Authors: Jen McLaughlin
Lust Is the Thorn
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Jen McLaughlin
by MJ Fields and Chelsea Camaron copyright Â© 2016 by MJ Fields and Chelsea Camaron
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by MJ Fields and Chelsea Camaron. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Lynn Andreozzi
Cover photograph: DaniloAndjus/iStock
Sweat rolled into my eyes, and my muscles screamed for mercy, but I had none to give to myself, and hadn't for years. My life was too dark, too cruel, too
for me to be soft. Gritting my teeth, I grunted and pulled myself up again, held still, counted to five, and slowly lowered my body back down. After a deep breath, I repeated the process, exhaustion and determination intermingling in my veins until the room blurred and I suspected I might feel the delicious burn for the rest of my godforsaken life.
Just the way I liked it.
Pain was my constant companion.
There weren't many things in my control, but how I took care of my body
. On top of that, the only way I kept myself in check was by making myself hurt. Boxing. Running. Weights. I'd take on anything, as long as it quieted my thoughts.
Silence was always welcome.
I was more aware of my mortality than most men my age, I think. I've seen a lot. Suffered a lot. Done a lot. Learned a lot of lessons the hard way. It's what you do with those lessons that makes you the man you should be. The man you are destined to be. That's what I kept telling myself. The thing is, though, I was still trying to figure out who that guy was.
I thought I had it all figured out. Thought I knew what I wanted, and who I should be. But when it came time to actually commitâI hesitated. And I had no idea why. All I knew for sure was that after almost eight years of studying, I hadn't yet committed the rest of my life to the very thing I'd been studying all this time. I'd started down this path as a way to atone for some crimes I'd committed, but now I was left to wonder if I had atoned at all.
Had I really changed for the better?
Was I really making a difference?
Would Mikey have been proud of me?
My phone rang mid-pull-up, and I dropped to the floor. Sweat coated my body, and all my limbs trembled from the hourlong workout. I swiped my damp forearm across my forehead and crossed the room to my iPhone. Glancing down at it, I frowned at the unfamiliar number. I didn't get many calls, and none from people I didn't know, and when I did, it was never good news.
Swiping my finger across the screen, I lifted it to my ear. “Hello?”
“Is this Thorn McKinney?”
I cleared my throat, my heart pounding full speed. “May I ask who this is?”
“This is the Eleventh Precinct, South Side Chicago, and I'm Officer Forkes.” The officer paused. “Are you Thorn McKinney?”
I closed my eyes. If the police were calling, it had to mean one thing. Mom had gotten herself arrested again. “Yes, I'm Layla McKinney's son. What did she do this time? Drugs? Prostitution? Both?”
“Uhâ¦” The officer laughed uneasily. “I'm not calling about your mother, though I am familiar with herâ¦uhâ¦work.”
I opened my eyes quickly, relief hitting me in the gut. Every time I bailed out Mom, it was a trip to the pastâa trip I never wanted to take.
. “Then why are you calling me?”
“Do you know a Rose Gallagher? You're listed as her emergency contact on her job application atâ”
Just like that, my stomach dropped. She was the one person in my life who mattered. The last remaining reminder of who I'd been, once upon a time.
More than that, she was my only friend.
Sure, the only reason I'd hung out with her initially was because I had been her brother's best friend. When Mikey died almost eight years ago in a tragic accident, I slipped into the role of older brother as best I could. And I'd never once strayed from that role. But over time, my “obligation” became something more.
Something I looked forward to.
Earlier today, I'd gone out to lunch with herâlike I did every weekâand even through my distraction and my need to tell her something that would probably make her hate me, I could tell that something was off. Her beautiful blue eyes had seemed less shiny, and her smooth, pale skin had been a little less bright. She'd still been breathtakingly beautiful, perfect in every way, enough to tempt a saint into breaking his vow of celibacy, but she'd seemedâ¦
I knew her better than I knew myself, so I'd known something was wrong and kept pressing her for information, but she shrugged it off and changed the subject each time. And nowâ¦“Is she okay?”
“She was attackedâ”
I grabbed the first shirt I found off my dorm bed, my heart twisting. If she wasn't all rightâ¦I didn't know what I'd do.
“Is she okay?”
“She's alive. But she got attacked outside her workplace.” The officer paused. “She's in the ER now. They might keep her overnight, considering the nature of the attack, but then she'll be released.”
I shrugged on the black shirt as best I could while holding the phone to my ear. I tried to keep calm, but this was Rose, and there
no calm. “Where is she?”
I switched the phone to the other ear to shrug my other arm into my shirt. “I'll be there in fifteen minutes.”
I hung up, grabbed my keys, and was halfway out the door before I remembered I was barefootâby stepping on a thumbtack. “Son of aâ” Breaking off before I could let a curse slip, I picked up the tack and hurried back inside, ignoring the throbbing pain in my heel, stomped into a pair of black-and-white Chucks, and took the stairs two at a time down to the main exit of my dormâthe dorm reserved for guys like me, who were almost finished here but hadn't quite taken the final step that was required to leave.
Swiping my card through the slot beside the door that led to the garage on campus, I tapped the card on my thigh. “C'mon,” I said as I waited impatiently for its light to flash green. The second it did, I yanked the door open and took off for my old black '01 BMW. I'd bought it last year for eight hundred bucks off of a guy who hadn't graduated, instead choosing to spend his life with a boy he met at a bar a few blocks from school. The check-engine light lit up when I started it, like always, but for the first time I actually gave a damn. If this crapper of a car didn't get me to my Roseâ¦
I wouldn't be responsible for my actions.
Gripping the wheel tightly, I stepped on the gas, speeding down I-55. As I drove, all I could picture was Rose's pale face surrounded by dark brown hair. The soft freckles across her cheeks always gave her an angelic appearance, but she was tougher than steel. She would be fine. She had to be okay.
I'd make sure of it, if it was the last thing I did.
I owed it to Mikey.
With him gone, I was all
had, too. Her alcoholic, abusive parents didn't count. They never had. It was just her and me against the world.
The ride to Chester Memorial went fast, and I bolted into the ER, scanning the room for any sign of Rose's latest boyfriend, Keith, as I buttoned up my shirt and adjusted my collar. He wasn't there, so maybe he was in the back with Rose. I'd only met him once, since she went through men faster than I went through classes. I didn't particularly care for him, but if she'd been attacked, I assumed he would be here, too. If not, I'd make sure he never showed his face around me again. I might be a changed man, and I might not be the boy I'd once been, but I was still from the South Side. I still knew how to show little punks how to properly respect a ladyâ¦.
One way or the other.
I scanned the room again. A nurse sat behind an information desk, but I wasn't officially a family member, so I wasn't sure how much information I could get from her. A uniformed cop came out of the back room, coffee in hand. He gave me a once-over, shook his head, and turned his back on me.
“Excuse me?” I headed his way. “Officer Forkes?”
He turned back around, his brows lifted. “Yeah?”
“I'm Thorn McKinney. You called me about Rose Gallagher?”
Again, his attention drifted downward. I could see the surprise in his expression, as well as the judgment. I bit my tongue to keep back the automatic reprimand that popped to mind. “
“Yes.” I dragged my hand through my hair and tugged on my shirt self-consciously. “Rose. Where is she?
“She is being wheeled into her room as we speak.” He took his hat off and held it in front of his chest. “I can take you to her in a minute, as soon as I get the all clear.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
“Yeah.” He smirked. “Thank God.”
I didn't say anything to his sarcastic comment.
“Tell me.” He gave me the side-eye. I was used to that, especially when it came to people who knew my mother. “How is it a guy like you is the son of a hooker who's high more than she'sâ?” He broke off, cheeks flushing. “Forgive me. It's not my place.”
“There's nothing to forgive. You speak the truth. While my mother is one thing, I went to the opposite extreme.” I tugged on my collar. It was trying to choke me even more than usual. “Who attacked Rose?”
“They think he was a customer who thought he should get more from her than a typical hand”âthe officer broke off and cleared his throat, cheeks even redder. “Well, you know.”
No. I didn't. Last I'd heard, men didn't attack waitresses because they deserved “more” than their meal. “I thought Daisy's Diner was in a good area of town.”
“It is.” The officer blinked at me. “But what does that have to do with your friend?”
I glanced toward the closed and locked glass door to the left that led to the hospital rooms. Was Rose back there? “It's where she was attacked, right?”
“No,” the officer said slowly. “She was attacked outside of her work, when she walked out the back door.”
“Yeah. At Daisy's Diner.”
Officer Forkes backed up, his eyes avoiding mine. “Uhâ¦no. She works at Kitty Kat's. Theâ¦uhâ¦gentleman's club on Third and Green Street.”
I froze, dread settling in my stomach like a brick. Rose,
Rose, was working at a strip club. Taking her clothes off for money. For
. She would never have done that unless she'd had no other choice, unless she was in trouble, and she hadn't even told me. Hadn't asked for help. Guidance. Money.
“I'm sorry.” The officer acted even more uncomfortable. “She listed you as her contact person, so I assumed you knewâ¦”
I dug the tips of my fingers into my palm and glared at my shiny black shoes. “No. I didn't know. If I had, she wouldn't have been there.”
When Rose's brother died, I had promised him I'd watch after his little sisterâthat I'd make sure she didn't end up like my mother, or his. That I'd make sure her life was good, despite herâ
âsketchy past. All this time, I'd thought I was doing that. Keeping her close. Keeping her safe. Turned out I didn't have a clue what was going on in her life.
I'd failed Mikey,
“Look, if you're uncomfortable with this, with helping her,” Officer Forkes said, eyeing my collar, “I can find someone else to take care of her. A co-worker, maybe.”
“She doesn't need anyone else. She has me,” I said through my teeth. “Tell me what I need to know before I walk in that room.”
“All right. The doc says she's going to need care for a few days as she recovers, but he can give you more information once you're back there. From what I can tell, her wrist is sprained pretty bad, and she has a minor fissure in her bone that requires a splint, so she'll need help with daily things at first, as she heals. Washing. Cleaning. Cookingâ¦.” He glanced at his phone. “And there's the beating she took before her boss heard her crying out. She wouldn't talk to the officers, but we think the guy might have tried to force himself on her.”
Rape. Someone had tried to
And I hadn't been there to help her.
I'd kill him. Rip the man's heart out and force him to eat it, then rip it out all over again. “Did they get the guy?”
“No.” The officer had the decency to lower his head in shame. “He got away, but we've got an APB out on him. We'll get him. We always do.”
I nodded once, sick to my stomach at the thought of how much pain she must be in, how scared she must be. And despite my fear for her, my sympathyâI was angry, too.
The officer cleared his throat. “Can you take care of her for a few days or not?”
“Yeah.” Why hadn't she told me she was working at Kitty Kat's? Or better yet, why hadn't she told me she needed help
she accepted a job at a place like that? I could have done something. Anything. “I've got her.”
“Will you be able to provide a place for her to stay? She was staying at the building the owner of the club keeps for the girls, but with a sprained wrist and a bruised face, she won't be dancing anytime soon, so the ownerâ”
“She won't be dancing ever again,” I snapped, clenching my jaw. “Not if I have a say.”
The officer shrugged. “Okay. But I have to ask again, are you able to take care of her? Or should I see if there is someone else who couldâ?”
I frowned, because I should have been the one taking care of her all along. If I'd been there in the first placeâ¦“Like I said, I've got her.”
“All right.” He gave me one last once-over and started for the door. “I'll take you to her then. She looks a little rough, just so you know. Prepare yourself.”
My stomach rolled. “I will. Thank you.”
I followed the officer down the narrow white hallways, my heartbeat picking up speed with each step I took. Last time I'd been in the hospital had been after the car accident that changed everything. Rose had clung to my hand, her face pale, her eyes dry. The familiar guilt over what had happened that night choked me, and I swallowed hard.