I curse a poor education and unwealthy parents when the droning buzz of an ancient doorbell shrills through my tiny apartment. I guess I can’t really blame my parents for my unstable amble into adulthood. If I had paid more attention at school, I could have been awarded a scholarship like my best friend, Roxanne.
Alas, I thought I’d flirt my way into a trust fund baby’s heart, and he’d be so smitten, he would demand his parents rip up the prenup they had drafted before he was born before we sailed off into our twenties in wedded bliss.
What? My dreams aren’t a stretch from reality. Almost every book I read has a similar plot. And what kind of life would a romance novel lover have if she didn’t occasionally dream that she was a fictional character being swept off her feet by a tormented soul hiding under a black cape. I’m not ashamed to admit I found the beast more attractive when he was precisely that—a beast.
“I’m coming,” I shout at my caller, annoyed by their second buzz.
Can they not hear how monotonous the ringing is? It’s enough to drag a girl out of ecstasy mid-climax. I don’t know about you, but that would be the equivalent of waking up a dragon with a sore head. It would end disastrously.
My thought process quickens my steps. Brayden said he’d pop by sometime today. Although his contact has been rather sporadic the past couple of weeks, I’m willing to forgive just about anything for the right amount of groveling.
Brayden is my on-and-off-again boyfriend. We’re on anytime he’s away from the prying eyes of his parents. Off pretty much anytime we’re public. His family knows of me, I was formally introduced the weekend before Roxanne secured a job paying thirty-five big ones an hour, but they don’t believe their son should ‘settle’ until he’s at least thirty. Since that’s over six years away, it leaves me a little perplexed on how to title our relationship.
The stigma their values cloud our relationship with is almost enough for me to call it quits, but what can I say, not only does he treat me like a princess when we’re alone, he’s also exceptionally skilled in the bedroom.
So much so, my voice tremors as much as my thighs when I swing open the door and purr out, “I told you there’s no giving up daytime sex.”
With things tight, and money needed elsewhere up until Roxanne landed the ideal job, I only allowed Brayden to visit during the day. It was the only way I could hide the fact that they had cut the electricity due to an overdue bill—many of them. We only changed things up a couple of weeks back when the water, electricity, and cable switched back on like Roxanne’s new position is more about polishing Mr. Petretti’s knob instead of wiping his wrinkly backside.
“Daytime sex is almost as good as public escapades.”
My unsubtle smirk sags a little when my eyes lock with what I believed would be Brayden’s face. Instead of piercing blue eyes, dirty blond locks, and the cutest dimple-blemished cheeks, I’m confronted with a broad chest, massive tattooed biceps, and a sneer that has me convinced I’ll once again be cheering for the villain in the next book I read.
Fuck dark and dangerous, this man is devastatingly savage.
Plump lips, perfectly trimmed black hair, and a cut jawline my tongue is begging to trace. His face is exquisite even with his aura screaming anguish and suffering. I can’t recall a single time I’ve met a man I want to climb like a jungle gym and nurture at the same time. Not even Brayden has evoked those responses out of me, and his childhood, although wealthy, was as awry as mine.
“Hi,” I squeak out, both shocked about how far I have to extend my neck to lock eyes with the stranger and the depth and darkness of his narrowed gaze. Usually, you see pupils when you stare into someone’s eyes. All I’m seeing are deep pits of blackness. They’re so mesmerizing, not even the four-leaf clover tattooed below his right eye can detract from their allure. “Do you have the right apartment?”
I swear I’ve seen him before, but for the life of me, I can’t place exactly where. It isn’t like he has a face that’s easily forgettable. I’m basing my theory more on his aura than us having a face-to-face meeting. He seems like the type of guy who’d watch from afar.
When I attempt to scoot past him, jealous as hell one of my neighbors have lost their tall, dark, and tempting bedmate, the stranger folds his arms in front of his chest, blocking my path. The girth of his shoulders alone hogs the doorway, much less the thrusting of his chest when he drinks in my body as hungrily as I did his. I’m wearing booty shorts that leave nothing to the imagination and a ribbed tank top without a bra.
Don’t judge. Youth is in my favor, so I work it for all it’s worth.
I’m also in the comfort of my home. If I can’t be myself here, where can I be?
I startle as if the brooding stranger told me he’s here to kill me when my cell phone unexpectedly vibrates on the coffee table. My apartment is so small, even with me being in the foyer of my home, the living room is only two strides away.
When the stranger grunts out, “You should answer that,” I fling my eyes back to him. His accented voice is thick and dangerous, a perfect match for his surly attitude.
“It’s fine,” I reply, waving off his offer like it was a suggestion instead of a command. “It’s probably just my boyfriend checking in.”
I don’t know why I bring Brayden up. I could blame the unease filtering in the air, but that would be the cheat’s way out. I am as interested in the stranger’s response to my confession I have a boyfriend as I am to discover who’s calling me. Excluding Mr. Monroe reaching out to roster me on for extra shifts, my phone rarely rings.
I arch a brow when the devastatingly handsome man replies, “It isn’t your boyfriend.”
“How do you know that? He calls me all hours of the day and night.”
His accent is thicker than first perceived when he murmurs, “Popping over for a booty call and calling to see how you are aren’t close to the same thing.” My thighs shudder when he steps closer to me. I’m unsure if it’s in fear or excitement, so take your pick. “It’s the curse of the golden pussy. It may taste as sweet as honey and hug a cock like it’s never been touched, but rarely will it see you granted a dinner invitation.” He drags his eyes away from the buds of my erect nipples before asking, “That’s what you want, isn’t it? Approval from the rich schmuck’s parents.”
“No,” I deny, even with his comment being more truthful than dishonest. “But I do think it’s time for you to leave.”
As I grip the rusted doorknob for dear life, my cell phone commences hollering again. It curdles my stomach with worry even more than a stranger spotting a truth Brayden hasn’t once attempted to acknowledge. I don’t want his parents’ approval, but it would be nice not to be treated like a lecher anytime we’re in public.
I shake my head when the mysterious man asks, “Aren’t you the least bit interested in discovering who it is?”
“If it’s important, they’ll leave a message.”
He smirks about my stubbornness before he wholly removes any trace of it from my face. “I wonder how Roxanne will feel when she learns she isn’t important enough to take up a moment of your precious time to gather a package for her.”
I’m torn on how to respond. Roxanne is my best friend. We’ve been through so much, but I’m also angry about how ignorant she’s been the past couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful she organized for the electricity and water to be reconnected before she left, but this is the longest we’ve been out of contact since we were thirteen. I’d rather have cold showers and be left in the dark than act as if our friendship is worthless.
“Stop blowing up your phone when you get her what she needs.” He says his comment like I should be grateful to see the back end of my best friend. “So answer her fucking call.”
“Excuse me!” I tolerate rudeness to keep my job. I even occasionally give it as good as I get it, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to let a stranger disrespect me in my own home. I don’t care how handsome he is. “Leave before I call the police.”
He laughs a murderous chuckle before he shakes his head, straight-up denying my request. “I was sent here by Dimitri to collect a package…” He stares straight into my eyes as he digs a business card out of his suit jacket to hand it to me. It isn’t his credentials. It is for a Dimitri Petretti. “… so I ain’t leaving until he either orders me to or you give me what I want.”
His reply stumps me for a couple of seconds. Dimitri is the name Roxanne mentioned when she went for her job interview, but Brayden said I should keep that detail on the down-low, so only he and I know who she works for. Furthermore, my lust-fueled head heard his demand as more amorous than threatening.
Against my better judgment, and after several long seconds of deliberation, I request for the dark-haired man to wait in the doorway while I check to see who’s calling me.
Proof he’s telling the truth confronts me when I glance down at the screen of my cell phone.
Roxanne’s name and picture are flashing up on the screen.
When I shoot my eyes back to the stranger, he smirks a smug grin. He loves being right just as much as he appreciates the slightest snippet of my backside poking out the bottom of my booty shorts. He’s quick to drag his eyes away but not quite quick enough.
I give him the stink eye before sliding my index finger across my phone’s screen. Confusion bombards me when my phone’s speaker shrieks like I’m calling Roxanne instead of the other way around. It rings on repeat until my call is eventually sent to voicemail. It did the same thing a couple of days ago.
“She hung up,” I say in shock, more to myself than to the mystery stranger.
“She’ll call back.” My living room shrinks in size when the man steps far enough into the foyer, my front door shuts behind him. He’s so tall, he had to bob his head to stop it from colliding with the doorjamb. “Until then, we wait.”
“Ah. No.” I splay my hand across his broad chest, wordlessly advising him to stay where he is before I dial Roxanne’s number. “I have places to be and—”
“A friend so uneager to see you, she sent me in her place.”
As anger bubbles in my stomach, I wordlessly demand the stranger to stay in the foyer, squash my cell phone into my ear, then pace toward Roxanne’s bedroom. Our apartment only has one room, and although Roxanne has been gone a little over two weeks, I’ve stayed out of her realm. Everything is where she left it, waiting for her, including the pencils and drawing pad she was rarely without before her ex-boyfriend tried to kill her.
If I know Roxanne as well as I do, that’s what she’s seeking. The knowledge that her love of drawing has returned doesn’t make the stranger’s comments any less frustrating, though. If Roxanne wants her art supplies, she could have come and got them. She didn’t need to send a brute over to knock my ego down a peg or two. I’ve been dying for her to revamp the skills she let slide when she was hit with back-to-back losses. I would have cheered her on, not criticized her.
My brows stitch together when my scan of Roxanne’s room has me failing to locate her sketchpad and nubs of charcoal. I could have sworn they were on her bedside table. They were next to the picture of her nanna she took when she packed. Her beloved dressing gown and photo frame were the only things removed from her room when she left, which is the sole reason I didn’t call the police to report her missing.
I love Roxanne dearly, but not even the homeless man on the corner would steal her dressing gown. Its lack of appeal is why Roxanne cherishes it so much. She doesn’t have to worry about anyone stealing it. It, her nanna, and I were always there for her.
Now it appears as if I’ve been shoved down on the list.
I’m not exactly sure what I did wrong. Yes, Brayden and I were in a hot and heavy make-out session the last time she saw me, but her spirits were so high about a possible job placement, she didn’t once glare at me when she unearthed Brayden was hiding his hands under the flare of my dress. She encouraged Brayden to grill about me working a double shift at the establishment owned by a man with as many shady business dealings as Brayden’s uncle before she skipped out the door like she had the world at her feet.
I was happy for her.
‘Was’ being the dominant part of my comment.
Anger isn’t a go-to emotion of mine. I lean more toward berating than screaming, but I can see my patience being stretched thin today, especially when Roxanne doesn’t bother greeting me when she finally answers my call.
All I get is silence.
“Roxie? Are you there?” I breathe out slowly to subdue my nerves. It does little to douse the fire igniting in my stomach. “If you ignore my call one more time, I’m going to scream!” I feel it bubble in my chest when the stranger dares to chuckle about my warning. I am glad he’s entertained. I’m far from it. “What’s the go with you lately? Are you too good for your friends now?”
My mood worsens like a storm rolling in on a dedicated beach day when the stranger grunts, “Less talk. More looking. I haven’t got all day.”
I snap my eyes to his, my teeth bare in warning. “Don’t push your luck, mister. After the way she left me high and dry the past few days, she should be grateful I took her call. I’m pissed, and it’s that time of the month, so you better watch yourself.” My comment doesn’t come out as snappy as intended, but I’m hopeful it will remind Roxanne that our friendship is not to be messed with. Nothing comes between us. Not money. Not a man. Nothing.
“Oh, so you do remember my name. How kind of you.” I bite on the inside of my cheek, needing pain to override the anguish in my tone. “Now tell me what I’m searching for so I can get on with my day.” My bitchiness takes a backstep when Roxanne sucks in a sharp breath. She only ever does that when she’s confused.
After locking my eyes with the brute taking up every inch of space in my foyer, I disclose, “Mr. Cranky Pants said he was ordered here to collect a package, and that he isn’t leaving until he gets it. Considering he handed me your boss’s business card, I’m assuming the mysterious package has something to do with you.”
My throat feels suddenly parched when Roxanne’s silence allows me to hear her steadily rising pulse. She sounds seconds from collapse as she begs. “Don’t do this. She has nothing to do with this.”
“Nothing to do with what?” I query, confused and somewhat frightened. Roxanne was hit by a car—twice. She has experienced pain and loss like no one else, yet she sounds more scared now than she ever has.
On instinct, I back away from the man glowering at me like not the slightest bit of panic slicks my skin when Roxanne stammers out, “I’ve done as you asked. I followed your rules.”
I barely make it to the other side of the living room when the brute with dark, gleaming eyes bridges the gap between us. His strides are slow and steady, vastly contrasting to the words shooting out of my mouth. “Excuse me, I asked you to wait in the foyer.”
With a smile as sexy as it is evil, he digs leather gloves out of his pocket while he continues stalking my way. Instinct should have me bolting for the door, but the self-defense classes the gym teacher at Erkinsvale PCYC forced me to endure when I was thirteen are long forgotten as I back myself into a corner I’ll have no chance of escaping without carnage.
As I shake my head at the stranger, silently begging for him to alter the murderous glint in his eyes to amicable, Roxanne sobs. “Please, Dimitri. She’s all I have. I won’t cope without her.”
Her begging makes me realize how wrong I have everything. She didn’t withdraw contact to hurt me.
She did it to protect me.
When the back of my knee smudges against the bathtub, I shift my focus to my one and only lifeline. “Roxie…” My one word is so breathless, not even I recognize my voice. “What’s going on? I thought you were working for some old geezer who can’t wipe his ass.”
“I am. I’m just—”
The stranger stops just inside the bathroom door when a thick Italian voice drowns out the frantic throbs of Roxanne’s pulse. “Not following the terms she agreed upon.” It’s obvious he can hear what I’m hearing, I am just lost as to how. I didn’t activate the speaker function on my phone, and he isn’t close enough to hear anything over the raging beats of my heart echoing around my dingy bathroom. “And since she’s too stubborn for her own good, I had to get inventive.”
“So you sent a member of your staff to collect her belongings?”
I sound daft, but it can’t be helped. I am truly lost as to what the hell is happening. The man doesn’t sound like he wants to hurt Roxanne. His voice is brimming with way too much protectiveness for that to be the case, so that can only mean one thing—he wants me to help him end Roxanne’s determination.
I’d find his endeavors amusing if I weren’t being crowded into the bathroom by a giant with murderous eyes.
With the odds stacked against me, I revert to a commonly used mechanism when I’m feeling snowed under.
“If you want Roxie to fall into line, you should have threatened her family.”
My snappy attitude sails out the window when the brute standing across from me winks, smirks, then murmurs, “Bingo.”
The stranger bats away the ceramic toothbrush holder I peg at his head. The direction of his push sends it hurling into the vanity mirror. Its crack sprinkles the tiled floor with shards of jagged glass.
I don’t consider how hacked up my feet will be before commencing my endeavor to flee. After tossing towels, a freestanding rack, and rolls of toilet paper at him like they’re life-maiming weapons, I sprint the three steps between us, barge him with everything I have, sidestep him, then race for the door.
“Please!” Roxanne screams just as the stranger catches up with me in the living room. “I’ll do anything you want.”
When he bands his arm around my waist to fling me away from the door, my cell phone slips from my hand. It clutters across the living room floor, landing a mere inch from the wall he crowds me against with his imposing frame. He doesn’t respond to my violent outburst with the same feverish rage I’m exerting. He merely deflects the jabs of my fists as if they’re as painless as butterfly wings fluttering across his chest before he stills the jerking thrusts of my legs with his chunky thighs.
“You’re a sick fucking prick,” I spit out when it dawns on me that he is hard. His cock is extended well past my belly button, and its girth and hardness are too perverse to excuse him as being a shower instead of a grower.
The dangerous stranger doesn’t deny my claim. He steps closer to me, his eyes twinkling with amusement as he anchors my arms above my head with one hand while the other moves toward my neck.
When he curls his hand around my throat, I try to pull away from him, to push him back with my body, but the more I fight him, the firmer he clutches me. I don’t get the chance to plead, scream, or beg for mercy before he steals the air from my lungs with a brutal clutch on my throat. I wouldn’t even if I could, though. If your day is done, it’s done. No amount of wishful thinking will alter it.
Being choked to death isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. With the stranger’s hold on my throat firm enough to lift my feet from the ground, and his erect penis aiding with the hoist, my body confuses his aggression as pleasure. It can’t feel the screams of my lungs because they’re being denied oxygen nor the panic hazing my mind of rational thoughts. It feels the throbs of pleasure I’ve been too scared to explore and hears the manic whisperings of the nymph who resides inside my heart.
The disturbing thoughts assuring me I deserve everything that’s happening to me deepen when the stranger loosens his grip enough, small portions of air sneak down my throat.
When you’re squashed against a wall by a man who exudes danger, victory is the last emotion you should feel, but there’s no denying it. It rains down on me like a torrential downpour when the loosening of his grip is quickly chased by him scrubbing his thumb across my bare lips.
He drags the worn leather material on his glove over my mouth and down my jaw before he uses it to shove my head to the side. The tiny breaths subduing the panicked squeals of my lungs come out in a hurry when he braces the tip of his nose against the throb in my throat, and he inhales deeply. I feel his growl more than I hear it. It rumbles between our conjoined bodies, strengthening my belief that I’ve lost the plot.
After what feels like minutes but is barely seconds, he whispers in my ear, “You owe me.” He drops his hands to his sides, steps back, then locks his eyes with mine. “And I’m not a man who doesn’t collect what’s owed.”
He waits for me to see the decisiveness in his murky black gaze before he nudges his head to my cell phone. “Hurry, Estelle,” he murmurs, shocking me that he knows my name. “Before I change my mind.”
Confused but very much assured that I need my head examined, I dip my chin before bobbing down to snatch my now cracked cell phone from the floor.
“Go,” Roxanne begs when I squash it to my ear.
“Where?” I reply.
I have nowhere to go. Not even my place of employment is open this early in the day.
“Anywhere. I’ll find you. I promise.”
The grogginess of her voice breaks my heart. “Roxie—”
“I’m fine. I promise you I’m okay. I just need you to go.”
“Okay,” I reply, willing to say and do anything to lessen her heartache. “I love you.”
As she returns my declaration of love, I gather my purse and car keys off the entryway table before hot-footing it into the corridor. Roxanne sighs in relief when the creak of the safety gate on the elevator announces I’m in the clear.
We don’t speak during the seven-floor descent to the lobby of our apartment building or the twenty-step trek to my car. I’m too busy replaying the words the unnamed man whispered in my ear to have cognitive thoughts.
Roxanne’s silence exposes she’s facing a similar battle of her conscience. Except she doesn’t run away from the monster instigating her subliminal thoughts. She faces him head-on by declaring war as only she knows how—with straight-up anarchy.
“Send one of your goons to deal with me now. I dare you.”