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By Zara Cox
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- ebook (Digital original) $4.99 $6.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 14, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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My father has hated me since the day I was born. The feeling was mutual. In the shady underworld that was my legacy, Cleo McCarthy became my light. She was beautiful, passionate, and my whole world. So naturally my father had to destroy us. First he sent me away. Next he claimed Cleo as his own. But now I’ve returned, and nothing will stop me from taking back everything that is rightfully mine.
He was the love of my life – when my life was still my own.
We were young enough to believe we would last forever, Axel and I. But neither of us realized how cruel life – and our families – could be. Now I’m trapped in a gilded cage: desired by Axel, who must never know the full truth, and controlled by his father, who would sooner see me dead than free. And I wouldn’t even care, except that it’s no longer only my life at stake.
Even way back then, I despised the term. There was nothing childlike about what I felt for her. Even less was the implied sweetness of our connection. But we let them smile and label us as they pleased. All the while knowing and relishing our truth. She was pure sin, and I was the devil intent on gorging myself on her iniquities.
I lived for it. For her. The sexy, hint-of-sandpaper voice that could bring me to my knees. The limpid blue eyes that paralyzed me. The killer curves that made me want to kill every other boy or man who dared to look at her sixteen-year-old body.
At nineteen, I was fully cognizant of my obsession, was aware that it was a live grenade destined to blow me apart one day. But I was ready to die the first time I looked into her eyes. As long as I died in her arms.
I should have known my end was near the day she called me by her special name.
She called me that the day I took her virginity beneath the stars on the beach of our families' adjoining Connecticut properties.
My Romeo. As if she knew we were doomed. Perhaps she knew I was. Perhaps she'd known of the plan all along. Or she hatched it the day my father enrolled me at West Point. The day he embraced his grand and greedy plan to fatten his bank balance from war instead of just from common mafia mongering.
The irony was that I was the only fool in the piece. I may have accepted my role as Romeo, but her name wasn't Juliet.
No, the devil's siren went by the name of Cleopatra McCarthy.
And when it came right down to it, Cleopatra McCarthy was only too happy to watch me burn in the flames of my obsession. Happy to watch me die.
Childhood sweethearts. Fuck that.
Whatever we felt for each other was as old as dirt, filthy as sin. What I feel for her now is…too fucked up to name.
So now I watch her. She watches me.
Strangers. Enemies. Our hate sparks between us like forked lightning. Bitter, twisted. Alive.
There may be a wide dance floor between us and the sound of jazz funk blaring through the speakers inside the walls of XYNYC, my New York nightclub, but we may as well be cocooned in a little bubble of our own, merrily breathing in the fumes of our hate.
Eight years is a long time to drip-feed yourself poisonous might-have-beens. But I'm more than comfortable in my role of rabid obsessor.
I lean back, elbows on the bar, ignoring all around me except the woman tucked away in my roped-off VIP lounge. The elevated lounges offer a clear view without obstruction. The short black dress clings to her hips and upper thighs leaving her legs bare, the halter neckline and her caught-up hair displaying lightly tanned shoulders and arms.
The glass of vintage Dom Pérignon champagne in her hand hasn't been touched. Not a single inch of her voluptuous body has moved in time to the music, even though music is…was a great love, once upon a time. Even after all these years, I retain residual resentment that I had to share her with Axl Rose and Dave Grohl, watch her body twist in ecstasy that wasn't induced by me.
A waiter offers her a platter of food. She shakes her head and takes a step toward the black velvet rope that blocks the lounge. My bouncer steps in front of her.
She glares at him.
Without glancing my way, she reaches into her tiny purse for her phone. She sets her glass down, and her fingers fly over the screen.
My own phone buzzes in my pocket. I'm not surprised she has my number. Any member of my family could have obtained it by illegal means and given it to her. I take a beat before I pull it out and read the message. "I've been coming here almost every night for two weeks. You have to talk to me sometime."
I glance up, make her wait for a full minute before I reply. "Do I?"
Her nostrils flare lightly. "He wants an answer."
My mouth twists, and I swear the impossible happens, and I hate her even more than I did one second ago. "What are you now, his messenger?"
Her gaze flicks up to me before she shrugs, her bare, slender shoulder gleaming under the pulsing lights. "You've ignored all his emails and your brothers' calls."
"They're spineless assholes."
"Are you going to talk to me?"
"Then why keep me here?"
"I told you the terms of admittance. You come of your own free will; you don't get to leave until the club closes. That's in two hours."
"This is ridiculous, Axel."
My stomach knots just from seeing her type my name. "Then don't come again."
She looks up. Our eyes meet across the dance floor. Her hatred washes over me in filthy waves. I want to roll around in it. She holds my stare defiantly for a minute before she lowers her head to her phone again.
"It's not that simple. Please hear me out."
Again my stomach clenches, but this time it's accompanied by a crude little jerk in my pants that grabs my attention. "Please? You begging now?"
Annoyance flickers across her features. Her thumb hovers over the screen for the longest time. Then my phone buzzes. "Yes."
I didn't expect that. The Cleo I knew never begged unless it was to plead for my cock inside her. My mind circles around why she would do so now, and my erection hardens. A few crazed seconds later, I decide it's safer for my sanity not to know, and I settle back into sublime hate. "Too bad the first time I hear you beg has to be via text. Answer's still no."
"Axel, this is important. Let bygones be bygones and hear me out. It won't be more than five minutes. Please."
I'm doubly pissed off that I can't hear her say that word. I've waited a long fucking time to hear it. I'm even angrier that I can't cross the distance between us to ask her to repeat it. I put everything into the two words I text to her. "Fuck bygones."
It may be a trick of the light, but I swear she feels my new level of rage. Her lips part in an inaudible gasp as she reads my reply.
Turning away, she stalks to the private bar in the lounge. The waiter nods when she murmurs to him. He slides a shot glass across the counter and reaches for the premium tequila sitting on the shelf behind him. He pours. She picks it up and raises the glass to me before she downs it in one go.
I stride to the edge of the dance floor, hating myself for being concerned about the consequences of what she's doing. Then I remind myself that it's been years since I witnessed Lightweight Cleo topple over after one shot of tequila.
All the same I watch her, narrow eyed, as she downs another shot before heading for one of the velvet booth seats. There is the tiniest weave in her walk, and I have to clench every single muscle to stop myself from charging across the space between us.
The simple, undeniable truth is I can't.
Because of Cleopatra McCarthy, my life exploded in a billion little pieces. Pieces I didn't bother to put back again because I knew the exercise would be futile.
So for over eight years, I've lived with this new, permanently-altered-for-the-worse version of myself. A version I'm not in a hurry to reassess or remodel. A version that keeps me steeped in the obsidian fury that fuels my existence.
I stay on my side of the divide because to come within touching distance of her is to succumb to the carnage raging inside me. After all this time, I should have enough of a hold on myself to smother the compulsion.
I don't. If I did, I would've stopped her from stepping foot inside my club the first time she turned up.
But even worse than the control I sorely lack is the fact that I'm a glutton for punishment. Hell, it's the reason I run the highly successful and exclusive Punishment Club. In the handful of years it's been open, I've made over twenty million dollars in membership fees alone. Who the fuck knew there were crazies out there like me seeking to be exposed to the very thing they hate the most?
I derive a little perverse satisfaction from the fact that I'm granting them an outlet, even while I'm unable to find one for myself. I accepted my fate a long time ago. What haunts me can only be cured one way—by the moment I stop breathing.
"Macallan. Triple. Neat."
I reel back my thoughts and turn at the sound of the deep, raspy voice.
He's not exactly a friend but there's mutual respect and acceptance of the otherworldliness inhabiting our blackened souls. It's what drew us to each other when we were placed in the same group for a brief time at West Point. Although Quinn never served, we kept in touch and ended up owning several nightclubs together, XYNYC being one of them.
Like me, he doesn't need the income. Like me, this place is one of many outlets for the demons that haunt him.
I make sure Cleo is still seated and return to the bar.
I watch Quinn knock back a large drink in one ruthless gulp. "You know there's a better blend in your VIP room, right?"
He slams the glass on the counter with barely suppressed violence. "Too far," he replies.
We're roughly the same height so, when he shoots me a glance, I'm well positioned to see the hounds of hell chasing through the jagged landscapes of his eyes. I don't flinch. I welcome the horde like kindred spirits. Our souls have endured more than enough to last us several lifetimes, and we both know it. "That bad, huh?"
His jaw clenches as he takes a breath. "Worse."
"Need any help?"
A dark shadow moves over his face, and he shakes his head. "It's done. I have what I need."
I don't press him for more information. Ours is not that kind of relationship.
I catch movement from my lounge, and my gaze zeroes in on my nemesis. She's risen from the sofa and leaning against the railing once more, the untouched glass of champagne again in one hand. The bodyguards are once more alert, and a few of my errant brain synapses attempt to be amused by the glare she sends their way. "If you need anything else, let me know," I say absently, unable to take my eyes off the woman whose presence looms as large as the Sphinx before me.
I sense Quinn following my gaze, then returning to me. "Looks like you have a situation of your own that needs taken care of."
"Yeah." My voice feels as rough as it sounds. "Fucking tell me about it."
He doesn't nod or smile. Quinn Blackwood rarely smiles. But then, neither do I. Another thing we have in common. "Anything I can do, let me know," he says.
No one can help me with this. "Thanks," I say anyway.
He asks questions that bounce off the edge of my consciousness.
I shrug. I nod. I respond. But throughout, my senses are attuned to the other side of the room.
I barely register him stalking away. I click my fingers, and Cici, one of my waitresses, sidles up to me. I relay instructions, and she leaves, but not before she smiles in a way that ramps up my irritation.
I can't think about that now. I have more than enough to deal with tonight.
Four lounges from Cleo's, Vardan Petrosyan, the New York head of the Armenian mob, is downing expensive vodka like there's a drought coming. His unsavory presence sticks in my gut like a rusty blade, but since he's one of the many devils I've struck a deal with, I have to tolerate his presence for as long as necessary.
He's been here going on two hours. I've ignored him for most of that time. Any longer and I risk pissing him off.
Men like Petrosyan demand fear where they can't achieve respect. I feel neither, and he knows it, but he's also aware I need him more than he needs me right now. So we both pretend I feel the latter.
I make my way to where he sits with his entourage. His minders stand in my way for the extra second it takes to make their point before they step aside.
The mob boss has a tall, slim blonde perched on each thigh. They both glance at me as I approach. I ignore them and focus on the short, stocky man with boxy features.
When he finally removes his wandering lips from one of the women's cleavage, Petrosyan stares at me with dead black eyes, a cold smile sliding across his face. "I was beginning to think you forget about me," he tells me in broken, heavily accented English.
"I wanted to catch you when you were feeling soft and mellow," I reply.
He barks out a laugh. "Nadiya, he thinks I'm soft and mellow. Do you think I'm soft and mellow?"
The blonde on his left immediately shakes her head.
"Feel free to check; let's make sure, ya?" he encourages.
She happily obliges by groping him brazenly. "No, Vardan, you are hard…everywhere."
He chuckles, his eyes a touch colder. "You see, my man, you waste both our time."
I take a breath and force a deferential nod. "My apologies. Do you have everything you need?"
He stares at me for several seconds. "No, not everything. But it is nothing that a little…negotiation cannot satisfy, eh?"
I've been expecting this—the obligatory extortion that happens every few months. Normally, I head it off by stating a few facts and figures, namely that I'm paying almost double market value for the service Petrosyan is providing me. This time, I don't.
Cleo's persistent visits are evidence that my plan is working. The fracturing Rutherford kingdom is developing even more cracks. And I'm willing to pay dearly for that.
"What do you want, Petrosyan?"
His expression doesn't change, but sensing a victory, he immediately turfs the girls off his lap. Once they've drifted off, he stands, adjusts his shiny suit, and rises up on the balls of his feet. But nothing can disguise the fact that I'm a foot taller than him.
"I want for you to tell me what you're doing with all the product you buy from me, for start. It's not ending up on the street or in clubs, I know that for fact," he says.
"And like I told you when we started this…partnership, it's none of your business." Although I owe him no explanation, I don't relish the idea of telling the mobster that every ounce of heroin I've procured from him for the last two years has been flushed down the toilet. That this isn't about taking over my father's business to make money for myself but to ensure the Rutherfords have zero business by the time I'm done with them. And if by doing so, I help take a few hundred kilos of drugs off the street…I mentally shrug.
Petrosyan's jaw flexes, but he nods. "Okay, then let's talk our business. Economy is in toilet. I need to raise prices—"
"Two hundred thousand a month. Fifty thousand dollars more for the same deal."
He looks off to the side, pulls on his cuffs, and then his fish eyes dart back to me. "I am thinking a cool quarter million has nice ring to it, no?"
"Fine. Deal. Are we done?"
Surprise livens his eyes for a few seconds before his gaze turns speculative. "You must really want to…how you say, shank it to my former business partner, hmm?"
"Yes, I must really want to stick it to him."
The turn of phrase baffles him for a second then he gives up in favor of confirming that I've really folded and given him a one-hundred-thousand-dollar price hike after a two-minute negotiation.
Now that he's satisfied, I turn to leave.
"I would sleep with gun under my pillow if I had someone like you for enemy," he states.
I look over my shoulder. He's watching me carefully. Trying to read the unreadable. "Then it's a good thing we're friends, isn't it? And you do sleep with a gun under your pillow."
He laughs. "Well, for you, I would make it two guns."
"You keep your end of the bargain, and you will never need to."
He catches the warning in my voice, and the laughter fades. "You keep up payments, and we won't have problem." He clicks his fingers for his girls.
Our battle lines redrawn, I return to the bar in time to spot Cleo raising a nearly empty champagne glass to her lips. My jaw clenches. Added to the two shots of tequila, I'm uncertain what the result will be. So I sharpen my focus with an even more vicious blade. Everything falls away as I saturate myself with her presence.
Every breath. Every blink.
I catch the moment her hips sway, ever so slightly, to the throbbing rock anthem.
The move resonates through me like the cuts of memory's blade. In an instant, I'm thrown back to the bedroom in the pool house I claimed the day I turned eighteen. It was the single thing I requested when my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. The need to distance myself from my father had grown into a visceral, unbearable ache. My mother saw it. She granted my request, despite my father's firm refusal. It was most likely what earned her the black eye two days later.
I don't know because I didn't ask. It would've been useless to do so anyway. She would've lied. And I was too selfish, too thankful for the mercy of not having to live under the same roof as my father, to rock the boat.
So I claimed my tiny piece of heaven in hell. And it was there that Cleo danced for me for the first time. Where we celebrated a lot of firsts.
That particular memory flames through the charred pits of my mind. I don't fight it. Like the fleeting moments of pleasure and pain, it will be gone in an instant, devoured by the putrefying cancer that lives within me.
Sure enough, it's gone from one heartbeat to the next, and I'm left with rotting remnants of what once was.
"All taken care of, boss."
I snap my head to the side. Cici's standing next to me. Her gaze slides over me from head to toe before it settles on my face. She's wearing that special do me smile she's worn since she started working here six weeks ago. I made the mistake of fucking her as part of her interview process. I shouldn't have. I could pardon myself by making the excuse that her presence in my office that day coincided with the first call in three years from Ronan, my oldest brother.
Ronan. Daddy's boy through and through, right down to the pansy-assed ring on his left pinkie.
Like one hundred percent of our interactions, that call hadn't gone well. So I needed an outlet. It was either a fist through a wall or my cock in a pussy. I chose pussy. I refuse to make excuses for that choice. Because what's the point of having a black soul, of making choices that leave your hands permanently soiled in evil, if you don't fucking own it? But I do admit to a modicum of regret. She's not the first employee I've fucked, but usually I'm a little more circumspect with my choices. My blinding rage prevented me from seeing that ill-disguised, you-fuck-me-I-own-you light in Cici's eyes until it was too late.
Now, irritatingly, ever since our one encounter, the ever-growing stench of possessiveness clings to her every time she's in my presence.
She sidles closer now. "Is there anything else you need?" she says in a low, intimate voice. "I couldn't help but notice that both you and your friend are wound up tighter than a drum tonight. I…I can help relieve your stress…if you want?"
In the next minute, she'll find an excuse to touch me. I'm slammed with the smell of cheap perfume and shameless arousal. Because my senses are wide open and raw, I take a deeper hit than I normally would. Which makes me direct more anger at her than I know is warranted.
"Yes, boss?" she responds with a breathy eagerness.
"Fuck off and do your job," I snarl.
She recoils with shame and turns red-faced toward the bar.
"Jesus, twice in one night. You'd think I have a disease or something," she mutters under her breath as she busies herself collecting a drinks order from the bartender.
I feel no remorse when she walks away in a huff. I don't give a shit what's got her ass in a vise or who else she's hit on tonight. Under normal circumstances, her feelings matter very little to me. Tonight, I care even less.
When she moves away, I exhale and glance at my watch. On Tuesday nights, the club shuts at three a.m. It's almost one. Two more hours to go.
I brace myself before I raise my head.
It does absolutely nothing to buffer the potency of Cleo's stare or the effect of the evil little smile I see playing at her lips when our eyes hook into each other.
She's under my skin, where she's lived for seventeen years. And she knows it.
Fifth Harmony's "Work" blasts from the speakers. The hard beat and dirty lyrics produce a lusty sway of her hips. The look in her eyes and the movement of her body are almost dichotomous. Her eyes tell me she hates me. Her body beckons me with the promise of transcendental lust.
I should retreat to my office where I can watch her from the relative safety of security cameras. Or walk the other upper and lower floors, greet a few VIPs who would love a personal acknowledgement from me.
I stay put and nod tersely at a few regulars who are brave enough to breach the no-fly zone around me. When my bartender slides a glass of Scotch to me, I pick it up and down it.
Cleo and I play the staring game until she reaches for her phone once more. She toys with it for a beat before her slender fingers fly over it.
My blood thrums harder as I take my phone out and read her message.
"Stop this, Axel. Be a man. Come over here and talk to me."
My cheek twitches in an imitation of a smile. "You're not senile, I hope, so you wouldn't have forgotten that I don't rise to dares. Or taunts."
"Dammit. What do I have to do?"
Those six little words send all the blood fleeing from my heart. It turns harder than stone, and my vision blurs for several seconds. I cannot believe her gall. "You're eight years too late with that question, sweetheart."
Her head snaps up. She's breathing hard. She shakes her head. I'm not sure if it's denial, disbelief or a plea. It's probably none of those things. It wouldn't be the first time I've attributed a benign sentiment to her actions only to be shown the true depths of her traitorous heart.
My phone buzzes again. This time there's a single word on my screen.
A whispered caress. An entreaty. A demand.
It's a thousand other things. All wrapped in sugared poison. I push away from the counter, despising the knots in my stomach and the steel in my cock. I feel her gaze on my back as I stalk through the door next to bar that leads to my office.
Shot after shot of adrenaline spikes through my bloodstream until dark, volatile sensation drenches me to my fingertips. My office door slams behind me, and I throw the bolt, as if locking myself in will prevent my growing insanity.
Already I want to tear the door off its hinges and rush back to the bar. I force my feet the other way and throw myself into my chair. High on the wall, the screens reflect the various areas of the club. My eyes zero in on her. I don't even fool myself into thinking that she's as defenseless as she looks. Her skin may look satin smooth, but it's coated with steel armor.
Deliberately, I shut off the feed to that camera and activate my phone. As I type, I silently urge her to accept my words.
"You're free to leave. Take me seriously and Do. Not. Come. Back."
As I power off my phone, the full extent of my weakness cannons through me. I don't want her to come back, and I don't want to hear her out for one reason alone.
She's here because of my father.
She's here on behalf of the man I hate more than anything else in the world. The man who made sure that, at nineteen, I would never have the option of redemption as long as I lived.
For a few years, I thought he would be satisfied with helping the devil stain my soul. But no. He's still after me. He's used his sentries in the form of my brothers, and now he's pulling out the big guns. I give him kudos for sending Cleo. With each visit, I've felt my edges crumbling away.
Despite everything I feel for her, I've tortured myself with the urge to give in. To hear that voice up close and personal. To smell her. Touch her.
Is her skin still the softest satin I've relived in my dreams?
I crave all of it even when I know it will be the last straw once she speaks the words she's been sent to deliver.
The Rutherfords and the McCarthys.
Once unlikely allies turned bitter enemies. Two dynastic families with feet firmly entrenched in underground crime. Drugs. Girls. Racketeering. Extortion.
Between the two of us, we changed the course of our families' destinies. And I intend to change it even more. I intend to annihilate the Rutherford name until there's nothing left.
In a family of cold-hearted black sheep, I, Axel Rutherford, am the blackest. Abundantly despised by my three brothers, actively hated by my father.
- On Sale
- Mar 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages