Authors: Jayne Rylon
For my beta readers. None of my books would be possible without you. I can’t express my appreciation for all the work you do to make my stories shine. I value your insights and your ultra-quick turnaround times (yes, Kelly Ludwig, I’m talking to you!). Patience has never been one of
Special thanks to:
The real life Roeser for lending my character your name. If I set the bar too high, blame Antonio.
Michelle Boone for inspiring Ty’s club moves. Can’t wait until next time we roll the dice or start the chainsaw. Then we’ll add spinning the pizza too.
Isabella swept bare necessities off the Qing dresser into her open toiletry bag. Her hand shook as it hovered over the cut crystal bottle containing perfume her father had given her on her wedding day. The memory of his secret smile and the shine of tears in his eyes as he prepared to deliver her to her waiting fiancé rubbed her face in the destruction of all the bright hopes she’d harbored that day.
Though it had only been two years, it felt like three decades ago.
Breaking her promise to take nothing of this life with her, she tucked the relic safely beside the single change of clothes she’d jammed into her oversized Gucci purse. Light winked off the polished surface in the ornate mirror, which towered over the furniture in the mammoth room. It drew her attention to her reflection—disheveled, black smudges staining the skin beneath her eyes, a maroon slash of blood drying on her split lip.
The clock on the wall behind her heralded the five o’clock hour. She nearly jumped out of her skin. She had to hurry. Malcolm could come crashing into their bedroom at any instant. When he realized she wasn’t prepared to service his friend, he’d vent his fury.
As of last night, the straggling vestiges of the aristocratic veneer she’d fallen for had vanished. She regretted not being able to jam his balls into his throat, but the way he’d pinned her—with just one arm while she kicked and thrashed—had proven she stood no chance of overturning him in a physical matchup. She refused to allow anyone to manhandle her again.
After fleeing the jail that should have been her sanctuary, she made one last stop. She flung open the teak door to her husband’s study, striding to the Renoir concealing his personal safe. She keyed in the code he had never realized she knew then overlaid her meager belongings with the pile of cash he kept on hand for emergencies. This counted as one for sure.
Isabella limped through the hall as fast as the fire searing her ankle would allow, cursing the sprawling mansion that had never become the home of her dreams. Nothing so cold impressed her, no matter how many millions it cost. A cry tore from her throat when she stumbled over the marble stairs remaining between her and freedom. Pain spurred her to move faster while she had the chance. The tap of her heels echoed across the expansive entryway. She couldn’t remember the house being empty before. Not even the butler lingered.
She had no idea where to go. Without her husband, she had nothing. Was nothing. Or so he had told her often, during the past several months of their degrading relationship. Hiding would be futile. With unlimited resources, Malcolm could hunt her no matter where she ran. No, she had to make sure he couldn’t touch her. The pictures she’d taken would be a start. Alone they wouldn’t stop him from seeking retribution.
She climbed into the silver Mercedes she usually rode in. An assortment of knobs baffled her. She tried each one, accidentally rolling down the window before adjusting the seat so she could reach the gas and see above the dash. Why the hell hadn’t she insisted on driving herself anywhere in the past two years? Pre-Malcolm, the act had been a secret thrill since her father had attempted to shelter her from any possible harm.
Overprotective following her mother’s accident, he’d coddled her. She hadn’t had the heart to rebuke his attentions, sensitive to the debilitating fear of loss he’d often revealed when she became too adventurous. He’d meant well, but she’d married young, determined to stretch her wings. Too bad she’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Malcolm put her father to shame in the controlling department, and he hadn’t cared for her at all despite his loving act upfront. In the end, she’d hurt the one man who mattered.
Isabella’s forehead thunked against the steering wheel before she turned the key in the ignition. She unclenched her jaw, wincing at the ache left behind when her teeth separated. If there was any other way… But, really, who else could protect her from the psycho her husband had morphed into? Swallowing her pride, she did the one thing she had sworn she’d never do.
Her phone weighed a ton in her shaking grasp. A cramp in her neck stopped her from looking over her shoulder again. Instead, she put the car in gear, took a shuddering breath and navigated the long, winding drive. Rapid thumps of her heartbeat echoed in between interminable rings. Damn it! He had to answer his personal line.
“Isabella, I’m in the middle of a meeting.”
“Daddy…” She choked on a sob. Her only parent didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ll have to call you back in a few hours.”
“No! Wait! I’m coming home…” But it was too late, the phone had already gone dead.
Tears she’d sworn she wouldn’t shed obscured her vision as she flew along the wooded road. Every time a black vehicle rounded a bend in the oncoming lane she flinched, swerving toward the shoulder, terrified it would be Malcolm’s Audi R8. An hour later, she had reached the freeway with no sign of her soon-to-be-ex husband. No cars, no calls, nothing.
A sigh big enough to flutter her bangs escaped her chest when she turned onto the cobblestone road to her father’s estate and triggered the automatic gate opener. The leather steering wheel creaked as she flexed her fingers, noticing the tingles pervading them. How long had it been since they’d gone numb? She abandoned her car on the far side of the fountain, which acted as a centerpiece in the turnaround in front of the manor, then tore up the stairs to her childhood home.
Gerard opened the door before she reached it. He held out his arms. “Miss Bella. Are you all right?”
She clutched the older man, loosening her grip when the ridges of his bones—more prominent than she remembered—sent pins and needles through her recovering hands.
Safe. She was safe here.
“Isabella?” Her father’s inquiry boomed from his study down the hall.
“Go ahead, child. Don’t keep him waiting.” Gerard patted her shoulders. A nudge in the right direction followed.
And suddenly she wished she had a slo-mo button for reality to figure out what to say. How much should she tell her father of what she’d seen, of what had happened? The thought of divulging all the torrid facts had heat racing up her chest to her cheeks.
Her gaze traced the zigzagging lines of the parquet floor to the tips of her father’s Berluti loafers. Wisps of her platinum-blond hair curtained her face, hiding the superficial damage there from his inspection. Anger heated her cheeks for the shame she knew she shouldn’t feel, but she hadn’t forced herself to raise her stare by the time he spoke.
“What’s this about?” His stern tone created no wiggle room.
“I’m leaving Malcolm.” She hardly recognized the scratchy wheeze as her own.
“I had hoped he was mistaken.”
Her head snapped up, taking in the whole room. The bastard she’d married stood at the polished bar on the far side of the mancave, sipping two fingers of the Macallan aged whiskey he loved. More than he loved her. Hell, he’d never truly loved her at all. How could she have been gullible enough to believe he had?
Isabella backpedaled, horrified when the man who’d tried to auction her off—though he had more money than some small countries—winked at her from behind her father’s back. Fury seethed beneath the surface of his calm façade.
A flash of recollection hit her hard.
Malcolm’s face had contorted when she objected to his proposition.
“It’s one time, baby. Even for your sweet pussy, five mil is generous. Especially since you just have to lay there and take it. It’s about time you start earning your keep around here.”
She blinked, unable to process his intent, but instinctive denial rushed out. “No! I’m not some toy to be rented to your friends. I won’t do it.”
His knuckles split her lip when he struck as quick as a snake, backhanding her. No one had ever dared to hit her before. The tang of blood burst over her tongue, leaving her reeling long enough for him to ensnare her wrist. Spittle dotted her face when he tugged her close.
“If you think this is bad, you can’t imagine what he’ll do to you—to us—if you don’t please him, bitch.”
Her jaw dropped open as she sputtered, “Daddy!”
“Enough, Isabella. Grow up. You’re no rebellious, spoiled girl anymore.” Her father heaved a sigh, steepled his fingers across his plump waist and decreed, “You can’t come running to my home because you’ve had a spat with your husband. I’m disappointed, darling. You have to learn to work through your issues, not avoid them. Marriage is a sacred vow. If your mother were here, it would break her heart to see you give up so easily.”
Easily! What did he know of the hell she’d suffered?
When Malcolm laid his hand on her father’s shoulder, she flinched. That conniving monster had already stolen her salvation.
She ran in an undignified cross between a hobble and a lurch, ignoring the electric shocks shimmering up her leg. Nothing could hurt as bad as being returned to that madman. The sedate snap of footsteps behind her broadcast Malcolm’s arrogance. But, really, there was no way out. She was trapped.
Isabella flew around the corner, heading for the gardens. Someone’s hand covered her mouth at the same time his other arm wrapped around her waist. Her captor smuggled her into an alcove. “Hush.”
“Down here, to the cellar. Head to the corner where you used to hide. The supply loading chute behind the storeroom shelves… I’ve left it open for you. Go. Now. I’ll distract them.” He whispered the frantic directions in her ear.
“What about you? What if they find out?” She yanked his wrist, trying to pull him with her. “You don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“I’ll be fine, little bell. Quickly.” The time for debate had passed. The ominous snap of Malcolm’s steady approach echoed closer in the marble hall.
“Th-thank you.” She bussed his cheek before slipping onto the steep servant’s staircase. She cursed the clatter she made when her ankle gave out. Thank God the rickety railing held.
Masculine voices cascaded through the darkness. She froze, holding her breath to avoid making a sound.
“Yes, sir. In the garden, Mr. Carrington.”
The evil cackle she’d never forget from the night before followed Gerard’s misdirection. “Good man. I’ll have her under control in no time. Don’t you worry. She won’t be pulling this shit again.”
When she heard the leaded-glass door to the yard fall into place behind her husband, Isabella hopped across the dusty floor on her good leg. She scrambled over the stacks of supplies to the nook where she’d often stolen away to read the exciting romances someone—she supposed it had been Gerard all along—had stacked for her behind the tins of caviar. Who’d have guessed, despite those steamy afternoon fantasies, that her prince would turn out to be such a toad?
She climbed the shelves, stifling a squeak when one of the bolts broke loose, nearly pitching her to the concrete floor below. Her fingernails ripped on the steel, destroying her French manicure, as she clung to the side in her best superhero imitation. Boosting herself into the bottom of the chute, she ignored the spider webs tickling her arms as she clawed up the slick incline toward the sliver of light rimming the opening about ten feet ahead.
For once, Isabella was grateful for her ultra-petite stature. No long-legged beauty would fit in the rat hole she crawled through. Her fingertips brushed the hatch, poised to shove it wide, when her purse—flung over her shoulder—caught on a rivet. She jerked to a stop. As she struggled to free the fabric, she heard someone bitching outside.
“How the hell do we get stuck with these jobs? We’re supposed to be guarding the boss, not playing hide and seek with his fucking daughter.”
A crude grunt came from a few feet to the left of the slatted opening. If she remembered correctly, bushes concealed the panel on the north side of the service road, parallel to the estate’s driveway.
“I’d hide something in her if it wouldn’t mean my dick hacked off with a rusty knife.”
“It could be open season after this. I heard Malcolm is tired of her… …renting her out… …part of the ring…” His voice trailed off. Rustling brush obscured the rest of his explaination. But his meaning came clear soon enough. “…signed up a list of customers a mile long who want a taste. As if that’ll keep his head off the chopping block with the big guy. If we find her, I bet he’ll let us take a reward. Teach the princess a lesson.”
Isabella prayed they wouldn’t hear her gag, though the metal shaft surrounding her amplified every scuffle. The violent heaving of her torso ripped her purse loose. She knocked into the grate covering the chute with an elbow, cracking it further open. When her eyes adjusted, she caught a glimpse of one of the assholes outside rearranging his package before joining the other hired muscle around the corner.