Read Unmasked (New Adult Romance) (The Unmasked Series) Online

Authors: Anya Karin

Tags: #new adult mystery, #new adult suspense romance, #Romantic Suspense, #new adult romance, #transformed by love, #love filled romance, #suspense romance, #loving at all costs, #new adult romance suspence, #coming of age romance, #coming of age mystery, #billionaire romance, #sensual romance

Unmasked (New Adult Romance) (The Unmasked Series)

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Unmasked (New Adult Romance)

The Unmasked Series, Volume 1

by Anya Karin

Published by Ashe Land Publications, 2013.

Also by Anya Karin

The Unmasked Series

Unmasked (New Adult Romance)

Prologue

––––––––

"There's nothing else I can do."

"Nothing? Have you looked into some kind of
government aid? I mean, you're almost finished with your degree. It seems a
waste to have to pack it in and go home so late in the game is all."

Alyssa Barton stared directly at the garishly
mounted Doctoral degree behind Professor Carlton's desk.
Anette Carlton,
it read.
D.Phil., Cambridge College, Oxford University.
Lys had been
coming to this office at least once a week for the past three years, and every
single time, she stared at that big plaque on the wall and got carried away
with dreams of finishing her time as an undergrad and going off on a world-wide
adventure ending in Oxford, and a big, fancy degree. But, it looked like that
wasn't in the cards. Not yet, anyway.

"There isn't anything available. And besides, dad
wouldn't take it. That's the whole problem. Newton's a tiny place, and there's
just not a lot there. Even if he could get some kind of money, it isn't like
he'd be able to hire anyone to help with Jake and Lori. Since mom died, he's
been taking care of them, and still keeping up with the house and everything.
Money isn't really the problem. He's just being broken down by all the stress."

Dr. Carlton nodded. "It's a hard thing, Lys. I
know how much you want this degree. And you're good, too. There're so many
people who walk through this door, saying they want to help people, or this or
that. But it's rare that I think they'd actually be able to hack it in the real
world. You're different though. You have a big heart, and a good brain. Usually
in this field you get one but not the other. Counseling isn't for everyone, but
damned if people will listen when you tell them that."

Alyssa gave her a little smile.

"Sorry, I get off on tangents." Dr. Carlton pulled
out her ponytail, shook her head around and let her hair settle around her
shoulders as she leaned back in her chair. "But no, I don't like seeing you go
like this. You're so close. And before you say-"

"Well I can always come back next semester. I've
got two years to finish my degree, right?"

"Ah, yeah, like I was saying, before you start
making plans to come back when everything settles down, I have heard that
exact
line about four thousand times before. So many times, in fact, that I have a
file." She pulled an old plastic index card holder out of her desk and flopped
two rubber banded piles down. "See this one?" She shook the big one. "That's
the people who left."

"Oh." Alyssa said.

"Right. And this one," she held up a stack so thin
the loose rubber band bent it in the middle. "This is the stack of people who
ever came back. For reference, there are eighty-six people in this stack. And,
uh, yeah, three in this one."

"I've heard all the statistics and all that, Dr.
Carlton. I just don't know what else to do." Alyssa's phone buzzed in her
pocket, but she only paid attention long enough to turn off the ringer. "If
you've got any ideas, I'd love to hear them. Really, I'm not just trying to get
out of my last semester because I'm scared of the future or anything."

"I know Lys, that wouldn't be like you. You've got
a good head on your shoulders, but you're also one of the bravest people I've
ever known. The way you handled your mom's death was remarkable."

They sat in silence for a few moments before Dr.
Carlton pushed away from her desk and leaned back again with her head on the
window.

"Warm outside," she said. "Sun feels good. Say,
what ever happened to Bret? What does he think of all this?"

"Oh, I guess I never told you."

"Told me what? You guys didn't break up, did you?
You were great together."

"Yeah, well, 'were' is the operant word there.
We'd been drifting apart for a while. He's got that business he started up-"

"Right, I forgot about that. Ambitious fella, huh?
Some kind of security company, right?"

"Yeah, alarm systems. And very ambitious. That was
one of the problems. He spends every second of the day obsessing about either
school, or the company. And now that he's in the last semester, school is
progressively less important to him. He'll graduate in...Well, December, I
guess. But he's not into it. All he's ever wanted to do was step out of his
parent's shadow and be a big-shot."

"There are worse things than a drive to succeed."
Dr. Carlton scratched her graying temple with the end of a pen. "That's a hard
man to live with though. I did it for twenty-one years and eight months."

"And that's what I was thinking every time we were
together. I still care about him, but I couldn't handle being in one of those
relationships where you may as well be roommates, you know?"

"Boy, do I ever."

"It scared me. I'm not gonna lie."

"What did?"

"His ambition, his energy, whatever you want to
call it. He used to read me poems, even wrote a few."

"Aww, how cute," the professor said with a longing
smile. "Good men write poems. I think Walt Whitman said that."

"He would, huh? Anyway," Alyssa giggled, "anyway,
he used to be into reading and old books and stuff. We'd go to symphony
concerts, and he had a thing for flowers. Just liked to grow them. Got me into
it. But lately, just in the last three or four months, that all went away. It's
like he quit caring about anything but money. All the time, he talks about
money. He'd tell me sales numbers and profit margins, instead of reading me
love poems."

"I can see how that would be less of an exciting
way to pass evenings alone."

"I don't begrudge him. I mean I miss him, and wish
it worked out differently, but..."

"You're probably the most understanding human
being I've ever known, Alyssa."

Deep crimson burned Lys's cheeks. She never took
well to compliments.

"I don't know about that. I'm not all good – I've
got a selfish streak in me. If I didn't, I'd still be with him."

"No, I mean it. You're strong, passionate, and all
that, but you've also got something most people don't. Empathy. I, for example,
would have bailed when he started ignoring me to count his dollar bills."

"That wouldn't be fair."

"No. But I know it's what I'd do." She let a wry
smile spread across her face. "Anyway, I know you've got things to do. Please
keep in touch. I have a feeling that you're going to be the fourth person in
this stack." Dr. Carlton shook the short pile again. "And even if you're not,
I'm not gonna think any less of you. Don't be too hard on yourself. I know what
you're going through."

"Thanks. I know you would, that's why I came to
you. I couldn't just leave and not say anything."

Alyssa got up and so did Dr. Carlton. For a
moment, the two of them stared at each other, and then simultaneous stepped to
the side of the imposing desk and embraced.

"Thank you for everything, Dr. Carlton. I'll keep
in touch."

"You better," she replied, with a hint of a
sniffle. "I want to know how everyone's holding up."

"Sure thing." Alyssa grabbed her messenger bag,
which was weighed down, as always, with three fat books and an old laptop.
"Thanks again."

"Anytime. Oh, by the way, don't worry."

"About what?" Alyssa said.

"Don't worry about men. You'll find one that
deserves a heart as good as yours. No matter what, okay?"

Alyssa flushed again.

"I mean it. Don't worry about that stuff. You
can't control it no matter how badly you want to. Let it come to you. And don't
close your eyes to anything. The strangest circumstances can end in the most
beautiful ways."

Alyssa couldn't help it. She turned back, ran to
Dr. Carlton and hugged her again, leaving a couple of wet spots on her
advisor's blouse.

"Okay. I promise." She said.

"Good. Now get out there and knock 'em dead."

"I will. I'll email."

"Why not call?" Dr. Carlton said. "I'm bad about
checking the computer."

"Alright," Alyssa laughed. "I'll call as soon as
anything happens."

Chapter One

––––––––

There was something about dropping her duffel bag
full of clothes on the floor of the entry way to her dad's house that felt
good. Then again, there was something about it that put a knot in her throat.
It was a six hour drive between Newton and school, so her trips back were a
little less than frequent.

Maybe it was that she wasn't going to pick it up
in three days, have it be full of clean clothes, and drive back to school.
There was a feeling of permanence when her bag hit the floor. That was it, she
decided.

Since her mom's accident, Alyssa's dad Ryan took
to working odd jobs around town alongside his duties with the two little kids,
a couple of twins born as a happy accident when Alyssa was thirteen, to make
ends meet. While he was doing fine, his health was less than stellar. Her
coming home would be, she hoped, what he needed. Aside from that, she thought
that helping for a few months with the kids, and the house, would help him get
enough of a footing that she'd be back in school by the start of the next
semester, just like she promised Dr. Carlton.

That was the plan, anyway.

"Hello? Anybody home? Car's out front, where are
you guys?" She kicked her bag to the side of the entryway and walked through
the living room to the kitchen. "Dad? Jake? Anybody here?"

From the bowl on the table, Lys grabbed an apple,
bit it, and slurped at the juice that ran down her chin.

"Man, I didn't even know I was hungry." She took
another bite. "When did I eat last? Ten? I should probably pay more attention
to that."

Polishing off one apple, she tossed the core,
grabbed another one and got herself a big bite. That was when she noticed a
little pile of mail on the table, and picked it up to thumb through.

"Junk, junk, junk, underwear catalog, junk. What's
this?" At the bottom of the pile was a very official-looking business envelope
from Webb Oilworks, the big, billion-some-odd-dollar oil firm that had its
headquarters just outside Newton. Part of their oil field butted up her dad's
lot. "I wonder what they want. Another land grab? More attempts to build a
pipeline through daddy's back yard?"

Inside was a piece of stationery, nothing
official. When she was little, Preston Webb, Sr. would send notices to everyone
that lived anywhere near headquarters and constantly try and buy out their
property. Sometimes, the offers were absolutely ridiculous – they gave one of
the neighbors about four times what their acreage and their tiny house was
worth just to have it. Then again, a few hundred thousand might be more than
one of her neighbors could imagine, but for a multinational oil company, that's
next to nothing.

This was different, though. The paper was cream
colored, very soft, thick, and smelled vaguely of roses.

"Dear Mr. Barton," Lys read. "It has come to my
attention that through no doing of your own, your estate has fallen into some
trouble. First, I'd like to extend my condolences. I know how hard it can be to
lose a loved one."

She sat down at the table, set down the
half-apple, which wobbled and fell over, and picked up where she left off.

"It has been too long since we chatted. As you may
know, or you might not, I had a difficult time when my father passed a few
years back. I was devastated to hear that something similar had happened to
your wife. If there is anything else I can do, please don't hesitate to ask."

Alyssa stuck her tongue in her cheek and rolled it
over her teeth. "Anything else? What's he talking about? That's weird."

Lys scanned the page, looking for specifics, but
she found none. It read like a note between two friends, constantly referencing
past events that an outsider wouldn't know about. All she found were hints of
an agreement of some sort, but then again, not much of the letter made any
sense. Figuring it was something else to ask about, she stuck it back in the
envelope and immediately filed it away in her mind.

Right about the time that she retrieved her apple
and took another massive bite, the front door banged open and three sets of
feet stepped inside.

"Dad?"

"Hey there Lyssie, good to see you." Rick Barton
jogged to the kitchen, pulled his little girl to his chest and held her tight.
"It's so, so good to see you. You've got no idea."

"Oh yes I do – I've missed you so much." She
fought back the tears that always came when he called her Lyssie, the name he
started using when she was about four. From anyone else, she'd just cringe when
she heard it, but from him, it made her heart melt a little. "How are the
sprouts holding up?"

"They're doing alright. They recovered pretty
quickly from the accident, but I'm sure at some point it'll hit them hard that
mom's not here anymore. So far though, they're fine. Although Lori's been a
little more sullen than usual, which I can understand, but no, they're doing
okay."

"That's good."

"Yeah, with everything else going on, if they were
less upbeat it'd probably kill me."

Everything going on. That letter.

"Well I'm here now. I can help out. I can help out
with anything you need, okay?"

"You don't need to do that, Lyssie; I can handle
things around here."

"Nope. I'm home to help," she said. "Your eyes are
drooping halfway down your face. It's okay to ask, no matter how much you think
you don't need it. I'm taking a semester off school and-"

"What? Why? That's ridiculous!"

"Dad, listen to me." Alyssa sat down, grabbed her
dad by the hand and made him follow to the table. They sat, and she put his big
hand between her small ones. "I know how hard losing mom was for you. And I
also know how much you went through when I was a baby to keep us full of food
and buying way too many Christmas presents. I want to do this. Need to do this.
Please don't make me fight you to stay here and help. Okay?"

Ryan Barton took a deep breath and puffed out his
lips.

"Alright. I won't argue. And truth be told, I've
never been so tired in my life. You're the best daughter a man could ask for."

"That was surprisingly easy. I thought I was in
for a real battle." She said with a sly grin. "I was expecting to list the
reasons this was a good arrangement for both of us."

"Any other time, you probably would have to do
just that. But like I said, I am so damned exhausted. I work around the house
in the morning, taking care of the kids, head into town around noon most days
and sort mail for Doug Reynolds at the post office, then pick up the – what'd
you call 'em? Sprouts? I like that – pick up the sprouts from their after
school place and work more on the fields here."

"Jesus dad, how are you still alive?"

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not. Days kinda melt
together. Lots of times it seems like Friday and when I have a half a minute to
watch the news, it turns out to be Tuesday. Or I'll think it is Saturday and
let the kids sleep in, and then get a nasty gram from the teacher saying
they're late again."

"Are you doing anything else? Work I mean."

"Oh, yeah, you mean with Webb's stuff?"

She nodded and studied his face. His eyes dropped
a little.

"It's a funny thing. I hadn't even thought of
approaching them, but with the land right up next to ours, I guess it just kind
of happened."

"What did?"

"Well, after the accident, I got another of those
form letters from the oil company asking to buy the land or lay pipe or
whatever it is they want this month, and I had an idea."

"Oh no, what did you do?"

"Nothing! Not yet anyway. But I thought that since
we're right next to each other, it wouldn't hurt to be a little more neighborly
than all us folks out here have been for so long. And by neighborly, I mean
warlike. So anyway, I sent a letter back. Franklin down the road got so pissed
at me for responding to one that I thought he was going to explode." He nodded
backwards, toward Franklin's house and laughed.

"So wait, are you living on rented land now?"

"No, no, like I said, I didn't do anything. I sent
him – Preston, he's the son of the guy who used to own it – a letter, just
introducing myself and doing some nice-to-meet-yous. I asked if he had any work
I could do from here for him, online paperwork or the like."

"And?"

"Well, craziest thing. Not only did he send me a
letter back offering me some contract work, which is the easiest job I've ever
had, he also started visiting every so often. He's a strange guy, but friendly.
I get the impression he's got scars or something that he's embarrassed of,
because whenever he comes, he stays outside and talks to me through the door.
Whenever I try to open it, he holds it shut, but just keeps chatting away. Nice
guy, but yeah, kinda strange."

"Really? Is he deformed or something?" Alyssa
cocked an eyebrow.

"No, well I don't think so anyway. From behind
he's perfectly normal. Tall, thin fella, dark hair. But he's definitely ashamed
of something, or trying to hide something. Won't ever let me see his face."
Alyssa's dad reached for an apple, polished it on his shirt, and took a bite.

Tall, thin and dark haired? Sounds like Bret.
Only...no, no, stop thinking about him. Just stop. That's the past, Alyssa,
you're in a different world, way far away from him. Just let him go.

"So what is it that you're doing for him?"

"Mmm," he crunched and swallowed. "Nothing much
interesting, I'm just going back through his dad's old ledgers and putting the
data into a spreadsheet. When I asked why he doesn't have staff to do it, all
he'd say is that there weren't many people he could trust. Not sure why he
trusts me. Maybe he figures there isn't anything I can do to hurt him."

"He's right about that," Lys said. "All that
money, he'd probably be able to buy out the whole government."

Rick shrugged, took another bite. "I donno. But,
that's not important. He pays well and I don't mess around in any of his stuff.
Just do my couple of hours of work a week and collect the check."

For a moment they just sat and looked out the
window, Alyssa's glance moving back and forth between her father and the tree
outside.

"All these years," she said.

"What's that?"

"All these years we've wondered about that place.
I remember making up all kinds of horror stories about it with Libby next door
when we'd run around the woods as little kids."

Her dad chuckled. "Yeah, there's a lot to wonder
about."

"I remember, one day, she decided that the whole
place wasn't really an oil company headquarters, that it wasn't an oil field
with, you know, the mansion way off away from it. She figured that since the
only thing anyone from town ever saw of it was old man Webb every now and then,
that he was harboring some kind of vampire or a Frankenstein or something."

"Frankenstein's monster, dear." Alyssa's dad
laughed correcting her. "Remember your eighth grade literature.

"Yeah, yeah," she punched his arm. "But to think,
the heir to the empire wasn't a vampire. Just a normal guy."

"Anyway, enough about that. I haven't seen you in
months, and all you want to talk about is an oil man? Come on! What's new in
your world? Boyfriends, getting married? Having a baby you haven't told me
about?"

His kidding got a grin from Lys. Turning back to
her dad, the way his eyes glinted when he was proud of a joke he told took her
back to childhood, to the times when she had no idea how hard he worked to give
them as much as he did. Now that she knew, it was a different world entirely.
She decided right then that she wasn't going to let that happen again.

"I'm gonna help you however I can, dad. Okay?"

"I know you will. Those two, they've got each
other. They're fine. You never had any other little kids to hatch crazy plans
with. That's probably why we're so close. Why you and me and mom were so
close." A slow, sad smile crawled across Ryan Barton's lips. "I miss her so
much, Lyssie. I can't even tell you."

He took a deep breath through his nose and let it
out very slowly.

Alyssa tried to think of something to say, but
couldn't. Instead she just took his hand back between hers. His skin, so smooth
and warm, reminded her again of all the times he picked her up when she'd
fallen over and skinned a knee. The veins standing out on the back of his thin
fingers brought it all back in a flood.

"It's okay dad. I know."

"Ah! Oh man," he sniffed and closed his eyes, then
wiped them. "Sorry about that. It still gets to be too much sometimes. Anyway,
tell me what's going on with you. When are you marrying that guy Bret? He
always seemed like a decent fella."

"He was. I mean is," Lys let out a heavy sigh, and
steeled herself to recount the story for the second time in as many days.
"Things just didn't work out."

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