Authors: Ella James
* * * *
* * * *
Book Two in the Love Inc. Series
Copyright © 2013 by Ella James
Cover design by © Regina Wamba of
Mae I Design
Book formatting by
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the above author of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Discover other titles by Ella James at
Help Stop Illegal Ebook Piracy!
If you are purchasing this book from any web site other than Amazon.com (directly ~ not a site that has purchase links with the Amazon.com logo), BN.com, Smashwords.com, Kobo, or iBooks, you are purchasing a pirated copy, and/or are purchasing a copy from which the author is making no royalties.
Since the accident, I've had a sixth sense. I’m not even fucking kidding you. I think it started because of the pain. I don't remember much about the coma—most of it is sounds and smells and feelings stretched apart and pushed together like a dream under water—but I remember the pain. It was...different than the pain you feel when you're awake. The kind of shit that flows through every part of you. Sweeps you up and swallows you. And lots of times, I could feel it coming like you hear a train from a few miles out.
The day I had the stroke was like that. I had started to come around a little and my body knew its routines, even if my mind was still in Neverland. So I could tell something was off when they wheeled me out of my room and into the ambulance, moving me from the swanky ass private rehab where I started to a state facility for people whose families couldn’t do better, or in my case, just said
. As they loaded me up into the ambulance, I could feel that panic. I could feel myself slipping down, to somewhere dark you can't crawl out of.
Since I’ve come out of the coma, every time I get that panicked feeling, bad things happen.
Like when I got it two months ago, sitting in my friend Lizzy’s Camry, waiting for her to come out of Hunter West’s Napa Valley home. I woke up from a nap drenched in cold sweat, just as Priscilla Heat—my dad’s former mistress, who sold her predecessor into the sex trade
walked around the house and rapped her long red nails on my window. And I knew, half a second before I saw the spark of her Taser, that I was fucked.
Tonight, I tell myself it's my parents throwing off my equilibrium. Making me feel
. That weird kind of bad that I've come to know and fear. The fingers of my left hand tingle and my neck feels tight. I blink into the mirror and I squeeze my eyes shut. Grab a deep breath. Keep shaving.
I don't shave every day anymore, but my buddy Suri will be here in a few minutes, and if I don't get rid of my beard before she shows up, she'll know I’ve been holed up.
When was the last day I went out? Suri and Lizzy hauled me to The Napa Noodle…eight days ago? The night before they left for Paris. They got back yesterday—Friday—with Lizzy's wedding gown in tow. I left the house on Monday. Grocery run. So yeah, it's been four days.
I'm taking it slow on my neck—I'm a leftie, and since my motorcycle wreck, my left hand’s pretty much fucked—but when I hear the bell atop the shop door ding, I speed up. Occasionally when I was in rehab, Suri shaved me, and if she sees how long it takes me, even after three month’s practice, she's likely to try again.
My fingers sweat as I finish up my jaw. I hear the gentle clomping of expensive heels on cement stairs leading up to my loft, and— fuck! I feel a sharp sting under the razor, followed by a crimson bloom that quickly starts snaking down my neck. I'm muttering curses, tossing the razor into the sink, when Suri calls my name.
“Just a second,” I call through the door. Damnit, I sound surly.
“Okay.” Suri, as always, sounds like she belongs in the angel choir.
I pull open the swing-out mirror, revealing a shallow medicine cabinet that
hold a shave stick. Shit. Through the door, I can hear Suri humming “Sympathy for the Devil.” Guilt prickles through me, like I'm growing a cactus underneath my skin, and I feel it again—that dark tug that's just a breath away from panic.
I use my stupid but working right hand to press tissue against the cut while I ease my left arm into its shirt sleeve. A few of my half-curled fingers get caught on the inside of the cuff, and I'm trying to get my numb hand through when she calls, “C? You okay in there?”
“Fine.” I'm trying for a more chill tone this time, but I don't really manage it. I still sound ornery. I’m probably the last person Suri should be spending her night with. Except, of course, my asshole parents—and they're the reason for this whole ordeal.
I smash the tissue onto my jaw and inhale deeply. This was a mistake, letting her go with me. I pull the tissue off my face. It's still bleeding, but it's slowed now, enough that I can get my shirt the rest of the way on.
The dress shirt is blue, which I happen to know makes my blue eyes look bluer, not that I give a fuck tonight. It feels like a lifetime since I tried to get a piece of ass—or thought about my appearance. I'm only looking myself over now to see what my parents will see: dark brown hair still a little shorter than I used to wear it; probably a good thing, because it makes me look more bulky. As I run my gaze down my shoulders, chest, and slacks, then back up to my face, I see myself clearly for the first time in a while, and I'm surprised to feel a sick pit in my stomach.
I look like shit.
Not as bad as I did a few months back—not nearly—but still, not like
. For starters, I'm too damn lean. I remember around the time Priscilla Heat and her lowlife partner in crime, Jim Gunn, hauled my friend Lizzy and me off to Mexico, hoping to dispose of us so we didn’t spill their human trafficking secret, I was
lean. I could feel my hip bones and my ribs. The bones in my wrists and hands jutted out, and my face looked bony, like I needed to eat a motherfucking sandwich.
I’m not emaciated anymore, but I still look different. Muscle over bone, and not a whole lot else. Then there's the scars: on my temple, in my hair, under my collar, on my neck, on my hands, the creases of my elbows...and way too many underneath my clothes. I realize in this moment that I hate them. They make me feel... Fuck it, I don't know. Like a turtle without a shell.
I grit my teeth and rub my right hand through my hair. Tuck my bum left hand into my slacks pocket and shove through the bathroom door.
I don't bother faking it for Suri. No need for a phony smile as I step into the little loft space above my bike shop, where I keep my weights, my mini-fridge, two plastic bins of clothes, and my narrow bed.
Suri is perched on the edge of my mattress, wearing some kind of silky, pale green dress that's short enough to show off her legs and strappy over her sun-kissed shoulders. Goes well with her hazel eyes and brown curls and is completely Suri. She's as polished as Lizzy is natural.
“Cross! What the heck?”
I frown before remembering my jaw. “Oh.” I cover it with my right hand, but it's too late. Suri's on her feet, gliding toward me in a haze of sweet perfume. With her chest only inches from mine, she catches my hand in hers and spreads her fingers over mine, so for a long second we're both touching my face. Our fingers tangle further as she pushes my hand away from the cut and makes a clucking sound.
Her subtly made-up eyes flick over mine. An eyebrow arches. “Shaving, weren't you?”
“Smart, aren't you?” I smirk at her, and Suri swats at me. “I am smart. Smarter than some of us, who hack themselves to pieces!” She sticks her pink tongue out, wiggling it in a way that tightens my pants. “I bet you hadn't shaved in days. Am I right?” She folds her arms in front of her slim waist, giving me a pointed, wifely look.
I shrug and shift my feet, putting a bit of space between us as I look her over. “What about you, Madeline? Paris treat you ladies right?”
Suri grins. “I’m surprised you know your kid lit.”
I shrug. “Lizzy's house.” I mean Lizzy’s childhood home, where I hid out for a few months when the shit with my dad and the whole sex-slave mistress situation got real sketchy. “She said she got the Madeline books to give to Martine or Marino or whatever her name is. Her little sister.” As in, from Big Brothers Big Sisters. I shrug. “But they ended up in Lizzy’s bathroom.”
“Where you read them.” Suri giggles, lightly touching my elbow with the back of her hand. Her eyes linger on mine half a second too long, and I can't ignore the emotion that I see in them: not just friendship, but something more akin to...adoration. Maybe I’m seeing things.
A second later, the look melts off her face, and she reaches into her purse for a little pack of tissue. I shuffle my feet as she dabs my jaw. Her thin brows pinch together as she draws it away, opening her purse again, this time to pull out a small bottle of water. She pours a few drops on the tissue. Instead of letting her wipe at my face again, I grab the thing from her and do it myself.
I can tell she doesn't like that. She tries to keep her face neutral, but I know her well enough to see the way her mouth pulls down just a little at the corners. Disappointed.
I don't get it. Am I supposed to let her mother me? Why would she want to? It’s not like my own mother ever did. I ball the tissue up and toss it onto my bed, not caring if the blood stains my dingy gray blanket.