Page 7

Author: Pepper Winters

I didn’t like what I saw. Something heavy lived inside—something squeezed until he trembled with more than just anger. He used the scar as a deterrent, but behind all that lived something else. Something darker, something…sad.

My heart thudded, sending a flood of compassion into my veins.

Oh, no you don’t.

Gritting my teeth, I closed my eyes and forced all interest and empathy to die a quick death. I couldn’t afford to suffer such idiocy. I was searching for reasons behind his surly attitude, seeing a heavy penance in his scar. You can’t get swept up in the need to help, protect, and listen.

Dragging hands through his longish hair, Fox glared. “I let you go. Why haven’t you left yet?” The faint foreign accent lurked behind a cultured Australian voice. He may have studied hard to sound like a local, but he couldn’t hide his roots completely. Just like he couldn’t tame the wildness in him—the savageness beneath the cool façade.

He didn’t belong here. He belonged in the wilderness, hunting in the dawn, just like his namesake, the fox.

It was my turn to suffer unavoidable curiosity. “Who are you?” I tried to relax, reminding myself he couldn’t harm me, not with so many witnesses. “You trap me and demand answers to your questions, but it works both ways. You want to know something about me?” Twisting to point behind me, I said, “I’m here with a friend. We were invited by Corkscrew and he’s an expert Muay Thai fighter. I didn’t want to come here. I hate what I’m wearing, and you drive me crazy because I can’t read you. You’re dangerous, and I think you have some serious issues.”

Fox pierced me with white-grey eyes. “You’re right to think I’m dangerous.” Ignoring my other comments, he muttered, “Finally, I have a reason to get him in the ring. He can’t flaunt the rules and invite whoever he damn well pleases.” A hard smile stretched his lips.

My skin prickled at the thought of Fox fighting Corkscrew. I liked Ben. He was kind and looked at Clue as if she were a precious gem. There was no way I wanted this lunatic hurting him.

“Stay away from—”

“Everything okay here?” I jumped as a man solidified beside me, appearing from the thinning crowd. He flicked me a curious glance before looking at Fox. “What did I overhear? An excuse to get who in the ring?”

Fox stopped smiling. “Corkscrew invited people without paying for their admittance. I have my reason.” He cracked his knuckles, looking determined and not a little scary.

The blond haired man shook his head. “Oh no you don’t. One fight is enough. Bugger off. Let me run the floor for the rest of the night.”

The air crackled as Fox pierced the new man with a look. In one second Fox asserted authority and in another dismissed it. “Fine. Take over. I’m done being around people for the evening.” His grey eyes landed on mine, letting me know he truly meant me.

“Good choice.” The newcomer frowned, pushing long blond hair from his eyes. He looked as if he should be in an ocean with a surfboard and not an illegal club. “Who are you?” He assessed me, pursing his lips. “I thought all girls had to wear a uniform, so their services weren’t confused?”

Girls? Shit, is that what the waitresses were? Prostitutes?

My hackles rose. My frayed nerves reached snapping point, and I lost all decorum. “Stop asking who the hell I am. I’m done being manhandled, cursed at, and being mistaken for a whore. I’ve had enough.” I pushed past the blond guy only for him to lasso a hand around my upper arm.

Eyeing my breasts, he added, “If you don’t want to be mistaken for a whore maybe you shouldn’t wear such a slutty dress.” He dropped his head, breathing me in. “I can particularly see your nipples, and I know you’re hot for my boss. You can’t hide the flush, princess. You’re wasting your fucking time. He’s onto women like you.”

“Fuck you.” I raised my hand to slap his cheek, but Fox beat me to it. His fist landed on the man’s jaw. Oscar dropped his grip, and I stumbled backward.

“She’s not a whore, and I’ll say if she’s wasting her fucking time, Oscar. Goddammit, you’re pissing me off tonight.”

Oscar rubbed his chin, blue eyes sparking with anger. “You’re a son of a bitch.”

Fox rippled with rage. “Go back to work.”

“I am working—I’m keeping you from killing someone.”

I laughed once at the madness of this place. Seemed everyone was infected with whatever disease lived within these huge black walls. “Oh, my God, you’re all crazy. I’m leaving.” I spun around and took one angry step before strong fingers latched around my wrist. My heart raced as once again electricity shot from his touch all the way to my traitorous core. Everything about him drew me and repelled me at the same time.

My body thrilled at the primal possession while my mind laughed at my weakness.

“Let me go.” I glared at the scarred hand wrapped like a handcuff holding me captive. I raised my eyes, latching onto the colourless gaze of the man who was swiftly becoming my nemesis. “I’m done playing this stupid cat and mouse game.”

He clenched his jaw, eyes blazing. “Not yet. I’ll say when you can go, and I revoke my earlier permission.” He bowed his head, whispering against my ear, “I’m not letting you go until I understand you.” His breath tickled the fine hair behind my ear, and I fought an uncontrollable shiver. Everything inside me liquefied.

“Permission? You think I need your permission?” A cocktail of anger and lust flurried my heart. I hated it. I loved it. I’d never wanted to run or kiss someone so much.

What the hell is happening to me? No wonder lust was such a dangerous thing. It made me forget my problems, my troubles—it ceased every concern apart from the urge to fight with him. To give in to him.

“Eh…” The blond man cleared his throat, forehead wrinkling. “Uh, Fox? What exactly are you doing?” His eyes dropped to my wrist where Fox steadily squeezed harder until my blood thrummed in my fingertips.

Fox never broke eye contact with me, keeping me prisoner in more ways than one. “I’m learning. Go away.”

Learning? He didn’t need to learn how to pretzel my insides or turn my thoughts against me. He was a flipping master at it already.

The blond guy chuckled, but his eyes darted between us warily. “Learning?” He took a step closer. “Look, mate, I’ll take care of her.”

My eyes shot to his. Egotistical wanker. “Take care of me? Like I’m a hooker or the rubbish you have to leave on the side of the road?” My voice rose and I squirmed against Fox’s hold. “I don’t want to hear anymore. I’m done. I’ll ask one last time. Let me the hell go.”

Fox growled under his breath, glowering at blondie. “You’re making it worse, Oz. Go away.” Jerking me closer, he hissed as my shoulder bumped into his. His body heat enveloped me, along with the faint smell of rust from the fight. “Stop fighting. I’m not letting you leave, so you might as well get used to it.”

“You can’t hold me against my will. If you think you can, you’re a bigger idiot than I thought.” My heart beat faster, pushing adrenaline through my system. “Don’t make me hurt you.” I hadn’t lived the life I had without learning how to protect myself. I would hurt him. I would get free.

Oscar took a step back, reluctantly obeying Fox’s order to leave.

Only once he’d gone did Fox bow his head, eyes staring icily into mine. My stomach squeezed, and my legs turned from firm to flimsy. The effect he had on me wasn’t fair. Never had someone turned me on by making me fear them.

“You would never be able to hurt me, dobycha.”

My ears pricked at the exotic word.

His eyes widened, then narrowed in annoyance. He’d slipped—used a non-Australian word—it pissed him off.

“Is that a challenge?” I whispered, unable to tear my eyes away from his silver scar. Someone managed to hurt you. You can’t ignore the evidence.

His lips twitched. “It’s a promise.”

In that case, I had to teach him a lesson.

With my free hand, I slinked my fingers through my curled and carefully styled hair. My heart thudded harder as I pulled the single clip free and brought my arm down. Keeping my hand hidden by my side, I opened the clip with practiced fingers and slid the blade into locked position. Palming the knife, I smiled. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. And never hold a woman against her will again.”

Confusion flickered in his eyes, followed by a burst of understanding. He shoved me away but was too late.

In a quick swipe, I dragged the small, sharp blade across his forearm. Not too deep, but not too shallow either. Instantly, a well of crimson showed in the tear of his black shirt.

“You should’ve let me go when I asked nicely.”

He sucked in a harsh breath between his teeth. Grabbing me again, his fingers flexed around my wrist. “You think pain affects me?” His eyes flashed. “It only makes me worse.”

The burn of satisfaction was nothing compared to the biting throb of Fox’s fingers. His touch seemed to zap me with a million volts. My mind swam with contradictory things.

I wanted to run.

I wanted to kiss him.

I wanted to hurt him.

I wanted to touch him and bite and drag sharp nails down his back as he entered me.

Shit, Hazel. What are you thinking?

Fox sneered, twisting his scar. “You cut me.” His eyes found mine again, glinting with smoke and smog. “That means you owe me.”

I’d reached the end of my tether. I couldn’t let this man warp my brain and play my body like a puppet. “I owe you nothing.”

The last few weeks caught up with me, and all I wanted to do was attack him. He deserved it for detaining me, antagonising me, and proving that a life on my own was no life at all. I’d been kidding myself when I said I didn’t need to share my bed with another.

The last few weeks I would’ve given anything to have a guy to lean on, to cry in their arms, and share the burden of Clara’s future. Clue was incredible, but I as much as I would deny it, I wanted a different kind of taking care of.

Fuck this man for making me crave. Fuck him for showing me how weak I truly was.

“Zel?” Clue appeared from the gloomy shadows. Her eyes popped wide seeing me trapped by a scarred stranger dressed in black. Sympathy glowed in her eyes as she sensed just how close I was to losing it; then they filled with fiery rage.

“Hey! Get the hell away from my friend.” She charged forward like a mini torpedo. “Let her go!” Grabbing my other wrist, she pulled hard, causing me to lurch forward only to be yanked back by Fox. I became the toy in a game of tug-of-war.

“Clue.” I tripped sideways as she pulled harder. “Clue.” My hand tightened on the knife as my shoulders screamed in pain. “Clue. Stop!”

She froze, breathing hard. Glaring daggers at Fox, she captured my face with her gentle hands. She conjured so many memories touching me that way. Considering we both grew up with no affection, we often touched and hugged.

She helped ground me even while tearing me into pieces. How many times had she touched Clara the same way? The same love and adoration glowing in her eyes. I hadn’t stopped to think how hard this would be on her. She was losing a part of our family, just as much as me.

“You’re okay. I’m here.” She dropped her hands.

I smiled. “Thanks.”

“And who the hell is this?” Fox asked, his voice low, deceptively smooth. Looking Clue up and down he muttered, “You’re interrupting. Leave.”

Clue placed her hands on her dainty hips. “I have no intention of leaving. I’m her friend. Let her go.”