Page 25

Author: Pepper Winters

He sucked in a harsh breath, his muscles shuddering with anger. “You think you know me? You think you can wave a fucking magic wand and fix me?” He moved to get off the bed, and I backed away. His feet touched the floor, but he didn’t stand up, almost as if he forced himself to stay seated, to stay away from me. “It was a mistake to fuck you. It was a mistake to let you anywhere near me. You’re crazy with your stupid conclusions. I’m not a pet project for a girl scout to fix. Get the fuck out and stop boring me.”

“I’m boring you? Oh, my God, you’re completely backwards. If you were bored you wouldn’t care what I thought. You’re not bored, Fox, because you know I’m right. What do you want from me? What were you hoping to achieve?”

From my place in the centre of the carpet, I balled my hands. “Did you think you’d win my affection by raping me? Or how about making me swoon with your fucked-up inability to be touched? I wanted you—I’ve been honest about that right from the start—but what I don’t want is a man who’s so far off the realm of sanity that I can’t understand or predict. If you gave me the money right now, I’d leave, and I would never think about you again.”

My throat closed on the lie.

Fox clutched the edge of the mattress. “Don’t let me keep you, dobycha. Congratulations on fucking hurting me more than the injuries I’m suffering. You just proved how shallow you are. You never truly wanted me—if you did, you’d want more than just what my bank balance can give you!”

My entire body hummed with anger. “I’m the shallow one? How about you? You think you’re one-dimensional; you provide a scarred scary persona who owns an illegal fight club, but that’s not the truth. Want to hear my version of the truth and then you can see if I’m shallow enough not to care?”

I didn’t wait for his reply. “You can’t be touched. I would never be able to guess why that is but it left me wondering—why did you buy me for sex if you never undress and seem to abhor the very idea of being near anyone? You wear clothes as if they’ll protect you from something. You sculpt and work with metal because you have control over the destiny of the piece that you’re creating. You’re screwed up and confused and—”

“Shut up! Get the fuck out.” I leaped back as Fox stood upright. He roared, “Stop it. Just leave me alone!”

My ears rang from his fierceness; my heart bruised my ribs it thudded so hard, but for the first time, I sensed a crack. He wasn’t Mr. Obsidian in that moment, he was just a man with a primal temper. A man on the verge of losing it.

“No. You’re going to hear me.” I’m going to break you.

His teeth ground loudly sending shivers scattering over my back. Swallowing hard, I demanded, “Had you kissed anyone before? Before me?”

He glared daggers, piercing my skin with his hatred. “What does it matter? Have you ever been so badly abused every bone was broken in your body? Have you ever gone days without food or had so much blood on your hands you wanted to kill yourself?” His chest heaved under his sweater.

We froze.

His nostrils flared. He didn’t mean to slip—he’d said something fundamental—a huge insight into his past. I wouldn’t let him retreat now. Taking a step forward, I pushed him, kept prodding, as if he were a cornered animal.

“No, but you have.” I couldn’t handle this. It hurt to think about Fox’s past—what he kept hidden. He’d almost killed me. He’d taken me against my will. I owed him my hatred, not my pity.

But how could I fear someone in such emotional pain?

The scar on his cheek glowed bright red, looking as if it wept with fresh blood. Colour flushed his neck line, highlighting faded scars I hadn’t noticed before. He seemed to throb before my eyes—changing from a zombie, a lifeless creature still going through the motions of life, to a man craving freedom.

“I know you’re not Australian, and I know your scar was a punishment. Tell me.”

He shook his head, damp hair flying. He bared his teeth. “Let me figure this out. You think you know me? You think you can read me and figure out what shit lives inside my head? You think you have superpowers?” He threw his arms up. “What other things do you think I happen to be, dobycha? A cutthroat murderer? A drug dealer? How about a rapist?” Running a harsh fingertip down the redness of his scar, he laughed. “Hang on, I guess I am a rapist after last night. Everything you think you know about me is tainted because of this. This scar—it makes you pity me and fear me.”

His shoulders bunched as he took a step forward. “You think you can guess how I got this? What I’ve done? Stop spinning your lies and fabricating stories. You’re so far off you’re in the realm of fantasy you’re embarrassing yourself. Do us both a favour and fuck off.”

His lips snapped shut. A metre separated us, keeping me safe from his seething rage.

Not once had he moved to grab or hurt me. Not once had he dropped his guard. All the while hating me for making him face the truth, he protected me by staying away.

Fatigue hit me and I sighed heavily. “You don’t trust yourself at all do you?”

He blinked at my whisper, so quiet after yelling.

My eyes met his, and I gave him a tiny smile. “Any normal person would touch and squeeze and manhandle each other in an intense argument, but you—you keep your distance. It’s not me you don’t trust—it’s yourself.”

He didn’t say a word, trembling in the wake of his terrible anger. Despite the colour flushing his neck and rage glowing in his eyes, he withheld his strict self-control. What would happen if I touched him? What would he do if I opened my arms and hugged him?

You’d die.

I knew it. As sure as the sun would set and rise again.

Silence fell between us, and my eyes dropped to his forearms. The jumper he wore had been pushed up, revealing corded muscle and scars.

Scars. Scars. Scars.

More than I could count. Some faded and silver, others red and healing. But it was the four straight and perfect lines seeping with bright red crimson that caught my attention.

I’d seen marks like that before. On another. I’d witnessed first-hand the fractured mind of an individual who sought pain to help remove the build-up of agony inside.

Clue was a self-harmer.

Over time, I’d helped her stop, but I would never forget walking into the kitchen one night and watching her drag a sharp blade over her skin. I’d shuddered in horror, but she’d breathed heavily in relief.

I hadn’t judged. I hadn’t said a word, but through friendship and support I helped her channel her pain into exercise and less destructive methods.

“You self-harm because you can’t deal with whatever lives inside you,” I murmured.

He choked on a swallow. Tense seconds ticked past before he took a small step toward me. His joints clicked from abuse past and new. Standing to his full height, he hissed, “Leave now before I do something I’ll regret.” His eyes flashed as he took another step toward me.

I stepped away, keeping out of touching distance. My anger came back swift and hot. Waving at him, taking in his furiousness, I growled, “You think you can scare me? You’re wrong. I’ve dealt with worse than you. You’re kidding yourself with your dramatics.”

Fox exploded from tightly coiled weapon to shrapnel bomb. “Get the fuck out! Now!”



“Not until you hear me out.”

“There’s nothing to hear!” He gripped his head, tugging his hair. “Leave now. Leave! Fucking go!”

Every survival instinct in me wanted to obey, but I’d pushed him this far. “I understand you, more than you think.”

He laughed manically. “You? Miss perfect—the woman who has it all? Don’t make me prove how ridiculous you are. You’re a fucking chameleon with your lies and secrets.”

Cocking his head, he stared harder, going deeper inside me than anyone had before. I didn’t like how weak and insecure he made me. I didn’t like feeling that my house of lies would come tumbling down at any moment. I didn’t like being a specimen under scrutiny. “You think I don’t see you? You have a past, same as anyone—but it’s darker. You’ve done things others wouldn’t understand, but it doesn’t mean you know me. I don’t trust you, Hazel Hunter.” Moving forward, he pointed at the door behind me. “I won’t ask again. Final warning. Get the fuck out and leave me alone.”

I’d pushed hard, but I didn’t win. I’d done my best. Backing away, I narrowed my eyes. “You want me gone, fine. But you owe me. You owe me for whatever connection sprang between us last night. You felt it—same as me. You forced me to agree to your terms as you couldn’t ignore the call. What if that connection was the one thing that could help you? What if I’m the one person you’ve been searching for?”

I hadn’t meant to say that. It was presumptuous. It reeked of high-handed righteousness. I didn’t know if he felt the same draw. The same strange pull.

He reared back, knuckles going white from clenching his fists so hard. “Who the fuck are you to think you know me? You know nothing. Nothing! I don’t need your help. I don’t need your cure!” His voice changed from unrepentant anger to a slight thread of confusion. He stressed the word ‘cure’, slipping from Australian accent to something guttural, foreign, something that suited him far more than the falseness of his Australian twang.

I saw the truth. Clear as day. Everything I’d said had been real. Everything he tried to keep hidden came to light. “I’m not the only one lying. You are.” I tilted my head, eyeing him closely. It was as if answers came to me from nowhere. Seeing through his shadows and secrets, latching onto small snippets of truth. “I think you’re hiding from something and live in fear every day.”

Fox bristled and seethed and stewed.

All the caring, stupid instincts swelled, hoping he’d crack, wishing he’d let his walls down. This man didn’t need a woman to warm his bed. He needed a psychiatrist. I didn’t want to be near someone so toxic, but I couldn’t walk away either. “You owe me to let me help you.”

Fear suffocated my throat as he seemed to grow larger, adopting an icy exterior that gave no hint of remorse or humanity.

I froze, locked in his ferocious stare. Trouble was I couldn’t read him in that moment. He’d shut down, so all I saw was a cold man with a vicious streak amplified by the wicked scar.

He shuddered as his entire body went into lockdown. Muscles bunched beneath his clothing, his aura trembled with aggression and rebellion. “I owe you nothing,” he spit.

My heart raced. Truth screamed loud and clear. Somehow he earned the facial scar thanks to a debt gone wrong. He wasn’t a free man. He was owned by someone who either kept him on a tight leash, or abused him so much it wouldn’t take much more for him to snap.

Hardly breathing, I dropped my eyes to his trembling body. I wanted to figure out the dark damage lurking in his eyes.

My God. What happened to him?

My gaze zeroed in on his as if I was a compass needle and he was my north. I’d never suffered a phenomenon such as this. Never been so tuned to another. Perhaps we were kindred souls—linked by something past the realm of understanding. Kismet.

It’s too much. Too intense. Too dangerous.

I had Clara to protect and save—I had no reserves left for someone so deeply broken. It was time to cut him loose and forget—not just for my sanity, but my future as well. I hated that for the first time in forever, I felt weak. Weak because no matter how much I wanted to help him, I wouldn’t be able to. He was unsaveable.

Exhaling heavily, I let it out—forcing all my questions and curiosity out of my mind. My life was already complicated enough. I didn’t need to think about adopting a lost stray with a bite that would undoubtedly leave me in pieces.

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