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Living With Shame Chapter One

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Living With Shame

The Irish Bastards Volume One

Copyright © 2017 by KJ Bell.

All rights reserved.

 

Chapter One

Versions

There are two versions to every story, the right version and the wrong version, the truth and the lie. It is often hard to distinguish, because the people who believe their tale superior have manipulated both versions.

BREEZE

Our love survived a battle of legality and morality. However, fate proved impossible to outrun. Despite brief victories, a hurdle always remained, one infinitely higher to jump. At some point, I can’t even remember, we stopped trying.

I thought he quit.

I thought I gave up …

I thought wrong.

The moment I thought I finally moved on, Shame showed up, begging for another chance.

I caved, like I always did.

This time would be different. I could feel it, or at least I wanted to believe it. I convinced myself the past owned the worst parts of us.

I loved him and he loved me. Nothing would keep us apart this time.

I thought…

“That’s it,” Shame coaxed. “Scream for me, baby. Give in.”

“Oh, God,” I cried out.

Shame’s grip on my waist tightened. I held his intense stare and smiled. The beautiful way our bodies fit together, and how we moved with the graceful rhythm of a lover’s ballad, made our hearts seemingly beat as one.

Our gazes remained locked, while we shared the raw intensity of our fated reunion, and absorbed an undeniable connection we felt from the instant we met.

The moment felt right, only amidst the passion, existed something unequivocally wrong. We should not have been making love, especially not in the bed I shared with my boyfriend. But there were two versions to every story … even a love story.

Our love had created so much sorrow, avoiding each other became our only solace. Yet ending up together seemed an inevitable disaster. We never had any control. I had never been able to resist Shame. He fought even harder than me to prevent a love affair and failed all the same.

I blamed it on First Love Syndrome.

Is that a thing?

I thought it was. Maybe it had never been deemed a medical diagnosis, but it should be.

A first love felt terminal.

A first love captivated you and refused to let go. No matter how far removed, the smallest reminder warmed you to your soul, brought a smile to your lips and caused your heart to flutter.

Whenever I saw Shame, I surrendered. His hold on me knew no moral bounds. It could not be relinquished.

As I continued to ride him, his hands rose to massage my breasts. His warm touch set my skin on fire. The pleasurable ascent felt unbearable as the fall drew closer. He felt it too. Of course, he would never admit it. The deepening crease between his eyebrows and the rapid breaths he tried to control gave him away.

“Come on, baby. You first,” he breathed, smirking.

Each and every time, Shame saw to my satisfaction before his own. Only this time, I struggled to get Collin out of my head.

How could I let go of an amazing guy, a good boyfriend, and a guy who didn’t make my head spin like it did with Shame?

I knew the answer, even if it made me a horrible person and a bit deranged. The lack of turmoil represented why Collin and I wouldn’t last. I craved chaos, preferred the mayhem of spiraling out of control.

Doubt swam throughout my thoughts without a clear destination, but crashed into brief moments of justification, where my mind refused to believe a truth existed beyond the one I lived right now. I felt like I could drown in the uncertainty, but I also knew Shame would save me. He always did, and his devotion became my biggest fear.

What would happen when I no longer needed rescuing?

The way Shame’s gaze moved over my face told me he knew my thoughts were elsewhere. With a sexy grin, he brought his chest up from the bed and held me at the waist. “Oh, you’re gonna come, Dimples,” he rasped before sealing his hot mouth over my nipple.

Each upward thrust of his hips, Shame hit a spot that brought me right back to him and forced me to submit. I tipped my head back, cried out his name, and clawed the back of his neck. Not too much longer, my body jerked with his as we simultaneously climaxed. My legs vibrated and my mind clouded with mixed emotions of love and remorse, happiness and sorrow.

Collin would be devastated and it would be entirely my fault.

Shame collapsed back onto the bed, his eyes gleaming with deep satisfaction. God, I loved him. No matter how wrong, no matter how relentless the guilt, I loved him.

I exhaled a final blissful moan as Shame’s hands gingerly caressed my thighs. My eyes never left his, which caused my heart to ache. The silence stretched out. I was afraid I was going to cry, or worse Shame knew I was going to cry, which was equally as awful.

Why did our love have to be so complicated?

Why did it hurt?

With a ragged breath, I curled my body forward and settled on Shame’s hard chest. I craved the reassurance his warmth provided me. My eyes welled with tears, but I felt happy. My joy resonated in the way he always looked at me, like he would cherish me for a lifetime and then some. I wanted him to, no, I needed him to.

But with our history, could it ever work out for us?

We were perfect when we gave up control and allowed our bodies to do the talking. The rest of the time, though … we were severely flawed.

His strong hands massaging my shoulders made me relax.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked.

I sat up and shrugged, a small smile tugging at my lips. He knew me so well, knew I was toying with the idea of bolting from the bed, from him.

Perhaps our past defined exactly why we would last.

“I’m fine,” I answered.

His forehead creased. “I’m worried about you.”

“Is that your way of saying you love me?” A slight giggle tickled my throat.

With the earnest of expressions, he rose from the bed and held me by the waist with one arm. “Nah,” he replied. I hugged his neck and caught his sincere gaze. “When I want to tell you I love you, I’ll hold your face—” His other hand came up to caress my cheek. I leaned into his touch as my smile grew. “Like this, and say, ‘I love you, Breeze Clery.’ I’ve always loved you.”

I placed my hand over his. “I love you, too.”

“You happy?”

“Insanely happy.”

“Good,” he whispered and softly grazed his nose over mine.

I pressed a single finger to his lips. “Good.”

His soft lips kissed my finger and then he held my hand close to his prickly cheek. “You gotta quit runnin’.”

I adored the playfulness in his voice. “Well then, you gotta quit making me run,”

His head tipped back with an indulgent laugh. I loved the sound. “Oh, I thought we already established I’ll always give you a reason to run.”

“But I have to trust you,” I finished his sentence for him.

“No matter how things seem, I’ll always do right by you, Dimples.”

My smile widened. “I know. I’m here … aren’t I? No more runnin’.” I held my palm up. “Swear.”

He promptly swept me underneath him, until his body covered me like a warm blanket of security I desperately needed. “It ain’t ever felt like this.”

“I know,” I whispered, hugging him with my arms and legs as tight as I could. He would have to go soon, and I would have to confess everything to Collin. I belonged to Shame, and no amount of pretending otherwise would ever change that. It never had.

Something took Shame’s attention away from me and to the window. His body tensed and mine followed.

“Someone’s outside,” he asserted, leaping from the bed.

I grabbed the sheet to cover myself as my nerves spiked. We were caught. I felt awful. I never wanted to break Collin’s heart. I didn’t want him to find out about my betrayal on accident. He deserved to hear the truth from me, and now I would never get the chance to explain.

Shame scrambled for his clothes. In a mad rush, he slipped on his jeans and fastened them. As he hovered near the window, I followed his lead, leaped out of bed and got dressed.

“Fuck!” Shame roared.

He retrieved his gun from the nightstand and tucked it in the back of his jeans. I focused on his tightened jaw. A sick, uneasy feeling settled in my gut. Collin’s presence wouldn’t elicit that kind of anger in Shame. Before I could ask, he strode away to the front room.

Everything hit me all at once as I followed him. When he spun around, the rage in his eyes made everything clear.

“It’s E, isn’t it?” I whispered, barely able to catch my breath. My legs weakened and my stomach churned. Anger surged hot through my veins. E had violated me in a string of ways I hated him for, and I was sick to death of living in fear.

Why couldn’t he leave me alone?

Shame didn’t have to answer me because I heard Eddie’s voice singing outside the door. “I’m here, Shame … Come on out … Time to settle this shit.”

Horrified, I glanced at Shame. His eyes avoided mine as he stepped close and tightly gripped my arms. Then, he looked right at me, his expression so concerned tears burned my eyes. “I promise he won’t hurt you.”

That was it … my breaking point. I no longer needed Shame, not to make promises or shelter me from anything. The time had come for me to take control of my own safety.

Feigning need for affection, I wrapped my arms around his waist. Instead of embracing the man I loved, I grabbed the gun.

Before Shame could react, I flung the door open and fired two shots at Eddie’s chest. As I watched Eddie stumble backward, the sound of casings bouncing along the tiled floor echoed in my ears. With the gun still pointed at him, I relished in his struggle to keep his feet beneath him. I debated firing another shot. Before I decided, he collapsed at my feet. While lowering the weapon, a victorious smile spread my face. I never expected it to be so easy. E had become untouchable. He eluded death so often, I had begun to wonder if he was even human.

“No! Jesus,” Shame bellowed. “What did you do? You … fuck—”

Shame raked his fingers through his hair a few times, glancing around. Eddie stretched his hand up to me, as if begging for mercy. I offered none and stared at him with the satisfaction of knowing my face would be the last he would ever see. His eyes appeared to cloud over before they closed and his hand fell to his side. Shame immediately took the gun from my hand and fired two more shots at Eddie’s chest. He retrieved a gun from Eddie’s waistband and fired a single bullet at the wall.

“What are you doing?” I asked, panic finally settling in as I watched him position the gun near Eddie’s hand.

“Protecting you.” He always protected me, and Eddie Dixon had always been who he protected me from. Only he didn’t understand. Eddie could no longer hurt me. I didn’t need protecting. They could send me to prison and I wouldn’t care. That animal was finally dead. “Five-o’s gonna be here any minute. Don’t say anything.” I stared, my thoughts a haze as if what I did finally registered. “Breeze. Do you hear me? Not a word.”

I nodded. Suddenly I realized Shame set the scene to look like he killed Eddie.

Eddie Dixon had taken everything from me … my innocence, my self-worth … absolutely everything. Shame was the only thing I had left, and now, Eddie was going to take him, too.

No. I couldn’t allow that to happen.

I refused to lose Shame again.

***

I hated being separated from Shame. I hated the cold steel table, the dingy walls and the bright lights. I hated the musty air of mold in the room. Mostly, I hated myself for messing up. And I especially hated the inquisitive expression of the attorney Viv brought in to defend me. I didn’t need a defense. I did it. I killed Eddie Dixon. A crime so clear did not require a defense. Yet, there Mr. Stewart sat, waiting patiently for me to offer him something, anything to help me.

“I have nothing to say,” I told him as hostility vibrated my skin. “I did it and I won’t let Shame take the fall.”

My stare focused on the age spots and large veins on Mr. Stewart’s hands as he folded them together and placed them on the table. My head lifted until we made eye contact. I didn’t appreciate how his wrinkled and saggy old eyes studied me, so I glanced away. “Why don’t you start by telling me what happened?” he suggested.

I sighed, knowing my silence would never be accepted, and began with my boyfriend being out of town. His gray, bushy eyebrows rose, and I huffed a breath. “Oh, don’t judge me,” I spat. “You don’t know me! You don’t know what Shame and I have been through.”

“So explain it to me. I honestly don’t care about your boyfriend or your lack of monogamy. I want you to start with Mr. O’Rilley, from the beginning. In order to represent you, I need to know everything.”

He wanted me to go way back, dig up memories I purposefully kept buried, ones of monsters that could hurt me. “What’s the point?”

“The point is, Mr. O’Rilley is going to confess if I don’t get you off.”

“No!” I shouted, slamming my palm on the surface of the table. The sting brought pain to my eyes, and I squeezed them shut. When I opened them, I leaned forward and said, “You can’t let him … please.”

Mr. Stewart maintained his serious composure. “Then, you might want to start talking.”

 

Creating different versions of a story can be a struggle. Often we tell one lie after another until eventually we are buried in them. That is when we must accept we need help to sort it all out.

 

SHAME

Once at the station, it didn’t take long for the cops to separate me and Breeze into different rooms. The only words out of my mouth were, “I want a lawyer.”

That little statement always thrilled the men in blue. The detective in charge kept shaking his head, but his annoyance didn’t faze me. I had a woman to protect.

After everything she had been through, I refused to let Breeze take the rap for Dixon. A worthless piece of shit like him deserved to be put down. I only wished it happened in Southie where The Bastards had clout. Up here in the sticks, I didn’t have any reach.

To say I struggled with the knowledge would be drastically understated. I felt like a caged animal. Thankfully before I lost it, Viv arrived with an old guy I didn’t know. His blue monkey suit had thin pinstripes and fit a size too big. The yellow tie clashed with his red cheeks and practically cut off his circulation. “Who’s this clown?” I asked her as they sat in the chairs across the table from me.

“Weston’s your lawyer,” she informed me.

Weston,” I quietly mocked, glancing up at the fluorescent lights buzzing above my head. The constant flickering made me squint. “How ridiculously hoity-toity.” I brought my gaze back to Viv. “Seriously … A guy named Weston’s gonna represent me?”

“If you prefer, you can call me Wes,” the guy popped in.

“Oh, yeah, cause that’s so much better,” I joked, leaning back and scratching at the stubble on my cheeks. “Do you know who I am … Wes?”

“Yes, Mr. O’Rilley. I’m familiar with your family.”

I couldn’t decide how I felt about his confidence. So, I ignored the stiff and leaned over close to Viv. “Why aren’t you representing me?”

She sighed. “I don’t have enough experience. Wes is the best criminal defense attorney I know. You need him. This isn’t Southie. No one here in Podunk New Hampshire gives a damn about The Bastards. The club means nothing.”

I glanced sideways at Wes. “Do you have a last name?”

“Taylor,” he answered.

“Sounds vaguely familiar.”

“I’ve represented the Kilbride’s for nearly three decades. I assure you, Mr. O’Rilley, I’m more than capable of handling your case.”

Mr. Taylor working for Boston’s largest drug family calmed my reservations. Jacob Kilbride had gotten off on a couple of murder raps. “All right,” I agreed. “What about Breeze?”

“My partner’s with her now,” he responded. “She’s in good hands.”

I leaned forward, tugged on his tie, and aligned our faces. “No matter what she says, we go with my version of the story. Breeze doesn’t spend a day in jail. Got it?”

“Yes, I understand,” he replied. His confidence didn’t wane as he straightened. He smoothed his tie and cleared his throat before continuing. “But the goal is for neither of you to go to prison. Explain to me what happened.”

The stiffness of the chair seemed to magnify as I leaned back. Explaining meant dredging up a past better off buried. “That’s a long and complicated story.”

“It usually is. Start with Breeze. When did you meet? How did she come to get involved with this conflict between clubs?”

That was one hell of a story with a lot of history. But to sum it up, it was entirely my doing.

When two versions of a story have legal consequences, sorting out right and wrong gets tricky. Especially, if the wrong version is actually right, and the lie is safer than the truth.

 

Chapter Two

Six years earlier …

Innocent

The Hustle Chapter One (Tug’s POV)

The Hustle

Copyright © 2014 by KJ Bell.

All rights reserved.

(unedited and subject to change)

 

Chapter One

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Part one—The End

Tug

Gone are the quiet moments of reason where I try to understand life goes on. There’s a monster living inside of me, an endless voice with devious intentions. The conqueror of women, seeking vengeance for all that I’ve lost. At times I want to evict the monster, but without him, I have to feel the pain that scheming bitch left behind.

What do you do when you no longer have a heart? When you exist without empathy? I go through women like water, looking for one to silence the growing insanity of my mind.

Tonight’s choice, Tabitha, started out as a hopeful. Only when it comes time to perform, she slobbers, more than she sucks. Spit trickles down my shaft, soaking my balls, as her blonde head bobs in my lap. If she keeps this up, my dick’s gonna shrivel up like skin does when you’re in the pool too long.

My fingers wind around her chemically-lightened hair. The strands scratch like straw as I wrap them around my hand. I ram her sloppy mouth down on my cock. She attempts to pull back, but I thrust my hips upward, trying to push deeper. Maybe if I can feel the back of her throat it will set me off, allow me the satisfaction of coming in her sexy, red mouth.

Her grip tightens around my dick, working the base as her lips move up and down the top. Frustration builds as her mouth tickles without creating the much desired suction I need to come. I’m more maddened than satisfied and her lack of effort pisses me off.

“Suck it,” I growl, holding her head down. “Pretend I’m a lollipop, baby.”

I keep her head pinned as she gags, still striving to get off. Attempting to feel something other than irritation.

Her head turns, releasing my dick from her mouth as she continues gagging.

“What the fuck did you stop for?”

“I was choking.” She coughs. Her cheeks flush as she wipes a trail of rubbery spit dangling from her chin.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” I say, rubbing my thumb over her pouty lips.

“I don’t like it.”

“I can tell.” I smirk and cup the back of her head in my hand. “Maybe you need more practice.”

I yank on her head, trying to lower her to my dick again, but she resists. “I can’t. Please … I’ll do anything else.”

She’s eager to please me, certain if she does that I’ll want her to stick around past tonight. I won’t. The polite thing to do would be to tell her and send her on her way. But I’m not polite or kind enough to consider her feelings. I only care about my needs. I’m demanding and growing impatient and frustrated the longer she denies me.

My dick needs release and if she’s not going to provide it with her mouth, as I would prefer, she’s going to be fucked without mercy.

“Stand up and bend over the bed with your legs apart.” She smiles before obeying my command like a good little servant.

I massage her ass as I position myself behind her. She peers over her shoulder, sending a surge of annoyance through me. The look on her face won’t extend me the unashamed strength I need to steal more than her sweet offering. It’s the eyes. They show me expectations I’ll never provide. They ask me for things I’m incapable of feeling for any woman, let alone a woman with so little self-respect. “Don’t look at me. Put your head down.”

When she does, I slide two fingers into her drenched pussy to test her. She arches, pushing back on my hand as she pleads for me to help her. I withdraw my fingers. Her whining doesn’t affect me as I have no intention of pleasing a woman that can’t give a decent blowjob. I’m going to fuck her for me. To fulfill my needs or justify my anger, whichever comes first. Satisfying me remains the only reason she’s here. Nothing’s changed. If she can’t do that, I have no use for her.

Although my dick throbs, seeking immediate relief, I take the time to roll on a rubber. I made the mistake of forgoing protection one time in my life. No glove in the name of love. Such bullshit. That one poor decision that lead to another and another. Until the final fucking mistake that cost me Maria.

I close my eyes as I slam into the tight cunt of this woman I don’t have an ounce of regard for. She’s merely a vessel to ease my suffering.

The monster grins. He can’t be tamed, any more than the man can be saved. My eyes close as anger and resentment, love and hate battle to control me. I remember the photo of Maria, smiling across the table at Eduardo; the happy couple who played me for a fool. Who stole the final uncorrupted pieces of me.

The heavy judgments of my involvement want to strangle me, squeeze every last breath of air from my lungs as punishment. But I’m not ready to be held accountable. The only way to end the suffocating lies in pretending this woman is Maria. I do. I fuck my love and remorse into her; only when this chick moans, my fantasy dissolves. I lost Maria. She’s never coming back and I can’t find one goddamn woman out of the millions on the planet to replace her. No one will ever make me feel alive the way she did.

The monster grins again as I succumb to his control.

“Shut the fuck up,” I yell as I still. I’m so fucking close. Her cries of pleasure threaten to steal my moment. I won’t let that happen. “Don’t you come! Don’t you fucking come!”

She groans as her body relaxes. “Please,” she pleads, wiggling her hips.

“No!” She couldn’t please me earlier. I didn’t enjoy myself. Why the fuck should she?

I move again, reaching a steady pace. Thankfully the blonde remains quiet. However, her rapid breathing cues me that she’s revving up again. I thrust hard, picturing Maria’s perfect ass below my palm as I smack the blonde’s until my hand stings. When my balls tingle, I pull out, and then rip off the condom.

“Sit up and turn around,” I order.

Her large, green eyes full of reservation glance up at me as she quietly complies. I hold the back of her head with one hand. With the other, I jerk off in front of her face.

Pressure builds in my balls, shooting warmth through my shaft, which spreads down my thighs with a slow prickly sensation. I stroke faster, craving the moment I know will bring me to the brink of stupidity. My spine stiffens on a near painful release. I blow my load all over the blonde’s swollen lips as all of my hate disappears behind a veil of numb satisfaction. For a few blissful seconds, I forget how much it hurts to be me.

My dick softens in my hand as the reason I hurt crashes into me. A fucking woman broke my heart. A ruthless, cunning woman, no different than the blonde in front of me wiping the seeds of my labor off her mouth. She wants to use me, too, only I beat her to it and now she expects me to feel remorse.

Fuck that! Regret is reserved for the weak man I used to be.

“Get dressed and get the fuck out,” I say, feeling the ugliness seeping out of my cold, dead heart as I head to the shower to wash the stench of woman from my skin. To scrub away the humility of who I’ve become—to hide from the monster.

I grip the counter, starring in the mirror at a complete stranger.

Tug Hunter is fucking dead.

I hate the man left behind.

He’s empty.

 

Win an ARC of The Hustle

Hustle-ARC, The - KJ BELL

Who’s up for a little contest to win an ARC of The Hustle? What do you have to do? Below are five quotes from The Hustle. Create a teaser pic, using your favorite one. E-mail the teaser pic to me at: authorkjbell@gmail.com by 6PM on January 16th. I’ll choose three. You must have a Kindle e-mail address to participate.

  1. The monster grins. He can’t be tamed, any more than the man can be saved.
  2. As the sexy smirk I’ve come to adore crawls up the corner of his mouth, I don’t care what he says, as long as it’s not good-bye.
  3. I’m pleading with a man who feels nothing more than deception, but the softness of his expression shows me he wants to believe the lie.
  4. I’m in awe of her. Of each time her contagious laugh forces me to smile, of each time my bullshit is challenged with a harsh look. She’s unexpected and brilliant and although she scares me, I’m all in.
  5. I love that she’s not shy. As if she has no insecurities beneath the surface that could ruin what we have.

Irreparable Series Sale!

I rarely run a sale on my books. TUG is a spinoff of The Irreparable Series, and while it can be read alone, I know a lot of you are waiting to read it until you’ve read the series. So, here is some incentive. For a limited time you can get both books (IRREPARABLY BROKEN & IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE) in a box set for just 99 cents. The sale will run for a few short days and then be gone. Go…click it! http://www.amazon.com/Irreparable-Box-Set-Books-ebook/dp/B00LSW039C

PROMOAZ

There’s a new pirate in town!

There’s a new pirate in town.

This one is far more deceptive than the traditional pirate who runs a website blatantly offering free downloads. With websites, although frustrating and time consuming, an author can tirelessly combat those with takedown notices.

The new pirate is a coward that hides behind their keyboard, running a “secret” book club on various social media sites. When you join the secret club, you are given your choice of free books to read.

So cool right? A book club, where the books are free—fabulous. But the minute you download that free book, you are a thief. You are stealing from the author. The book club admin know this and doesn’t feel an ounce of remorse for it. Do you?

What makes these new pirates even more disgusting is that they pretend to be a loyal fan of the very authors they are thieving from. They send messages. Comment on all of their posts. Share the author’s links and photos. They build a relationship with their “favorite” author, and then, they get to work fucking them.

While the author is bent over, taking it, they raid their pages, inviting the author’s friends and fans to their “secret” book club. They steal from the author right under their nose, and because they’ve been such a devoted fan, the author smiles and says, “Thank you.”

I fell for the scam, thought I developed a friendship with a reader, someone who truly supported me and my work, but no—they were using me—taking from me. I’m hurt, disgusted, angry, and sad. But mostly, I feel violated. Some idiot running a website I have no personal connection with is one thing. “Here is your takedown notice, asshole!” But someone that spent a year slowly insinuating themselves into my life, under the pretense of friendship, well that is a bitter pill to swallow! Hell, I acknowledged this person in my latest release as one of my loyal fans that I was ever so grateful to. I can imagine her snickering as she read it. She got me, and I hope she is proud of herself.

I’ve called her out publicly, but she refuses to respond, and quickly exited my groups and pages. Karma will deal with her, and I will move on. I will not let her bring me down. I will not let her taint my feelings for the trustworthy group of fans I do consider friends. She’s the bad apple, and I hope she rots.

At the end of the day folks, if a book is genuinely a free book, it will be offered on a retail site, such as Amazon or B&N. It will not be a “book club” perk, and I urge you to know the difference.

For those of you that know the difference, and choose to steal from authors, we’re tired of being fucked! We’re pissed, and we’re coming for you!

TUG Chapter One

Tug FINAL 8.5 X 5.5 COVER

 

TUG Chapter One

Copyright © 2014 by KJ Bell.

All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Tug

“Ouch!” I look wide-eyed at whatever-her-name-is. She’s holding a black leather pump in her hand. Its match lies at my feet, where it landed after bouncing off my head. Her red hair—as fiery as her temper—is ruffled from the roll-around we just finished.

“Why are you throwing shit at me?”

She makes a crazy sound in her throat before she starts screaming at me. “Who the fuck is Tori?”

I duck in time to dodge her other shoe. I have no intention of answering her. I don’t even discuss Tori with people I care about.

“Fuck! Would you stop throwing shit at me?”

Her hands fly to her hips as she glares at me. “I don’t know, Aidan. Do you think you could get my name right?”

I make puppy-dog eyes, flashing a big grin. “Ah, come on, doll. I know your name.” I have no idea what her name is. It didn’t matter when I brought her home last night from the bar. And it definitely didn’t matter when I had her on all fours, her back arched like a cat. Nor did it matter when my dick played tonsil hockey with her mouth.

Her eyes narrow as she holds up one of my loafers. It’s bigger, heavier, and going to hurt a hell of a lot more than her pump if it connects.

“Okay, what is it, then?” she asks, clearly testing me.

Oh, I got this. I straighten my spine and smirk. “Alyssa … fuck!” I manage to catch my shoe before it hits me in the chest. When I look up, she’s already reloaded. My other shoe is on its way if I can’t remember her damn name. “Stop throwing shit.” I hold my hands up defensively. “Okay, I got it … it’s Melissa.”

Nope. It’s not Melissa. My shoe sails over my head. As fun as this is, I’m done playing dodge-the-shoe with Crazy. It’s time for her to go. I get up from the bed and slip on my boxers. Crazy’s naked body brings my dick to full attention. Her creamy skin begs to be touched and licked and clawed at. I smile at her seductively.

Her jaw drops when she glances down at my erection. “There’s no way in hell I’m screwing you again.” She starts picking up her clothing from where it’s lying on the floor. Once it’s balled in her arms, she walks toward the bathroom. “You’re seriously fucked up. You know that, right?” The bathroom door slams behind her.

Do I know that? Ha! I do, but I don’t give a shit. Why do I need to know her name, anyway? I’m not going to see her again. That leads to being attached and putting up with her whiny demands. It’s weak. Caring about someone causes trouble.

The only woman I ever loved is marrying my brother next week. They’re having a baby together. A baby I once thought was mine. My heart is irreparably broken, and knowing this chick’s name won’t fix it. I hear the bathroom door open. Her feet pad across the wood floor as she goes to pick up her shoes. I refuse to look at her. Her heated gaze burns a hole in the side of my face.

“My name is Larissa.”

I turn to her and shrug. “I was close.”

She rolls her eyes as she reaches for the door. “You’re an asshole!”

“Thank you!” I shout at the door she just slammed. I’ve been called worse by better.

I have to remember to not get so hammered. It apparently dulls my crazy clinger-type radar, because I was way off with that one. I rub the side of my jaw where the first shoe she threw unexpectedly nailed me. I didn’t make her any promises. She’s pissed because sex wasn’t what she actually came here for. Every woman I bring home is sure she’ll be the one, like once I’m balls deep, smackin’ that ass, I’ll suddenly want to settle down with her. Most women think their pussy is a gateway to the Promised Land. These women don’t want me. They want my last name and my bank account. I’m not going to feel bad about using their greed to get what I want.

Fuck! Maybe I am an asshole, but sex makes me feel better. When I’m with a woman, it’s not about feeling. It’s about not feeling.

It’s the only time I forget about Tori.

It numbs the pain.

***

I cross the border and park in a crowded lot in downtown Tijuana. The air smells of rotting food, sewer, and vomit—a clear indicator the strip was packed last night, as it is most Friday nights. Tijuana represents the largest red light district in North America, making it a magnet for tourists and locals looking for a party and a good time with one of the paraditas.

As I walk the busy street, taking in the filth and poverty, I can’t understand why Brady and Tori moved here. Because Brady’s band, Second Chances, climbed the charts and launched into stardom, I assume living in Tijuana is good for their relationship. They can lie low and stay away from the paparazzi, but once they leave their secluded beach house, the environment is depressing.

Brady’s work at the Center on the other side of town was probably their biggest motivator. I have to admit, I enjoy spending time there, too. When one of those kids gets adopted and leaves to live a better life, there’s no greater feeling in the world. Of course, with the bureaucratic red tape in Mexico, it doesn’t happen often enough.

I’m late meeting Harrison to go over plans for Brady’s bachelor party, but I have to pick up my favorite cigars from the local smoke shop. Maybe I’m subconsciously putting the planning off. Honestly, I’d rather shove toothpicks in my eyes than be involved with this wedding in any way. Their happiness is more than I can take. My brother’s future wife gets to walk down the aisle into wedded bliss and pretend like I never meant a damn thing to her. I must be punishing myself by agreeing to be the best man. As much as I love my brother, the idea of having a front-row seat when he promises to love my girl until the end of time makes me sick.

What can I say? Being a member of the Hunter family is a shrink’s wet dream. My siblings and I are poster children for dysfunctional. And I thought my mother’s life was a farce. A woman who kept her role in the death of an innocent girl a secret, and then went about her life as though things were peachy is mild in comparison to the lie I live every day. The one where I pretend to be happy for Brady and Tori, with placating smiles and bogus well wishes. I’m not sure how much more I can tolerate.

I open the door to the walk-in humidor and go inside. The warm aroma of Spanish Cedar mixing with Pure Havana tobacco delights my senses and makes me feel slightly giddy.

There’s a girl scanning the back wall. When I see her twisted lips and pinched brow, I realize she obviously has no idea what she’s looking for. Her white T-shirt hangs off the shoulder on one side, a colorful tattoo peeking out of the top, although I can’t make out what it is. I ignore her and find my favorite cigar.

The scent of cinnamon, pepper, and cedar fills my nostrils as I bring the cigar to my nose and inhale. It’s divine, godlike in its earthiness, a little piece of heaven rolled into divine perfection. Nothing tops a premium cigar, except maybe premium sex, but an exceptional cigar is far easier to find.

“Does it help you decide if you smell them?”

Her raspy voice oozes a sexiness that makes my dick twitch. I turn my head slowly toward the girl as she inches closer to me. I don’t look at her face, but respond, “Only if you know what you’re doing.” It’s rude, but I don’t have time to flirt with this chick. Not to mention, she must be freakishly desperate if she’s hiding out in cigar shops to meet men, although I have to admit it’s original.

“And I definitely don’t.”

She giggles in an attempt at flirting, I think. It’s not as annoying as other women, but designed to try to introduce herself all the same. She must recognize me.

“Clearly,” I respond dryly.

“I don’t smoke them,” she offers. I want to roll my eyes. I didn’t ask her, and I can’t understand why she’s still talking to me. “My grandfather sent me on this little errand. I thought it would be easy, but I had no idea there were so many different types. Can you suggest one?”

I rub my forehead without answering her and squeeze my eyes shut. My head pounds violently, unrelieved by the pile of pills and the protein concoction I downed this morning to relieve my hangover. She asks again, her voice sweeter and sultrier than the first time, as if she’s practiced in the fine art of seducing men.

I’ve reached the top of my irritation threshold, and I want to shout that I don’t give a fuck about her pretend grandpa’s need for a cigar, but our eyes meet before I have the chance. I’m lost in a sea of creamy-brown wonderment and shake my head to clear away the spell this witch obviously cast. She’s not my type, and I’m late to meet Harrison.

“If you’d bothered to find out which brand he smoked, you might have saved yourself the trouble.”

My terse response makes her cower. The sparkle in her large brown eyes disappears and they widen further, as though she’s afraid. She opens the door to leave.

“I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll go find a clerk to help me.”

Oh, man, now I feel like a complete dick.

My eyes scan the length of her body as she walks out. She has a gorgeous ass. Another tattoo runs down her side. I catch a glimpse from below her half-shirt, which disappears into her low-riding and extremely tight jeans. The inspiration is Day of the Dead, but I can’t see all of it. I’m not typically a fan of tattoos on women, but hers feel like they’re worn as a form of expression rather than to be trendy or garner attention.

I go back to making my selections, but the girl takes up space in my head, distracting my thoughts. Moments later, she returns with a clerk. She looks over nervously through her long dark hair, which is highlighted with thick streaks of deep purple hues.

The clerk reaches up into a box. He’s a straggly looking kid with a face full of zits. Either that, or he’s been playing goalie for the dart team. His dyed black hair hangs past his shoulders and is in dire need of shampoo. I read the lettering underneath the large marijuana leaf screen-printed on his T-shirt—It’s 4.20 somewhere. He’s obviously aspiring for greatness.

“I’m pretty sure he bought these the last time he was in, but he may not remember,” the clerk says, handing her a few cigars.

“I asked him.” She shoots me a quick and heated glance, one in which her eyes shout fuck you, and looks back at the clerk. “But you’re right — he couldn’t remember.”

The clerk hands her three cigars. “So he’s getting worse, huh?”

Her gaze falls to her shoes, which swipe the carpet, drawing nervous patterns.

“Unfortunately. Some days he doesn’t even recognize me.”

I’m definitely an asshole. Not only was her “grandpa” story real, but he has to be a sick grandpa. I peel the egg from my face and go back to searching the cigar selections.

“Oh, Maria, I’m sorry,” the clerk tells her, trying too hard to be sympathetic. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, but thank you, Pablo.”

Why is she smiling at this loser? He was clearly born during low tide in the gene pool. I’m in here all the time and half of those times, he’s been asleep. He has nothing to offer her. If his IQ were any higher, he’d be a rock.

From the corner of my eye, I see him touch her cheek affectionately, and she lifts her head. Why is he touching her? He’s a bigger douche than I am. I know his play. He wants to take advantage of her vulnerability for the sole purpose of getting laid.

“You know, it may be getting time to consider a home that specializes in people with Alzheimer’s,” he suggests quietly.

“My grandfather would never go for that, and we can’t afford it anyway,” she responds, her sad voice tortured with a mixture of desperation and regret.

Why the fuck I’m still here is baffling. I don’t know this girl, let alone care about her, her “sick grandpa” or what she’s going through. I have my own insurmountable pile of problems to deal with.

“Well, I need to get back up front. If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

“Thanks, Pablo,” she says. The sparkle returns to her eyes as our gazes meet. It’s the first time I really see her face and she smiles. The dimly lit humidor is suddenly bright, as though the roof split in two and the Heavens shine down on us. Cue the fucking choir music, I’m going to church. Somebody, save me.

She’s smoking hot, and my dick is now fully in charge of finding out more about her. She makes a face and looks away. Clearly our exchange didn’t have the same religious-experience feel for her.

I eye Pablo with aversion as he makes his way to the door. He turns and asks, “Do you need any help, sir?

“I’m good,” I reply flatly. When he’s gone, I turn to the girl. “What did he give you?”

She forces an awkward laugh. “Oh, I see. Now you care.”

The hairs on my neck rise. “Excuse me?”

She takes a step closer to me. The look she gives me nearly turns me to stone. “You couldn’t be bothered to offer a suggestion earlier.”

“I…” Actually, I’m speechless. This girl just called me out on my shit.

“What?” Her eyebrows shoot up, and she shrugs. “You couldn’t be nice for the sake of being nice, but now that your conscience has awakened, you want to make amends—help the poor girl with the sick grandpa? Don’t bother.”

“That’s not it,” I lie. That is completely it, although add dirty dancing under the sheets after the helping part. “I thought…”

She rolls her big brown eyes. “You thought I was hitting on you. Don’t flatter yourself! You’re not my type!”

“Is that so?” I say as a challenge, hoping she’ll elaborate.

“It is!” She nods and her lips purse. With her arms folded in front of her chest, her eyes move up and down my body. “Let me guess, with your designer clothing and conceited arrogance, I’m going to say investment banker.”

I scoff. “I’m not a banker.”

“Ha!” she gloats. “But you work in investing. You’re completely transparent, pretty boy, and as shallow as they come.”

Ouch! That hurt, but I’m amused and wiggle my eyebrows at her. “Perfect. You’re not my type, either. My turn.” I deliberately take my time looking her over, stopping at her full breasts for a while before making eye contact with her. “I’d say barista, but with your personality, I bet it’s more like you ask, ‘do you want fries with that?’ eight hours a day.”

She curls her lip and says, “Wrong, and that might hurt if I actually gave a shit what you think about me!”

While she’s pint-sized, maybe five-one, five-two, her attitude is easily seven feet tall, which I find oddly appealing.

“You don’t have to give a shit, but you still want me to feel your kitty. Come on, admit it!”

“You’re an asshole!” she responds instantly.

That’s twice in one morning I’ve been called the glorious A-word. It’s the typical default come-back for women after I’ve shocked them and they’re so pissed they can’t think. I’d like to say twice is my record, but there were those three brunettes I woke up with a couple of weeks ago.

“I’m flattered,” I say and grin sardonically.

She grumbles a string of profanities under her breath in Spanish and I laugh.

“Go to hell!” With one last dirty look, she turns and storms out of the room. I’m left stunned and slightly turned on. No woman has ever spoken to me so confidently, or rejected me so adamantly. Well, except for one. That’s the only thing this girl has in common with Tori.

Maria

I leave the cigar shop and try not to think about the pretentious jerk inside. The gorgeous pretentious jerk, tall and lean with smoky bedroom eyes and a delicious smile. Maybe I was too harsh, but I’m having a crappy day, and he set me off. I’m also angry with myself for being a sucker for a guy who clearly wants to add me to a growing list of women he smooth-talks into sex. He probably has a drawer full of trinkets from his conquests or a list he keeps in a frame above his bed.

After I pick up my grandfather’s prescription, I walk to my car and feel him behind me. I refuse to turn around, but I know it’s him by his cologne.

“Hey, wait up!” he calls after me, but I keep walking.

When he catches up to me, I spin around and snap, “What?”

He runs a hand through his messily-styled, thick brown hair and smiles. He’s cute, but too cute, and he knows it. He holds my gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time, but in a way that clearly announces his intentions are to get me naked, and ‘feel my kitty’ as soon as feasibly possible.

“I wanted to apologize for earlier.”

His eyes smolder, but all I see is trouble and a cocky superiority in his smug grin, like I should strip off my panties and lie down right here on the sidewalk.

“Great, do you feel better now?”

I push past him and continue walking. He’s in front of me in seconds. I keep going, but he walks backward to stay in my path.

“That wasn’t quite the response I was hoping for,” he says casually, his smile lifting upward in the most overly friendly manner possible.

“No, I’m sure it wasn’t.” I stop walking and put my hand up in front of me. “Look, it’s all good. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. Now, carry on.”

“Wait. You don’t know who I am?”

I shake my head. “No, but I know your type. You think with your chubby, and all you want from me is to get belly to belly. I’m not interested.”

“Actually I prefer pelvis to ass,” he says with a straight face. He tilts his head as his eyebrows knit together, waiting for me to reply, but I’m speechless, which I’m positive was his goal. His eyes are impossibly gorgeous, and I glance away. “But you don’t know my name?”

What is with the third degree? He’s treading on obnoxious territory here. He didn’t deny his intentions, which means—I’m right.

“Are you a celebrity or something? I hate to bruise your precious ego, but I don’t watch all that much television.”

He looks offended, but his mouth lifts again in a bright smile. It’s genuine, and he suddenly looks boyish and sweet, like an enormous mountain of trouble.

“It’s a cliché, but we got off on the wrong foot. Let’s start again.” He extends his hand. “I’m Ryan.”

“Maria,” I say, and shake his hand, noticing the set in his sharp jaw, which gives away his attempt to play things cool. The only question now is how long it will be before he realizes I’m not his typical desperate admirer and gives up.

“Would you allow me to buy you a drink to properly apologize for acting like an idiot?”

I laugh. I could think of a handful of other adjectives to describe his behavior, but he’s making an effort, and I’m trying to be nice. It would be so easy to say yes, but drinks with him are headed in one direction. He devours women and makes no apologies for it. Foolishly, I’m drawn to him, as I always am to men I know will eventually shred my heart into a million pieces. This time, I refuse to cave. “Además, este playboy loco piensa que soy fácil,” I say under my breath.

He grins. “This playboy does not think you’re easy. He simply wants to apologize.”

My skin flames red. Of all the American businessmen I see in TJ, I manage to find the one who speaks the language. I send him a wide-eyed look and quickly lower my head.

“Come on, one drink?” he asks, his voice pleading.

“I really can’t. I need to get home to my grandfather,” I tell him, still too embarrassed to look at him. I do have time for a drink, but his invitation is a trap that will ultimately lead to us bumping fuzzies.

“Another time then,” he offers. “Can I call you?”

He’s persistent, I’ll give him that. What’s wrong with me that I want to give him my number? A phone call turns into a drink, and a drink turns into flirting. The next thing I know—bam, I’m flat on my back. He gets what he wants, and I’ll never hear from him again.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. My life is complicated,” I say and lift my head.

The expression creeping over his face is curious, as though he’s experienced a moment of clarity.

“Well then, Maria, we have something in common,” he says, and produces a piece of paper from his pocket. It’s the receipt from the cigar shop. “Do you have a pen?”

Obviously he’s not accustomed to being denied, but I’m not playfully challenging him. There’s no room in my life for what he’s offering.

“I believe I said I wasn’t giving you my number.”

“You’re not. I’m giving you mine,” he replies instantly.

The sly smirk he gives me is adorable. His knowing that should irritate me, but his confidence is sexy.
I smile and hang my head again. “Ryan…”

He interrupts. “It’s only a phone number. I can’t leave without giving it to you.”

As I lift my head and see his serious expression, I almost change my mind. Almost. “And what’s the point exactly, if I don’t intend to call you?”

“Oh, you’ll call.” He grins. Ryan’s conviction in his ability to get lucky is evidently boundless, but so is my ability to resist him. I think.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself.”

“I can’t deny that.”

With my shoulders squared, I lift my chin. “Well Ryan, I don’t have a pen, so I guess you’re out of options.”

“Cell phone, then?” he asks immediately, as if he’d been expecting my response.

“Nope.” I smile and shake my head.

He makes a dramatic sad face. “Oh, come on. Lipstick?”

I laugh hard, and then look directly at him. He’s actually pretty hard to resist when he’s not airing his superiority. Accepting his phone number is harmless enough. I decide to put him out of his misery and pull a pen out of my purse. When I hand it to him, his confident grin returns.

“This doesn’t mean I’m going to call you,” I say adamantly.

“We’ll see,” he says playfully. After scribbling down a phone number, he holds the paper between two fingers and hands it me.

“And my pen.” I snatch it from his hand and giggle.

“Wow, so violent. Must be a special pen.”

I shake my head because I can think of nothing to say. His sarcasm makes him more likable than I want him to be.

“I really do have to go. It was nice meeting you, Ryan.”

“Likewise, Maria. I look forward to hearing from you.”

“Maybe,” I say, and move past him.

Once I’m in my car, I look at the piece of paper with his phone number on it. He drew a heart. Is he trying too hard or is there legitimately a sweet guy under that arrogant outer persona? I turn over the receipt, and my jaw drops.

Quickly, I convert the amount to U.S. dollars. My math is correct. I can hardly believe Ryan spent over fifteen hundred dollars on cigars. I consider Googling him. He’s obviously someone famous, but then I remember I only got his first name, which is for the best. The only thing I stand to gain from a night with him is regret.

I drop the receipt in my purse, knowing I won’t call him. A guy like Ryan would never take a girl like me home to his mother. He wants one thing from me, and my days of casual sex are long behind me. Javier is proof of that.