His discipline made me furious. His desire to control me set my temper aflame.
All the while my hatred growing.
The sting of his belt bit into my flesh as his chastising words burned into my mind.
I was never willing to admit how my body was responding to his harsh correction.
My voice crying, no. My mind crying, yes.
He did things I thought existed only in fantasy.
Owned places within me. Marking them as his. Places no one else had ever touched.
He milked every drop of ecstasy from me. Brought me back to life.
Through the pain, the pleasure he made me feel again.
Healing the wounds within me.
And in his dominance, he made me obey. Over time, drawing from me the gift of my submission.
Entwining my very soul to his.
Then he left.
Two years earlier
My eyes will always be swollen.
My nose, forever red.
My face, disgustingly puffy.
I will never.
My heart… forever broken.
My beloved husband is dead.
The man who loved me unconditionally. Protected me as a father. Treated me as his darling.
The celebration of life is tomorrow. The Bachman family will come together and mourn with me.
They all loved him, as much as I did.
We will bury his remains in the meadow of the Village.
I will forgive him for leaving me alone on this earth.
But I will never forget him.
The day of his burial, I wake, the sun pouring in my bedroom windows and blinding me. It’s been two weeks since he died. Fourteen days. And it still feels like someone is using a dull spoon to dig a cave in the center of my heart.
Every single minute of the day.
It’s been two weeks and still, fresh flowers flow in daily, littering my home.
In loving memory of Brett Bachman.
I’m grateful for whatever mysterious process the body goes through in our labs to be prepared for the burial. I needed the time. I don’t think my legs would have held my weight had the ceremony come only days after he passed.
What they do to the body, I still have no idea. That information is one of the most deeply guarded secrets of the Bachman Brotherhood. The men in the family have many, many dark mysteries unknown to me and the other wives.
It begins with the initiation process they go through before joining the Brotherhood and officially changing their last name to Bachman. While we know quite a bit about the workings of our family’s organized crime ring, we women are shielded from the darker areas of our employ. Sure, I’m the head accountant and in charge of the numbers, but half the time I don’t know what I’m looking at.
For we are a secret society. Hidden within the walls of New York City. A community of couples—no children—living and working together. We own legit businesses throughout the city. Within our walls, our Village as we call it, the men run the underground world. Political power, trade agreements, theft, internet crime—we Bachmans dabble in it all.
But we do good.
Call us old-fashioned but we believe the wealthy should care for the poor. That the bad guy is actually the good guy if he’s extracting wealth and power from the real scumbags. The ones that leave the ick on our society, thinking only of themselves.
And our Village? How do we maintain the delicate balance that has kept peace amongst our ranks since the founding of our family?
We have a unique view of marriage.
The women are submissive, the men dominant.
Many people misunderstand the word submission. Just the very sound of it conjures up images of abused women. Doormats. With no say or power in their own lives.
It’s quite the opposite. Us Bachman Beauties are doted on, cared for, spoiled. Our men would lay down their very lives for ours without so much as a second thought. And they mark us with the symbol of that devotion—their sword pendant on our wedding day. A unique charm created by them, for us. They vow to protect us with their lives as they clasp it around our necks.
And no one was more protective of their woman than Brett was of me. The only thing he couldn’t shield me from was his own death.
He was second in command before he went on that worthless mission with two younger guys and ended up having a heart attack. He was in the back of an ambulance within minutes of his first chest pains, but it was no use—he arrived at the hospital and was pronounced deceased by the time I made it to the emergency room.
Now he’s gone, all his Brotherhood secrets buried with him. They’ve taken his body, done their work on it, frozen it until his remains are nothing but dust.
Not that I care what they do with his corpse. If Brett’s soul isn’t in there, his big hands patting my bottom, his deep voice saying My beautiful lily, what does it matter?
Shaking the memories from my mind, I focus on the task before me. Preparing myself for my husband’s burial. With trembling hands, I dress in my white gown; white to celebrate the life of our loved ones. I brush my red hair into place; as fiery as your temperament, Brett would say.
When will I stop hearing his voice? And when I do, will I be devastated to no longer have him speaking in my mind, or will I find it to be a relief?
As I ponder the question, I glance at my reflection in the mirror. Brown eyes stare back at me, dark circles ringed beneath them; a drastic contrast against my pale face.
My little lily.
My breath catches in my chest, threatening to become a sob. I forgo the makeup—I’m just going to ruin it with my tears.
I strap on my heels and step out of the house to meet him.
Brett’s biological younger brother, and my escort for the evening.
Charming little name. It almost rhymes. Only I don’t find him to be charming, at all.
We’ll see if he’s changed at all since his last visit. When was that? Three years ago? He must be thirty by now, a few years older than me. Maybe he finally grew up.
My husband was over a decade older than me and I liked it that way. Accuse me of having daddy issues—I’ll tell you you’re right. I like my men like I like my whiskey; aged to perfection. And so, when Brett proposed to me, I didn’t even bat an eye at the age difference between us. That day was the best of my life.
Our wedding was a real Cinderella story. The poor trailer park girl weds a billionaire. And we had the event to match our tale. I rode into the affair in a crystal-encrusted pale blue carriage, glass slippers on my feet. It was the Bachman event of the year. Everyone was enamored by us, our love, our ceremony. Save for one cloudy face in the crowd.
A few hours after Brett and I wed, Rockland took off. Disappearing to a remote island off the coast of Greece. Charged with beginning a new offshore branch of the Bachman family to extend our reach and give us somewhere more desolate to conduct a few of our businesses.
Rockland was gone less than twelve hours after Brett and I said I do. He couldn’t handle that Brett had taken me—in Rockland’s eyes a bratty little redheaded scrap of trailer trash—for his wife.
Now I stand in my foyer. Shaking. Preparing myself to see him again. This day is hard enough without having Rockland sneer down his perfectly formed nose at me. I take a deep breath, wrap my fingers around the doorknob with certainty that I can handle this reunion, and swing the door open.
And there he is. Hasn’t changed a bit. Save for his flawless skin, which is now a deep, golden tan.
He stands sizing me up—glaring at me, I assume—behind his dark sunglasses. Leaning against his sleek ride. Arms crossed over his chest. Biceps bulging beneath his white suit jacket. He’s still rocking the bad boy look—even today, the day we bury his brother. His dark beard is short, meeting his buzzed black hair. A few buttons of his crisp white shirt are undone beneath his suit jacket, showing a piece of the swirling black tattoo that I know marks him from his chest, up his right shoulder, and down his arm.
His skin is golden brown, a product of days worshiping the sun on whatever godforsaken island he’s taken over. His muscular build has grown since I last saw him. Perhaps due to having to hunt and catch his own food with the natives?
The man is huge. Fierce.
He lifts his shades from his face; his gaze, now free of the lenses, locks on mine. His hazel eyes catch the light as he looks me over. I can see his chiseled jawline tensing beneath his short beard—angered just by the sight of me. He gives me a nod, then moves from his place in front of the passenger door, opening it and gesturing for me to get in.
Without a word.
No manners, this one. I guess living so far from civilization, he’s forgotten how to greet someone.
I tilt my chin in the air and brush past him.
He shuts my door and moments later he slides into the driver’s seat beside me, dark shades back in place so I can’t see his eyes. I can feel his cool indifference penetrating the air around me.
We head to the meadow, the silence hanging between us like a thick blanket. A scratchy wool one. The kind your great aunt keeps and you avoid using unless you’re freezing to death.
He’s waiting for me to speak first, and I refuse.
I haven’t seen him in years. Since being stationed outside the Village, his visits have been rare. And always brief. He can’t seem to wait to get out of here and back to whatever cave he’s living in. I sneak a glance at him out of the corner of my eye. He hasn’t aged a day. If anything, he looks more handsome, healthy. I guess it’s all that fresh sea air and sunshine.
But being good looking is only a plus if your exterior is the wrappings of a decent human being on the inside. Which Rockland is not. At least, not to me. Even though Rockland’s only a few years older than me, he’s always treated me as one would an errant child.
One they disdain. He looks at me like someone would a spoiled, sticky-faced brat ruining their anniversary dinner in the poshest restaurant in the city. Brett always said it was my imagination—that Rockland loved me as a sister.
But I know what Rockland says about me. I’ve heard the rumors.
Brett needs to get a hold of her. She needs more discipline than he gives her.
Tess rules the roost. Brett lets her. That’s not the Bachman way.
She’s just an itty-bitty little thing. Easy to tame. You just have to know how.
Hadn’t he seen me, hands behind my back, red ass on display in the window, for all the Village to see? How dare he question my husband’s judgment. Bachman women are submissive, the men dominant. We get a little out of line and our husbands spank us right back into place. Keeping that delicate balance in perfect harmony. And, yes, I was a bit spoiled by my dear Brett, but our relationship was no exception to the Bachman way.
Rockland never seemed to accept that.
I stare stonily out the window as we make our way to the locked-off property at the back of the Village. I forget the presence of the sullen man beside me and focus on the gathered family members I see, dotted across the soft green grass of the meadow.
They’re all here. Dressed in white, to celebrate the life of our dearest Brett.
Seeing them all here, dabbing their eyes, a sob reaches up from my gut, sticking in my chest.
They loved him as much as I.
Brett was a gregarious man. Quick to laugh. Always with an encouraging word. Beneath his teddy bear exterior, he had a sharp mind and a killer’s instincts. He swam with the most important political fish, holding his own and mentoring the Bachman Brotherhood below him to take his place.
And now they will take his place.
I give a heavy sigh, my fingers wrapping around the handle of the door. The car pulls to a stop. Don’t start crying. Not yet. You won’t make it through the service. I press my lips together; I clench and unclench my fingers. Anything to stop the flow of tears from falling.
Unexpectedly, Rockland sees fit to speak. His husky voice, thick with emotion rises over my thoughts. “I loved him too, you know. He was my brother.”
“And he was my husband. Though you never approved of his choice in me, did you?” I snap.
He takes his sunglasses off, tosses them onto the dash. His gaze locks on mine, his eyes flashing. His hand goes to my knee. It’s huge and strong and his fingers dig slightly into my flesh, gaining my attention. He says, “I loved him. And I love you. And I’ve sworn to care for you in his absence. Whatever it takes.”
I want to slap his face. Scratch his eyes out. Who is he to touch me? But deep down, I know the truth; as much as I despise this man, he’s my husband’s brother and I won’t make it through this day without him by my side. I need someone strong to lean on this day. Or I will lose my shit.
So, instead of mauling his smug face with my manicured nails, I shake my head. Clasp my hands in my lap and stare at them.
He gives my knee a pat. Gets out of the car. Walks around and opens my door.
When he offers me his arm, I take it. My legs are shaking.
I’m surprised by how hard his body is as I teeter against it, gathering my balance. My arm is tightly wound alongside that bulging bicep that’s straining against the linen of his suit. I feel him give my arm a gentle squeeze. Pull me closer to his side.
And I’m grateful.
As I gaze over the meadow, my knees shake. My gut roils. I hold on tighter—he’s the only thing keeping me upright. My limbs are useless like jelly. He shoots me a long gaze, appraising my shaky state. I throw him a brief glance. A nod. He gives me one of his rare half-smiles, the one where only the corner of the right side of his mouth raises just a touch. He begins walking, me clinging to his arm. It’s comforting. I feel stable. Safe. He’s leading me right into the center of our family’s circle. Next to Bronson Bachman, our fearless leader.
Just nearing Bronson, knowing the kind words he will speak of my dear Brett, the tears begin to prick at my eyes. Rockland reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and removes a starched kerchief. Eyes forward, trained on Bronson, he hands it to me.
I take it and his arm wraps protectively around my shoulders. The weight of him is heavy, reassuring. It grounds me. A deep breath fills my lungs. I hold the kerchief to my eyes, dabbing them with the soft fabric. I’m grateful to Rockland—I know he’s planned and brought this for me. His small gesture makes today seem almost possible.
My teary eyes gaze at the sun as it filters through the tree limbs.
I rest my head on his shoulder.
I feel his arm tighten around me. Making me relax. I lean in further, accepting his comfort, his strength.
Then I remember just who it is I’m standing beside. The nasty words he’s spoken of me. The poisonous looks he’s given me over the years.
I rip my head from where it rests, crossing my arms over my chest. I try to scoot away from him, make some space between us, but his arm goes nowhere. It’s like a vise, holding me against him.
Bronson speaks. “Brett Bachman was the best of all of us. Strong and hard, but caring and loving. And though he loved us, his family, the family he pledged to lay his life down for, he loved nothing more than Tess.”
And this is the moment I will lose my shit.
A deep, sorrowful keen rises from the center of my being. I don’t recognize the sound of my own wail. The blood whooshes in my eardrums, my knees give out. The only thing stopping me from collapsing into a howling heap is him.
Suddenly, he’s got me pinned against him. His strong arms wrap around my back. He’s holding me and his body is so big, it practically engulfs all of me. I disappear into his broad chest, sobbing. The cries rack my body and I hide my face in the fabric of his jacket.
I’m crying so hard, I don’t even hear the words Bronson speaks of my husband. But I know the stories he will tell. Of the lilac field Brett planted in his mother’s memory. Of the sweet notes he left around the Village, encouraging family members who needed it the most. Of his legacy, the community colleges with free housing and tuition he’d put into place after he’d set aside my allocated money.
Always an excellent provider, he’d left me millions.
And I’d give them all away just to see his face again. Hear that raucous belly laugh.
My sobs begin to subside. I hear the three claps. They signal our rock, the one all our family members’ frozen remains are stored within. The whirring begins and the enormous gray stone rises from its hiding place within the Earth.
The grass is unseasonably green, as it always is here. A mystery I’ve never solved. I stare at the rock, knowing what’s expected of me next.
My gut roils. I can’t do it.
I won’t do it.
The family falls to their knees. Bow their heads, join hands. They chant Love lives on, over and over and over. Goosebumps rise on the flesh of my arms. I’m grateful I’m all cried out—otherwise I’d begin weeping. Rockland helps me kneel.
I hold onto him, clinging to his chest.
A few quiet moments later, Bronson comes to me. Helps me up. Takes me to the far side of the stone wall. I’m beside John now, the member of the Brotherhood who Brett was closest to. John’s my age and Brett was more of a father figure to him than anything else.
The same could be said about my relationship with Brett, I suppose.
Bronson removes a stone. Places it on the ground. John holds the black chamber out to me. What’s left of Brett’s body lays within.
They are waiting.
Bronson’s gaze locks on mine. Soft, but commanding.
With shaky hands, I tug at the chain around my neck. The necklace Brett locked around my neck the day we were wed, the day I became a Bachman. I’ve worn it every day since. The little sword made of cut diamonds the sign of Brett’s dedication to lay down his life for me.
He didn’t get the chance to.
He’s gone, way before his time.
I’m angry now—this precious memento is being taken from me as well—and the chain snaps. My fingers clutch around the charm. He’s gone. He’s left me. I throw it onto the chamber, screaming, “Damn you, Brett! How dare you leave me. How dare you—” My words turn into a choked sob and Rockland appears by my side.
His arm firmly wraps around my waist. I turn to him, I lift my fists, beating his chest. I cry, “He left me, why did he leave me?”
He doesn’t even flinch. Just lets me have my mindless moment. The fury leaves my body and I collapse against him, boneless and spent. I take a few deep breaths.
Then I feel Rockland moving his hand. He’s taking something out of his pocket.
My world stops spinning. The air around me is frozen, buzzing with tension. A white heat flushes over my face and my breath leaves my body. In my mind, I’m screaming no!
But there it is, in his opened palm. His sword, diamonds glittering in the sun. It’s different from Brett’s. Sleeker. Darker.
Just like Rockland.
Before I can move, he’s got it clasped around my neck.
Marking me as his.
Fury rises in my chest. My hand goes to my neck and snap, the necklace is broken. I give him one dark look and toss the thing to the ground like the piece of trash it is to me. It means nothing.
Placidly he retrieves the chain from the ground. Slips it into his pocket.
Now he’s grabbing my arm, hard. So hard that I’m wincing. I prepare to shout let go of me! but before I can summon the words, the brush of the stubble of his beard strokes my cheek. His mouth is hot against my ear. I smell his cologne, feel his tense muscles press against me as he gives me another squeeze and hisses, “Best behave, little girl.”
He escorts me to the car. Drops me into the passenger’s seat. He gives me a long, hard look. Reaches up to my shoulder and pulls the buckle over my lap. Clicking it in. He throws me one more glance, as if I’ll run off.
He’s in the driver’s seat. His jaw is clenched beneath that beard—I just know it. Fury and sorrow and exhaustion billow within me. But the anger wins out over the other emotions and I direct it at my sitting target.
“Who do you think you are? Dragging a widow from her husband’s burial before he’s even laid to rest?” My fingers clutch the kerchief he’s given me. It dampens from my tears.
“You were ready to leave.” His eyes cut to me as he starts the car.
“How could you possibly know? You never asked.”
“I didn’t need to. I’ve grown quite good at reading you.”
“Reading me? You mean staring at me from across the room with that disapproving look on your face?” Now he gives me one of those familiar glances from the side of his eyes. “See—you did it just then! You think I’m such a problem. Well, guess what? Consider yourself relieved of your duties. I certainly don’t need you looking after me—”
The look goes from general displeasure to something deeper. He rumbles, “It’s not your call.”
But no match for me. I never back down. My voice lowers, my words made of steel. “Rockland Bachman. As soon as this gathering is over, you get yourself on the next plane to the Greek Islands or wherever the hell it is your Neanderthal cave is hiding.” I sniff, turning my body toward the window. Scooting toward the car door and as far from him as possible.
The slightest hint of that smug smile dances across his face.
What does he know that I don’t? What has him so amused?
My stomach drops. I say, “Don’t you dare say Bronson’s enacting the hierarchy.”
“Did you not feel the weight of my sword against your chest?” His tone is equally as icy.
“Did you not see me rip it from my throat and throw it to the ground?” I snap.
He heaves a sigh—the one I’m familiar with. The one that reminds me he thinks I’m a child he’s dealing with. “Tess, it’s just a symbol. You know when a Bachman woman is in the family, it’s forever. And that any woman in our family would be cared for by one of the brothers. The day my brother married you, he clasped the necklace with his sword around your neck—showing you he would lay down his life for you. Now that he’s gone, I take his place in that same way. Protect you, lay down my life for you should you need it. But it’s symbolic, Tess. We all know you’re a big girl who can take care of yourself. You will continue to live your own life, but the sword, the hierarchy, it’s in place to care for you should you need it.”
“I will never, ever need care from you.”
He doesn’t answer me.
I want to keep fighting. I want to stay mad. Do anything to keep this deep sob that’s sitting in my belly from rising. Anything to keep the maddening grief at bay.
I sit back in the seat and sigh. We’re pulling up to my house.
The house where I built a life with Brett.
And now, I live alone.
Of all the shitty luck. My brother goes out on a mission and dies of a heart attack.
How many times did I tell him to lay off the burgers? Hit the gym? Our fellow brother, Carter, owns one only a few blocks from the Village—Brett could have gone anytime. Instead, he always brushed me off, attributing my good health and trim body with the fact that I’m ten years younger than him. Not my Mediterranean diet and five-mile morning run, or daily swim in the ocean.
Now I’m stuck, caretaker of Miss Temper Tantrum herself.
Tess—the sexy little redhead my brother has spoiled and coddled for the past five years.
Bronson knew what he was doing when he enacted the hierarchy for this one—she’s out of control.
I sigh as I drive her to the house. I know the hierarchy is an excellent idea in theory—having a line of order so that each of our Bachman women are cared for in the special way of the Brotherhood, should one of us not be able to do so, or in my brother’s case, leave this earth and a widow behind—but Tess’s arrogant nature has always infuriated me.
Now more than ever. Her grief has done the impossible—made her more difficult than she already was. And even more disgusted by my presence.
Never mind though, I’ll do what I have to do to get her through this day. For other women, that would mean a shoulder to cry on. A few gentle words of sympathy. An escort to the celebration.
That woman needs strict boundaries. Ones that earn her a harsh punishment when crossed. The easiest way to get her through this day would be by me reddening her ass. Relieving her of her emotional weight through pain and tears. But alas, I can’t. As much as I want to take that hellcat over my knee and spank some sense into her, I won’t.
It would be highly inappropriate of me.
Though I want to. Badly.
She’s sick with grief. And she needs time to heal.
But just as I’m convincing myself that doling out a good old-fashioned spanking is not my place today, the memory of her ripping my sword from her neck and throwing it to the ground flashes in my mind and my palm begins to twitch.
Someone needs to teach that little girl a lesson in respect.
I’m not the only one of this opinion. At the service, after her little show, there was unspoken command that flashed in Bronson’s eyes. Get her under control for all our sakes.
And I will. I’ll be firm with her. It’s easy with Tess—I always know what she needs. It only took one squeeze of my hand on her knee to make her bite her sharp tongue. I’ll keep her under control. Make sure she doesn’t lose it and do or say something she’ll regret later. She must be strong for the Village. For she is not the only one grieving the loss of the great man that was my brother.
My own unshed tears are buried deep within me. I park the car. Cut the engine.
I’ll help calm her. Get her ready for the family event. Guide her through it.
Then I’ll leave.
With any luck, I’ll never have to come back.
Except for the little fact I’ve seemed to forget, until just this moment when we’ve arrived at her front door.
Every year for the next three years on the day of the anniversary of Brett’s death, there will be a memorial for my brother.
And I’ll have to be in attendance.
Celebrating his life. And caring for his widow.