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My grandmama once told me that love and hate are the same feelings experienced under different circumstances.
The passion is the same. The pain is the same. That weird thing that bubbles in your chest? Same. I didn't believe her until I met Baron Spencer and he became my nightmare.
Then my nightmare became my reality.
I thought I'd escaped him. I was even stupid enough to think he'd forgotten I ever existed.
But when he came back, he hit harder than I ever thought possible.
And just like a domino — I fell.
Ten Years Ago
I'd only been inside the mansion once before, when my family first came to Todos Santos. That was two months ago. That day, I stood rooted in place on the same ironwood flooring that never creaked.
That first time, Mama had elbowed my ribs. "You know this is the toughest floor in the world?"
She failed to mention it belonged to the man with the toughest heart in the world.
I couldn't for the life of me understand why people with so much money would spend it on such a depressing house. Ten bedrooms. Thirteen bathrooms. An indoor gym and a dramatic staircase. The best amenities money could buy ... and except for the tennis court and sixty-five-foot pool, they were all in black.
Black choked out every pleasant feeling you might possibly have as soon as you walked through the big iron-studded doors. The interior designer must've been a medieval vampire, judging from the cold, lifeless colors and the giant iron chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. Even the floor was so dark that it looked like I was hovering over an abyss, a fraction of a second from falling into nothingness.
A ten-bedroom house, three people living in it — two of them barely ever there — and the Spencers had decided to house my family in the servants' apartment near the garage. It was bigger than our clap- board rental in Richmond, Virginia, but until that moment, it had still rubbed me the wrong way.
Everything about the Spencer mansion was designed to intimidate. Rich and wealthy, yet poor in so many ways. These are not happy people, I thought.
I stared at my shoes — the tattered white Vans I doodled colorful flowers on to hide the fact that they were knock-offs — and swallowed, feeling insignificant even before he had belittled me. Before I even knew him.
"I wonder where he is?" Mama whispered.
As we stood in the hallway, I shivered at the echo that bounced off the bare walls. She wanted to ask if we could get paid two days early because we needed to buy medicine for my younger sister, Rosie.
"I hear something coming from that room." She pointed to a door on the opposite side of the vaulted foyer. "You go knock. I'll go back to the kitchen to wait."
"Me? Why me?"
"Because," she said, pinning me with a stare that stabbed at my conscience, "Rosie's sick, and his parents are out of town. You're his age. He'll listen to you."
I did as I was told — not for Mama, for Rosie — without understanding the consequences. The next few minutes cost me my whole senior year and were the reason why I was ripped from my family at the age of eighteen.
Vicious thought I knew his secret.
He thought I'd found out what he was arguing about in that room that day.
I had no clue.
All I remember was trudging toward the threshold of another dark door, my fist hovering inches from it before I heard the deep rasp of an old man.
"You know the drill, Baron."
A man. A smoker, probably.
"My sister told me you're giving her trouble again." The man slurred his words before raising his voice and slapping his palm against a hard surface. "I've had enough of you disrespecting her."
"Fuck you." I heard the composed voice of a younger man. He sounded ... amused? "And fuck her too. Wait, is that why you're here, Daryl? You want a piece of your sister too? The good news is that she's open for business, if you have the buck to pay."
"Look at the mouth on you, you little cunt." Slap. "Your mother would've been proud."
Silence, and then, "Say another word about my mother, and I'll give you a real reason to get those dental implants you were talking about with my dad." The younger man's voice dripped venom, which made me think he might not be as young as Mama thought.
"Stay away," the younger voice warned. "I can beat the shit out of you, now. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty tempted to do so. All. The fucking. Time. I'm done with your shit."
"And what the hell makes you think you have a choice?" The older man chuckled darkly.
I felt his voice in my bones, like poison eating at my skeleton.
"Haven't you heard?" the younger man gritted out. "I like to fight. I like the pain. Maybe because it makes it so much easier for me to come to terms with the fact that I'm going to kill you one day. And I will, Daryl. One day, I will kill you."
I gasped, too stunned to move. I heard a loud smack, then someone tumbling down, dragging some items with him as he fell to the floor.
I was about to run — this conversation obviously wasn't meant for me to hear — but he caught me off guard. Before I knew what was happening, the door swung open and I came face to face with a boy around my age. I say a boy, but there was nothing boyish about him.
The older man stood behind him, panting hard, hunched with his hands flat against a desk. Books were scattered around his feet, and his lip was cut and bleeding.
The room was a library. Soaring floor-to-ceiling, walnut shelves full of hardbacks lined the walls. I felt a pang in my chest because I somehow knew there wasn't any way I'd ever be allowed in there again.
"What the fuck?" the teenage boy seethed. His eyes narrowed. They felt like the sight of a rifle aimed at me.
Seventeen? Eighteen? The fact that we were about the same age somehow made everything about the situation worse. I ducked my head, my cheeks flaming with enough heat to burn down the whole house.
"Have you been listening?" His jaw twitched.
I frantically shook my head no, but that was a lie. I'd always been a terrible liar.
"I didn't hear a thing, I swear." I choked on my words. "My mama works here. I was looking for her." Another lie. I'd never been a scaredy-cat. I was always the brave one. But I didn't feel so brave at that moment. After all, I wasn't supposed to be there, in his house, and I definitely wasn't supposed to be listening to their argument.
The young man took a step closer, and I took a step back. His eyes were dead, but his lips were red, full, and very much alive. This guy is going to break my heart if I let him. The voice came from somewhere inside my head, and the thought stunned me because it made no sense at all. I'd never fallen in love before, and I was too anxious to even register his eye color or hairstyle, let alone the notion of ever having any feelings for the guy.
"What's your name?" he demanded. He smelled delicious — a masculine spice of boy-man, sweet sweat, sour hormones, and the faint trace of clean laundry, one of my mama's many chores.
"Emilia." I cleared my throat and extended my arm. "My friends call me Millie. Y'all can too."
His expression revealed zero emotion. "You're fucking done, Emilia." He drawled my name, mocking my Southern accent and not even acknowledging my hand with a glance.
I withdrew it quickly, embarrassment flaming my cheeks again.
"Wrong fucking place and wrong fucking time. Next time I find you anywhere inside my house, bring a body bag because you won't be leaving alive." He thundered past me, his muscular arm brushing my shoulder.
I choked on my breath. My gaze bolted to the older man, and our eyes locked. He shook his head and grinned in a way that made me want to fold into myself and disappear. Blood dripped from his lip onto his leather boot — black like his worn MC jacket. What was he doing in a place like this, anyway? He just stared at me, making no move to clean up the blood.
I turned around and ran, feeling the bile burning in my throat, threatening to spill over.
Needless to say, Rosie had to make do without her medicine that week and my parents were paid not a minute earlier than when they were scheduled to.
That was two months ago.
Today, when I walked through the kitchen and climbed the stairs, I had no choice.
I knocked on Vicious's bedroom door. His room was on the second floor at the end of the wide curved hallway, the door facing the floating stone staircase of the cave-like mansion.
I'd never been near Vicious's room, and I wished I could keep it that way. Unfortunately, my calculus book had been stolen. Whoever broke into my locker had wiped it clean of my stuff and left garbage inside. Empty soda cans, cleaning supplies, and condom wrappers spilled out the minute I opened the locker door.
Just another not-so-clever, yet effective, way for the students at All Saints High to remind me that I was nothing but the cheap help around here. By that point, I was so used to it I barely reddened at all. When all eyes in the hallway darted to me, snickers and chuckles rising out of every throat, I tilted my chin up and marched straight to my next class.
All Saints High was a school full of spoiled, over-privileged sinners. A school where if you failed to dress or act a certain way, you didn't belong. Rosie blended in better than I did, thank the Lord. But with a Southern drawl, off-beat style, and one of the most popular guys at school — that being Vicious Spencer — hating my guts, I didn't fit in.
What made it worse was that I didn't want to fit in. These kids didn't impress me. They weren't kind or welcoming or even very smart. They didn't possess any of the qualities I looked for in friends.
But I needed my textbook badly if I ever wanted to escape this place.
I knocked three times on the mahogany door of Vicious's bedroom. Rolling my lower lip between my fingers, I tried to suck in as much oxygen as I could, but it did nothing to calm the throbbing pulse in my neck.
Please don't be there ...
Please don't be an ass ...
A soft noise seeped from the crack under the door, and my body tensed.
Vicious never giggled. Heck, he hardly ever chuckled. Even his smiles were few and far between. No. The sound was undoubtedly female.
I heard him whisper in his raspy tone something inaudible that made her moan. My ears seared, and I anxiously rubbed my hands on the yellow cut-off denim shorts covering my thighs. Out of all the scenarios I could have imagined, this was by far the worst.
With another girl.
Who I hated before I even knew her name.
It didn't make any sense, yet I felt ridiculously angry.
But he was clearly there, and I was a girl on a mission.
"Vicious?" I called out, trying to steady my voice. I straightened my spine, even though he couldn't see me. "It's Millie. Sorry to interrupt, y'all. I just wanted to borrow your calc book. Mine's lost, and I really need to get ready for that exam we have tomorrow." God forbid you ever study for our exam yourself, I breathed silently.
He didn't answer, but I heard a sharp intake of breath — the girl — and the rustle of fabric and the noise of a zipper rolling. Down, I had no doubt.
I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my forehead against the cool wood of his door.
Bite the bullet. Swallow your pride. This wouldn't matter in a few years. Vicious and his stupid antics would be a distant memory, the snooty town of Todos Santos just a dust-covered part of my past.
My parents had jumped at the chance when Josephine Spencer offered them a job. They'd dragged us across the country to California because the health care was better and we didn't even need to pay rent. Mama was the Spencers' cook/housekeeper, and Daddy was part gardener and handyman. The previous live-in couple had quit, and it was no wonder. Pretty sure my parents weren't so keen on the job either. But opportunities like these were rare, and Josephine Spencer's mama was friends with my great-aunt, which is how they'd gotten the job.
I was planning on getting out of here soon. As soon as I got accepted to the first out-of-state college I'd applied to, to be exact. In order to do so, though, I needed a scholarship.
For a scholarship, I needed kick-ass grades.
And for kick-ass grades, I needed this textbook.
"Vicious," I ground out his stupid nickname. I knew he hated his real name, and for reasons beyond my grasp, I didn't want to upset him. "I'll grab the book and copy the formulas I need real quick. I won't borrow it long. Please." I gulped down the ball of frustration twisting in my throat. It was bad enough I'd had my stuff stolen — again — without having to ask Vicious for favors.
The giggling escalated. The high, screechy pitch sawed through my ears. My fingers tingled to push the door open and launch at him with my fists.
I heard his groan of pleasure and knew it had nothing to do with the girl he was with. He loved taunting me. Ever since our first encounter outside of his library two months ago, he'd been hell-bent on reminding me that I wasn't good enough.
Not good enough for his mansion.
Not good enough for his school.
Not good enough for his town.
Worst part? It wasn't a figure of speech. It really was his town. Baron Spencer Jr. — dubbed Vicious for his cold, ruthless behavior — was the heir to one of the biggest family-owned fortunes in California. The Spencers owned a pipeline company, half of downtown Todos Santos — including the mall — and three corporate office parks. Vicious had enough money to take care of the next ten generations of his family.
But I didn't.
My parents were servants. We had to work for every penny. I didn't expect him to understand. Trust-fund kids never did. But I presumed he'd at least pretend, like the rest of them.
Education mattered to me, and at that moment, I felt robbed of it.
Because rich people had stolen my books.
Because this particular rich kid wouldn't even open the door to his room so I could borrow his textbook real quick.
"Vicious!" My frustration got the better of me, and I slammed my palm flat against his door. Ignoring the throb it sent up my wrist, I continued, exasperated. "C'mon!"
I was close to turning around and walking away. Even if it meant I had to take my bike and ride all the way across town to borrow Sydney's books. Sydney was my only friend at All Saints High, and the one person I liked in class.
But then I heard Vicious chuckling, and I knew the joke was on me. "I love to see you crawl. Beg for it, baby, and I'll give it to you," he said.
Not to the girl in his room.
I lost it. Even though I knew it was wrong. That he was winning.
I thrust the door open and barged into his room, strangling the handle with my fist, my knuckles white and burning.
My eyes darted to his king-sized bed, barely stopping to take in the gorgeous mural above it — four white horses galloping into the darkness — or the elegant dark furniture. His bed looked like a throne, sitting in the middle of the room, big and high and draped in soft black satin. He was perched on the edge of his mattress, a girl who was in my PE class in his lap. Her name was Georgia and her grandparents owned half the vineyards upstate in Carmel Valley. Georgia's long blonde hair veiled one of his broad shoulders and her Caribbean tan looked perfect and smooth against Vicious's pale complexion.
His dark blue eyes — so dark they were almost black — locked on mine as he continued to kiss her ravenously — his tongue making sev- eral appearances — like she was made of cotton candy. I needed to look away, but couldn't. I was trapped in his gaze, completely immobilized from the eyes down, so I arched an eyebrow, showing him that I didn't care.
Only I did. I cared a lot.
I cared so much, in fact, that I continued to stare at them shamelessly. At his hollowed cheeks as he inserted his tongue deep into her mouth, his burning, taunting glare never leaving mine, gauging me for a reaction. I felt my body buzzing in an unfamiliar way, falling under his spell. A sweet, pungent fog. It was sexual, unwelcome, yet completely inescapable. I wanted to break free, but for the life of me, I couldn't.
My grip on the door handle tightened, and I swallowed, my eyes dropping to his hand as he grabbed her waist and squeezed playfully. I squeezed my own waist through the fabric of my yellow-and-white sunflower top.
What the hell was wrong with me? Watching him kiss another girl was unbearable, but also weirdly fascinating.
I wanted to see it.
I didn't want to see it.
Either way, I couldn't unsee it.
Admitting defeat, I blinked, shifting my gaze to a black Raiders cap hung over the headrest of his desk chair.
"Your textbook, Vicious. I need it," I repeated. "I'm not leaving your room without it."
"Get the fuck out, Help," he said into Georgia's giggling mouth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vicious"
Copyright © 2016 L.J. Shen.
Excerpted by permission of L.J. Shen.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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