Love could cost me everything.
It’s love that keeps me coming home, to the beautiful house full of ugly secrets. As soon as I’m eighteen, as soon as I can take custody of my little sister myself, I’m going to run.
But my world is turned upside down by four mysterious men. The heat between us is intense. Their protectiveness feels real. Overnight, they become gods in our town. They can’t seem to stay away from me. I can’t resist them.
I can’t risk my chance to save my sister, though. Not even to save my happily-ever-after.
Is there any hope I can take care of her…and still lose myself in the arms of these men?
I was walking Maddie to school when I spotted trouble ahead. Trouble in the form of Eli Kingston and his two best friends, or should I say lackeys. The three of them were walking toward us, away from the high school, so they’d probably come looking for me.
“Hey kiddo,” I said, resting my hand on Maddie’s shoulder. We were only a block away from the elementary school.
She looked up at me. Her blue eyes were wide and dark-lashed, her face innocent under her pigtails. I wanted to make sure she stayed that way, no matter what kind of trouble I was in.
Sometimes, that meant I lied. I did whatever it took to protect her.
“I’ll race you to school,” I told her. “All the way to do the door. You up for it?”
She crinkled her nose at me. “You’re so slow.”
“And you’re so short, but I don’t bring it up all the time.” I rested my hand on top of her head affectionately. “If I fall behind, you go ahead into school. I don’t want to make you late.”
Her heart-shaped face clouded, and a spike of guilt stabbed into my chest. Maddie took fourth grade very seriously. She’d never be late on purpose. Reading was an escape for her, and school was a haven. We shared a love of books.
“We’re going to be late?” she asked in alarm.
“Not you, since you’re so fast,” I said, my voice teasing. “Ready, set…”
She positioned her arms, one forward and one back, like a little sprinter. She also had my competitive streak.
“Go!” I said, exploding forward myself. Together, the two of us sprinted across the sidewalk. I always felt a rise of joy at my sneakers hitting the pavement and pushing away, and racing my little sister made me feel like a kid.
Except I was running right toward danger.
Maddie went past them as I slowed, falling back just enough to keep an eye on her. I stepped onto the grass, trying to avoid Eli, and he turned, his eyes following me. A mean grin came to his lips.
I made it two steps past him, before powerful arms closed around me from behind. I stumbled, trying to get loose, but he moved with me. His hot breath blew against my ear.
“Don’t scream,” he said. “That little girl looks back and I’m going to snatch her up too.”
“Let go of me,” I said fiercely.
He finally did, pushing me away from him. I took a quick step forward, ready to run, but the three of them surrounded me. They boxed me in, pressing closer and closer. Eli’s big-jawed, grinning face hovered too near mine.
I looked toward the elementary school. Maddie’s hot pink backpack bounced up and down on her back as she turned in the gate. There were teachers around the school, directing students off busses. She was safe.
No one looked my way, though.
“Let’s walk together,” Eli said companionably, throwing an arm over my shoulders. He hugged me close to his side, and I breathed in the overwhelming scent of his cologne, which was so strong it tickled the back of my throat. I coughed under my breath.
He thought I was easy prey. Maybe that was why he’d become so obsessed with me. But he didn’t know me as well as he thought.
“You stood me up this weekend,” he said.
“My dad doesn’t let me date. I told you that.”
“You’re almost eighteen,” he said it like I was stupid.
“Oh, I know.”
He squeezed my shoulders, tight enough to hurt, trying to punish me for my tone. From my peripheral vision, I could see Dan covering him, just a step behind and on my right.
There was half a mile between us and the high school. There wasn’t much protection at school, either; Eli’s father was kind of a big deal. He owned one of the two plants in town.
“Did you even ask your daddy?” he drawled. The word sounded revolting coming from him. It would have sounded revolting anyway, because my father had never been warm and caring. Even when I was little, he was never a daddy, and he sure wasn’t one now. “I’ll bet he would let you go out with me.”
My father owned the other plant. He and Eli’s father were drinking buddies.
“He’s not going to say yes,” I told him firmly. “We’ve got rules.”
Unlike in Eli’s family.
“You should have snuck out,” he chided. “We would have had fun.”
If I were going to risk a beating, it wouldn’t be to hang out with Eli Kingston, that was for damn sure.
“You hurt my feelings.” He said it lightly, like he was playing with me, but I was sure it was true. He needed to shave, but the faint scraggle across his jaw was wispy. Despite how toned and muscular he was, there was a bit of pudge in his cheeks still. I’d hurt the man-baby’s feelings.
“Why me?” I asked. “You could have any girl in school, Eli.”
Might as well appeal to the boy’s vanity.
It might be true, though. I didn’t understand why he was drawn to me, when I wanted nothing more than to read my books, keep to myself, and count down the days until I turned eighteen. But I couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble.
“There’s nothing quite like the sweet, innocent girl who’s been protected by her daddy,” he said. As his arm dropped off my shoulders, my posture straightened, my shoulders squaring. I sighed in relief at being released.
But his hand promptly found it way right to my ass. He rested his palm confidently on my jeans pocket, as if I belonged to him. His touch burned. Adrenaline spiked in my chest, restlessness flooded my legs. I couldn’t not react.
“Then you should find one of those,” I told him.
I stomped on his foot as hard as I could, shoving him away, already whirling to run. He fell backward. He was going to hit the sidewalk hard, but I wasn’t going to hang around and watch.
Dan ran toward me as their other buddy, Red, dove to help Eli up.
Dan’s eyes widened. Instead of running away, I stepped in toward him. His momentum carried him into me as I ducked suddenly. His thighs crashed into my arms as I threw them up to protect my head, and he flipped over me. The toe of his boot caught my ribs, hard enough that I heard a crack and I slammed down to my knees on the pavement. But despite the ache in my chest, and my kneecap burning, I pushed myself up and staggered forward.
I was already running before the three of them scrambled to their feet.
I’m only slow when I run with Maddie. My lungs ached from the cold air I sucked in as I sprinted for the safety of school. Their feet thundered behind me for a few hundred feet.
“Wait, wait,” Eli barked. Suddenly, the noise behind me fell away.
The street ahead of me blurred, but I didn’t see anything to make them stop. There were no cops or teachers or adults who gave a damn. I wasn’t sure if there even were any adults in this town who would choose me and risk the wrath of the Kingstons. He must have some kind of new, awful plan.
But for now, I ran hard for school.
When I walked in the front door, my chest was still heaving. People gave me funny glances, then looked away.
In this town, I was the poor little rich girl. People were nice to me because of who my father is, but because of it, they weren’t my friends, either.
In Homeroom, Mr. Turner looked up at me. His gaze lingered on my face, his expression troubled, and for a second, I thought he was going to ask me if I was okay. I was prepared to lie, but he looked down at his attendance log instead.
Misty Opal sat in the second row, her chair right ahead of mine. We used to be friends. Her eyes widened when they met mine. She looked like she was worried about me, like when we were kids and she realized I had one too many broken arms. My lips parted—although I didn’t know what I was going to say—but Chelsey said something to her, and she leaned forward eagerly.
I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and groaned as I realize it had come unzipped sometime during my sprint. I sat down in a hurry with it in my lap, rummaging through the contents. My wallet was missing. So was my expensive fancy calculator. God damn it. It had been a long day already and it wasn’t even nine o’clock. I bit hard on my lip, trying to calm myself down.
“They’re so cute,” Misty said to Chelsey, the words faintly registering for me.
“All three of them?”
“All three of them! It’s like a variety pack of hotness.”
I zipped my backpack up—for all the good it would do me now—and dropped it onto the floor between my feet. Then I leaned my head forward on my crossed arms on the desk, as if I could go to sleep. The world was red behind my eyelids as I breathed slowly, deeply, in and out.
Someone behind me leaned forward, and I caught an unfamiliar scent. The stale aroma of school was cleaning solution, dry erase markers, and a faint whiff of body odor, but this made my nostrils flare and I breathed deeper. It was old leather, automotive grease, clean, strong white soap and a hint of menthol aftershave. The smell was all male.
“You all right?” A low, warm voice asked, almost right in my ear.
I straightened, rubbing my hand across my face, and tried to look nonchalant as I twisted toward whoever was speaking to me.
It was a boy with mussed blond hair and a big square jaw. Bright blue eyes met mine evenly. They were the color of the ocean, vivid against his tanned skin.
He started to smile, and I realized I was staring. I never answered him.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You just need a nap?” That playful smile tugged his lips a little higher.
“Give it two hours.” He had to be new; I knew everyone in this school. It was an awfully small town. Well, really, it was an awful small town. “You’ll need a nap too.”
His lips widened, and then he really did smile. He had a nice grin above that determined jaw.
“You’re new here,” I said.
“I am,” he said.
I’d just told him what he already knew. Smooth, Piper.
“I’m Josh.” He stuck his hand out. Apparently, he was willing to be nice despite my having the social skills of a drunken hamster. “Nice to meet you.”
“Piper.” When I shook his hand, it was warm and dry. He had nice hands. I bit down on my lower lip, trying to focus on his face and making conversation instead of getting lost in thought about the guy’s fingers. “Where are you from?”
“I just moved here from Portland, Oregon.” He crossed his arms over his chest when he leaned back in his chair.
“That sounds like a cool town.” That sounds like a meaningless observation, Piper. I didn’t know anything about Portland. But I was committed now to the idea that Portland was Nirvana compared to Blissford. “You’re about to have a rocky adjustment.”
“It doesn’t seem so bad so far.” His eyes studied me carefully. “You’re not happy here?”
I shrugged, trying to sound light-hearted, but I had the funniest feeling that Misty and Chelsey were listening as I embarrassed myself. “How many teenagers are happy in their hometown?”
“I was,” he said.
“Then you didn’t want to move?”
“I always believe in making the best of any situation.” His straight, white teeth practically twinkled when he smiled. “I think I’ll do okay here.”
I bet he will.
Mr. Turner started talking, and I reluctantly turned my attention to the front of the class. Why had I turned so awkward the minute Josh’s deep blue eyes met mine, then crinkled at the corners? I folded my hands on my desk and tried to contain my cringing. You’re new here. Portland is a cool town.
I’m a complete imbecile.
I could have sworn I felt Josh’s presence behind me when he shifted in his seat, when he leaned back and tapped his pencil against the desktop. Every little movement he made seemed to tug on my attention.
I was interested in following my plan, not in boys.
So why the hell was he so distracting?
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