Authors: Jo Raven
Tags: #New Adult Romance, #new adult
(Inked Brotherhood, #2)
Four years have passed since I left home, my parents, and my brother Asher behind – since I shut out my past.
And Erin. Four years since I last saw her, since I heard her voice and held her in my arms. I’ve spent my time forging a path from woman to woman, from bed to bed, trying to find an answer. But I think I’ve lost my way. There’s no light at the end of the dark.
No big surprise. I carry the dark inside me. I’m a bastard – branded as such from the start. I never give my phone number and address. I take my pleasure, and don’t come back for seconds. No commitments, no promises and no happy endings. Yeah, I’m a bastard down to the bone and I don’t give a damn.
But now I’m back in my birth town, the town I fled at eighteen – back to make amends to the brother I abandoned and watch from afar the only girl I’ve ever wanted. Hope isn’t a currency I can afford. I learned that lesson long ago.
Yet when she looks at me and says my name, I can’t help but hope.
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(Inked Brotherhood, #2)
Copyright Jo Raven 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
A heavy snowfall fell last night and blanketed the world in white. I trudge through it on my way to catch the school bus. Even though today is my seventeenth birthday, my steps drag.
Things at home are iffy. Dad drinks. This is new. Since he gave up boxing two months ago, he’s been unhappy. Then again, the unhappy part is old. He’s always been unhappy with
. He hates my guts.
He always said I’m a bastard, but it’s only now I realize he means it. He’s convinced I’m not his son. I do my best to ignore it, swallow the anger and hurt and move on. Mom says not to mind him, that he has his moods and we should accept him as he is.
But when he’s drunk, he finds excuses to show me his displeasure in more tangible ways. The other day he shoved me into the wall so hard I hit my head and fell on top of Mom’s favorite crystal figurines. Cut my hand on the shards, and it’s still bandaged today. Then yesterday he pushed me into the kitchen counter. Now I have a bruise the size of Texas in my side.
I try to protect myself, fight back, but Dad’s almost a head taller than me and twice as wide. I don’t think I’ll ever be a match for him.
Thing is, I don’t
like Dad. I look way too much like a boxing buddy of his. So Dad went and beat the shit out of the guy, and as a result, the ring boss kicked Dad out, told him not to go back. So all this is my fault. For not being his. For being who I am.
Rubbing my hand over my face, I adjust the straps of my backpack and turn the corner, keeping my head down against the icy wind. The bus is coming, and I hurry to catch it. I climb inside and slide into my seat by the window, staring without seeing at the muted landscape—houses and trees.
As long as Dad doesn’t touch Ash or Mom, I don’t care. Let him vent his anger on me. I’m strong. I can take it.
The bus slows down as we reach the school, and I see someone waving at me—a slight figure with long, dark hair. My mood lightens and I grin.
. I’ve watched her for the past year, as she turned from a wisp of a girl into a woman, but I was invisible to her until a few months ago. A stolen kiss in the locker room, a night at the movies, and she’s my girlfriend, the only bright spot in my life.
She smiles widely when I get off the bus and throws herself into my arms. I grab her and spin her around. She’s slight and pretty, funny and full of energy, like a spark. I love losing myself in her life, her arms, her body.
“Happy birthday,” she says breathlessly, and I take advantage to kiss her soft mouth. “Did you get many presents?”
I shrug, not wanting to think about it. Mom gave me some money. Dad didn’t even look my way when I crossed the kitchen to get some breakfast. Ash left home early with his friend Audrey to work on some project before school, and I’ll probably see him later.
. The more he keeps away from home, the less likely he is to see Dad roughing me up and ask why.
Dad thinks I’m not his, Ash. That we’re only half-brothers. Maybe I should get out of here, so Dad can be happy. So that I can keep you safe.
“Tyler.” Erin cups my face, her smile slipping. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I shake my head to dispel the dark thoughts. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I got something for you,” she whispers, her breath forming white clouds in the air. She lifts her fist and uncurls her fingers. Something metallic glimmers in her palm. It’s a pendant.
“What is it?” I ask as she dangles it from its silver chain and passes it around my neck.
“A tree of life.”
I touch it where it rests, cold, against my collarbone. A smile tugs at my mouth. “Why?”
A rosy blush tinges her cheeks. “It stands for the center of the world. And you are…” She bites her lip, and it’s so sexy I kiss her again. “I just like it,” she mutters. “But if you don’t…?”
“It’s great.” I want to tell her how much it means to me, how much she means to me. “I’ll wear it,” I promise her. “Always.”
I’m never taking it off again, ever. She gave it to me, and I’ll keep it close to my heart forever.
The building is old and ugly, a dirty gray, with paint peeling off its walls. Rust stains run down the drainage pipes. A splash of red catches my attention. Someone has placed a pot of flowers on a sill of the second floor.
Incongruous. Out of place.
I park my bike in the street, a black Ducati 999—the only thing of value I’ve inherited from Uncle Jerry. Then I sit back on the saddle and stare at the building entrance, a paper with the smudged-up address in my hand.
Well, in my home town, at least. Madison. After all these years away, with the rare visits to check on Mom and then only on my brother Asher, I’m here to stay. For now.
Until I get my shit together. Until I make sure my brother is okay. Until I can breathe again.
I take a moment to shove the paper back into the pocket of my leather jacket and step out, inhaling the familiar smell of car exhaust in the cold, humid air. Out of my steel, military-style tail case I pull my beaten-up rucksack and laptop and look up at the building once more.
Ah fuck it
. I lock the case, pat the key in my jeans pocket, make sure the disc lock on the front wheel of the bike is on and pass the thick cable lock through the back wheel. Should be safe enough for now. That done, I let myself into the building.
A faint smell of urine wafts from the stairwell, and I take the steps two at a time to the third floor. My door, number 3A, has a dark stain in its center, as if someone’s head was bashed into it at some point, blood and gore splashing.
The thought stops me cold in my tracks. The rucksack drops to the floor, and a shudder goes through me.
Don’t go there, Tyler. Fucking don’t.
I tug on the neckline of my T-shirt, grab my pendant and force a deep breath into my lungs. The key sticks a couple of times, but I manage to unlock the door and push it open. Lifting my beaten-up rucksack, I step into my brand new, temporary home.
A studio—a bed against one wall, a table and chairs in the middle, a kitchenette against the far wall. A bathroom. I glance inside. Basic. Shower stall, sink, toilet.
I drop my rucksack on the bed and wander back to lock the door. Then I open the two windows and shiver at the blast of cold air. I lean outside. Scaling the walls to the third floor would be a bitch, so I hope I’ll be fine leaving them open.
Not that I have much of a choice. Can’t sleep in closed spaces.
I unpack my stuff, take out sheets and make the bed. I take out my clothes and set them neatly inside the dresser. I place the three books I brought with me on top, standing, their spines facing outward. Bradbury’s
The Illustrated Man
. I don’t watch movies anymore, but I read sometimes, when I can’t sleep.
Then I open the drawer again and arrange my T-shirts by color, then my socks and briefs. Close the drawer again. Draw a deep breath.
I sit on the bed and pull out my two pairs of shoes—running shoes, hiking boots—and place them against the wall, facing inward. My shaving kit, my shampoo and other toiletries I place in the small cupboard above the bathroom sink. The shower curtain catches my eye, stained and tattered. I’ll have to replace it. Just looking at it makes my chest tight.
Rubbing the place under my heart, I turn away and force myself to finish unpacking. Not much to unpack. My whole life is there in that rucksack—a notebook, my jogging pants and hoodie, painkillers, bandages, my cell and my wallet.
And the little box for her, with the gift I bought her years ago and never gave her.
So fucked up
I stare at my few belongings. Of course there’s also my old stuff at Dad’s house, which I need to go get before it’s thrown out as the house is sold.
The thought of going back to Dad’s house raises my hackles. If I was an animal, I’d growl.
. I run my hand through my shaggy hair. It’s grown so long it tickles my jaw and falls into my eyes.
. I need a plan. I need a job, additional to the graphic design gigs I do for a few regular clients. I don’t have much money and I promised Asher some money every month until he gets back on his feet. I can’t let him down. He’s been abandoned and abused too much in his life already. I’m the only family he has left, and I won’t fail him again.
Only I left Chicago without a fallback plan, except for my online work. I quit from the gym where I worked, left the apartment I shared with a guy so lost in drugs and booze I wonder if he’ll notice any time soon, and—
My cell rings, jerking me from my thoughts. I make a grab for it, wipe it on my pants three times and swipe the screen to accept the call.
I regret it instantly.
“Tyler?” asks a strident and unfortunately familiar female voice. “Where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you all day.”
“Marlene.” I roll my eyes.
“Shall I come over? Are you at home? I can pass by your favorite Chinese place and grab your favorites and then we can feed each other and—”
“Marlene,” I interrupt the flood of words, “I told you we were done.”
“You can’t mean that.” Her voice catches, and I sit heavily on the bed, tugging on my hair with my free hand.
“I meant it.”
“How can you say that? How could you break up with me through text messaging? You bastard.”
a bastard, on so many levels. Literally and metaphorically. Deeply and unashamedly.
A snort escapes me, and she hears it. Just my luck.
“You think this is funny? You break up a relationship just like that?”
“We never had a relationship,” I say. “We just fucked.”
“We just...” she sputters.
Well, it’s the truth. No kissing, no cuddling. No going down on each other, no touching other than necessary. Fucking is all I have to offer, take it or leave it.
“Asshole!” she mutters and hangs up.
Christ, I don’t want to make her suffer. But she clings to me, and I can’t be with her. Or anyone. I can barely take care of myself as it is.
There’s only one woman I want in the world. One I’ve always wanted. But I fucked that relationship up a long time ago.
I throw the phone on the mattress, then pick it up again and wipe it three times on my pants. Has to be three times or something bad will happen, and although I know now that this isn’t true, I can’t help it. There’s an itch between my shoulder blades, in the inside of my elbows, spreading to my wrists, making me shiver. A dark pressure fills me.
I make myself stop and breathe out. Fuck, I was doing better. Can’t slide back down. Can’t let these rituals rule my life. I stopped the drugs more than a month ago, as soon as I was told Dad died. How long do the damn withdrawal symptoms last?
With shaking hands, I grab my wallet and pull out a photo in its plastic pocket. I run my thumb over it—over the impish mouth, the large eyes, the long dark hair, and then lower, over her slim neck and her body.
Another ritual, one I can’t get rid of. I took the photo one day in the park, by the water. It was summertime, and she wore a white bikini and cut-off shorts. I can almost smell the water and cut grass as I look at her, I can almost feel the warmth of her skin under my fingertips. I can almost taste her.
She’d just turned fifteen. I was seventeen going on eighteen. A time so close to the end of my life as I knew it, and I still had hope, not realizing it didn’t matter what I believed or expected.