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It was ok but it read more like fanfiction. I also felt the storyline was quite rushed. overall not a bad book but I wouldn't put it at the top of your TBR
03 September 2021 (06:54)
@Amelia you saved my time bae, thanks!
25 February 2022 (14:08)
@Amelia you saved my time thanks!
25 February 2022 (14:09)
Oh wow, I don't know why this book has even one bad review! Don't let it scare you off, I mean, it could have used a bit more character development for the smaller characters, but still, it was well written, and I would definitely recommend.
12 April 2022 (18:13)
Inevitable Kristen Granata Copyright © 2020 by Kristen Granata www.kristengranata.com Cover by Taylor Danae Colbert All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Created with Vellum Contents More by Kristen Quote 1. Graham 2. Eva 3. Graham Eva 4. Graham Eva 5. Graham Eva Graham 6. Eva 7. Graham Eva 8. Graham Eva Graham 9. Eva 10. Graham Eva 11. Eva Graham 12. Graham Eva 13. Graham Eva 14. Graham Eva Graham 15. Eva One Year Later … 16. Eva Want More? Cool as a Cucumber More by Kristen Acknowledgments More by Kristen The Collision Series Box Set – Free on KU Collision (Book 1) Avoidance (Book 2) The Other Brother (Book3 – standalone) Fighting the Odds (Book 4 – standalone) Hating the Boss – RomCom standalone Back to You – RomCom standalone Want to gain access to exclusive news & giveaways? Sign up for my monthly newsletter! Visit my website: https://kristengranata.com/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kristen_granata/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kristen.granata.16 Twitter: https://twitter.com/kristen_granata Want to be part of my KREW? Join Kristen’s Reading Emotional Warriors A group where we can discuss my books, books you’re reading, & where friends will remind you what a badass warrior you are. Love bookish shirts, mugs, & accessories? Shop my book merch shop! “Two households, both alike in; dignity In fair Verona, where we lay our scene From ancient grudge break to new mutiny Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life Whose misadventured piteous overthrows Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.” —Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet Chapter One Graham No. Two letters. One syllable. Such a simple word. It’s one of the first words we learn as babies. How easily it flies from our mouths, without even a second thought. We say it because we mean it, we feel it. We don’t know enough about the pain it can cause, the guilt that follows, the magnitude of what it symbolizes. Our parents become angry when we say it. It’s a demonstration of defiance, us against them. They have the power, and we’re standing up to them, threatening to take that power. But they always win. And at that age, parents should win. Otherwise, most of us would’ve been dead from sticking our fingers in sockets, or crawling into the pools in our backyards. Our parents set rules and boundaries to keep us safe. And we trust them. So, we listen. We obey. People often say family is everything. They’re not wrong. Our parents make us into who we are. They sew together the fabric of our lives, weaving our realities, carefully stitching our mindsets. What we think, what we know, what we do and say, all stems from our families. But there are parents who abuse that power they wield. Their warped version of love forces us to do things, awful things, while binding you in guilt. Because they know we’re loyal. Because they know how desperate we are to make them proud. Because they know we’ll do anything for them. They prey on it. On us. And we let them. Family is everything. But I don’t say that with the same warm and fuzzy sentiment you think of when you see that phrase on a Hallmark card. Family can destroy your life. Just ask Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and the Capulets led their children to their deaths. A fight amongst adults was responsible for terrible tragedy. I can’t even remember what the hell they were fighting about, but we all remember the result. Shakespeare wrote about dozens of twisted families because he knew. He knew how a dysfunctional family can play a direct part in one’s demise. My life could’ve been a lot different than it is. I had the talent, the drive, the opportunities. But family got in the way. I lost everything I’d worked for. Or as Dad would say, I threw it all away. Now, at twenty-four with no college education, I’m stuck working for my father’s private investigation company. I’m the best P.I. he’s got, which means about as much as being the best fry cook at McDonald’s. Sure, I bring in the most money. But after Dad takes his cut, and I give a chunk of it to my sister, I’m not left with much. Had I not given up on my dream, I could’ve provided for my family. Could’ve given them anything they needed. And Dad reminds me of it every chance he gets. I despise my father. He’s a narcissistic asshole. If he dropped dead today, the only thing I’d feel is relief. I don’t stick by his side because I want to. It’s guilt that keeps me where I am, and Dad yanks me around by it like a leash. “What do you say, son?” My father clasps his hands and rests them on his stomach as he leans back in his worn leather chair. There isn’t an ounce of fear or worry in his cold eyes. He knows he has me by the balls. “Why do you even bother asking?” I fold my arms over my chest. “Do you get off on it, pretending like I have a choice?” His green eyes narrow, the corners of his thin lips tipping upward. “You always have a choice, son. You know that. If you don’t want to do it, just say the word. Of course, you’ll have to explain that to your sister come payday.” I rise from my chair in front of his desk. “When do I start?” His mouth spreads into a full-blown evil grin. “Tonight.” He slides a manila envelope across his desk toward me. “Everything you need to know is in this file.” I reach out to take the envelope, but his hand clamps over mine, his smile gone. Soulless sapphire eyes glare up at me. “Don’t fuck this up, son. This is it. The moment I’ve been waiting for.” I lean forward, pressing my knuckles onto his desk, and bring my face down to his. Disgust pulses through my veins, but I stamp down the urge to ram his teeth down his throat. “I won’t fuck this up. You’ll get your money.” “This is about more than money. I’m going to take back what’s mine. I’m going to take his empire and build my own, right on top of his grave.” I shudder at how psychotic he sounds. I suppose years of obsessing over something will do that to a man. Without another word, I take the envelope from him and stalk out of his office, making sure to slam the door closed behind me. He hates it when I do that. I walk back to my apartment, hoping the crisp autumn air will soothe the years of pent-up frustration and resentment boiling inside my gut. I used to love living in Brooklyn. It’s like living in Manhattan without the expensive price tag. Then Dad moved his office less than a mile away, because God forbid I have anything that’s truly mine. When I arrive home, I swipe the bottle of Jack Daniels from my kitchen counter before collapsing onto the couch, and flip open the file in my lap. The headshot captures my attention in an instant, a photo paperclipped to the inside cover. Long, raven-colored hair frames her perfect heart-shaped face. With porcelain skin and plump pink lips, she’s a natural beauty. She’s covered up in a cap and gown, the picture taken from her high school graduation last year. To the untrained eye, she looks like any other pretty face. But I’ve been trained to look deeper. Her dark eyes stare up at me, and I spot a playfulness in them. Coupled with the way her lips are curved into a smirk, it’s almost as if she’s daring you to do something. There’s an edge to her, trouble brewing just beneath the surface. And the longer I stare at her picture, the more I want to know. Evangeline Montalbano. Pretty name. Nineteen years-old. Born and raised in Manhattan, a New York native like me. I peruse the rest of the information in her file and then I groan. She’s involved in multiple charities, and spends her free time shopping and partying with her elite friends. I tip the bottle back, letting the whiskey slide down my throat. Rich bitches like Evangeline are all the same. They use charity work to hide the fact that they’re stuck-up and self-absorbed. Can’t blame them, I suppose. They’ve had everything handed to them. This Park Avenue princess wouldn’t know a hard-days’ work if it bit her on her undoubtedly perfect Pilates-formed ass. Her greatest hardship in life was probably a hangnail. But this job isn’t about her. Evangeline’s daddy owns a multi-million-dollar corporation. Anthony Montalbano is one of the richest men in the city. He also used to be my father’s best friend. According to Dad, Anthony unexpectedly pulled his money out of the business they’d started after college, and ran off with Dad’s girlfriend. It was a lifetime ago, but you’d better believe my father held onto it. He holds a grudge like a Pitbull in a tug-of-war match. All Dad talks about is how he was betrayed, how it should’ve been him with the million-dollar company instead of bill collectors and a dead wife. To him, this isn’t just a job. It’s personal. This is revenge. My instructions in Dad’s plan are clear: Pose as Evangeline’s bodyguard. Tail her, night and day, and infiltrate her home. Collect any and all information about Anthony Montalbano and his company. Dig up dirt, uncover skeletons in the closet. Anything my father can use for blackmail. Sounds simple enough. But I’m left with one question as I dial my father’s number and press my phone to my ear. “Graham,” he answers. “I take it you’ve looked over the girl’s file.” “How are we going to convince her father to hire me as her bodyguard?” My father snickers, and a chill runs through me. “Oh, we’re going to be very convincing.” I can’t believe I’m doing this. I sigh, pulling the wool ski mask down over my face. This is a new low for me. “You ready?” Tommy asks. “As if I have a choice.” Tommy’s gloved-hand pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry, G-man. Clemmons and I will do all the work. You’re just along for the ride.” “Why, exactly? Why does my father want me here?” He shrugs and tugs his mask into place. “I don’t get paid enough to ask questions.” And he’s not smart enough to ask the right ones. Dad pays these guys to do his dirty work. His lackeys. All brawn and no brains. Clemmons glares at me in the rearview mirror. “Just don’t speak. The girl can’t recognize your voice. Your father will have our asses if we fuck this up.” I’m well-aware. “Let’s just get this over with.” As if on cue, the glass door swings open and Evangeline Montalbano steps out of the bar. I do a double-take as she pulls a set of keys from her back pocket and struts over to the red and black Kawasaki motorcycle parked in front of our van. Yes, we’re in a blacked-out pedophile van with ski masks on. Not the point. Evangeline tugs a helmet on over her hair, which is streaked with deep red highlights unlike the picture I saw. A cropped black tank top fits snugly around her chest, revealing her tiny midsection and gleaming belly ring. What surprises me most is the tattoo on her left arm: A warrior woman’s face, marked with war paint under her eyes, inside the head of a lion. She swings a leg over the bike, her ripped jeans tucked inside black combat boots, and leans over to grip the handles, giving us a glorious view of her plump, round ass. “Wow,” I say on an exhale. There’s that edge I caught in her headshot. Tommy chuckles from the passenger seat. “Fucking hot, right?” Hot isn’t the word. It’s too generic. Evangeline is stunning. Gorgeous. She’s a gravitational force pulling me in. And she looks nothing like a Park Avenue princess. More like Biker Barbie. “Here we go, boys.” Clemmons turns the key in the ignition and waits a few seconds before pulling out behind Evangeline’s motorcycle. He stays behind her for several minutes, following her every turn. She weaves in and out of traffic, changing lanes without signaling, making it difficult for us to keep up. Then she makes an abrupt swerve down a side street. “Where’s she going?” I ask, leaning forward. “Fuck if I know,” Tommy says. Clemmons shrugs. “Let’s see where this princess is headed.” We come to a construction site and hit a dead end blocked off with orange cones. Evangeline skids to a stop, props her bike up, rips her helmet off, and stomps toward the bumper of our van. “I know you’re following me!” she yells. Shit. Clemmons and Tommy fling their doors open, and Evangeline’s eyes go wide as realization sets in: Two men in ski masks are charging toward her in a deserted alley. Tommy gets to her first and grips her bicep, dragging her toward the van. To my surprise, Evangeline yanks her arm back and kicks Tommy in his kneecap. Clemmons runs up behind her and wraps his arms around her waist, lifting her off the pavement. Tommy lunges forward to grab her ankles, but she kicks him in the face. Then she rams her head back into Clemmons’ nose. This isn’t good. Tommy spits a mouthful of blood over his shoulder and swings his fist. “No!” I shout, as he punches Evangeline in her face. Her head hangs forward and her body goes limp. Fuck. Tommy and Clemmons shuffle toward the back of the van, my cue to open the doors. When I do, they toss Evangeline’s lifeless body in beside me. Clemmons zip-ties her ankles together, and then her wrists. “Maybe I’ll take this pretty little Power Ranger for my own ride when she wakes up.” Tommy’s hand slides up her leg. I twist his hand backward before he can go any further. “Touch her again and you’ll lose your hand.” The sick bastard laughs and closes the doors. My stomach twists when I see the purple, swollen lump already forming on Evangeline’s cheek. Tommy hoists himself into the passenger seat. “That bitch can fight.” “Yeah, well, that bitch almost took you out,” Clemmons says. “Fuck you. We got her, didn’t we?” The two continue to bicker, but I can’t tear my eyes away from Evangeline’s face. I brush her hair back, staring down at her bruise. “We need to get her some ice.” “Shut the fuck up, man!” Clemmons yells. “Screw my father’s orders. She needs ice!” “Yeah, hold on. Let me take this van with a kidnapped girl through the McDonald’s drive-thru and ask for a cup of ice.” Clemmons shakes his head, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “She’ll be fine,” Tommy says. “I didn’t hit her that hard.” Spoken like a true piece of shit. When we reach Park Avenue, Clemmons pulls down on a side street near Evangeline’s building. The van jerks to a stop, and Evangeline stirs beside me. With heavy lids, she blinks up at me, looking confused and disoriented. I lean down and whisper, “Don’t worry. You’re home now. Everything’s going to be okay.” I push open the back doors and Tommy yanks Evangeline out of the van. He and Clemmons carry her to the sidewalk and toss her onto the pavement. Then we drive away and ditch the van, parting ways as if nothing ever happened. We just scared the shit out of a young, innocent girl. All so my father can fulfill his twisted, lifelong dream. No doubt, he’ll sleep like a baby tonight, while I’m haunted by the image of Evangeline’s bruised face. They weren’t supposed to hurt her. That wasn’t part of the plan. But the men working for my father are thugs. Mindless yet dangerous men following orders. I guess this makes me one of them. Chapter Two Eva “No!” Two letters. One syllable. Such a powerful word. Too bad it doesn’t mean shit to my father. Dad sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is not up for debate, Evangeline. You were attacked the other night. You need protection.” I’m seconds away from stomping my foot. “I will not have an overgrown babysitter following me around!” “Yes, you will, because I say you will. You are my daughter and—” “And I am nineteen fucking-years-old.” He flinches. “Language.” “You can’t tell me what to do anymore!” “Watch me.” He looks to his assistant, Jerry, motioning for him to open the door. Because God forbid my father ever opens a damn door on his own. “This man doesn’t just wield a gun,” Dad says. “He knows how to fight. Plus, he grew up here so he knows the area well. He was the best candidate we could find on such short notice.” I roll my eyes. “Lucky me.” I should feel lucky. I come from a wealthy family. I live in a luxurious, residential skyscraper in the greatest city in the world. Cars, clothes, accessories, trips on a private jet. On the outside, it looks like I have it all. What more could I want, right? Money can buy almost anything. But it doesn’t buy happiness. It doesn’t buy love. It doesn’t diminish the pain or heartache. All money does is mask reality. That’s why rich people live in huge-ass houses. They build fortresses to shield themselves from the harsh truth, convincing themselves that they’re important; that they deserve what they have; that they’re worth a damn. They fake kindness, fake having humanity. Empty words and meaningless gestures. There’s no real love. No passion. They cling to money because it’s the only thing that makes them feel something. And I’m stuck here with them, a human amongst robots. Jerry returns with a large man towering behind him. Large might be an understatement. Muscles bulge under the snug, black T-shirt he’s wearing, and strong thighs strain against his dark jeans. He’s also wearing scuffed-up Timberland boots with the laces untied. He’s dressed nothing like the rich men in this room. My world is filled with suits and ties and shiny shoes. I’m surprised Dad even looked twice at this guy. He looks more like the type of man a father would want to protect his daughter from, not pay him an exorbitant amount of money to follow her around. Then again, maybe that’s why Dad hired him. He looks dangerous. Scruff peppers his jawline, which is defined and chiseled like his body. His dark hair is messy, and not the on-purpose messy that preppy dudes use pomade to achieve. No, this guy legit towel-dried his hair after his shower and called it good—if he even showered. He looks like the type that would roll out of bed, sniff the armpits of a T-shirt plucked from the floor, and decide it’s wearable. Everything about him screams zero fucks given. It’s a damn shame his aviators block his eyes from me. I’d bet they’re as dark as his eyebrows, which are dipped down, pinched together in a perma-scowl. My gaze follows him as he strides toward my father and engulfs his hand in a firm shake. He moves with a natural, physical dominance, the kind that commands your attention. He’s certainly got mine. The man is beautiful. Wait, no. What I meant to say was, “Are you fucking kidding me, Dad? You want this guy to follow me around all day?” Dad rubs his temples in small circles. “Language, Evangeline. And yes, I do want this guy to follow you around. Mr. Carter is going to protect you.” “I don’t need protection!” “Have you seen your face?” I roll my eyes. “It’s Manhattan. People get mugged all the time.” “You’re not people. You’re my daughter. And you didn’t get mugged. They took you, hurt you, and left you right outside our building. They had another purpose, and I don’t intend on giving them a second chance to find out what that is.” A frustrated growl rumbles in my throat. It’s no use arguing with him. I yank my leather jacket off the back of my chair, and stomp past my father like a toddler. He hired me a babysitter—I might as well act the part. “Where are you going?” Dad pushes to his feet. “What does it matter? I’ve got Thor here to watch over me now. I’ll be safe and fucking sound.” I don’t wait for him to respond as I spin around and barrel through the doorway. Heavy footsteps clunk behind me in the hall. I stop. He stops. I walk. He walks. I turn the corner. He turns the corner. I speed up. He speeds up. This is irritating me already. I make an abrupt about-face and slam into the body guard’s steel chest. “Do you have to walk so close to me?” “That’s kind of how my job works.” His voice is deep, matching his burly size. “Well, it’s obnoxious.” He pops an unapologetic shoulder. I prop my hands on my hips. “Look, you can go back to wherever it is you came from. You’re not needed here.” “I only take orders from your father.” “And I don’t. I’m a smart, capable girl, and I can take care of myself.” “If you’re so smart, then why’d you drive down a dark alley and try to confront the thugs who were following you?” I lift my chin, ignoring the fact that he’s right. “I had a bad night and I made a dumb decision. It won’t happen again.” “Lucky for you, I’ll be right by your side to make sure of that.” Lucky. Ha! Another growl makes its way up my throat. His thick lips twitch. “I’m starting to understand why you got that lion tattoo on your shoulder there.” “Oh, you haven’t even begun to understand me, Big Guy.” I step into his space and poke his chest with each word. “Now back. The fuck. Off.” My hair whips around my shoulders as I turn and storm toward the elevator. When I step inside, I expect him to follow me, but he doesn’t. He just stands there like a statue with that stoic expression on his ruggedly handsome face. Did I say ruggedly handsome? I meant annoying. Who wears sunglasses indoors? When I reach the lobby, he’s nowhere in sight. I slip my arms into my jacket sleeves with a smug smile and push through the revolving door, inhaling a lungful of New York air. It smells like hot garbage, but still. This is my city. My home. Was getting kidnapped the single most terrifying moment in my life? Yes. But I refuse to let that stop me. I won’t let fear control me. I force myself to walk the few blocks to Starbucks, clutching my pepper spray in my palm, ignoring the drumline in my chest. The muscles in my body tense each time someone gets too close—which happens literally every step of the way. New Yorkers don’t know the meaning of personal space. With over 1.6 billion people crammed onto an island that’s only 13.4 miles long, we’re bumbling into each other like mass-produced cattle. Only when I step inside the coffee shop do my shoulders lower and my breaths come easier. My best friend Deanna waves as I approach our usual table by the window, but her smile vanishes when her pale-blue eyes drop to the obvious purple splotch on my cheek. “What the hell happened to you?” I plop into the chair across from her. “I’m fine.” She leans forward, her blond curls bouncing around her shoulders. “You have a giant bruise on your face.” “I got jumped the other night. No big deal.” Her eyebrows hit her hairline. “No big deal? Eva, what happened?” I sigh, raking a hand through my hair. “Two dudes in a van tried to follow me home after I left you with Will at the bar. So, I drove down by the construction site and asked them why they were following me.” “Why would you do that? Are you crazy?” Her hand flies up, palm facing me. “Never mind. Don’t answer that. I already know the answer.” I stick my tongue out at her like a brat. “Anyway, they hopped out of the creeper van wearing ski masks and I tried to fight them off. One held me back while the other knocked me out cold, hence the bruise.” I rub my wrist under the table, still able to feel the unforgiving plastic ties that bound my limbs together. “Then they dumped me on the sidewalk near my building.” Deanna’s hand clamps over her mouth. I shrug and take a sip of the latte she ordered for me before I arrived, skipping over the part of the story when Dad insisted his doctor examine me using a rape kit. I just want to be thorough, he’d said. Little does he know, a rape kit is almost as invasive and humiliating as a rape itself. But I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. It sickened me to wake up, confused, unsure if my body was abused while I was unconscious. “Why would someone want to do that to you?” Deanna asks. Because people are sick. “No clue.” “Does your Dad know?” “Oh, he knows.” I’m about to tell her about his ridiculous idea to have me tailed by security when a large shadow casts over our table. Someone’s standing right outside the window, blocking the light from the setting sun. I don’t even have to look up to see who it is. I already know. I keep my eyes fixed on Deanna, hoping she won’t notice. “So, how are things with Will?” “Uh, do you know this guy?” Her eyes dart up to the window. “What guy?” I take another swig of my latte, feigning ignorance. She jerks her thumb to the left. “The giant man who’s staring at you like a serial killer through the window right now.” A low growl settles in my chest as I shove my chair back and stand. “Unfortunately, yes. I’ll be right back.” Outside, I whip around the corner of the building and give his shoulder a hard shove. He doesn’t budge—instead I stumble backwards, which only angers me more. “Why are you here?” He heaves a sigh as if I’m the oversized gnat that won’t go away. “I thought we went over this. I’m your bodyguard. Wherever you go, I go.” My jaw clenches. “I don’t need a bodyguard.” “Did we not just have this conversation five minutes ago? Maybe you should go to the doctor and get your head checked.” My face heats and I move into his space until I’m craning my neck to look up at him. “Maybe the doctors should check your hearing instead, because I already told you that I don’t need you.” “Your face says otherwise.” “Bruises heal.” “Not if you’re dead.” We stand there, locked in a glaring match, until a bubbly voice perks up beside us. “Hi, I’m Deanna. I’m Eva’s best friend.” Big Guy doesn’t flinch, so I keep on staring a hole through his sunglasses when I say, “Go inside, Dee.” “I’d love to. Why don’t you both join me? What does your friend like to drink?” “He’s not my friend.” His head turns toward Deanna. “I’m Eva’s bodyguard.” Her jaw drops open. “Oh, wow. I didn’t know you had a bodyguard, Eva.” “I don’t. Dad thinks I need one after the other night.” “He’s right,” they say in unison. My hand smacks against my thigh as I look up at the sky and groan. “Not you too, Dee. I don’t need anybody to follow me around all day. Come on, this is crazy.” She scoffs. “Eva, you got attacked. You’re the daughter of one of the richest men in the city. Why is it so bad to have someone watching your back?” She leans toward me, twisting her lips to one side. “Especially someone who looks like him.” I don’t miss the smirk tick on Big Guy’s face. Cocky bastard. Rolling my eyes, I turn to face Deanna. “You know, just because you talk out of the side of your mouth doesn’t mean he can’t hear you.” She shrugs, giving him a sly smile. I step in front of her. “Stop that. Don’t smile at him. You’re supposed to be on my side.” “I am on your side,” she says. “That’s why I want you to be safe. So what, you have a body guard? I don’t see what the big deal is.” “Because it’s just another way for my father to control me!” I shout, scattering several nearby pigeons. “He thinks he can track my every move. He thinks he can tell me where to go, how to dress, what to do. I just want to be a normal girl, Dee. I want freedom. This is just one more thing he’s trying to take from me.” Deanna looks at me with pity reflecting in her eyes. “He just doesn’t want you to end up like Eric.” I hate when she looks at me that way, and even more so when she mentions Eric’s name. Plenty of people have it worse off than me in this world. I don’t deserve anyone’s pity. I snap my sardonic armor back into place as I glare up at the giant-sized thorn in my side. “You want to stand here looking like a psycho-stalker while I enjoy my latte? Knock yourself out.” I stomp back inside with Deanna in tow. I swipe our cups off the table we were previously sitting at and press my middle finger against the window in front of his face. Then I move to another table across the room, the one farthest from the windows. Deanna is just about frothing at the mouth when we drop into our seats. “Holy mother of God, that man is beautiful! You’re so lucky!” I groan and drop my forehead onto the table. Yeah, that’s me. Lucky. Chapter Three Graham “Good Morning, Graham.” Anthony Montalbano swings the door open and steps into the hallway. He’s buttoned up to perfection in his navy suit, crisp white collar, and color-coordinated tie. I give him a tight nod. “Morning, sir.” “Rosemarie put out a wonderful spread in the kitchen. Go in and help yourself.” “No, thank you.” I lift my to-go cup. “I grabbed a coffee on the way over.” “Nonsense. The man who protects my daughter deserves all the breakfast he can eat. Please, I insist.” He’s leaving for work, which would grant me unsupervised access into his home. This is exactly the kind of opportunity I need, but I can’t appear too eager. “Won’t Eva mind the intrusion, sir?” He grimaces. “She giving you as hard of a time as she’s giving me?” “I can handle it.” He reaches up and pats my shoulder. “Take care of her. She’s my baby. She’s all I have left.” Guilt rises in my throat, stifling my response. That’s more than my father would say about me. So far, this guy doesn’t seem so bad. “Will do, sir.” I step through the doorway and follow the long hallway, feeling like a wolf who was just let into the hen house. When I find the kitchen, Rosemarie, I assume, gasps and clutches her chest. “Shit, I’m sorry.” I hold my hands up on either side of my head. “Mr. Montalbano let me in. I’m Evangeline’s body guard.” She laughs, pressing her palm against her chest. “Oh, that’s quite all right. I wasn’t expecting any visitors. Been a bit jumpy since Miss Evangeline got abducted.” My stomach sours at the reminder. “That’s understandable.” I extend my hand. “I’m Graham.” “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Rosemarie. Miss Evangeline is still asleep. Should be up soon though.” “Mr. Montalbano told me to grab some breakfast before Evangeline wakes up.” “Of course. Let me make you a plate.” “No, thank you. I can make my own.” She offers me an appreciative smile. “I’m running out to grab a few groceries, then I’ll be back. Help yourself, there’s plenty of food.” “Thanks. Uh, anybody here besides Evangeline? Don’t want to startle anyone else.” Rosemarie shakes her head. “Selma, the housekeeper, should be here around eleven. Until then, it’s just us.” She scurries around me and disappears into the hallway. I wait until I hear the click of the door, then I bolt out of the kitchen in search of Montalbano’s office. This place is a fucking maze, taking up the entire top floor of the building. Most of the space is open-floor concept, but individual rooms become more secluded as the hallway continues. I pop my head inside each room until I find the one I’m looking for. Not only is the office door unlocked, but it’s open. That tells me one of two things: Either Montalbano has nothing to hide, or nothing to fear. And if he thinks he has nothing to fear, then he’s dumber than I thought. I start at his desk. This guy has some major OCD. Everything in his desk is labeled. Taxes, receipts—even the container of paper clips says Paper Clips. Everything is in its proper place, which means there’s nothing illegal or dirt-worthy here. Unless everything’s labeled to throw someone like me off his scent. It’s too early to tell which of the two cases I’m dealing with here, but I know I’ll figure it out soon enough. It’s scary how good I’ve become at finding the things people try so hard to hide. I’d started working for my father with the misguided notion that I was helping people. Families who’d lost touch with their loved ones, women trying to catch their cheating husbands in the act. People are hurting all over the world, and I’d convinced myself that I was making a difference. But this? Rifling through Montalbano’s desk in his home office while he’s at work? This helps no one but my father. This makes me the piece of shit Dad primed me to be. I search the desk for about ten minutes until the faint sound of a female voice floats into the room. The princess is awake. I shove the files I’m holding back into the drawer and dart into the hallway. Now which way was the kitchen? I go left, and the voice gets louder as I creep down the hall. She’s singing. I can make out the lyrics the closer I get, and I can’t help the tip of my lips when I reach the scene in the kitchen. Eva’s wrapped in a furry leopard robe and matching slippers, with her back to me. Her black and red hair is in a mess of a knot on top of her head, and she’s singing into a butter knife as she piles her plate with pancakes and fruit. She spins around to hit the last note of the chorus, eyes squeezed shut, belting it out with everything she’s got. Totally off-key, might I add. But fuck if she’s not the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen. I’m mesmerized by her. So much so that I forget she has no idea I’m standing here, inside her home. She opens her eyes and shrieks, piercing my eardrums—along with the sound barrier—and tosses her plate at me like a frisbee. I put my hands up to block it, and it shatters when it hits the floor, pancakes and blueberries scattering around the tile. “What the fuck are you doing in here, you freak?” “Your father let me in. He—” “My father.” She laughs. “Let a strange man into your home while your daughter is naked in her bed. Father of the fucking Year.” I cock an eyebrow. “You sleep naked?” Redness tinges her cheeks. “Get. Out!” Instead of leaving, which would be the proper thing to do, I step further inside the kitchen. Her eyes go wide as I reach around her for my coffee cup that’s sitting on the counter behind her and take a sip. Then, I turn around and make myself a plate with pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs. I gesture to the floor with my fork. “You might want to clean that up. Blueberries will stain that expensive white tile. Then again, you probably have people who do that for you. Do you snap your fingers, or just ring a little bell?” She steps into my space, her furry robe hitting my bicep, gritting her teeth as she glares up at me. “Fuck you. I don’t snap my fingers at anyone.” I pop a piece of crispy bacon into my mouth. “Surprising.” “You have your food, asshole. Now leave.” “Almost done.” I grab the jug of syrup and pour it over everything on my plate, earning me a scoff of disgust from Princess Trust Fund. “Can’t forget the syrup. Knowing your family, it probably came fresh from a maple tree this morning.” She plants her hand on her hip. “You don’t know shit about my family.” “I know you’re not using store brand like the rest of us peasants.” Steam should be shooting out of her ears with how red her face is. I’m pushing all the right buttons, and I’m enjoying it way too much. Eva is a ball of fire when she’s angry, and for some reason, I want to keep fueling the flame. “Are you done now?” I nod and carry my plate to the doorway, careful to not squish the blueberries beneath me. I stop and turn my head to look at her over my shoulder. “By the way, Linkin Park? Good choice, though you were a little pitchy there at the end.” “Ugh!” she screeches. And I duck as a muffin hurtles through the air. Eva Big Guy is out of breath when he arrives at The Waldorf Astoria hotel. Twenty minutes after me. I can’t help the grin that splits my face. Serves him right for the way he scared the shit out of me and then insulted me in my own kitchen earlier. “Is this how it’s going to be?” He lumbers toward me, his chest and shoulders heaving. “I have to chase you down every time you leave the house?” I give a noncommittal shrug. “I thought you were right behind me.” “Bullshit.” He presses on his abdomen like he has a cramp, and I roll my lips together to keep from laughing. “You’re out of shape, Big Guy.” “Look, if something happens to you and I’m not with you, your father’s going to fire me.” “That’s the point, genius.” “If it’s not me, it’ll just be someone else. He’ll hire another. Someone older, someone who can’t protect you like I can.” “Because you’re such a big, tough man?” I roll my eyes. “Nothing’s going to happen to me in broad daylight. You’re just mad because you couldn’t keep up with me. Get over it.” I’m being a bitch, I know. I’m taking my shit out on him when it should be directed at my father. But something about the way he looks when he’s pissed off makes me want to piss him off even more. His clenched jaw, the vein protruding from his neck. His emotion under all that muscle is raw, and I want to expose it. I like poking this bear. Deanna spots us and waltzes over with a big smile. “Hey, girl. Hi, body guard.” He lifts his chin in acknowledgement and steps back, leaning against a nearby wall. That’s about as much privacy as he’ll allow me. “This event is really starting to come together,” Deanna says. “You’re going to knock it out of the park.” “Thanks. I hope we raise a lot of money.” “We will.” She gives my shoulder a squeeze. “Eric would be proud.” Sadness creeps into the pit of my stomach every time his name is mentioned. I wonder if it always will. This year, I’m in charge of the event for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I’ve been planning this since I graduated high school last year. Now, it’s all coming to fruition and I need everything to be perfect. For me, it’s a cause that’s more than just a way for my family to give back to the community. More than an excuse to throw another party. Last year, my brother took his own life. The shock and devastation still haven’t worn off. Sometimes, it’s like I’m still in disbelief. Denial. As if it’s all one sick joke, and Eric will walk through the door any moment. It tore my family apart. My mom couldn’t handle it and left. One day she was here, and the next she was packing her bags and telling me how sorry she was. She abandoned me when I needed her most. I lost my brother, and then I lost my mother too. My father only gripped my reigns tighter. I became the only one he had left, so his mission is now to control my every move. This charity raises money to support the people who suffer with mental illnesses. It brings their families together, something I wish Eric could be here for. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. That I don’t think about him. That I don’t wish there was something more I could’ve done to save him from himself. I could’ve helped him. I should’ve tried harder. I should’ve done something more. Hot tears spring into my eyes. “I’ll be right back.” I push past Deanna. “Running to the bathroom and then we can get started on the seating chart.” I’m not in the hallway two seconds before the sound of boots clunk against the floor behind me. Damnit, not now. “You gonna follow me into the bathroom, Big Guy?” “That depends.” He swivels me until my back is against the wall, glowering at me through his stupid sunglasses. “On what?” “If you’re going to tell me what’s wrong.” Why the hell does he care? My watery eyes roll. “I’m fine. Just really need to pee.” “Do you tear up every time you need to pee?” I hike a shoulder and look down the long hallway, refusing to give in. “Doctors haven’t been able to explain it. Did you know one in 2,000 people cry every time they have the urge to urinate?” “Eva.” His voice is low, and surprisingly gentle. “What’s wrong?” Nobody ever asks me what’s wrong. They’re either too self-absorbed to notice, or too prim and proper to talk about real shit. They see someone upset and ignore it, pretending as if everything’s fine. It’s maddening. It’s like being trapped in fucking Pleasantville. But this man, a total stranger, asks me what’s wrong. And damnit if I don’t want to tell him. A lone tear escapes and rolls down my cheek. He reaches up and swipes it away with his thumb. His scorching touch lingers, skating along my jawline until it reaches my trembling chin. I slide my hands up his chest, willing myself to push him away, to run from him, but instead I pull him closer and bury my face in his shirt. His arms envelop me, dwarfing my body as he surrounds me. Comforts me. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s nothing like the people in my circle. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s supposed to be my own personal protector. Or maybe I’m just dying to find someone who truly understands me. Aren’t we all? Quiet sobs rack through me, a release I didn’t know I needed. I’ve shoved the pain of losing Eric so far down that it can’t get out. I sure as shit don’t ever let anyone see me cry. But as the anniversary of his death rolls around, it’s becoming harder to control. My emotions are getting the best of me no matter how hard I fight it. I lose track of how long we stand here, but he holds me tight without relenting. I can’t help but relish in how incredible this feels. To be held. To feel safe in someone else’s arms. To feel like I’m allowed to cry for as long as I need to, without the disappointment of the other person pulling away first. Because sometimes, we need to be held just a little bit longer than we let on. Which is why I have to break away. This needs to stop. I can’t open up to him. I don’t even know this guy. I wipe my eyes with the backs of my hands, and he watches me, silent, waiting for me to explain what’s going on. But I can’t. I won’t. So I slip inside the bathroom and lock the door behind me. I spend the rest of the day focusing on the charity event. In between sneaking glances at my body guard across the room. And I’m not the only one. Every woman that passes him shamelessly looks him up and down like he’s on display at a museum. A few desperate cougars are even bold enough to try chatting him up. He’s a good sport about it, respectful, but he doesn’t give them much. And never a smile. He takes his job very seriously. Me. I’m his job. Something I have to keep reminding myself. He isn’t hanging around me because he wants to. Then why did he seem to care about why I was upset before? Dad’s not paying him for therapy services. Why did he give a shit that I was crying? “Everything okay?” Deanna dips her head down to meet my gaze. “You spaced out there for a sec’.” I blink a few times. “Yeah, just have a headache.” “You’re not thinking about him, are you?” Shit. She’s going to call me out on staring at my hot body guard. I opt for playing dumb. “Thinking about who?” “Dominick,” she says, as if it should be obvious. My cheater of an ex-boyfriend? “Oh, hell no. Not at all.” “Good. He’s a lying sack of shit who isn’t worth your time.” “Amen to that, sister.” Her eyebrows press together. “So, if you’re not upset over him, then what’s wrong?” I shrug. “I guess it’s this event. I want everything to be perfect.” “It will be.” She nudges me with her shoulder. “And this year, you’ll have a sexy plus one.” I arch an eyebrow. “My body guard does not count as my plus one.” “Aha!” she shouts, pointing her index finger in my face. “You just admitted to thinking he’s sexy.” “No. I admitted to knowing that you think he’s sexy.” “Uh-huh. A likely story.” I glance over at him, at his expressionless face. “Those sunglasses are so annoying. I can’t tell where he’s looking.” “Don’t worry. He’s not looking at any of those thirsty vultures hovering around him.” I scoff. “I’m not worried.” Deanna smiles and shakes her head. She doesn’t believe me, and I don’t like it one bit. “Let’s call it a day. I’m starving.” I push to my feet and stretch my arms up over my head. “Wanna grab tacos?” “Sorry, can’t. I’m meeting Will for dinner. He wants to see me before our girl’s night later.” I smack her ass and grin. “Good for you. Go get some.” “I could say the same to you.” I shoot her a glare, and she giggles as she saunters away. Get some. I’d bet that big, bad body guard of mine could—nope. No way. Not going there. I sling my purse over my shoulder and strut right past him. He follows like a good dog. I’m too tired to run around the city trying to lose him, so we share a cab back to my place in silence. He stares out his window, and I stare out mine, all the while pretending not to feel the heat emanating from his thigh that’s pressed against mine. The dude takes up the entire back seat. It’s an awkward ride, but I’m thankful he doesn’t bring up my cry-fest earlier. It was a moment of weakness, and will not happen again. When we step into the elevator and lean against our respective sides, he speaks. “Why don’t you use your driver to get around?” “Because I don’t need a fancy car with a chauffeur. I’m perfectly capable of navigating this city on my own.” He nods. “I guess money for a cab every day isn’t a problem for someone like you.” And he just ruined it. “Fuck off! You don’t know the first thing about someone like me, so stop acting like you do.” He keeps his mouth shut while I seethe for the remainder of the elevator ride. I prefer it this way. He’s better looking with his mouth closed. When we reach my floor, I rush into the hallway to get away from him. Then I remember I’m going out with the girls tonight. He wants to keep insulting me? I’ll keep fucking with him. “No plans tonight,” I say, barely looking over my shoulder as I twist my key in the lock. “Your services won’t be needed.” Then I slam the door in his face. Chapter Four Graham “How’s it going, son?” “Fine.” “Did you find anything useful?” Of course he isn’t really calling to ask about me. “It’s only been a couple of days. This is going to take time, Dad. You realize that, right?” “Yes, yes, of course. Just thought I’d ask. How are you getting along with the girl?” A smirk takes over my lips at the thought of Eva. “She’s not happy about me being here.” “Ah, well, I’m sure you’ll break her down in no time. Tommy said she’s a scrappy little thing. Gave the boys a run for their money the other night.” My grip on my phone tightens. “Anything else you need? I’m still on the clock.” “No, just checking to—” I end the call before he can say anything else, and my head falls back against the wall with a thud. I hate him for putting me in this position. For forcing me to do his dirty work. I hate him for not caring about anyone but himself. More than anything though, I hate this desire I have to prove myself to him. Prove what, exactly? That I can succeed even though I gave up on my dream? That I’m better than him? That I’m worthy of his love? The man doesn’t love anyone but himself. He demonstrated that when he chose poker games over my wrestling matches. When he kicked my sister out after she got pregnant at sixteen. When he refused to keep Mom company during her chemotherapy. Every night, I lie awake thinking about what my life would be like if I walked away from him. I could be anyone I wanted. Live anywhere I wanted. I could make my own choices, make an honest living. It wouldn’t matter what I was doing, as long as it had nothing to do with him. But what would happen to my sister? Would she agree to come with me? Move my niece out of her home, away from her friends at school? Would I find a job that pays enough to take care of the three of us? A door opens, pulling me from my thoughts. The squeak of the hinge is slow, and I already know who it is before I peek around the corner. Eva said she was staying in tonight, which clued me in to the fact that she is not staying in tonight. Liar, liar. Princess pants on fire. “Fucking door,” Eva mutters under her breath. She tiptoes, cartoon style, across the hall until she gets to the elevator. I’d laugh if she didn’t look so jaw-droppingly hot. Her jeans are skin-tight, hugging her hourglass waistline, and under her leather jacket she’s sporting a tiny yellow halter top that could double as a bathing suit. Her tits are perfect handfuls, and her stomach is tight and toned. The girl’s got curves in all the right places. Focus, man. You’ve got a job to do. I debate jumping out right now and scaring the shit out of her, but that would be too easy. If she insists on trying to shake me off her trail, I’ll have to show her just how much she needs me by her side. I let her step inside the elevator and when the door closes, I take the next shaft down. When I get to the lobby, she’s pushing through the revolving door that leads outside. I keep a safe distance behind her and follow her several blocks east, waiting for the right moment. I try not to let the sway of her ass distract me too much. My stride speeds up as she approaches the next block. When I’m close enough, I wrap my arm around her waist and yank her around the corner. She yelps as I press her up against the wall of a building, holding her wrists and digging my hips into her so she can’t move. Her dark eyes widen with fear, and her chest heaves as she struggles against me. I scared her. Mission accomplished. Her eyes narrow when she realizes who I am. “What the fuck are you doing?” “Proving a point. Look how easily I caught you.” “You’re a psycho!” “And you’re lucky I wasn’t someone else.” “I wish you were,” she spits back. I lower my lips to her ear. “No, Eva. You don’t.” I don’t miss the way her body shudders against me. But she says nothing because she knows I’m right. And because she is stubborn as fuck. “Now, where are we going?” I ask like I’m speaking to a kindergartener. “I’m going to a party.” “Then I’m going with you.” Amusement dances in her eyes. “Guess you’re gonna have to let me go then, Big Guy. Or maybe you like this sort of thing, hmm? Holding a girl down, making her beg for it.” She rolls her hips against me. “Is that what gets you off?” My dick twitches and I release her arms, taking a step back. Giving her the perfect amount of room to knee me in the balls. “God damnit,” I yell, hunching over with my eyes squeezed shut. Eva’s laughter floats away as she darts across the street. I force my legs to move in spite of the shooting pain radiating down my groin. I will not let her get away. I walk two full blocks looking like the alien in Men in Black who needed more sugar in his water before I can stand fully upright. Sucking in deep breath after deep breath, I keep my eyes glued to the back of her head as she moves through the crowd. Every now and then, she glances over her shoulder and spots me. She can act as hostile as she wants, but her eyes give her away every time. Eva likes this little cat and mouse game we’ve got going on. I like it too. My balls, not so much. Eva’s walking into a ritzy apartment building by the time I catch up to her. When she steps inside, my chest hits her back, invading her space, her every move. She pretends it doesn’t bother her, but I can tell it does, judging by her tiny, balled-up fists at her sides. We enter a crowded elevator, and I remain behind her. Like the brat she is, she backs her ass right into my crotch and winks at me in the reflection of the mirrored wall. My fingers dig into her waist—telling her to stop or to keep going, I have no fucking clue at this point. The ends of her hair tickle my arms, and I imagine wrapping it around my fist while I— Ding. The elevator door slides open and everyone piles out. Loud bass from the music inside the party pulses in my ears as we approach the door at the end of the hallway. This is going to be a long night. “Damn, he’s fine.” Eva rolls her eyes and downs a Tequila shot. “The guy’s like herpes. Just when you think you got rid of him, boom! There he is again, back for more.” Deanna shakes her head, her eyes undressing me from where I stand several feet away. “I’d let him give me herpes.” “First of all, that’s disgusting. And you don’t know what it feels like to be followed around everywhere you go.” Eva’s still angry that I got the jump on her earlier. Even angrier that she wasn’t able to shake me. “It’s embarrassing having him here,” she says. “None of these prissy-ass bitches have body guards. It makes me look ridiculous.” “I think it makes you look important, which you are.” A brunette wraps her arm around Eva’s shoulders. “Forget about him and try to have a fun time.” Deanna’s smile drops and her expression hardens. “Dominick’s here, but he’s not alone.” I follow their gazes across the room, landing on some dude in black slacks and a pink dress shirt. His hair is gelled, swooped to the side like a tool, and he’s got his hands all over a busty blond. Who’s this Dominick guy to Eva, and why does his presence make her skin flush? More importantly, why does it anger me that someone like him has this effect on her? “I don’t care,” Eva says, even though her body language proves otherwise. She pours herself another shot and throws it back. Then she pulls Deanna by the hand and leads her to the makeshift dance floor in the middle of the spacious room. Pushing into the middle of the crowd, she positions herself so her back is to Dominick. Her friends gather around her and they move to the awful music blaring through the speakers. Eva isn’t dressed like the other girls here, not even her friends. She sticks out like a sore thumb, and I wonder why she’d want to come to a party like this. It isn’t her style. It doesn’t take long for Dominick to spot her, and when he makes his way to the dance floor, the answer becomes clear: Eva’s not here to have fun. She’s here to prove something. Her eyes are closed, arms overhead, hips swaying to the beat. She’s taunting him. Showing him what he’s missing. Deanna leans in to whisper in her ear, and Eva’s eyes pop open to find mine. I’m already on the move, but she shakes her head, eyes pleading with me to stay put. She wants this, wants to hear whatever he has to say. My jaw clenches, but I nod and let her know I’ll play nice. For now. Dominick smiles at Eva’s friends as he approaches, but they cross their arms over their chests, glaring at him like best friends should. Eva glances over her shoulder, barely acknowledging him, before she turns back around and continues to dance. The dick steps in front of her and snakes his arms around her waist. Eva presses both hands against his chest and pushes him back. They exchange words, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. I move toward them, shoving people out of my way. Deanna steps in front of me before I can get there. “Wait. She needs to do this.” “Who is he?” “Her ex. He cheated on her. She found out the night she got jumped. She’s had a rough week.” Guilt twists my insides. “The guy’s a real piece of shit,” Deanna continues. “She wasn’t in love with him or anything. Eva never lets anyone get too close for that, but still.” Eva’s hands fly as she shouts at him, and she gestures to the blond who Dominick was cozied up with moments before. He shakes his head, probably giving her some pathetic excuse. But she doesn’t buy it. She flips him off and starts weaving through the crowd in the opposite direction. Good girl. Then Dominick grabs her wrist and yanks her back to him. And my patience snaps like a twig. In two strides, I’m there and jerking him back by his collar. I drag him to the other side of the dance floor, and don’t stop until I toss him through the exit. He stumbles into the hallway and whips around. “What the fuck, bro?” “Stay the fuck away from Eva.” He smooths the out-of-place hairs on his stupid gelled head. “Who the hell are you?” I’m about to show him just who the fuck I am when Eva’s hand wraps around my bicep. “He’s mine.” My dick hardens at those two words. Dipshit’s mouth hangs open, eyes flicking between the two of us. “Eva, you serious right now? This guy?” I chuckle. “I guess your Richie Rich pencil dick just doesn’t do it for her like I can.” He balls his hands into fists and lunges toward me. In one swift move, I push Eva behind me and connect my fist with his jaw. He staggers backward and I jam my forearm into his neck, pressing him against the wall. “Like I said, stay away from Eva. Otherwise, you’ll be choking on your own dick when I rip it off and ram it down your throat. You got that, pretty boy?” He nods, sputtering against the pressure of my arm in his jugular. I should stop, but I hold him there just to drive my point home. It feels good to let go, to release some of this tension. Asshole’s face turns a nice shade of purple, and I dig my arm deeper. Eva’s palm slides up my back, pulling me back to reality. “Easy, Big Guy.” I snap out of it and step back. Dominick falls to the ground, clutching his throat like a pussy. Eva’s eyes are wide, looking at me with a mixture of fear and shock and ... intrigue? Shit, that got out of hand. I step over Dominick and stalk around the corner to find the elevator. I can’t go back inside the party, not like this. The vein in my neck pulses, and my vision is spotty. I need air. Need to calm the fuck down. Eva slips inside the elevator behind me just before the door closes. She leans against the opposite wall, surveying me as we descend. “What are you looking at?” I grit out. “You.” “Why?” “Because I’m curious.” “About what?” “About why you have so much anger inside you.” I heave a sigh and rake my fingers through my hair. “I could ask you the same question. But I don’t ask questions I already know the answers to.” Her eyebrow arches. “And what’s the answer?” “Because we’re both stuck living lives we don’t want to live.” Her eyes widen for a split second, like she’s surprised—surprised that I know how she feels, or surprised that I called her out on her bullshit. “Then why are you here?” She pushes off the wall and steps into the middle of the elevator. “If you’re not happy in your life, then why not just walk away and go somewhere else?” “What about you?” I counter. “Why bother going to these parties with uptight pricks? Why date someone like that Great Gatsby-wannabe piece of shit upstairs?” Her mouth opens, then she clamps it shut. “Exactly.” The elevator opens and I leave her inside, not bothering to check if she’s coming with me. Once the cool air hits my skin, I feel better. I roll my neck and start making my way back to Eva’s place. “Wait, I don’t want to go home yet,” she says, running to keep up with my pace. “So then go back to your little party. Have fun.” She scoffs. “That party isn’t fun.” I grind my teeth together and my feet stop moving at the corner. I can’t let her go off on her own. Her father would fire me, and my own would kill me. “Fine. Where do you want to go?” Eva unzips her purse and pulls out a bottle of Tequila. “Stole this from the party. Let’s go get fucked up.” Eva If this morning you told me that tonight, I’d be sitting in the stairwell of my building getting drunk with my bodyguard, I’d have laughed in your face. Yet here we are. Life’s funny that way. Big Guy snapped tonight. His composed, stoic façade dropped and I saw something in him, something real. I want to keep scratching at his surface, peel back the layers to get deeper. I have a feeling there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye. I unscrew the cap on the tequila bottle and take a swig before passing it to him. He tilts his head back and I watch the way his full lips wrap around the opening, the way his chiseled jaw flexes as it opens, the way his Adam’s apple bobs against his thick neck. I’m ogling him shamelessly, and I’m about to look away as he sets the bottle on the floor between us. But then he pulls off his sunglasses and hooks them onto the neckline of his shirt. Damn. I’d assumed his eyes were dark like his hair, but man was I wrong. Striking green eyes stare back at me, and I’m sucked in. Everything else about him is menacing and mysterious, like the black ocean at nighttime. But his irises are as brilliant as the sun. They seize you, pinning you in place like a spotlight, illuminating your every flaw. When they’re on you, there’s nowhere for you to hide. “What?” He shifts under the weight of my gaze. “You should really stop hiding those eyes behind your sunglasses.” He looks away, sliding his fingers through his hair. Big Guy doesn’t like compliments. Interesting. “You know, I don’t even know your name.” He takes another shot from the bottle. “Does it matter?” “It does if you’re going to be my giant-sized shadow for the next however long.” He pauses, hesitating for some reason. “It’s Graham.” Graham Carter. That’s yummy. “I like it.” I nudge him with my shoulder. “Still gonna call you Big Guy.” His lips twitch. “Figured as much.” “Look, I’m sorry I’ve been taking my shit out on you. It’s not your fault my dad hired you.” He’s quiet for a moment, seeming lost in thought, before he speaks. “What you said to Deanna yesterday about your dad, I get that. More than you know. My father made me take this job, and I didn’t have a choice. I don’t want to be here just as much as you don’t want me here. But I can’t tell him no.” “Why not?” “It’s complicated.” He glances away. “At least your father cares about you. He’s scared that someone’s going to hurt you, worse than they already did. If my presence can ease his mind a little, then what’s so wrong about that?” I shake my head. “It eases his mind to know he can control me. Don’t mistake that for love.” “You have a fight in you that I admire. I wish I could tell my dad no as easily as you do.” “I’ve had a lot of practice.” A humorless laugh escapes me. “I’ve been disappointing my father since the day I was born. He wanted a boy, he got me. He wanted me to play piano, I played soccer. He hates tattoos, I got three. He wants me to help run his business, I’d rather die.” Why am I telling him all this? I’ve said too much, but it’s too late to take it all back. So, I square my shoulders and brace myself for the look of pity that always follows. But it doesn’t come. Neither does the judgement. Graham’s emerald eyes are only filled with understanding. “We want to please our fathers, but that means we can’t be who we really are. We have to choose: be ourselves, or be who they want us to be. You should take pride in the fact that you’re fearless enough to stay true to yourself, but that comes with a shitload of guilt.” I’m rendered speechless. Something fucked up in him reflects the something that’s fucked up in me. He actually gets it. He gets me. I avert my attention to the stairs below us, breaking the pull those green orbs of his have on me. “You said three tattoos.” He side-eyes me, arching an eyebrow. “I don’t see the other two.” “Guess you’ll have to use your imagination then,” I say with a wink, earning me another one of his sexy smirks. “Do you have any ink?” “No.” “Why not?” “I’ve never loved anything so much that I wanted it branded on my skin forever.” “That’s fair. And also kind of sad. There has to be something you love. Someone.” He doesn’t respond to that. Instead, he leans back against the wall and silence settles between us. So there is someone. Or there was. “What’d you see in Dominick?” His question catches me off guard. Nobody’s ever asked me something in such a blunt way before. So I deflect and hike a shoulder. “He’s good-looking. Has money. What’s not to like?” Graham’s head swivels to face me, but he says nothing. He doesn’t have to. He knows my response was bullshit. And I don’t like that he can see through my bullshit. I fold my arms. “Then why don’t you tell me since you’re so smart?” “You dated him because you knew it was a waste of time,” he says, like it’s obvious. “Because it was safe. Because you keep people at arm’s length where they can’t hurt you.” “How was he safe? The asshole cheated on me.” “Because you knew he would fuck it up. He was predictable. The movie can’t take you by surprise when you already know how it’s going to end.” Shit, he’s good. “All right, Dr. Phil. That’s enough psychoanalysis for one night.” I tip an extra-long pour of tequila into my mouth. “Tattoos and tequila,” he mumbles. “Never would’ve guessed.” I smirk. “There’s lots about me that would surprise you.” “I’m learning that. Thought you were a Park Avenue princess when I took this job.” “Disappointed?” He chuckles and looks away. “Hardly.” “Holy shit. Was that an actual smile?” I sit up on my knees and grip his face to examine him, yanking his jaw left and right. “I didn’t think it was possible.” His smile spreads wider and a slight redness tinges his cheeks. Something warm pools in my stomach. Now I can’t decide if his smile or his glare is sexier. He swats me away and I slouch back down beside him. We take turns drinking in comfortable quiet. By the time we’ve drank half the bottle, my muscles feel loose and my vision is fuzzy. “You were right about what you said about Dominick,” I say, a slight slur in my speech. “I know.” “Still sucks being cheated on. Even if I did see it coming.” “You’re better off. He could never handle a girl like you.” “A girl like me?” Here we go again with the assumptions. “You’ve got fire in your veins and passion in your heart. Those vapid, trust-fund kids will never be able to hold a candle to you. You’re different.” Being the black sheep in a herd of expensive white ones is something I’m acutely aware of. I’ve known it, been called it, my whole life. It’s not a good thing. When adults look down their noses at you and call you different, it’s meant as a derogatory comment. But the same phrase coming from Graham’s mouth ... it means something else entirely. “How do you know that?” I ask. “You don’t even know me.” “It’s my job to read people.” His job. Of course. But then he continues. “It’s easy to see you’re nothing like them, Eva. You need to find someone who can appreciate all that you are because you’re incredible.” He freezes with lifted eyebrows, looking surprised at his own words, like he didn’t expect them to come out. I didn’t expect them either. No one’s ever seen anything more than what I allow them to see. Nobody’s bothered to look further. Graham abruptly stands with the bottle of tequila, a slight sway in his stance. He holds out his hand for me to take, and I let him lead me back to my place, allowing myself to enjoy the feel of his large hand wrapped around mine for those short moments. “Night, Big Guy.” I pat him on the shoulder and leave him in the hallway as I stumble to my bedroom, my head a swirling mess of drunken thoughts. I do like predictable guys. It softens the blow when they hurt you. But nothing about Graham is predictable. Which means I’m in big fucking trouble. Chapter Five Graham I’m in big fucking trouble. I’m supposed to be pretending to be Eva’s bodyguard, not getting drunk and telling her how incredible she is while we’re alone in the stairwell. Dad would shit a brick if he found out. Then again, I could say I’m just following his orders, gaining Eva’s trust. He’d believe it. But the truth is, she’s distracting me more than anything. I was up all night thinking about her, when I should be thinking about the real reason I’m here. I need to get back inside Montalbano’s office. But I slept through my alarm this morning and missed my chance to catch him before he left for work, which also means I missed my chance to get another invite into his home. Had I not been out late drinking with his daughter last night, I’d have been here early enough. So, today’s mission is to focus. And not on Eva. I’m just finishing my second cup of coffee when Eva struts into the hallway. She’s in a short and flowy black dress with tiny red roses all over it. Much more innocent and subdued than her usual attire, but her combat boots and leather jacket add that edge she goes for. As rich as her family is, she doesn’t flaunt it with brand names and designer purses. She beats to her own drum. Her devilish smirk is in place like I knew it would be. No doubt she woke up feeling vulnerable after our talk last night. So today, she’s back to attitude and sass. I’d say it’s better that way, but I happen to like that feisty assertiveness she exudes. I like it a lot. “Morning, Big Guy. Busy day. Hope I didn’t wear you out too much last night.” “Don’t worry about me.” I hand her the latte I bought her on the way over this morning, and note the way her lips part in surprise. Something that tells me she’s taken care of in this big, expensive tower, but nobody truly takes care of her. She blows it off, saying she can take care of herself, and she can. I have no doubt. But she deserves more. I know I can’t give that to her. I’d be a fool to think I could while I’m in the position I’m in. But there’s no harm in brightening her day with a cup of coffee. Right? Inside the elevator, she slips on a large pair of sunglasses. We lean against opposing walls, staring at each other from behind our dark frames. She needs to wear them more often. It’s the only thing protecting me from that doe-eyed look she gave me last night when she gazed up at me as we said goodnight. The kind of look that makes me think she sees something in me that’s worth a second glance. The kind of look that makes me want to show her that there is. The kind of look that makes me want to grab her and plant a kiss on that smart mouth of hers. Which I absolutely cannot do. Like I said ... I’m in big fucking trouble. “What happened to you last night?” Deanna asks. “You disappeared and Dominick walked back into the party with a massive bruise on his face.” I smirk, glad to know I left my mark on that prick’s face. “Wish I could say it was from me.” Eva jerks her thumb in my direction. “Big Guy put him in his place.” Deanna’s eyes flick between the two of us. “Really?” Eva nods, holding up a place card. “I think we should move Mrs. DeAngelis. If we keep her at Table Four, she’ll get into it with Mrs. Bromley.” Deanna snatches the place card out of her hand. “Put her wherever. Now tell me what happened last night!” Eva sighs, her shoulders slumping forward. “Nothing happened, Dee. Dominick mouthed off so my body guard punched him. Then we left. There’s nothing to tell. Now can we please focus on the seating chart? I told you, I need everything to be perfect for this event.” “Everything will be perfect. You need to relax. You’re putting too much stress on yourself.” “I just want to give this charity the event it deserves. It’ll get a lot of exposure, and it can help a lot of people out there. The last thing I need is one of these stuck-up, entitled women to cause a scene and ruin the whole night.” Deanna rubs small circles on Eva’s back. “I know how much this charity means to you. But you’re doing everything you can to make sure everything goes smoothly. You can’t control what these women do.” “I can if I seat them in the right spots.” “Maybe you should take a break. You’ve been planning this for months. When’s the last time you spent the day in the park? You used to love going there and sketching while Eric painted.” Who’s Eric? This is the second time I’ve heard Deanna mention his name. Eva’s face hardens, her lips pressing into a firm line. “Yeah, I used to love going there with Eric. That’s why I don’t do it anymore.” Deanna hesitates before pressing forward. “Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean you can’t still do those things. I’ll go with you, if you want.” “No, Dee. I appreciate the offer, but I just want to focus on this event.” “And what happens when the event is over?” Deanna asks. “Then what will you focus on?” “Who are you, my father?” Eva’s eyebrows dip low and her fists clench at her sides. “I don’t need this shit right now. If you’re not going to help me, I’ll do it on my own. Just get off my back, Dee!” Deanna chews on her bottom lip and takes a few steps backward before turning around and leaving Eva at the table by herself. I push off the wall and go over to where Eva’s standing. “She’s just being a good friend, you know. You shouldn’t push her away like that.” Eva holds her hand up, palm facing me. “Spare me the psychiatry, Freud. You’re getting paid to watch my back, not eavesdrop on my conversations. And take off the sunglasses, will you? You’re inside! You look ridiculous.” I dip my head down so I’m nose to nose with her. “You can insult me all you want, but don’t push away the one friend you have. Seems like she’s the only one who gives a shit about you, and if that’s how you treat her, I can’t figure out why.” I turn and leave her there with her mouth gaped, before she can spit any more venom. She’s clearly hurting, and Deanna struck a chord by bringing up this Eric guy, but that doesn’t give her the right to lash out at everyone around her. My sister taught me that lesson. I was a mess after Mom died. Angry at the world, spewing hate onto everyone who came near me. If it weren’t for my sister, I’m not sure I’d have been able to pull myself out of the darkness on my own. I’d probably have ended up just like my father. If I’m not already slated to become him. I don’t call Jen as much as I should. I lean back against the wall and pull my phone from my pocket, clicking on Jen’s number. My niece’s little voice comes through the speaker. “Hi, Uncle Graham.” “Hey, Gwennie. How are you doing?” “I’m good. I miss you.” I chuckle at her heavy lisp. “I miss you too. Did you lose another tooth?” “I lost my top tooth! The big one, right in front.” “That’s worth the most money. How much did the Tooth Fairy give you?” “She only gave me two dollars. Mommy says the Tooth Fairy is getting cheap. I guess a lot of kids are losing their teeth and she doesn’t have enough money to pay for them. Uncle Graham, why does the Tooth Fairy want all our teeth anyway? What does she do with them?” “What does your mother think she does with them?” “She says she collects them to keep building her castle. But I think that’s creepy. Why would she want to live in a castle made out of teeth? That’s not very sanitation.” I bark out a laugh, throwing my head back. “You mean sanitary. And you’re right. It’s not very sanitary. I think your mother is a little coocoo.” She giggles. “Mommy, Uncle Graham thinks you’re coocoo.” “Tell him the feeling’s mutual,” she says, taking the phone. “Hello, brother. Nice of you to call your dear old sister.” “I’m sorry. Dad has me on this important case, and it’s been a busy week.” Jen sighs. “I wish you’d find another job.” “If I could find one that pays better, I would.” “What kind of case are you working now?” I scratch at the scruff on my jaw, unsure of how much I should say. “It’s a high-profile case. Pays well. I can mail you a check at the end of the month.” She’s quiet. She wants to tell me that I don’t have to send her money, but she knows she needs it. So instead, she says nothing. “Let’s have lunch when I’m done with this case,” I say. “I miss you and Gwennie.” “We miss you too, big bro. Just let me know when you’re free.” When I’m free. Free from this job. Free from my father’s chokehold. I’m counting down the seconds to be rid of it all. My glance slides over to Eva. But I don’t want to be rid of her. Eva I’m in no mood to go out tonight. Instead, I plan a date with my nightly bath, a luxury I don’t take for granted. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you a big-ass bathtub to soak in when life gets hard. I pour in half a bag of Epsom salt and swish it around with my foot before lowering myself into the hot water. Between planning this event and nursing a tequila hangover, my head is pounding and my muscles are wound up tight. It also might have a little something to do with the fight I had with Deanna earlier, and even more to do with the words Graham scolded me with. I was out of line with Deanna. I admit that, and I’ll apologize to her tomorrow. We go through this every once in a while. She pushes me a little too hard, and I pull back. We’ve been friends for years. It’s what we do. But Graham had no right to insert himself into my business. No matter how true his words were. I lash out when I’m upset. It’s defense mechanism 101. But nobody’s ever called me out on it. That’s just Eva, they say. People label me as a bitch or a hard-ass, and I don’t bother to correct them. It’s easier that way. Easier than telling them why I’m so angry all the time. Easier than opening up, and letting them in. Nobody gets in my face. Nobody tells me off. But Graham sees through me like I’m made of glass, and he puts me in my place. He’s getting under my skin. I practice deep breathing and try to clear my mind so I can relax. But no matter how many times I start over, my thoughts keep bringing me back to those damn green eyes, and the man they belong to. There’s something about him that has my attention, and it’s more than bulging biceps and a handsome face. And captivating jade eyes, and hair thick enough to pull on, and full lips I would give up my left foot to feel, and ... You get the point. Graham’s gorgeous, but I’m drawn to him on a deeper level. He’s not like the people in my world. Often times, I’m reminded that I’m not like these people either. Not Deanna, as much as I love her. Not even my own father. Eric was my person, but he left me here alone. I’ve only known Graham for a couple of days, but it feels like I’ve known him longer. He sees me in a way nobody else has. Maybe we’re kindred souls. Eric would love that notion. He always used to say that everything happens for a reason. Maybe the reason I got attacked the other night was to bring Graham into my life. Don’t be ridiculous. I almost laugh out loud at myself. I’m a job to Graham. Nothing more. But why do I feel like there’s more? I heave a sigh and give up on relaxation. I pull the plug out of the drain and get out of the tub. After throwing on sweats, I let my hair air dry and pad into the hall. “Evangeline.” I back up a few steps and pop my head into Dad’s office. “Yeah?” He smiles, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. “Come in. Tell your old man about your day.” Great. Meaningless small talk, as per usual. I drag myself into the room and plop down into the chair. “How’s the event coming along?” I shrug. “Fine.” He sighs, sliding his glasses off and setting them onto the desk. “Why do you insist on making conversation so difficult?” “Why do you insist on picking such insignificant topics to talk about?” His head jerks back. “I thought this event was important to you.” “The charity is important. You want to discuss mental health, Dad? I’m all ears. Please, tell me what you think about depression.” “You act as if you’re the only one who lost Eric.” “And you act as if he never existed.” Dad scoffs. “That’s ridiculous.” “Is it? Look around this place. You’ve removed every single picture of him. Mom I get. But Eric? He’s still your son, even though he’s gone. Yet you’ve locked his things away in storage and gotten rid of every piece of him that was in this place!” Dad’s eyebrows pinch together and his mouth opens, but no sound comes out. “You didn’t even ask me,” I say, my voice much lower than before. “You didn’t ask if I wanted any of his things, or how I was feeling when it all happened. How I’m feeling now. You never do.” Dad’s eyes water as he shakes his head. “I ... I’m sorry, Evangeline. I didn’t think ...” I rise from the chair. “That’s the problem. You didn’t think. You only think about yourself.” Then I turn and leave, and Dad doesn’t try to stop me. He’ll let me continue feeling this way because he doesn’t care enough to try to fix it. On my way into the kitchen, I glance over at the front door. What’s Graham doing out there? Is he hungry? Does he get bored? What’s he thinking about? Fuck it. I collect what I need from the fridge and throw it into a shopping bag. Graham “Are you fucking crazy?” My question is rhetorical. I’m certain she’s crazy. Eva’s perched at the edge of the roof, feet dangling over the city that’s 1,396 feet below us. Smiling. Because she’s crazy. “Come on, Eva. One gust of wind could blow you right off the roof.” “Then I guess it’s a good thing it’s not windy tonight.” I glare at her and she grins. “Big Guy’s afraid of heights. Never would’ve guessed it.” “I’m not afraid of heights,” I say. “I’m afraid of you falling to your death.” “I won’t fall. You’re here to protect me, remember?” “I’m a bodyguard, not a superhero.” She outstretches her hand toward me. “Just come sit with me for thirty seconds, and I’ll get down.” “Not gonna happen.” She shrugs and hops up onto her feet, walking along the edge of the building like she’s on a tightrope. My heart leaps into my throat. “Eva, please.” “Thirty seconds is all it will take for me to get down.” My jaw clenches as an exasperated breath leaves me. “Fine.” Eva lowers herself back down, straddling the roof so only one leg hangs over the edge. She pats the space in front of her, and I sit facing her. “You come up here by yourself?” “Sometimes. I used to come up here with my brother,” she says. “You have a brother?” “I used to.” My chest tightens. “What happened?” “He killed himself last year.” Oh God. That’s who Eric is. “Eva, I’m so sorry.” She shrugs and looks down at all the people bustling around the streets below. “He used to say that fear isn’t real. That it’s created by our minds, and if we let fear control us, then we’re prisoners inside our own bodies. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Not even death.” “Now I know where you get your reckless streak from.” She smiles, a real genuine smile, and something tugs at my heart. Even in baggy sweatpants and a hoodie with damp hair, she’s breathtakingly beautiful. “I make it a point to do the things I’m afraid of. If I conquer a fear, then it can’t control me anymore.” I nod. “And it makes you feel close to him.” Her smile fades as she looks into my eyes. “You’ve only known me for a few days, yet you seem to understand me better than the people who’ve known me my entire life. Why is that?” “It’s not about the amount of time you spend with someone.” “What is it about then?” “It’s about the quality of that time, if you’re truly listening to what people are saying, even when they’re not saying anything at all. You have to listen in the silence too. That’s when people speak the most.” Eva’s chin drops. “I wish you were around to listen to Eric’s silence. Maybe you could’ve heard what I wasn’t able to.” I reach out in spite of myself and cup her face. “It’s not your fault, Eva. You know better than anyone how we try to hide the darkest parts of ourselves, the parts we’re too ashamed to let people see.” “What are you hiding, Graham? What are you ashamed of?” Her questions hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. I choose my words carefully before answering. “I’m ashamed to want the things I shouldn’t.” “Like what?” “Another life. A fresh start. Doing something selfish for once.” My gaze falls to her lips, and it takes all my power not to claim them. “Wanting you.” Fuck, I shouldn’t have said that. “Why shouldn’t you want me?” Her voice is barely a whisper. “Because I can’t give you what you deserve.” “What if I said that whatever you have to offer would be enough?” She bites her bottom lip, regret churning in her eyes as soon as the honest words leave her mouth. My brave girl. Before I can stop myself, I reach up and my thumb pulls her lip out from between her teeth, sliding across its plumpness. How easy it would be to kiss her right now. She’s waiting for me to make a move. I can see the desire in her eyes, the way her chest rises and falls in short bursts. She wants it as much as I do. But I can’t. Not while I’m going behind her back and looking for ways to destroy her father’s business. Yet another thing my father ruins for me. My hand drops into my lap, where it needs to stay. “You deserve more than just enough, Eva. Don’t ever settle for less than everything you want.” She nods, the corners of her mouth pulling down. “All right, Big Guy. Your thirty seconds are up. Let’s get down.” Chapter Six Eva “I’m sorry about yesterday.” Deanna waves me off. “Don’t be. It’s okay.” “No, Dee. It’s not okay. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. You’re my best friend, and you were just trying to help.” She nods. “I was. I hate seeing you upset.” “I know.” I rub my eyes and then run my fingers through my hair, blowing a stream of air between my lips. “You’re right, though. I’m throwing myself into this event full-steam ahead.” “It’s almost dinner time and you worked through lunch. I’ve never seen you like this before.” I look down at all the place cards scattered around me. “We’re only halfway done with the seating chart. I just want to get this done so I can check it off my list.” “We’re ahead of schedule. Don’t run yourself into the ground.” I glance to the opposite side of the room where Graham is posted. “I guess I’m just trying to keep busy.” Busy thinking about the fact that Graham admitted to wanting me last night. Followed by the fact that he’s ashamed of it. He sees himself as less than what I deserve, as if I want this lavish lifestyle I was born into. But I don’t need money to make me happy. My world is filled with expensive things, yet I walk around like a hollow shell of myself, dead inside. Nothing here makes me feel alive. Not the way Graham has made me feel this past week. Deanna raises her perfectly manicured brows. “And does this have anything to do with the six-foot-four hunk of man meat standing over there?” I bury my face in my hands. “If I say yes, are you going to squeal really loud?” “Oh my God,” she whisper-screams, tearing my hands away from my face. “I knew it!” “Pffft. You knew nothing.” “Please. The tension in this room is palpable. And he keeps casting these longing glances in your direction whenever you’re not looking. The dude looks like someone kicked his puppy.” I cross my arms over my chest. “You can tell all of that with his sunglasses on?” She shrugs. “It’s my superpower.” “He’s working for my father, Dee. He’s getting paid to be with me. If Dad fired him today, he’d be gone.” “Don’t use that as an excuse. If you feel something for him, then make a move. Go for it. And if he tries to leave, don’t let him.” “Are we talking metaphorically, or are you telling me to Kathy Bates his ass if he tries to leave me?” Deanna giggles and shoves my shoulder. “You know what I mean. Go after what you want. You deserve to be happy.” I do, don’t I? And so did Eric. Maybe I can try to be happy for the both of us, little brother. Deanna pulls me to my feet. “Now, go. We’ll deal with the seating arrangement tomorrow.” I fling my arms around her shoulders and pull her into a hug. “Love you, Dee-Money.” “Love you back, Eva-licious.” I toss my leather jacket around my shoulders as I make my way over to Graham. “Let’s go, Big Guy. I’m starving.” He lifts a brown paper bag off the floor and hands it to me. Inside is a burrito wrapped in foil from the taco truck down the street. When I look up at him, he shrugs like it’s no big deal. “Figured you’d be hungry.” When was the last time someone did something for me that wasn’t out of obligation? Graham’s getting paid to be my bodyguard, but he’s not getting paid to bring me lattes and burritos. This is different. My heart hammers inside my chest. Go after what you want. “Wanna take a ride with me?” “Aren’t you tired?” he asks. “You worked your ass off today.” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Come on. I know the perfect place.” I bite my bottom lip to keep the laughter from bubbling out. “If you laugh, I’m not doing this.” Graham glares down at me, which at the moment instills about as much fear as a kitten. He’s wearing my spare motorcycle helmet, the one I bought for Deanna to wear whenever she rides with me. It’s hot pink with purple Hibiscus decals on each side. “I think pink really brings out the color of your eyes,” I say. “Just get on the damn bike and let’s go.” I swing my leg over the bike. “You ever ride as a passenger before?” “Have you ever ridden with a passenger as heavy as me before?” “Don’t worry. I know how to handle a big guy like you.” I wink as I pat the seat behind me. It’s all fun and flirty until he straddles the seat behind me, pushing himself flush to my back, his bulge against my ass. “You sure about that, princess?” The low rumble of his voice in my ear sends goosebumps flying across my skin. His huge hands wrap around my midsection, and I battle to keep my breathing even, praying he can’t feel my racing pulse. His massive presence surrounds me, and I can’t hide my body’s reaction to the way it feels to be this close to him. I turn the key and fire up the engine. When the coast is clear, I pull out into traffic and weave through the busy streets. We fly through the tunnel leading out of the city and once we’re on the other side of it, I punch it. There’s something calming about slicing through the air at lightning speed, leaving the world behind you in a blur. Sometimes I think about taking off and never coming back. Manhattan is the only place I’ve ever lived. I don’t know where else I’d go, or what I’d do when I got there. But I’d figure it out. It’s a tempting thought. When I reach the destination, I slow down and pull off the road to park. We stand and stretch, hanging our helmets off each handle. Graham scans the area. “So, where are we?” “Nowhere.” I grab the burrito bag and step into the overgrown grass. “Follow me.” We disappear into the heavy woods. I know I’m getting close when I hear the sound of running water. The trees clear up ahead, and the riverbank comes into view. “Never would’ve taken you for a nature girl.” “Told you, I’m full of surprises.” I lower myself in front of the river until my ass hits the ground. Graham takes the space beside me, resting his elbows on his knees. “How’d you find this place?” “After Eric died, my mom moved out. It was so abrupt. She just packed up and left. One second, I had a family, and the next ... I lost everything. It was all too much. I couldn’t deal. So, I’d drive out of the city and keep going, pretending I could leave this life behind and start a new one. “One night, I caught glimpses of the river through the trees. It looked so quiet, so different from the concrete jungle we live in.” I shrug. “It’s pretty damn peaceful.” “Where did your mom go?” “Don’t know, don’t care.” “Shit,” he mutters. “That sucks.” “Sometimes, I envy her. She got out. Goes wherever she pleases.” “Doesn’t mean she’s happy.” He’s right. Never thought of it that way. I’ve pictured her content and carefree, living a better life without us. It hasn’t dawn on me until now that her demons could’ve followed her there. I huff out a laugh. “Dead brother, abandoned by my mom. I’ve got a lot of baggage, huh?” “I’ve got baggage too. Everyone does.” He lays back on the grass, folding his arms behind his head, eyes searching the sky. “Don’t be ashamed to unpack it in front of someone.” I lay on my side, facing him, enjoying the unobstructed view of his beautiful face. “If you could do anything, be anything, what would you choose?” Graham is quiet. I give him time to think, glad he didn’t spit out a generic answer. “I always thought I’d be a fighter.” My eyebrows lift. “Like a boxer?” “An MMA fighter. I had sponsors lined up and everything.” “What happened?” “My mom found out she had a brain tumor. It didn’t respond to the chemo, so the doctor gave her less than six months to live. I spent all my time with her, wanting to soak up as much of it as I could. I was too scared to leave her, even for an hour, because I didn’t know if it would be the last time I’d see her. So, I stopped fighting. I quit.” My chest aches in the same hollow spot Eric left when he died. Graham knows grief as well as I do. I reach out and gently turn his face to look at me. “You didn’t quit. You put your mother first, which is what family is supposed to do.” His glossy eyes mirror mine. “After she died, I couldn’t bring myself to fight again. I didn’t have it in me. I lost the spark. Nothing mattered if she wasn’t there to see it.” “You can find things that matter to you now. Your mom would want you to.” “So would your brother.” Right again. Opening up to Graham is effortless. The more we share, the deeper I want to go. He’s been planted like a tree inside me, his roots entangling and twisting around my heart. And that’s dangerous. “Okay, that’s enough of this mushy gushy shit.” I hoist myself up and brush the dirt and grass from my backside. He leans up onto his elbows. “Where are you going?” “To have some fun.” Kicking off my boots, I pop the button on my jeans and shimmy them down my legs. Graham keeps his wide eyes locked on mine. I’ll give it to him, he has restraint. If the situation were reversed, I’d be eye-fucking every bare inch of his perfect physique. Even as I pull my shirt up and over my head, his gaze never wanders. I spin around and unclasp my bra, letting it slide down my arms to the ground. Then I strut toward the river wearing nothing but a black lace thong and a smile. Before I dip my toe into the water, Graham’s presence is behind me. My muscles tighten, tension coiling my stomach. He’s so close, yet he’s not touching me at all. “The water looks cold.” His deep voice stokes the fire within me, his hot breath on my skin causing the hairs on my neck to stand up. “Don’t worry, Big Guy. I know the cold causes shrinkage. I won’t judge.” He chuckles. “Oh, I’m not worried about shrinkage.” He brushes past me, giving me the most glorious view of his smooth, broad back, and his round, muscular ass. Then he dives into the water. After I scrape my jaw off the ground, I jump in after him and welcome the cool water that surrounds me. We pedal our feet to stay afloat, keeping the water level around our shoulders. “Do you skinny dip with all your clients?” I flick water in his face. “Only the pains in the asses.” “So just me then?” He smirks. “Yeah, just you.” I circle him like a shark. “Can you teach me how to fight one day?” His head tilts to the side. “You being serious?” “Why not? You’re not going to be around to protect me forever.” Why does that thought sting so much? “Sure. I can teach you some moves.” Graham’s back goes ramrod straight. “Uh, Eva ...?” “What’s wrong?” “Please tell me that was your foot that just grazed against my leg.” My stomach tightens and I shake my head. “What kind of animals live in a river?” “I don’t know but I saw something once on Planet Earth about—fuck! It just touched me again.” Something slides against my leg next and I scream. “It just touched me too!” “Shit, what if it’s an alligator?” “Don’t say that!” I lunge toward him and dive into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist and clutching onto him for dear life. “What do we do?” Graham throws his head back and laughs. The fucker laughs. “Is this a nervous thing? Why are you laughing when we’re about to get eaten by an alligator?” His eyes squeeze shut and now he’s laughing harder. “I was just fucking with you. Nothing touched my leg.” I growl and slap his chest. “You jerk! You scared the shit out of me!” But his deep laughter makes me giggle, until soon I’m laughing right along with him. And what a sight it is to see Graham belly-laughing. It pulls at something inside me, this aching need to make him laugh like this more often. I’ve made my decision: Laughing Graham is much sexier than the scowling version. As our laughter dies down, the realization of our complete and utter nakedness sets in. His strong hands gripping onto my waist, my breasts flush against his bare chest, our most sensitive parts mere inches away from each other. Suddenly, the possible danger of an alligator is the farthest thing from my mind. Graham’s heart pounds against my skin, beating to the same rhythm as mine. I trace the pulsing vein along his neck with the tip of my finger, and his eyes slam shut as he lets my hands continue to explore his upper body. I bring my lips to his right shoulder, kissing a trail across his chest, and bite his left shoulder when I get there. He shudders and his hold on my hips tightens. Feeling bold and wanting to push him further, I drag my tongue up his neck and suck on his earlobe, relishing in the low growl that rumbles through him. “I want you, Graham,” I whisper. “And you want me.” He exhales a shaky breath and his jaw flexes. “I do.” “Then take me.” My eyes offer a silent plea, begging him to take me, kiss me, touch me. Devour me. “I can’t.” He releases me. “Why not?” I try to keep the look of rejection off my face. “What’s stopping you?” He looks at me over his shoulder as he starts to swim back to shore, pain and doubt churning in his eyes. But he doesn’t answer. He doesn’t say anything. Not one word the entire ride back to the city. Chapter Seven Graham I used to think being a private investigator was like being a detective in the police force. Minus the glory, of course, and with a higher risk of getting my face punched in. Now, I know the truth. Comparing a P.I. to a detective is like comparing a cracked-out prostitute on a random street corner to an expensive, high-end escort. I want out. I want to be done with this job, with this lifestyle. Most of all, with my father. For years, he’s told me that I’ll never amount to anything, that people like me don’t get happy endings, that I belong down in the filth with the rest of the lowlife insignificants. He convinced me to see the worst in myself, and when you’re stuck in the darkness, it’s impossible to find your way toward the light. But Eva shines like a beacon of light. She doesn’t see what he sees, what I’ve been conditioned to see. I’m feeling something I’ve never felt for anyone before. Wanting things I never thought I could have. When I’m with her, she makes me believe that anything is possible. Maybe it is. God, the way she felt against me in that water last night was surreal. Her naked body wrapped around mine, her mouth on my skin. She probably has bruises on her hips from how hard I was squeezing her, trying to keep myself from giving in to her. My willpower is fading, but I can’t let myself truly have her the way I want to. Not until I figure out how to get out of this mess. Speaking of mess, my phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s as if Dad can sense that I’m inside Montalbano’s office at this very moment. “Yeah?” "Graham, got anything for me?” “Not yet. There are a lot of files to go through in his desk.” “Keep looking.” “I know, Dad.” I keep my voice down as I slip out of the office and make my way back into the kitchen. Eva should be out of the shower any minute. “There has to be something there. I know it.” “Or there could be nothing. What happens if this guy is clean?” Dad barks out a laugh. “He isn’t clean. Trust me.” “Let’s just say he is. Pretend I’ve searched everything and came up with nothing. How long do I have to keep doing this for you to accept it and move on?” “You’ll do this for as long as it takes,” he says, so sure of himself. “Don’t go getting soft on me now, boy. Don’t forget your place. You belong to me. You follow my orders.” My jaw clenches, my teeth grinding together. “And what if I don’t? What if I walk away and you never see me again?” Dad’s voice is a low, sinister growl. “You walk away from me, and you walk away from your sister and her daughter. Or have you forgotten? You might be able to turn your back on me, son, but I know you won’t do that to them.” “You could help them out too, you know. Take care of them for once.” “If you leave, I won’t give them a dime.” “You’d do that to your own daughter, to your granddaughter, just to spite me?” “In a heartbeat.” He ends the call, and I drop the phone onto the kitchen counter, trying to swallow the acidic lump lodged in my throat. How is that man even related to me? He’s a sick fuck. He’s— “Graham, are you okay?” Eva’s gentle voice pulls me out of my head. I reply with a tight nod. She steps closer to me and runs her hands down my arms. “Are you sure? You’re shaking.” I close my eyes and take a deep breath, inhaling her fresh flowery scent. “I’m okay. Just got off the phone with my father.” She grimaces. “That bad?” “You have no idea.” “Well, he’s gone for now. Did you eat enough? Rosalie is gone until lunchtime, but I can whip up something else if you’re still hungry.” I gaze down at her gorgeous face, taking in the cream-colored sweater dress that’s hugging her curves, along with the black choker and combat boots to spice it up like she always does. My head and my heart are all mixed up. My body’s in the middle of a civil war, and either way, I lose. My hand moves of its own volition and comes up to caress her cheek. “You’re beautiful, Eva.” She leans into my touch, closing her eyes for a moment. “It’s a new dress.” I shake my head and tip her chin up to make sure she’s looking at me when I tell her, “It’s not the dress.” Her cheeks flush as she pulls back. “Okay, Big Guy. No more compliments until I’ve had at least two more cups of coffee.” Eva doesn’t deserve this. This has nothing to do with her, my father’s vendetta against hers. Yet she’s the one who’ll be caught in the crossfire in the end. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s playing the part of Juliet in this twisted tragedy. After another day at The Waldorf, Eva and I step off the elevator onto her floor. “Don’t you get bored out here all by yourself?” she asks, turning the key in her door and pushing it open. I shrug. “Part of the job.” “Why don’t you come in?” “I don’t want to intrude if your dad’s in there.” “Evangeline,” Mr. Montalbano calls. “Tell Graham to come inside. I need to speak with him.” Eva waggles her eyebrows at me and swings the door open wider. “Come on in, Big Guy.” Montalbano shakes my hand as I enter his