I want a gun. A loaded, cold steel gun that I can wrap my fingers around and pull the trigger, taking a man down in the blink of an eye.
I’m considering where to get this gun as I’m staring at the only woman I’ve ever loved. At Taylor Erickson’s beaten face. She’s right there within my reach, standing on the other side of the front door of Allie Parker, my half-sister’s condo. Taylor’s light hazel eyes are locked on mine, collapsing the stability and strength of my world.
Minutes ago, I was enjoying Saturday night dinner with Allie and her boyfriend, Micah Holt. Now I can’t move. I’m not even sure I’m breathing. I don’t know how long Taylor and I have been in a staring contest that I won’t ever lose. All I know is every bruise on her face, burning them into my memory so I can repeat these marks on whomever hurt her. “The man who did this to you,” I hiss through my teeth, seeing tears well up in her eyes. “He’s dead.”
I hear the hitch of her breath before she expertly shuts down emotion in that strong way she used to do when we were younger. But that’s not all I remember about her. I remember the way those pink pouty lips felt when I kissed her worries away. I remember how perfect and warm she felt wrapped in my arms, safe from a scary world. I remember how my fingers tangled perfectly in her long honey-colored, wavy locks, holding her tight against me.
I can’t forget anything. She haunts me. Every damn day.
“Oh, hush, Darius,” says my half-sister, Allie, pulling Taylor inside her condo. “No one is going to kill anyone.” She shuts the door behind her with a loud bang. “God, Taylor, you’re shivering.”
I realize then that Taylor is soaking wet from head to toe. One look over my shoulder at the 180-degree view of San Francisco’s midtown shows me that it’s pouring rain outside.
“I’m fine,” says Taylor, returning my attention to her. She wraps her arms around herself, face ashen. “Or I will be once I get out of these clothes.”
“Need help?” Allie offers.
“No. Geesh. I’ll be back before you know it.” She smiles at Allie before giving me a quick look that tells me all I need to know.
She’s uneasy about seeing me again.
Fuck, I’m wrecked in her presence, too. I force my muscles to loosen, my fingers to unclench, and my hammering heart to slow as I watch Taylor, with her bags in her hands, moving down the hallway, toward the bedroom.
Silence surrounds us. Silence that is heavy and thick, saying so much without saying anything at all.
When Taylor finally disappears and the sound of the bedroom door closing drifts into the living room, Allie mutters, “Jesus Christ.”
I turn, finding her clear blue eyes wide when she looks between me and Micah, nervously twirling her long brown hair around her finger. I know she’s searching her mind for the same answers I want, like what happened to Taylor, but she seems stuck, unable to move past the worry for her best friend. I don’t have that problem.
“Darius, where are you going?” Allie calls out.
I ignore her question. In search of answers, and focused on the emotion crawling beneath my flesh, I leave Allie and Micah behind and move toward the bedroom. Once there, I knock on the door, intent to get them.
“Come in,” Taylor calls from behind the door.
I enter the bedroom, finding her sitting on Allie’s queen-sized bed, now out of her wet clothes and wearing a pair of black yoga pants and a light blue T-shirt. Her hair is pulled up in a ponytail, but her skin is still a grayish color, lacking the rosy cheeks I remember. “Taylor—”
“I don’t want to hear it, Darius,” she interrupts coolly, pulling a pair of socks out of her bag. “No lectures. All right?”
I lean against the doorframe and fold my arms. “Who says I want to lecture you?”
She finishes putting on her sock, then lifts her head and gives me a lopsided smile. “Because I know you.”
That smile is a sucker punch to my throat. Many of my best memories have that smile in them. “If you know me so well, then do tell: Why have I come in here?”
Taylor doesn’t hesitate. “You want to know who did this to me and why it happened.” She puts on her other sock before continuing. “The answer is, an angry ex-boyfriend and drinking . . . lots and lots of drinking.” She zips up her bag, rises from the bed, and turns to face me. “And now you’re going to tell me that you want to hire security to watch over me because you’re concerned for my safety.”
I don’t hesitate either. “You’re right, I do.”
She moves toward me, voice soft yet stern. “I don’t want a babysitter, so that’s not a conversation we’re going to have.” Her fruity scent spirals in the air around me when she closes in. Her bright, intelligent eyes stare me down. “But because I know you won’t let this go. His name is Shawn Mason. And no, Darius, you’re not going to go and kick the shit out of him.”
I’m hearing what she’s saying, and even I recognize she thinks she doesn’t need me, but it’s been five years since I’ve had her this close. Christ, she smells She looks I can barely contain myself, fighting against the yearnings to protect what once was mine. “You forgot to mention the final reason I came in here.”
Her light brown eyebrows rise over her eyes. “Oh, yeah, and what’s that?”
I open my arms to her. “Come here.” She might act like she doesn’t need me. But I know she does. Because as much as she knows me, I this woman, inside and out. I know what makes her smile, I know what makes her cry, and I know what makes her moan.
She’s not only an open book. She’s a book I’ve read thoroughly, cover to cover.
Only a split-second hesitation drags out between us before she’s stepping into my arms, melting into me like she used to. My cock hardens to steel, and I angle my hips out, not allowing her to feel my greedy dick.
Many moments go by, and only when she leans away do I dare release her. The tension in my chest fades a little at her more honest smile now. “Thanks,” she says softly. “I needed that.”
She goes to walk by me, but I reach out, gently grabbing her wrist. Her gaze swings around to mine, and for a second I fear touching her was a mistake, until I see the way her eyes dilate and her breath hitches. “Don’t run from me just yet,” I murmur, tempted by the desire simmering beneath the surface.
“Who says I’m running,” she rasps, holding my stare intently.
She’s killing me here. Taylor owns me in a way no one ever has. One look, one statement, I’m putty in her hands. “You’re running from something.” I slide my finger above her bruise and beneath her eye, seeing pain in its depths. Pain that I’m sure she’s trying very hard to hide. But she can hide nothing from me. “Don’t be too strong, too brave, or too proud. I’m here, if you need me.”
“Yes, I know you are, but I don’t need you to be my hero. This is my problem, not yours. Please let me deal with it.”
She steps back, putting space between us, and coldness invades the air. It’s a chilliness I’m sure she senses, too. I clench my jaw, fighting off what I want to do, and that’s to keep her in my arms. “Just tell me that you’re okay and safe. Give me that at least.”
She pauses. Then, “I’m okay and safe.”
Before I can call her on her lie, she’s exiting the bedroom.
I shut my eyes, inhaling and exhaling, pulling in the emotion tightening my throat. It feels like no time has passed at all since I last held her. I still love her. I never won’t love her. But Taylor wanted a life that I couldn’t give her. She wanted the fairy tale, and unless the hero likes the darker delights of sex, power, and money, then I’m not the right type of knight in shining armor.
When I hear the conversation begin in the living room, I follow her, finding Taylor staring at the tabloid article on the coffee table.
“What’s this?” she says, picking up the ripped-out piece of paper, reading the words printed on the shiny white page before dropping down onto the couch.
Knowing Taylor’s changing the subject to keep the focus off her, I take a seat next to her and help her put the attention on someone else for a little while. “This is our current problem,” I say, gesturing to the article in her hands.
Taylor glances at Allie, who’s sitting across from us in the oversized chair, then at Micah, who’s resting next to my half-sister, on the armrest, and finally turns to face me again. “Sorry, I’m confused. What exactly am I looking at here?”
“For the second time in a month . . .” Micah thrusts a hand through his jet-black hair; his dark brows are pinched over his bluish-gray eyes. “You’re looking at the tabloids actually getting something right.”
“Wait. What?” Taylor’s head swings around to me, eyes narrowed. “You were mad about them dating?”
“Mad?” Allie barks a laugh.
The side of Micah’s mouth lifts, as that’s not exactly how it played out. Micah proved himself worthy of my baby sister. That’s the only reason he’s still alive, so might be putting it lightly.
I shrug my answer, understanding Taylor’s surprise, considering Allie had no qualms about my dating best friend. But I’m not Allie, or nearly as rational. Besides, Allie had been under my protection, given that I was tasked to raise her after her father and our mother died in a plane crash when Allie was fifteen years old. I’d become her guardian, which included keeping an eye on the men in her life.
“Hypocrite much?” Taylor remarks, lifting a brow at me.
“It is what it is,” I reply, draping an arm over the back of the couch, not defending myself. I would never apologize for being protective of Allie or Taylor.
Taylor snorts at me, then focuses back on the page in her hands. “Okay, but explain this, I mean, even if you were mad at first, why is that so bad? There could be worse things written about you in the tabloids.”
“While that’s very true,” I respond, not too happily, “few people knew that at first I wasn’t thrilled over the idea of Micah and Allison dating. So the fact that the tabloid knows something so personal is worrisome.”
Allie adds, heavy concern in her voice, “And it’s just a weird story to focus on.”
Micah nods. “They could’ve juiced it up, making it far more interesting with lies.”
Taylor cocks her head, her damp ponytail dripping water onto her bare arm. “But they’re not; they’re sticking to the truth.”
“That’s right,” I say.
Obviously reading between the lines, Taylor begins to frown. “Which I guess can only mean . . .”
“There’s a traitor among us,” I confirm.