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By Jus Accardo, Heather Howland, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jus Accardo
All rights reserved.
Why? Why the hell had I picked up the phone?
Because I was a damn masochist, that's why. Finally, the years of violence and torment had fried my fucking brain.
I'd already been on a bus speeding down Route 11, no more than six miles from Uncle Rick's house, when the cell went off. I ignored it at first. Picked it up, saw the number on the caller ID, and tossed the phone back into my pocket without giving it a second thought.
Then it rang again. And again. And again.
I caved. It was either that or hum the thing out the window. Since money wasn't something I could magically pull out of my ass, replacing the phone wasn't an option. But listening to it scream wasn't either. The bastard calling wouldn't have given up anyway.
Now, instead of sticking to my vow to stay the hell away from my hometown, I was standing in the shadow of the alley next to McCarthy's, the local diner. This was my uncle Rick's fault. The only reason I'd agreed to come back to this pit was because he swore my twin, Chase, would be out of town.
Or maybe he hadn't. Maybe Chase had played him. The guy was sneaky. I wouldn't put it past my brother to weasel the info out of the old man. It wouldn't be the first time he'd done it.
Rick had a blind spot when it came to Chase. The whole damn town did. He was the golden boy. The shining example of perfect manners and intelligence wrapped in a snappily dressed charmer.
I on the other hand was rotten fruit. The deformed apple that fell to the ground too early and had gotten picked at by animals. I was all the bad habits and diseased bits from the drain of the Flynn family genetic tub.
But none of that mattered now. Chase had called and said it was an emergency. There was something he needed to talk to me about before I went to see Rick.
So here I stood. On the sidewalk. Trying to drum up enough strength to walk inside.
There were so many reasons I shouldn't be here. At the diner. In town. On this godforsaken earth ...
The main one, though, was a nasty little affliction passed down from a family curse that forced me to share my body with a demon. A violent, cruel monster that survived on the pain and misery of others.
Descendants of Cain, the world's first murderer, some of the male children in my line came into this world with a demon attached to their soul. Infested, my father said once. Cain killed his brother, Abel. I figured that was why the thing inside hated Chase so much. We were destined to keep repeating the same mistakes.
Fratricide at its fucking finest.
Unhappiness was like chocolate to the damn thing. And rage? Like pure crack.
Demons, in general, were like that. They fed on negative human emotions, sucking them down like high-end whiskey. There were differences between them; for example, I was unique. A human saddled with a demonic stowaway, while the others were purebreds. They did share common traits, though.
I stepped out from the alley and took several steps toward the diner. Wanda Falkner walked past with an armload of groceries. She stooped down as she went, lifting a hand to wave, then froze when she saw me.
I knew that look. Horror and disgust mixed with fear. It was the expression everyone in this damn town wore when staring me down. Just another reason to get this shit over and done with and leave this place in the dust forever. I was like a plague to these people. The Antichrist and Hitler rolled into one horrible package.
Wanda straightened and scurried away as fast as she could.
I was proud of myself. I hadn't even flipped her off. That was progress.
Three years ago I'd walked away. Turned my back on everyone and everything I loved. It was fine. I did what needed to be done. It wasn't a huge loss. No one here missed me. Uncle Rick was able to move on with his life without having to worry about finding a corpse in Chase's bed each morning, and Chase, well, he'd moved on just fine, too. He spent his days as a successful photographer, and his nights screwing a path across Jensen County.
The only thing that made leaving hard was her. Samantha Merrick. The girl who, to this day, still pulled me from the mire and made it possible to go on, even if she didn't know it. She was my anchor and kryptonite all at the same time. Salvation and damnation in one beautiful, unattainable package.
Thank fucking God she wasn't living in Harlow anymore. She'd gone off to college several months ago. I could probably suffer being in the same room with Chase for a few minutes, but being forced to pull a face-to-face with Sam? That would have gutted me.
The smell of demon wafted through the air, faint but noticeable. A quarter mile, tops. They were everywhere. Schools, shopping malls, local food stores. No place was safe. Like a permanent rodent infestation, they were always around. Always lurking in wait for scraps.
I could see my brother through the diner window, at the back booth. Of all the horrible things I'd done, none were worse than what the demon wanted me to do to Chase. The monster hated my brother.
It flashed an image of Chase, pinned against the wall and struggling for air. I could feel his skin beneath my fingers in the all-too-real vision, and as I leaned in closer to savor the fear and confusion, Chase let out a scream that made the hairs on my arm dance. It wasn't real, but it sure felt that way. One quick movement. That's all it would take to snap his neck. Dead, brown eyes would stare into the distance as the demon rumbled with satisfaction. The contented warmth it felt would flow through my body, and for just a moment, I wanted to do it. To walk into the building and end my brother's life, if only to gain a moment of peace.
The flash ended and left me breathless. I slammed a fist into the tree behind me. "Fuck!"
I waited until everything evened out before turning back to the building. One step toward the alley. Then another. This wasn't going to happen. It couldn't. Chase was leaning forward again, as the person sitting across from him did the same, giving me a perfect view of her profile.
A wave of fury rolled over me. "Motherfu —"
Samantha Merrick, who was supposed to be away at Huntington College, was about to kiss my brother.CHAPTER 2
Chase Flynn flashed a lopsided grin as I slid into the booth across from him.
"You never get anything different. Always pie." I tugged the menu from my best friend's hands and skimmed the dessert section.
McCarthy's was his guilty pleasure. They made the best key lime pie on the East Coast — according to Chase. The tartness of lime always turned my stomach.
I preferred excessively sweet things like chocolate mousse or strawberries slathered in homemade cream. One of the few vivid memories I had of my mother was Saturday morning strawberries and cream ...
"Amen to pie, baby," he said with an easy laugh, eyes fixed on mine. Today he was dressed in a tight-fitting forest-green T-shirt and well-worn jeans with a small hole in the left knee. On another guy, the outfit would have been weekend casual. On Chase, with his classic features and Greek god cut, it was runway chic. Although he could have donned clown shoes and a series of strategically taped paper bags and still caught the attention of every girl in the room.
Chase had lived in the house next door with his uncle and brother from the time I was six. He'd stolen my Aunt Kelly's heart from the instant he'd arrived on the doorstep with a plate of warm brownies and that infectious charm that seemed to ooze from every pore. From that moment on, my aunt was determined to hook us up despite the fact that Chase — ironically named — was with a different girl every other day. Pass. I wasn't interested in being anyone's flavor of the week.
"So the movie was fun." He flashed a sultry smile, and my pulse hastened despite the fact that I wasn't interested in him that way. It was just the effect he had on people.
The two women at the next table were not-so-subtly eye-humping him in addition to the occasional, pointed giggle. They were older — midthirties if I had to guess — and apparently saw no shame in cougaring it up.
Chase ignored them and focused on me. "I liked the shower scene. I didn't think it was possible for human beings to bend that way. We should test it out some time."
He'd delivered countless lines to girls over the years, but none had ever been aimed my way. Not seriously, anyway. I laughed and leaned forward, elbows on the table. We'd played this game a thousand times before. With a wink, I joked, "And after we're done there, we can do it doggy-style in the rain."
Of course the waitress chose that moment to stroll over and set down two plates of hot apple pie. With a disgusted shake of her head, she turned to the table across from us to take their order. I was more tired than hungry, but Chase grabbed his fork and went to town.
"Just name the time and place, baby." His lips tilted into a mischievous grin. Guys like this were dangerous. They knew the sway their smoldering stare held over girls, and exploited it at every turn to get what they wanted. I'd seen many a girl fall to that overpowering, swoon-worthy stare and heart-stopping grin.
I yawned and poked at the pie with my fork. Apple wasn't my favorite, but it was better than cherry. "Yep. And after we do that, we'll shave a llama and take it to dinner."
He pushed his pie aside and took my hand, grin morphing into a solemn expression. "What if I said I was serious?"
His words were like a punch to the gut, stealing my breath and sending goose bumps across my skin. I didn't know whether to laugh or jump up and run like the hounds of hell were on my ass and looking for a new chew toy. I wasn't his type. Not even close. There were runway models and sorority house fashionistas with enough artfully applied makeup to warrant a flammable sign — and then there was me. Jeans, T-shirts, and a small tattoo of my favorite Disney character, Stitch, masterfully hidden away on my left hip. "This is a joke, right?"
Chase was smiling again, but his eyes darted over my shoulder for a moment. "Is it a bad thing if I say no?"
"It'd be a confusing thing." I pulled my hand away and said, "For starters, you're not known for having actual relationships, and I'm not into the one-night-stand scene." I'd done it while away at college and wasn't interested in repeating the experience.
He leaned back, subtly glancing around the room as though he was looking for someone. Feigning insult, he said, "You think I'm itching to make you another notch in my post?"
Distraction was one of the biggest tools in his arsenal. I'd seen it at work a thousand times. Whenever he wanted to avoid a question, he'd answer with one of his own. But there was no way I was playing into that crap. "Secondly, I'm not your type. You're not my type, either."
"You're not dating anyone at the moment, correct?"
"Have I mentioned anyone lately?" The truth was, the last time I had a date, it ended with a clammy handshake and a forced smile. The time before that, the guy kissed me, and it was less like a kiss and more like an ice cube with a slimy tongue and sweaty palms.
I was too picky, according to Aunt Kelly. But that wasn't it. I knew exactly what I wanted. Screaming need and desperate kisses so hot, they'd melt the sun. Something that had slipped through my fingers ... A fire I'd been chasing without success ever since. "But so not the point."
"I know I have a certain ... reputation. But it's not like I'm proposing marriage." He winked. "Even though that would make Kelly happy ..."
I couldn't believe we were having this conversation. Out loud. He was right, though. My aunt would shit bricks of happy, since she'd been shoving us together for years, but ick. He was like a brother. "Don't you think it'd be a little weird? Us? Together?"
"Is this because of my brother?"
Silence. I didn't answer. Couldn't. The subject of the other Flynn was off-limits. An unspoken rule, and I intended to keep it that way.
Chase shook his head and stuffed another forkful of pie into his mouth. His eyes all but rolled back as he swallowed. "He made his choice and he has to live with it. I don't."
I opened my mouth, then closed it. He had to be screwing with me.
"What do you say? Interested in giving it a try? No expectations. No pressure. Maybe just one little kiss ..."
It was a thought I'd entertained deep in the never-in-a-million-freaking- years part of my brain more than a few times but had never considered actually acting on. Chase was one of my best friends, and yes, he was hot as hell, but not in an I-want-to-hook-up-with-him kind of way. The attraction was less about how he looked and more about who he looked like. His twin brother, Jax ...
Standing, he leaned across the table, and his cologne drifted pleasantly through the air. I'd been with him when he bought it for the first time. Some expensive thing imported from Italy in a tiny bottle that cost more than my monthly rent. Eyes darting to the door again, his lips bloomed into a wicked smile. "Kiss me, Samantha."
I have no idea what possessed me to actually do it, but I kissed him. When our lips met, the sensation caught me off guard. His tongue slipped across my bottom lip, teasing for just a moment before capturing it between his, and my pulse quickened. He seemed eager to show me what I'd be missing if I turned him down, and when he deepened the kiss, my insides ignited.
But not because I was kissing Chase.
I couldn't stop myself from imagining it was Jax's insistent lips doing the nipping, his name a desperate plea falling from my lips. Any minute now, he'd take mercy on me, sweep me into his arms, and ...
That's when reality crashed back like a semi through a china shop. Holy shit! I'd just used Chase as a fluffer in my own low-budget porno.
Slowly I opened my eyes, guilty heat rushing over my warm cheeks at the thought of Chase misinterpreting my enthusiasm, but it was a different gaze that gave me pause.
A towering figure stood in the doorway, his large frame blotting out the sun. With a mop of dark, unruly hair and eyes the exact shade of gray that graced the skies right before a violent storm decimated the city, he wore a long leather trench coat and an expression that was both fire and ice at the same time.
His eyes met mine, and the top right-hand corner of his lip hitched. Just a hair. I wouldn't have noticed if I wasn't staring. Which I was. How could I not? The newcomer's presence was one that demanded attention. Painfully beautiful, yet deadly. Like the poison apple from the Garden of Eden. Sinful and seductive, yet eternally damning.
I pulled away and blinked twice, sure his appearance was nothing more than imagination. Maybe even an apparition of guilt. But he was still there. Still staring. He looked rough, like he'd been to hell and back. There was a gleam of something close to madness in his eyes, and for an insane moment, I almost slipped from the booth and went to him. "Jax ..."
Identical twins, yet as different as oil and vinegar. Chase kept his face cleanly shaven and his hair trimmed short, while had Jax let his grow out. It was long enough that the tips of his bangs curled slightly, giving them a sexy, wild look. But it was their expressions that defined the difference between them. Chase was always smiling. There was something warm and welcoming about his expression that just drew people to him. Jax's expression on the other hand, screamed keep the fuck away.
Kind of like the way he looked right now.
Chase pushed forward again, lips tickling the tip of my chin. "Why are we talking about him?"
I pushed him back to his seat and nodded to the right where the tall, dark figure loomed, cloaked in a leather trench coat and black skullcap. "Because he's here."
Chase swiveled and met his carbon copy with a shit-eating grin. With a nod and an all-too-cocky smile, he said, "Big brother. When did you get back to town?"
Jax lunged forward and knocked him out cold.CHAPTER 3
After Chase hit the floor, I made for another go, but Sam jumped between us. She checked on my brother, then reluctantly agreed to deliver me to Rick's where I couldn't do any more damage.
"Still dealing with that impulse control issue, huh?" she said, starting the engine with a flick of her wrist and a yawn — the third one since we'd gotten into her car. There were dark circles under her eyes, and I couldn't help wondering how she'd been spending her nights.
Or with whom.
Her lips twisted disapprovingly, and I found myself having to recite the alphabet backward to keep from paying too much attention to the little details. The way she tilted her head, sending soft strands of chestnut hair across her shoulder. The soothing tone of her voice. The way she moved. I'd dreamed about these minute details a million times over the last three years.
This girl was the one thing I couldn't outrun. The only piece of my life I couldn't seem to shake — and a part of me hated her for it.
Excerpted from Ruined by Jus Accardo, Heather Howland, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Jus Accardo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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