Authors: L.J. Wilson
Aaron and Alec had moved into the kitchen where Honor fussed over a meal that looked like a Middle-Age feast. In between, she sipped a glass of wine. “You know, we can do more than set the table,” Aaron said.
“Uh, thanks Mr.
. But I’ll do the cooking. You guys can clean up.”
“What, um, what is that?” Alec asked, peering past the salad he’d been given permission toss.
“Cornish game hens.”
Both brothers wriggled broad noses. Before Alec broke his, they were fairly identical. “You mean those scrawny chickens for half a person?”
“Are we rationing food?” Alec added.
“Stop. It’ll be delicious… I hope,” she said more faintly, tending to pots of boiling water before grating an orange. “And I made you each two. I need willing guineas pigs.”
“Because?” Alec said.
“Because I need to try it out before adding it to the corporate taste-testing menu.” Honor stuck her pinkie finger into the sauce where she’d stirred in the orange peel. Tasting it, she made a sour face and reached into the spice cabinet. Aaron watched, recalling having dipped a pinkie finger or two into far more dangerous substances. “In some ways,” she said, “it does feel like my contract comes down to a Cornish game hen…” With a container marked Pumpkin Spice in hand, Honor gave it a healthy shake and stirred the concoction. She glanced up, catching her brothers’ curious stares. “Anyway, Stefan is particular—and he should be. He wants to impress the corporate team with a full sampling of Honor’s Guests’ creations. It’s not an unreasonable request. Not at this level.”
“Listen, if Stefan doesn’t think your cooking is top-shelf—salmon puffs through chocolate mousse… to whatever the hell you’ve got going there,” Aaron said, pointing, “he’s an ass.”
“Thanks.” Honor sipped her wine and tasted the sauce again. “Better,” she said, smiling. “I have a lot riding on this. Aside from the Abstract Enchantment contract, there’s Stefan’s offer to personally invest. It’s a huge opportunity, you know?”
Aaron nodded, smiling back. As long as Stefan stayed inside the lines, he saw no reason to add to Honor’s stress. And if Stefan did have an agenda that involved Honor, Aaron was sure he’d have it figured out before she signed any contracts. “So is dinner soon? Or should I open another beer?”
Honor glanced at the kitchen clock. “I was hoping Troy would show. I can’t imagine what’s keep—” On her words, the kitchen door swung open. Aaron watched a lankier, maybe more brooding, version of himself walk through. “You’re late,” Honor said. “I mean, I thought you’d be home an hour ago.”
Troy held up a gallon of milk with two fingers. Silently, he crossed through the kitchen and deposited the jug into the refrigerator. Apparently, he wasn’t into eye contact either, stopping at the end of the breakfast bar and flipping through the mail. A round of glances passed between his older siblings. Troy shrugged off his leather jacket and dropped it onto the barstool.
Alec picked it up. “You missed the coatrack. Your sister isn’t your maid.” Whether it was size differential, age, or pure intimidation, Troy followed the instruction. But as he grabbed up the jacket, Aaron saw a tattoo on his forearm. It looked raw and fresh. He also knew it looked like trouble.
“Hey, Troy, give me a hand,” Honor said.
He brushed by his brothers, pushing down his shirtsleeve as he went.
Honor passed him a platter that looked like it belonged in a foodie magazine spread. “Oh shoot, I wanted to try a California chardonnay with this—2011 vintage. Stefan recommended it.” She saw her brothers’ unimpressed expressions. “I think he’s part owner of the vineyard.” Their faces remained equally blasé. “Oh, never mind. I’ll get it. It’s in the garage fridge.”
“No, let me,” Alec said. He offered a backward glance, exiting through the service porch and out to the detached garage.
“Thanks,” she called after him. “So, Troy, how was work?”
“Fine.” He glanced at his brother and sister. “What? It’s a pizza place. We didn’t get robbed. That would be the only news worth reporting.” As Troy made his way to the table, Aaron got a solid whiff of him. His brother should have smelled like pepperoni. Instead, it was a potent combination of liquor and perfume. He recognized it—a flowery scent that had stayed in his nose long after Chloe Pike exited his bathroom.
“Did you come here straight from work?” he asked.
The three of them sat, and Aaron waited for Honor to ask for further explanation. She didn’t.
Troy finally obliged. “You saw me come in with the milk. Explanation enough for you?” he said, challenging Aaron.
The phone rang, and Honor squinted at the caller I.D. “I need to get that. It’s my produce man. I’m setting up my first delivery for Abstract Enchantment.”
Aaron and Troy padded her exit with two forced smiles. Honor moved toward the foyer, talking about morel mushrooms and out of season strawberries. After that it was all crickets and cutlery sounds. Aaron’s knife finally hit his plate with a clank that demanded Troy’s attention. “No, I don’t think it is—enough explanation. Do they serve liquor at Manny’s?”
“You smell like a bottle of 80-proof scotch.”
Troy’s stare didn’t back down. “I had a drink with a friend before coming home. Did you plan on shooting me for that?”
The dig was evident, but Aaron ignored it.
“I don’t need shit from you—
. Honor freaks if I’m doing anything but the straight and narrow. She gets mega bent when I mention shit like stopping off somewhere. So I don’t.” He narrowed his eyes. “Can’t fucking imagine what puts those kinds of ideas in her head, can you?”
Aaron kept his cool. No way was a twenty-one-year-old punk kid, even if he was his brother, going to rattle him. “You’re of age. And we know I was doing plenty worse back then. So forget the booze. You’re right—it’s not a big deal. How about you explain this instead?” He grabbed Troy’s arm in a grip that said the kid might as well be handcuffed. Aaron shoved up his shirtsleeve. “That’s a gang symbol,
—or do you want to tell me it’s the family crest at Manny’s Pizzeria?”
“Fuck you,” Troy spat back. He reclaimed his arm, but only because Aaron willingly gave up possession. “I don’t have to explain any body art to you. At least I wear my ink out and proud.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Word is you have your own funky tats in some pretty private places. There’s no way you didn’t get them on cellblock nine. What’s got me curious is the Asian gang… But who knows what you had to do to get by, right?”
Do not let this kid get to you… He’s your brother…
Aaron added things up fast—like the only place Troy would have learned that information: Chloe Pike. The kid was either super angry or a little twisted—maybe both. “Fact is I have two tattoos. If you want, I can drop my pants, and you can get a close-up look. But I didn’t get either in prison. Gangs are bad news, Troy. Once you get sucked in—”
“Bullshit that you didn’t get your ink on the inside.”
A breath heaved in and out. Aaron’s gaze scanned the kitchen in search of a different point of view. Nope. He was definitely stuck with this one. “Assholes get tattoos in prison. It’s a fast pass to ending up with HIV or hepatitis. I got the tattoos before… before everything happened.”
“I don’t believe that. Ink was never your thing. You were more of a body temple guy.” Troy’s curiosity was piqued. As much as Aaron loathed the talking point, at least there was one.
“Yeah, well, the ink wasn’t my idea…” Aaron breathed deep. “Two Asian symbols—both on my thigh, but I guess you already know that.”
“Rumor has it.” He smirked.
And Aaron was reminded of Sebastian Clairmont—whom they both resembled. While Troy had the old man’s tough attitude, Aaron knew he was projecting the badass look. The one Pop would toss your way right before knocking you on yours. Of course, nowadays that kind of behavior would get you locked up or signed up for anger management. It didn’t make it right. But sitting on this side of the table, Aaron understood the innate provocation of parenting a Clairmont kid.
Troy arched a brow, a small silver ring hooked through the edge. “So what gives if you didn’t get the tats on the inside? Why the discreet location and what the fuck do they mean?”
Aaron rapped his knuckles on the tabletop. He didn’t want to talk about Ruby in friendly territory. He sure as hell didn’t want to discuss her with Troy. He heard Honor’s voice in the background. She’d played parent for so long. Sometimes, you just had to man up. “Like I said, they’re Asian symbols. We first saw them—” No, he couldn’t go that far back, not out loud. Aaron cut closer to the chase. “There are three of them.”
“Couldn’t afford the full set?
“Fuck you, you little prick…”
screamed through Aaron’s head, he forced maturity and time into his explanation. “Ruby and I each have… or had,” he said, figuring she’d had hers laser removed, “two. The first one stands for love. Ruby and I got them when… when we both determined we’d gotten to that part. The second stands for happiness. We got those after… Well, it’s none of your damn business when we got those.
“And the last one, what happened to it?”
The details stuck in Aaron’s throat, thinking prison wasn’t all bad. Right now cell doors would be slamming, the air would be filled with nothing but grunting, groaning men. Sounds and shit would be his world. Not his private memories, the ones he now had to use as a life lesson for a kid who, at the moment, he didn’t like very much. “The third tattoo... ” he began. Aaron had never felt his insides go so numb. Not even when they’d handed down his sentence. “Ruby and I, we never made it to the third tattoo. We didn’t earn it.”
Troy, who’d been leaning back on the chair legs, jerked forward. His elbows hit the table with a thud, and the smug look on his face vanished. “What… what was the third one for?”
Aaron’s fingers curled around the cold metal of a steak knife. He aimed the sharp tip at the tabletop, digging into the wood. Honor was going to kill him for that. No big deal. You couldn’t do in a man who felt dead. “Peace, Troy. We never got around to peace.”
Aaron barely tasted the dinner Honor prepared. He lost count of the number of times he’d walked around the block. He’d left Troy alone at the table. “Tell Honor I needed some air.” The kid didn’t say another word. He pushed, but at least Troy was smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. On Aaron’s last pass, Alec’s SUV was gone from the driveway. That was something. At the moment, Aaron didn’t think he could handle human contact. It had been one of the perks of prison. For the most part, he didn’t have to deal with human beings. Emotion wasn’t something you brought to the Biddeford Correctional Facility. If you did, it was likely you’d have it shoved sideways up your ass by the end of the first head count.
Out of all the things Aaron expected to adjust to, this was the one thing he’d missed. How stupid. How incredibly stupid to think that years of sitting in a cell would manage to end what he felt for Ruby. Release had delivered physical freedom, but Aaron now found himself residing in a fresh hell. Ruby was everywhere. In his dreams, on the shoreline of Butterfield Lake, under his skin, and in the conversations he didn’t want to have.
Last week he’d stood in line at the post office—a special delivery pick up for Stefan’s love nest. The woman in front of him, Aaron almost swore she was Ruby. Thick waves of hair, the color of midnight, done up in a fancy gold clip. Aaron’s gaze had inventoried her curvy but petite frame, a perfect ass. And like Ruby, she came just past chin height because of the high heels she wore. But when the woman’s phone rang, the fantasy popped hard. She plucked her cell from her pocket. Her fingernails were long and red. Ruby’s nails were short and practical for the ER. The woman’s voice, it wasn’t anything like Ruby’s, which had a raspy edge—sexy when she didn’t mean it to be, even more so if she was pissed off. In the post office line, Aaron had closed his eyes, trying to zone in on the taste, the smell, the sound of Ruby. The back of the woman had offered up a torturous three-dimensional vison. There was nothing else as the line moved forward, only a postal clerk who could pass for a prison matron, squawking, “Next!”
On his last pass by the Clairmont house, Aaron realized he was freezing and sweating at the same time. He could walk in circles around the earth. It was never going to get him where he needed to be—away from Ruby. Or with her. He finally went inside. The house was dark. He started up the stairs and heard a door creak. At the top of the hall, Honor peeked out from her bedroom. “You okay? Troy didn’t say much, only that you were upset.”
Aaron held a death-grip on the wooden rail. He hoped to Christ she didn’t turn the light on. He was sweat-soaked. The disturbed look on his face would totally freak her out. “Yeah. Fine. I just needed to get out of here for a while.” Aaron took the left toward his room.
“Do you want to talk?”
“No,” he said over his shoulder. “I definitely do not want to talk.” He didn’t look again, purposefully shutting the door to his room hard. He instantly felt bad about that. Honor was just trying to help. Sometimes that was the problem. She was always trying to help—first the job and now this. He was certain she’d pull an all-nighter, listening to him ramble on about Ruby if that was what he wanted. He didn’t. Clawing the wet shirt over his head, Aaron sent it rocketing toward a chair. Then he sat on the edge of the bed, scrubbing his hands over his face.
Just this once… Just for tonight…
Aaron popped up and opened the closet door. He reached for Ruby’s jacket. Then Aaron lay down on the bed, tucking the jacket next to him. The sweet scent of Midnight Winter was so faint, no more than a trace. But it was the only trigger his brain needed.
Aaron closed his eyes. With sight shut out, the fragrance intensified, and he kneaded the sleek fabric. In his mind, he pictured the last time he’d seen Ruby—she’d worn a V-neck shirt, a short skirt, and cowboy boots. She’d changed out of her scrubs before coming there that night. Aaron loved that she did this for him. He’d undressed her in a hurry—like a kid who needed to get to the treasure in the box. Thinking back, the memories seemed so rushed. Visions about what was to come later that night were pushing him, insisting Aaron go at it forcefully… anxiously. For some stupid reason, probably fear, he didn’t think Ruby would notice. Aaron couldn’t even wait to get her into bed—not that she had objected. With Ruby’s legs wrapped around him, his pants around his ankles, Aaron had fucked her hard against the bedroom wall.
Things had slowed after that, Ruby kissing him until he succumbed to her soft mouth, even softer skin. Their tongues tangled, and their hearts pounded with a passionate wicked beat. She’d picked up on it, looking for any way to soothe him. “Aaron, I don’t know what’s, um, driving you tonight. But how about a shower?” she’d said, pulling him by the hand. “Maybe it will calm you down.” At that point, Ruby had assumed his anxious bad-boy behavior was all about sex. With the power she’d wielded, Ruby coaxed him along. It made Aaron nearly forget what he was destined to do in a few hours—Silas Brikk and Jerry’s grisly demand. There was the realization that he’d been played by the people who were supposed to protect him. The end result was the unimaginable feat that lay before him, and Aaron accepted it. Dante Vasquez’s fate rested squarely in Aaron’s hands.
In the present, in his bed, Aaron breathed deep. His hand crunched around the fabric of Ruby’s jacket. His mind drifted back, wanting an indulgent, pleasant memory. It wasn’t there. Even as he’d made love to Ruby a second time that night, all he could think was
She’d been too smart for him. Ruby caught up with his mood, realizing something was wrong. Lying in Aaron’s bed, Ruby’s hands wove through his hair, fingers trailing down his back. But Ruby felt something other than passion. She’d hesitated, warding off his advances. “Aaron...” she’d said, in a mix of kisses and concern. “Tell me what you’re thinking about besides us?”
“Nothing,” he’d lied. “I’m right here, baby.” He kissed her neck, moving down to her breasts. He’d stayed there a while, alternating from one side to the other. She’d allowed it to go on, her hands massaging through his hair. Aaron was desperate. He’d wanted only private, satisfying thoughts on Ruby’s mind. He needed to shut out the world. His mouth mapped her body, so familiar and warm. With Ruby beneath him, Aaron just wanted to sink inside, mind and soul and body—all of it. Anything to keep time from moving forward. His tongue dipped past her navel, skimming lightly over a supple hipbone. In the dim light, he’d opened his eyes long enough to get a good look at the tattoos. They each bore two out of the three now. More moments, other memories.
The ink was so permanent… meaningful, Aaron couldn’t believe he’d ever questioned it. In truth, he hadn’t liked the idea of anything on Ruby’s body but him. It was selfish, a little sexist. But that was the way he’d felt. Ruby had talked him into the tattoos. She could talk him into or out of anything—a trip to Paris or the moon. If she’d known what his ultimate mission was that night, she would have found a way to talk him out of that too.
“Still like them?” she’d asked, having succumbed slightly. Her back arched as Aaron’s mouth made contact with a soft whorl of hair, the even more tender, responsive flesh beneath it.
He paused. “I love it. You know that.”
She’d laughed. “Not that... I know you love
” A fast glance passed between them, hers downward, his up. “One more tattoo and we’re there…” She seemed to lose her train of thought, always an accomplishment in Aaron’s mind. His tongue bore down, Ruby responding by thrusting her hips forward, indulging in what he offered. It was gratifying subterfuge, Aaron using oral sex as a means to an end, making Ruby forget his curious mood. A soft sound of pleasure eased from her throat, Ruby clenching more sheet in her fist. “The last one…” she said, breathlessly. “We’ll have earned…”
Aaron’s hand moved to the ink, touching the symbols delicately as his mouth captured her complete attention. He’d been running on instinct, aiming for a sustainable memory. Thinking about what she’d said, talking about the last tattoo, about
, he went at it harder. It was like fucking her against the wall—commanding and obliterating every other thought from her mind, maybe his.
“They’re as perfect as us…” she’d whispered. Aaron didn’t reply, never so grateful to be in a position where his mouth was otherwise engaged. He just needed to keep going, shatter her in the best possible way. That much was working, Ruby’s body writhed as her hand fell helplessly across her eyes. Aaron knew this sign. As his tongue flicked rhythmically against her needy, swollen clit, he’d felt certain there wouldn’t be any more talk. At least not about anything but how much he wanted to fuck her again, the second she came.
But then Ruby had surprised him. He should have known better; trapping her between ease and ecstasy was for other girls. Not Ruby. “Aaron,” she’d said. It wasn’t Ruby saying his name in the wake of passion—it was Ruby, grappling for what was most important to her. Her body had wriggled away from his. Aaron grabbed, pulling her back, holding her there. It turned fast into a full-on struggle. Ruby finally broke from his grasp because he couldn’t do it. Aaron wouldn’t use overpowering force—not if it was uninvited. Winning a battle of wills, she folded into a knot at the top of the bed.
“What?” he’d said, sliding to his knees at the far end.
“Stop until you tell me what’s going on.”
“I thought that was fairly obvious.”
“And I thought we agreed. No secrets. No more work with Brikk. You promised—you said it was over.”
Aaron remembered it all so clearly. She’d known Aaron’s dealings with Silas Brikk were dubious—an evasive employer with a questionable reputation. But she didn’t know the rest of his secrets. Aaron’s gaze averted Ruby’s, cast across the rumpled sheets. His hands, reaching for her only seconds before, had closed into two fists. Ruby read body language like a second language. Bringing Silas Brikk’s name into the bed had set him off. She gathered the sheet around herself.
“Aaron, please, tell me what’s going on.”
That night he’d felt the tremendous tug between the truth and lies. Aaron had had the chance to spill everything. He’d passed. The truth was too dangerous—too shocking. Aaron couldn’t risk it. He’d aimed for an alternative and forced his eyes onto hers. “Yeah, I did hear from Silas… But I told him to fuck off.”
It doesn’t matter, Ruby. After tonight, they can all fuck off… Silas and Jerry and the rest of them…
“I don’t believe you. Something is driving you other than pure passion. I want to know what it is. First you call, with that tone in your voice—”
“The one that said there was more than hot sex on your mind when you asked me to come here. You never ask me to leave work like that. You know how important my job is to me. I heard it in your voice, Aaron. I can feel it in the way you’re acting… touching me… like it’s for the last time or something crazy like that.”
He’d forced laughter from his throat. It was that or be sick. Aaron shuffled to top of the bed. He could see how hard she was holding the sheet, her nails turning red enough to pop against the white linens. He pried the sheet away. “Ruby, just… just know that my first and only priority is you. I’d never put you second. Do you believe me?” It was a tangled, twisted version of the truth.
Her brow had furrowed as if studying a complex equation. Ruby’s fingers rode from the hollow of Aaron’s throat, tracing the span of his cheek that he could not feel. She’d grasped the thick muscles of his arms. Onyx eyes met with the glassy green of his. Ruby shuffled closer to where skin touched skin. The heat was incredible. Regardless of what was racing through his mind, Aaron was hard in a second. “I want to believe you,” she’d said, her lips grazing his neck, words penetrating his ear. “You’ve no idea how much I want to…” He kissed her hard as Ruby melded into his body, finishing what they’d started one last time.
Aaron knew she didn’t believe him that night. Maybe Ruby had only given into the passion because she feared the worst—and rightfully so. In the dark bedroom, seven years removed, Aaron wondered what might have been if Ruby had pressed him. He might have given in and told her the truth. There wasn’t any way out, but at least hate wouldn’t have been her only option. He breathed deep. The truth wasn’t possible then or now. He couldn’t change any of it—some of it he didn’t want to. Once Ruby had come into his life, Aaron couldn’t imagine it any other way. Beside him lay the jacket, an even emptier bed. Something stirred. It was a small motor humming. Warmth was tucked up against him and he reached down, stroking
—the cat. Aaron turned his head hard to the window. The moon was blurry. At least that was his interpretation as Aaron swiped at those fucking long, wet lashes.