Control Us is available everywhere!! This is the first book in my brand new series, The Next Generation! And it's a friends to lovers romance! Continue reading for the first four chapters.
DARKNESS SURROUNDED ME. IT swallowed me whole, enveloping me in a blanket of bliss as I curled into myself on the hard cement beneath me.
My stomach twisted and churned, the agony of having no food in my belly making it hard to concentrate on anything but the hunger ripping through me. I could try sleeping. Maybe that would make the pain go away. But slumber was lacking no matter how long I kept my eyes closed.
Footsteps sounded above me. They became closer and closer. With each step, my heart thumped, pounding against my rib cage. My skin broke out in a cold sweat. Fear rippled down my spine like icy fingers danced along my small, frail body.
Please, God. Make her stay away. Make her forget I even exist.
But my prayers went unanswered. No one heard them. It was like as soon as I sent up my prayer, the steps only became louder and faster.
I tried moving away from the sound but the chain around my ankle prevented me from going very far.
“Come out, come out wherever you are,” she sang.
Pretending to be asleep did nothing. I would only get whipped awake. So instead, I brought my knees up to my chest, curled my arms around them, and waited for whatever punishment I would get.
“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you, Zachary?” Her voice was louder as she stood on the other side of the closed door. The locks released, revealing the person who invaded my nightmares.
“Aww, my little toy. Why are you so scared? I’m only doing this to make you stronger. You know that.”
A whimper escaped me, even though I didn’t want it to. I couldn’t control it. This woman terrified me.
“I have some food for you, but I need something first.” Her bright blue eyes flicked to mine. “You want food, don’t you?”
I nodded. I would give anything for even a piece of moldy bread.
“I’ll unchain you and you can come with me. Same thing as last week. Understand?”
“Please,” I croaked through my parched, cracked lips. “Not again.”
“I know you’ll do anything for this food. Can you smell it?” She smirked. “So good. I made it myself.”
I swallowed hard, knowing the food was laced with something. I may have been just a boy, but I knew when food tasted funny. But at that point, I didn’t care. She could kill me. As long as I had a full belly, I would die happy.
My stepmother came farther into the small room and unlocked the chain from around my ankle. “Come with me, Toy, and I’ll give you your food after you give me what I need.”
I spent the next couple of hours doing everything she asked of me, just so I could have a slice of moldy cheese on stale bread. She had promised me a full meal but lied. That sandwich gave me the strength to survive through another night of hell. I didn’t know how long it would be until I got my next one, so I savored it.
I savored every damn crumb.
I WOKE IN A COLD sweat. My sheets were stuck to me, my hair matted to my forehead. I hadn’t had a nightmare in months. I didn’t like them. The way they made me feel. The terror they forced through the marrow of my bones. The vulnerability. But the lack of control was even worse. I needed to get it together for fear I would lose myself completely. The demons of my past threatened to take over my life. I worked out. A lot. It was the only way I could mute the noise in my head. But sometimes, even putting myself through that rigorous activity didn’t help.
The dreams were few and far between now but when I had them, they stuck with me for a while. My parents had tried getting me to speak to someone, but I refused. There was only one person I could talk to and even then, she didn’t know everything.
Sitting up in bed, I pinched the bridge of my nose and waited for the remnants of the nightmare to fade away. It did but not enough. That quiet little voice was still there.
Nagging. Nudging. Poking at me. Reminding me that it had control over my life. As much as I didn’t care to admit it.
A soft knock on the door interrupted my thoughts. “Come in.”
My mother peeked her head into the room. “You okay?” she asked, her eyes holding wrinkles at the corners from years of happiness with my father.
I glanced at the clock. It was almost five in the morning. “What are you doing up?” I asked her instead of answering her question.
She smiled softly, her dark eyes shining with a hint of sadness I saw every so often. She didn’t think I noticed but I did, and it always made me sick to my stomach whenever she was hurting.
“I could ask the same about you.” She sighed. “Your dad couldn’t sleep.” Which meant she took care of him in any way possible.
I wasn’t oblivious to their ways. Although they were my parents, they were open enough to tell me how they took care of each other. Especially after I accidentally found the shackles beneath their bed.
“Anything I can do to help?” I asked even though I already knew the answer.
“No.” She opened the door fully but still remained in the hall. “Want to talk about it?”
I nodded. She had been the only woman I talked to lately. The only woman I actually trusted enough to tell my problems to. Or that was what I tried telling myself anyway. There was someone else. But I wasn’t good enough for her and she had a father. A large fucking father.
My mother left the room and closed the door softly behind her.
Brogan and Coby Porter adopted me when I was ten. They took me from a horrible situation that no child should ever go through and welcomed me into their home with open arms. They gave me love, support, and never-ending encouragement no matter how difficult I had been. But it still wasn’t enough. I wasn’t sure why. I never felt this way when I was a kid but now that I was getting older, there was something missing from my life. That nagging little voice inside of me told me what it was, but I always chose to ignore it. There was no point. She deserved better and whenever she got too close, I pushed her away. It was the only way I could protect myself from getting hurt.
I quickly threw on pajama pants and a hoodie and made my way out into the kitchen. No matter what time of night it was, if Dad or I had a nightmare, Mom was always there to talk us through it.
She handed me a mug of hot chocolate with three marshmallows swimming in the steaming liquid. I smiled softly. It was always the same ever since I was a little boy.
I sat at the table when Brogan placed a mug in front of me. “What is it?”
She smiled softy. “Hot chocolate with three marshmallows. My brother used to make this for me when I was your age.”
I looked up at her. “Did you have nightmares?”
“Yeah, sweetheart. I did.” Brogan sat beside me and cupped my hand that was resting on my lap. “I’m here, Zach. For however long you need, I’m always here. Both of us are.”
Ever since then, I had looked forward to the hot chocolate. It had been a special bonding time for Mom and me. A part of me wondered if Dad knew that, so he would let her take care of me before asking me about the nightmares later on.
“Was it the same nightmare as last time?” Mom asked, sitting across the table from me with her own mug. Even though she was now older, the only wrinkles that sat on her face, were at the corners of her eyes. She always said they were her love lines because the love she had for my father and me, made her smile.
“Kind of. It’s been awhile but this one was intense.” I stared down at the marshmallows in the hot chocolate. “I almost forgot what they could be like.”
“Your father goes through the same thing.” Her gaze hardened. “If I could murder the woman who destroyed you, I would.” She shrugged. “But I have to behave. I am a mother now after all.” It had been something she said often. She wasn’t lying when she said she would kill her. Mom was part of a female motorcycle club that could give most men a run for their money. She had a past. A history. They never talked about the woman who hurt my dad, but everything told me that she was no longer breathing.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, her cheeks reddening.
“Just thinking how amazing you are.”
She laughed. “You are so much like your father, it’s unreal.”
I smiled, taking a sip of the hot chocolate. Even though we weren’t blood related, I had taken on a lot of my adoptive father’s traits. He protected my mother. His wife. His best friend. And I only hoped I could be half the man he was.
“Have you considered seeing Dr. Santos like we talked about?” Mom asked, pulling the elastic free from her dark curly hair and putting it back into a messy bun on top of her head.
“No.” I hated talking. It opened up too many old wounds that I just didn’t want to think about.
“I know it’s hard, but you really should.” She raised her hand. “Before you argue with me, just give it some thought. Please.”
“So this is what you do when I don’t find you in bed beside me.”
Both of us laughed as my dad joined us at the table.
“You good, Son?” he asked me, cupping my shoulder.
“Nightmare,” was all I said.
He grunted, kissed Mom on the temple, and sat down beside her. “Sucks. Doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” But at least he had someone who could take care of him after. Mom helped me through it as well, but it wasn’t the same. I needed someone I could spend the rest of the night holding, talking to, just being beside. It didn’t have to end in sex. I just needed something other than hot chocolate.
While they talked quietly amongst themselves, I continued drinking from my mug, distracting myself.
Once I finished the hot chocolate, I brought the mug to the kitchen. When I returned to the dining room, I wrapped my arms around my mother’s shoulders. “Thank you for the hot chocolate, Mama.” I kissed her cheek.
She patted my hand. “Anything for you, sweet boy. Try and get some sleep.”
“You heading to the city today?” Dad asked me, rising to his feet.
“I am.” My dad owned half the high-rises and hotels in the city that was a couple of hours away, thanks to my grandfather before him. Since retiring officially from the navy a few years ago, this business was all Dad had. And it left a cozy cushion for his family which was why I followed in his footsteps.
“You areallowed a day off,” Dad chided. “You’ve been going strong for the past few months. People are going to begin to think your boss is running you ragged.”
I chuckled, clapping him on the shoulder. “The business is all I have right now. Until I get a family of my own, I need this.” I was working toward taking over the business so he could retire officially and spend time with his wife. But it was taking a little longer seeing as Dad didn’t want to retire just yet. Instead, I was learning as much as I could from him.
“I understand.” He looked down at his wife. “It was all I had before you.” He cupped her cheek, brushing his thumb over her mouth.
She smiled up at him.
Looking away, I cleared my throat and excused myself.
I loved them. They took me from hell and brought me into their home. I hadn’t always been easy to get along with. I knew that. But sometimes their love was overwhelming. Was I jealous? Maybe. I didn’t know anymore. I dated a few times, but it never resulted in anything more than that. No pussy was going to tame this beast inside of me. Or that was the rumor that went around anyway. Truth was, I hadn’t had sex in over a year. The rumors still went around that told a different story, but I never corrected them. What was the point? I was wild in my high school days and people assumed it followed me into my twenties. It didn’t. Sex was an out for some but for me, it wasn’t enough. This need for more was only getting worse and I knew I needed to do something about it before it consumed me completely.
I COULDN’T SLEEP. IT was past five in the morning and I had been laying there like a damn lump for the past couple of hours. The house I lived in with my three best friends was eerily quiet and it made me uncomfortable. Our house was never this quiet. No matter what time of the day it was, someone was usually always up. Whether it be a random stray that one of my best friends brought home or just someone who spent the night after drinking too much, there was always noise. But tonight, the loudest sound going on, was inside my brain. I hated nights like this.
Rolling over onto my stomach, I reached for my phone and texted the only other person I knew who could possibly be up at this hour.
Me: You awake?
My stomach twisted that he had responded so quickly.
A couple of minutes went by and I still hadn’t gotten a reply. Everyone knew that Zach Porter had a shitty childhood but none of us was aware how far it went or what exactly had happened. He was always quiet and withdrawn. He threw himself into his work and stuck mostly to himself even though we had all grown up together thanks to all of our parents being friends. But for whatever reason, I had been the only person he actually opened up to. Even though I had known him since I was a little girl, I had a feeling that I still didn’t know him completely.
My phone chimed, making me jump.
Zach: How did you know?
Me: That’s usually why you’re awake at this hour.
A video call came through, revealing Zach’s handsome face. My heart skipped a beat. My skin became flushed. Good thing it was dark in my room, so he couldn’t see the damn blush in my cheeks that he always caused. It was no secret that I had a crush on the guy. I just wasn’t sure if he knew it or not.
“You are the only guy I would even consider video chatting with while I’m in my pajamas.” I laughed, not looking him directly in the eyes. The dark, almost black orbs sucked me in every time. I could spend hours getting lost in them.
“You’re beautiful, Moonbeam.” Zach smirked, that tiny dimple in his right cheek, popping at the movement. “You have nothing to be embarrassed over.”
My cheeks warmed at the childhood nickname he had given me after finding out my name meant moon in Italian. My stepmom loved it. My dad, not so much.
“Why did you call?” I asked Zach, turning on the lamp and leaning against the headboard.
“You know I hate texting.”
“But you always text me,” I pointed out.
“That’s because I want to make you happy.”
My heart stuttered. “Well...uh…thank you.”
“So...” He waggled his eyebrows. “What are you wearing?”
I giggled, shaking my head.
“I love your laugh,” he murmured, his deep voice hitting every nerve inside of me.
I smiled softly. Our flirting back and forth had always been fun, fresh, light. Nothing more. But as the years went on, my feelings for him grew. I wasn’t sure how he felt though. He probably still looked at me like I was the little girl in pigtails who had a crush on the older boy.
Even from the other end of the phone, he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. With dark eyes, black hair, and that sexy as hell dimple, I was lost to him.
“So, remember when I was a kid and fell off the swing?” I asked. Although the conversation was random, I knew Zach needed distracting from whatever nightmare he had. “You kissed the booboo on my forehead even though I didn’t have one.” It was one of my favorite memories and also when my crush for him started brewing.
“I remember,” he said, his voice deepening. He pushed his dark bangs off of his forehead, his bicep twitching at the movement. “You remember the first time you wore those teeny tiny shorts in front of us boys? I thought your dad was going to have a coronary.”
I laughed. “My dad always looks like he’s going to have a coronary.”
Zach chuckled. “Well, you are beautiful and…” He cleared his throat. “Anyway…why can’t you sleep?”
“I…I’m not sure. Just feeling antsy I guess.” I wasn’t sure what my deal was. I was still young but at a time in my life where I should already be making plans for the future. Instead, I felt…stuck. Like my feet were planted in quicksand and the only thing I could do was sink into the murky depths beneath me.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Tell me your plans for today.” I needed to change the subject off of me or else we would go down a road that I wasn’t sure either of us was ready for. Maybe he would tell me about his job. When it came to his work, he could talk for hours and I would always willingly listen.
“I have to head into the city. I have a few meetings and then dinner plans with a prestigious restaurant owner.” Zach grunted. “The guy only wants to meet me, so he can get a free room for his mistress whenever she’s in town.”
“Well, at least you get free food.”
“True. That’s only if he pays. They never usually do.” He paused. “Come with me.”
My eyes widened. “What?”
“Come to dinner with me. He’ll probably have a date with him anyway. You won’t have to say anything. You can just be there.”
“So, I’d be like the hot piece of candy on your arm?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Hey,” I cried, laughter bubbling out of me.
Zach laughed along with me. “You know what I mean. Like you said, it’ll be a free meal and maybe I won’t be so nervous if you’re with me.”
“You get nervous?” Zach was slowly trying to take over his father’s company, so he could retire completely. He had already left the navy and now he just needed to tie up loose ends with his business. I knew he had nothing to worry about when he was leaving everything to Zach. But I still never imagined a guy like him would get nervous.
“I do, Moonbeam. So, what do you say?”
“I…” I inhaled a sharp breath. “Okay. I’ll come with you.”
“Great.” Zach’s smile widened. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now I have to figure out what to wear.” I tapped my chin. “I have a red dress that—”
“No,” Zach snapped.
“Excuse me?” My heart thumped.
“I mean.” Zach coughed. “Don’t wear red,” he said gently.
“Why not?” I loved the color red.
“Because the guy’s a dick and I don’t want him eye-fucking you because when you wear red, you look hot as hell,” Zach said all in one breath.
“Oh. Is that all?” I muttered.
“Listen.” Zach shifted, placing the phone down in front of him. “I want you comfortable but don’t go out of your way to impress him.”
“What if…what if I want to impress you?” I asked, not sure where this newfound bravery was coming from.
“You don’t need to wear a pretty dress to impress me, Moonbeam.”
“So, you’re saying that I could wear a paper bag and you’d be impressed?” This conversation was beginning to become…weird.
“Something like that.” Zach winked.
“Why, Zachary? Are you flirting with me?” I waggled my eyebrows.
He grinned, rubbing his jaw. “Maybe I am.”
“Luna? You awake?” Angelica Rodriguez called out from the other side of the door.
“I am,” I yelled back.
“I’ll let you go, Moonbeam,” Zach said. “I’ll see you tonight. Be ready for seven.”
“Okay.” We said our goodbyes as the door opened. “What’s up, Gigi?” I asked, using the nickname I had given her as a child when I couldn’t say her full name. Gigi stuck, and everyone started calling her it.
“Meadow’s making breakfast. She tried out this new recipe for some pastries.”
“She couldn’t sleep either?” I asked, sliding off the bed. Meadow was Gigi’s younger sister and working her way to owning her own bakery. She never admitted to that of course but we all knew it was what she wanted to do.
“No.” Gigi sighed, pulling an elastic from her wrist and putting her long auburn hair back into a ponytail. “Neither could I, so I figured we’d at least start the day off right with good food.”
“I like that idea.”
“Were you on the phone with Zach?” she asked, leaning against the doorframe.
“Yeah.” I rummaged through my dresser, pulling out a pair of gray shorts and a white t-shirt.
I met her gaze in the mirror. “Of course.” I wasn’t sure if they knew that Zach got nightmares every now and again, so I kept that piece of information to myself.
She shook her head. “I don’t get you two. Clearly there is something there, but you are too stubborn to do anything about it.”
“Well…” Were we too stubborn? Sure, Zach and I flirted, but it never amounted to anything more than that. Besides, as much as I liked him, he slept with a lot of women. And I couldn’t compete with that.
“But I get it.”
My head snapped up. I slowly turned toward her. “You do?”
She nodded. “Our fathers are over-protective. I’m not sure if that’s the issue here but I do know that it could cause a problem.”
“My dad hasn’t really said anything.” Not that I ever dated anyway but he never laid down the law when I became old enough to date.
“Well, that’s good at least. My dad ignores the fact that I have a boyfriend.” She laughed lightly. “Anyway, I’ll let you get dressed.” Before I could respond, she left my room and shut the door quietly behind her.
My stomach twisted.
Matt Hillman was a douche, but Gigi was happy, so we all put up with him. The guy didn’t deserve her and treated her like an object rather than the wonderful person that she was.
I quickly got dressed and left the room. As soon as I stepped out into the hall, I was greeted with the scent of something sweet mixed with bacon, eggs, and coffee.
My stomach rumbled.
“There she is.” Ashton and Aiden Donovan greeted me at the same time. The twins came toward me.
“Hi, guys.” I gave them each a hug. “What are you doing here so early?”
“We were on the way to the center when Meadow texted that she was cooking breakfast.” Ashton hooked an arm around my shoulders. “You know we could never turn down her food.”
“It also gives us an excuse to delay our arrival a little bit,” Aiden said, wrapping an arm around me from the other side. “I love the center, but our father likes to work us to the bone.”
I laughed. “He’s trying to make you hard workers for when you take over his company.”
Ashton grunted. Both of them were built like their dad, Asher, but had the bright blue eyes of their mother. Even though they complained, I knew they loved working for their father and doing the work they did to help fix up and expand the center. The Dove Project had been a part of our lives ever since we were kids. Now that the guys were older, they helped with the construction on it. The center, as most of us called it, was a safe place for human trafficking victims. It offered shelter, food, clothing, therapy, schooling, and even jobs. It was something our mothers had started before us kids were born and it still left me in awe at how big it had become over the years.
“It’s the summer. We shouldn’t be working so damn much.” Ashton released me and sat at the dining room table.
“I love working,” Gigi added. She had just opened up her dance studio the year before but also worked at The Dove Project. She was a new teacher, so business was slow at the moment until her name got out there more.
“Of course you do.” Aiden sat beside her at the table. “You actually have a business.”
She scoffed. “Yeah and I have only a handful of clients. I need to get some more fliers printed.”
“Meadow, are you done with the food yet, woman? I’m fucking starving.” Ashton leaned back in the chair, stretching his arms up and over his head. “I’m withering away.”
“Do you kiss your mama with that filthy mouth?” she called from the kitchen.
“No, but I’d sure as hell kiss you with it,” he threw back at her.
“Ha!” she scoffed. “You wouldn’t even know what do with me if I was laying naked before you with my legs spread open. I bet you wouldn’t know where a woman’s clit was even with a neon sign pointing directly at it.”
“What?” Ashton’s face turned bright red. “Fucking women.”
Laughter sounded around the room.
I joined them at the table when Meadow started bringing plates out.
“Did you need any help?” I asked her, moving to rise from my chair when she lifted her hand to stop me.
“No thank you.” She smiled her widest smile. Her full red lips pulling thin.
“Why do I feel like you messed with these?” I asked her, glancing at the plates of pastries on the table before us.
She laughed, placing the last plate on the table and tugged her shirt down. She only ever did that when she was nervous. “One of the plates has special cookies that I made. I don’t suggest eating them if you have things to do today or need to drive somewhere.”
Ashton leaned forward and popped a cookie into his mouth. “Looks like I’m sleeping on your couch again.”
“You are helping me today. I’m not making up excuses for you again.” Aiden shook his head and picked up a croissant before breaking off the end and shoving it into his mouth.
“I have to work today, so no special cookies for me,” Gigi said, pouting.
“I’ll just stick with eggs and bacon,” I muttered.
“Try a cookie, Luna,” Ashton said, waggling his eyebrows. “We could have some fun.”
I grimaced. “No. Thank you.”
“Have you talked to Zach today?” Meadow handed me a plate of food.
“I did,” I said, picking up a piece of bacon off the plate in front of me. “He couldn’t sleep either.”
“Must be something in the water,” Aiden mumbled.
“Is he coming to the party tonight?” Gigi asked, shoving a forkful of eggs into her mouth.
“I believe so. He has a dinner meeting at seven first that he invited me to. It’s with a possible client.” The parties that Gigi threw were once every couple of months. Since all of us worked hard, it was her way of making it so we could relax, forget about our day jobs and just unwind. I knew that once we got older and started getting married, having kids and so on, the parties would be few and far between. So she threw them now while she could.
“Which reminds me, I’m going to need help in deciding what to wear,” I told Meadow and Gigi.
Silence fell around the table. You would think I just told them that I was pregnant.
Ashton broke the silence by letting out a cheer. “I knew it. That’s fifty bucks, brother.”
Aiden rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t a bet, asshole.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Ashton punched him in the shoulder. “You still owe me.”
“We never shook on it.” Aiden leaned back in his chair. “Doesn’t count.”
“Wait.” I looked between them both. “You guys had a bet going about me?”
“No. My brother did,” Aiden said, nodding toward Ashton.
“Placing a bet on your friends is a little immature, don’t you think?” Meadow asked, raising a dark eyebrow.
Ashton glanced between her and the rest of us. “Nope.” He glared at his brother. “Fifty. In my hand. Now.”
“No.” Aiden sat forward. “He made the bet. Not me. Like I said, we never shook on it.”
“What was the bet?” Gigi asked, rising from the table and gathering up the empty plate.
“That Luna and Zach would be the first ones to go on a date out of all of us.” Ashton held out his hand and tapped his palm. “I don’t see any money.”
Aiden rolled his eyes.
“It’s not really a date. I’m going with Zach out of support.” Although as I said the words, it didn’t stop the nervous flutter from racing through me.
Ashton tapped his palm again.
Aiden slapped some bills in his twin’s hand. “Happy?”
“You guys need to get lives,” I laughed, shaking my head.
“Alright, kids.” Meadow placed another plate of pastries on the table. “Eat up so I have an excuse to make more stuff.”
“How the hell did you have time to make all of this?” Ashton asked, grabbing a croissant off the plate.
Meadow laughed. “I don’t sleep.”
While they continued chatting amongst themselves, my thoughts traveled to what could possibly happen tonight and that only sent my nerves into overdrive.
This was a bad idea. A really bad idea. I had a half an hour before Zach was picking me up and I still wasn’t ready. My nerves were shot, my skin was clammy, and I had nothing to wear. Absolutely nothing.
A soft knock sounded on the door.
“Need help still?” Meadow asked, peeking her head into the room.
“Yes.” I rushed to her, pulling her into my bedroom.
Gigi laughed, joining us and went right to my closet. “Still can’t find something to wear?”
“No.” I sighed. “I have nothing, and I don’t have time to go shopping. Why did I agree to this?”
“Because he asked you and you said yes,” Meadow said. “Because you want to jump his bones and ride him like a pogo stick. Because—”
I clapped a hand over her mouth. “We get the idea.”
“Maybe this is a step in the right direction finally,” Gigi said, searching through my closet.
“We’re friends. Besides, he doesn’t think of me that way.” Not that I ever asked him though.
“Right,” both of them said slowly.
“What?” I frowned. “What?” I repeated.
“You really don’t see it, do you?” Gigi stared at me.
“See what?” I looked between the both of them. “What am I not seeing?”
“He likes you, Luna,” Gigi told me. “And you’re the only one of us that he actually talks to. Sure, we’ve all known him our whole lives, but I’ve never carried a full conversation with him.”
I stared at her. “Yes, you have.”
Gigi shook her head. “Have you?” she asked Meadow.
“Not really.” Meadow joined her sister at the closet. “He does ask me how my baking is going, and he’s always been nice. We don’t know him how you know him though.”
“I didn’t know that.” I thought back to all of the conversations we’ve had over the years. How he would always ask me how my day was or how he would tell me the last book he read or movie he watched.
“And I know there are rumors going around that he’s slept with half the city, but I don’t think that’s true.” Meadow pulled a dress out from the closet, frowned and put it back. “I know he was wild in high school. That’s what the twins say anyway. But I don’t think he’s like that anymore, no matter what the rumors are.”
“I…” Could the rumors be lies? It wasn’t like I had ever asked him about his sexual exploits. It wasn’t any of my business anyway and I didn’t even want to know. “Really? How come?”
Meadow shrugged. “I just don’t.” She pulled out a green dress. “What about this?” She grimaced. “Never mind.”
The dress had been shoved into the back of my closet for a reason. It was old and an ugly shade of green.
“You don’t see what we see,” Meadow continued. “The way he looks at you, thinking we’re not watching. Or that he’s being discreet. Or the way you look at him. God, you two are in love and you don’t even know it yet.”
“Uh…” I wasn’t sure what to say to that.
“What about this?” Gigi pulled out a red dress this time.
“I can’t wear that one.” I grabbed it from her and hung it back up.
“Why not?” Meadow pulled it back out of the closet. “It’s perfect.”
“Yeah, it is.” I snatched it out of her hand and hung it up again. “But apparently the guy we’re having dinner with is a pervert or something and…”
“Zach doesn’t want another man lusting after you?” Meadow raised an eyebrow. “But you really don’t see it.”
I huffed, pulling another dress out of the closet. “I have no idea what you girls are talking about. Zach and I are just friends. We are not in love and whatever you think you’re seeing, there’s nothing there.” But even though I said those words, I had always hoped for something more. He had been the only guy I ever felt comfortable with. I could be myself around him and he never judged or made fun of me for my quirks.
“Come on, Luna. You can’t honestly believe that,” Meadow said.
“Leave it alone,” Gigi told her sister. “She’ll see it eventually.”
“I feel like we’ve overused that word,” I mumbled.
“Fine.” Meadow reached into the closet. “What about this?”
I looked between the dress in my hand and the one she was holding. I ran my fingers down the black fabric. I stewed over their words. Could Zach be wanting more from me? Could he be feeling something different? Could he finally see whatever it was that they saw? I shook my head, chewing my bottom lip. I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to find out.
I took the dress from Meadow, pressed it up to my body and moved to the floor-length mirror. “It’s perfect.”
ALL BREATH LET MY lungs as Luna approached me. The sound that escaped my chest was a half groan, half growl. Fuck me, she looked good enough to eat. I shook myself. I couldn’t have these thoughts about her. But I did. On one hand, I was thankful that things between us were finally moving in a different direction other than just being friends. And on the other, I was terrified.
My stomach clenched, forcing that fear to the back of my mind.
There were only a few years between us but these feelings, this want, this need, it was new. I always thought she was beautiful. Being half-Italian made her skin glow with a delicious tan. I still shouldn’t have these thoughts about her. Besides the fact that her father was a scary fucker, she deserved better. So much better than my broken, moody soul.
The inner turmoil trembling through me, tugged and pulled, damn near splitting me apart.
“She deserves better.”
My stomach clenched.
Luna’s chocolate brown eyes caught mine, a slow smile spreading on her beautiful face. Her dark hair fell down around her shoulders in waves. The black dress that hugged every inch of her curvy frame, sat snug against her body. It fell just below her knees. It left little to the imagination but was still sexy as hell just the same. It accentuated her figure in ways I had only fantasized about. My dick twitched, pushing against the fly of my pants. Even he was happy to see her.
Confusion coursed through me as this newfound awareness slid through me. I hadn’t reacted this way to a female in a long time. Too damn long if you asked me.
“How do I look?” Luna asked, twirling around.
I forced back the urge to bite my knuckles. The fabric of her dress hugged her hips and sat snug against her ass. Her body would fit perfectly in my hands.
“Good,” was all I said instead.
“Really?” Her face fell. “Just good?”
No, Moonbeam. I want to reach beneath your dress, swipe my tongue between those full thighs and show you exactly how beautiful I think you look.
“Yes,” I croaked. Fuck, this was going to be a long night.
“Oh. Okay. Well you look handsome.” She walked past me and that was when I caught it. A sweet sugary scent wafted into my nose.
A growl escaped me then.
She paused, looking up at me, her brows furrowing in the middle. “Zach?”
I had to rein it in for fear that I would do things to her before she was ready for them. My gaze dropped to her full red mouth. She hardly ever wore makeup but tonight, her lashes were long and thick, and her lips were painted a deep crimson. The color heightened the red in her cheeks while her dark lashes made the slight caramel in her eyes, pop.
“I’m having a hard time, Moonbeam,” I said, wrapping my hand around her forearm. Brushing my thumb back and forth, I reveled in the way her skin erupted into tiny goosebumps. “A really hard fucking time.”
“W-What do you mean?” she asked, her voice shaking.
I leaned down to her ear, placing my hand on hers that was on the door handle. “Something…I don’t know what but this…fuck.” Taking a chance, I licked along the shell of her ear. An electric current shot between us at the soft contact. It was so small, but it was definitely there. “I’ve known you for years but I’ve never…this…” I couldn’t form a coherent thought where she was concerned. Something switched between us recently. I wasn’t sure why or how, but I didknow that I wanted to explore it more with her.
“Zach,” she whispered.
My hold on her arm tightened. I was losing control. She was making me forget everything I had come to know and just feel. Just be. But I couldn’t. Not with her. Maybe never with her. It was too dangerous. I could never be enough for her.
I pulled back before I did something both of us would regret.
She watched me, her dark eyes billowing with lust that I felt all the way down to the marrow of my bones.
“Get in the car, Moonbeam,” I grumbled, heading around to the driver’s side. Before I got in the car, I adjusted myself and took a deep breath. This was a bad idea. A very bad idea. I was playing with fire where Luna was concerned, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before both of us got burned by the raging inferno growing between us.
Zach was looking at me differently tonight. He had been looking at me differently for a while actually, but I only just noticed how much when he licked along the shell of my ear. My skin tingled. I could still feel him. His desperate grip on my arm. Hear the growl of his deep voice. See the lust in his dark eyes.
Maybe the girls were right. Something was definitely growing between Zach and me. But even if that were the case, I could still feel him holding me at a safe distance. We may have been close, and I was the only one out of our friends he actually made a point to talk to, but he was still pushing me away.
My chest tightened at that thought.
His hands white knuckled the steering wheel. That sexy muscle in his jaw ticked. He looked good even though he was pissed about something. He wore a black tailored suit that was made for his big, strong body. A red tie sat against the white dress shirt covering his torso. The jacket to his suit hung in the back.
“Why aren’t you wearing your jacket?” I asked, figuring that was a safe question.
“Because it’s proper etiquette. Also, driving with a suit jacket on, is uncomfortable as hell.”
“Oh.” I ran my hands down my thighs. “Dresses aren’t overly comfortable at times either.”
He only grunted.
I looked out the window. We were still in our city, if you could even call it that. It had grown quite a bit since our parents were kids, but it was small compared to most.
“I hate these dinners,” Zach confessed, tugging on his red tie.
“Why do you do them then?” I asked, thankful that he had broken the silence.
“So, my father doesn’t have to and if I want to take over the business, this is my job. Although I could just hire people to do it for me…” His dark eyes flicked to mine. “I like being in control too much to let someone else do it.”
I shivered at the innuendo. “Well…” The questions were on the tip of my tongue, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the answers or not. So of course, I asked anyway, “What’s going on? With us?”
Zach looked back out onto the road. “I don’t know, Moonbeam. I really don’t know.”
I cleared my throat, running my hands up and down my thighs. “Well…let’s enjoy dinner, have a drink or two and go from there. I’ll sit quietly while you do your business stuff and be the eye candy on your arm. Okay?”
Zach blew out a slow breath and scratched the dark scruff on his jaw. “Alright, Moonbeam. That sounds perfect if you ask me.”
We pulled into the parking lot of an Italian restaurant. I had never been there before because it was expensive, but I had always wondered what the food tasted like.
“Wow.” I sat forward, taking in the smaller building that had a noticeable chandelier hanging from the ceiling inside the restaurant. “I’ve driven by this place but I’ve never eaten here.”
“I only come here when I want to impress my clients or if they choose to eat here. The client I’m meeting tonight picked this place. I can’t really argue with him since I’m trying to buy one of his buildings.”
“Really?” My head whipped around. “You want to buy his building?”
“Well, I want to buy several of them actually. They’re in the perfect spot in downtown New York. They overlook Central Park and would be perfect for a hotel. I want to gut them and put up one big building.”
“Are they apartment buildings?” I asked, worried that people would be losing their homes.
“No, Luna. They’re businesses and before you say that I’m trying to take jobs from people, I’m really not. They’ve already been notified that the buildings will be sold. That was on the owner’s part. I just got notice that he was selling them in the first place.”
Zach gave me a small smile. “You were worried that I was taking someone’s job from them. Weren’t you?”
“Well…I was actually worried that you were taking someone’s home. But I also know how hard it is nowadays to get a decent job.” I shrugged. “I didn’t think you were like that, but I’ve never seen you in business mode, so I wasn’t sure.”
He smirked. “My grandfather was the ruthless one when it came to shutting businesses down, so he could buy the buildings. My father taught me different. I learned from him to search out places that are already listed and put in an offer that way. I also gave each of the employees a job opportunity.”
My heart warmed. “You’re a good guy, Zachary.”
His grin grew. “Let’s get this dinner over with.”
Luna was absolutely breathtaking. She would pass a glance at me every so often when she thought I wasn’t looking. But I was. I was always looking at her because I couldn’t help it. I looked at her because seeing her was something that helped me through my day. Even when we were kids. There had always been something about her that calmed me.
When we walked into the tiny restaurant, I could feel all eyes on us. The men watched her, wishing it was them she was latching onto. The women looked as well but I didn’t give a shit. I only had eyes for Luna. I just wished I would have made a move years ago.
“People are staring,” Luna murmured, pulling me from my guilt-ridden thoughts and curled her hand tighter around my bicep.
“Let them stare, Moonbeam.” I kissed her temple. “You’re beautiful. The men are jealous.”
“So are the women,” she countered.
The lust billowing between us was like a bomb and I couldn’t wait to watch it fucking explode.
She stared up at me, something flashing behind her dark eyes.
A throat cleared.
Both of us turned, finding a tall man standing at a table. “Mr. Porter.” He held out his hand. “It’s been awhile.”
“Luna, this is Chase Black. Chase, Luna Stone.” I returned the handshake. My stomach twisted at the way he was looking at her. His cold calculating eyes raked over her, no doubt imagining her naked and writhing beneath him.
She shivered, tightening her hold on my arm.
“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Miss Stone.” Chase offered his hand again.
She took it.
He caught my eye, winked, and placed a peck on the back of her hand.
Luna stiffened, snatching her hand back.
Chase chuckled, sitting. “I wasn’t aware that we could bring a date or else I would have brought one myself.”
“I assumed you would be bringing a date. But that’s beside the point. I brought a date, so you would keep this professional,” I threw back at him, knowing that if Luna wasn’t there, he would have threatened me already. It was why I was sent to meet with him instead of my father. Because my dad would have killed him already.
“How are your parents?” Chase asked, ignoring my statement. “I’m actually surprised it’s you here and not your dad. Although, if he brought your mom—”
“Careful,” I bit out.
Chase’s grin grew. “Anyway, let’s get down to business because like you, I have better things to do.” His gaze flicked to Luna’s before giving me a small smirk.
Luna shifted beside me.
I reached under the table and grabbed her hand. She stopped moving, finally relaxing beside me which then caused me to do the same.
I still had to play it cool. Especially where her father was involved. I was man enough to admit it, Vincent Stone Senior scared the shit out of me.
“My father said you were looking at selling the building near Central Park.” I took a sip of my water. “You already told the residents, so I don’t have to do your dirty work.” I sat back, placing the glass on the table. “I’ve also been told that your own father is adamant on you not selling the building. Or any of the buildings for that matter.”
Chase’s jaw clenched. He sat back in his chair, running his fingers along the dark scruff on his jaw. It was funny in a way. Although we looked nothing alike, we were similar in the way we worked. But I would never throw anyone under the bus to get to the top. Not unless it came to bulldozing through someone like him. Then, I would have no issues doing it.
“My father left me in charge of the company after he became sick.” Chase sat forward, his dark brows narrowing in the center. “So, I highly suggest leaving him the fuck out of it.”
I bit back a chuckle, knowing I had struck a nerve. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his father. I also didn’t like how both of them tried to undermine my own father by bribing the owner of a hotel to sell the building to them and not my dad. It was a ruthless business, but these people didn’t have to resort to that shit.
The waiter took that moment to come over. “Good evening. I’m Jacob,” the young man smiled. “I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Can I start you off with some drinks?”
“I’ll have a glass of your best red,” Chase said, not taking his gaze off of mine.
“What would you like, Luna?” I asked her, brushing my thumb over her pulse point.
Her breath caught. “I’m fine with just water,” she said. “Thank you.”
The waiter nodded, looking my way. “And you, Sir?”
“Water is fine as well.” I would have a drink later. I was already on the verge of saying whatever was on my mind. Alcohol would only make it worse. I didn’t need that to happen. I had to close this deal.
The waiter nodded again and headed to the bar to put the order in.
“Alright, Zach.” Chase crossed his arms over his chest. “Care to tell me what that shit was about? If your father were here, he wouldn’t resort to pissing me off.”
I shrugged. “My father isn’t here, now is he? Just like yours isn’t either. We’re doing this our way. Without them. So, are you wanting to sell the building or not?”
Watching Zach in action was hot as hell. His demeanor was something I had never seen before. I knew that he was a powerful businessman due to his dad teaching him everything he knew but that was it. I had never seen his performance.
Zach’s jaw was set, his hand never left mine and his words flowed. By the time he was finished, Chase had buckled and sold the building to him.
“You’re a stubborn fucker,” Chase mumbled, throwing his napkin on top of his plate.
Zach shrugged. “I come by it honestly.” He gave my hand a squeeze.
Chase chuckled, running a hand through his dark hair that was short on the sides and a little longer on top. “Only one man has ever made me cave that quickly and he’s dead.”
I shivered at the thought.
Zach rolled his eyes. “He’s referring to his grandfather,” he told me. “So dramatic, Chase.”
Chase’s laugh deepened. “It worked.” He nodded my way. “It made her squirm.”
“It seems that Zach made you squirm as well,” I threw back at him. “Or else you wouldn’t have signed over the building to him in less than ten minutes. Next time, I should keep time. See if Zach can crack you sooner.”
Chase’s mouth fell.
Zach only grinned.
“Well this has been fun.” Chase stood, stuck his hand out and waited.
Zach rose to his feet, returning the handshake. “Until next time.”
Chase grunted and left the restaurant.
“He didn’t even offer to pay,” I said, watching him leave before turning back to Zach.
“I’m not surprised.” Zach finished off his water when the waiter returned.
He smiled down at us. “Would you like dessert?”
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