These were the rules of the sinister game. I’d run, he’d chase, and then when he caught me, he could do with me whatever he chose. But facing it head on…
Staring at the man in the stag mask head on…
Though he was a man simply in costume, there was nothing less animalistic in how he presented himself. I knew this was part of The Hunt. I knew this was the ritual. Every weekend after the Harvest Moon, submission was the only currency, and my hunter’s desires were the rule of law. But actually seeing it. Actually feeling it…
This was part of the primal play. Raw. Sadistic. Depraved. Thirsty. We were nothing more than Heathens.
And I only had one person to blame. Me. I put the red light bulb over the door of my front porch. I invited the darkness onto my property. I consented to this. I agreed…
But what if I changed my mind? What if I made a mistake?
The smell of death and tears is a stench one can never forget.
The scent of funerals.
An odor you can’t wash away.
But this funeral was different. There were no tears.
Not because we weren’t ripped to shreds as we said goodbye to Gabriel Brooks, but because the men and women in this room lacked the ability to cry, to feel, to express anything but hardness.
Medusa had inflicted her curse on our souls years ago.
The curse of stone.
Even Gabriel’s only daughter stood next to the intricate urn without even the slightest speck of moisture in her darkened eyes.
I approached her, my heart heavy with sympathy for her loss. “I’m sorry, Storee.” I took her hand in mine. “He didn’t deserve to go like this.”
Her eyes flickered toward me, and I could see the pain and anger simmering beneath the surface. “Deserve? Isn’t this how he was destined to die? You can’t be a criminal, a thief, a hustler and expect to live to be an old man, right?”
I was taken aback by her words. But then again, I shouldn’t have been. Storee Brooks was a young woman who always spoke her mind. Although she barely reached my shoulder in height, her dark, wild curls gave away just how spirited and fiery she could be.
She glanced at the people milling about, whispering and watching. “I’m sure many in this room believe he got what was coming to him.”
I shook my head and squeezed her hand. “Not here. Everyone who came today is mourning the man. He’s a local of Heathens Hollow. One of ours. And everyone on the island is paying their respects to that fact. His spilled blood is theirs. Just as your grief is.”
And I spoke the truth. Living in a small town, it always seemed like there was only one way to truly leave Heathens Hollow, and that was by ash being tossed to the sea foam crashing on the jagged rocks that surrounded the island. Small towns, especially this town, had a way of holding their residents close. Though the island’s grip could strangle, it also embraced during times like this.
Gabriel was my best friend, an honorary brother. Part of me died the day he did. Everything inside me was shattered, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever recover. And I also knew I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Yes, Gabriel had enemies, but he also had many friends.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “For handling all this.”
“You’re not alone.”
She leaned in, her voice low. “But I am.”
I squeezed her hand tighter. “I’m always going to be here. Always.”
Storee gave a small nod before pulling her hand away. I watched as she turned on her heel and walked out of the funeral home. I knew that she needed her space to grieve, but I wasn’t prepared to let her go just yet.
I followed her out of the moss-covered stone building and onto the empty streets of Heathens Hollow. It was a small town, but it had a feeling of isolation that made it seem like a world of its own. The only sounds were the waves crashing on the shore in the distance and the occasional seagull squawking overhead.
As we walked along the cobblestone path, I saw the tears finally starting to stream down her face. She didn’t try to hide them, didn’t wipe them away. She just let them flow freely, a physical representation of the pain she was feeling inside.
“I hate this place sometimes,” she muttered under her breath. “I hate what it does to people.”
“Heathens Hollow?” I asked, though I knew that was what she was referring to.
She nodded. “It’s a black hole. It sucks you in and never lets go. My father knew that, but he couldn’t escape it. And now he’s gone.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just walked beside her in silence. We passed by buildings and shops, some of them closed for the day in honor of Gabriel’s passing. The few people we did come across nodded their heads in respect as we passed by.
“He always said he didn’t want a funeral,” Storee said after a few minutes. “He wanted to just be thrown into the ocean.”
“We’ll do that. Together,” I offered.
She stopped and turned around, her eyes red and puffy. She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand, but they kept flowing down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, avoiding my gaze. “You’ve already done so much. I’ll try to find a way to pay you back for—”
“Don’t be,” I interrupted, taking a step closer to her. “You don’t have to apologize for anything. And don’t even think about the money.”
She scoffed bitterly. “That’s all my father thought about. Money. How to get more, how to reach for the sun and not get burned. Well… he got burned this time.”
I winced at her words. They were like a knife in my chest, reminding me of just how my best friend had died—a shotgun bullet to the face.
A message that he was not worthy to be seen again. Even if we didn’t want to cast his ashes to sea, the killer who shot him made sure we weren’t given any other option.
Trying to keep my voice steady, I said, “We can’t change what happened.”
Storee looked up at me, her eyes filled with despair. She turned away, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. “Can I ask you something?”
Not wanting her to distance herself from me, I pulled her close. She hesitated for a moment before melting into the embrace, leaning her head against my chest.
“Anything,” I said, feeling the overwhelming need to never let her go.
“Do you know who did it? Do you know who killed my father?”
“No,” I told her.
One year later…
The cold wind tore through the tattered edges of my fishmonger’s apron, sending shivers down my spine as I stood at the edge of the dock on the rocky shoreline. The eerie fog that enveloped the island of Heathens Hollow clung to my damp skin, making the weight of the world even heavier. It was as if the island itself wanted to subdue me, to force me into submission. But I refused to let it win.
“Hey, Storee,” called out a gruff voice from behind me. I turned to see Joe, a fisherman I worked with regularly, struggling with his net full of fish. “Need some help?”
I shook my head and flashed him a quick smile. “No, thanks, Joe. I’ve got this,” I replied, my voice steady despite the chill that whispered through my bones.
The independence that clawed at my heart wouldn’t allow me to accept help, not even from the familiar faces that dotted the small fisherman’s town. I was half the size of these men, but I was stronger than I appeared. Determination and years of earned muscle gave me that edge.
“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug, moving on to unload his catch.
The salty tang of the ocean filled my nostrils as I grabbed the handle of my cart full of fish and began to haul it back toward the market. I didn’t have much time before my next job and needed to get a move on.
My days were spent gutting and hauling fish to the local markets and buyers, the metallic scent of fishy blood staining my hands. My nights were consumed by serving the island’s elite at private parties—those held at the Godwins’ mansion, Olympus, being the most extravagant of all. The wealthy patrons barely noticed my existence, but their indifference suited me just fine. I preferred to blend into the background, like a phantom lurking in the shadows.
Heathens Hollow was an old fisherman’s island hidden in the fog of the Puget Sound, just under four hours by boat from Seattle. There were two very distinct class structures living beneath the evergreen trees and drenched in the constant rain.
The very rich and the working-class poor.
I was on the side of the poor.
The market was busy as usual, with people haggling over the prices of fish and other goods. I made my way to a stall, nodding to the familiar faces as I passed. As I began unpacking the catch, my best friend approached, breathless.
“Hey,” Fiora said. “The gig tonight got pushed up an hour. The caterer wants more help setting up. We need to get to Olympus Manor now.”
I glanced down at my hands coated in fish guts. “Now?”
“I don’t know why you work this stupid job.” Fiora eyed me up from head to toe. “I can get you enough serving gigs to make up for this one easily.”
“I like to diversify.” I gave her a smile and wink.
“Yeah, well, you and I both know there are other ways of making more money too,” she began.
“Fiora…” I warned. “Not this again.”
I knew she was referring to The Hunt. It was a seasonal, pagan-like ritual that happened on Heathens Hollow after the Harvest Moon where rich assholes dressed up in stag masks of bone and chased women into the woods to fuck them. The Harvest Moon kickstarted the hunts, but then they occurred every weekend after and consumed the island.
Crazy sounding would be an understatement.
Did it sound barbaric? That was because it was.
The payout was good if you agreed to be one of the hunted, although I didn’t want to know just how good, for fear I’d be tempted to be part of the depravity. And every weekend, around this time, Fiora would try to convince me that it was the answer to all my financial woes. I had heard all of the justifications by not just her but everyone ever since I had become of the age where I could actually be part of the ‘festivities’:
It’s just one night.
You don’t know who the person fucking you is, so it’s not like you have to face them again.
It’s just part of a long-standing tradition.
Everyone on Heathens Hollow has done it at least once.
You get a basket full of jewels, expensive shoes, money, and other gifts on your front porch as a reward for your part in the chase.
It’s not being a whore. It’s just having a little fun.
It’s what makes Heathens Hollow, Heathens Hollow.
None of her reasoning worked on me, however. I had no intention of ever being part of this wicked game. Tradition or not, I was never going to be hunted by a man in a mask and fucked just so I could get a basket of goodies that may or may not pay my rent that month.
Or at least that was what I told myself. Although the temptation and the curiosity grew each day, I’d never admit as much.
“You’re being a prude,” she snapped back. “Seriously, one night a month, and you’d never have to gut a fish again. And they don’t hold it during the winter. Just from the Harvest Moon and the weekends before the first snow flies. So you’re about to lose your window if you don’t act fast.”
“We aren’t going to discuss it.”
“We should,” she pressed.
“Let’s get to the legit job, okay? I think I’ll stick with the fish guts for now.”
My best friend and I had had this discussion over and over, and it always ended the same way.
Me smelling like fish.
Fiora rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself. Just hurry and clean up. We don’t want to keep the caterer waiting. I’ll drive while you try to clean your stinky ass.”
I shook my head, grabbing a rag to wipe what I could off my hands. I quickly packed up my stall, changed, and followed Fiora through the crowded market, the stench of salt and fish fading as we made our way to the opulent mansion on the outskirts of town.
We rushed to Olympus Manor, the sound of our heels clacking on the pavement filling the quiet night air. As we approached the grand entrance, the imposing gates creaked open, revealing the sprawling mansion that lay beyond. The wealthy guests who would soon fill the halls of the manor lived a life I wanted no part of. Not really.
My father had wanted it. He had promised me that one day…
But my father had died trying to reach the impossible. His dreams were his demise.
I was a realist. And a survivor because of it.
We were quickly ushered in by one of the many hired staff members, and I made my way to the kitchen to join the other servers. The caterer, a small woman with a sharp tongue and even sharper knife skills, barked orders at us as we rushed to set up tables and prepare hors d’oeuvres.
The guests began to arrive, each one more ostentatious than the last. The smell of saltwater mixed with the scent of expensive perfumes and colognes as we made our way through the grand halls adorned with priceless artwork and opulent furnishings became my evening norm.
“Storee,” the caterer said with a curt nod, handing me a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “Get these out to the guests, and make sure the champagne glasses are never empty. We’re expected to provide exceptional service. Even more so since all the Godwins are present tonight.”
I nodded, my mind already in work mode as I made my way to the ballroom.
The Godwins were like royalty on this island. They might as well have been wearing crowns since they actually owned all the land and everyone on the island were merely renters. They were our landlords… or our captors depending on who you asked.
Troy Godwin was the living patriarch and an asshole. His adult children weren’t all that bad—again, depending on who you asked—but they still scared the shit out of me.
They were haunted. No question about it. Something dark lurked inside each one of them. Apollo, Ares, and their sister Athena were three people I had no intention of ever getting to know. Something about them whispered of death and mayhem. Not that they’d ever want to become friends with the likes of me.
Heathens Hollow residents were mere peasants to them.
Unless you were one of the rich. And there were also plenty of rich who lived on this island. The rich, the famous, the powerful all mingled at these parties, and I had learned how to serve them just the way they all expected.
The room was alive with the chatter of the elite, their expensive attire and sparkling jewelry glimmering under the chandeliers. Flashes of laughter and the clinking of glasses created an atmosphere of carefree indulgence, a stark contrast to the struggles faced by my fellow islanders just beyond these gilded walls. I moved through the crowd with ease, my training as a waitress not failing me now.
As I made my way to the center of the room, I saw him. Damn.
My father’s best friend, and my honorary guardian since his death. Locke’s constant oversight wasn’t something I necessarily wanted or had asked for, but it had been forced upon me whether I liked it or not.
He leaned against the bar, a glass of whiskey in hand. He was dressed in a designer suit, his chiseled jaw tightening the minute he saw me. His eyes followed me through the room, before finally locking with mine. I quickly looked away and continued my service, my heart pounding in my chest.
He was a handsome man, but a stern one. His dark hair was peppered on the sides with gray, giving him a distinguished look that commanded respect. He had a presence that filled the entire ballroom, and I could feel his gaze on me the entire time I worked. I tried to ignore him, but every time I glanced in his direction, he seemed to be watching me intently with those dark brown eyes of his.
We exchanged pleasantries as we passed by each other throughout the night, but there was an unmistakable tension between us. Finally, after hours of catering to the guests’ every whim, it was time for me to go home.
Cleaning up the last of the trays, I made my way toward the kitchen when Locke called out to me.
“Storee,” he said in a low voice.
I stopped in my tracks and turned around to face him. He stood in front of me, his arms folded across his chest in a casual stance. There was something about how he looked at me that made my heart flutter and my stomach tighten up in knots.
I was in trouble.
I’d known he’d be pissed. He was always angry when I worked these events and he’d caught me. He thought the job was beneath me, and he also hated me mingling with ‘these people.’ Even though he was one of them and mingled with all.
“Hello, Locke.” I placed the tray of old hors d’oeuvres down on the bar.
Locke was well into middle age but showed absolutely no signs of either an encroaching paunch or a rapidly surrendering hairline. If anything, he was looking leaner and meaner than ever since my father’s death. I was beginning to think he lived on hot black coffee or whiskey and not much else.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” His piercing brown eyes stared at me, and I could feel the weight of his concern as he watched. There was something both comforting and intimidating about his presence; a sense of authority that demanded obedience but also promised protection.
I shook my head and sighed. “I need the money, Locke. We’ve had this discussion a million times.”
“That’s no reason to slave away for these people,” he replied, his face looking more aged than before. He wasn’t the type to mince words. “You’ve got a trust fund. You don’t need this.”
“I’m not taking your money,” I shot back.
“It was your father’s.”
I rolled my eyes and patted his arm, eager to move on to the next topic. “We both know that’s a lie.” His eyes burned into me as if he could read my mind. I gave him a weak smile. “This is a good job.”
I glanced down at my hands and wondered if he could smell the remnants of fish. If he knew I was still working the docks, he’d be livid. He’d all but forbidden me from keeping up with that source of employment.
He reached for my wrist and pulled me close to his chest. He looked down at me, his eyes hard and his brows furrowed. “You need to stop working these jobs.” His face then softened. “But we’ll discuss this more over lunch tomorrow.”
“Yes, lunch.” I knew better than to ever think I could skip one of our bi-monthly lunch dates that he insisted on after my father’s death.
He stared down at me, his eyes glued to mine. “I mean it, Storee. We are going to discuss this need you have to be so independent. Stubbornly so. Before you know it, you’re going to be miserable, broken, and wishing you had listened to me. You’ve seen enough people on this island work themselves to death. I don’t want that for you.” He took a deep breath, relaxing his shoulders, his domineering demeanor softening slightly as he regarded me with genuine concern. “But it’s been a long night for you.” He glanced down at my feet, which were aching, not that I’d ever confess that fact to him. “I’m sure you need to rest.”
I nodded, and with that, he released me and turned to leave.
“Tomorrow,” he said again over his shoulder.
Owning The Vault used to give me a sense of pride, accomplishment, power even. Holding a dark secret of Heathens Hollow in the palm of my hands was a responsibility I didn’t take lightly. To own an invite-only sex club was not for the faint of heart and not for a man who didn’t tango deep within the darkness.
I remembered the day when I first laid eyes on what would become The Vault. It had been a dilapidated building, long abandoned by its previous owners. Once a mighty bank for the rich but left for ruin and forgotten. But I saw potential in it, as did my business partners: Merrick Creed, Soren Thorne, and Braken Frost. We saw a place where people could come and explore their wildest desires without judgment or shame. A place for rich and powerful assholes with a kinky taste in the bedroom just like us.
Over the years, we’d built a reputation for ourselves as the owners of The Vault. People knew that if they wanted to experience something truly erotic, they needed to come to us.
The Vault was a sanctuary for those who lived on the fringes of society, those who pushed past the boundaries of the norm. It was a place where they could live out every fantasy and feed every hunger.
And we delivered.
The Vault was Heathens Hollow. Heathens Hollow was The Vault.
But tonight, instead of feeling pride, accomplishment, and power, I felt frustration.
Storee Brooks being the center of the emotion.
I tried to keep my distance, to remind myself that she was my dead friend’s daughter. But at the same time, I had an obligation to watch over her and keep her safe. I was her guardian whether she liked it or not.
And it was pretty obvious she didn’t like it.
It took all my might tonight when I saw her working as the waitress at that party not to flip her over my shoulder, spank her stubborn ass, and carry her home where I could keep her locked away, so no one could ever come close to her again.
Nice and safe. Forever untouched.
But I knew that was not an option, as much as I hated to admit it. Storee was a beautiful woman, and despite her fiery spirit, she was vulnerable in this world. And in my world, vulnerability could cost her everything, including her life.
I had already lost someone I loved. I sure as hell wasn’t going to allow it again.
I had watched her from afar, the way she moved through the crowd with ease, her long legs striding gracefully and her curves enticingly showcased beneath the tight black dress she wore.
Her body was built for sin.
And as I watched as she moved from table to table, a tray of drinks in hand, I had gritted my teeth, trying to keep my temper in check. The men at the party couldn’t seem to take their eyes off her. It made my blood boil with jealousy and possessiveness.
I knew I shouldn’t feel this way. She wasn’t mine.
Far from it.
As she passed by me, our eyes met, and I saw a flicker of defiance in her gaze. She knew I was watching her, and she didn’t like it. But I couldn’t help it. I was drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
Trying to erase the memory of her at the party from my thoughts, I sat in a high-back leather chair with a whiskey in hand. Merrick sat to my left, Soren to my right, and Braken next to him. We were chatting about business, but my attention kept straying.
I knew I shouldn’t be thinking about her like this. She was off limits. But the more I tried to push her out of my mind, the more my thoughts kept returning to her.
It wasn’t until I heard Merrick clear his throat that I realized I had zoned out completely. Embarrassed, I tried to focus back on the conversation at hand.
“The Hunt begins in three days. Is everything on track for that?” Soren asked.
“Everything’s running smoothly like normal,” Merrick said. “Numbers of participating women are up this season, which is a good thing. Once we sent out the memo to all the men that the baskets they leave the next morning were getting a little weak, their egos stepped in, and now it’s a competition of who can outbuy who. Talk on Heathens Hollow is spreading and it’s in our favor.”
We oversaw the long-standing tradition of The Hunt. And though it ran like a well-oiled machine, the four of us always met and made sure we weren’t dropping the ball. And although we didn’t create the event, we had taken it on and become the organizers to make sure the sinful legacy lived on. Seemed only fitting that The Vault spearheaded the events.
But as the meeting dragged on, my frustration only grew. Like every night at The Vault, a sex party was in full swing around me, with half-clothed revelers exploring their desires and pushing their limits. Everywhere I looked, people were engaged in intimate acts, both gentle and brutal.
The scent of perfume and sweat filled the air. Laughter and moans of pleasure mixed with the sound of orders given and received. There were tears and cries, too, as some of the participants pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones. It was a wild and chaotic scene, yet there was an underlying current of respect and understanding.
I took another sip of my drink and then spotted a woman that looked like Storee—brown hair, haunted eyes, and fucking stunning. She was on her knees, servicing a group of men, taking turns licking their hard cocks.
I felt my blood boil, and I had half a mind to storm over there and drag her out of the club by her hair wrapped in my fist.
She’s not Storee.
That woman is not her.
Good thing or those men would be dead. I’d cut their fingers off one by one, and then their dicks right before I’d gut them. How dare they look at her that way, how—
She’s not Storee…
I downed the rest of my whiskey, trying to numb the feeling of desire mixed with rage that coursed through me.
“You good, man?” Braken asked. “You’ve been off all night.”
I shrugged. “Long day.”
But it wasn’t just a long day that was bothering me. It was the fact that Storee was out there alone, exposed and unprotected from all sorts of dangerous predators that lurked in the shadows.
No one was watching her.
No one was keeping her safe.
I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to her. I also hated that she felt the need to work odd jobs just to make a buck, when I could fix every worry she had.
If she’d just let me.
But I also couldn’t trust myself around her. Every time I saw her, my control slipped a little more. I knew I couldn’t let my feelings for her get in the way of my duty to protect her, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood up abruptly, causing the other men to pause in their conversation.
“I’m calling it a night,” I said, my voice gruff. “I have lunch with Storee tomorrow, and—”
Merrick smirked. “We get it. See ya.”
Without waiting for a response from the others, I marched out of the sex-infused room and made my way down the hallway to the back exit. As I pushed open the door, the cool night air hit me like a slap in the face. It did little to ease the fire that had been burning inside me all night.
Leaning against the brick wall of the building, I tried to calm myself down.
I needed to see her.
Needed to make sure she got home safe.
I needed to watch her from afar.
She didn’t need to know. Just like I did every night.
I needed to watch.
From the shadows, I needed to keep her safe.