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Blackwater Hostage | Dex & Nina

Lightly edited and subject to change

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Nina could have kicked her own ass all the way into next year, she thought as she entered Ollies' diner only to remember her purse, including her medicine, was still back at the clinic. In Blackwater, the summers, ordinarily warm and humid—had at some point taken a turn into an inferno.  After a ten-minute walk in that draining heat vortex, the thought of going back made her feel dizzy and light-headed, or was it that her diabetes was talking to her?

As she opened the front door, a stale breeze of chilled air billowed through her hair, refreshing her just a little. The need to take her blood sugar before she ate, crossed her mind once again. Though, she didn't let the concern upset her. Unconcerned, as this had happened plenty of times before, Nina decided; first, she’d rest her legs, enjoy the cold air, order her food, and then walk it back to work and test there. Nina scanned the well-lit room taking in the pleasant scent of fattening fried food as it sizzled on the griddle, and the quiet laughter of diners as they conversed over their lunches. With a friendly smile on her face, she found an empty booth and seated herself. After capturing her attention, Jo, the single day-shift server affably winked at her then held up a finger letting her know it’d be a second before she made it over to take her order.

         Nina nodded, then slid into the boot with a comforted sigh. Pulling her cell and the dreaded ring box from her pocket, she placed the offending box on the table and shot a quick text to Hope with a quick explanation Nina set the phone down next to the velvet box. The dreaded velvet ring box. What had once been a symbol of a commitment had quickly morphed into a representation of failure.

         Two years ago, or maybe it’d been a lifetime ago, Nina made the decision to leave her husband. No, he hadn't cheated, beaten or treated her wrong. While his idea of one's wife seemed comparable to her idea of a one's mother, it hadn't really been a surprise when he’d wanted her to drop out of college to start a family. It had been the way of his father and his father’s father before him.

A tremor wracked her hand as she reached out for the box. She flipped it open to reveal a small folded piece of paper atop her wedding set. Leaning back on the plush cushion in the booth, a moment of shock took over her as she recalled the price tag attached to the ring. When they'd shopped for a wedding set, she had passed the ring over several times thinking it out of Javi’s budget. Just like her mother and friends, Nina hadn't believed the leather wearing, cursing like a sailor Javi hadn't come from money—they’d all been wrong.

 “Hey Nina,” Jo placed the menu down on the table. “Olly added a few new items for you—” her shocked gasp had Nina glancing up sharply. Jo’s eyes were riveted on the wedding set. “Jesus, Nina. Who proposed?” Nina’s Afro-Latin heritage may have offered her a darker skin complexion, but at this moment, Nina was sure as hell that her cheeks became red as they flushed from embarrassment. Her eyes darted around the diner hoping no one she was acquainted with was in the diner. A soft hand landed over hers as Jo sat down across from her. “Hell, honey. Did you see a ghost or is it this ring that’s got you so upset?” Jo’s dark eyes met hers and held strong and steady. “Wait,” concern lit her gaze. “You got that upper lip sweat going on, and your hands are a bit shaky.” Before Nina could remind Jo that it was indeed summer and in the high nineties out, Jo stood. “Test your blood and let me know what you need to eat.” The look of contrition on Nina’s face must have said it all. “Oh, no.” Jo’s shoulders dropped. “You left it back at the clinic?”

         Nina opened her mouth to speak, but it was then the chimes over the front doors pealed announcing the presence of a patron entering the diner. Heavy black boots hit the laminate floor, and with each of his steps, a loud thundering echoed throughout the room demanding that attention be paid. Dark washed jeans pulled tight over massive legs and firm thighs, a tight black t-shirt melded over taut muscles capped by a leather cut that held the words, Blackwater Renegades. Her eyes moved up his body taking in the strength behind the brutally cut muscle until she got to his face. She then blinked, several times.

         "Hmm...That's not at all what I expected." Her words were a mumbled whisper as she sat mesmerized by the giant. Golden blonde hair, baby blue eyes and that Hollywood heartthrob square chin all complemented by those same Hollywood good looks. She took in his body again, hard lines, scars on his arms and a biker cut. His angelic face was at odds with that ruthlessness of his hardened body and disdainful sneer. The man took in the room with each step, eyeing every customer as if committing each face to memory until his cold gaze met her. His brow dipped, and a quizzical, yet relaxed look colored his face. Nina took in a deep shuddering breath slightly calming her nerves as his gaze moved past her and onto the next diner as if she’d never even existed.

         Swallowing hard she asked, “Jo, who is that?” She attempted and failed to keep the breathiness from her voice. Sheer panic laced her spine. She’d never seen this man at the clinic with the Renegades and wasn’t under any delusion that because a few of the men in the MC were respectable, that all of them were law-abiding citizens that she could trust. However, from the look in Jo’s face as she answered, this guy was friendly.

         “Oh, Hollywood.” She waved a dismissive hand. Perhaps Nina’s uncertainty had come across in her tone. “He’s nothing to worry about. His job is to make sure no one is acting up.” Jo’s face wrinkled in thought.

         “Well, if he’s here then maybe something is up.” After another moment of thought, she shrugged. “Or maybe he’s just hungry. Now, back to you.” At that moment, Nina’s phone beeped with a text message from Hope. With a smile, she relayed the message.

         “Don’t worry, Spooky is just about done getting stitched up. Hope will send him this way with my kit.” The relief on Jo’s face mirrored that in Nina’s chest because she was starting to feel the effects of missing her medicine.

         “Good, honey. Let me bring you an ice-cold glass of water.” She hurried off behind the counter and seconds later, an ice-cold glass of water and unsweetened tea sat before her.

         Jo smiled and added, “Call me over the second he gets here, okay?” Nina nodded. As soon as Jo walked away, Nina surreptitiously searched out the biker who’d entered moments earlier. She was painfully single and with good reason, but it didn’t hurt to look. Her eyes roved over the small diner searching for the dynamic presence of the large man and was dismayed when she didn’t see him. Where the hell had he gone? At this point, she no longer tried to hide her search for him but realized that he’d probably left the diner while she checked her phone. An inexplicable feeling of loss swept over her as she sank back into her booth. That man was not her type. There was no room in her life for a leather wearing caveman, no matter how perilously sexy he seemed. That was what got her in trouble a few years ago, and at that thought, her eyes went back to the ring set on the table. With quaking hands, Nina pulled the white slip from the box and unfolded

the letter.

 

 

 

Nina,

I hope this letter finds you well. Your mother told me you were back in school doing what you once loved. I understand the cost of schooling is high, please, sell these and follow whatever path leads you to happiness.

 

 

Nina let the letter fall from her fingers. The white sheet billowed to the table to rest beside the wedding set that had set her ex-husband back nearly eight grand. What was he playing at? No, that wasn't the right question because Javi didn’t play games, not even during their divorce. It had been agreed that they would leave with what they’d brought to the table and Nina had only brought naïve love, yet, Javi had asked her if she wanted anything else. She hadn't. She had just wanted her freedom.

A shadow cast over her table causing Nina to look up and up into the crystalline blue eyes of the biker who’d entered earlier. His sharp gaze and tilted lips gave her the impression he was anywhere but where he wanted to be, and his next words proved her right. Nina snatched the letter up and shoved it into her pocket.

“Apparently, I am here to babysit you. Spooky got held up, it’ll only be a bit until he gets here.” His apathetic tone grated her nerves, and without waiting for an invitation, he squeezed his big body into the booth nearly knocking over her water and sweet tea. Two large tanned hands shot out, righting the cups before they spilled. And then, the big brute dared to lift her water to his sensual lips and drink until the water was half gone.

         "How damned dare he?" She thought.

         She needed her water, she was damned thirsty. Opening her mouth to say just that, her eyes widened as he cut her off.

         His eyes took her in. “Jesus, you look like hell. What medicine is he bringing over for you?”

         Nina swallowed, not once, but several times, holding back the retort she’d planned to throw at him. Instead, she said, “Of course I look like shit. I just walked in this unnatural inferno for ten minutes, missed my meds so I’m feeling shaky dizzy and a bit irritable, and I’ve just been assaulted with memories of a past I’d welled hoped to forget. Who wouldn’t look like hell in this situation? Oh, well I know who.” She gestured to the man before her. “The Norse God of Sexiness and ego that’s who!” The moment the words were out of her mouth the sexiest grin she’d ever seen laced his lips. Slouching back into the booth and prayed for a way to disappear. Of course, when she opened her mouth, she’d take a second to place her foot directly between both lips.

         Hollywood, as Jo called him leaned closer a roguish shimmer in his eyes as he said, “Sexiness, eh? Would you by chance care for a demonstration?”

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Open Wounds: Hope & Abel, a Love Against the Odds

AWWM contemporary romance Novella
 

CHAPTER 13

Abel sat across the table from her in a dimly lit restaurant, wearing the sexiest navy-blue button up and a pair of dark jeans. She sat back in her low-cut, white cotton dress as Abel eyed the deep plunge of her neckline. In her entire life, she’d never made it past a B-cup and had even considered breast implants at one point; but now, as Abel watched her body, a pink blush spread from her chest to her face.

“Damn, that’s beautiful,” he murmured.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Picking up her glass of wine, Hope took a large gulp. She needed to slow down—the food hadn’t shown up yet and she was already on the second glass. Nervous from trying to draw out her stalker, while getting to know Abel, had her soaking it up like a sponge.

“Just taking in my date.” He winked and took a drink of his water. He’d refused to drink, just in case Edwin made an appearance … and for that, Hope was grateful.

She waved the waiter over for another glass of water, as she needed to slow down, or she would be drunk in no time.

“Hey,” he called, his soothing voice calming a bit of her nerves. “What’s going on?”

Hope pressed her palms to her belly. “Nervous flutters.”

Moving the centerpiece, he pushed his hands to her, palms up. “Talk to me.”

Hope nervously placed her hands in his. His strong hands enclosed hers, the warmth spreading from him to her cool fingers.

“What about?”

“You,” Abel suggested coolly, sad it surprised her.

Mark had never once asked her a question about herself, but had been more than willing to explain to her his struggles at Merrill Lynch, or at the gym. She struggled to come up with something to tell him. There were so many things she could talk about, but where to start?

“My real name isn’t Hope.” She returned his shocked expression with a sly smile. In fluent Korean, Hope spoke her full name and where her mother was originally from.

“What?” His delighted surprise made her giggle.

“Yep, Gidae, but you would pronounce it, Gi-day. I changed it to its meaning, Hope, when I was picked on in school for its rarity.”

He gently squeezed her hands, then flipped them over, tracing circles across her palms. Electricity raced up her spine. Hope’s body heated, and her head went fuzzy. His hands were so sensual, she could feel the tension building between them. And never once had she flinched or run from his touch.

“Man, I hate kids sometimes,” he said. “They can be ignorant and hurtful with their words.”

Yes, that was very true, but her childhood had been too amazing for her to hold on to a few memories of bullies. She shrugged. “That all seems so far in the past. I don’t think about it much now, but I just kept using Hope because it was easier than constantly correcting people’s pronunciations.” Gidae was a relatively easy Korean word, but most Americans butchered it horribly.

A smile grew across his face as he admired her. “Wow, I didn’t even know you were Korean. Not that Koreans look a certain way. Call me crazy, but I’ve worked in a Korean BBQ up north for a few years and you look nothing like any of the ladies I worked for.” He laughed nervously.

“How so?” Hope wasn’t in the least bit offended. Her mother was half-white and Korean, and her father was of mixed descent as well. She was a blend of many ethnicities, a melting pot of Asian and European descent, and she loved all her attributes. Her dark hair—so similar to her mother’s jet-black, silky tresses—and her pale skin, due more to her ethnicity than her recent bouts of lack of sun. Her skin reminded her of her father. He’d taught her German, promising her one day to take her to Germany, the home of his father’s ancestors. The memories were warm and welcomed, and too often ignored.

Open Wounds | Excerpt

When the passion burned hot, triggering a primal response, their only choice was to explore it.

Open Wounds

Abel had been shot before. He’d been stabbed and knocked out, but he’d never been tasered, and that shit hurt like hell. He sat back in the chair in the darkened room waiting . . . Fucking waiting for Gator, or whatever the fuck his name was, to finish up in the other room.

When Abel had regained consciousness, and found Hope missing he’d done the only thing he could, and the one thing he couldn’t afford—calling Gator from the Blackwater Renegades MC. These were not men you wanted to be in debt with, but the panic in his chest and the fear in his heart led him into the lion’s den.

His leg bounced nervously under the table and he itched to palm his gun. Of course, that was the first thing he’d been forced to hand over once he walked into the clubhouse. Rough hands had patted him down, paying no regard to his injuries. A door flew open and the sound of loud music and squealing women spilled into the room.

Gator strolled in, leather pants, naked chest under his leather vest, and fucking barefoot. He glared at Abel as if he’d just pissed in his cheerios. Common sense be damned, Abel didn’t have time for another macho-man stare-down. He needed to get to Hope.

            “Well?” The word flew from him like a bark from a caged dog. “Did you find him?”

            Gator lifted his lip in an answering snarl. His sharpened teeth glistened in the dark room, and the noise rumbling out of his chest reminded Abel that he was not in Kansas any longer. This was Renegade terrain, and submitting to the VP of the MC came with the territory.

Abel grudgingly lowered his tone. “My woman’s in trouble. I don’t have a lot of time. Tell me what you want in turn for the information I need, and it is yours.” Abel didn’t give a damn what they would ask of him, as long as it brought him to Hope. He’d failed to keep her safe. He’d been too busy wanting to touch her that he hadn't noticed the headlights in the rearview mirror. Stupid.

            Gator glared a moment longer before moving to the bar. “Need a drink?”

Abel gritted his teeth. I don’t want a fucking drink, asshole. “No, man. Just the info.”

Gator lifted the bottle and brought it over to the table. Placing a glass down in front of Abel, he poured slowly. Abel vowed if anything happened to Hope while they sat there drinking, he would burn the fucking clubhouse to the ground. He glanced at his watch. Hope had been missing a total of three hours. For one of those hours, Abel had been sitting here—waiting like a goddamned fool. Thinking better of wasting more time with Gator, he made to stand, but the man’s next words halted him in his tracks.

            “We have your woman.” He said the words as if he were talking about finding Abel’s lost dog; unbothered by the fact Abel had sat here for an hour, thinking of ways to commit murder without ending up in jail.

His breath left him in a whoosh, and Abel wasn’t sure, but he thought he might puke. “And?” he asked, trying to hide his fury and concern.

            Gator took a large swig from the bottle of liquor. “The info you gave me was useless. I knew about this man as soon as he crossed county lines. It’s my fucking job to know shit like that.”

Fuck it. Abel lifted the glass and downed the liquid. His throat burned and his gut protested the fiery shit, but he held it down.

            “Where is she?” He stood, leaning over the table. In this moment, Abel didn’t give a damn about titles or authority. He wanted Hope, and he’d find a gun and shoot his way through this cesspool if he had to.

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AWWM | Adult Contemporary Romance

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OPEN WOUNDS: ABEL & HOPE

 

Missing Teal and Trent from Inevitable: Love & War? Check out Rogue in Love, the first of many standalones featuring Trent Reed's new employees!

A Love Against the Odds Novel

If you could see your life from inception to your death, would you change things or would you let your death play out as fate intended?

Abel is in search of only two things. A stable job and a safe place to lay his head at night after a mistake that cost him eighteen months of his life. As if fate had plans made only for him, Abel is offered a complicated job, and a chance to redeem himself to his old boss, from an old friend. And then he meets her…
And Abel adds another item to his list—Hope.

At only twenty-six, Hope has only ever slept with one man, and at her boss’s unsolicited advice, Hope plans to forget the abuse and degradation she suffered at her husband's hand by seducing and bedding the next man she meets. Only, after Hope finds a promise of death at her doorstep, her plans are derailed and only chance at staying alive rests on the dedication of her new bodyguard and her own sheer will to live the life she deserves.

*Lightly Edited Preview*

        Hope curiously eyed the gaudy, purple and pink plastic engagement ring on Thea’s finger, as she held her hand up in the air. Her friend gazed lovingly at it while wiggling her fingers. Bright, adoring eyes met Hope’s as she gushed over the ring and continued the story of how Lex had proposed.

        “I’d given it to him as a gift, never once realizing he’d use it to ask me to marry him all these years later.” Thea sighed dramatically, as if she could barely continue without another squeal bubbling out. “He bent down on one knee, looked me in the eyes, and promised me forever.”

            Hope had zoned out halfway through the story. Not that Lex’s proposal hadn't been adorable and romantic, but she often found herself drowning in memories of the past whenever anyone brought up marriage. The idea was to leave the past in New York, but Hope found that hard to do with all the wedding talk and secrets she held inside. She smiled, but seeing the solemn look Thea gave her, she was sure it hadn't reached her eyes.

            “Oh, shit,” her best friend and boss said. “I keep forgetting that you—”

            “Stop right there.” Hope waved a dismissive hand at her words. “Don’t think for a second I am comparing this to my own life. You get to enjoy this. Lex is amazing, and nothing like Mark.” She crossed her arms over her chest in frustration. Hope had never meant to make her feel like she couldn’t talk openly, because Thea was the only person in her life who she could converse with candidly.

            Thea’s soft voice met her ears. “I know, but it’s like talking about getting pregnant around someone who can’t carry a child. You want to be excited, but you also don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

            “I know, and that puts a damper on your good news.” Hope shook off the sadness threatening to overwhelm her. “No more walking on egg shells around me.” Thea’s engagement was amazing news, and Hope was acting like a big-ass wet rag. She pushed back the agonizing memories and smiled again; this time, conveying her happiness for a friend who’d saved her ass. “Can we both agree to put my shitty past where it belongs? Way the hell behind us. Now, let me see this thing.”

Thea moved closer, placing the hideous ring out for her inspection. Seeing Hope’s reaction, her nose wrinkled and her forehead dipped. “I know, right?” Hope looked up to her. “Ugly as sin, isn’t it?”

Both women laughed at the truth because the ring was seriously fugly.

Thea took her hand back. “Maybe you should get out there and try the dating game again?”

Hope groaned inwardly. She didn’t want to hear the ‘just move on’ speech again. Because she had tried—with no success. After looking high and low, no matter who she ended up dating, she always found them to be . . . lacking. Unsure of whether it was her past, or her inability to trust, she found it painfully hard to even consider dating anymore.

“Hell, I say, the next man who walks through that door,” Thea turned to Hope with a calculating smile, “you ask on a date!”

            Hope’s eyes widened at the crazy idea. The possibility of her hitting up the next man to walk through the clinic’s front door was laughable. “No. I couldn’t possibly. You’re crazy. I don’t think—”

            “That’s right. Don’t think,” Thea spurred. “Just do.”

            Hope huffed, then saw something out of the corner of her eye. Turning to look at the door, she jolted in surprise. “Oh, for cripes’ sake.” Ms. Collis stood there, angrily banging on the door, leaving fist-sized smudge marks on the glass—a line of people standing impatiently behind her. Good thing Hope had painstakingly cleaned the doors the night before. “I think today is going to be one of those days. Is it a full moon?”

            Thea followed her gaze. “Oh, God help us.” Running to the door, she turned the locks and guided the woman behind Ms. Collis inside. As she passed the front desk, she elevated the woman’s bloody arm and whispered to Hope, “The next hot guy that isn’t dying . . . ask him out.” 

Hope’s face flushed with embarrassment.

            Behind her, a crowd of people entered, some looking as if they were drowning in snot, while others bled, or just appeared angry and annoyed. Regardless of the clientele, Hope loved her job. She’d always enjoyed the feeling of a good day’s work. In fact, the past six months at the clinic had been a way for Hope to temporarily ignore the past and focus on a possible future.

And in the beginning, Thea had been able to keep her employment hush-hush, paving the way for Hope to work without fear of one day looking up to find Mark, waiting for her. But now that employment papers were signed and turned in, Hope’s worrying increased with each passing day. She shuddered. The idea of Mark following her to Blackwater had become a waking nightmare and a monster under her bed to fear.

Pushing those feelings aside, she looked up and smiled at Ms. Collis, handing her a clipboard with documents attached. Seconds later, a biker in leather pants—crazy in this heat—a ripped and bloody shirt the size of a mountain pushed through the doors of the clinic, blood gushing from his nose. He favored his right side, and pressed his free hand to a wound seeping blood through the tattered shirt. Hope’s eyes travelled up and up the huge behemoth until her eyes met and connected with his unconcerned gaze.

Shaking herself from the shock of such a huge man, Hope pointed to the side door where the motorcycle club, or the MC, had claimed the waiting room as their own. Locals who weren’t affiliated with the gang, sat in the open waiting room to the right, while the MC took residence in the small room to the left. He nodded his head and made his way to the door.

            “Ma’am, if you could take a seat and fill this out, I’ll be right back,” Hope instructed. Ms. Collis was in to have her cast taken off. It wasn’t the least bit serious, so she would have to wait her turn as Hope triaged the more seriously injured. Hope made her way over to the bleeding man, who still hadn't opened the door to the waiting room.

            “Sir?” She came up behind him and he swiveled around to meet her gaze. Unfortunately, since Thea’s grandfather had ties with the MC before he passed, most of the gang came to her clinic when in need of medical help that didn’t require the coroner. At first, Hope had doubts, but when she got the text from Mark threatening her life if she didn’t return to his side in New York, Hope decided it wasn’t so bad if these huge, gun-toting men were there often.

            The man’s dark eyes flickered to the waiting room. “Didn’t want to get blood on the door.” His deep voice and heavy, Irish brogue caught her off guard. This man was new, or at least, had never been in the clinic while Hope was there. Since she worked five days a week, and twelve hours a day, she assumed he’d just been one of the lucky few in the MC to not have gotten stabbed recently.

            Hope glanced to his bloody hands and nodded. “Okay. Let me get that for you.” She went to open the door, when Lucy, the clinic’s receptionist, burst through the front doors, apologizing for being late as she headed to the counter. Now that she was at work, Hope could take him straight back and get him stitched up. “Actually, why don’t we have you come on back with me. We’ll see how serious these wounds are.”

He followed her to one of the rooms in the back. Hope hadn't bothered getting him to fill out any forms. The MC members never bothered with the patient information form, and always paid in cash. Hell, the clinic would probably go belly up without the money the men provided.

            Sliding a pair of purple gloves on her hands, Hope pointed to the paper-lined bed. “Have a seat.” Making her way to the cabinet, she found a pair of sterilized scissors. Routinely, Hope would ask the patient what happened, but when it came to these men, the fewer questions you asked, the better.

            “You have any allergies?”

            “No, ma’am.”

Hope was long past the initial shock of the MC members having manners. At first, she hadn't expected them to be polite, or for them to pay, but they did, and they weren’t raucous in the least. It was extraordinarily ironic that men who looked like beasts could be so composed and gentle, yet Mark, who normally wore a three-piece suit, could transform into the monster of her wildest nightmares.  

            After a quick assessment, she knew his side needed to be treated first. Asking him to lift his arm, she cut open his shirt and inspected the knife wound. Unfortunately, she’d dealt with stab wounds often, in her professional and personal life. His wound was shallow and not life threatening. A few stitches and he’d be fine. Then she could treat his nose.

            “I don’t need any stitches, doc.”

            Rolling her eyes for the second time today, she said, “Yes, you do and you are getting them.” Ignoring the growl emanating from his chest, she continued to clean the wound. At 5’5 and one-hundred-twenty pounds, Hope didn’t stand a chance against the mountain man, but she knew the first and most important thing to remember when dealing with the MC members. Never show weakness. Once you did that, your ass was grass. The men, while not complete assholes, would play on your fear. Find one sexy? Well, you’d most likely end up on your back.

          Hope didn’t have time for that shit. And while Mark had put the fear of God in her, Hope was resolute that not all men were created equal. On top of that, she and Thea, were off-limits to the members, per some scary man named Gator.

            “Piss and vinegar."  His laughter pulled her from her thoughts. “Well, doc . . .”

            “Not a doctor, just a nurse.” She winced at her words. She wasn’t just a nurse, and she regretted saying it like that. Doctors and nurses worked hand in hand, and Hope thought neither would be as effective without the other.

            “Well, nurse . . .” He ducked his head down blonde hair falling over his eyes, he pushed the strands away as he tried to read her name badge.

            “Hope,” she supplied, just as she stuck the first injection of lidocaine into his skin.

            “I’d rather you fuss with my nose,” he grunted. “My face is my money maker.”

            Hope couldn’t help but laugh. This man, while not ugly, would not be considered a model under any circumstances. His face held a crooked nose, dark eyes, and wide-set lips. Maybe he could model tactic wear for the military?

            She glanced up as coal-colored eyes shined with mirth. “Oh really? And here I thought it was your great fashion sense.” Hope plucked at the bloodied Foreigner shirt.

          Glancing down, the huge man smiled. “Yeah, that too.”

          Shaking her head, she set up her equipment and got to work. The man, who she later found out was called Spooky, asked her out a few times before realizing it wasn’t going to happen. Mark had been persistent as well. He’d asked her out a total of twenty-two times, before she’d broken down and finally said yes. Back then, she hadn't known it was a sign of systemic hostility; she’d been naïve enough to consider it charming that a man like Mark would be do persistent in wanting to get to know her.

         Hope finished up with Spooky’s stitches and nose and sent him on his way. After cleaning up the room, she headed back out to see Lucy wrestling a line out the door. Being the only low-income clinic in Blackwater had the entire staff working twelve-hour days. Hope jumped into the madness until the line dwindled, and the sun was no longer in the sky.

         Heading home that night, she huffed up the flight of stairs leading to her home, and froze when she made it to the top of the landing. There, in front of her door, sat a blue and white package. Her heart jumped in her throat, heaving her into the past.

       After every beating, he’d sent her the very same Tiffany-colored box. On one particularly horrific evening, Mark had broken her ring finger, then rewarded her with a three-carat diamond, and a card stating, When that nasty mistake heals, you can wear this.

      Hope opened her eyes, confused as to when she’d shut them. With trembling fingers, she opened the box. Inside was a diamond-studded choker. Beautiful, white diamonds sparkled in a straight line, surrounded by blood-red rubies, in a platinum setting. Covering her mouth, Hope held in a strangled sob. She didn’t want to leave Blackwater, but once again he’d found her.

     Mark’s face flashed in her mind and Hope had the sudden urge to run. Instead, she reached into her purse and pulled out the Glock Thea had made her buy. Scanning the area, she didn’t find anything out of place. How had he tracked her down? She’d been so careful.

     It has to be my new employment status. Thea had been paying her under the table, but the clinic received government funds, and in the long run, it could have hurt Thea’s clinic. So, Hope had made things right and her official paperwork was turned in.

     Hope turned back to go inside and noticed a note tucked inside her door. She pulled it out and flipped the card open.

 

I’ll give you to the count of three to come back home to me.

ONE.