Authors: Lisa Cardiff
“Métetelo por el culo,”
Rever muttered under his breath, which roughly meant stick it up my ass.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t care. I didn’t ask to be a participant in his life or his fucked up schemes. He asked me for a favor, not the other way around.
I walked out the door without a second glance.
I hadn’t changed my shirt or showered, which was my whole purpose in going home before I looked for Hattie. But right now, I couldn’t stand another minute with Rever. He was right. We needed to make a plan to deal with Anna so he could get the fuck out of my place and move on with his life, preferably far away from me. Otherwise, we were going to kill each other.
The Potomac River mirrored the color of the sky—dark stormy gray—just like my mood. It started sprinkling fifteen minutes ago, but I couldn’t find the motivation to leave my park bench. Icy rain dribbled down my face and off my chin. My clothes were soaked, and shivers wracked my body, leaving me in a constant state of motion.
I’d roamed D.C. on foot for three hours after leaving Evan’s place, and I still didn’t understand. Nothing made sense. Not Evan. Not Ryker. Nothing. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when they pulled back the curtain and revealed a bunch of nonsense.
My phone rang in my purse nonstop for the last hour. Ryker was calling me. Vera never called. She texted. My mom and dad checked in with me once a week. If I didn’t answer, they left a message.
At some point, I needed to answer his call, but I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say. I didn’t own him. I couldn’t ask him to change his life for me. Rationally, I should use his career to put a wedge between us, and walk away from him forever before everything exploded in my face.
I tried to unravel my feelings for Ryker.
A perverse psychological attachment to my former captor.
A mixture of all of the above was probably the correct answer, but recognizing the complexity of my feelings didn’t offer any enlightenment. Not really. Instead, the lead weight pressing against my chest felt heavier, suffocating me until I couldn’t breathe. I’d done what thousands of women had done before. I fell for a man I believed would change and become somebody better for me. I pulled my legs to my chest and rested my head on my knees.
Gravel crunched behind me. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I didn’t need to turn around to know Ryker was standing behind me. My body lit up like a stick of dynamite any time he came near me.
“Hattie?” he said in a hushed tone.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now. Go away. I need to think,” I mumbled without lifting my head. Just hearing the velvety rumble of his voice ignited a tug of war between hate and desire in my mind.
He dropped a black duffel bag on the end of a bench. “No,” he answered without further explanation. He shook out a red and black plaid blanket and held it up in front of him like some sort of peace offering.
“I’m fine,” I lied through chattering teeth.
“No, you’re not. Your lips are blue, and your clothes are completely soaked.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.” I snatched the blanket out of his hands and draped it over my shoulders.
He sat next to me and stretched out his long black-clad legs in front of him. His shirt highlighted the contours of his broad chest and narrow waist. His spicy sea-salt scent wafted into my lungs, and my heart skipped a beat or two.
He opened and closed his legs, pressing the length of his thigh into mine. Even that small, insignificant ghost of a touch made me want to forget everything Evan told me. I didn’t trust myself to hold onto my anger long enough to confront him and hear his explanation.
Words spun wildly through my mind one after another, catching in my throat. I had so much to say and ask, but I didn’t know where to start. I felt like I was crawling through a never-ending labyrinth, leading me to one dead end after another.
“How did you find me?”
He squeezed my arm. The subtle contact caused a fiery jolt of lust to rush through my arctic veins. “Process of elimination. You weren’t at Vera’s, the library, or my house. This park was the next stop on my list.”
“Great. I’m predictable,” I mumbled.
He smirked. “A little. I’ve noticed you like to have a routine.”
I nodded as I drew circles with the toe of my shoe in the mud.
“Where have you been all day?” he asked after an awkward pause. “You haven’t answered my calls.”
I stared forward, determined to ignore his piercing gaze. “What did you do today?” I snapped.
He slid his hand up and down my thigh. “I worked, but I already told you that this morning,” he answered.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye. “Worked? Does that mean you were busy making phone calls and raising funds for some illusive candidate?”
His hand paused mid-stroke. “No, but I think you already know that, or you wouldn’t be asking me for details.”
I turned my head to him and narrowed my eyes. “So you’re not actually a campaign bundler.”
“Sometimes, but I don’t spend a lot of time doing it. I use the position to gather information about clients, people, and politicians. When I raise money for politicians, I discover a lot of information they’d prefer remained quiet.”
I sucked in my lower lip. “So Evan wasn’t lying. You are a political fixer.”
He bent forward and rested his arms on his knees. “You saw Evan today?”
“Don’t change the subject. Answer my question.”
He rubbed his chin between his thumb and his index finger. “Yes. I’m a fixer of sorts. Not just for politicians though.”
“Does that mean you get rid of dead bodies and beat people up?”
He flinched. “Not generally, but I’m not going to lie to you. My job isn’t sunshine and roses.”
My stomach rolled with acid. I closed my eyes, unable to look at him for another second. His strong fingers curled around my shoulders and he brushed his lips against mine, back and forth. Each touch sent equal frissons of lust and disgust zipping through my endorphin starved synapses.
“Look at me,” he whispered, his warm minty breath wafted across my face.
“I can’t.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes tighter. I couldn’t look at his face. I was afraid I’d see a depraved monster instead of the man I craved more than my next breath.
What did it say about me if I was falling in love with a terrible person?
He kissed one eyelid and then the other. Fire and passion sparked inside my heart. I tried to stifle the hitch in my breath, but it sounded like a moan.
“You can’t what?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I want to be with you. You’re no better than Evan and his dad. No, you’re worse. You’re the hired muscle beating the weak and vulnerable into submission for a bunch of shady assholes.”
Ryker chuckled, and my eyes popped open. “Trust me, Hattie. Nobody I deal with is weak or vulnerable. Far from it. More like corrupted and greedy, sometimes worse. Much worse.”
I frowned. “And that makes everything okay in your mind.”
He lips curled into a half smile. “It makes my job palatable.”
My eyes trailed down his body and back up again. I studied him, scrutinizing every twitch in his jaw, move of his mouth, and the tilt of his chin. I counted the number of times he blinked. I evaluated the size of his pupils and the contours of his forearms. For some unfathomable reason, I believed I’d find the answers to all my questions hidden somewhere in the depths of his face. I found nothing. A vacant mask. An empty wall. How could he conceal his emotions so easily? Mine bled out of my pores, announcing everything as effectively as broadcasting them through a bullhorn.
“What’s that?” I pointed to rust-colored flecks on his shirt resembling bloodstains.
He glanced at his shirt and dropped his hands from my shoulders. “A hard day at work.”
Disgusted with him and myself, I ripped the blanket off my shoulders and tossed it at his face. My frustration wasn’t limited to his career choice. He had kept me in the dark, hiding the rest of his life from me, lying until he thought he could trust me with the truth, or maybe he hoped he’d never have to tell me. Instead, Evan told me, which doubled the betrayal.
“I’m going home. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I stood and broke into a jog, knowing I wouldn’t be able to maintain my composure for much longer. He lunged for me, but I evaded him with a last minute sidestep.
In all honesty, I didn’t know where I planned to go, much less sleep at night. I didn’t want to see Vera yet. I hadn’t determined the extent of her role in Evan’s scheming. The email didn’t confirm or deny her complicity. Instead, it made me second-guess everything. Until I had more information, I wouldn’t step foot in her apartment again, which meant I had to check into a hotel because my parents’ house wasn’t an option. Dealing with my mom right now would send me into a tailspin. One needling comment and I’d explode.
I darted through the trees, and away from the man who turned me inside out with nothing more than a smile or a fleeting glance. Water seeped through the holes of my laser-cut leather ballet flats. Mud splashed my pants. I nearly slipped on the wet grass more than once, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other, determined to put as much time and space between Ryker and me as possible. If I concentrated hard enough, I could pretend the last three months hadn’t happened.
That he wasn’t following me.
That he’d let me go.
That everything would right itself, and I’d be happy again.
“Hattie,” Ryker said, enveloping my hips with his large hands and yanking my back against his chest. The warmth of his body penetrated my soaked shirt. The steady beat of his heart drummed against my spine. My eyelids slid closed in dismay. His warm breath tickled my ear, and my entire body stiffened, every bitterly cold muscle in my body coiling tighter and tighter. The chaotic buzzing in my head got louder and louder as my jumbled desires swirled relentlessly through my mind.
“Let me go.” Tears bled from the corners of my eyes, and sadness rippled in tiny waves through my soul. “Please, just let me go. I’m not playing this game with you today. Okay?” I pleaded weakly, my voice wavering.
He tightened his grip on my hips, and electric sparks shot through his fingertips, igniting my barely suppressed yearning for him. “No, you’re upset, you’re soaking wet, and it’s dark. I’m not letting you wander the city right now, regardless of whether you think I’m playing games with you.”
I cradled my head in my hands as a veil of lust whirled around us. I mentally sliced it into a million jagged pieces, desperately searching for any remnants of my common sense. How could I feel so close to him yet so far from him all at once? How could I want him but hate him?
“I had a bad day. I don’t want to fight with you today. I need some space to get my thoughts together. I’m not running away.”
“Listen,” he whispered as he tangled his fingers in my hair, brushing it away from my face. “I’m not a hit man, and I generally don’t go around beating up people. What happened today was unusual. For the most part, I analyze the numbers, secure waivers from legislation, make ominous phone calls, raise the money, covertly manage or redirect the media, and facilitate the consummation or destruction of deals.”
“Is everything you do legal?”
“I won’t lie, some of it steps over the line, but as of today it’s all in the past. I don’t want to do it anymore. I haven’t in a long time. I don’t need the money, and I don’t want the headache anymore. It’s over, okay?”
I dropped my hands, and they swayed like tumbleweed against my legs. “You don’t have to quit for me. We’re just…” My voice trailed off, and I shrugged. I didn’t know how to define our relationship. We were so many things—all of them contradictory, like a string of double negatives. In the end, they canceled each other out, but instead of equaling a positive, we were left with a void. “We’re nothing,” I mumbled, and my lungs contracted in my chest, my entire being objecting to my declaration. I was screwed up, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be normal again.
“We’re a lot of things, but nothing isn’t one of them.” His low, velvety voice caressed me like an embrace. Shivers danced down my spine, begging me to turn around and kiss him. Devour him. Take what he offered while I still had the chance.
I groaned, curling my hands into fists and leaning into him. My body was at war, craving him and hating him. “It should be the only thing,” I countered.
Sensing my capitulation, he twirled me around and trailed kisses along my neck. “Nothing has changed since last night. Don’t run away now.” He tilted my head up, searching my face for something. Forgiveness? “Tell me I didn’t ruin this, ruin us,” he whispered next to my ear, his voice raw and needy.
I cursed my body as I slanted into him and angled my head to the side, inviting his touch. “Everything has changed.”
“I went to see Evan today.”
Twin lines marred the skin between his eyebrows and lines bracketed his mouth. His gray eyes glowed like moonstones. “I warned you to stay away from him and Senator Deveron. Nothing good will come out of confronting them. We need a plan.”
A strangled sob tumbled from my lips. “I had to talk to him. I had to know.”
His fingertips dug into my arms. “You had to know what?”
“Why he did it. If I ever meant anything to him. If our relationship had been a game from the very beginning.”
He sighed as he shook his head. “And what did you find out?”