PROLOGUE – RYDER
I go by many names: Playboy, Hustler, Villain.
They call me a sadistic asshole because I rob from the poor and cheat on the weak.
Do I ever regret the choices I’ve made? All the damn time.
But it’s too late to turn back, and too late to start over…
I’ve never even considered giving it all up for anyone or anything before. Never had a reason or motivation to change.
Until I met her.
Callista Rayner. Heiress. Goddess. Need-her-ass-up-on-my-mattress.
My last chance at redemption.
The first thing I noticed about her wasn’t her eyes, smile, ass, or even her perfect breasts. It was her voice.
How do you describe the voice of a goddess? I have no words. I’m no poet, and I’m definitely no writer.
I’m a warrior. A criminal. The Big Bad Motherfucking Wolf.
But let me tell ya, Cally’s voice had me sunk. She had the kind of voice that moved warships in her honor, like fucking Helen of Troy.
When she spoke, I had to listen. When she commanded, I had to obey.
Because she had me mesmerized…
Problem was, I couldn’t afford to fall for her, because I didn’t want to ruin her.
I didn’t want to destroy her, like the others that came before.
Too bad I had no choice.
Too bad she was my pawn and I had to use her.
Too bad, too bad, too bad.
RYDER – 21 YEARS AGO
Crimson blood dribbled from my left nostril down to my upper lip. “I love her, Dad.” I choked on the tangy copper that swam in my throat and gagged.
Dad’s thick fingers crushed my windpipe harder. “You’re seventeen, boy. You have no fucking clue what love is.”
I tried to suck in air, but sounded like a beached whale instead. There was so much pressure in my skull I wished it would just explode.
“What will your girlfriend say when I tell her?” Dad spat. “Cassie Sullivan, right? Or is it some other slut this week?” He loosened his grip and I sank to the ground, knees crunching. I wished a sinkhole could just open up beneath me and swallow everything: me, Dad, our house, and all the nightmares that came with it.
“We—we’re not just s-screwing around, I s-s-swear. It’s not some f-f-fling.” I was dizzy from oxygen deprivation, and the stuttering resurfaced like an old friend. “Cas-s-s-sie and I b-broke up two weeks ago,” I added, as if that would make me a better man somehow.
“And when exactly did you start fucking Veronica?” Dad’s features were twisted like a mangled slinky. Every pock mark, scar and wrinkle on his face lit up like a battlefield. He wanted war.
We didn’t fuck, we made love, I wanted to say. Instead, I murmured, “We were planning to tell you next week.”
“Tell me what, exactly?” Dad scoffed. “That my whore of a wife is cheating on me with my son?” He yanked on a fistful of my black hair, twisting it so hard tears stung my eyes. After the last time he beat me, I’d promised myself I’d never cry in front of him again. I refused to shed tears for this monster. I was worth so much more than the sunken, lost, motherless child he ridiculed and destroyed piece by piece, day by day. I was so much stronger now. Because of her.
“We’re moving out. I’ll be eighteen next month.” I knew exactly what he would say next: that we were making a huge mistake. That I was an ungrateful teenage asshole. A retarded son of a bitch. That the two of us would burn in hell for eternity.
We would never have his blessing; I knew that from the start.
“Like fucking hell you are!” he roared, his spit flecking my face like paint.
“We already put down a deposit.”
“No,” Dad growled. “What the fuck—How the fuck did you think this would pan out? That you two filthy cheaters would elope and I’d just crumple like a house of cards?”
“We don’t need your bless-s-sing, Dad.”
“Actually, son, you do. And I will never sign those divorce papers. Nica is fucking mine. You understand?”
I tried to twist away from Dad’s grip, but he ended up pulling out a few tufts of my hair by the roots. My front teeth sank into my bottom lip to stop the terrified screams that threatened to unhinge my jaw. I wanted to shoulder my way out of the backyard, but Dad was 6’5”, built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and almost twice my weight. Dad had been a linebacker in college. I was just a twig he enjoyed snapping over and over. I dug my heels into the muddy ground and tried to dodge his swipes, but I wasn’t fast enough. The ground was too slippery. I fumbled, and he kicked me in the shins. I sank to my knees. Then, he dealt a mean hook to my jaw. As beads of crimson dribbled down my chin and neck, Dad dragged me by the collar to the toolshed. He let go of me for a few seconds so he could unlock the padlock that kept the gardening supplies safe. While he struggled with the key, I tried to push myself up, only to be met with a boot to the chest. He ground the heel of his work boots into my sternum, making it almost impossible to breathe. I felt as if there was a hole in my lungs; no matter how much air I dragged in, it was never enough.
This time, I was going to die.
This time, I would learn the meaning of agony.
After the rusty chains fell to the ground, he pulled out the shovels, rakes, pruners and other tools that cluttered the small space. Then, he shoved me inside the musty wooden box, and locked it back up again. I choked on dust and let out a hacking cough.
For a few seconds, only the sound of rattling chains and my amplified heartbeats filled the air. Muffled, then clear, then muffled again, as if I was bobbing in and out of a swimming pool. Each alternating heartbeat was a bass drop now, and adrenaline worked my cardiac chambers so hard I was certain they’d rupture from the stress.
This wasn’t the first time Dad had locked me up in The Box, and it wouldn’t be the last. Previously, my longest stint in there was thirty-six hours. No food, no water, hardly any fresh air. I’d been thirteen at the time. My crime? Not saying ‘thank you’ when he bought me a new bike for my birthday. It hadn’t been my birthday, but he pretended it was anyway, just so he didn’t embarrass himself in front of the neighbors. He’d thrown me a party, but hadn’t invited any of my friends. He force-fed me chocolate cake until I threw up. But I was most upset that he’d gotten the dates mixed up, because August nineteenth was also the anniversary of Mom’s death.
This time around, I was certain he’d let me die in The Box. After all, death would be the only suitable punishment for a sin of this magnitude. I didn’t care what he did to me; it was Nica I was worried about. It wasn’t her fault. She never came on to me, never did anything to entrap me, or seduce me. She was innocent. It had been all me. Me and my hormones. My obsession. My lust. I thought we could keep it a secret, until we were ready to tell the world, together. But Dad exposed us, and now he was probably going to kill us.
“Make so much as a whimper and I will shoot Nica between the eyes, you hear me?” Dad threatened from the other side of the doors. I could imagine the grey spittle flying out between his gnashed teeth. Like a bulldog on steroids. He’d look almost comical, if he wasn’t so fucking scary.
“I won’t make a s-s-s-sound,” I promised, my small voice a spluttering engine. “P-Please. Nica is innocent. D-don’t hurt her.”
“How can a filthy, thirty-year-old slut be innocent, Ryder? Her mouth’s probably seen more cum than the inside of a glory hole.”
“Don’t…don’t say that about her.” I loathed my father in that moment. Every cacophonous syllable that came out of his mouth was an infernal itch I couldn’t scratch. I found myself repeatedly trying but failing to swallow the lump in my throat.
“Where is the bitch anyway?”
I didn’t answer. I’d rather have my tongue shaved with a cheese grater than tell him. His eyes had betrayed his insanity. Earlier, his clenched posture, wild gestures, slurred speech, everything pointed to the fact that in his rage, Dad wouldn’t hesitate to strangle the life out of Veronica’s fragile body. Squeeze her ribs until they fractured, one by fucking one. He wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a pruner and stab it straight into Nica’s pregnant belly.
Was it mine or Dad’s?
Shit. I prayed to God Dad wouldn’t ask the same question. He’d always been a jealous and possessive man…if he found out that he might not be the baby’s father…
My chest tightened, and I clawed at the rash spreading across my abdomen. The itch, the panic, refused to subside, and my vision tunneled. I didn’t know I was capable of breathing so fast. Panic attacks were nothing new in my world, but still, each time one reared its ugly head, I was certain that I’d fail to conquer my demons. That this time would be the last time.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t call for help, so I curled into the fetal position and rocked back and forth like an upended pill bug.
Eventually, I heard Dad’s footsteps fade away. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. As long as Nica stayed away from the house though, everything would be all right. It was late afternoon. She was probably just wrapping up her prenatal class downtown… If only I had some way of contacting her, warning her.
Veronica was innocent. The baby was innocent.
Once my panic receded, I pushed myself up and groped around in the darkness, trying to find something, anything in the shed that I could use as either a tool or a weapon. All I managed to get were a few splinters. Dad had cleaned everything out. I was trapped in a sweltering, 7’x7’ box, with no food or water. The reinforced walls were made of durable oak (Dad had not skimped out), and the door was shackled and locked up. The Box would become my coffin. Maybe that had been Dad’s plan all along when he built the damn thing.
I could probably survive for two days, three tops, before dehydration killed me. Worst still, no one (other than Nica) would even notice that I was gone. In the past year, I’d cut so many classes, and alienated so many friends that if no one saw me for three days or even a week, it wouldn’t matter. No one would alert the cops. If the school called home, Dad would brush them off. And worst of all, I had no choice but to stay imprisoned, because the thought of Dad even touching a hair on Nica’s body was too horrific to imagine.
I just prayed my sacrifice would be worth it.
RYDER – PRESENT DAY
“Who’s that?” I asked Kieran, nodding to the leggy blonde at the bar. She carried a little red clutch, and stood almost 5’9” in her kitten heels. Her shoulder-length hair was half pinned up, half down, and effortlessly stylish. I feigned casual interest, and my buddy, Kieran, clucked, “Out of your league, that’s who.”
I grinned, flashing him my crooked pearlies. “You don’t think I could charm her panties off?”
“I know you can’t,” Kieran replied, wiping down the bar. His large hands made the dish rag look like a Kleenex. “That’s Callista Rayner, my wife’s friend. Her dad is Paul Rayner.” Kieran emphasized their last names, hoping I’d catch his drift. I knew exactly what he was implying, but feigned ignorance.
“Is that name supposed to mean something?” I scooped up a handful of bar nuts and popped them in my mouth. They tasted stale, but I swallowed them anyway, washing them down with some flat beer.
Kieran smoothed back his dark hair. “You’ve got a bar full of women, mate. With your rugged looks, you could have any one of them tonight. My advice, take a pass on Cally.”
“She a bitch?” I asked, studying the way Callista’s exposed calves tensed when she stood up from her stool. Her legs were smooth, her ankles, delicate, and her thighs were attached to the nicest ass I’d ever seen on a blonde. She scrolled through her phone, occasionally smiling and shooting off a few texts. What I wouldn’t give for her to show me half the attention she showed to that little LCD screen. She was oblivious to her surroundings, and the legion of men gawking at her. Callista’s cream dress hugged her curves to perfection, and ended just above the knee—a conservative choice, which probably meant she’d come here straight from work. She’d also come alone, and didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone, which meant I had the perfect opportunity to introduce myself.
“…Actually quite nice,” Kieran was saying, wringing out his rag. “Very classy.”
I grinned. “So, what’s the problem? You think I’ll be a bad influence on her?”
“Well…given your track record, Ry…”
I almost snorted. “I could say the same thing about you and Rachelle.”
I arched my brow. “Is it?”
“Come on, mate. You were the biggest player in high school. Slept with all the hot girls, and even a couple teachers, too, if memory serves me.” Kieran wrung out his rag. “Forget about Cally. Let me fix you a drink. What’ll you have?”
“Two of whatever she’s having.”
“There’s another blonde. Six o’ clock. Much nicer tits,” Kieran whispered, cocking his head. “Why don’t I introduce you—”
I shook my head. Cally was already mine. She just didn’t know it yet. “I’ve got my eyes on her. Help a man out, Ki.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Resigned, Kieran crossed the bar in three strides, and I followed suit. Once I was a few feet away, Kieran jerked his thumb out at me. “Cally, meet Ryder. Ryder, this is Callista—Cally Rayner.”
“Hey, nice to meet you,” Cally said. Her impossibly long lashes fluttered for a millisecond too long as she sized me up. When her baby blues held mine, an electric current seemed to run straight from my brain down to my groin. All of a sudden, I wanted to do more than just use her.
I wanted to own her.
One look from her and I was already trembling with forbidden desire and insatiable lust.
I needed more.
I needed her strawberry kisses against my neck, her dainty mouth around my cock, her sensual whispers against my ear, her luxurious hair wrapped around my fist…I wanted it all.
I wondered if the immediate, visceral attraction was mutual. I hadn’t shaved in about three weeks, and the only comb my hair had seen recently was my knobby fingers. But my teeth were brushed, and my clothes, somewhat clean, for the first time in two weeks. My plaid button-down and ripped jeans, paired with the beard and disheveled, too-long hair, made me a little rough around the edges, but presentable, and dare I even say, attractive.
“You have no idea how hard I had to twist Ki’s nuts just to get him to introduce us,” I said. “Hi, I’m Ryder Williams.” I flashed Cally a charismatic smile, but she didn’t seem impressed. Women like her probably preferred clean-shaven men with straight teeth and designer clothes. Metrosexuals, not lumberjack types with unkempt facial hair and filthy nail beds.
Cally crossed and uncrossed her legs, shifting to face me. “Nice to meet you. Cally Rayner.” She held out her right hand and I shook it, her fingers so slim I thought I’d break them if I squeezed too hard. This woman was fucking gorgeous, a ten out of ten: perfect proportions, C-cup tits, legs that went on forever. Admiring her curves made my cock swell. Watching her succulent lips move made my throat go dry, and my balls ache. I wanted her to be inside her. Badly. But it was her goddamn voice that had me sunk. Something about it churned my insides like a paddle through concrete mix. She was a classic beauty in a bar full of washed-up wannabes. A woman the old Ryder would have relentlessly pursued until he had his way with her.
But Cally was also my target. My prey. And I wasn’t stupid enough to think with my cock and not my head when it came to a Rayner.
“So, how do you know Kieran?” Cally asked, playing with a lemon spiral that dangled along the edge of her sugar-rimmed glass.
“We go way back,” I said noncommittally. “Our dads were golfing buddies.”
“My step-dad and your dad,” Kieran clarified, interrupting out of nowhere. Kieran’s stepfather had been the notorious Senator Patrick Mahoney. Mahoney and my father had been thick as thieves back in the day. Kieran loathed his stepfather with every cell in his body. In fact, one of the reasons we got along so well as middle schoolers was the fact that both of us had shitty fathers.
“Can I buy you a drink, Cally?” I asked, undeterred by her closed-off posture. I didn’t have many commendable traits, but what I did have was dogged and relentless persistence. When I had my eyes on a woman, I almost always got my way.
Cally looked at Kieran, then back at me again. Her shoulders relaxed. She nodded. “Sure, why not?”
I nodded to Kieran, who shook his head and chuckled before turning around to mix our cocktails. He probably still thought I didn’t have a chance in hell with Cally, but he didn’t know what I did.
“So, what’s a gorgeous woman like you doing all alone at Mahoney’s West on a Friday night?” It was a cringe worthy question, but I was too exhausted to come up with something better. I hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in almost three years, and it showed on my ragged face.
Cally’s dimpled smirk lifted a part of me I didn’t realize needed lifting. “Who says I’m alone?” Her voice was a magic trick, its pitch an illusion that hypnotized me. She was already unravelling my defenses and I hadn’t even started unravelling hers yet.
“Should I be expecting a jealous boyfriend?”
Cally let out a tiny ‘mmhm’. “If I were you, I’d stay on the lookout.”
“If I were your man, I’d take one look at the hottie chatting up my girlfriend and leave with my tail tucked between my legs.”
Cally tilted her head back and laughed. She uncrossed her legs and held my gaze again, this time, more intensely.
Kieran placed two cocktails in front of us, and I took a sip of the sparkling pink beverage. For the first time in my life, I realized that girly cocktails actually tasted pretty good. Naturally, I was so secure in my masculinity that I could toss back daiquiris all night and still get laid. I turned to my female companion, tracing circles on the back of her hand with my thumb. “What’s your number, babe?”
“What, no cheesy joke? No line?” Cally asked, tucking a strand of silken honey behind her ears. “I’m not that easy.”
I winked. “We have a mutual friend. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Hardly.” Cally slipped her pink straw between pursed scarlet lips. “What brings you here tonight, Ryder Williams?”
“Just catching up with Kieran. It’s been a while since I visited Northbridge.”
“Where are you from?”
“Grew up in Ashland. Went to middle and high school in Northbridge. Then University of Washington.”
I scrambled for something believable. “Communications,” I blurted out, hoping it sounded convincing. Nobody ever questioned a degree like Communications.
“So what do you do now? With your Communications degree?”
“I…I never graduated,” I said, fiddling with a foam beer mat. “What about you? What’s your story?”
“Went to Northbridge U. Got a degree in hospitality management. Now I run one of my dad’s restaurants downtown.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“Most of the time. I love my staff, which is a huge plus. Really long hours, though. What about you? What do you do for a living, Ryder?”
“I’m unemployed at the moment,” I admitted. “Was hoping Kieran would give me a job here, actually.”
Cally arched her thin brows. “Oh. What did you do before? I have plenty of contacts in town…”
“Bartender,” I lied. “So I figured Kieran would hire me.”
“Did someone mention my name?” Kieran said, putting down a shaker and looking up.
“I’m looking for a job, Ki. You hiring?”
Kieran leaned in and rested his forearms on the bar top.“Depends. What skills do you have?”
“Jack-of-all-trades,” I said, winking. “But I’m a great bartender.” A heavy sensation settled in my stomach like a fistful of lead. Truth was, I wasn’t really skilled at anything. I had nothing going for me. But I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Cally, so I lied through my crooked teeth, and they both believed me.
“We can chat later, mate,” Kieran clucked. “Swing by tomorrow morning.”
“Sure. Thanks, Ki.”
Kieran rapped the bar top with his knuckles, then moved on to his next customer.
I turned back to Cally, and found her watching me intently. “So, you waiting for someone, or can I take you out for a bite?”
“Not a fan of bar food?” Cally asked, nodding to the dish of stale cashews I’d been working on.
“Not a fan of Kieran eavesdropping on everything we say.” I winked, and Cally let out another giggle. Her voice reminded me of tinkling bells. The first thing I noticed about her was her voice, when she ordered her drink. It was the kind of voice I could listen to all day long, and never get tired of hearing. Authoritative, yet pleasant. Not too high or low-pitched. She’d make a great voice actor or broadcaster with a golden, buttery voice like that. The moment I heard her speak, I knew I had to hear her say my name. I wanted to hear her talk all day long, preferably to me, about me, about us. Before she even knew I existed, I was already lost in a fantasy.
“You’ve barely touched your drink,” Cally pointed out, nudging the stemmed glass closer towards me.
“I’m thirsty, but not for that daiquiri,” I croaked out, hoping I didn’t sound too lame. Of course I sounded lame. I was rustier than a junkyard car, and she knew it.
Cally threw her head back and let out another throaty belly laugh. Then, her fingers began tiptoeing up my right forearm. Was she getting tipsy? “You can do better than that, Ryder.”
The only reason a woman like her would be laughing and teasing a man like me was because alcohol was clouding her judgment. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance like this. I exhaled through pursed lips. “How about the truth: You’re too hot for any pick-up lines to work on you, and you’re so beautiful I forgot the ones I did rehearse.”
Cally’s head tipped back and she laughed again. God, her laughter was the ultimate aphrodisiac. “At least you’re good at making me laugh. That’s important.”
“So how about we ditch this joint and grab a slice of pizza?”
“Fine. But I’m not giving you my number.”
“You might change your mind in a couple hours,” I teased. It didn’t matter anyway, because I already had her number programmed into my phone.
I wished my intentions were innocent. I wished we were just two strangers who met in a bar, and I was just the desperate man trying to hook up with a hot chick who was way out of his league. But the truth was, I’d been waiting for almost two weeks for the perfect opportunity to officially meet Cally. Truth was, I’d stalked her to work. I knew where she lived (52 Nelson Avenue). Who her dog walker was (Arnie Woods). Her go-to florist (Macy Ann’s). Which days she did her grocery shopping (Tuesday and Thursdays). How she organized her closet (by color and season). How much her new fucking shoes cost ($410.91 after taxes). I’d done my homework, because I needed to know everything about her. I needed to know everything about her because she was my pawn, and I needed to use her, sacrifice her, in order to reach the king.
I wished she wasn’t Paul Rayner’s daughter. I wished my vendetta didn’t take top priority. I wished I could be just a normal guy flirting with a sexy girl. But no one, from now till the day I died, would ever use the word “normal” to describe everything I’d gone through. I’d never be normal again…and it was all Paul Rayner’s fault. He needed to be punished, an eye for an eye. And the only way to do that was through his little girl. His sweet, unassuming, twenty-six-year-old daughter. Cally wouldn’t know what hit her.
Too bad it had come to this.
Too bad I had to use her.
Too bad I had to be the villain.
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