Page 44

Author: Pepper Winters


“I like it better than Ghost or Fox. I don’t believe in ghosts and you’re not see-through and can’t fly, so that’s just stupid. Those bad men who made you do bad things know nothing.”


I smothered a chuckle under my breath. I didn’t mean to laugh—the tension in the room had no space for humour—but Fox cracked a smile, too. Some of the overwound tension left his body. “You’re right. I’m not a Ghost. Not anymore. I’m just a man searching for a way to be human again.”


My heart squeezed to death.


Clara leaned back into me, her dark eyes riveted on the licking flames dancing over Fox’s face. “You may have killed, but you aren’t a bad man.”


Fox froze, drowning in her gaze. “What makes you say that?”


She broke eye contact, kicking her feet, looking anywhere but at him. “Because only bad men are lonely because no one can love them.” Her little lungs strained, sucking in courage. She burst out, “And I love you, so you can’t be a bad man otherwise how could I love you? I would know. I would be able to tell you were naughty, and I wouldn’t want to love someone like that.”


Fox went from standing straight and tall to looking ancient and frail. He sucked in a heavy breath, and for the briefest of moments, moisture filled his eyes. But then it was gone, and the fragility was replaced with power once again.


His throat worked hard. “If it’s okay with you, I’ll start the story now.” Gripping the hem of his black t-shirt, he tore it over his head.


What in the living daylights is he doing?


I squeezed Clara so hard she squeaked. For weeks I’d wanted to see Fox naked. I’d wanted to understand what he kept hidden. But now he stood before me and I wanted to shut my eyes.


He didn’t need to verbalize his story. It lived in his skin, engraved into muscles, and imprinted into flesh.


Balling the t-shirt, he threw it away.


My eyes were transfixed by his ripped muscles. They were too defined, too angry, too lacking nutrients and a healthy layer of fat. Every sinew, every vein, every thread and bunch of muscle seethed beneath the thin membrane of skin.


My fingers ached to touch him, to run along the long swooping scar on his rib cage and whisper over the small uniformed marks just below his collarbone. There were circular scars and oblong scars, square scars and scars that looked as if they still retained gravel and dirt from however they hurt him.


His stomach was so toned every ridge looked too harsh, too unforgiving to cuddle or sleep against. He didn’t look man. He looked like stone. Forged from granite and marble, carved from obsidian and slate.


“Fox…I—” My voice deserted me. A flare of connection and lust sprang to a fever pitch between us. Fox tensed, highlighting yet more scars in the light of the fire.


“Now you know why I don’t like for people to see.”


Clara stayed mute on my lap, either unimpressed by the show of male brokenness, or overwhelmed by the violence living on his skin. I shouldn’t allow this. I should take her far away, so she didn’t have to live with such atrocities in her young mind.


But she knew things she shouldn’t know. She knew her time was limited. She acted far beyond her age, yet she dealt with everything with such fine edged decorum and sensibility.


Tears tracked silently down my cheeks for both Fox and Clara. Two people who connected and were drawn to each other; two people who would destroy each other.


“I don’t want people to know. I don’t want people to guess my story, or display my crimes. Every day I try to forget, but every day I remember thanks to a body that will never erase or heal. But if you want to know, I will tell you the story behind every mark and cut. I’ve never forgotten—the memories are vivid and never ending in my head.” His voice dabbled with self-hatred and pleading.


I shook my head. I never wanted to know. I thought I did. I thought I wanted to uncover his secrets, but I couldn’t make him live through his past—not while it lived so deeply on his skin in the present.


Clara had no such scruples.


Her little hand darted up, pointing to a scar above his protruding hip bone. “That looks like a ce—cee—caesarean scar. Mummy has one, and she said she loves it because it reminds her of me.” She swirled in my arms to plant a gentle kiss on my cheek. “I didn’t mean to scar you, you know.”


I gathered her close, squeezing hard. “I love that scar. I’m thankful for it every day as it brought you into my life.” She sighed and squirmed closer while looking up at Fox.


Dropping his eyes, he traced the scar with a finger. “This is from a knife similar to the one you picked up. It was a test—weeding out the recruits who would operate in intense pain compared to those who couldn’t.”


My hands wanted to slam over Clara’s ears. I shot Fox a warning look. “Perhaps we’ve had enough story-time for one day.” I shot another message with my eyes. Stop it. You’ll scare her. She doesn’t need to know details.


Fox nodded. “We’ll avoid the scars for now. I’ll tell you the story of this.” Sucking in a breath, he turned away from us.


My mouth fell open, jaw slack in shock. If I thought his chest was impressive with its relic of memories, his back was a piece of parchment with history inked into every crevice.


Clara bounced off my lap, tearing my arms off her. “Wow.” She moved forward, transfixed on his tattooed back. The golden hue of licking flames highlighted the ridges of his muscles and flickered over the silver of his scars like some expensive imbedded jewellery. “What happened to you?” Clara leaned forward, childlike wonder shining bright in her eyes.


“Life happened to me, little one.”


I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry. In one move, Fox gave everything that he was. He bared his soul; he dropped every barrier, so we could understand him better.


I hated myself in that moment for keeping so much from him. For judging him. For not understanding or granting more compassion.


His tattoo wasn’t something he wore with pride. It wasn’t an achievement or earned. It was a plain message of ownership. Every design spoke of proprietorship and control.


My heart swelled for this broken warrior. My eyes burned with tears.


Looking over his shoulder, he murmured, “Ready for your story now?”


Clara nodded, dumfounded, eyes flittering all over his inked back. Fox bent his knees and crashed to the floor, presenting himself at my feet. Clara moved closer, breathing hard. “Can I—I want to—”


Fox clenched his fists, digging them into his thighs. “You can. I’ll tell you which to touch, and I’ll tell you the story.”


A large smile broke her face, then she frowned. “Is it all sad? I don’t know if I want to listen to something all sad.”


Fox laughed softly. “Life is sad, little one. It’s full of heartache and bittersweet hope, but you are my happy ending. You are my happiness, so remember that when I tell you.”


Clara reached out to touch.


My throat dried to a husk as Fox muttered, “Go slowly. Start at the top.”


My muscles were ready to spurn forth and snatch my daughter away. This was the worst possible place for her to touch him. Weapons lurked in every corner, a fire billowed beside them. He could bludgeon her and burn all evidence in a matter of moments.


Clara nodded, her fingers trembled as she gently laid a hand on the base of his neck where a Celtic-like knot had been drawn.


Fox said, “That one—that’s the symbol of never-ending battle.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “Once upon a time, a boy who was born to royal blood strayed too far from home. He didn’t listen to his mother’s warnings and thought he knew best. Their castle rested on the edge of a mystical forest where bears and wolves played in the snow. The little boy explored for hours, searching for them, but he didn’t find any bears or wolves. But he did find something else.”


Clara dropped her hand to the next tattoo, willing Roan to continue.


Roan.


I’d slipped and thought of him by his first name.


He flinched as her finger circled an angel bowing over a sword across her legs with three words in a circle. “That’s the mark of a Ghost. The angel of death and our three promises: Invincible, impenetrable, invisible. It was a pledge, a curse, our destiny.”


Fox sucked in a breath and continued with his story. “The little boy found two men and thought they were there to guide him back home. So he went willingly and didn’t struggle when they shoved him into a van and drove for miles into the wilderness. They told the boy his old life was over and to survive he must follow every rule without question.”


The atmosphere in the room thickened with anticipation. I sat forward on the chair, inching closer, my skin tingling.


Clara stuck her tongue out in concentration, dropping her hand to the next symbol. It depicted a swarm of angry swirls, never ending.


“That one represents evil. We were the weapons of righteousness. Our only purpose was to obey our master—if we did as we were ordered, we would be safe from evil.” His back tensed as he continued, “Years passed for the boy as he grew from child to teen to adult. As he completed stages of training, exams were given and to pass he had to hurt his beautiful mother, courageous father, and talented little brother. The boy was brainwashed every day. He was told he was no longer human, but a Ghost whose job was to exterminate vermin. Out of fifty other boys and girls who lived with him in this new castle, only thirteen graduated. The rest disappeared, stolen by the snow to never be seen again.”


I winced as my nails dug hard into my palms, drawing blood. My heart thumped in heavy pain for all the children who’d been forced to kill. All the children who’d been murdered by the sick, twisted men who kidnapped and tortured young innocence.


Clara shook her head in sadness. My heart seized at the thought of her wrapping her arms around him and hugging. The longer Fox told his story, the further his voice sounded—swallowed up by the past. It lost its intensity, drifting off into a soft, hypnotic tone.


Clara dropped her fingers, tracing a pretty snowflake on Fox’s spine.


He growled, hands clenching. Clara lost her balance a little before steadying herself.


“That’s the tattoo I hate the most. It was punishment. If we failed to do exactly what they wanted, they’d make us spend nights alone in the forest. The once mystical bears and wolves I wanted to find were now my enemies in the dark. Hungry and looking for a tasty snack—” He cut himself off before continuing, “The little boy spent his eighth birthday in the pit. The worst place to go if you disappointed your handlers. Day and night with no shelter. No warmth from dusting snow, or blankets to stop frostbite from turning your limbs into ice. The little boy hated the pit, and his deep-seated fear of the dark stemmed from those nights. Endless blackness only punctured by a weak moon and the glowing yellow eyes of wolves.”


Clara skirted over the Roman numeral III and went straight to a flame with an anvil.


Fox sighed, releasing some of his recalled fear. “When the little boy obeyed orders, he was allowed to work in the smithy. He loved the heat and brightness of fire and his skills grew. He threw himself into turning hunks of metal into weapons of destruction—it was his happy place. Despite the daily toils and gruesome tasks he was given, the boy never forgot who he truly was and always remembered the truth. They broke him again and again, but he knew in his heart he wasn’t what they said he was. It wasn’t until a fairy godmother granted him the loss of sight that he was able to find freedom.”


What? Fox had been blind?


Clara whispered, “The last tattoo of the fox. That’s you?”


Fox smiled. “Yes, when the little boy graduated he was told to choose a code name. Something he would wear with honour for his achievements. He liked to think he was smart enough to win in the end—wily and cunning like the small, red-coated fox. It reminded the little boy of his mother’s red hair, and his father’s bushy moustache.”

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