I'm Muse Harper. I'm a twenty-something painter who loves red wine, quirky movies, and men with a fatal flaw. But that was before I met Jasper King. He became my fatal flaw. Eight months ago, I had a choice to make-abandon everything I've ever known to protect my family, or stay and risk someone getting hurt. I chose the former. My plan was working just fine until I found out my father had gone missing. That's when I met Jasper. A bounty hunter with the eyes of a tiger and the nose of a bloodhound, he was supposed to help me find my father. What I didn't know was that meeting him was no accident. Hunting people isn't all that Jasper does. And helping me was only part of his plan. I just wish I'd found out sooner, before my heart got involved. But even then, I don't know if I'd have done things differently. Now, I have another choice to make-trust the man that I'm falling in love with and hope that he'll do the right thing, or run as far away from him as I can get.Contains mature themes.
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M. Leighton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of numerous books, including Up to Me, Everything for Us, and There's Wild, Then There's You. Possessed of an overactive imagination from early in her childhood, she found an outlet: literary fiction.
C. J. Bloom is an actress and voice-over artist. She can be heard on commercials, video games, and promos. C. J. comes to narration with a passion for performance along with the capability to span several genres, from romance to children's literature and thrillers.
Joe Arden's narration has been described as "sensual," "sexy," and "hot." His recordings range from sweet and romantic to steamy and raw. In his spare time, Joe raises and trains rescue pitbulls and restores vintage motorcycles.
Seventeen years ago
“What’s he gonna do, Mom?” I try to wriggle away from her, but she holds me too tight. I feel like something bad’s gonna happen, but I don’t know why. “Maybe I can make him not be mad. Let me go!”
“Shhh, baby. It’ll be okay. You have to stay here with me or he’ll take you, too.”
My heart’s beating so hard it hurts, like it did that time when Mikey Jennings punched me in the chest. Not even my mother’s arms around me makes the pain go away, and her hugs usually make everything better.
My eyes water as I stare out the window. I can’t blink. I’m afraid to. I don’t want to see what Dad’s going to do to my older brother, Jeremy, but I can’t look away either.
The longer I watch, the less I can move, like my feet are glued to the floor and my arms are strapped to my sides. It feels like I can’t even breathe. I can only stare at the cold, gray water and the two shapes moving closer to it.
I see Jeremy’s fingers clawing at my dad’s hand where it pulls him by his hair. It’s not doing him any good, though. Dad isn’t letting go. Jeremy’s feet sometimes drag along the ground, his ratty tennis shoes kicking up mud and grass, but my father never slows down. I can tell by the way his other fist is balled up that he’s mad. Madder than usual, maybe.
Jeremy got in trouble at school again today. They called Dad at work instead of Mom, so she didn’t even know until Dad brought Jeremy home. By then it was too late.
“No kid of mine’s gonna act like a monster. There’s something wrong with you, boy,” Dad was saying when they walked through the door. Jeremy was in front of him. Dad pushed him so hard, my brother fell and slid across the kitchen floor.
There really is something wrong with Jeremy. The doctor said so. He said Jeremy needed medicine, but Dad doesn’t care. It just makes him mad, makes him lose his temper with Jeremy even more.
I was standing at Mom’s side when Dad stopped in front of her. He put his finger in her face until it almost touched her nose. His eyes were that red color all around the edges like they are when he’s getting ready to whip Jeremy. “You’d better hope this little shit doesn’t turn out the same way.” He slapped me in the side of the head when he said it. It made my ear sting like a bee got me, but I didn’t even say “ouch.” I didn’t say anything. I knew better than to open my mouth. “One’s enough.”
Dad went and grabbed Jeremy by the back of his shirt, pulled him up to his feet and threw him out the kitchen door. Jeremy fell again, but that didn’t stop Dad. He followed him into the yard.
“Get up, you worthless little asshole,” he yelled. There was something not good in Jeremy’s eyes when he looked up. Then I saw him spit on Dad’s work boots. I knew he shouldn’t have done that. I knew it even more when Dad kicked him in the ribs. Now we’re watching my older brother get dragged away for punishment.
Rather than stopping at the old stump that he bends Jeremy over to whip him, Dad keeps walking right out into the lake. He doesn’t even stop at the edge.
My eyes hurt while I watch, but I can’t close them. Something about this time looks different. Feels different. Something about the hot tears streaming down my face tells me that this time is different.
Dad’s boots splash through the shallow water. He drags my brother behind him like he does a bag of trash when he’s loading up the truck to go to the dump. Jeremy falls and gets back up, falls and gets back up. He’s fighting for real now. He’s kicking and hitting. I see his mouth open wide like he’s screaming, but I can’t hear it. The only thing I can hear is my heartbeat. It’s like drums in my ears, it’s so loud.
Dad stops when the water is up to his waist. He pulls Jeremy to him. I see his face from the side, my father’s. It’s so red it looks purple. Veins are standing out all down his neck. My brother’s face is almost white, like he’s wearing ghost Halloween makeup. His eyes are dry, though. He stopped crying over the stuff Dad does to him a long time ago.
Dad yells something at Jeremy, his mouth stretching so wide it looks like he could eat him. Like a snake, just swallow him whole. Jeremy just stares up at him with his pale face. Dad shakes my brother hard enough to make his head snap back, and then he dunks him under the water.
I suck in a breath. I’ve never seen Dad do this before, no matter how mad he gets at Jeremy. Something in my chest burns while I watch Dad hold him under, like I can’t breathe either. Like air is stuck in there, burning. Just like I’m stuck in here. Hurting.
I taste salt from my tears. I lick them away, ashamed to be crying. Something starts pecking the top of my head. A wet trail, like snail slime, slides down the side of my face. I wipe it away and look at my hand. It’s just water. Warm water.
Tears. But not my tears. They’re Mom’s.
I count. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. I wonder how long Jeremy can hold his breath. My head feels like it might explode.
Four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi.
Air and sound push past my tight throat to make a weird garbled scream. It lands in the quiet room like a crack of thunder. It’s the only noise I make. It’s the only noise I can make.
I watch Jeremy’s hands, beating against my dad’s wrist. Dad never budges, though, never lets up. His arm is straight and ruthless, holding my only brother under the water.
Mom’s arms squeeze me tighter. It’s getting even harder to breathe.
Seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi.
I count, even though time stopped moving. When I get to twenty Mississippi, I start over at one, start over for Jeremy, to give him more breath. To give him another chance. But he doesn’t use it. He can’t. His time already ran out. Like his breath did. I know it when I see his hands drop away. They fall into the water and float, like there’s nobody attached to them. Like my brother just . . . left.
Dad lets him go. Sort of pushes him out into the deeper water. Jeremy just drifts there, like he’s playing dead. Like he used to do when Mom took us swimming on summer afternoons when our father was at work.
I don’t watch Dad walk out of the lake. I don’t watch him walk across the yard. I don’t even look up when he walks through the back door. I just watch Jeremy, waiting for him to move, waiting for him to wake up.
“Get your purse. We’re going out to eat. The boys can have a sandwich here.”
Boys? Does that mean Jeremy’s okay?
I start toward the door, but Mom grabs me. “Jasper, be a good boy and get my purse for me, sweetie. It’s beside the front door.”
Her eyes are different. They look scared and they make me scared, so I just go get her purse and bring it to her like she asked. When I hand it to her, she takes it and pulls me against her. I feel her arms shaking and when she lets me go, she’s crying. But she’s smiling, too, like she’s not supposed to cry. None of us are supposed to cry.
“You sit right there in front of the television, okay? Don’t you move a muscle.” Her voice is warning me about something. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m afraid. She’s afraid, too.
I turn on cartoons and sit on the couch until I hear Dad’s truck start. When I do, I get up and run as fast as I can, through the kitchen, out the back door and across the yard toward the lake.
It’s raining now and the grass is slick. I fall twice before I can get to the edge of the water. When I do, I holler at my brother.
“Jeremy!” He doesn’t move. He just floats on the surface like my green turtle raft does. “Jeremy!”
I look back at the house and then back to my brother. I know nobody can help me. Nobody will stand up to my dad. Not even my mom. If I don’t help Jeremy, he’ll die.
My hands are shaking and my knees feel funny when I step into the water. It’s so cold it stings my skin, like when I fell off my sled last winter and snow went up my pants leg. I couldn’t get it out fast enough. It was so cold it almost burned. But this time, I keep going no matter how much it hurts.
When the water is up to my chin and my teeth are chattering so hard I bite my lip, I think about turning back. Jeremy is so far away, I can barely see him and I can’t catch my breath enough to holler for him.
“J-J-Jer—” I try again.
I paddle out farther. My arms and legs weigh so much I can hardly move them through the water. It’s like trying to run in cold, thick soup. I fight to keep my chin up, gulping down the water that laps into my mouth.
I swim and swim and swim, watching the back of Jeremy’s head until he’s close enough for me to touch. It’s raining harder now. Big, fat drops are splattering on the back of my brother’s neck, and it’s running down my forehead and into my eyes.
I grab a handful of his dark hair and raise Jeremy’s face out of the water. His eyes are open, but they aren’t looking at me. They’re looking at something else, something I can’t see. I take his arm. It’s cold and feels kind of like that fish Dad brought home and made Jeremy skin.
My stomach hurts and my eyes burn. I feel like somebody’s squeezing me around the middle, squeezing me so hard I can’t even cry.
I take my big brother’s hand and I pull him toward me, toward shore. He floats pretty easy, so I swim a little and tug, swim a little and tug.
After a while, it gets harder and harder to move, harder and harder to keep my face above the water. The shore, the grass, the back door of my house . . . they’re all getting farther away, not closer. I’m scareder than I’ve ever been before. Even scareder than that time Jeremy made me watch The Evil Dead.
Jeremy seems heavy now, like he’s trying to drag me down every time I pull on him. “Swim, Jer, swim,” I mumble through a mouthful of water. “Please.”
I go under. When I try to scream for help I know won’t come, water goes down my throat. I try to cough, but I can’t. There’s no air.
I can see light above me and I use my heavy arms and legs to crawl toward it. When I finally get my face out of the water, I grab for my brother’s hand. I hold on to it tighter than I’ve ever held on to anything before, even my favorite G.I. Joe soldier.
I paddle as fast and as hard as I can, pulling Jeremy behind me until I can touch the squishy bottom of the lake. I pull and tug and drag me and Jeremy to the shallowest part of the water and I roll him over.
His lips are blue and his face is still so white. But it’s his eyes that scare me the most. They don’t look like he’s awake. But they don’t look like he’s asleep either. They sorta look like mine feel—scared. Like he saw something that made him want to hide, but he didn’t get away fast enough and now he’s just . . . froze.
I shake his shoulders. I scream my brother’s name. I cry even though I don’t want to.
I give in and pound on his chest. I know that if he gets up, he’ll punch me in the back of the leg until I say “uncle,” but I don’t care. I just want him to get up. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t get up. He doesn’t move at all. He just slides in the mud until he’s back in the water.
I try to reach for him, but my feet slip and I almost fall in. That scares me so bad I scream my head off. I can’t go back in. I won’t come back out if I go in the water again. I just know it.
Don’t make me go back in! Don’t make me go!
But what about Jeremy? What about my brother?
I cry as quiet as I can as he floats away from me again. I watch his white ghost face until the only thing I can see is black. And nothing else.
I shake out the three-hundred-dollar sweater I just folded for the third time and I start over. Somehow keeping my fingers busy seems to calm my brain. It gives me something to think about other than the man I’m waiting on and how worried I am about taking this step.
When the icy blue cashmere is folded perfectly—for the fourth time—I lay it on top of the others in the stack and check the time on my phone again.
“It’s almost noon, damn it!” I mutter, as if my friend Tracey Garris can hear me all the way across town. She’s the one who knows this guy. I should’ve gotten more information from her, but she was in a rush this morning and she’s in a meeting now, so I’m stuck waiting. Information-less. I only know what she muttered so briefly before she hung up, something about a guy coming by and his name being Jasper King.
I let out a growl of aggravation and grab another sweater, flicking it open with enough force to cause one sleeve to snap against the table like a soft crack of thunder. For some reason, I feel a little better for having taken out a bit of my frustration on something, even if that something is an innocent piece of very pricey material.
Rather than climbing right back onto a ledge of frustration, I purposely tune out everything except the words of the song playing overhead, “If I Loved You.” It always reminds me of Matt, the guy I left behind. The guy who should’ve hated seeing me leave. The guy who would’ve hated seeing me leave if he’d loved me like I wanted him to. But he didn’t. He let me go. Easily. And now, even after eight long months, it still makes my heart ache to think of him.
I don’t shy away from the pain. In some twisted way, I bask in it. Like most artists, I welcome all kinds of emotions. Good or bad, they inspire me. They color my life and my work like strokes of tinted oil on pristine white canvas. They make me feel alive. Sometimes broken, but still alive.
After I finish the sweater, I move through the store, lost in thoughts of my ex and how much it hurt to say good-bye. I’m straightening a rack of ties when the chime over the door signals the arrival of a customer. I catch movement in my peripheral vision and absently throw a polite greeting in that direction. “Welcome to Mode: Chic,” I say, feeling both resentful and relieved at the interruption.
I get no response, so with a deep sigh I even up the last row of ties and smooth my vest before turning to find my visitor. When my eyes settle on the interloper, all thoughts of Matt and the past and every trouble in the world melt away for the time it takes me to regain my breath.
A man is standing behind me. I didn’t hear him approach, didn’t smell cologne or soap, didn’t sense the stir of the air. He was just coming through the door one second and looming right behind me the next.
He’s tall, very tall, and dressed in black from head to toe. Other than his lean, dramatically V-shaped physique, that’s all I notice about his body. It’s his face that captivates me. From an artist’s standpoint, he reminds me of a bronze sculpture, something strong and ancient that was carved by the talented hands of Michelangelo or Donatello, Bernini or Rodin. From a woman’s standpoint, he’s simply breathtaking.
His face is full of angles and hollows—the ridge of his brow, the slice of his nose, the edge of his cheekbones, the square of his chin. Even his lips are so clearly defined that I find...
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