Authors: Erin Watt
to the mansion with Easton in the passenger side because Reed mutters that he doesn’t trust me to get back on my own. I want to point out that I got to the shipyard fine all by my lonesome, but my mouth is cemented shut. Obviously Reed isn’t to be messed with tonight.
He fought two more guys after Cunningham, and he kicked both their asses, too. Easton counted his winnings on the ride back and they totaled up to eight grand. It seems like a drop in the bucket compared to how loaded they already are, but Easton informs me that money is always sweeter when you’ve bled for it.
Reed didn’t bleed, though. I don’t think he’ll even be bruised or sore tomorrow. That’s how wild and powerful he’d been when he’d slammed his fists over and over again into those guys tonight.
In the driveway, I kill the engine, but I stay in the car because Reed hasn’t gotten out of his yet. Easton doesn’t stick around—he just tucks his cash in his pocket and ducks out of the SUV, heading for the side door without a backward glance.
It isn’t until I see Reed slide out of the driver’s seat that I do the same. We stand ten feet apart and our gazes lock. His hard eyes and tight jaw send a wave of exhaustion crashing over me. I’m so tired, and not because it’s nearly two a.m. and I’ve been up since seven.
I’m tired of the hatred that rolls off Reed’s body every time he sees me. I’m tired of fighting with him. I’m tired of the games and the tension and the unending hostility.
I take a step toward him.
He turns his back to me and disappears around the side of the house.
No. Not this time. He can’t run away from me. I won’t let him.
I hurry after him, grateful for the motion-activated lights that surround the house. They guide my way to the backyard and then beyond it, down the path leading to the shore.
Reed has a twenty-foot head start, and the advantage of having lived here all his life. With total ease, he navigates the rocks lining the beach until he reaches the water’s edge.
I’m still making my way through the boulder-strewn sand when I see him kick off his shoes and socks and wade into the water. He doesn’t seem to care that the bottoms of his jeans are getting soaked.
It’s late, but not pitch-black. The moon is out, illuminating his gorgeous face. His shoulders are down, and he rakes both hands through his hair when I finally come up beside him.
“Haven’t we tortured each other enough today?” His voice comes out weary.
I let out a heavy sigh. “It has been a pretty eventful day, huh?”
“You tied me to a chair,” he mutters.
“You deserved it.”
We go quiet for a moment. I slip out of my shoes and take a step forward, then squeal when the freezing-cold water soaks my feet. Reed grunts out a laugh.
“Is the Atlantic always this cold?” I blurt out.
I stare at the water and listen to the waves crash against the shore. Then I sigh again.
“We can’t keep doing this, Reed.”
He doesn’t answer.
“I mean it.” I latch my hand on his arm and twist him around to face me. His blue eyes are expressionless, which I guess is better than the usual dose of contempt. “I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m tired of fighting.”
“I already told you, I’m here to stay. I’m here to go to school and graduate and then go to college.”
“So you say.”
I let out an aggravated groan. “You want me to say something else? Fine, I’ve got plenty to say. I’m not hooking up with your father, Reed. And I’m never going to, because one, that’s gross, and two, that’s
. He’s my guardian, and I appreciate everything he’s done for me. That’s it. That’s all it’ll ever be.”
Reed shoves his hands in his pockets and says nothing.
“All Callum and I did on the boat today was talk. He told me about my father, and honestly, I still don’t know how I feel about all that. I never even met Steve, and from what I’ve heard about him, I don’t know if I would have liked him. But I can’t change the fact that he’s my father, okay? And you can’t keep holding it against me. I didn’t ask for Steve to knock up my mom, and I didn’t ask your dad to barge into my life and bring me here.”
He scoffs. “You’re saying you’d prefer to still be taking your clothes off for money?”
“Right now? Yeah,” I say frankly. “At least I knew what to expect from that life. I knew who to trust, and who to stay away from. And say what you want about stripping, but no one, not a single person, ever called me a slut or a whore the whole time I was working the clubs.”
Reed rolls his eyes. “Because it’s such a respectable profession.”
“It’s a living,” I shoot back. “And when you’re fifteen and trying to pay your dying mother’s medical bills, it’s
. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me, and you haven’t even tried getting to know me, so you’re not allowed to judge. You’re not allowed to talk shit about something you have no clue about.”
His shoulders go rigid again. He takes another step forward, causing water to splash my bare ankles.
“You don’t know me,” I repeat.
He tosses me a dark look. “I know enough.”
“I’m a virgin, did you know
?” The words pop out before I can stop them, and he jerks in surprise.
He recovers quickly, a cynical look playing across his face. “Sure, Ella. You’re a virgin.”
“It’s the truth.” Embarrassment heats my cheeks, though I’m not sure what I’m embarrassed about. “You can keep thinking I’m a slut, but you’re wrong. My mom got sick when I was fifteen—when the hell did I have time to screw around with boys?”
He laughs harshly. “Next thing you’re going to tell me, you’ve never kissed a guy, right?”
“No, I have. I’ve done…some stuff.” My cheeks are scorching now. “But not the big stuff. Not the stuff you keep accusing me of.”
“Is this the part where you ask me to make a woman of you?”
My skin prickles with insult. “You’re a real asshole sometimes, you know that?”
“I’m only telling you this because I want you to realize how unfair you’re being,” I whisper. “I get it, you’ve got issues. You hate your dad and you miss your mom and you like to beat people up for shits and giggles. You’re messed up in the head, that much is obvious. I don’t expect us to be friends, okay? I don’t expect anything from you, actually. But I want you to know that I’m done with this…this feud we’ve got going. I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier. I’m sorry I tied you to a chair and let you think there was something between me and Callum. But as of this moment, I’m done fighting. Say whatever you want to me, think whatever you want about me, keep acting like a jerk, I don’t care. I’m not playing the game anymore. I’m done.”
When he stays silent, I wade out of the water and make my way back to the house. I’ve said my piece, and I meant every word. Seeing Reed beat the crap out of someone tonight really put everything in perspective for me.
The Royal brothers are even more screwed up than I am. They’re hurting and they’re lashing out and I’m the most convenient target, but fighting back only makes it worse. It only fuels their anger toward me. I refuse to engage anymore.
“Ella.” Reed’s voice stops me as I reach the upper deck.
I halt near the pool, and swallow hard when I glimpse the remorse in his eyes.
He reaches me, his voice thick with gravel as he says, “I—”
A loud voice slurs from behind us. “What are you kids doing out here so late?”
I smother my irritation as Brooke appears at the patio doors. She’s in a white silk robe, with her blonde hair flowing over one shoulder. In her right hand she’s clutching a bottle of red wine.
I notice that Reed cringes at the sound of her voice, but when he speaks, he sounds cold and indifferent. “We’re in the middle of something. Go to bed.”
“You know I can’t sleep without your dad cuddled up beside me.”
Brooke manages to make it down the steps without tripping. She comes up to us, and I sigh when I glimpse her alcohol-glazed eyes. Callum is a pro when it comes to drinking, but this is the first time I’ve seen Brooke drunk.
“Where’s Callum?” I reach a hand out to steady her.
“He went to the office,” she whines. “On
night. He said there was an emergency he had to handle.”
I can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy. It’s so obvious that Callum is not at all invested in his relationship with Brooke, and equally obvious that she wants so badly for him to love her. I feel bad for her.
“I didn’t realize banging your secretary was considered an emergency,” Reed says mockingly.
Her eyes laser toward Reed. I take a protective step toward him. “Let me take you inside,” I tell Brooke. “To the living room. I’ll get you a blanket and—“
She jerks out of my grip. “Are you the lady of the house now?” Her voice is reaching shrilly levels. “Because you’re a fool if you think that you’ll be anything to these Royals. And you—” she turns with a wild light in her eyes toward Reed, “—you’d better stop talking to me like that.”
The retort that I was sure Reed would spit back never comes. I cast a questioning glance toward him, but he’s gone. His expression is closed down, almost vacant.
“I’m going to be your mother someday. You should learn to be nicer to me.” Brooke takes an unsteady step forward and strokes her manicured nails down his cheek.
He flinches and then pries Brooke’s hand off him. “I’ll be dead first.”
He shoves past her and heads for the French doors. I hurry after him, leaving Callum’s girlfriend on the patio.
This time I’m the one calling after him. “Reed.”
He stops in front of the stairs in the kitchen. “What?”
“What…what were you going to say before Brooke interrupted us?”
His head turns. Blue eyes hard with malice peer back at me. “Nothing,” he mutters. “Absolutely nothing.”
Behind me I hear a crash. I want nothing more than to chase after Reed, but Brooke can’t be left alone, drunk by the pool.
I hurry back to her side, where I find her staggering precariously close to the edge of the water. “Come on, Brooke.” I tug on her arm. This time she follows docilely, leaning her slight weight against me.
“They’re all terrible,” she weeps. “You need to stay away from them, just to protect yourself.”
“It’s going to be okay. Do you want to go upstairs or is the living room all right?”
“With the ghost of Maria staring at me?” Brooke shudders. “She’s here. Always here. When I’m in charge, we’re moving. We’re razing this house to the ground and eradicating Maria.”
That sounds unlikely. I lead her, half carrying, half dragging her into the living room where, yep, there’s a portrait of Maria over the fireplace. Brooke holds her fingers up in the sign of the cross as we pass in front of it.
I have to swallow a laugh at the ridiculousness of this. The living room is actually a long room that runs along the front of the house. There are two seating areas so I pull Brooke to the second set that is closer to the window and farther away from the portrait of Maria.
She gratefully sinks onto the sofa, bending her knees and tucking her hands under her cheek. Her tears have smeared her makeup and she looks like a tragic doll, like one of the strippers who’s so sure that the rich man who gives her the hundred-dollar tip is going to return and sweep her away. Of course, he doesn’t. He’s just using her.
“Brooke, if being with Callum hurts you like this, why do you stay?”
“Do you really think there’s any man out there who
hurt you? That’s what men do, Ella. They hurt you.” Her hand shoots out to grip my wrist. “You should get away from here. These Royals will ruin you.”
“Maybe I want to be ruined,” I say lightly.
She lets me go, pulling her hand back, retreating inside herself. “No one wants to be ruined. We all want to be saved.”
“There has to be at least
decent guy out there.”
That makes her laugh. Hysterically. And the laughter just keeps going and going.
I leave her to it, heading upstairs with the sound of her giggles tickling my back, this woman who honestly doesn’t believe she can find a man who doesn’t hurt her.
Why that conviction feels like she scraped a knife down my spine, I don’t know.