Authors: Jeanette Grey
New YorkÂ Â Â Boston
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To my writer friends. I'd be a puddle on the floor without you.
This book wouldn't be what it is without the help of a lot of people. My thanks to:
My editor, Megha Parekh, for finding all the ribbons I'd laid out and seeing how to tie them into the tidiest of bows.
My agent, Mandy Hubbard, who's gone to bat for me more times than I can count.
My critique partners: Heather McGovern, whose fangirl pictures have provided an endless source of inspiration and whose sage advice has talked me down from a hell of a lot of ledges; and Brighton Walsh, who's the foul-mouthed, extroverted yang to my yin and the genie on my shoulder telling me I can do the thing.
The beautiful blogging ladies of Bad Girlz Write, for always raising a glass, and the amazing folks at Capital Region Romance Writers of America, for lending an ear and a helping hand.
And my incredible husband, family, and friends, who continue to support me on this crazy adventure, no matter where it leads.
ometimes, Cole could still hear her voice in his mind.
He squeezed his eyes shut hard against the torrentâlike that could ever make it go away. Like he would even want it to. The memories were full of soft words and gentle hands, kindness and warmth, and he hadn't deserved a bloody shred of it.
An ugly laugh tore at the back of his throat. He'd proved that well enough.
Forcing his eyes open, he gazed out across the tracks, at dingy rail ties and the ugly concrete of the platform, but he couldn't blink away the afterimage burned into his memory. The train station around him threatened to dissolve, stuttering out into crimson spatters on the snow, and he gripped the strap of his bag for something to hold on to.
Christ. What had he been thinking, going out today? He should've stayed in his apartment, should've celebrated all alone. Taken down that bottle of the good stuff he'd been saving. The library would've kept for another dayâfor another year.
But her voice had told him to go.
A roaring in the distance drew his focus back to the present. His vision resolved, and he took a deep breath. The hardest part was done at this pointâhe'd put on proper clothes and gathered up the papers he wasn't even sure why he bothered with anymore. He'd made it through his front door. Tempting as it was, he was too stubborn to turn back now.
Nodding to himself, he strode to the edge of the platform. The inbound train was still three stops away, twin pinpoints of light piercing through the early April gloom. Uncivilized, a city as frigid as Chicago laying its tracks aboveground, but a decade of missing the Tube wasn't going to put him back in London anytime soon. He was too stubborn for that, too.
Stepping away from the edge, he glanced in the other direction, at a pair of lights that was even closer. And then his gaze caught on something else.
Two men. Flat-brimmed caps and too-large coats, standing idly beside a boy who radiated tension. They weren't with him, then. Cole narrowed his eyes. Crossing his arms over his chest, he shifted his weight.
Chances were that it was nothing. Strangers could be rude, and the “L” wasn't exactly a sanctuary for personal space. He was reading too much into things.
Unless he wasn't. He'd seen that look on blokes before. God, but had he ever. Seen them sizing up their targets, probing for weaknesses. His own shoulders ached, remembering standing like that boy was, every muscle held so tightly, this vain effort to look unassuming and unthreatening until it all boiled over.
Until bone was snapping and his fist was bruised and hot, and his whole life was spinning out of control with the force of this
And they moved so fast.
With a roar of sound and wind, the outbound train swept into the station, blowing the boy's scarf across his body, and it was all the opening they needed. One tapped his arm and the other had his bright green rucksack in his hand and then they were both tearing down the length of the platform toward a pair of opening doors.
Cole didn't so much as stop to think.
“Hey!” Between one breath and the next he was in motion. Around him, gazes darted up from mobiles and magazines, but neither of the men slowed their pace a bit, and he shouted, louder this time, “Hey!”
Sometimes cowards only needed to be called out on their actions, to have some kind of attention brought to them before they withered and retreated. But not these arseholes. One cast a glance back over his shoulder. Caught sight of Cole as he took another step toward them and another. Instead of stopping, he nudged his partner and they broke into an outright run.
And Cole was right behind them. His vision went crystal clear, the echoes of the past that had haunted him all morning receding into background noise in his mind. But they didn't disappear. Grief and anger fueled him, the tangled mess of memory that had clogged his chest expanding. Every time he'd not fought back and every quid he'd lost.
he'd lost, and this useless feeling he'd been living with for so long.
And always, always, that voice in the back of his mind. The one that had pled with him and sobbed, and it was telling him to stop. That this was madness and he'd get himself killed, but he was past the point of listening now.
The men ducked into the train just as the doors began to close, and an ember of rage turned to fire inside Cole's lungs. They were going to get away with it if he didn't hurry, if he didn'tâ
His blood sang as he leapt a bench, hurtling forward to shove an arm between the sliding doors. As they stuttered back, he shouldered his way through, reaching up to yank the cord for the emergency stop. He caught the eye of a dumbfounded girl standing by the intercom and pointed at the speaker. “Two men in black. Sixth car. Nicked a handbag.” He gestured out the window at the boy still staring in shock at the chaos on the train. “From him.”
The men were still two cars ahead. Cole didn't wait for the girl to acknowledge him. He took off even as the loudspeakers blared, the conductor barking out a demand for an explanation. And people could be so bloody stupid. Oblivious and inattentive and he had to force his way past them. He pushed into the space between the cars and on into the next one. He was gaining on them; he had to be.
But there was movement outside the window, dark coats and the bright green of that bag, and
. Bastards had jumped the train, just as the inbound one pulled in on the other side. If they got on that train, he'd lose them.
Cole swore out loud and caught himself on one of the poles, slowing his moment enough to change direction. As he launched himself through the door and pounded across the platform after them, parting the crowd like the sea, he had this momentâthis teetering sense of vertigo.
This was past the point of sanity, past the point of what anyone could have expected. Past what even that boy could have hoped that anyone would do.
The fire in his ribs flared hotter, blanking his mind to anything else. How hard had
hoped, back when he'd been that defenseless? How deeply had he wished and prayed? If only someone had stepped in...if only anyone had seen...
How could they
With one last burst of power, he tackled the man with the bag. The bastard crumpled, clearly caught by surprise, and Cole reared back his arm, balled his hand into a fist, and it would feel so good. The satisfying smack of bone on flesh, the coppery tang of blood on the air, and he could do it.
But he hesitated. There was a flash, and for a flickering instant, all he could see was Helen's face. The naked fear in her eyes, because she'd seen it. This ugliness inside him, and he was just so
A hot, bright burst of pain lit the back of his skull. Oh Jesus fuck, there had been two of them. He reeled, swung off-balance, and the bloke beneath him took every advantage, throwing him off. Cole landed on rough concrete, no time to catch his breath before a hard kick landed against his ribs. Another leg rose, and he twisted.
He screamed when a foot came down on his knee. A sickening pop rent the air, fire shooting up all the way to his spine.
The man with the rucksack made to rise, his friend helping him up, and Cole saw red.
He lurched to rise, and a fresh wave of agony crashed over him, his leg buckling. But he got a hand on the belt of the guy closest to him and yanked him backward, even as his buddy started running, and shite.
, how was he going to pull this off?
“Fucking psycho.” The guy in Cole's grip spat right in his face, and Cole would kill him. Violence was this humming thing in his hands, buzzing through his every nerve, and he finally had a place for it to go.
He had something to
He kicked out with his good leg even as the bad one shrieked, tangling the man's ankles, pulling him down to his level, and he'd crush his skull. Feel the shatter of bones beneath his fistsâ
Except then there were hands on him, and he was still swearing, still swinging. He'd take this one, too, he'd take them all, every one of those sniveling little shits who'd been tormenting him for years, picking on the little nerd who'd always been taught to not fight back, but he was sure as hell fighting now. He'd make them sorry they'd everâ
He was turned over onto his back, the belt torn from his grasp as he stared up into a ruddy face. A furrowed brow.
“Whoa, whoa, easy there.”
And there was something about the tone. The accent. American, not English. And Cole was thirty-five instead of nine.
All the heat bled from his face at once, the haze pulling back from his eyes.
Bloody hell. A police officer stood over him, while another had the man he'd been ready to murder pinned down to the floor. Two more approached with the second man in tow.
Dangling from one of their hands was the bag.
The fight drained out of Cole, and he went limp. His foot skidded out against the concrete, and he choked on the sound of pain forced from his lungs as his knee flexed. God
Time went blurry for a little while after that.
Witnesses were collected and statements given. Somewhere in the midst of it all, the boy came forward to claim his bag. Cole squeezed his eyes shut tight. He was even younger than he'd looked. Thirteen. Fourteen, tops.
After it was over, the boy came up to him. Cole was sitting on the ground still, waiting for an ambulance. He couldn't put an ounce of weight on his knee, and the back of his head throbbed. His ribs ached. The hot flow of adrenaline in his veins had faded, leaving him exhausted and shaking, and the last thing he wanted to do was talk.
The last thing he
wanted to do was talk.
And sometimes, he longed for it so desperately it hurt in his bones.
Staring at the ground, the boy addressed him with a cracking voice. “That was pretty crazy what you did just now.”
“Thank you. For getting it back for me.” He fidgeted with the strap of his bag. “You really shouldn't have, though.”
As if he didn't know.
Cole shook his head. “I had to.”
And it scraped at the back of his throat. Because that was the truth of the matter. The ugly fact he'd never been able to escape.
When his blood was up and his lungs got hot, it took him over. It blinded him to reason, to sanity, even. The anger was a force inside of him, and he was powerless to stop it.
His mind floated back to another night. Another fight and another life, and the horror in Helen's eyes.
And God, he wished that he could
“It's not a problem, Mom, I swear.” Serena Hartmann tucked her phone between her shoulder and her ear as she bent to reach the bottom of the hamper. She tossed the last, offending, escape artist of a sock into her laundry basket and stood, pushing her hair back from her face.
On the other end of the line, her mother still didn't sound convinced. “Are you sure? You're not too busy?”
“Not at all.”
Okay, that wasn't completely true. She had her lesson plans to get ready for next week and those books she'd promised to bring her neighbor who was in the hospital and that rÃ©sumÃ© she needed to edit for her friend. Laundry to do. But all of that could wait.
It wasn't as if Serena minded picking Max up from practice. She liked watching him play, and she'd been meaning to talk to him some more about his application for Upton, anyway. See if he'd gotten around to asking his teacher about finding a tutor for math.
But her mother kept on fretting. “You just spend so much time shuttling him around and looking after him. A single girl shouldn't have so many responsibilities.”
Something grated behind Serena's ribs. She'd never been the type to run from her responsibilities. Hadn't she proved that the last time Penny had gotten sick? Hadn't she been proving that pretty much every day for the last twenty-something years?
Taking a deep breath, she insisted, “Really, it's fine.”
“You should be off doing something for yourself...”
Serena huffed. “Who says I'm not? An aunt can't enjoy spending time with her nephew?”
“I know you love Max. I just...”
Ugh, they could be at this all day. Serena appreciated her mother's concern, but it was time to move things along. “Listen, Mom, I got it. Can I let you go, though? I need to get this load started.”
“Oh, wait, just one last thing, sweetie...”
With fond exasperation, Serena rolled her eyes. Her reception always cut out in the basement, but she could take her mom along at least to the bottom of the stairs. Balancing her laundry on her hip, she grabbed her keys from the hook by the door, nodding and
ing at all the appropriate places as her mom rambled on. She bit off a curse when she nearly knocked over the little bowl she kept spare change in, reaching out to steady it before it went toppling to the floor. She frowned as she readjusted it, spinning it so the messed-up spot on the glaze faced the wall.
Double-checking she had everything, she let herself out of her apartment. Only to stop dead at what might have been the longest, most creative string of swear words she'd ever heard in her lifeâand she taught middle school, so that was saying something.
Alarmed, she tossed her keys in her basket and gripped her phone with her free hand, taking a step forward and peering up in the direction of the sound. The cursing intensified in both color and volume, and Serena's pulse kicked into high gear.
“Sorry, Mom,” she interrupted. “I really do have to go. Talk to you tonight.”
She hung up, wincing as she did. She might pay for that this evening. But the muttering from the stairwell cut off to the sound of a clatter, like something was falling and hitting every single step on the way down, and that made her wince even harder.