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CUT

DEVIL’S DUE

BOOK ONE


By Tracey Ward


CUT

DEVIL’S DUE

BOOK ONE


By Tracey Ward


Text Copyright © 2017 Tracey Ward

All Rights Reserved


All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author, except as used in book review.


This is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places, events, or incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to places or incidents is purely coincidental.


Prologue

Harlow



We sit Sixteen Candles style on my bed; Josh and I, and a candy bar between us. The crinkly, red wrapper shines in the candlelight like bold fire. Encased inside are sweet and sugary twins laid side by side. One for him. One for me.

“Happy birthday to you,” Josh sings softly, his mouth quirked in a crooked, self-deprecating grin. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to Harlow. Happy birthday to you.”

I press my fingers to my lips, shaking my head in amazement. “Wow. Thank you. That was really something.”

“You’re welcome.”

I drop my hands and the act into my lap. “I’m being sarcastic.”

“No, I know. I can pick up on basic social cues, thanks.”

“You can’t sing, Josh. You remember that, right?”

He chuckles. “I sit here and serenade you with my heart and soul, and that’s the thanks I get?”

I take his hand in mine, squeezing it hard. “If that was your heart and soul, you have a darkness in you that I didn’t know about.”

“You are such a bitch.”

I laugh, releasing him. My palm feels instantly cold. Neglected. “You’ve known me for eighteen years. You don’t get to act surprised by that tonight.”

“How does it feel?” he asks semi-seriously. His tone is light but his eyes are intent on mine, watching for micro-emotions that might flicker across my face without my consent. “Do you feel any different being a legal adult?”

I take a deep breath as I glance around my room. It’s the same cell I’ve been in my whole life, this house my prison since the day I was born. But as of one minute ago when the clock struck midnight, the locks magically dissolved. I could walk out the door right now and there’s nothing my dad can say or do about it.

It’s an impossible idea to understand.

“I feel like I should,” I confess to Josh hesitantly, “but I don’t. Not yet.”

He nods in understanding. “You will. Tomorrow when you leave for good, you’ll feel it.”

My stomach knots, rising into my chest to compress it painfully. “God, I’m so nervous about that.”

“Are you worried about what your dad will do?”

“What can he do?” I ask, honestly wondering. “I’m eighteen. I’m free.”

“But you don’t feel it.”

“No.” I look down at the Twix between us, my fingers toying with the rigid edge of the wrapper. “Or maybe I do and I just don’t know it. I’ve never been free before so how the hell would I know what it feels like?”

“Do you feel relieved?”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

I look up at him expectantly. “What’s that? What’s with the ‘hmm’?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I feel relieved that you’re getting out. I thought you would too.”

“You’re relieved I’m getting out but you don’t like the way I’m doing it,” I call him out.

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “Something like that.”

“Exactly like that.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“Since when?”

He sits up straight, leaning back from me. His eyes are everywhere but on my face, roving the room for something to anchor himself to. There’s such a mix of emotions that rides this current, one we’ve been down so many times before. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your bearings.

“What do you want me to say, Harlow? I think Devo is an okay guy, but do I think it’s a good option to jump on the back of his bike and go be his old lady after only a few months of dating? No. I don’t.”

“I know that.”

“Then why do you keep quizzing me on it? I’m never gonna give you a different answer. I don’t like it but I can’t do shit about it, so… that’s it. It—that’s that. Right?”

“Right,” I mutter half-heartedly.

I’m annoyed that we’re talking about this, but I brought it up, didn’t I? I always do. I don’t want to talk about it but I can’t stop asking him to. Like a kid with a bruise they can’t stop pushing on. Pressing into the purple coloration to test the sting of it.

The subject hurts as much tonight as it did three months ago when I beat it into my skin, telling myself that this is my exit. This is my only way out.

Josh is looking at me now. Studying me. He licks his lips before softly offering, “If you’re not sure, you don’t have to go to the club with him. I mean, he just pledged an MC. It’s not like pledging a frat. They’re pretty intense about it, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, you’re right, but I need to get out of here.” I rub my tired eyes with the heels of my hands. “That’s about the only thing I’m sure about.”

“You could get your own place. Pops would help you.”

“I can’t afford it and neither can he. My dad has made sure I have exactly zero dollars to keep me dependent on him.”

“You can come live with Pops and me.”

“It’s just next door. I’d still see him every day. I want distance. Like, a lot of distance.”

“I know, but it’d just be a couple of months until I turned eighteen too. Then we could move across town and get a place of our own.”

“Devo would never go for that. I can’t live with another guy while I’m dating him.”

“So, stop dating him.”

That’s new. Everything up to this point has been rote, a script we follow very precisely every time we talk about this, but that – the suggestion that I dump Devo – is a massive deviation. I’m not totally sure what to do with it.

I frown, opening my mouth to reply.

Nothing comes out.

Josh nods in understanding, reading my silence better than a book. “Yeah, alright. You won’t leave Devo, you can’t live with me, and you can’t stay here another day. You don’t have money to get a place of your own and you won’t take any from Pops. You don’t have any girlfriends to go live with because you’re shit at making friends.”

“I’m not shit at making friends,” I laugh.

Josh smirks. “Oh really? Then why am I your only one?”

“Because I struck gold with you. Why would I look any further for a friend?”

“That’s good. Nice one.”

I smile. “You like that?”

“Yeah, it was very smooth.”

“I’ve learned from the best. Pops is the biggest sweet-talker in town.”

“And even he couldn’t talk you out of leaving tomorrow.”

My face droops with my spirits. The lightness that was rising around us falls like ash from a fire, slow and delicate. Destroyed.

“I have to go,” I insist irrepressibly. The words are out of my mouth before I can choose them, but I feel them. I know they’re true. And so does he.

“Yeah, I know,” Josh relents gently. “I just don’t like the way you’re leaving. I won’t see you anymore, Harlow. And that’s fucking horrifying.”

“We’ll see each other.”

“When? While you’re working inside the bar I can’t get into or when I’m on campus going to class?”

“In between. When I call you up and say, ‘Hey, Stratford, I haven’t seen you in too long. Wanna split a pizza in the park and talk shit about all the rich kids you’re going to school with?’”

He smirks, a half-smile that I stretch to infinity in my mind, wrapping myself in its warmth. “I could be into that.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do. We won’t lose each other, Josh. I promise.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He looks as worried as I feel, but he lets it go. He sits forward, reaching around to his back pocket before pulling out a small, purple envelope.

“Here,” he says, giving it to me; nearly shoving it in my hands nervously. “I got you this.”

“I thought the candy bar and the company were my birthday presents.”

“It’s your eighteenth birthday, Low. You deserve more than a sugar high.”

I feel uncomfortable holding the envelope between my fingers. Pops and Josh are the only people in the world who have ever given me presents. My dad doesn’t believe in them. My mom wasn’t around long enough to give them. I’m not good at taking them. They’re like compliments; I don’t deserve them.

“Just open it,” Josh pushes gently. “It’s nothing huge. I know better than that.”

I gingerly rip the top of the envelope open. When I tip its contents into my palm, they fall heavy and cold, jingling like silver bells at Christmas. I stare down at the keychain he’s given me, confused.

Josh reaches out to turn it over in my hand so I’m looking at the face of it instead of the back. “I know they’re not your initials, but you always said once you turned eighteen you were changing your last name ‘cause you didn’t want your dad’s. So Pops and I agreed to give you ours, if you want it.”

I can’t breathe. I can barely see as tears fill my eyes, pooling distortion across my vision. The keychain is small and silver with two linked letters filled with a beautiful green stone.

HS

Harlow Stratford.

“Josh,” I croak, my throat thin as lace.

“It’s not a big deal,” he promises, heading off my freak out. “It’s not a ring or anything. It’s just… you’re already our family. And if you’re going to get a new name anyway, you may as well have ours.”

My whole life, my dad has told me that I’m shit. That I’m ugly. I’m stupid. I’m worthless. That he’s the only one who will ever love me because, really, what’s there to love? As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that’s not entirely true. Men love me because I’m beautiful. I’m hot and fun to look at. To touch. And I’m good at touching them. That’s where my value lies and that’s what I’m comfortable with. That’s the truth I can handle.

The truth I’m not so comfortable with, the one that staggers me every single day, is that Pops and Josh love me for something else. Something more, something I can’t see. They say I’m funny. That I’m kind. That I’m smart and strong. Maybe they believe that and maybe they don’t, I don’t know, but it’s a fantasy I’ve never been able to buy into. Especially now as Josh offers me everything I’ve ever wanted in my whole fucked up life; a family.

I can’t stomach it. I can’t understand it. And I definitely can’t accept it.

“Josh, I—”

“Don’t,” he interrupts gently. “Seriously, Harlow, don’t. I’m not taking it back. Keep it or trash it, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you gotta do with it to be okay. But don’t even try to give it back to me ‘cause I’ll never take it. I’ll never retract the offer.”

I don’t know what to say or what to do. How do you thank someone for something like that? How do you manage the blaze of emotions that run through you like fire through tinder? I can’t, I never could, so I push it away. I put the keychain on my nightstand. I turn my back on it, telling myself to forget it. To leave it when I go in the morning.

Unaffected by my insanity, Josh lifts the candy bar between us, ripping the wrapper down the middle. He offers me both bars.

I smile, taking one. “Thanks.”

“You can have both pieces. I’m not very hungry.”

“Me neither.”

Josh nods, not looking at me again. He does that when he’s working on something. He avoids eye contact as he sorts things out, processing every big idea and plot that runs through his mind at warp speed. Josh is smart in ways I could never dream of. In ways that should make me feel dumb by comparison, but he carries that cleverness so lightly, it doesn’t weigh down on the people around him. He doesn’t lord it over you like an asshole. Like I would if I had it.

“What time is Devo coming?” he asks suddenly.

“Nine. I think.”

Josh nods silently, accepting what he can’t understand.

Devo is pledging The Devil’s Due motorcycle club. They operate out of a bar on the outskirts of town. My dad used to go there all the time, mercifully leaving me with Josh and Pops so he could drink himself stupid, but he was banned five years ago for starting a fight he couldn’t finish. Bear, the President of the club, finished it for him. Broke his arm and part of his right eye socket before tossing him out on his ass.

That was the first time the Devil’s Due caught my eye. The second time was when Devo rolled up on me in the grocery store with that Prospect cut on his back, a sexy smirk on his lips, and an education on choosing the right avocado from a mountain of leathery, black mysteries. I stood there with him for ten minutes gently squeezing produce and reminding myself to breathe every time he smiled at me.

I made him guacamole at his apartment that day. He made me come on his couch that night. We’ve been together ever since.

And Josh has hated every second of it.

“It should be me,” he tells me now.

I frown, shifting my fingers nervously on the bar in my hand. It’s melting under the heat of my skin; slick and saccharine. “I don’t know what you mean,” I lie quietly.

“It should be me getting you out of here. Not Devo.”

“It doesn’t matter who does it as long as I get away.”

“It matters to me,” he argues obstinately.

“Devo is—”

“It’s not just how you get out, but who you get out with,” he continues, barreling past my defenses. “It should be me. You and me, Harlow. Together.”

Goddamn, I can’t handle this. Not tonight. Not now. I feel dizzy as his words bounce around inside my head, pinging off my skull painfully until the backs of my eyes burn. My stomach rolls, sending bile up high into my chest.

“Josh,” I whisper pleadingly. “This isn’t… We can’t talk about this again.”

“We’ve never talked about it before.”

“It feels like it’s all we talk about.”

“You know, I get that feeling,” he agrees brusquely, “because it’s all I think about. And I know you think about it too, but we never talk about it.”

“What is there to say?”

Josh laughs, but the sound is so far from happy I think it’s more of growl. “You’re leaving in the morning with Devo, so I guess there’s nothing.”

“I can’t…” I take a deep breath, closing my eyes. Finding focus in the darkness inside. “I can’t be with you, Josh.”

“See, it’s shit like that that makes this so hard to deal with.”

“Like what?”

“You can’t be with me. You aren’t saying you don’t want to be.”

I open my eyes, meeting his head on. It’s hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ll do today, on one of the longest and most arduous days of my life, but I owe him that. I need him to see what I’m thinking. What I’m feeling. I need him to understand all the things that I don’t.

“I don’t know how to talk about this with you,” I confess weakly. “I’m not like that. I’m not like you.”

“Like what?”

“Healthy. Smart. You can say exactly what you want and what you mean and you’re not afraid, but I’m terrified. I’m scared of everything. Especially you. That’s the problem. That’s why I can’t go with you and why I’m leaving with Devo. I don’t give a shit if things go wrong with Devo. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care and neither do I. But if it was you… with you, I would—” I swallow hard, trying to sort out my head that’s spinning wildly, thoughts flying past like debris in a tornado’s eye. As soon as I spot them, I lose them. I’m not fast enough to grab them. To understand them. I never have been. “You matter. You’re the only one who matters.”

Josh’s brow creases, his handsome face drawing in on itself. Introverting and pulling me in with it.

I want to touch him. I want to hug him and ask him to hold me. I want to close this distance that’s building between us with each passing minute. With every inch the sun creeps closer to dawn and this next part of my life threatens to begin. The part without Josh woven into every moment. I’m not sure how to live that life yet, and that’s part of why he scares me. He’s too important. Too integral to my survival. I can’t risk him on a whim. On a feeling that’s been building in my belly for the last four years; that burns and hums every time he comes close. I can feel it now, even as I pretend I can’t. Denial is my only weapon against Josh. Against him and the way my heart clamors to be close to him.

I look around the room for somewhere to ditch this candy bar that’s practically dripping down my fingers. Josh sees me searching. He takes it from me, leaning back to toss it into the trash can under my desk. When he sits up straight, he’s licking his fingers clean of the molten chocolate coating them.

I cringe, unwilling to clean my own hand the same way. Like a fucking animal.

“Give ‘em,” he grunts, already pulling my hand into his space.

He singles out my index finger, lifting it to his lips. He licks it slowly, dragging his tongue along the millions of nerves beneath my skin. They come alive under his touch. They send a signal singing through my veins, up into my brain where it bursts like fireworks against the backs of my eyes. I feel lightheaded. Ethereal.

Hot.

He licks another finger clean. Hot air from his mouth kisses my cold, wet skin as it leaves his lips, sending a chill down my spine. I shiver visibly, unable to hide it.

He sees it. He sees everything. Every tortured, torn, desirous thing scrawled across my face and beating in my breast.

“I wish it was you,” I whisper, my voice trembling with the truth. “You have no idea how bad I wish it was you.”

His eyes soften. “Then why? Why can’t it be?”

“Because I’d ruin you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re going to college. You’re going to get out of this town and get married and buy a house and an SUV, and I’m not the girl you do that with.”

“I don’t care. I don’t want to do those things if I can’t do them with you.”

“But you deserve them.” I clench my fingers tightly around his. “You deserve better than me.”

Josh tugs on my hand. He pulls me in close until his face is only inches away. He’s looking down into my eyes and I’m gazing up into his like I’m staring at the stars, and I think how beautiful he is. How beautiful I feel when he looks at me like that; like I’m so much more than I am.

“Nothing on this earth is better than you,” he vows.

Before I can breathe, he kisses me. It’s deep and slow. It’s tender and tight, like there’s an avalanche behind it, carefully kept in check. But for now – snowflakes. Downy soft and different every time. Every movement of his lips against mine sends a new current through my body. I’m shorting out, falling apart, and his arms are wrapping around me. Pulling me against him. Dragging me out of myself and into his lap where I fall willingly. Eagerly.

My legs wrap around his waist. His hand takes hold of my ass, lifting me up. Pulling me in tighter against him until we both groan into the warm, wet of each other’s mouths.

“Harlow,” he whispers desperately.

I recover his mouth with mine, silencing him. Encapsulating us in this moment, this snow globe that’s cocooning us from the rest of the world. Nothing and no one else matters but the staccato of our breaths. The erratic beat of our hearts. The flurry falling around us.

Josh’s control is slipping. When I pull his shirt up over his head and smooth my palms over the rough hair peppered across his chest, he loses a foothold. His mouth becomes more demanding, laying claim after claim as his hands tug at my clothes. They disappear as if by magic and before I can blink, I’m under him. I’m looking up at his face pinched with concentration, determination, and something softer. Something needy that I feel in the center of my stomach, like a string tied between us, tugging at the same place in both our bodies. Our spirits.

He rises slowly. He falls even slower. Steady and unrelenting, inch by precious inch expanding inside me. Filling me to the brink and then some. My breath rushes out past my lips to make room for him. Tears well in my eyes, spilling down the sides of my face. I let go of everything I don’t need. Every fear, every anxiety, every doubt about my body and my being and my life. I cast them out one by one as he lays down over me, covering me and bleeding into me, refilling those empty spaces with so much more. So many emotions I can’t put name to but I can’t deny.

He curses as he moves inside me. My body tightens. His fists push hard into the mattress on either side of my head, his long arms like columns holding up the sky. He stares down at me with this sort of half-smile/half-grimace that melts my insides until I can’t remember what it felt like to be me without him. I reach for him, for the stars, and I hold his face in my palms as he brings us both closer, closer, closer. Slowly, almost painfully. Perfectly.

“This is us,” he promises me. “This is the way it should be. Always.”

“I wish…” I hesitate, my body starting to burn. My breath leaving me. “I-I wish…”

“Fuck, Harlow. You’re tight. You’re coming, aren’t you?”

“Ah!” I cry, my back arcing off the mattress. “Josh. Josh.”

“I’m here. I’m right here with you,” he chants.

I cling to his face, staring up helplessly into his eyes as my body blows apart beneath him. He pushes one hand into my hair, dropping his forehead to mine as he drives into me quickly.

“Always,” he grunts. “Always. Always.”

I wish I had breath to answer him.

I wish I was enough for him.

I wish I didn’t love him like I do.

I wish, I wish upon a star…

I wish I wasn’t leaving in the morning.


Chapter One

Josh


Three Years Later


It’s 2 a.m.

Knock, knock.

Never answer anything after 2 a.m.

“Josh!”

Not the door. Not the phone.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Nothing good will ever come of it.

“Dude, are you in there?”

Midnight is the witching hour.

“Open the door, man.”

But 2 a.m.?

“We’re dying here.”

That’s the Devil’s daylight.

“We need your help,” he calls through the thin crack between the door and the frame. “We need to make a purchase.”

I groan tiredly, rolling off the couch to throw my feet on the floor. My toes recoil from the cold hardwood, making me hobble toward the door like a drunken cripple; blanket thrown over my hunched back, eyes squinting into the darkness. I grab blindly for the coffee table as I pass it, my fingers easily feeling out the cool metal laying there. The pebbled handle of my gun.

“Yo, Josh!”

I pound once hard against the center of the door, banging on the wood by his face. The guy jumps back with a muttered curse.

“Fuck off,” I tell him quietly. “I work by appointment only.”

“Dude, come on. It’s Bryan. You know me.”

“I know a lot of people. People I meet by appointment only. You know the drill. Make the call. Get an appointment.” I shuffle back toward the couch. Back toward sleep. “Get the hell away from my door.”

Hands slam angrily against the metal storm door, shaking it loudly.

“We have cash,” Bryan insists. “A lot of it.”

I pause, closing my eyes. Telling myself to ignore him.

First rule of being a dealer – never be needy. Desperate is not a good shade on me. It makes people think they’re holding all the cards. They think they can start setting their own price and negotiating deals.

I don’t negotiate. Everyone gets the same price on the same product. No purchase incentives. No discount for buying bulk. No markdowns because my pockets are empty and I don’t know where my next meal is coming from.

“Make an appointment,” I repeat blandly.

“We’re already here, we—“

“Do you have the number?”

“Yeah.”

“Call it. Get a location. Give your order. Follow the instructions.”

“You’ll deliver tonight?”

“Might as well seeing as I’m already awake,” I reply bitterly.

“Yes! Thanks, man. We owe you one.”

“Do you know how you can repay me?’

“How?”

I cock the gun audibly, making sure the moron hears it echo inside the empty house. “Don’t ever come knocking on my fucking door again.”

“Jesus,” he whispers, shocked. His feet scuffle down the porch steps. “We won’t. Take it easy.”

“Call the number.”

“Yeah,” he calls back, sounding farther away with every word. “Yeah, we’ll call.”

I listen to his car start up. I wait for it to peel out down the street. Then I wait a few minutes more to make sure he really is gone. That he isn’t doubling back.

All clear.

I check my locks before I go back to the living room. It’s an old habit, the paranoid mind of a dealer hard at work. The locks are secure. All four of them.

The gun I set down with a loud clatter. My ass I set down with a low groan.

I close my eyes as I wait because part of me is hoping I’ll get to go back to sleep. That good old Bryan will have lost the number or he’ll lose his nerve or he’ll crash his car and spend the night in the hospital trying to score drugs off a lonely nurse instead of me.

No such luck.

Five minutes after he leaves, my phone is ringing, the glow from the screen blowing up the room in stark white light, making me squint. Shadows take shape against the glow, the untouched corners of the room looking darker than before. Fuller and more dangerous in their condensed state than the all-encompassing black hole I’ve gotten accustomed to.

“Yeah,” I answer roughly, closing my eyes as the light dims down, the room sliding slowly back to darkness.

“Got a request,” Harrison says, yawning loudly. “It’s for tonight. I told him you wouldn’t do it but dude swore he talked to you. Said you said it was okay. I told him he didn’t need a hook up tonight. He was already high if he thought you were going to get out—“

“I’ll do it.”

My statement is met with silence.

“Harrison,” I prod.

“Are you for real? You’re going to go out tonight for this douche?”

“Which one is he? He said his name was Bryan.”

“Football player. He called you? How’d he get your number?”

“He didn’t. He came to my place.”

Harrison is suddenly very awake. “How’d he find out where you live?!”

“Yellow Pages?”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I,” I deadpan. “I’m listed under P for Pills. Took out an ad.”

“You told him you’d agree to an appointment tonight?”

“That depends. How big is his order?”

Harrison sighs, settling down. Business soothes him. “It’s big. Expensive shit.”

“What’s he want?”

“Party drugs. Uppers mostly.”

“He ask for Flunitrazepam?”

“Jesus, man, use street names. You know I can’t say that shit.”

“Rohypnol. Did he ask for it?” I push impatiently.

“No. No roofies. No Ketamine.”

I sit forward, reaching for my shoes under the coffee table. “Good. He asks for date rape drugs and he gets blacklisted.”

“I know the drill, dude.”

“Text me the order. Tell him I’ll meet him in forty minutes at the park downtown, next to the fountain. Tell him to come alone and with cash.”

“You got it. You want me to come with you?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Text me when it’s done.”

“Yeah.”

I let the phone fall from between my cheek and shoulder, letting Harrison hang up for both of us. I slip my feet into my shoes, not bothering to undo the laces first. Pops would be pissed if he saw it. He’d smack me upside the head, treat me like a six-year-old kid and not the twenty-one-year-old man I’ve become. Not the dealer with a gun and a bag of scripts to deliver to some shithead in the middle of the night.

Sometimes I miss having him around. Other times, like right now, I’m glad he’s living in ignorance in a home, unable to see this.

When my cell pings with a new text message I turn on the small camping lantern next to my gun. The room flares again, brighter this time. The LED light gives off a blue hue that makes the room look more sterile than it is. It makes it feel emptier somehow, amplifying the dark color of the bare walls until they seem endless, merging with the dark wood on the floor. Engulfing the big black filing cabinets standing sentinel against the far wall.

I pull on the chain around my neck to bring up my key. It’s the only one I have, so I’m pretty paranoid about losing it. I wear it when I sleep. When I shower. When I fuck. It’s my lifeblood, the only thing keeping me even remotely afloat, so I treat it like the treasure that it is.

The order Harrison has texted me is coded using the Dewey Decimal System, like we’re a couple of drug pushing librarians. Looking inside the first drawer in my cabinet, I groan miserably. Filling this order will take everything I have on a few crowd favorites like Adderall and Benzedrine, meaning I’ll have to hit up the pharmacy in the morning before it opens.

Looks like I’m not going back to sleep tonight.

I grab a hollowed-out text book from my stack on the floor, a bunch of retired ones no class at the college is using anymore. I salvaged them from a dumpster behind the campus book store where I used to work part time. I brought them home, hollowed them out, and now I fill the carved out square in the middle with baggies full of pills, meticulously filling the order.

When I’m done I tally up the total. It’s small. Smaller than seems possible. It’s enough to cover next month’s bill from the retirement home, replenish what I’m selling, pay Harrison his cut for being my go-between, but that’s about it. Nothing for the school demanding tuition and nothing for the utility companies breathing down my neck.

I slam the drawer shut, locking it before shaking the key down inside my white thermal shirt. I’ll worry about money later. Right now I have work to do.

After texting the total to Harrison to pass on to the buyer, I cram the book into my backpack. Outside is colder than I imagined it would be; the desert at night is a real bitch when she feels like it. It’s probably only about sixty degrees, but it feels freezing compared to the eighty-five or so it was this afternoon. For a second I think about going back in for a jacket. Or going back in, throwing the bag down, and letting Bryan freeze his ass off waiting all night while I go back to sleep. It seems like the most satisfying plan, but it doesn’t put coin in my pocket, and no matter how small this payout feels, I need every dime of it.

“Fuck it,” I mutter to myself, forgetting about the jacket. “I’ve come too far.”

To warm up, I take off at a jog down the street. If I keep a steady pace I can cover the two miles between the house and the fountain in thirty minutes. Opal, Nevada is a small town, its only attraction the Winslow College campus at the edge of it. There’s not much ground to cover in any direction, and besides, I could use the exercise. Cardio is surprisingly important for any dealer.

The town is fast asleep as I pass through it. Every storefront dark. Every window in the houses vacant. Everything about the town is old and tired, just like the people in it. Faded signs, saggy awnings, broken sidewalks. Even the fountain in the center is nothing but a sleeping slab of cement; a water feature in name only. I’ve lived here my whole life and not once have I ever seen water in the damn thing.

Lucky for him, Bryan is waiting next to it when I get there. Pain in the ass, yes, but also punctual. Gotta give him that.

I nod to him as I slow to a walk, my eyes scanning the surrounding park. It’s empty.

“Your boy said you had everything we asked for,” he says quietly, extending his palm to me for a shake. A wad of bills is expertly hidden between his fingers.

I nod in confirmation as I shake his hand, taking the money. I step back, surreptitiously spreading the bills quickly with my fingers, keeping it hidden close to my body. A quick glance and a little mental math says he’s all square, so I slip the money in my pocket and my backpack off my shoulder.

“I found the book you asked for,” I tell him, handing off the hollow text book. “All the pages are clearly marked. Don’t get them confused.”

He takes the book excitedly, popping the cover for a split second to guarantee his order is filled. He smiles when he sees the assortment of pills.

Snapping the book shut, he offers me his hand again. “Thanks, man. You really came through.”

I glance at his hand, making no move to take it this time. It doesn’t have anything I want. “I always come through, but never again at two in the morning.”

“Hey, bro, I’m sorry about that but I got people looking for a good time tonight and I couldn’t leave ‘em hanging. You know how it is.”

“Sure. Yeah. I get it.”

“Cool.”

“Which one is for you? Bro.”

His fingers curl into his palm, his hand slowly lowering. “Why do you wanna know?”

I shrug loosely. “Professional curiosity.”

“None of ‘em.”

“None of them? Really?”

“None.”

I smile. “Okay. Okay. If you don’t want to tell me that’s cool. How about I guess instead?” I look him up and down slowly. “Looking at you I see a big guy. Tall, thick. I’d say you’re on the defensive line, no doubt. You get hit a lot. Probably hurts like hell. Maybe you’ve got an injury that bugs you but the doc won’t let you play if he knows how bad it is. If that were true, I’d say the Vicodin was yours.”

He stares at me stoically, not amused by my summation.

My smile widens. “That’s not it, is it? No, you’re tight. Solid. You’re not hurting, but you like to make other people hurt. You like to get amped before a game. Come at guys hard. Hit ‘em even harder. For that you want speed. Amphetamines.”

His jaw clenches tightly. His fist clenches even tighter.

“Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it?” I continue softly. “You’re Adderall all the way, aren’t you?”

“You going somewhere with this?”

“What do you think?”

He scowls, his dark eyebrows knitting low over his eyes. “I think you’re threatening me.”

“I think you’re smarter than you look.”

“I don’t like being threatened.”

“Then don’t act like an asshole,” I warn him, my voice hard. My smile gone.

He breathes in and out heavily through his nose. “I could rat you out just as easily.”

“You could. Or we could come to an agreement. You don’t ever knock on my door again and I don’t tell the college it’s time for some ‘random’ drug testing. Deal?”

He stares at me angrily, debating. Wondering if I’m full of shit or not.

Spoiler: I’m not.

I don’t back down. I don’t look away. I hold his eye and I wait for him to make his move. Eventually he takes a slow step back, a tight smile on his lips as he lifts the book in a sort of farewell-salute. Then he heads out of the park without a word.

I wait until he’s on the outside edge to release the breath I was holding.

I grew up on the east side of Opal – the bad side. The poor side. I know how to fight, but the thing about fighting is you get hit. I’m not a fan of that. Only a psycho enjoys the feel of a fist connecting with his face. But as much as I don’t like getting hit, I don’t like taking shit even more, and Bryan started slinging it at me the second he knocked on my door. A point had to be made. Order had to be restored.

It’s three in the morning, meaning I have three hours to kill before Ritchie will wake up and open the doors to the pharmacy. I could go home, try to take a nap, but it never works. Once I’m up, that’s it. There is no going back. I could take a sleep aid, Christ knows I have enough of them, but I never tap my stash.

That’s the second rule of being a dealer.

I decide to hit up the gas station on the edge of town. It’s the only thing open all night, and with Bryan’s cash in my pocket I feel like splurging. Maybe I’ll buy milk. The refrigerator in the house shut off with the power over a week ago and I can’t remember the last time I tasted the stuff. My bones are probably turning to dust.

Aside from the random array of trash summersaulting in the wind, the parking lot is empty when I wander up to the door. I nod to the old guy looking bored and tired at the register. He eyes me intently before I hold up my bag for him to see. I put it on the floor by the newspaper rack. He juts his chin in thanks before returning to his boredom, staring straight ahead, still as a statue.

I take my time wandering around, checking out the aisles. I’m starting to wonder if this was the best place to kill time after all. It isn’t exactly the public library. It was designed to give you your Snickers and get you the hell out, quick as shit. The magazines on the racks are older than I am and I can’t even chat up the guy working here. He’s too busy playing possum behind dead, fixed eyes and a permanent frown. The place is almost silent except for the hum of the coolers and the buzz of the neon signs in the windows. The ding of the front door swinging open.

“Josh?” a woman asks curiously. “Is that you?”

I turn to find her standing behind me one aisle over, separated by corn chips, salsa, and three long years. I haven’t seen her since that night. Since I gave her everything I had, offered her every piece of me and then some, and she thanked me by disappearing. Leaving nothing but a blurry memory of peaches and cream skin. Tearful green eyes. Blond hair, pink lips, and heartbreak.

“Harlow.”


Chapter Two

Harlow



The sight of Josh Stratford standing just ten feet away from me is a punch to my gut, my heart, and my ovaries. I light up like the sun for so many reasons when I see him. Reasons I remember immediately. Reasons I feel in every nerve in my body.

Reasons that kept me awake at night for months after I walked away from him.

I watch him and I wait for the anger to color his handsome face. It has to come. There’s no way he doesn’t hate me for what I did three years ago. I hate me for what I did. We can’t run into each other like this after all this time and not have it out.

But when his eyes meet mine, I’m stunned to see him smile.

Just like that, fast as lightning, he’s the guy I remember; big smile, deep brown eyes, and a mop of brown hair on his head to match. He’d never been one to keep it short. It was always on his brow, in his eyes, and when I cross the distance between us and pull him into a hug that feels like it’s simultaneously ripping me apart and stitching me back together, his hair is soft as silk on the side of my face.

“Hey,” he chuckles, hugging me hard. “Long time no see, right?”

“Too long,” I gush, squeezing him for emphasis. For myself and my sanity.

He feels like home, like the good times, no matter how few they were. He and his Pops were every happy memory I had growing up, and the scent of his laundry detergent wafting out of his shirt is like a slap in the face from Father Time. Suddenly I’m six years old running through sprinklers. I’m eleven in a tent in his backyard. I’m eighteen and torn between getting out and something else. Something I’ve never been able to name. Something I could never forget.

I smile as I step away from him. I feel both relieved and let down when he releases me, my body sending signals to my brain that I’ll never be able to sort out, but that’s the way I’ve always lived my life; completely confused by the way I feel. About everything and everyone.

“How have you been?” I ask him, scrambling for questions. For conversation. Anything that will hold him here with me. “How’s school?”

Josh brushes his hair off his forehead in an old, familiar move. It immediately falls right back into place. “It’s good. The classes are cool. Easier than I thought they’d be.”

“You were so worried you wouldn’t hack it.”

“College can be tough.”

“Yeah, for idiots. You’re smarter than half the fucking town. If any of the natives could take on Winslow College, it was going to be you.”

“I’ve been lucky, yeah.”

I stop myself from rolling my eyes at his humility. If Josh won the Nobel Peace Prize or whatever for curing cancer, he’d say he owed it to Nicholas Cage and the butcher before admitting he’s brilliant. That’s just the way Josh is.

“What are you studying?” I press. “Old Mrs. Mershawn cornered me in the grocery store last month and told me you were being headhunted by NASA.”

He laughs, heavy and strong in that quiet baritone of his. The melody I feel all the way into my marrow. “Nah, not even close. Last year I aced my Computer Science course. I think that’s what she’s talking about. Pops practically takes out an ad in the paper every time I bring him my grades.”

“So you’re not building a rocket that will take us all to start life on Mars?”

“Not today.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah, sorry. It’s all rumors.”

“This place runs on them.”

“I heard one that you got married.”

“No,” I answer quickly. I wiggle my left hand in front of him. “No ring. No husband.

Josh nods silently. I smile reflexively.

He doesn’t ask about Devo and I don’t tell. I think that says a lot about both of us.

I smile brightly to cover my unease. “So, what are you doing out so late? Frat party?”

“Nah, not me,” he chuckles. “Not much of a partier.”

“Or a drinker. I never see you at the bar.”

“Drinking’s kind of lost its appeal, you know? Once you turn twenty-one and you’re allowed to drink, it’s not as exciting.”

“We all want what we can’t have.”

“Yeah, exactly. And I can have a hangover any time I want. It’s not fun anymore.”

I put my hand on his arm, unable to stop myself from touching him. From feeling the taut muscles under his shirt. He’s bigger than he was three years ago. He’s been working out, bulking up, and I can’t get over how strong he looks. Sturdy as stone. But when I touch him, he’s still electric. One brush of his body against mine sends a jolt through me that bubbles and burns under my skin. It’s the same feeling he’s always given me; like I’m humming. Buzzing. Like I’m a hundred percent alive for the very first time, every time.

“You should come by anyway,” I demand. “I’ll give you soda on the house and you can keep me company.”

He nods vaguely. “Yeah, I might stop by.”

“You should.”

“What about you? What are you doing up? Did you work tonight?”

“No, not tonight, but the boys are up playing poker and we ran out of shit at the club. They sent me on a munchies run.”

I pull the white scrap of paper from my back pocket. Six different sets of handwriting are scrawled across it. The boys each scribbled down their wants and desires, handed me a ten, some of them a twenty, and told me to keep the change. Everything they asked for doesn’t add up to more than twenty-five bucks, so I’m making a little money off my kindness tonight.

Josh nods to the paper in my hand. “Is that your shopping list?”

“Yeah. It’s more than I thought. I should have driven.”

“You walked here? At this time of night?”

“It’s not a big deal.”

He gestures for me to hand over the paper. When I do, he scans it quickly before ripping it in half. “I’ll help you. I’ll walk back with you.”

“You don’t have to do that. I can handle myself.”

“I know, Harlow, but I got time to kill.” He hands back my half of the shopping list. “You’ll be doing me a favor letting me tag along.”

I give him a small grin. “Well, if it’s a favor.”

We split up, each of us loading our arms with candy, corn chips, soda, energy drinks, and for some reason, an entire jar of peanut butter.

“Who asked for that?” Josh asks as we dump our goods on the counter.

The old man working the register looks down at the load like we’re ruining his night making him work.

I pull my wallet out of my purse, letting him see the cash inside. It perks him right up.

“Uh, Hyde, I think,” I answer Josh absently.

“Hyde? That’s his real name?”

“God, no. Nobody uses their real name at the club.”

“Not even you?”

I smile thinly. “Not even me. No one calls me Harlow anymore. When you said it, that was the first time I’d heard that name in over a year.”

“What do they call you?”

“Harley.”

He snorts lightly. “Of course.”

“You’re not judging, are you, Josh?” I ask, my voice harder than I intended.

I feel his eyes on me, looking at my profile that I keep carefully blank. Finally he nudges my shoulder playfully with his.

Zap!

“Hey,” he mutters quietly, “I would never judge you, Harlow.”

“It’s Harley.”

“Not to me it’s not.”

I don’t know how to respond to that or the dizzy, sweet, sick feeling it gives me, so I don’t touch it. Instead, I deflect because that’s what I’m good at.

“Go grab yourself something,” I tell him, fluttering the small stack of bills like a fan. “On the bar.”

“Nah, I shouldn’t.”

“You should. The extra cash is mine and I’m buying you something. What do you want? Beer? Cigarettes?”

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“Chew?”

He smiles ruefully. “I like my jaw, thanks.”

“Well, get something. And grab me something while you’re at it, okay?”

Josh disappears down the aisle behind me. I turn to the clerk, expecting to find him scowling at Josh’s back for holding up the transaction. But his eyes aren’t on Josh. They’re on my chest, zeroed in on the deep cut of my cleavage.

You wanna know Victoria’s Secret? It’s a natural C-cup and a strong underwire. This guy knows it.

I whistle softly, pulling his eyes from my breasts to my lips. I give him a lopsided grin, the one I give Devo when I’m straddling his hips, about to slide down his dick. The one that says, ‘You’re gonna love this, baby.’ It works every time. The old guy fumbles the peanut butter jar in his hand. It slips through his fingers, bounces off the counter, and lands with a thud on the floor at his feet. I chuckle as he mutters a curse, stooping down to pick it up.

Men are so fuckin’ easy.

Josh reappears next to me, sliding a small jug of milk and a candy bar onto the counter. A Twix bar. Peanut butter.

The sight of that shiny red wrapper sends my body into a tailspin. Suddenly I’m eighteen again. I’m in my bedroom, in the candlelight. My finger is in his mouth. My heart is inside my throat. I’m under him, under the starlight of his eyes, and I’m whole. I’m complete and happy for the first time in my life.

Did he do it on purpose? Is he hinting at the piece of history we’re carefully dancing around? Or did he get me the candy because he knows it’s my favorite. Because he knows my favorite movie, favorite song, favorite ice cream, favorite color. Without a thought, he could tell you how I take my coffee. How I like my eggs. How I’m afraid of closets, any closet. And he’d know why. Josh is possessed of infinite, intimate knowledge of me, the kind that Devo will never have, despite the fact that they’ve both been inside me. But that’s just sex. Anyone can have sex with someone. There’s a big difference between a woman letting you inside her and letting you inside her, and I’ve let Josh see me deeper than anyone else on the planet.

“You okay?” he asks, his brow scrunched tight in innocent concern.

I shake my head, shaking my brain free of the fog it’s wandered into. “No, I’m good.”

The clerk finally finishes bagging our crap. I give him a wink as I walk away, and I know he’s watching my ass. That’s fine by me. I wouldn’t wear jeans so tight I nearly loose circulation if I didn’t want people to notice my ass. I’ve got a limited number of years to be young and hot. When my looks are gone, I won’t be shit. I have ten years left, maybe fifteen, to enjoy my only redeeming quality, and I plan to make the most of it while I can.

As we’re leaving, Josh picks up a black backpack from by the door. He’s able to stuff almost everything we bought inside it, carrying what doesn’t fit. Everything except my Twix. I’m already munching on one chewy, chocolatey peanut butter stick as we’re walking out the door.

“How’s Pops?” I ask carefully.

Josh sighs, his head tilting back until he’s looking up at the sky. You can see forever in a small town at night. Miles and miles of open sky and stars and space and so much nothing burning bright with the light of everything in the universe right over your head. All you have to do is look up and there it is. The whole of creation just out of your reach.

“He’s okay,” he answers softly.

“I heard he went into Golden Meadows?”

“Yeah.” Josh shifts the backpack on his shoulders, shrugging inside the movement. “He wishes he could be at the house with me but he knows he can’t. Not after the stroke he had a couple years ago.”

“You’re still living there?”

“For now.”

I don’t ask what that means. He’s probably planning on moving away once he’s graduated. With his grandpa in the local retirement home he doesn’t have a reason to keep the house. They’ll probably sell, Josh will move away, and I’ll see him in passing around holidays when he comes to visit Pops. Maybe not even then. Maybe the next time I’ll see him will be at the funeral.

The thought makes my heart seize painfully.

“Do you mind if I go visit him?”

Josh looks at me in surprise. “Why would I mind?”

“It’s been a long time.”

“He loves you. He’d be happy to see you.”

My chest unclenches under his assurance. “I’ll go see him then.”

“It’ll take some of the pressure off the nurses. He can sexually harass you for a while instead of them.”

I smile. “He’s still a player?”

“The man never stops,” Josh chuckles. “Every time I go down there he’s hassling someone new. They encourage him so it’ll never end.”

“Sometimes a woman likes a little harassment.”

“I’ve got three restraining orders that say that’s not true.”

“Well, it has to come from the right source.”

“I guess I’m not the right guy, then.”

“Or you’re harassing the wrong girls.”

“Story of my life.”

I laugh quietly, but it’s cut short as we approach the bridge.

The old Opal Bridge is eerie and infamous. The dividing line between Opal city limits and a whole lot of nothing on dirty desert roads, the river has a long history. A long, dark history. It was a big part of the settling of the town in the late 1800’s since it was the only source of water for miles. People flocked to it, settled around it, and died in it more often than seemed normal.

In the ‘seventies a kid was walking across the bridge when he told friends he heard someone calling for help. No one else heard the sound and they tried to tell him not to jump in, but he didn’t listen. He leapt into the water and never came out. In the ‘eighties a seven-year-old girl went missing and turned up tangled in the bare roots of a tree at the edge of the current. She was wearing only a thin cotton dress in the middle of winter. No shoes.

It’s one of those mysteries. The kind that can make a small town superstitious, so when Josh and I set out on the east side of the bridge and cross the water to the west bank, we don’t speak. No one does, driving or walking. Not even the boys at the club.

When we get to the other side of the bridge, Opal at our backs, Josh asks gently, “You see much of your dad?”

I shake my head silently, my lips pulled tight against my teeth.

“I didn’t think so.”

“I see him around town,” I admit reticently. “I almost ran into him at Grocery Plus last week, but I spotted him in time to dodge him. I ended up sneaking behind a display of baked beans. The old bitch on the label was judging me, I could feel it.”

“That old bitch doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“That’s what I told her.”

“Kinda hard to avoid someone in a town this small. Do you ever think about leaving?”

“Avoiding isn’t that hard. You and I seem to have managed pretty easily.”

He doesn’t reply, and I wonder what I expected him to say. I don’t think he’s been avoiding me on purpose. I don’t think I’ve been avoiding him. But we’ve been avoiding each other, like two magnets that were flipped one warm night three years ago and we’ve naturally repelled each other ever since.

“Where would I go if I left Opal?” I ask, filling the emptiness I’ve dug between us.

Josh shrugs. “I don’t know. Anywhere but here.”

“No. Never.” I glance around us; across the desert and over the dry, broken plain surrounding us. To the club burning persistent as death in the distance. “I hate my dad, I don’t exactly love this town, but this is where I belong.”

Josh follows my eyes. He nods to the club. “You mean that is where you belong.”

“Yeah. That’s what I mean.”

I wait for him to argue with me. To tell me that I’m better than a bitch on the back of a hog, being passed around the club like some party favor. I wait for the ignorance and hate that always comes with talking to outsiders about the life.

Only it doesn’t come.

Josh walks with me silently, his head held high, his shoulders squared, and not a whiff of condemnation on him. He never used to judge me before. I don’t know why I keep expecting him to do it now. Of all the people in the world, Josh knows better than anyone what I came from. What my childhood was like.


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