore has no shame in giving me access to all areas. “You survived, right, so where’s the fucking problem?” I’m in no mood for her bullshit right now. Seeing Willow has taken me well and truly out of the game. I need to get my act together and fast because I don’t have time for distractions. What the fuck was she even doing in my house? The sooner I find Hadley the better. “This is a nice place. Small, but cute.” Tiff wanders around inspecting the walls and contents of my childhood home. Well, she can inspect away so long as it keeps her off my back. “Is this really where you grew up? Damn, no wonder you’re so angry all the time.” Tiffanie slides over to me, her hands roaming freely on my chest and I know she’s got one thing on her mind. She’s fucking sex mad, and for a guy it would be like hitting the jackpot—the only downside is it’s Tiffanie. “Wanna show me around?” she licks her lips seductively. She’s hungry and desperate for my cock, but I’m not in the right headspace to be dealing with her bullshit demands. “Fuck off, Tiffanie.” I warn her, but my tone only seems to fuel her more. “Colby, baby. I thought this little trip was supposed to be fun and so far you’ve been a right bore.” “Don’t start. You’re here aren’t you, so quit bitching because I’m getting fed up of hearing it.” Shaking my head in despair I run a hand over my face. Why the fuck did I agree to bring her along? “And you should know by now that I don’t do fun.” I say through gritted teeth and she smiles sadistically, confirming what I already know—this is nothing but a fucked-up game for her to play. This whole situation is one big fucked-up game. One Tiffanie shouldn’t be a part of, but then I guess business is business for Deano, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way—so long as his end goal is met. “We’re not here for pleasure, Tiff, so quit messing around.” Right now, the only thing on my mind is Hadley. I need to find her, let her see that I’m okay and then it’s time to get down to business. The real reason I’m back in Redlake. CHAPTER ELEVEN COLBY I won’t lie. It feels downright crazy being back home. I didn’t know how I’d feel on the drive over, but I’m don’t feel as bad as I thought I would, which is a welcome surprise. A small part of me thought this place would have changed a little while I’ve been away, but everything is exactly how it was when I left it all behind. I guess it doesn’t matter how much time passes, the world just keeps on moving. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from—the world doesn’t stop for anyone. I was only back at the house for ten minutes when I needed to get the fuck out of there. Tiffanie was driving me insane. That girl doesn’t know when to quit, and it’s really starting to grate on me. The more time I spend with her, the more murderous I feel, and I know from experience that’s never a good sign. I still had no idea where Hadley was or when she was coming back home, but there was no way I was spending another second with Tiffanie. Instead, I spun her some line about needing to sort some business and she should make herself at home. All it took was a promise of some new shoes and she was like putty in my hands. Stupid, materialistic bitch. I knew my next stop had to be Sinner’s. When I arrived it was fairly quiet, a couple of thirsty customers and a blonde chick behind the bar who I don’t remember seeing in Redlake before. I decided to keep a low profile for the time being. That way I could focus on getting my head together before I headed to see Bryson. Not much has changed as that motherfucker is still hidden away in his office. “Colby. What the fuck man. Is it really you?” I feel a strong slap on my shoulder, I turn around to see which sorry ass has disturbed me and for the first time since I arrived back home a huge genuine grin takes over my face, and my cheeks ache from muscles that haven’t been used in years as they finally get some much-needed exercise. “Ryder.” I slap my hand down on the table and I get a strong sense of me—the old me. The Colby Carter who I was before all this bullshit kicked off. “It’s good to see you, man.” I tell him truthfully as he slides down into the booth and for a couple of minutes, I feel the heavy burden of my sins evaporate. Right now, it’s just me and Ryder—just like it used to be. The way it should be, but life doesn’t work out how you want it too, or how you believe it should. No, life likes to screw you in the balls, over and over again. “What are you doing back?” He asks and then stumbles, “not that I ain’t pleased to see you because believe me, I am. It’s just five years is a long time, man. I started to think you’d never return.” I can’t help but laugh as his eyes grow wide, excitement on his face and he looks like the big kid I remember. Damn, even I feel like a big ass kid right now. “Ask no questions and be told no lies my friend. You know how it goes.” “Oh, come on.” Ryder reaches out and jabs me in the arm playfully and I know he’s desperate for the gossip. “This is me you’re talking to. You can tell me anything. You know that, right?” “Right.” He’s so hungry for it. I guess somethings don’t change and it’s nice to feel a sense of familiarity. “I got back around an hour ago and I can tell you I’m already regretting it.” “Fuck off. You and I both know it’s about time you came back. What can I tell you, Redlake hasn’t been the same without you.” “Of course it hasn’t. What the fuck did you expect?” Laughter erupts around us and the chick over at the bar gives us a couple of suspicious glances. She’s pretty easy on the eyes. Maybe I’ll have to keep her in mind when I feel like a woman’s touch. I know I have Tiffanie willing and waiting back at the house but fucking her feels like a goddamn chore and after dealing with her for as long as I have, I think I deserve the right to have some fun. “Hey, have you seen the guys yet? Bryson’s in the back and I know he will be happy to see you. Favorite nephew and all that.” “Dude, I’m his only fucking nephew.” I remind him. Ryder shrugs his shoulders and says, “same thing.” I’ve got a funny feeling Bryson isn’t going to be all too happy to see me. I haven’t seen my uncle in five years. He knew why I left—why I had to leave. Actually, he was the only one I confided in throughout it all. He did good too. Bry was more understanding than I thought he would be, and he was the one who set things in place for when I’d gone. Without his help I don’t think any of it would have been possible. We kept in touch every so often while I was away, but he never reported anything major, so it looks like he had it all under control on this side. We used to be pretty close. Bryson was the cool uncle and I loved to parade him in front of my friends. Everyone wanted him to be their uncle, but only Hadley and I had that privilege. Unfortunately, that all looks set to change when he figures out why I’m really here. “How’s Hadley?” I ask, unable to hold back the one question which has been running through my mind since I left. “She good? Please tell me she kept her head down and her dumb ass out of trouble.” If I can count on anyone in this world to be straight up with me then it will always be Ryder, hands down. He isn’t afraid of pissing me off, and he’ll always tell me something he thinks I’ll need to know about. Only over the past five years I kind of made that hard for him. Ryder leans back in his seat and puffs out his cheeks. Fuck, I already know this isn’t going to good. “You haven’t seen her? Man, she’s gonna have your balls when she finds out you’re home.” Home. That word coming from Ryder sounds right, and I like the warm feeling I get when he says it, but this isn’t a fairytale and I can’t allow thoughts of non-existent endings to penetrate my mind. But he’s right. No matter what happens—whether I’m here or not, this will always be my home. “She wasn’t at the house when I got back. I was hoping she might be here?” Ryder’s eyes fall down and rest on the table and I instantly know he’s holding something back from me. “You won’t find Hadley anywhere near this place.” “Really?” Ryder’s omission takes me by surprise. Hadley used to always come down and hang at Sinner’s. She used to sneak in even before she hit the legal age. One of the perks of having a well-respected uncle who couldn’t give a damn about the law. “Oh, man. When you left, things between Hadley and me, well, they got a little heated.” Ryder refuses to look me square in the eye and I feel like he’s just knocked all the air out of my lungs with his words. Friend or not, this motherfucker better not be messing me around. I swear if he’s so much as touched a single hair on Hadley’s head he’ll wish he’d never been born. “Back up.” I clench my fists as I try my damned hardest to think the worst and get my temper under control, but the need to sucker punch him square in the jaw is getting stronger by the second. “You’re telling me you’ve been fucking my little sister?” My voice is calm but laced with a severe warning—this son of a bitch better tread carefully because he’s already walking on thin ice. Ryder has known me for years, and you’d like to think he’d no better than to go sniffing around Hadley. “Are you fucking crazy?” He shouts out before throwing his head back and a loud laugh roars from his chest. “Jesus Christ, Colby. What the fuck do you take me for? No offence, but I wouldn’t touch Hadley. She’s like an annoying little sister to me, or at least she was.” “Was?” Well, it seems the plot thickens. And why the hell is he starting to talk in riddles. If he hasn’t fucked her then that’s great news for the both of us. He doesn’t lose the function of his jaw and I don’t lose my temper, or my best friend at the same time. I’d call that winning. But I need to know he’s stuck to his word. I need to know he’s been looking out for her while I’ve been away, and hearing his ‘was’ bullshit leads me to believe he hasn’t been sticking to his side of the deal like he promised. “Well, you know what Hadley’s like. She’s a hot head. It must run in the family.” “Just fucking get to the point, Ryder.” I don’t want him to try and make light of whatever has happened. I need him to be honest with me and tell me what happened. “She didn’t take the news of your sudden departure as well as you thought she would. Actually, she went bat-shit crazy. She screwed me over, man. But she wasn’t happy to leave it there. Oh, no. Hadley came back, dug those crazy ass heels in my balls and fucking dragged them across the floor for the whole damn world to see. I wouldn’t worry too much. That chick can definitely look after herself—she’s fucking savage.” The mood lightens again now I know his dick hasn’t been anywhere near my sister, and I can’t help but laugh at his description of Hads. I’m glad she’s protecting herself and standing up for what she believes in—just like I always told her to do. “Wanna tell me what you did to piss her off?” “Who me?” Ryder looks taken aback, shocked that I’d think such a thing. But I’m not buying it. I know Hadley, and I know he must have done something to piss her off to get that kind f reaction from her.” I didn’t do shit. But then that didn’t stop her from blaming me for your disappearing act.” He sighs heavily and shakes his head like he’s reliving the moment again for the first time. “You know, it didn’t matter what I said or did, her mind was made up. Hadley was dead set I had some kind of involvement with whatever you were doing.” “And she was pissed at you for that?” What Ryder is saying doesn’t make any sense. Had’s would never cut someone out of her life unless they’d done her a major wrong. She loves hard, but she hates harder. No, something else m