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Less and Less You
I was wiped.
Even so, I was still heading up the walk to my brother’s ex’s house at seven o’clock in the morning regardless if I drove away from Smithie’s after dancing at his club only four hours before.
This was because Angelica called me, sharing she had another migraine, and she needed me to help her get the kids to school.
My brother’s kids.
My niece and nephew.
And Angelica did not call on my brother Brian because she knew he was probably passed out so drunk, if she could wrangle miracles and was able to wake him, he’d come over and still be hammered.
So she called on me.
I made the door, knocked, but knew the drill.
It’d be open.
The knock was just a formality.
I pushed in and saw immediately that Angelica had not changed her ways in the two days since I’d been there to get the kids and take them to my place to hang because her back was spasming.
Although the house wasn’t filthy, it also wasn’t tidy.
There was kid stuff everywhere. Toys and markers and such. A basket of laundry was on the couch that I couldn’t tell if it was clean, and needed to be folded and put away, or dirty and needed to be washed. A wasted chip bag that, considering nutrition wasn’t high on her priority list for her or her children, it was a toss-up if it was left behind on that end table by Angelica, or one of the kids. Same with a can of Coke.
Even not filthy, the carpet seriously needed to be vacuumed.
“Auntie Rynnie!” I heard a little boy’s voice yell.
I turned my eyes to the opening of the kitchen and saw my six-year-old, dark-haired, blue-eyed nephew Jethro standing there.
I mean, serious.
From birth to now, that kid was adorbs.
And I loved him with everything that was me.
Or half of that.
I loved his sister with the other half.
I smiled at him even as I put my finger to my lips and whispered, “Shh.”
His entire face ticked, the exuberance washing clean out of it, and my heart lurched seeing it.
My two babies’ lives were all about walking on eggshells.
With Daddy and his hangovers, if they ever spent time with him, which was rare, but even so, he didn’t stop drinking through it.
With Mommy and her migraines, her bad back, her bum knee, her creaky hips, if they ever spent any time with her, which wasn’t as rare, but they were off to Auntie Ryn’s place, or one of their grandmas, and they were this often, because Mommy needed peace and quiet and rest.
Sure, it takes a village.
And I was so down with being part of that village for Jethro and his older sister, Portia.
But bottom line, a kid needed to be able to count on their parents.
At least one of them.
I moved to him, asking quietly, “Have you had your bath, baby?”
“Last night,” he whispered.
I put my hand on his thick hair, bent to kiss his upturned forehead, and as I straightened, I looked left.
My curly-blonde-haired, also blue-eyed Portia was at the table, eating a massive bowl of Cap’n Crunch.
I loved Cap’n Crunch.
I could make a pretty convincing argument that Cap’n Crunch was a major component of the meaning of life.
What I did not love was my seven-year-old niece horking down a huge bowl of sugary crunches that had no nutritional value, she’d burn it off in approximately fifteen minutes and then crash.
Another decimated bowl was beside Portia’s, kibbles of cereal and smears of milk all around the bowl on the table.
I said not a word because I knew Portia poured those bowls for her brother and herself. She “made” breakfast, seven-year-old-style, and did the best she could.
“Hey, honey,” I called.
She had milk on her chin when she looked up at me and replied, “Hey, Auntie Ryn.”
I smiled at her and then looked down at Jethro.
“Right, want your face cleaned up, bucko. Anything you need to take to school today?”
He looked like he was concentrating, hard, to remember if he was supposed to take anything to school.
Then again, it wasn’t his job to keep track of that. Not yet.
“I’ll poke my head in and ask your mom,” I told him.
“She needs quiet.” Having been reminded of this fact by me, he was still whispering.
But at his words, Portia made a noise like a snort.
A disgusted one.
A lot like the sound I was making in my head.
Though I didn’t want Portia having this reaction about her mom, I had to admit, my niece had been displaying signs of impatience that were about twenty years older than she was, and she’d been doing this for a while now.
I ignored her and said to Jethro, “I’ll be real quiet when I ask her. Now go wash your face. And your hands.”
He nodded and ran off, so I looked to Portia.
“After you’re done, honey, you too with the washup. Do you need to take anything to school?”
She nodded. “Yeah. But my book bag is ready.”
I hated to ask what I next had to ask because I had been that kind of sister to my brother when I was seven.
Keeping track of him.
Keeping track of me.
“Do you, uh…know about your brother?”
She shoved more cereal in her mouth and said in a garbled way I still could decipher before chewing it, “Show and tell day today. I put something in his bag. He’ll figure it out.”
“Chew and swallow, Portia,” I urged carefully, not her mother, but needing to be motherly, which pissed me off because I wanted to be Fun Auntie Rynnie, not Fuddy Duddy Aunt Kathryn. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
She looked down at her bowl and her cheeks got pink.
Fuddy Duddy Aunt Kathryn sucked.
I moved to the table and started to clean up Jethro’s breakfast.
“You should make Mom do that, you know,” Portia said.
“When she beats this headache, we’ll just give her a little break,” I replied.
“Yeah, another one,” she mumbled, dropped her spoon in her still half-filled bowl and jumped off the chair she was using, having been sitting on her knees.
She took the bowl to the sink and dumped it in.
“I’ll finish that. We need to get sorted and go,” I told her.
“’Kay,” she muttered, and didn’t look at me when she walked by.
I stopped her retreat, asking, “Did your mom get lunches packed?”
She turned, looked me right in the eyes and asked, “You’re kidding, right?”
And demonstrating a frustrated maturity that I was not a big fan of the fact that she was forced to be developing.
“We’ll make lunches in a sec,” I said.
She had no response to that. She just took off.
I rinsed the bowls, put them in the dishwasher, wiped down the table, put away the cereal and milk and then moved out to find and check their book bags.
When it seemed all was set, I finished my inspection by zipping up Portia’s bag and moved down the hall, hearing the kids talking low and quiet in the bathroom.
I knocked on Angelica’s door softly then opened it to stick my head in, seeing complete dark and a lump on the bed under covers.
“Hey, I’m here, got the kids,” I called.
The lump moved. “Heard. Um, can you come in a second?”
I slid in and closed the door behind me.
Angelica didn’t turn on a light, but in the shadows, I saw her push up to an elbow.
“Listen, Jethro’s got some end-of-year field trip he’s going on and they need fifty bucks plus whatever money he’ll need for lunch, which they say will cost fifteen to twenty dollars.”
Fifteen to twenty dollars for lunch for a first grader?
I did not get those words out of my mouth before Angelica went on, “Brian’s fucked me over for support again and things are tight this month. I’m already gonna hafta ask Mom to pay cable and electricity. But I don’t wanna have to tell Jethro he can’t go.”
She didn’t even hesitate anymore. Didn’t lead into it.
No longer did I get a, “I hate to say this,” or “This sucks I gotta ask.”
Just, “I don’t wanna have to tell Jethro he can’t go.”
Well, if you got a job and maybe cut the premium package on your cable, even if my brother is a deadbeat, you might be able to cover some of your bills and take care of your children, I did not say.
What I said was, “I’ll leave some money on the table.”
I said this a lot.
It was closing in on the end of May and I’d already given her three hundred and seventy-five dollars this month.
Last month, it had been over five hundred.
And next month, with the way the kids were growing, summer having already hit Denver, they’d need new clothes. And Angelica worried they’d be teased or bullied if they didn’t have the good stuff, so I could plan on a plea to have a “Day with Auntie Ryn” which included taking them shopping. With the added asks that were sure to come, I’d probably be laying out at least a grand.
“Thanks,” she muttered, the lump in bed shifted, and that was it.
I stood there a second, staring at her before I turned and left, clicking the door shut behind me.
I’d conditioned her.
Like I’d done with my brother.
When I started to get niggles of concern when there wasn’t a get-together we had where he didn’t get obnoxiously drunk, I should have said something.
And then it wasn’t even get-togethers, just anytime I saw him, he’d be drinking, clearly on his way to being obnoxiously drunk, before he became that. Thinking he was funny. Or cute. Or waxing poetic about shit where he thought he was stunning all of us with his brilliance, when he barely made sense.
I should have said something then too.
I should have said, “Hey, Brian, go easy.”
Or, “Hey, Brian, what in the hell-blazin’ fuck? Honest to God, do you have to be fucked up all the time?”
I did not do this.
Like I did not tell Angelica maybe I didn’t want to be a stripper for the rest of my life. Maybe I didn’t want to need to have cash on hand to lay on her, or Brian when he came up short for the month, to help them take care of their own children. I didn’t want to feel like I had to be careful with my time so I could be free—again, to help them take care of their own children.
I wanted to flip houses.
I wanted in on that from start to finish.
From finding a great pad, seeing the bones, dreaming what I could make it, negotiating a killer deal, then diving in from demo to design, and then negotiating another deal.
That’s what I wanted.
I had a house.
A year ago, I’d driven by the perfect one, for sale by owner. Even in Denver’s OTT real estate market, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. I’d been saving for my own place, so I went for it, and with the shape that house was in, I got it for a steal.
I started demo of the inside.
And now it had been sitting untouched for ten months because I didn’t have the money—because I kept giving mine away—or the time—because I kept saying yes to Angelica when she needed me.
And my pride (yeah, I’ll admit it) would not allow me to ask for help.
And my courage (yeah, I’ll admit that too) wasn’t up to the task of telling her, and Brian, to sort their shit out.
So now I was paying a mortgage on a house that was sitting there, rotting.
And I was still in a rental, helping my brother pay his mortgage, and his ex-partner pay his old mortgage.
It was my own damned fault.
All of it.
But when I walked down the hall to the kitchen and saw Portia helping Jethro make PB&Js for their lunch, all those curls, dark (like Angelica) and light (like Brian), it was hard to debate I’d made the wrong choice.
I looked and saw thin, little baggies filled to the brim with potato chips as accompaniment for the PB&Js and I fought back a wince because first, I agreed with my friend Evie that baggies should be outlawed, due to choking dolphins, or destroying the ozone layer, or some shit that I didn’t really care what it was, none of it was good. And I kinda wanted my niece and nephew to inherit a decent world (not to mention, the kids I’d eventually have, maybe, one day, if I ever encountered a decent man). And second, the only thing that held merit in that lunch was kinda the peanut butter.
“How about we get you two some carrot sticks to go with that?” I suggested.
“Euw!” Jethro protested.
“Really?” Portia asked sarcastically over him. “We don’t have carrot sticks. We don’t have anything. This is the last of the bread and chips.”
“Mom’ll get us chips today, she sees we’re out,” Jethro declared.
No judge (okay, warning, there was about to be a judge), but I knew that was the truth.
Angelica put on twenty pounds with Portia, and I thought she looked cute, all new-mom curves.
Jethro was a surprise and came close on Portia’s heels, definitely before Angelica had the time to lose her baby weight should she have wanted to do that. But with Jethro, she put on twenty more.
Now I’d guess she’d added another fifty.
It wasn’t my bag, telling people what to do with their lives, what to put in their mouths, how to handle their bodies.
Be curvy and sassy, if that floated your boat.
Teaching your children that hanging in front of the TV was a major way to pass your time and having chips in the house was more important than getting them properly fueled and off to school, uh…
Thus, there I was.
Three hours of sleep, mentioning carrot sticks and being sure to get the kids off to school, because someone had to make them understand there were people in their lives who gave a shit.
We stowed the lunches in their bags, hustled out into my car and took off.
I watched too many true crime programs to sit in my vehicle, let them out and watch them walk up to their school.
Predators were crafty.
I was one of those get-your-ass-out, walk-the-kid-in, make-eye-contact-with-an-adult, then-force-kisses-on-them before you let them go kind of school dropper.
And the teacher I made eye contact with smiled at me, probably because she’d seen me, or my mom, or Angelica’s mom, more than she ever saw Angelica.
I didn’t hang around, though.
I was dancing that night again, so I needed to get home and hit the sack, because stripping was a way to earn major cash. But strippers with shadows under their eyes who were too fatigued to pull off any good moves were just sad.
In other words, I needed to get home.
I had my phone out to text Angelica that the kids were safe at school, something I’d do sitting in my car because people who walked and texted drove me batty, when I noticed a mom who was also a walk-her-kid-in kind of mom nearly run into a column.
She was not texting.
She had her head turned.
I looked where she was looking.
And saw Boone Sadler. He was my friend Lottie’s boy, her man Mo’s bud, and an uncomfortable acquaintance of mine.
He was leaning against the passenger side of his gleaming black Charger, arms crossed on his broad chest, long, sturdy legs crossed at the ankles.
What the hell?
He had shades on, aviators, the sun was glinting in his dark blond hair, his skin was tanned, his biceps were bulging, and where I was at in my head and in my exhaustion, the weakness nearly couldn’t be beat.
I wanted to sink to my knees and beg him to make me his any way he wanted to do that.
Here’s the deal:
My dad was deadbeat too.
And I was Portia, plus twenty-two years.
The big sister who (a change to Portia’s plight) saw my mom busting her ass to take care of her kids. So I got to a point where I helped with dinner, and the dishes. Then I made dinner and did the dishes. I also did my own laundry starting at age eight, and my brother’s.
Making grocery lists.
And when I could drive, going out and getting groceries.
Mom hated it that I did it, but she needed the help.
I didn’t bitch, because I loved her, and I knew she needed it.
But I’d been on the ball, or learning how to be on it, since I was six.
Now, I did not research this stuff, maybe because I didn’t want to know, maybe because it didn’t really matter.
But if you asked me, if I wasn’t just plain ole born this way, I’d reckon that I needed a man to take care of business in that way because I was so…fucking…done with having a handle on every aspect of my life, my brother’s, and now Angelica’s and the kids’, I needed to give over.
Boiling this down, I was a sub, as in submissive, this being of the BDSM variety.
And Boone Sadler was a Dom, as in a Dominant, of that same variety.
He was also the guy my friend Lottie tried to fix me up with months ago.
Lottie had her shit together. Lottie had lived life and she knew how to read people.
Case in point, when she met her fiancé Mo, they knew each other maybe a few hours before she knew he was the one.
Second case in point, she set up Evie with Mo’s bud Mag. They were living together within days of meeting (okay, so circumstances were such she had to move in with him, since her apartment had been torn apart, and that wasn’t the beginning of the story, or the end). But they were now officially moved in together, Evie had been able to quit dancing at Smithie’s, she’d gone full-time at her preferred job as a computer tech and was finally going back to college with an aim to finish it and earn her engineering degree.
Why I couldn’t go there with Boone, I didn’t know.
He was hot, like, mom-walking-into-column-at-the-sight-of-him hot.
He’d shared he was interested, this by asking me out to dinner three times, and also getting up in my shit after a lap dance I gave that he witnessed because he was a guy, a guy who’d asked me out, a guy who was into me, a guy whose job (not a joke) was being a commando.
And last, he was a guy who was a Dom.
As for me, I was into him. I was into him in a way I’d had so many fantasies about him—ranging from the many ways he could order me to take to my knees and suck his cock to snuggling in front of the TV with him after a long day—that I’d lost count of the dizzying varieties these fantasies took on.
But I just couldn’t go there.
Maybe it was that my dad was a deadbeat, but he was also other things, like mentally abusive, serially breaking women’s hearts, when the spirit moved him (which was rare) demanding his fatherly rights (even though he was a deadbeat, which circled back to mentally abusive, and breaking women’s hearts) and generally just an asshole.
And my brother was an alcoholic deadbeat who was either clueless, in denial, or both.
And I’d had two semi-long-term boyfriends, both who, after I shared, didn’t “get” my “kink” and thought I was a loser who wanted to be abused, instead of a submissive, who needed to give over and allow someone to take care of me (or put in the work to try, and get their reward, I was kind of a brat).
Last, I’d had a really shitty Dom who took things too far and once completely ignored me saying my safe word (that had not been fun, in fact, it’d been terrifying when he shoved that scarf into my mouth after tying me up, so I was completely helpless, and not in a good way—exit said Bad Dom from my life).
Me: gun shy.
And Boone had given up, full stop. I knew this because he’d been seeing some other woman now for weeks.
I didn’t blame him.
Though part of me did.
Because honestly, he didn’t try that hard.
And sorry, not sorry, I was a girl who wanted to be won.
Like I said, put in the effort…
Get your reward.
It sucked and for some reason it hurt (a lot, too much, especially when logically, I knew I had no claim on the guy).
But he’d moved on.
So why was he there?
I knew one thing with the way he was right then uncrossing his arms, his shades locked on me, his hand going up, and his finger crooking at me.
No, two things.
One, I was in imminent danger of a highly inappropriate orgasm while standing on the sidewalk to an elementary school.
And two, he was not there playing bodyguard to some rich kid or because his new woman had kids he’d offered to drop off.
He was there for me.
I moved his way and felt a number of greedy eyes following me as I did.
When I got close, he pushed away from his badass car, straightened to his substantial height and tipped his chin down to look at me.
“Hey, what are you—?” I began.
“Your place,” he growled. “Now.”
And then I found myself standing there, blinking at him as he stalked around the hood of his car to the driver’s side.
He’d opened the door, but didn’t angle in, because I was still standing there.
“Now,” he ordered.
Only then did he angle in.
All right, I was going home anyway.
What the hell?
Did he know where I lived?
Apparently, he did, because he made his point I needed to get my ass to my place by making his engine roar (and again, imminent orgasm, mine and probably a dozen other moms’).
I hoofed it to my car, and once inside, glanced quickly at my reflection in the rearview mirror.
I’d pulled a brush through my hair because it wouldn’t do to have semi-slept-on, teased-out stripper hair when taking the kids to school.
But it was still a mass that was mostly a mess of honey-blonde flips and curls.
No makeup, and serious, I was such a makeup freak, even if I was living my dream of knocking down walls to create great rooms and grouting tile, I’d have makeup on.
I always had makeup on.
Gray oversized tee. Black skinny jeans with rips in the knees. Powder Valentino Rockstud slides.
In that moment, I wasn’t my normal edgy Ryn Jansen who (if I did say so myself, which I did) made Kendall Jenner look like a novice at putting together streetwear.
So I felt vulnerable.
But he’d already seen me.
And he was on some mission.
So I might feel vulnerable, but I also had no choice.
I hit my pad which was the bottom quarter of a big house that had been broken up into four apartments in what loosely could still be considered Capitol Hill, on Pearl, a couple blocks south from Colfax.
There were parking spots out back, though I never bothered, because they were always taken by other tenants.
- "Ashley has another success on her hands."—Booklist
- "Series fans will be pleased to return to this high-octane world and check in with familiar faces."—Publishers Weekly
- "The excellent first romance in Ashley's Dream Team series . . . Those who like a dash of sweetness in their suspense will be delighted."—Publishers Weekly on Dream Maker
- "I don't know how Kristen Ashley does it; I just read the damn books and happily get lost in her world."—Frolic on the Dream Man series
- "Kristen Ashley's books are addicting!"—Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author
- "When you pick up an Ashley book, you know you're in for plenty of gut-punching emotion, elaborate family drama and sizzling sex."—RT Book Reviews
- "Any hopeless romantic would devour everything Kristen Ashley has to offer!"—Fresh Fiction
- On Sale
- Dec 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 480 pages