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Brutal Royal: A Mafia Bully Romance by Tessa Morgan – Serialization (Part Three)

Did you miss Chapters 1-12? You can find them here.

Did you miss Chapters 13-24? You can find them here.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Evie

“This one, I think,” I tell Kat, pointing out the window of her Lamborghini. She aims for the sidewalk, revving the engine loudly a few times as she ducks her head to look up at the apartment block beside us. I’ve realized she doesn’t even know she’s doing it sometimes—I guess she’s just genetically inclined to draw attention.

“Looks nice,” she says.

“Don’t be condescending.”

“What? Not everyone can live in a mansion on a seventy-acre piece of land. We’d run out of earth.”

I roll my eyes when she turns to look at me. “Thanks for the lift.”

“Thanks for the company.” She barks out a laugh as she puts the Lambo into park. “Sometimes when I’m driving out there on Bug Ash Pass, it’s tempting to take a sharp right.”

I blink at her. “Like… off the cliff?”

She laughs again, squeezing my thigh through my jeans. “I’m joking, Evie. Holy shit, you should see your face.”

“That’s not funny.”

Kat raises her hands in mock surrender. “I’ll be around for a few hours. Call me if you want a lift back to campus.”

I give her a thumbs up as I carefully climb out the car. This was possibly the longest drive of my life, sitting on an ass that’s bruised purple and yellow from the belting Owen gave me last night. Thankfully, Kat bought my story that I tweaked my back doing laundry. I know in my heart I’ll never be brave enough to admit to anyone what really happened in Owen’s room.

I felt bad about leaving him like that though, but once I’d closed his door behind me, I couldn’t muster up enough courage to sneak back inside.

It’s better this way.

I made a promise to my dad when we left the city… and I’ve already broken it. What happened last night was fun, but it’ll never happen again. Not just because of the promise, but because I have no idea how far Owen will push things the next time.

No, Evie. There won’t be a next time, remember?

I grab my backpack from the footwell, wincing when the skirt of my pale blue sundress brushes my ass. Even through my underwear, that faint sensation sends sparks through my flesh. When I tug at my bag, it doesn’t budge.

Great.

It’s stuck on something. Probably the tequila bottle Kat was sipping on before she tossed it behind my seat.

“Need a hand?” Kat asks, leaning to the side. When she sees it’s my backpack I’m trying to get out, she recoils with a grimace. “Ugh. That thing…”

I put out my finger like I’m scolding a dog for peeing on the carpet. “Enough about my bag.” I give it a hard yank. I can feel some of the stitching give way, but at least it finally comes free.

“I’ll make sure they bury you with it,” Kat says, and I don’t doubt for a minute that she’s telling the truth.

I haven’t had time to get something else, and I didn’t dare leave anything important in my room. As far as I know, Kat doesn’t have a key to her door, so it’s pointless that I lock mine.

It’s hilarious that I only now realize what a pointless gesture that room key was. Owen must think I’m a fucking idiot… and based on the facts, I’m not really inclined to argue.

“If it ain’t broken…”

“Oh, honey,” Kat says, “that thing’s beyond repair.”

I grimace when she drives off with a squeal, leaving behind a wisp of blue-white smoke and the stink of burned rubber.

What the hell were her parents thinking, buying her that car?

I shove the thought out of my head. Dad’s new apartment is close to the center of town, but it’s on a gorgeous street lined with big oak trees.

The doorman eyes my backpack suspiciously, but when I tell him I’m here to see Mr. Larsen, he leads me to the elevator with quick steps and a professional smile.

“Second door on the left,” he says, after pressing the button marked 3. I endure countless seconds of inane elevator music before the doors open with a ping to let me out on the third floor. I head for my dad’s apartment, toying with my backpack’s strap.

Since this morning, I’ve been trying to muster up enough courage to broach the subject of Mom. We haven’t spoken about her since we left the city. It never seemed to be right time.

Also, I know he blames me… and I don’t think he’s forgiven me yet.

After knocking a few times, I’m wondering if I heard the doorman right, because my father still hasn’t answered the door. My stomach knots up a little. Most likely, he forgot about our meeting… but I can’t help thinking something bad happened to him.

As I’m taking out my phone, the door opens. My father backs out of his apartment, eyes on the cellphone in his one hand while the other tugs on the door handle. If I hadn’t squeaked out, “Dad!” and jumped back a foot, he’d have bumped into me.

He spins around, blinking owlishly at me from behind his round spectacles. “Evie? What are you doing here?”

Ah, so he did forget.

At least he’s not bleeding out in the kitchen or something after a nasty accident with a chef’s knife. I shake my head at the macabre direction my imagination often takes.

“We had plans. Remember?”

He blinks a few more times and then gives me an absent smile. “Why, yes, yes. Of course.” His faint European accent makes me instantly sentimental. “Come in.”

“Where were you going?”

“The town hall. Did you know it’s the oldest structure in Pinecrest? It was the only government building that survived the fire in 1808. Miss Gregory told me about it yesterday.”

“Miss Gregory?” I sweep my gaze over my father’s apartment. It must have been a furnished lease, because the place is filled with tasteful, minimalistic furniture.

The dining room table is covered with books and blueprints. Father was halfway through a project when we left; he brought one duffel bag of clothes and three boxes full of his engineering things.

“So… uh… are we ordering pizza?” I ask.

All I’ve had this morning was a cup of coffee with Sterling and Kat. He was the first one back from the lake, and to hear him tell it, the only Royal who survived the night. Liam and Ada were apparently passed out in Liam’s X7—still parked by the lake—and Oz and Wilder went to an after-party in the woods with a bunch of university cheerleaders.

My dad lets out a soft laugh that takes me instantly back to all the nights Mom came home after church and found us watching TV instead of getting dinner ready. “Yes, sure. I’ll order.”

But he doesn’t take out his phone, and from the slightly panicked expression on his face, I already know what’s happening.

I cross my arms, putting my head to the side, and realize I look exactly like Mom did on those nights. I quickly drop my arms. “Were you supposed to meet Miss Gregory at the town hall?”

He gives me a faint smile, waggling a finger at me. “You are too clever, my dear. Too clever by far.”

I throw up my hands, dropping my backpack on the floor beside the dining room table. “Screw it. Let’s go take a look at this place. If I’m going to be staying here for the next few years of my life, I might as well appreciate the architecture.”

Dad grins, slinging an arm around my shoulder as I join him outside. He closes and locks his apartment, already going on about the engineering marvel that is Pinecrest’s town hall—as if I’m not about to witness it myself. We’re in the elevator when I realize I’ve left my phone behind, but screw it.

I won’t need it where I’m going.

Miss Gregory is absolutely smitten with my father. It’s like she isn’t even aware of their twenty-year age gap. I can’t blame her—despite my father’s white hair, he still looks good for his age. That’s because he spends more time drowning in blueprints than he does smoking, or drinking, or going outside. I cringe when I think back to when my city friends first met him. They all thought he was my grandfather. He had a good decade or so on my mom when they fell in love. I thought it was romantic, but now I’m wondering if he has a thing for younger women.

Miss Gregory—AKA ‘please call me Lana’—keeps throwing me these looks from the corner of her eye. My unexpected arrival obviously threw a spanner in the works.

Or, maybe, she’s finally realized just how much older my father is.

I’d guess Miss ‘really, Lana is fine’ Gregory can’t be older than thirty.

“So Evie, how was your first week at college?” my father asks as he starts taking his sandwich apart. We’re sitting at one of the benches in the park outside Pinecrest’s town hall.

It’s bare wood. Hard.

Extremely painful to sit on if you were a bad girl just the night before.

But I grin and bear it. Well, I grimace and bear it. What else can I do?

There’s a food stall half a block down which Miss Gregory—all right, Lana—considers the best in town. She’s watching me eat like she has some vested interest in the food truck, and I’m the most feared sandwich critic in the state.

I got the egg salad. It’s not bad. Then again, the bar for egg salad sandwiches isn’t all that high to begin with.

“It was okay,” I say, nibbling on a crust as my father slowly rebuilds his sandwich sans tomato. I’ve never known him to eat one in his entire life, yet he never asks for no tomato. Even Mom used to serve him salad with the tomatoes in.

I guess it keeps him busy.

“Just okay?” Dad stares at me, genuinely concerned. “You don’t like your subjects?”

“Uhm, no, I mean, they’re okay—”

“Are they treating you well?” He blinks at me through his spectacles. “Because if they’re not—”

My mind briefly goes back to last night. “I’m being treated… fairly.” I crumple up the paper bag my sandwich came in, rolling it between my palms. “How is your project coming along?”

“Oh, the project, yes.” Dad nudges his spectacles up his nose with a knuckle. “Fine, my dear. Fine. It’s taken a few days to get back on track, but working remotely has been… refreshing.”

That means he hates it. My stomach grows heavy, as if the egg sandwich has turned into hot lead. We look at each other, and I know he knows that I know.

He drops his head, peeking at Lana. “This is a really good sandwich.”

She peers down at his carefully reconstructed sandwich. “You haven’t eaten anything yet.”

“No, but I can tell.” He smiles at her, and then looks over at me. That smile fades a little, and a moment passes between us again.

We’ve always had that, me and my dad. When Mom was in one of her moods, or having one of her migraines, we’d communicate through this kind of telepathy. She’d accuse us of scheming sometimes. That’s usually when Dad got his car keys and we left to go watch a movie. We wouldn’t say a single word to each other. I guess we didn’t have to. We both lived in the same house.

“And you’ve been keeping your nose clean?” Dad asks. “Remember, they’re strict around here…”

I’m starting to regret the sandwich, because now it’s churning around in my belly like the water inside a dishwasher, mid-cycle. “No time to get into trouble, Dad. I’m too busy studying.”

“You have a smart daughter, Hagan,” Lana says before turning to me. “Have you declared your major yet?”

My father bought her a pretzel, but all she’s done is break off some pieces to feed to the pigeons circling us like vultures from a few yards away.

Judging from her skinny form, she could live off that pretzel for a week. She looks like she got all dandied up for this. Her makeup—although plentiful—is a little uneven, like she doesn’t wear it often enough to be particularly proficient at applying it.

I must be a little sadistic, because I find it hilarious that this stick-thin thirty-something thought this would be a date.

She must be really bad at reading people.

Sure, my father gets enthusiastic about architecture, but that’s because he spends all day building structures that are eventually clad in said architecture. But it’s a massive leap from being interested in something to being interested in someone.

Right?

“You did say you would declare before the end of the month,” Dad says, wrenching me out of my thoughts.

“Yeah… I just… haven’t decided yet.”

He shares a smile with Lana. “I don’t know where she gets it from. I was eight when I knew I would become an engineer.”

Lana lays her hand on my father’s arm. I smirk over at her, waiting for him to shake her off.

He doesn’t.

I blink and rock back in my seat, wincing at the stab of pain that shoots through my rear.

He probably doesn’t even realize it’s there. Any second now, he’ll—

My father reaches over and lays his hand on top of Lana’s. “Thank you for bringing me here.” He glances at me. “Us. This is a magnificent building.”

Lana blushes. My father smiles.

My stomach twists so hard, I think I’m going to puke. It’s barely been three months since he last saw Mom, and he’s already chatting up the town librarian?

“Actually, I kinda met someone.” The words fall out of my mouth before I have time to think about what I’m doing. Despite the sun shining down on the park, the temperature at the park bench drops several degrees.

“Oh. You did?” Dad takes his hand off Lana’s, and then drops his arm from the table. “I thought we agreed you were going to focus on your studies.”

“Oh, Hagan, let her be. She’s young, and she’s in college!”

Yup, you had it right about Lana.

She’s completely incapable of reading a room. Or in this case, a park bench. She leans over to my father and slips her arm through his like they’re old friends.

Or lovers.

Ew.

“I remember when I studied at the university. Gosh, we had fun back then. It’s a pity they don’t allow fraternities in there anymore.” She cups a hand against the side of her mouth and leans over the table. “My sorority sisters and I meet in secret every five years, just to catch up.” She straightens hurriedly, glancing around like she just dished on a matter of national security.

I look at my dad again. “I didn’t agree to anything. You instructed me.”

I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve pissed off my dad.

Today makes two.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Evie

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. My father’s apartment is close enough to the city center that we walked here instead of taking his truck. On the way back to his place, I keep expecting him to start laying down the law. Perhaps even trying to ground me—despite the fact that I’m way too old for that kind of thing to stick.

He could refuse to pay for college. While the first year is paid up, I’d have to find a job that earns me enough to pay for the rest of my studies, and I have a feeling those types of positions aren’t in massive supply around here.

But Hagan says nothing. In fact, there’s this faraway look in his eyes the whole way home, like he’s looking way back into the past.

Or, possibly, the future.

I’m not sure if he likes what he sees.

I keep trying to muster up enough courage to say something, but by the time we reach his apartment, all I can manage is a weak, “Listen… Dad…”

He glances over at me for a second and then opens his door and walks inside. I half-expect him to slam it in my face, but he leaves it open.

I close it behind me even though I get the feeling I won’t be here that long.

“Who is he?” Dad asks as I’m heading for my backpack by the dining room table.

I stop, turning to watch him move around the kitchen as he puts on some tea. My heart melts a little when he takes out two cups, not just one.

Is it possible he’s taking this better than I thought? Maybe he had enough time on the walk over to realize that I’m a grown-ass woman, and I can make my own decisions.

And my own mistakes.

There’s a hard lump in my throat now, and it refuses to budge no matter how much I swallow. I slide onto one of the barstools by the breakfast nook, watching my father prepare us each a cup of tea.

“His… uh… his name is Owen.”

My father nods. “Is he a troublemaker like Brent?”

At the sound of my ex-boyfriend’s name, my soul shrivels a little. “I… don’t think so.”

I’ve never really stopped to compare the two. Honestly, I haven’t had much time to consider anything. Until I said something in the park today, I was of the opinion that what happened last night would never happen again.

One of the reasons for that is the elderly man standing in front of me, pouring sugar and cream into our tea.

“I’m not even sure we’re going to see each other again,” I say, eagerly picking up my tea and inhaling its scent. “I was just… I guess I wasn’t expecting you to have moved on so soon.”

It’s a dick move, mentioning Lana, but shifting blame away from me is the only move I have. Father stares down into his cup as he stirs, a slight frown puckering his brow.

“Moved on?” He looks up at me with a half-smile on his face. “Evie, she’s a friend.”

I quirk an eyebrow. “Mmm-hm.”

He lets out a small laugh. “That’s why you mentioned this boy?”

I look out the window by the dining room, shrugging as I take a sip of my tea. “It caught me off guard.”

Dad lays his hand over mine and squeezes. “Darling, your mother and I are still married. I would never break that vow.”

I glance over at him, frowning. I’m a shit daughter. Not once since we’ve moved here have I bothered to ask him how he’s doing. How he’s coping with everything that happened.

How could I, when I was the one responsible for it all? Every time I think about it, I feel like shit.

“She hasn’t signed the divorce papers yet?”

He shrugs, staring at nothing for a moment. “No. And I doubt the church will let her.”

The church.

My skin tightens, anger simmering within me. “Like they have any right to say what happens between you.”

He shrugs again, sipping at his tea. “They only hold as much power as she lets them, dear, and you know she would jump off a cliff if they told her to.”

It’s the first time I’ve heard Dad speak so negatively about the church. I set down my teacup, twisting my hand so I’m the one holding him. “Isn’t there something you could do? A lawyer you could speak to? I mean, it can’t just—”

“What’s the point, Evie?” When he looks up at me, his brown eyes are filled with sadness. “I’ve never loved a woman like I did your mother. And I never will again. We had many, many glorious years together. I’d die a happy man if those were the only ones I was meant to have.”

My heart breaks for him then, my chest tightening up, and for a moment I can’t breathe.

I never knew he felt that way about Mom. I guess it explains why he put up with her bullshit for so long. I never could understand why he didn’t just leave her.

But he did leave.

“Why did you bring us here?”

Dad looks up at me like he wasn’t expecting the question. “You know why, Evie.”

“I mean… why did you decide to leave? If you really love her that much, why—”

He catches hold of my thumb. “I love you more.” His smile turns fond, then sad. “I couldn’t stand hearing her say those terrible things about you.”

I shift in my seat, wincing. Dad misunderstands and gives me another squeeze. “The church blew everything out of proportion. You do realize that, don’t you?”

My cheeks start warming up. I don’t like the direction this conversation is headed. Not one bit. I pull my hand away, taking a gulp of tea. “It doesn’t change what happened.”

Dad pulls his hand away. “No. It doesn’t.” He sighs heavily, rubbing at his eyes. I watch him for a second before downing the rest of my tea. It’s still too hot and hurts, but I welcome the scorch down my throat. It feels… cleansing.

“I have a lot of schoolwork to do,” I tell him, sliding off the barstool. “I should head back to the campus and—”

“Let me,” he says, waving a hand in my direction as he goes to fetch my backpack. “You know, Evie, it’s not a nice thing to discuss, but the therapist did suggest we should have a joined session sometime this month.”

I look away, staring moodily into my empty cup.

That fucking therapist will be the death of me.

Not only is she nosy, but all she seems to care about is opening old wounds and digging around until you pass out from the pain. If it hadn’t meant so much to my dad, I’d never even have gone to see her. Some things are private for a reason.

“In fact, if you can make it here next weekend, I’d like to—”

When my father stops talking mid-sentence, I turn to look in his direction. He has his back to me, one strap of my backpack in his hand.

I shoot to my feet when I see the pile of things lying on the carpet. I know I closed the zipper all the way. Was he snooping?

“You need a new bag,” he says absently, bending to pick up my things. “This one’s falling apart.”

Oh, my God.

I felt something rip when I yanked it out of Kat’s car, but I’m sure there wasn’t a gaping hole in the bottom. I rush over, and see my dad’s standing on one end of the adjustable strap. It must have torn even more when he tried to lift it.

“That’s okay.” I dive to my knees, scooping up as much as I can into my arms. In my haste, the book I’d had wrapped up in the sweater falls out and hits the carpet with a thump.

Dad reaches it before I do. “You’re still writing in this?” he asks, turning the diary over in his hand. “I’m so glad. The therapist said—”

I snatch it from him, burying it in the bundle in my arms. “That’s private.”

“You know I would never pry.” There’s a frown between his eyes now. “Is that what you’re afraid of? Is that why you’ve never agreed to see the therapist with me?”

My cheeks are even warmer now. I shake my head. “How is talking about what happened going to change the past? What happened was more humiliating than you’ll ever know.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Really? I know nothing about humiliation?” There’s an edge to his voice now. Hard and sharp. I take a step back, my cheeks glowing.

“I didn’t mean—”

“You think when the church got involved, that wasn’t humiliating?”

My breath catches. “Dad, please, I didn’t—”

“Maybe it’s best you concentrate on your schoolwork for a while,” he says coldly, heading for the door.

“But… do you still want me to come over next weekend?”

He doesn’t look at me as he holds the door open. “I have a lot of things to catch up on too, Evie.” When he does lock eyes with me, I wish he hadn’t. I feel all that humiliation, all that regret, washing over me again. “You’re not the only one who needs to get their life back on track.”

I swallow down another pathetic apology. I’ve said sorry so many times, it’s starting to sound like a foreign word. Tears well up in my eyes, and I turn too quickly, in a rush to get into the hallway before he sees me crying again. My arm crashes into the doorjamb lintel, jarring the bundle of things in my arm.

“Evie, wait…”

I hiccup through the words. “No, you’re right, I should go.”

“Evie! You dropped… this.” His voice changes so dramatically, I freeze in my tracks.

My heart hammers hard and fast in my chest as I force myself to look back.

Hagan’s face is unreadable as he holds out a slip of black leather to me.

It’s Owen’s collar.

Why the fuck did you take it?

The bigger question was what possessed me to actually bring it with me. A question I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer.

I rush back, snatch the collar from my dad’s hand, and storm down the hall. I don’t bother to apologize. I don’t even try to explain that it’s not mine.

He’s heard that story before. Back then, I was lying through my teeth in some futile attempt to save face.

There’s no way he’ll believe me now.

No one ever will.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Owen

I arrived at the Dalton family home without an appetite, and I know I’m going to leave with a churning stomach. I stir a fork through the mashed potatoes on my plate, my eyes on my sister Rylee, sitting across the table from me with a radiant smile on her face.

It’s not her fault she’s happy. But it irks me that she has it so easy. She’s sixteen—which means she can do whatever the fuck she wants and no one will call her out for it.

Of course, that will change when she turns eighteen… but she still has two glorious years of freedom left.

My father, Jet, stands, grimly silent as he buttons up his jacket. “Owen, a word?” He must have seen me glaring at my sister.

He walks out of the dining room without waiting to see if I’ll follow.

As if I have a fucking choice.

Unlike Rylee, I’m bound by very strict standards.

My father walks to the courtyard surrounded by our glass-fronted house. This mid-century modern stylish home was built to maximize the view of Pinecrest Valley, so I don’t know why my father prefers spending his evenings inside this courtyard, smoking a cigarette, sipping at his drink, and staring at the massive oak tree contained within.

I figure this place is a sanctuary. This courtyard, the tree, the way the walls reflect inward, blocking out everything except the sky… it’s serene. Peaceful.

The moon is out already, peeking over the top of the house. It bathes the top of the oak tree in silver.

Jet studies me for a long moment as he lights a cigarette, pulls at it. Then he beckons me closer.

“What brought you here tonight, son?”

I shrug. “Now I can’t visit my own family?”

“We’ve been asking you to come over for lunch for weeks now.”

I take another swallow of whiskey. It’s not Liam’s thirty-year-old Macallan he likes to show off, but honestly, I prefer the taste of my father’s Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve. It reminds me of home… and I’m not about to tell them that it’s the reason I’m here.

I couldn’t stay at the Walsh House tonight. Evie was still out by midday, and the place felt as empty as a fucking tomb. And since I knew I wouldn’t be getting any answers from her, it seemed pointless to hang around until she decided to show up.

The other Royals had all gone back home for their monthly check-ins with their families… so I thought why the fuck not.

“I’ve been busy.”

“With Willow?”

I throw my father a long-suffering stare. Of course they’d have heard the news. “Was there an article in the Gazette?”

My father has eyes and ears everywhere in this town. He has to know what’s happening at all times. His business—and this family’s security—depends on it.

Jet cocks an eyebrow at me. “I’m pleased. A marriage like this could keep you out of trouble… and put the Hopes in our pocket.”

I grunt into my glass of whiskey.

Of course.

The Hopes hold high-level positions in government. My father would kill—literally—for a chance to get his claws into them.

Which is probably why the thought of taking her to the Firefly Ball is so damn unappealing. Sterling was right, of course. I did it to piss off Evie. And for all I know, it’s the only reason why we spent the night together.

It might even explain why she took the collar I kept in my nightstand drawer.

“Don’t send out wedding invitations yet,” I tell him dryly. “I still have plenty of options to consider.”

Jet lets out a dark chuckle. “You get that from me.”

“What?” I’m frowning now. He didn’t take my snide comment as badly as I thought he would. I hate it when he refuses to let me pick a fight with him.

“Your stubbornness.”

I look away as I sip at the glass I brought with me, shaking my head.

“This is our cross to bear, son,” my father says. “You don’t get to choose who you marry any more than I did. That’s the way it’s always been. The way it always will be.”

“It’s bullshit,” I tell him, turning narrowed eyes on him. “What does it matter who I marry? If I marry? I’m sick of you treating me like a fucking chess piece. I’m Owen fucking Dalton. I don’t follow rules. I make them.”

Jet watches me for a long moment, taking a sip of his drink, then a drag from his cigarette. “Are you done?” he asks quietly.

I clench my jaw.

“Because if you’re done, then I’d like to remind you that you’re bound to the traditions of this family as much as I am. If you keep thinking you can walk on water, you’ll drown. Don’t you think if I could have changed the rules, I’d have married the woman I loved instead of the woman my grandfather chose for me?”

Anger burns deep in my father’s eyes, but it’s not directed toward me. Not really.

My grandfather was a fucking asshole. I know that. My father knows that. Part of me is still a little pissed that my father even let me near the sadistic old geezer, but I’m starting to think Jet didn’t have a choice in that matter either.

Perhaps my father has even less say in his life than I do?

My father grabs my shoulder, squeezing me hard. “Be glad that I’m giving you options. I might as well have been married at gunpoint. Although, honestly, you could do a lot better.”

Yeah, I could. And the name that keeps popping up is Evie’s.

I drain the rest of my whiskey, grimacing slightly at the familiar burn. I already want another. I’ll be sleeping here tonight, so I can drink as much as I want.

Might as well make it a bottle.

My father lights us both a cigar. Warm, fragrant smoke fills my mouth before I push it out between my lips and I watch the thick, pale coils forming in the air like magic.

“What’s her name?”

“Huh?” I take a drag on my cigar as my father sends me a weary look.

“It’s obviously not Willow Hope. Who’s the girl who’s actually gotten you so hot under the collar?”

I drop my gaze to my empty glass. “She’s not from around here.”

“Interesting,” Jet murmurs. “I’m not sure if I should be relieved or concerned.”

I smile over at him. “Neither. I don’t know if it was just…” I bite the inside of my lip.

“A one-night stand?” Jet laughs at my expression. “You forget I was your age once.”

“Yeah, but by my age, you already had a wife and a mistress.”

Jet chuckles quietly to himself. “And yet you still think I’m a prude.”

I roll my eyes, but I can’t help but smile a little at that. “Is this the part where you ask me when I’m planning on having kids?”

Jet leans forward. “This is the part where I remind you that every member of this family has made sacrifices for this family.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Evie

What the hell am I doing out here on a Friday night?

I look around, shivering despite the thick, woolly blanket draped over my knees. The bleachers are packed with students. Everyone’s cheering and waving around giant foam fingers like this is the damned Superbowl.

If it wasn’t for the lack of parents and other townsfolk, I could almost believe this was Pinecrest’s version of the Superbowl.

That, or this college has a grade-A pep rally team.

If there was a pep rally, I wasn’t invited.

Maybe they knew I wasn’t into sports. I watch the bulked-up football players running, dodging, and tossing a ball around on the brightly lit field… and I feel nothing.

Well, other than bored to death.

I should have brought a book or something. But it was this or stay alone at the Walsh House… and I wasn’t going to risk it when I heard Owen wasn’t coming.

It’s been like that for a whole week—the two of us actively avoiding each other. I can’t remember who did it first, but it started when one of us turned around and went the other way down a hall on campus. Since then, we’ve been dodging each other like pros.

Dodge-freak. Now that’s a sport I can get into.

Kat’s sharp elbow almost ruptures my kidney, making me groan softly with the ache at my side. “Here!” she yells over the screaming crowds. “Takes the edge off!”

She’s snuggling in beside me under the same blanket, but instead of us warming each other up, it feels like her cold body is chilling mine. No wonder she keeps sipping at her glitter-coated hip flask.

I take a swig, grimace, and take another before handing it back. I don’t ask what the brandy is supposed to diffuse—the cold, the noise, or the boredom. But hey, I guess it works pretty well on all levels, because after another few sips, I can’t feel my feet anymore.

I can thank either the brandy, or frostbite.

Ada sits next to Kat keeping up a continuous conversation about something I can’t make out, leaving me to chat with Willow beside me. She’s watching the game with such intensity I’m starting to wonder if she’s writing a research paper on football or something.

“Are we winning?” I ask her.

She turns and blinks at me as if coming back to the here-and-now. “Oh, this is just a practice match.”

I look down at the field. “So… those are all Pinecrest guys?”

“Yeah.” She points. “That’s Oz.”

“Huh.” I squint down at the guy running with the ball. “Cool.”

“I guess…” Willow doesn’t sound impressed. “But if he keeps fumbling the ball, he’s not going to be on the team much longer. Maybe if he stops partying and starts practicing, we might have a shot against Lavender this year.”

Wow.

I’ve never heard Willow sound this… feisty before. It’s a good look on her. In fact, ever since that day I overheard Owen asking her out to some ball or whatever, she’s been super perky.

“Hey, so… what’s this dance thing you’re going to with Owen?”

Willow turns to look at me with glowing eyes. “The Firefly Ball? Oh, God, Evie, it’s amazing.”

I already regret asking.

“There was a massive fire in 1808. Everything except the town hall burnt down. So every year, we hold the Firefly Ball to commemorate everyone who died in the fire.”

“That’s… grim.”

“Grim?” Willow shakes her head. “Oh, no, it’s beautiful. We light lanterns, and they float into the sky, and—”

“Ah. Fireflies.” I point at her. “Got it.”

I feel bad when she deflates. “Yeah, that’s it. You’re coming though?” Willow looks at me with those big brown eyes of hers. “You don’t need a date to attend.” But there’s a tone in her voice that suggests I might become a social pariah if I dared show up sans man. “I don’t think Wilder has a date yet. Maybe you could go with him?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say quickly. Wilder seems exactly like his name suggests—wild. I don’t need that in my life right now. I need calm and focus.

I still can’t get over my dad seeing Owen’s collar. It was such a shock I didn’t even try to explain. Not that it would have helped.

“Are you okay?” Willow asks.

I glance at her and shrug. Brandy has always had a way of making me emotional. “Yeah, I guess.”

She lays her hand on my knee, over the thick blanket. “I’m here if you want to talk.”

“That’s sweet, but I’m fine. Really.”

She looks back at the field and sighs. “The first month is always a little tough. I didn’t want to be here. But it gets better.”

I keep forgetting she’s older than me. She certainly doesn’t look it. “It’s been an adjustment. Big city, small town.”

She pats me again. “Yeah, I bet you’re missing all your old friends. Maybe they can come visit over the holidays?”

I sigh. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Sure, I had friends back in the city. At least, I thought I did. But when shit got real, they jumped ship like the rats on the Titanic.

Guess you never know who your true friends are until you find the word whore spray-painted on your locker.

I shake off the awful memory and elbow Kat so she’ll give me more of her brandy. Anything to try to push away these impending tears.

Kat takes back the flask, emptying it before tucking it away. She leans in close, whispering in my ear as the crowd jumps up to celebrate something.

“I heard you just now, talking to Willow.”

“And?”

“And you do know you’re going to the dance with me, right?”

“Uh…no.” I turn to look at her. “You never asked…”

She laughs. “Just as friends.” She hooks her arm through mine. “Us single girls, we’re stronger in a pack.”

“I’m not sure I even want to go.”

“Oh, trust me, you want to go. The appetizers alone are worth it.” She gives me a little wink. “And did I mention they have an open bar?”

“For the whole town?”

She shrugs. “The Royals like reminding us just how filthy rich they are.”

“Classy.” I shake my head as I watch the guys running around on the football field below. Someone—Oz, maybe—is holding the ball up over his head, and for some reason everyone on his team tries to bury him in a pile of bodies.

I’m guessing he scored a point.

A whistle blows. Below us, most of the crowd begins heading for the stairs.

Thank God, it’s over.

“Want a hotdog or something?” Kat asks.

“On the way home?”

She frowns. “We’re not leaving yet. It’s only halftime.”

I groan internally. “No, I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

It’s getting even colder up here. I’m of half a mind to ask for the golf cart’s keys so I can head back to my room and snuggle under the covers. “Just some cocoa.”

“Coming right up.”

Kat and Ada head for the stairs, Willow trailing along behind. I watch with a bemused curl to my lips as everyone makes way for the pair. The spectators step aside for Willow as well… simply because she’s close to the two of them.

What a life that must be.

If only I’d been that untouchable when that video went viral.

Ugh.

I close my eyes, jostling my legs up and down to create some friction, some warmth.

This is ridiculous. It’s been months. You need to get over this.

But the shame is still so fresh.

It was the look in my father’s eyes. That… disappointment. He gave up everything to move us out here. All for a fresh start. I guess, to him, it seems like I’ve gone back to my old ways.

He’s not wrong.

Fuck! Why did you have to meet Owen?

Why couldn’t he have been a normal guy? How do I manage to attract the freaks? And why do I stick around long enough for them to bring out the freak in me?

Whore.

I clench my jaw, forcing open eyes that threaten to spill tears.

That’s when I see Owen. And that’s when he sees me.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Evie

I swipe my fingers over my eyes as casually as I can, and look away like I didn’t recognize him.

Please, please, please go away.

But my frantic mantra only seems to draw him closer.

“What are you doing?” I demand when he comes to sit next to me.

He lets out a sound that might have been a chuckle. “I’m sorry, is this seat taken?”

“Yes. Kat’s sitting there.” My voice sounds too thick. I clear my throat and try to move away from him, but he’s sitting on top of Kat’s end of the blanket. I don’t want him near me, but I don’t feel like freezing, either.

“I don’t see her…”

“She’s gone to get food.”

“Then I’ll keep her spot warm for her.”

In a heartbeat, Owen’s under the blanket, his hot thigh pressed against mine. I pull my leg away, but it’s like my body’s switched to survival mode, because my leg just moves right back against him.

Fuck him for being so warm. And fuck this night for being cold. Who the hell plays sports in such cold weather?

“You had me fooled, you know,” Owen muses quietly, as if he’s talking to himself. There’s a couple sitting one row away from us, snuggling against each other with a blanket wrapped around their shoulders. They’re close enough to hear if Owen speaks up, and I guess that’s why he’s whispering. He probably doesn’t want anyone to know he’s associating with a nobody like me.

“Did I?” I don’t bother lowering my voice. “What changed?”

The couple glance back, the girl giving Owen a double-take before snuggling even tighter against her boyfriend.

Owen keeps his voice low. “Well… you had me convinced you weren’t a thief.”

My body locks up. I know where this is going.

Fuck! Not now, not here. We’re in public, for God’s sake.

“I’m sorry,” I hiss, dropping my head and angling my voice toward Owen. “I… shouldn’t have. You’ll have it as soon as we get back.”

“Why did you take it?”

I give my lips a quick swipe with the back of my hand before looking at him. His eyes are lighter tonight, courtesy of the glaring spotlights. For the first time, I notice there are tiny, dark flecks scattered through his irises. “I don’t know.”

“But you know what it is, don’t you?”

I let out a derisive snort. “It’s a fucking collar.”

Below, the girl peeks up at us, eyes wide.

Damn these nosy people! She can’t possibly make out what I’m saying, right?

Thankfully, someone decides to start playing rock music on the loudspeakers.

“A dog collar?” Owen asks.

I glare up at him. “I’m not an idiot.”

His lips quirk a tiny bit, as if my answer amuses him. “How are your bruises?”

They’ve pretty much healed, but my ass is still tender, like my flesh hasn’t quite let go of the memory of that intense pain yet.

I look away. “None of your fucking business.”

“I put them there. That makes it my business.”

“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” I snap, rising to my feet. I quickly lower my voice before I draw the attention of the couple below. “In case I haven’t made it obvious enough, I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Owen stares up at me like I’m putting on a show and he’s not sure if he should be cheering me, or throwing vegetables. “Sit down.”

“Fuck you.” I try to slip past him, but he grabs the back of my hoody and pulls me down. I land half in his lap, and quickly wriggle off, wincing as my ass hits the hard bench. He catches hold of my legs before I can swing them off his thighs.

“I didn’t say you could leave,” he growls.

I don’t know why the fuck my body reacts the way it does whenever he drops his voice that low. When it becomes that… rough. Maybe it’s instinct.

Maybe it’s something else.

“This conversation is over,” I tell him coldly. “I said I’d give you back your BDSM shit, so what the hell else is there to talk about?”

A light flickers in his eyes, and I know I made another mistake.

“My BDSM shit?” he repeats slowly. “And just what does a young, innocent thing like you know about BDSM?” His hands tighten around my legs, and he moves under me.

I’m suddenly very aware of the fact that his dick is pressing into the back of my knees.

“I told you, I’m not an idiot. Everyone knows about that stuff.”

“Do they?” He keeps holding me with one hand, but the other he slides up my thigh. With the thick, woolly blanket over us, it’s not obvious what he’s doing… but it is to me.

I shift, trying to move away from his touch, but I freeze when he digs his fingers into my thigh. “Maybe not in a tiny shithole town like this one. But in the city, they do.”

There’s heat in his gaze now, and it’s not the good kind. “Easy, girl. I’d think very carefully before insulting this town to the guy who’s going to be running it soon.”

I bark out a laugh. “Please. You?

Owen shoves his hand between my legs, firmly clasping my pussy through my jeans. A violent rush of pleasure shoots through me, and I barely hold back a gasp.

Damn it, Evie. Why the fuck can’t you keep your mouth shut?

Because he makes it so fucking easy, that’s why.

“You know what the problem is with you, toy?”

My skin tightens, the hairs on the back of my neck lifting. “My name is Evie.”

“Your problem is that no one’s ever tried to discipline you before. You run wild, doing whatever the fuck you want, when you want.”

I let out another sarcastic laugh, but I freeze when suddenly Owen pops open my jeans with a twist of his hand. It happens so quickly that I’ve barely latched onto his wrist before he has his hand down the front of my pants.

“Mmm,” he murmurs, using the grip on my legs to drag me closer to him. “You’re so warm, toy.”

“Owen! What are you doing? Someone will see.” I yank at his wrist, trying to pull his hand out.

“You’re the one drawing attention, not me.”

From the corner of my eye, I see the couple below us turning to look back. “Fuck!” I whisper through clenched teeth.

“If you make a fuss, your punishment will just be worse.”

“My punishment?” There’s a shrill edge to my voice. “What the hell for?”

Owen’s eyes hood as he draws a slow circle around my clit. “Theft.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

I bite down on my lip as I slowly lower my head onto his shoulder. He changes his grip, sliding his arm around my waist and drawing me even closer to him.

From a casual glance, we look like just another couple snuggling against each other from the cold. But in reality, he has me trapped and perfectly poised for whatever torture he has in mind.

Keeping me close, Owen cradles me against his chest, forcing me to nuzzle into the side of his neck. “See, toy? I can be kind.”

He presses his thumb against my clit. “I can be nice.

I keep my jaw locked, refusing to give him a whimper or a moan.

“Now open your legs and let me in,” he rasps.

I tip my head back, glaring at him. But when I open my mouth to tell him to go to hell, he ducks down and kisses me.

I don’t even realize I’m opening my thighs until he slides his hand down between my legs, gliding his palm over my pussy. He groans against my mouth, whispering, “I love how wet you get for me, toy,” against my lips.

Before, I’d been latched onto his wrist, trying to pull him out from between my legs. Now I grab the collar of his hoody, twisting my hand in the fabric, drawing him even closer.

If he’s going to do this to me—here, now—then fuck it.

I’m at least going to try to enjoy it. I slowly buck into his cupped hand, and the groan I receive in return has me fucking gushing.

“Christ,” he mutters as he slides a finger inside me. “If you had any idea how badly I want to fuck you right now…”

The music starts fading away. At first, I think it’s because Owen’s finger is stroking me just right, or the way the heel of his hand grinds against my clit… but then I realize it’s because halftime is over.

I peek past him at the stairs. People are starting to come back from the concession stands, loaded up with snacks and drinks for the second half of the game.

I see Kat’s blue hair at the bottom of the stairs, but thankfully she’s talking to Ada and hasn’t looked up yet.

“Owen! They’re coming back!”

He chuckles and starts fingering me a little faster. “Then I suggest you hurry up and come on my fingers before they get here, toy.”

What the actual fuck?

I tip my head back to stare at him in shock, and realize he’s not joking.

Not even a little.

So, I slide my hands behind his neck, and I inch my thighs open a little more, and I kiss him.

He rumbles against my mouth like a pleased bear, his fingers working my pussy into a frenzy as he strokes my clit and g-spot in unison.

“Hurry, toy,” he murmurs, breaking our kiss. “They’re almost here.”

I feel his cock hardening under my knees, but I’m not there yet. Not even close. “I can’t. Owen, please, I can’t.”

“You think you have a choice in this?”

I mewl against his lips as he starts stroking my asshole. I’m so wet down there, his finger glides effortlessly over my skin.

Even the threat of him putting a finger in my ass has the power to make me come. I buck into his hand, no longer caring if it’s obvious what’s happening. I can’t help it—the aching throb in my core is controlling me now. There’s a fire raging inside me, and the only way to quench it is to come.

“That’s it,” Owen croons into my ear as I struggle not to yell through my climax. “Who’s my good girl?”

“Fuck,” I whisper, frantically grinding my pussy against his hand. “Jesus—fuck.”

“Such a dirty mouth,” Owen comments calmly as he pulls his hand out of my pants. “Now button up your jeans before someone sees how naughty you’ve been.”

My hands tremble and shake, but somehow I manage to button my fly. I’m still fumbling with it when Owen stands.

I tip my head back, staring up at him as he towers over me with his back to the stairs.

He grabs my chin hard enough to bring tears in my eyes. “A trade,” he says, as he slowly brings up the hand he was fingering me with. I watch, mesmerized, as he licks his thumb and index finger with precision. “Tomorrow, you’ll bring me back the collar. And I’ll give you back your key.”

When I say nothing, because I’m still trying to catch my breath, he smiles and releases me.

“Hey, that’s my seat,” Kat says from right behind him.

“I was just leaving,” Owen says, though his eyes remain fixed upon me.

Kat stares daggers at Owen’s back as he moves past her, then Ada, then Willow. Willow twiddles her fingers at him, but he doesn’t even acknowledge her.

“Smarmy fuck,” Kat mutters as she drops down beside me. She gives me a onceover, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Was he talking shit to you?”

I manage to shake my head, swallowing hard as I will away the pleasure flooding through me.

“Because you look like a car wreck, Evie. If he’s giving you shit, I’ll—”

“It’s fine. I’m fine.” I wave away her concern before pointing at the cup in her hand. “Is that mine?”

“Yeah.” She hands it over, but there’s still a hint of suspicion on her face. “Don’t let him get to you,” she says. “If all you wanted was a one-night stand, then he’s got to get over himself and accept that.”

I blush crimson, and try to burrow my face in the steaming cup of cocoa. “Okay.”

“I mean it.” She sits back with a soft grunt, snuggling under the blanket with me again. “That guy thinks he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.”

She looks over at me when I start giggling. “What’s so funny?”

Chapter Thirty

Owen

I can still smell her, the taste of her essence still on my tongue. I should have stayed with the guys until the end of the game, but I couldn’t bear being so close to Evie. Not after what I’d done to her. Not with all the things I still want to do to her.

BDSM.

Hearing her say that in her sweet voice. All I could think about was pulling her onto my lap and shoving my cock in that dripping wet pussy of hers, even with an audience. Even at the risk that I’d just stir up shit from the past.

It’s better that I’m here.

It’s better that she’s there.

Because now, I can finally figure out just what the hell this key unlocks.

As if I was going to give it back to her without first discovering its significance.

There’s a rueful smile on my face as I make my way down the girls’ hallway. Evie has a key to her room, and sure enough, she’s gone and locked her door. But if I know Kat, there’s a slim chance she’d have forgotten to lock hers. But Kat doesn’t have a key. And if I’m not mistaken…

I smile when her handle turns, and then grimace at the messy floor.

Picking my way over Kat’s things—and possibly even some of Wilder’s if that rumpled, sweat-stained Broncos shirt is anything to go by—I open the door leading to Evie and Kat’s shared bathroom.

And then I let myself into Evie’s room.

It doesn’t take me long to find what I’m looking for. She hid it along with the collar in the bottom of her chest of drawers, behind some sneakers. It seems she didn’t expect me to come snooping. At least I’ve made her realize there are consequences for those that do.

Back in my room, I sit on my bed and use Evie’s tiny key to unlock the diary.

I have no idea how to do this, but my therapist said this would help. So here goes nothing…

Frowning, I turn the page.

Dear Diary…

I don’t know how long I sit there, scanning page after page of Evie’s life, but when I run out of words, my mouth is dry and my body is hunched over like an old man’s.

Running a hand down my face, I snap the book closed and drop it into my lap, looking up and staring at nothing as I process everything I just read.

What. The. Fuck?

I’m still reeling mentally when I hear the distant bang of a door. Oz’s voice, demanding someone get him a beer.

The second half must not have gone as well as the first. Which means there won’t be any celebrations tonight.

I’ve run out of time.

I stalk out of my room, heading for the girls’ hallway when I spot Evie from the corner of my eye. Spinning around, I head back to my room. If she sees me, she doesn’t call out. Apparently, we’re back to avoiding each other again.

Her diary weighs a ton in my hand.

I want to hate myself for reading it, but it explains so much that I’m glad I did. I shove it under my mattress and sit down on top of it, as if I’m trying to stop it getting away.

My mind is as restless as my body as I wait for the Walsh House to go to sleep. At two in the morning, I hear Oz’s door slam. I force myself to wait another hour before going back to Evie’s room.

Her door is locked.

Kat’s, of course, isn’t.

She’s not in her bed, but that’s no surprise. From what I’ve witnessed the past few weeks she’s been living with us, Kat prefers passing out on the couch downstairs. Judging from the state her room is in, I’m not surprised.

I step through the bathroom and into Evie’s room, closing all the doors behind me.

It’s pitch black in here with the drapes drawn, but I’ve memorized the layout of her room. I inch over the floor, moving slowly in case she left a pair of shoes or some clothes lying around, and I return her diary to the drawer.

Her quiet breathing never changes. I assume she’s wiped out after tonight’s events. I smile to myself, turning with every intention of heading out the bathroom door again.

But then her phone lights up with a soft buzz, and she rolls over to take it off her nightstand with a muttered, “What?”

I stand still, hoping that to her, I’m just another shadow. She stares groggily at her phone for a moment before turning off the screen and dropping it back on her nightstand. She falls back on the bed, her hands clapped over her face.

I take the opportunity to slide behind the curtains. I can feel the cold night air pressing in against the windowpane at my back, but this old house’s central heating still works just fine. Evie’s room is warm.

My body is pulsing with adrenalin. I haven’t played cat-and-mouse like this since I was a fucking kid. I’m smiling, and I have no idea if I want her to catch me out, or if I want to get away scot-free.

She won’t see me here. As soon as she’s asleep, I can—

Evie groans as she rises to her feet, and I stop breathing when she passes within a yard of me, presumably heading for the bathroom to piss.

She comes back and gets back under the covers. She left the door open a crack. The bathroom light casts a slender rectangle of illumination across her bedroom floor—and over her bed. I’m not sure if it’s on purpose, but it’s probably the reason she can’t get settled. She keeps twisting around, plumping her pillow, pushing hair out of her face, yanking at her clothes.

Eventually, she sits up and pulls her sweater over her head, going back under the covers wearing just a tank top. I watch all of this from the window, a strange thrill coursing through me at watching Evie go about her life without realizing I’m so close.

It feels so wrong. So fucking twisted. Debauched.

I love it.

She lets out a soft grunt and goes still. I wait a few minutes to make sure she’s drifted off before heading for the bathroom door. With the light on, all she’d have to do is turn her head and she’d see me silhouetted in the doorway.

I’m barely out from behind the curtain when she rolls onto her back and lets out a low growl. “Fuck you, Owen.”

Shock pumps through my veins. She hasn’t looked in my direction. Did I make a noise? But when she brings her legs up, and I see her hand moving under the covers, I realize she’s not cursing me. It’s what I did to her earlier tonight that’s got her all hot and bothered.

Jesus Christ.

I have a clear view of her bed from where I’m hiding, and she has no reason to hide what she’s doing—thinking she’s alone—so her hand humps up under the covers without a care, despite the glow from the bathroom light falling over her bed.

“Fuck you and your stupid rules,” she mutters softly. Then a soft moan. Her hips start moving, her rhythm changing. “Mmm. Mmm.”

Fuck my life.

This is the purest form of torture I’ve ever experienced. This has nothing on blue balls. I grab my dick through my sweatpants, giving myself a hard squeeze, but it just makes matters worse.

I expect it to be over in seconds, but she’s taking her sweet fucking time.

You should leave.

I almost laugh at the thought. Of course I should, but why the fuck would I? I slide my hand inside my pants and grab my dick, slowly stroking my rock-hard shaft.

Evie’s knees drift apart, her hand moving fast, then slow, as she edges herself.

This has gone way past wrong. This is downright fucking criminal.

She changes hands, and then yanks the covers down to her feet like they’re in the way. She’s just wearing panties and the tank top now, and at first, she slides her hand under her underwear, but then that seems to annoy her, and she shoves them down onto her thighs, baring her pussy.

Gripping my dick and bringing myself closer and closer to the edge, I get to watch as she teases herself toward a climax.

Her moans speed up, as does her hand, and I’m just about to come in my fucking pants when she stops. For a moment, I think she’s done, but then she slips her hand even lower, and I realize she’s fingering herself.

She makes a surprised sound. When she lifts her hand, I can see wetness gleaming on her fingertips.

I can’t take it anymore. I slip out from behind the curtain and step carefully to the bathroom door. I grab the handle and yank it closed.

The room plunges into darkness. Evie gasps. I can’t see shit, but I can hear her sitting up in bed, the covers rustling as she pulls them back up. I stand frozen in place, hoping she can’t see me in the dark. After a second or two she lets out a soft sigh.

She mutters softly to herself as she turns around on the bed, as if she’s pissed that a draft blew the door closed and ended her masturbation session.

I smile as I creep over to her bed. She has her back turned to the room, the covers pulled up to her shoulders. Her white hair spills over the pillow, a beacon in the night, and I’m drawn to it like a fucking magnet.

But I just stand there, a hand wrapped around my cock, waiting until her breathing becomes slow and even as she falls into deeper sleep.

I grab the edge of her sheets and slip them down an inch. She shifts a little, lets out a sigh. I draw the sheet down another inch. Nothing.

Gently, I ease my weight down onto the bed behind her. She stirs a little, takes a deep breath, and groggily pulls the sheet back up her arm.

I draw the sheet over my body, and inch up against her without a response from Evie. But when I slide my hand over her hip and pull her close, she wakes up with a gasp.

My hand shoots up, clapping over her mouth. “Ssh,” I whisper.

She jerks, but before she can kick me, I wrap my legs around hers. I roll onto my back, dragging her on top of me, one arm cinched over her belly, my other hand still glued over her mouth. She wriggles furiously on top of me, her ass grinding against my dick. Then Evie goes still, presumably at feeling my erection under her.

The hot breath panting from her nose warms my fingers as I move my hips, letting her feel every inch of my hard cock against her ass.

“I was watching you,” I murmur into her ear before licking it. “I hope it was me you were thinking about when you got so wet.”

She squirms again, but goes still again when I tighten my hand on her belly.

“How about the real thing, Evie?” I grind into her again. “You can still pretend it’s a dream, if you want.”

She makes an angry sound against my hand.

“Stop struggling, or I’ll be here all night.”

Evie goes still, her breath frantic against my hand.

“Take off your underwear.”

She releases her grip on my arms, where she’d been struggling to pull me loose, and slowly complies. The room is too dark to see much, but I can make out a faint suggestion of that pale fabric sliding over her skin.

When she’s kicked off the underwear, I wrap my legs around hers and force her thighs apart with a sudden jerk. She gasps, stiffening in my grip before relaxing.

Her body is a solid weight upon me, and God it feels good. She fits me just right—her head tucked in beside mine, my shaft nestling in the valley between her soft buttocks.

I drop my hips, shifting so that the head of my cock is touching her pussy. “Touch yourself again, like you were just doing.”

She’s warm against me, and I wonder how much of that is shame at being caught masturbating. Her muscles twitch as she starts rubbing her clit, and I press myself harder against her.

“Open that juicy cunt of yours so I can feel how wet you are.”

She lets out a ragged breath against my hand, and reaches down between her legs. Her fingers brush my crown as she fumbles with her lips to open her pussy.

Arousal coats the tip of my dick as I glide it over her clenched entrance. She moans against my hand, her hips tilting down to give me better access. With my legs keeping her in place, I’m at the perfect angle to drive into her.

And her back arches when I do.

“Fuck, Evie,” I whisper into her ear as I fill her. “All of that, for me?” I grind into her, her juices drenching my cock as her pussy slowly stretches to accommodate me.

I drag my hand away from her mouth, pinching her nipple hard enough to make her gasp. Then I glide my fingers down her belly and start rubbing her clit.

She starts tilting and rocking her hips, trying to fuck my cock, but I’ve got her trapped by my legs.

“I’ll give you what you want,” I tell her, nipping her earlobe. “But first, you need to give me what I want.”

I press harder into her, but my dick is about an inch too big for her tight little pussy. I can feel myself hitting her cervix, and she groans as I grind my cock into her again and again.

I circle her clit with my fingers, then massage it. Her breath becomes a pant as she squirms and writhes on top of me. She tries to grab my wrist, but I shake her off.

“You’d better peel open your little cunt for me before I rip it,” I growl.

She slides her hands down, her fingers brushing the base of my cock as she holds herself open for me.

“Good girl.” I reward her by working her clit with enough force to make her start squirming.

“I’m close,” she moans.

“And?”

She groans, trying to rock against my dick again. “Please, Owen, can I come?”

Jesus Christ.

Her sweet request makes my balls tighten. I fight back the urge to come, and instead strum Evie’s clit. When I clamp my teeth down on her ear, her back arches off my belly and I feel her tunnel tightens around my cock as she comes.

Slick arousal gushes into my lap, soaking my cock and balls.

I can’t fight it anymore. I grab Evie’s hips and hold her still as I start rutting her like a wild animal. Every thrust forces a beastly grunt from my lips.

“Owen, fuck, fuck!” She reaches down and grabs my balls, squeezing them so hard I see stars.

With a muted growl, I roll over, pinning her under me on the bed. There’s no space between our bodies as I mount her from behind, but this way I have the plump swell of her ass to fuck against. There’s such glorious friction between her tightly clenched thighs that I don’t even bother wrenching her legs open. I fuck her through her closed legs.

Fuck knows, she’s wet enough.

As I’m about to come, I sit up just enough to get my hand between us, and I force my finger into her impossibly tight little hole.

She lets out a strangled yell, pushing up off the bed as she bucks her hips into me. My cock hits home, slamming into her womb as I fuck her asshole with my finger.

My seed floods her pussy. I slam into her, forcing it deeper, filling her with as much of my cock as I can fit into her tight, wet heat.

Her asshole clenches hard upon my finger, and she comes again with a sob.

I fuck her mercilessly as I ride out my own climax, unable—unwilling—to stop until I’d forced every drop of cum deep inside her.

Blood sings in my ears. I’m on such a high, I can taste the fucking stars.

It’s surreal. Impossible. Utterly fantastic.

And I know why.

I roll us onto our sides and wrap my arms around Evie, kissing her damp shoulder, her neck, her ear.

“You’re mine,” I rumble, holding her even tighter.

She moves against me, lets out a tiny whimper. “We can’t…”

“You think I give a fuck about what we can and can’t do?”

She moves again, and her body shudders. When I realize she’s crying, I nuzzle my face into her neck. “Shh. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“You can’t say that,” she says in a broken voice. “You don’t know—”

“I do, Evie.” I inhale the scent of her as I graze my teeth over her jaw. “I was meant to find you. And you… you were meant to find me.”

I wish I could see her face. I wish she’d speak. But she’s just lying there, shuddering. I move against her, and she goes still.

My dick is hard again. I’m already aching to be back inside her, filling her.

And I know why.

“You make it sound so easy,” she whispers. “Like we can just do whatever we want. But we can’t, Owen. I can’t. I made a promise.”

I keep quiet. I know about her promise. I know everything.

We’re silent for a long moment before Evie says, “I wish time travel actually existed. That I could go back and make different decisions. Maybe I’d have turned out different, too.”

“Oh, my girl. I never want you to change.” I press my mouth to hers, tasting her sweet lips. “You’re absolutely fucking perfect.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Evie

I sit staring at my textbook, my notes a scribbled mess beside the thick volume. I’ve been trying to study for over an hour, but nothing is sinking in.

It’s Sunday. I was supposed to join everyone else at the cafeteria for lunch, but I stayed behind. Instead, I stood at the window in the hall and watched them all leave.

Even Owen.

I don’t know what time he slipped out of my room last night, but I woke up alone.

Confused.

Twice, I’ve slept with him.

Twice, I’ve woken up and regretted it.

But when I rolled over and saw he was gone, I wanted to go find him and do it again.

Do him again.

I swipe my hand over my study desk with a frustrated growl, sending everything clattering to the floor. Glancing over my shoulder, I open the drawer and take out Owen’s collar, running it through my fingers.

Now that he’s gone, I have the perfect opportunity to replace this.

And maybe have another look for your key.

A fair trade.

I stand, turn… and walk straight into Owen’s chest.

My gasp of surprise has barely left my lips before he kisses me.

In an instant, my will crumbles. I throw my arms around his neck and kiss him back, bending my body against his. My core clenches needily, already anticipating him touching me, filling me.

But he pulls back to look at the collar dangling from my hand.

“I… was about to go put it back in your room.”

His eyes narrow, but there’s a tiny gleam of amusement in them too. “I obviously haven’t punished you enough for being a snoop. When will you learn?”

My cheeks grow warm at the reminder, and I take a hurried step back, crashing into my study table in an effort to stay out of reach. “I just going to—”

The bemused look leaves his eyes. He tucks the collar into his pocket and pulls out my key.

My diary key.

“Here.”

There’s a faint tremble in my fingers when I hold out my hand. “You lied to me.”

He tilts his head. “I wasn’t ready to let go of it yet.”

“And now you are? What changed?” I look up at him, searching his face for the reason, sure he won’t give it to me.

Owen drops his eyes. When he looks up, there’s a curl to his lips. “Come to the ball with me.”

“W-what?”

“The Dance of the Fireflies this weekend.” He tucks my hair behind my ear, his touch sending goosebumps over my skin. “I want you to be my date.”

My heart pumps faster. “But… I thought you were going with Willow.”

“I only did that to make you jealous.” His smile brightens. “I’m still not sure if it worked.”

“It definitely didn’t work,” I lie, crossing my arms over my chest and trying to look defiant. “And why the hell would I go to some dance with you, anyway?” I shake my fist at him, the one curled around my key. “You lied to me. You beat me. You—” I force myself to be silent, but the rest of the sentence still resonates in my head.

You made me feel things for you.

Of all the things he’d done, that last one is the worst. I can’t afford to be distracted right now. I’m supposed to be getting my life back on track. I could have left it at two one-night stands and some weird petting in between, but going on a date with Owen is crossing a line. That would be edging dangerously close to a relationship—and I’m not ready for that yet.

Not after how badly my last one ended.

“I want you to come, Evie.”

Maybe if he’d chosen different words, he might have persuaded me. But he sounds exactly like he did last night at the football game when he bulldozed over my objections at having an orgasm in public.

He does whatever the fuck he wants. He doesn’t care about anyone else but himself. I’d have to be a fucking idiot to believe anything else.

Owen watches me like my thoughts are scrolling across my face for him to read. I blush and drop my chin, giving my lips a quick swipe.

“I’ve… been a bad man,” he says quietly. His fingers grasp my chin, lifting my head so he can look into my eyes. “I’ve demanded, instead of asking. I’ve taken, instead of giving.” His chest rises as he draws a heavy breath, and when he lets it out it warms my face. “Let me make it up to you, Evie.”

At least he’s stopped calling you toy.

For now.

I pull my chin out of his grip. “No. I have studying to do.”

His eyes move to the pile of books lying on the carpet. “I can see why you’re having trouble. Might I suggest you read them instead of throwing them on the floor?”

He laughs when I punch his arm, hurriedly lifting a hand to ward off more violence from me. “Okay, okay! Bad joke. But seriously. I could always tutor you.”

“Pfft. You?” I cross my arms again, leaning back on one foot. “You’d have to be able to keep your hands off me, and I don’t see any evidence that’s got a chance in hell of happening.”

There’s a dark smile on his lips now.

It makes me blush and drop my gaze to the floor, but I’m determined to resist his charm. “No, Owen. I’m not going to the stupid dance.”

“Ball.”

“Whatever.” I throw my hands out. “I don’t have anything to wear, and from what Kat tells me, I’d be turned away if I show up in anything other than designer clothes.”

This time when he steps forward, I stand my ground. Not just because I’m sick of retreating like a coward, but because I miss his warmth. I fell asleep in his arms last night, and I’ve never felt as safe, and as warm… and as cherished before in my life.

Not that it matters. You were probably still coming off your high.

Owen slides a hand around the back of my neck, dropping his head until our lips are a breath apart. “Do you really think I’d invite you the Firefly Ball and not buy you a dress?” He presses his lips to mine just long enough to warm them, and then steps back.

“I never said yes…”

He nods, a strange light in his eyes. “I won’t demand that you obey me.” He puts a hand in his pocket and takes out the collar, running it through his fingers almost exactly like I did. “This time, the choice is yours.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Owen

“Who the fuck are you looking for?” Sterling asks, adjusting the bow on his tuxedo for the nineteenth time. “Are you expecting some hot piece of ass to materialize? This isn’t Cinderella.”

I would never admit it out loud—especially to Sterling—but I almost wish it was. I only watched the movie once when I was a kid, but I remember the gist of it. Guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy sets out on quest to find girl—and it involves a glass shoe for some reason. Girl arrives at the ball, and guy and girl are reunited.

There was something about a pumpkin too. Maybe they had pie?

I grab Sterling’s joint from his mouth and take a long tug at it. “How long do we have to wait out here?”

Liam huffs. “Until our balls have frozen off.”

“Yeah, well, that’s your cross to bear, buddy,” Sterling says, giving Liam a friendly pat on the shoulder. “But the rest of us don’t have to lose a testicle just because your fiancée hates you.” He looks around at me, Oz, and Wilder. “What do you say we go hit that open bar where it hurts?”

We’re all in black tuxedos except Liam. Apparently, Ada forced him to wear white because it sets off her skin or hair or some bullshit. And he’s worried he’ll be freezing his balls off out here? I think he should check and see if they’re still attached. I have a feeling Ada’s got them stashed in her fucking purse.

I must admit, the event organizers did an excellent job this year. It’s custom for the Dance of the Fireflies Ball to be held in the courtyard of Pinecrest University.

In the center of the courtyard, the event organizers built a massive, tented dance area on a low platform. The trees surrounding the area have been strung with hundreds of red and orange fairy lights that twinkle randomly against the black of night.

We’re standing on a path that leads from the front entrance through the now-empty cafeteria, and out into the quad.

“You go,” I tell Sterling. “Someone’s got to be here to perform the amputation once the frostbite sets in.”

Liam lets out another bitter grunt. “Fucking bitch.”

The other Royals are already walking away, Sterling’s arms thrown over the other two as he leads them into the cafeteria. Just before they step inside, they each pull down their red-and-gold masks.

The ball’s traditional masks cover just the eyes—a molded strip of red satin dotted with hundreds of tiny black beads in intricate, swirling patterns. Black to represent the coal, red the fire.

Liam takes another drag of his cigarette before crushing it out under his heel. “She wants me to quit,” he says quietly. “Says I can’t keep smoking around her once we’re married.”

“I suppose you’ll live an extra decade or two if you listen to her.”

“Yeah,” Liam says through a dry laugh. “But who the fuck would want to live longer when they’re married to a cunt like her?”

I turn my back on the walkway and the cars lining up around the university’s circular drive. We have a clear view of all the people entering the campus, but we’re far enough out of the way that no one has to swerve to go around us. Even so, I lower my voice so no one can eavesdrop.

Many of the people glance at the two of us when they walk past. Nights like this, gossip spreads like the fucking Bubonic plague.

“You know it’s not written in stone, right?” I murmur to Liam. “No matter what they say, your parents can’t force you to marry Ada.”

“Yeah?” Liam’s eyebrows twitch as his mouth twists into a grim line. “You think there’s someone better out there for me, Dalton? You think I’ll be walking in the street one day and happen to spot my soulmate?” Every word is laced with acidic spite. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken with him. The first time since Evie moved to town, in fact. I didn’t realize he was feeling this low.

“It’s obvious you’re going to be miserable with her,” I say, ignoring the soulmate quip. “So, why settle down now? Tell your parents you want to take a year to travel or something. Maybe you’ll meet someone better in Europe, or a different state?”

“That might fly with your folks, but trust me—my father’s not done using me yet.”

I want to argue, but after the talk I had with my father the other night, I know Liam and I are in essentially the same boat. As much as I hate being compared to him, we are both bound by tradition.

Still, I’d like to think he’s got a little more wriggle room than I do.

“He can’t hold a gun to your head, Liam. Just tell him—”

Liam rams a finger into my chest, drawing close, until we’re almost nose to nose. “My trust fund, gone. My seat at Bailey Inc., gone. Do you really think I’d have put that fucking rock on Ada’s finger if I had a choice in the matter?”

I suddenly feel sick to my stomach. “Liam… I had no idea—”

“No, you didn’t.” He straightens and tugs on the lapels of his tuxedo, glancing around as if he’s wondering if anyone noticed him losing his cool for a microsecond. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was his biggest concern right now.

After what he’d just said, I couldn’t fault him for that either.

“I’m sorry, man.” I swipe a hand through my hair. “I’ve been distracted. But if you ever want to talk, I’m—”

Liam’s eyes fix on something behind me. “Yeah, sure. Let’s grab a beer sometime. You can tell me there’s hope, then I can set you straight.” He knocks into my shoulder as he walks past me, fingering the button on his tuxedo. I turn to watch him, frowning at the dark tone in his voice, but then my eyes move past his tall frame to the group of girls heading up the walk toward him.

The first one I see is Ada. But that was a strategically planned move on her part, because she’s walking at least two paces ahead of the other girls. And her dress isn’t white, it’s luminous.

Liam obscures her a moment later, turning to link his arm with hers. Our eyes meet one last time before he passes me, and the bitter resignation in them makes my chest grow tight.

But I don’t have any time to process that before Kat’s laugh draws my attention back to the rest of the girls. She has her arm linked with Evie’s and from the way they’re swaying and giggling, they both look wasted. It should detract from how gorgeous Evie looks, but it doesn’t.

She literally takes my breath away and leaves me wheezing for air.

I chose a deep sapphire gown for her. Low, off the shoulder, with a tightly cinched waist. It sets off her curves in a way I could only have imagined. But the crowning glory—literally—is her hair.

She’s wearing it loose, two small, messy braids clasped at the back of her head.

Kat says something that makes Evie throw back her head and laugh, and when she straightens, our eyes lock.

That’s when the sparkle around her neck catches my eye. My heart gives a hard thump as my gaze slides down her throat.

She’s wearing a diamond-encrusted choker set with a sapphire at her throat.

But we both know it’s not a choker. Not really. Those stones hide a strong, supple strip of leather. And hidden behind her hair is a silver loop, the kind you can attach a leash to.

“Hi, Owen!” a voice pipes up beside me.

I swallow, unable to tear my eyes off Evie’s throat. “Hi.”

“So… uh… shall we go inside? It’s pretty cold out here.”

My gaze shifts back to Evie. She’s frowning at me now, her eyes darting to my side. To where the voice is coming from. She walks slower and slower, until she comes to a halt. Kat takes a second to realize they’ve stopped, whirling around with a giggle to face me.

“Yo, whatsup, Dalton!” she crows, giving me the peace sign. Then her eyes move to my side, and she frowns too.

I turn, staring down at Willow. She’s wearing a pale pink dress, her hair up in a tight bun. Her lipstick is bright red, and doesn’t go with anything she’s wearing, but she’s grinning, and there’s a sparkle in her eyes…

Except now it’s fading.

Every second I stare down at her, trying to figure out why I feel this steadily encroaching sense of dread, that light grows dimmer and dimmer.

“Oh, shit.” I lift my hand. “Willow… I…”

She blinks rapidly. “What is it?” But she already knows. Fuck it, everyone knows.

I turn and give Evie a wide-eyed stare. “I forgot.” I don’t know if I’m speaking to Evie or Willow.

“You… forgot?” Willow’s voice trembles on the point of breaking. “About… me?”

Evie’s face drains of color. There’s a flash of sympathy, but then all I see is disgust. She grabs Kat’s arm and pulls her away.

“That’s low, Dalton, even for you!” Kat calls out before she and Evie disappear inside.

I turn to face Willow, grabbing her arm as she twists away. “Willow, I’m sorry. It totally slipped my mind.”

A tear races down the girl’s cheek when she shakes her head. “It’s okay,” she mumbles through trembling lips. “I sh-should have ch-checked first. M-My fault.”

“No, Willow, this isn’t—”

But she pulls loose and hurries inside, and all I can think about is the expression on Evie’s face.

I rush after her, shouldering my way through the press of people waiting to enter the main tent. My eyes work feverishly, scanning for Evie’s white or Kat’s blue hair, finding neither.

My foot crunches on something lying on the floor and instinct tells me to stop and see what it is.

When I bend down and pick up Evie’s sapphire collar, my blood runs cold. Turns to stone.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Evie

“Here,” Kat says, ramming a champagne glass into my hand. “Don’t know about you, but I’ve got to get this sour taste out of my mouth.”

My lips feel numb as the glass touches them. “I can’t believe he did that.”

“Really?” Kat says through a snort. “You’ve experienced his douchebaggery firsthand. What the hell made you think he was a nice guy?”

“Fucked if I know.” I swallow half the champagne in a gulp, and then the rest, clapping a hand over my mouth to soften the inevitable belch.

“Come.” Kat links arms with me again and drags me toward the hallway we just came in through. “We need to find Willow and make sure she’s okay.”

“I don’t want to see her,” I say, pulling back on Kat’s arm. “I feel like shit.”

You? Why? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“We were getting ready together,” I murmur. There’s a brass band playing some upbeat jazz music on the other side of the dance floor, but closer to the entrance where we came in, the music is pretty much drowned out by the white noise of people chatting and laughing and clinking glasses. “I could have said something, but I was so wrapped up in myself, I didn’t even think about it.”

The dress had caught me off guard. It was delivered on Thursday afternoon wrapped in a big, shimmery white box. I had no intention of opening when I realized what it must be… but later that night after supper, my resolve weakened.

My knees went weak when I saw the gorgeous fabric. I couldn’t help trying it on. I felt like a damn princess.

I still do.

But I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going to the ball with Owen, and he couldn’t buy my affection with a silly dress. I kept up that mantra as I took it off and carefully set it back in the box.

That’s when I noticed the second, smaller box inside. I thought it was maybe a pair of earrings or something to go with the dress. I wasn’t prepared for the stunning diamond and sapphire collar I found inside.

“This wasn’t you, Evie. Owen’s a fucking dick. The Royals all think they can move people around like pawns, and he’s the worst.” Kat pushes up to her tiptoes. “I think I see her!” But she quickly drops down again. “No, not her. Shit. She looked really upset.”

“Let’s split up.” I grab another glass of champagne from a passing waitress and point down the hallway. “I’ll head toward the library. You check the girls’ bathroom.”

I hike up my dress and slip off my shoes, hurrying through the closest entrance—the girls’ common room. There’s still an X of yellow Caution tape blocking out the entrance to the stairs. I doubt Willow would have gone up there. I take the hall that leads to the library. Only a handful of lights have been turned on, the gloomy passage more than a little eerie in the middle of the night.

My paranoia is at full strength tonight… because it seems like someone’s following me. But every time I turn to look over my shoulder, there’s no one there.

Unless they’re hiding in the shadows.

It feels like there’s a dozen bees trapped in my stomach by the time I reach the library. It’s the first time I’ve seen the doors closed since I started studying at the university, but I check to make sure they’re locked anyway.

Damn it. I’d really thought Willow would—

“You look breathtaking.”

I spin on my heel, a hand on my heart as it gives a hard thump against my breastbone. Owen is standing a few yards away. A lock of hair has fallen over his forehead, and when he moves forward, there’s a hint of unsteadiness in his steps.

“What are you doing here?” I don’t realize I’m backing up until my hands brush the library door. I flatten my palms, trying to force myself to hurry down the hall and away from Owen, but it feels ridiculous to run from him. Despite the darkness in his eyes. Despite the way he keeps clenching his fist.

Something catches the light, and I realize he’s holding the collar I dropped.

I bite my lower lip, my fingers rising to brush my throat. “I’m sorry. It felt like it was suffocating me. I know it was expensive, but I couldn’t—”

“This?” Owen runs his thumb over the big sapphire set in the middle of the collar. “I couldn’t care less about how much it cost.”

He’s close enough that I can catch his scent. He’s wearing different cologne tonight, something heady and so, so intoxicating. Was it planned? Or is it a scent he only wears to special events?

Or did he wear it just for you?

My mouth goes dry at the thought. The idea of him going to such lengths to attract my attention… I don’t know how I feel about it.

Not that it matters. It’s probably a good thing he followed me, that we’re alone in this dimly lit hallway. This is the best place to end things, once and for all.

When he takes a step closer, I lift a hand to ward him off. “Stay away from me.”

He tilts his head. “Is this about Willow? Because I told you, that wasn’t on purpose.” He gives me a grim smile. “If you hadn’t been so damned distracting, I might have remembered to cancel with her.”

“It’s got nothing to do with her. You’re no good for me, Owen. I don’t like who I am when I’m with you. I didn’t come here for… that. I came here to—”

“So why did you put on the collar?” He ignores my warning and comes closer anyway, until he’s in reach to toy with a lock of my hair that’s fallen over my shoulder. “Why did you put on the dress? Why are you here, Evie?”

I raise my chin, glaring at him with as much defiance as I can muster. “You don’t own me, Owen. I can go where I please in this town without asking your permission.” I pluck at the low neckline of the dress, drawing Owen’s gaze for a millisecond before he looks back up at me. “And unless I’m sorely mistaken, this dress was a gift. I could have thrown it away, but I decided to wear it, because I look fucking good in it.”

His eyes hood as he swipes the tip of his tongue over his lips. “Can’t argue with that,” he says, a touch hoarsely. He brushes his knuckles down the ridge of my throat. “But the collar? You know that wasn’t a gift. That… that was an invitation, Evie.”

I step away from the door, bringing our bodies into close contact as I tip my head back to stare up at him. “I’ll admit you had me fooled. For a moment there, I saw a considerate, generous man who was done playing with me like a toy.”

There’s the tiniest flinch on his face at my words, but I push on before I lose my nerve.

“But people don’t change, Owen. You, especially.” I slowly reach down and grab the edge of the collar, drawing it out of his hands. Then I hold it up to one side like a dead rat. “You’ll never stop thinking of me as your plaything. You made that crystal clear when you put this in the box with the dress. I never had a choice. It was never one or the other. Being with you has consequences. And I won’t accept that.”

I push the collar into his chest, turning to walk away, but he catches hold of my wrist and digs his fingers into my flesh so cruelly that I gasp.

“You’re a fucking hypocrite, Evie.” The threatening rumble of his voice sends a spike of panic through me. I turn to look at him, and wish I hadn’t. There’s a darkness in his eyes I’ve never seen before, and it’s clawing its way toward me. Darkness bleeds into his eyes. “You just said people don’t change. Which means you’re exactly the same girl you were a year ago.”

My lungs slam shut. What little air was trapped inside starts burning. “What the hell are you talking about?” It’s barely a whisper.

“From the night I found you under that bed, Evie, I felt an intense connection with you.” He uses the grip on my wrist to draw me closer, and then pushes into me, forcing my back against the door. “I thought nothing of it at first. That I was thinking with my dick. It made sense.” He strokes a knuckle down my jaw, then over my lips, following when I move away. “You’re so goddamned beautiful. But that wasn’t it. See… I do know you, Evie. I’ve seen you before.”

All through his speech, my heart’s been beating faster and faster.

“Not in person, of course. You were hundreds of miles away.”

Tears fill my eyes in a rush. “No,” I whisper furiously. I shake my head, two wet tracks dripping down my cheeks. “No!”

“So, I’ll ask again.” He takes the collar from my clenched hand where I still have it pressed to his chest, and he slowly brings it up to circle my neck. “Why did you put on the collar tonight?”

I choke out a sob, mortification rolling through me in a hot wave. I grab his wrists to stop him, but there’s no power left in my hands. There are too many tears spilling over my lashes. They should be sizzling over my cheeks, but instead they leave cool trails in their wake.

“I’ll tell you why.” Owen clasps the collar around my neck and then grabs a fistful of my hair, tipping back my head. “It’s because you like this, Evie.” He drops his head, his mouth an inch from mine. “You like being forced to obey.”

“No!” I grab the collar, tugging. Owen laughs and bats away my hands. Then he reaches down and yanks up the front of my dress. When I struggle, he tightens his fist in my hair until I yelp with pain.

“That’s strange,” he murmurs into my ear as he shoves his hand between my legs and starts roughly massaging my pussy. “Because on the video, you were as wet for him as you were for me.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Evie

My body goes slack with shock. I force air into my lungs as I draw a stuttering breath. Owen’s touch ignites my core, forcing out a wave of slick arousal to coat my pussy. I’m not wearing underwear—it was one of many stupid decisions I made tonight.

Owen peers down at me through lowered lashes, his lips parted, his nostrils flaring like he’s inhaling my humiliation.

He saw the video.

He saw the video.

I think my heart stops beating. That, or he broke it into such small pieces that I can’t feel it anymore.

Owen lets go of my hair, instead grabbing my ass and hauling me up against the wall. My legs come up on instinct—or maybe my body is so used to obeying him by now that it bypasses my brain completely. He rumbles in pleasure when I wrap my thighs around his waist, and rewards me by grinding the hard ridge of his cock against me.

I choke out a sob when he drags down his zipper, his warm, hard flesh rubbing against my wet pussy. “Stop pretending you don’t want this,” he says as he grabs his cock and lines it up with my entrance. “I know exactly what you like.”

A heady mix of pleasure and pain engulfs me when he spears inside. I cling to his shoulders, desperate to hold onto something solid—even if it’s him—as he starts rutting me like a beast. The sound of his cock ramming its way home seems to echo down the hallway.

I’m filled with so much shame, I can’t even fight back my tears anymore.

“That’s it,” he murmurs into my ear, his voice tight as he thrusts into me. “You let it all out for me, toy.”

Every violent thrust shoves me closer to the edge. I struggle for breath, the collar around my throat too tight, his cock too forceful, but his grip utterly inescapable.

I don’t know why I’ve stopped struggling. I don’t know why I welcome the brief oblivion that’s on its way.

Except you do, don’t you?

It’s the only escape I’ve ever had. Then, now. It’s how I hold onto my sanity.

I’m too terrified to find out what will happen if I push him away.

“We’re perfect for each other. You realize that, don’t you?” Owen slows his thrusts, but each one is harder than the one before. My lower back slams into the library’s door, my core clenching painfully as he rams against my cervix. He leans back, watching me flinch every time he drives into me. “Evie… I’ve been looking for you my entire life.”

His words mean nothing.

My soul is slowly withering, and with it, all my emotions.

Thankfully, that includes the shame. It recedes like an ebbing tide. His eyes light up as tension leaves my face, as my hips start rocking against his.

“That’s it,” he repeats. “You’re such a good girl for me.”

I reach up and sink my fingernails into the back of his neck. He flinches, and drives into me hard enough to force a sullen grunt from my lips.

“You can never hurt me,” he says, a wild light in his eyes. “But God, I love it when you try.”

My climax is beckoning, just out of reach. I dig my nails in even harder, his blood slick upon my fingertips. “You’re wrong,” I say in a thick voice.

Owen chuckles, gives me another furious thrust. My pussy burns and aches as he stays buried inside, as he grinds his hips against mine. “Am I? I know what I saw.”

When I laugh, a flicker of uncertainty touches Owen’s eyes. “You saw what he wanted you to see.”

Owen crushes his body to mine, and I whimper as he drives even further into me. “The fuck are you saying?” he growls in my ear, before nipping the lobe so hard I swear he breaks the skin.

“That video is a fake.”

His soft laugh is warm against the side of my neck. Owen’s teeth click over the diamonds set into my collar as he toys with the band of leather. “I know what fucking looks like.”

“Oh, he was fucking me all right.” I turn my head away, twining my legs around Owen’s waist and squeezing until he groans. I start riding him, tilting my hips up and down despite the pain that stabs through me each time I plunge down upon his length.

Probably because of the pain.

If there’s one thing Owen’s taught me, it’s that pain can wash away anything.

Even the past.

“But I didn’t like it. I hated it.”

“What?” Owen’s jaw bunches as he tries to pull out of me. But I keep my ankles crossed, my thighs tensed. I keep him inside me as I grind my clit against his pubic bone, my climax inching closer.

“I’d broken up with him a week before he recorded that video. He came back, begging for forgiveness. Begging for me. I felt sorry for him, so I went to his place to talk. He drugged me, Owen.” I toss my head, sending my hair back over my shoulder as I glare at Owen. “I don’t know what the hell he gave me, but I couldn’t say no to anything.”

A look of horror creeps over Owen’s face. He grabs my thighs, trying to pull me off, but I cling on. My eyelashes flutter as I start rocking faster against him, my clit getting more than enough friction.

“I didn’t say no when he tied me up. I didn’t say no when he put that collar on me. And I didn’t say no once while he fucked me like a dog.” My hands slide up, grabbing two fistfuls of Owen’s hair. He winces, his eyes narrowing to slits as I ride his hips. “Because I couldn’t, Owen.”

“Evie, stop.”

I throw back my head and laugh. Maybe it’s the alcohol, or maybe it’s the rush of adrenaline from finally letting this all out.

My therapist told me to keep a journal. A diary of what I was going through when my world caved in on me. I tried, but I couldn’t bear the truth, not even on those sacred, secret pages. I made it out like I was ashamed at making a video with my ex. And I couldn’t even record the aftermath of that terrible night at his house.

Now that the truth is finally unraveling from the tight spool I’ve kept hidden deep inside my damaged heart all this time, I can’t stop fucking Owen. I can’t stop talking. I can’t stop laughing.

“And, and you know what? When he blackmailed my family with that video, I didn’t even remember him doing all those things to me!”

Owen stares at me like I’ve lost my mind.

Fuck, maybe you have.

“Evie…”

I tighten my grip in his hair. “What, Owen? You just said we’re perfect for each other. So what changed, huh?”

He shows me his teeth a second before he crushes me against the wall again. I whimper at his painful thrust, and then buck my hips. “Harder.”

The growl he lets out sends a cold shiver through me that makes my core clench out of panic.

“I. Didn’t. Know,” he says, driving into me with every word.

“Shut up and fuck me.”

He slides his hands down my ass and pulls me open. Delicious agony unfolds inside me as he picks up speed.

“This is wrong,” he mumbles against my neck.

I laugh. “Yeah… that’s why it feels so fucking right.”

He stops moving, pinning me to the door with his dick as he leans back to cup my face in his hands. “Evie, I had no idea. If I had—”

I grind against him. “What? You wouldn’t have jerked off as you watched me being raped?”

Owen’s lips twist into a sickened grimace. “Christ, no.”

“Good for you. And what about everyone you shared that video with? What about them?”

I let go of his hair, sliding my fingers down the white shirt under his tuxedo. I leave faint trails of blood behind, and for some reason that makes me smile. He groans when I start stroking my clit, his fingers sinking into my ass cheeks as he tightens his grip.

“Evie…” He buries his face into my neck, his teeth clicking over the collar again.

He groans again, as I buck, clenching hard upon him. “Stop talking, and start fucking.”

After a rumble of protest, he obeys.

My orgasm hits like an explosion. Every muscle in my body locks, trapping Owen deep inside my pussy as I clamp tightly around his cock. He finds my mouth with his, moaning into our kiss as he fills me with his seed. I cling on for dear life, barely conscious as he starts moving in and out of me, drawing out both our orgasms until I’m left a shuddering wreck.

My feet finally touch the floor as Owen takes hold of my chin, and gently tilts my head up. Then he kisses me again, slowly and softly.

He breaks off a moment later, leaving me reeling. “Evie—”

I slap his chest and push him away. “No. No more talking.” Tears collect in my eyes again, but I blink them away with determination. “We’re done, Owen. Done.

He stares at me like I’ve just pulled his guts out of his belly and shown them to him, and then he slowly nods. “Okay.” He licks his lips. “But know this… I will never—”

A piercing scream cuts him off.

We both whip our heads around toward the source of the noise. My skin tries to crawl off my flesh as I peek over at Owen. “What was that?”

“I don’t—”

Another scream. Then another. Someone—a man—shouts.

“What the fuck?” The words are barely out of my mouth before Owen grabs my hand and starts hauling me down the hall.

Not away from the screams… but toward them.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Owen

My body feels too light, as if I’m trying to run on the moon. Too much blood has gone to my dick. That, or I’m still mentally reeling from what Evie just told me.

Now that the endorphins are wearing off, that feeling is back. Like I’m coated with rancid oil. But there’s no time to dwell on that, because as soon as we burst out onto the quad, a wave of panic and fear slams into me. If Evie’s sudden death grip on my hand is any indication, she’s swept up by it too.

The music has stopped. People are streaming out of the dance tent, their heads craned upward, everyone staring in horror.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what they’re staring at.

“Oh, my God!” Evie pulls out of my grip. “Owen… it’s Willow.”

If my chest hadn’t constricted to the size of a grapefruit, I might have been able to say something. Instead, all I can do is tip back my head and stare, like everyone else.

Emotions rush through me like a flood.

I’m still in disbelief about the video. A part of me knows it isn’t true… another part of me always knew it was. I’m waging a war inside. The way Evie acted floored me… and I’m sickened by how much I enjoyed it. I don’t know if it was her taking charge, or the pain and humiliation on her face moments before, but I feel like I’ve touched dark matter.

Which would explain why I feel so fucking dirty.

“Willow!” Evie yells out beside me, and then squeezes my hand twice as hard as before. “Oh, God, Owen, she won’t, w-will she?”

My heart cracks in a thousand places when I hear that catch in Evie’s voice. She’s transfixed on the scene playing out above us. My eyes move reluctantly from her face to the bell tower.

I have to force myself to look higher, and my stomach clenches painfully when I don’t immediately see Willow.

She’s jumped…

But then I find her—a smudge of shadow against the bell tower’s pale stone walls.

“No, she won’t.” I tug free of Evie’s hand, and she’s so intent on looking up, it’s as if she doesn’t notice. Instead, she claps both her hands over her mouth, shaking her head.

I turn and sprint away. I haven’t gone two steps, and I’m already missing Evie.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Owen

I race up the stairs, and by the time I reach the highest point of the tower, I’m heaving and panting for breath. My body crashes into the door at the top, but when I tug on the handle it remains closed. Stars flash across my vision for a moment, and I reel backward, my heart shooting into my chest, gravity’s deadly pull threatening to back down the stairs to my doom.

I catch my fall, my flailing hand latching onto a railing. I grip it with white-knuckled fingers as I force air back into my lungs.

“Willow!” I bang a fist into the door, rattling the thin wood in its jamb. I kick it a few times, but it doesn’t give. It might be thin, but there’s no way I’m breaking it down. “Willow!”

I strain to hear anything past my racing heart, but there’s only a terrible silence on the other side of the door.

The stairwell’s central chamber is pitch black when I peer over the edge. I rock back on my heels, gritting my teeth as I stare around for an answer. I have to get into that bell tower. I have to keep Willow from jumping.

You could have stopped this from happening in the first place.

I shove that traitorous voice out of my head. I’m not a fucking idiot—I know I’m to blame for this. But wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to help anyone. Especially Willow.

My eyes dart around. There’s one place they keep being drawn back to, but I dismiss it as lunacy and look away again and again.

Until I realize it’s the only option.

Dread wells up deep inside me as I stare at the narrow window a few steps down from the landing. There are several of them at intervals along the side of the bell tower. All are fitted with glass and mesh, but this one is cracked.

Jesus Christ.

I swallow down a lump of fear and step to the window. Closing my eyes, I offer up a brief prayer to whatever deity just might be listening.

I pray to live and save Willow.

I pray to live and see Evie just one more time.

I pray that, when this over, I can somehow make things right.

That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!

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