Authors: Ava Claire
Tags: #billionaire romance, #billionaire erotic romance, #Billionaire, #alpha billionaire romance, #alpha male, #alpha billionaire
Irreplaceable (Underneath it All Series: Book Three)
Copyright © 2016 Ava Claire
Cover by RBA Designs
The Underneath It All Series
Irresistible (Underneath It All: Book One)
Irrational (Underneath It All: Book Two)
Irreplaceable (Underneath It All: Book Three)
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stacked empty beer cans until they reached over the pile of clothes that smelled like Mommy's cigarettes. They looked like candy cigarettes that she bought me once on a happy day, but her cigarettes didn't taste like candy at ALL. I still lingered, grabbing one of her t-shirts, wrapping it around my neck.
Beer cans made perfect monster trucks that crashed together just right. I transformed the labels into glittering logos like the race cars I saw at the store. Cars that Mommy told me she couldn't afford if I wanted a roof over my head and food in my mouth. When I told her I didn't need it anyway because there were plenty of empty cans to play with, her mouth fell open and she glanced around us, like she was in trouble.
She'd snatched me close and whispered, "Don't you ever say anything like that again." Her fingernails dug into my arms and the mark she left was the same color as the streaks that ran through her dark hair. Purple and blue and green.
I lined up my favorite can, Bolt, on top of one of Mommy's magazines. When she first bought the magazines at the store, she treated them like they were precious, demanding the cashier put them in a separate bag. When she got home, she curled up on the couch and went through each one, page by page. I could have run around the house butt naked and she wouldn't have noticed. I could have beat on pots and pans and started my own band, and her eyes never would have left the page. I wouldn't have done any of that though, because the magazines with the pretty women made Mommy happy. And when Mommy was happy, I was happy.
I didn't know what 'pretty women' meant really, and when I asked, she would roll her eyes and tell me to, ‘Look at the pages, dummy’. Not the new ones, that she was busy reading. I’d made that mistake once. She meant the walls that surrounded us. Bits of peeling paint were scattered amongst pictures of the pretty women. Women she said she'd never be again. I didn't understand, but Mommy said it was because I was a boy and boys were stupid.
To me, she
beautiful; more beautiful than the women she carefully cut out with scissors. She taped and glued and stapled the pretty women to the walls. Her arms and legs were skinny like theirs. She painted her face like they did. The only difference was she had a little bit of tummy. The tummy was my fault. “A baby stretches a Mommy’s body parts out,” she’d said. “A baby becomes a child who drives Mommy crazy.”
I paused at the starting line, peering over my shoulder towards her bedroom. It was quiet. Quiet even for Mommy. The door was closed, which meant she either had a friend over, was sleeping, or just wanted to be left alone. Since it was 8pm and I'd been home all day since she didn't want to take me to school, I knew it wasn't a friend. Sleep or left alone—if I was smart, and I could be smart sometimes, even if Mommy didn't think so, I'd leave her alone.
I ignored the tightening in my stomach and lined up the cans. The TV was humming a few feet away, nothing compared to the crowds that were cheering in my mind, ready for the shot that would start the race of the century.
I cleared my throat, ready to use my deep announcer's voice.
And then the door crept open.
I scrambled to my feet, ready to apologize for being too loud, but when I saw her face, I lost my voice.
I'd seen Mommy early this morning and she'd been exhausted from work, her eyes red and bleary, her housecoat swallowing her body because she had it pulled so tight. I'd been worried then, telling her to go back to bed and I could make my own cereal. Now, I was afraid.
Her hair hung limply around her face, the dark strands tangled and wild. She didn't even bother to sweep it out of her eyes. A part of me was grateful because what I could see of her face was frightening enough. Her lips were chapped and cracking, but they were still as red as the lipstick she loved to wear. When she grinned at me, her teeth looked like fangs. I realized it wasn't lipstick at all.
Her lips were bleeding.
She took one step forward and I jolted backward, crying out when the tower of cans I built went tumbling to the ground. I felt the crash in my bones.
“Mommy." My voice disappeared as she stood there, hair still hanging like a dark sheet over her head. I realized that she reminded me more of a ghost than my mommy. The Mommy I knew would be yelling at me by now. Screaming for me to clean up the GD mess. But she didn't say a word.
"I'm sorry," I squeaked, my heart beating faster than it ever had. Beating right out of my chest. "I'll clean it up-"
"What were you out here doing, boy?"
Her voice wasn't right. It was barely above a whisper. At the same time, it boomed from her split lips like a monster’s roar.
It was scarier than anything that ever lurked under my bed.
I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. Instead, I stood there and tried to keep my voice steady. "I—it—I was playing a game."
I gasped when she brought her right arm up, extending it all the way out before she bent it at the elbow. She slowly swept her hand through her hair, pushing it out of her eyes. The minute I saw her eyes, sadder than they'd ever been after the thrill of her magazines went away, I knew I should have run.
I expected her to tell me to open the window and jump out of it. To get out of her face before she got
angry, but she did neither.
"A boy should have real toys," she said hoarsely, her eyes looking at me like I wasn't there at all. "You deserve a better mother, Jackson."
I forgot that I was afraid, I forgot that this...ghost was
my mommy. I plowed through the cans and threw my arms around her waist. I didn't stop squeezing until she gripped my arms and untangled them from her body. That's when it hit me that she was smaller than I remembered and my fingertips could touch if I stretched. When was the last time she'd eaten?
My stomach grumbled when the word 'eat' fluttered through my mind. We were almost out of cereal. There was barely enough milk for another bowl.
Before I could ask if she was hungry or if she wanted to go to the store, she awkwardly patted the top of my head and shuffled back to the bedroom.
She didn't even bother closing the door.
Something was very,
wrong with Mommy.
ven from several feet away, I knew that whatever call Sadie received was far from good news. Rose was beside me, her infectious, warm energy dimming. “What’s-”
Sadie turned back to us, the arm she had propped against the wall dropping to her side like the blade of a guillotine slicing toward oblivion. When the sister’s made eye contact, Rose thrust the bucket of chicken at me and flew to Sadie.
“Is it Mom?”
Sadie didn’t utter a word, but her face was far from silent. The soft and powerful beauty that had rendered me speechless when we first met was back in full force with one key difference—there was no softness, no gentleness anywhere to be found. She’d buried all of it, leaving only the porcelain mask. Even after Rose snatched the phone away from her and started asking whoever was on the other end questions, there wasn’t a single crack in Sadie’s defenses. All hell was breaking loose and she was retreating inside herself. Deep, quiet, and alone. The loneliest place a person could be. I knew that for a fact, because it was the place I retreated to whenever my own parents or memories of my childhood confronted me.
Parents. Even that word didn’t fit. Parents were people who tucked you in bed. Embarrassed you in front of friends. Showed up at games to cheer you on. Kissed boo boos. Got teary when you walked across the stage with your high school diploma in tow, headed towards adulthood.
What I had was a father I knew nothing about, except that he knocked my mother up and hit the road. I used to tell myself a different story: that he was a traveling salesman and had been kidnapped by some psychotic customer; that he was a decorated General who lived abroad, protecting American freedom; that he was a celebrity and Mom just didn’t bother telling him that I existed. My imagination, my bullshit fairytales, were easier to swallow than a man who helped create me having no interest in me at all.
Shockingly that wasn’t the most painful part. I wasn’t sure which sucked harder, a father who wanted nothing to do with me, or a mother who spent the few years we had together reminding me how inconvenient my very existence was. Whose moods dictated my own, whether I was smiling and just being a kid, or walking on eggshells and trying to be the adult when I didn’t even know what that meant. I should have been watching cartoons instead of rationing out food and worrying about a woman who didn’t even notice she was starving us both to death. I was all skin and bones until a schoolteacher reported her and I was taken from the only home I’d ever known...and foisted on opportunistic adults who weren’t much better.
Rose’s words as she paced back and forth, tears in her voice, tears pouring from her eyes, didn’t reach me. My heart was breaking for her. For both of them. My soul, a thing I’d never really acknowledged before, was aching as Sadie stood like she was struck by lightning and turned to some ice cold statue. She wouldn’t even look at me.
I put aside the chicken, looking this catastrophe right in the eye.
“Sadie...” I had no idea what to say or do, and none of that mattered because when I took a step towards her, she still didn’t blink. Didn’t wrench her eyes away from the moment she and Rose had shared.
I knew touching her was a risk. It could make her crumble in my fingers, or earn me a slap across the face. I was familiar with that too; being so afraid, so angry, so tired that I lashed out at the people who tried to help me. People called me an asshole. Cocky. Standoffish. Heartless.
If I had a heart, it was Sadie McLeod.
I focused on that, taking her by the shoulders. I lied to her, saying the words that I’d heard every time I, or some other foster kid, got fed up with some tyrannical foster parent and the social worker ‘saved’ us—only to dump us into some fresh, new hell.
“It’s gonna be okay,” I said softly.
All things considered, I had no authority to say such a thing. The odds were not in anyone’s favor. I knew that better than most.
My attempt at comforting her, the bullshit, unhelpful line I’d had used on me dozens of times, got a reaction. She blinked, her bright, green eyes going from dazed to incredulous almost instantly.
“Is that right?” She shook my hands from her violently. “What the hell do you know about it? My mother is in the fucking hospital, probably because her latest boyfriend decided to try and beat her to death. Or maybe they made our house go boom because they were cooking meth.” She started talking a million miles a minute, not taking a breath. “Or perhaps she finally ran out of goodwill and the money I’ve been scrambling to make so she could get out of debt just wasn’t coming quick enough and she got shot trying to rob someone-”
“Wait a minute.” I forced my way back into the conversation, ignoring the fury that billowed from her mouth like fire. “This is not your fault. Bad shit happens to good people-”
“That’s just the thing,” she laughed bitterly, nostrils flaring as she struggled to not cry. “My mother is NOT a good person. That ship sailed a long time ago.”
“I wasn’t talking about her,” I continued, my voice low. I said to hell with giving her space. I pushed away good sense; the voice that told me
to approach a woman that looked ready to shoot me dead, if she had a gun handy. I was smart enough not to try and touch her again. Yet.
“I was talking about you and Rose. You’re good people. And everything is gonna be okay.” I’d finished my statement, shared what I needed to share, and I still felt like it was woefully unhelpful. How many adults had sung the very same tune to me? That it wasn’t my fault that my mother was bi-polar? That it wasn’t my fault that Mrs. Ludlow abused us? I’d glared at them just like Sadie was glaring at me now. How did they know? How could they? And how did that fix all the devastation that I was left with?