CUL-DE-SAC (On The Edge Book 1) (9 page)




A vicious kick to his left kidney snapped
Xan’s attention as nothing else would.
“Fuck!” His breath hissed out between his teeth and he looked at his attacker
warily. “Disqualify me before my next fight, why don’t you?!”
“Got your attention finally though, did it not?” Kelton Donovan scoffed.
“A tap on my shoulder would do the same.” Xan scowled at the man who was his
tormentor always, friend mostly unless he decided otherwise which happened on a
few occasions.

Kelton was a thirty-seven-year-old ex-Marine
carrying his own baggage. Xan met him when the baggage was getting the better
of him and his only reality was the bottom of every bottle he could find.

One night he found himself in a dark alley
on the receiving end of a knife when a few teenagers decided he was the best entertainment
that stumbled into their way.

It didn’t look pretty, Xan remembered but
then the sight of blood wasn’t a novelty in his own life.

Far from it.

For reasons
he still fully couldn’t comprehend
he sidled up to the
man, probably saving his life. Not that Kel was grateful, spewing profanities
right and left that even Xan

was no stranger to the life on the streets

had never heard before.

They had been part of each other’s lives
since then, training together regularly, but their relationship was a far cry
from peaceful sailing.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you come here for some affection, boy? Hell, you should
have said so because here I thought you actually wanted to learn something.”
The man sneered.
“Screw you,” Xan said without any heat behind his words although he hated when Kel
called him a
and the man knew it, which of course was the reason
why he did it every damn occasion he got.

At twenty-eight years old, he was hardly a
if ever.
“No, screw
for wasting my time. What the fuck is up with you today
anyway?” Kelton asked, taking off his sparring gloves, which was an unwritten
law they were done.

Xan wanted to protest, but he knew his
concentration was shot to hell today and he also knew better than argue with
the man who could give him run for his money when it came to sheer stubbornness.
“Nothing.” He muttered.

Just because he knew it, didn’t mean he
wanted to share it, Xan thought.
“I bet it’s some bimbo on your mind. No bigger distraction than that, my man.”
“It’s not like that,” Xan protested, although it was.

Kind of.

Since the last Tuesday and the meeting with
Catalina in the Monsoon Café, he hadn’t been himself and it was pissing him off
to no end that she managed to have the upper hand after all.

He blew out a harsh breath because it
wasn’t like that either.

It’s just…

He believed he knew all there was to women
shedding tears.

He was intimately acquainted with them
since he was a little boy. His mother spilled buckets of tears on many
occasions, usually due to his father’s actions, words or lack of thereof. They
were dictated by shame, pain, hopelessness and plenty of other ugly emotions as

They affected him all the same no matter
the reason behind them.

But then he understood there was the other
side of the coin. That some people were beyond help, wearing their misery as
some kind of badge of honor recognizable to those privy enough to belong to the
same club. It was similar to carrying bruises around like a reward for
withstanding adversities while remaining strong.

Nina Thorpe did both.

However for Xan it was the opposite. He was
around six, maybe seven years old, when he understood it.

His so-called father came home high as a
kite and started to pick on him for no damn reason at all. He broke some
dishes, knocked Xan around for doing nothing but sitting there quietly and
trying to become one with a wall or the floor so the fucking bastard wouldn’t
see him.

But he did.

He did alright and it was one of those
times Xan would never forget as long as he was alive. Yet his mother didn’t
tend to his tears and wounds, nursing her husband’s fit of temper instead. And
even the child Xan was back then comprehended she drew power from the knowledge
she stood next to her man’s side no matter what. Xan was nothing more than an
inconvenience at best.

Since then he stopped trying to pay
attention to her tears the way she ignored his.

It didn’t change anything as far as his
home situation went but it protected him in his adulthood from falling victim
to women who attempted to pluck at his heartstrings.

Catalina didn’t cry.

She did all in her power to stop herself
from it and it affected him as nothing else. He knew he fucked up and caused
her distress just because he could. While normally he wouldn’t care or give it
a second thought, he was unable to stop himself from thinking about her ever

He wouldn’t have entertained any kind of
thoughts about her had she flipped him off, yelled or reacted in one of the ways
women usually did, ways he was used to.

So basically it was her fault he couldn’t
get her out of his damn mind, he decided, and it nearly made him chuckle.

Xan went as far as to connect dots of the
story she told him and they nicely did.

Apparently she was some kind of a fancy-pants
photographer well known in the society of silver spooners and recognized in
photography milieu despite her young age of twenty-four.

That hardly surprised him, because from the
first moment he laid his eyes on her he was aware of the air of purposefulness
and focus around her. Although he understood she was from another world than
him, those were traits he could respond to and he did by striking at her any
chance he got, he thought.

Did it absolve him that he was portraying
her as an enemy at the time? Not really, Xan decided. She wasn’t an undercover
cop or a journalist; that much was obvious already.

Being a photographer was placing her on an
entirely new level not making her any less of danger to him though. Catalina
was still going to use the pictures she took in the club,
pictures of him
heedless of his warning and all consequences altogether.

He couldn’t do much about it at the moment,
it seemed, but it didn’t mean he should let it go.

Letting go was not a part of his makeup.

It was well advised to see for himself what
the end result was going to be along with people’s reaction to what they saw.
That meant seeing the woman again, and that was definitely not a hardship, he

Catalina was beautiful and it wasn’t the
kind of attractiveness he was used to. He was surrounded by good looking women
on a daily basis, but they were gaudy and obnoxious while she was…
was the best fitting description he could come up with.

She wore class and elegance as a second
skin along with sophistication. Probably that was why she didn’t call him names
or make a scene and the explanation should quiet his conscience

the one he was
unaware of having

but it didn’t
happen anyway.

Seeing her again sounded like a better and
better idea with every passing moment, Xan decided.
“So? How is it then?” Kel asked and he understood he lost his focus
but this time he just sighed instead of coming up with some new invectives.
“It’s complicated.” Yet another perfect description, he smirked inwardly to
“Usually is, come on man, indulge me.”
“I screwed up and I will need to fix it.”
“I must be getting old because I could have sworn you said you’ve admitted to a
wrongdoing.” Kelton’s jaw nearly dropped.
“You are old,” Xan agreed jovially and finally his reflexes proved intact,
allowing him to avoid another kick, this time aimed for his right kidney.




Sundays were off limits in Catalina’s life
since she had been a little girl. Even unforgiving Florence Bennett had never
begrudged her for it, believing it to be the one and only day of the week reserved
for resting alone since God set the example himself.

No matter Cat’s commitments, the amount of
work that demanded to be done, she had never broken this unspoken rule.

Nothing, but absolutely nothing was as
magical as Sunday mornings.

The lingering pleasure of a few hours just
after awakening when there was only undisturbed silence and peace surrounding
her, left a lot of space for breathing and simply letting her be.

She rose from the bed, donning a negligee
to cover up the silk slip she slept in. She padded to the kitchen barefoot,
enjoying the sensation of smooth, cool tiles of the kitchen floor under the
soles of her feet.

Catalina closed her eyes for the briefest
of moments, giving herself permission to dream if only for a little while. She
imagined walking in a shallow lake or sea, the heat of the sun, the sensations
accompanying sashaying over warm sand.

She sighed softly, not able to remember
when exactly her last holiday was or when she last rested except for the
magical twenty four hours of every Sunday.

She could walk down the beach and
experience the very same sensations, but it wouldn’t be the same as having a
week or two off just to go to some exotic place, she thought.

Her gaze wandered to the kitchen counter
and a decorative mug full of coffee beans. She sighed again and a wave of
disappointment crashed into her over the fact that no matter how hard she
wished to believe in magic, magic kept refusing to happen in her life.

Her coffee was as unready today as it had
been last night when she decided to leave everything as it was, heading
straight to bed too tired after a nine hour photo shoot to worry about anything

She knew she was going on fumes but the
stress of the upcoming exhibition was getting to her more than she thought
possible, and the closer it was getting the less prepared she felt herself to

Hiding it from the world and pretending she
wasn’t about to crack under the pressure was even more exhausting.

She was used to being in the center of
attention, but it never mattered to her like now. Before she was only Catalina
Bennett and it had nothing to do with her personally. Partaking in plenty of social
events, never-ending meetings with too many people where not nearly enough of
them had something valuable to say.

But that was her playground, part of her

The exhibition had nothing to do with it,
although she was sure that many people wouldn’t agree with her.

Florence Bennett would be the first one,
she thought.

Her grandmother was convinced people were
interested in what she did simply because of who she was. Catalina decided it
was rich coming from Florence since she was clueless as to who Cat was in the
first place. She worked so hard to get rid of this… brand, but at times it felt
like nothing was ever going to be enough.

When people got used to looking at a person
in one way, they were unwilling to change their point of view ever again.

Even though she was still a part of
Florence’s world, it was not the same as the refined trap, a
she didn’t want to find herself in again, she thought and swallowed hard.

No, not going there, Cat told herself
firmly when Xan’s face flashed before her eyes again.

Her gaze landed on the coffee beans again
and her disappointment started to morph into a kind of sadness which shouldn’t
find its way to haunt her on any Sunday morning. Yet that was how she had been
feeling recently.



On the verge.

Impatiently awaiting something that could
open her eyes to what she had been missing her entire life. Something that
could make her feel… complete and fulfilled, she thought with displeasure.

In this one frozen instant in time she
forgot about all the shades of satisfaction she felt every time she captured a
fleeting moment with her camera, or any other accomplishment really.

In the blink of an eye there was no more
space for simple joys of the Sunday morning. All she had been reduced to was a
woman standing barefoot on the cool tiles of her kitchen’s floor, feeling cold
and bereft for no apparent reason.




Catalina was floating through the crowd
with the ease of someone who has years of experience in being an active part of
social gatherings.

A word here, a smile there.

She fit right in and the knowledge should
have soothed her and calmed her stomach clenched with nerves but it didn’t
happen, keeping her suspended in a state where she couldn’t catch a breath

She didn’t want to be here at all.

Today’s exhibition organized in the Einarr
gallery was solely focused on portraying Santa Monica’s life. But it was not
about the glitter and shine but quite the opposite, giving priority to the
unknown for a change. The images she has been collecting for the last six weeks
were part of it as well.

A homeless woman, from one of Cat’s
pictures, was staring at the clique gathered around as if silently judging
their clothes, jewels and make-up.

But mostly their indifference.

There was a look of such hopelessness in
her eyes, as if she didn’t expect anything good to come her way. But this was
the essence and the purpose of this display in Cat’s opinion.

She wanted it to make a

Maybe she was as naive as Chloé kept
accusing her of being, she thought, but then if everyone believed nothing could
be done there would have never been any change or progress in the world.

She knew every single photo so intimately
she could recall circumstances of taking each one along with time of a day or
night, the dance of light and shadow seen through her lens. And yes, pictures
from the Cul-de-sac were there as well, but her eyes kept swaying in another

Ironically they seemed to amass the biggest
attention. And not necessarily the kind she cared the most for as their author.
“That’s something, Catalina.” A man’s voice startled her and she turned around
to look into the solemn eyes of Gabriel Mercer.

He was a thirty-two-year-old Lieutenant in the
Santa Monica Police Department, a man about town after hours and Cat’s friend.
He was a tall, athletically-built male and no matter how vulgar Florence
Bennett found his occupation to be, she still saw him as a suitable man for her

Sometimes Cat felt he silently agreed with
Florence and although she enjoyed his company, she didn’t see him in that way.
Maybe because despite his unquestionable merits, he was trying to find someone
who would look good on his arm to complete his image. He didn’t care much about
anything beyond that, too reminiscent of most of the men that Florence was
pushing her way along with her own expectations toward Catalina.

Looking at his impeccable grey suit paired with
a burgundy tie which drew out the chestnut hue of his hair and a hundred dollar
haircut, it was hard to believe he was an average law enforcement officer.

But Mercer’s family was well known in the
elite circles and he had an image to maintain, she thought. In Cat’s opinion,
it was only an uncompromising gleam in his keen blue eyes that spoke about the
police officer within.
“Thank you.” She said simply and accepted a kiss on the cheek.
“Where was it taken?” He pointed toward one from the fighting club where she
let the sharp light mercilessly bare the rawness of the ring while letting
fighters fade into the background.
“You know I never reveal my sources.” She smiled brightly knowing she was
talking to the cop in him, not the friend.

It wasn’t the first time he had tried to
get her to talk but Catalina was very adamant when it came to work ethics.
“You are going to get yourself in trouble, Catalina.” He warned her and she tried
not to show her irritation.

Someone might have taken his words as proof
of caring, and perhaps there was some of that in it. Yet she knew that he saw
her as someone not fully capable of taking care of herself. At times her
delicate looks worked in her favor but this was hardly one of them, she thought
“I’m a big girl, Gabriel,” she told him and felt his arm winding around her
waist in a little too possessive manner.
“That you are and looking exceptional tonight.” His hot gaze skimmed over her.

Wear something that will make people
Jonah Richmond’s words came back to taunt her. He was the gallery’s owner and
someone Cat didn’t hesitate to call a friend. As much as she trusted his taste
and respected his opinion, she didn’t exactly heed his advice.

Tonight she wore a long black dress that
plunged to a deep, wide V in the back and was so tight she was afraid that one not-careful-enough
breath would render her naked in the middle of the crowded room. She knew Jonah
would prefer for the dress to be red or at least much shorter, but the open
back was the only compromise she agreed to.

Instead of tying her hair in some complicated
way, she left it loose hoping to cover as much of the bared skin of her back as
possible. Apparently not enough because now she could feel Gabriel’s hand
gliding up and down her spine in an intimate way she didn’t approve or give him
permission to.

She hated being displayed in this way, she
thought. People were supposed to judge photographs made by her, not the way she
looked in this attire or another. She wanted to point out the simple truth of
it but she knew it wouldn’t do her much good and all she could gain was a scowl
or a pitying look.

This was not the way things worked but the
fact she was aware of it didn’t mean she had to like it, Cat told herself. Her
face felt like cracking from a smile that after long years of donning had
become her second nature.

But for some reason it felt foreign to her

Her skin, exposed by the dress, was itching,
and the feeling was slowly turning into a burn from all the gazes boring into
her, people talking and speculating. That was exactly what she wanted to avoid,
knowing it for the impossibility it was at the same time.

To a photographer the exhibition was a
dream come true, something to be proud of, the kind of event which could result
in making her more noticeable on the scene, drawing more clients in. She
appreciated it and was happy for the opportunity of course. But personally it
was forcing her to relive all that she was trying to escape from and didn’t
want to be a part of anymore.
“Thank you Gabriel.” She said finally because she supposed his words were kind
of a compliment even if not very subtle. “I’m very glad your duties didn’t stop
you from coming tonight.”
“You know I always have time for you.”
“I appreciate having a friend like you.” She tried to put a distance between
them with this statement and saw his brow furrowing.

He was ready to protest but Catalina didn’t
want to get into it right here and right now. “Please excuse me; I see Jonah is
giving me the sign to mingle. Duty calls. I am sure you can understand it
perfectly.” She smiled brightly at him and was relieved when he nodded and let
her go.

Guilt forced her to find Jonah and she saw
him putting a discreet card under one of her photographs sending the loud and
clear message that it was sold and her heart sang. Tonight’s profit was fully
intended for charity purposes.
“Quite the crowd.” She said approaching him and got a dazzling smile in response.
“You did well my dear.”

Catalina knew that no amount of praises
could rival those simple words.

Jonah wasn’t the kind of a man to make
florid remarks in order to pay tribute to artists. That made his comments all
the more powerful and important.

did well,” she emphasized, going to her toes and kissing his
shadowed jaw.

She would never forget he was the one who
was interested in her for what she could do, not who she was and what her
connections were.

He was the well-mannered forty-year-old
owner of the gallery with a no-nonsense attitude and an utter devotion to art.
Einarr was his project and a very successful at that. The name itself betrayed
his fascination with Norse mythology and meant
‘lone warrior’,
which Cat
supposed was a somewhat fitting description for him as well.

Jonah’s temples were a little bit more
frosted now than when she had first met him, giving him even more distinguished
look. His dark eyes were able to assess something and someone’s value or lack
of thereof in a matter of crashing seconds.

His first impressions were hardly ever
“I saw you with the Mercer guy. How long do you think you can keep up your
balance on this wobbly path you’ve taken?”
“As long as it’s necessary.” Her answer held more conviction than she felt at
the moment.

Jonah chuckled and didn’t continue the
subject deciding Catalina had enough on her plate tonight.
“I hope you will handle Florence at least half as well as him.”
“Is she here?” Cat looked discreetly around, not realizing the hand she had on
Jonah’s forearm clenched.

He felt the nervous and betraying gesture
and laid his own hand on her trembling fingers, offering silent comfort she
greedily wanted to take, but her pride didn’t allow her to lean on it and on
him too heavily.
“You are her only granddaughter; of course she would be here.” He didn’t add that
Florence’s absence would be too widely commented on otherwise, but they both
knew she wasn’t here for Cat’s work.
“I promise I won’t run away if I see her.” She said and he coughed to cover up
a chuckle.
“I suppose it’s something. I think we will have another buyer soon, let me make
sure he won’t slip away.” He winked at her and accepted a glass of champagne
from a passing waiter.
“Go and look pretty,” she told him with a serious expression but mischievous
sparks in her eyes belied her intent to look solemn.

He sent her a reproachful look but had to
fight his own amusement. They both knew he uttered a similar statement in her
direction on more occasions than either of them could count.

Catalina’s fingers, wrapped around the
fragile glass of champagne, were shaking a little when she decided to take
another tour through the crowd. She had her duties and was well aware some
people always wanted to talk to artists, ask questions.

Those were the moments she usually liked
because they were allowing her to focus on the technical side of her work and
forget about being displayed along with her photographs.

She knew on the surface she looked cool and
professional, and that was exactly what she wanted people to see, she reminded
herself, when the thought annoyed her for some reason. Nobody was supposed to
slip underneath the layers of her icy demeanor and recognize even the sliver of
emotions she was feeling.

She heard words like
entwined with her work and each time it overfilled her with
a chill of satisfaction, sparkling inside of her like the champagne she was
slowly sipping.

But she still wanted for the night to be

She was only half way through her drink when
she finally stopped in front of one of snapshots of Xan and her stomach sunk
the same as every single time she had been thinking about the night of the fight
and… him, she admitted.

He was occupying her thoughts too much for
someone as merciless as he turned out to be.
“I would love to know who that is, could you tell me?” She heard a woman’s
voice and turned slightly to look at her, detecting nothing but an ordinary
curiosity behind the question.
“I’m sorry but I don’t know.” The lie slipped from her lips so easily she was

But then what was her answer if not the
accurate response?

She didn’t know him and the bits and pieces
she made out based on what her lens showed her didn’t make sense and didn’t go
along with his pitilessness.

As much as her first instinctive response
was to explore it, learn and capture the truth with her camera, she knew better
than that now.

The thought of her camera made her sigh
again while another wave of defeat seized her.

That was the reason she regretted the whole
thing, even after the promise of success this night held.

The joy coming from the exhibition was
laced with a thick layer of bitterness.

his random act of
the reminder that people acted on whims alone without
the smallest consideration of how it might affect others.
despite it all, she still felt the need to keep his name a secret, but what she
told Gabriel was the truth; she never revealed her sources no matter the
“How did you find yourself in a place like that?” The woman’s head was slightly
tilted to the right, still focused on the same picture. “Did you try to
approach the man? I would love to see more of your work regarding the same

Catalina looked at her more closely, trying
to put a name to her face, remembering her from a few other similar enough events
but her memory wasn’t cooperating with her.

Finally she shrugged, not seeing any harm
in answering, still not sensing anything sinister behind her curiosity.

Sometimes, she thought, there was nothing
wrong with it, unlike other times when inquisitiveness demanded a high price to
be paid.
“I like to think I was meant to find myself there at the time. I approached him
and tried to get his consent for a session but… he was not interested.”
Sometimes, she thought again, lies were much better solution than the truth no
matter they ran in completely opposite directions.
“It’s a shame.”
“I agree.” It was a real pity there was no question about it even if she had
something else in mind than the obvious.

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