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SHATTERED HOME



A Coming Home Series Novella



J.M. Adele



Shattered Home
© J.M. Adele, 2017
All Rights Reserved


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead is purely coincidental. Any actual places, products or events mentioned are used in a purely fictitious manner, without permission or sponsorship, and with acknowledgement of their trademarked status, and trademark owners.



Edited by Eeva Lancaster

Cover Design by Book Flare Publishers

Cover Photo from Adobe Stock © e_serebryakova

brusheezy.com

Formatted by Book Flare Publishers

Smashwords Edition

All Titles by J.M. Adele


Coming Home Series


Shattered Home (available in eBook)

Remembering Home

Finding Home

Leaving Home (Coming 2018)

Coming Home (TBA)



Sensing Series


Sensing You

Convincing You (Coming 2018)

Indulging You (TBA)

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

More Books by J.M.

Excerpt From Remembering Home

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Chapter One



Aiden kicked at the dirt with the toe of his shoe, watching the dust curl up to his knees before it settled back down. He stood at the edge of the school yard, listening to all the kids squeal and yell in delight at their game of tag. They all seemed to know each other, calling out each other’s names. He recognized a few faces as they shot past, but he’d never spent much time outside of his yard to meet the other kids.

Aiden shuffled his weight to ease the pain in his behind. After a whupping last night, he’d spent four hours locked in his room before his father made him scrub the kitchen floor. It was his own fault. He knew he shouldn’t have peed in the garden. He hadn’t wanted to go back in the house, and didn’t think his father would be watching. Now, he knew. His father always had his eyes on him.

Again, he kicked the dirt, shoulders sagging because he was too tired to join in the fun. It wasn’t exactly the first day of school he’d imagined, but he was still happy to be there. He was happy to be anywhere, but home.

A girl with black pigtails flashed by, four kids trailing her as she cackled. With a burst of speed, she left them behind and disappeared. Aiden stood up straight, craning his neck to get a better view.

Where’d she go?

He thought he’d seen her before, or maybe a girl with the same hair, swinging on the tire swing in front of the big white house down the road from home. He dreamed about that house. Playing out all sorts of adventures where he got to be the hero, the knight, the soldier, the king … His imagination was endless. Sometimes, he would dream about a little girl with black hair. Swinging on that tire, she looked like an angel to him, kicking her legs out with her hair flowing behind.

The children all scattered; some starting a game of catch, some climbing on the jungle gym. He took a couple of steps closer, but couldn’t see her anywhere. Maybe it wasn’t the same girl.

Feeling a light tap on his shoulder, Aiden jerked and spun around.

“Hi.”

His jaw fell slack. There she was. Waving at him, and smiling a gap-toothed smile. He squinted down at her, almost needing to shield his eyes from the sun reflecting off her pale skin. She looked like she was glowing, and her green eyes twinkled in the light. Like the grass after the rain had given it a drink. Maybe she really was an angel.

Can’t you speak? ‘Cause if you can’t speak, we could write to each other instead. Can you write? My daddy taught me how to write my name, and the alphabet. I know how to count to twenty-seven.” Poking a thumb at her chest, she beamed with pride.

Aiden blinked and took a step back.

Don’t be scared. I just wanted to ask if you wanna play. You should join in. Everybody here’s friendly.”

He swallowed, and scrubbed his knuckles over his eyes to check that they were working. “Are you an angel?”

She bobbed her head. “Yeah. How’d ya know?”

A swarm of bees burst into his tummy. She’s a real angel.

You look like one.” He rubbed his palms on his thighs, and swiped the back of his hand under his nose.

Her dark brows dipped low. “What’s an angel s’posed to look like?”

Pretty and glowing, and stuff.” He shrugged his stiff shoulders, rubbing his sweaty hands again.

Her mouth pouted before tipping up into a beaming grin. “Well, thank you. My mama always told me to say thank you when someone says something nice about me. She’s gone to heaven. Daddy said they needed more angels, so she had to go. I hope they don’t need me ‘cause I don’t want to leave my daddy alone.” She waved a finger at his head. “You have nice hair. It’s the same color as the sand at the beach. Have you ever been to the beach?”

Aiden’s head reeled, trying to keep up. “No.” His shoulders slumped and he picked at a loose thread on his shirt.

Ooh, it’s so much fun.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest. “I’ll ask my daddy if you can come with us when we go next time. We always go with my uncles and aunts, and my cousins. We’ll teach you how to build a sand castle.”

“Okay.”

He folded his arms behind his back, crossing his fingers that Sir would let him go. He’d seen the beach on TV. It did look fun. But what had the nerves buzzing in his belly was the thought of spending time with a real angel. She made him feel all tingly inside. He liked it.

I hope they don’t need you back in heaven, either.” He sent her a shy smile.

I’ll just tell them I can’t go.” She shrugged and propped her hands on her hips. “What’s your name?”

“Aiden Thomas.”

Are you a fast runner?”

“I think so.”

Maybe not after his punishment last night. He could be, though. He’d try to be, for her.

Slapping a hand on his arm, she yelled, “Tag! You’re it,” before dashing off, leaving him in another cloud of dust.

The farther away she got, the harder the tug on his chest, like she had tied him with a rope. It took his feet a while to get moving. He wondered if he was having another one of his dreams as he watched her run, eyeing him over her shoulder. There was no way he was pinching himself out of this one. He’d never felt more awake.

He’d found a real live angel. Aiden’s prayers had been answered.

_____

Almost Eleven Years Later

“Mornin’, Daddy. How’d you sleep?”

Angel scraped the wooden spoon through the eggs to scramble them a bit more, before scooping a serving onto a plate for her pa.

He shuffled into the kitchen, his black hair flat on one side and standing up on the other. Speaking through a yawn, his answer was almost indecipherable, “Still ‘sleep.”

“Why don’t you go in late this mornin’? I’m sure Harry and Harvey have things under control.”

He dragged a hand down his face and scrubbed it through his beard, tired blue eyes struggling to focus on her. “I can’t. I have a meeting with the architect about the expansion. We all have to be there.”

He took a seat and she pushed the plate under his nose, handing him some silverware. “You’re workin’ too hard. What time did you get home last night?”

His gaze slid to the clock. “Five hours ago.”

Her tongue clicked against the roof of her mouth, as she made a plate for herself and joined him at the breakfast bar. Spearing some eggs, she held back from telling him off. He was still half asleep, and it wasn’t her place to be telling her daddy anything, anyways. Not that it had stopped her before. She just tried to be subtle about it. They were a team. They had to look after each other. She glided the salt shaker across the countertop as a peace offering.

You’re so much like her, ye know.” Her daddy fixed his eyes on her forehead, seeing through her to some other time. “Your mama, she’d scold me for losing track of time and working into the early hours. Then she’d look after me, and I’d kick my own tail for missing out on precious moments with her. I still do.”

Aw, Daddy, don’t do that. Mama loved that you worked hard to achieve your dreams. When I had nightmares, she used to say to me that I could chase the bad dreams away by thinking of bigger and better things. She said that my daddy was the biggest dreamer of all, and that I had the ability to dream big and be just like you. Because I was a Murphy, too. I thought it was your super power for a while.” Blinking away the sting of tears, she laughed.

Lines etched deep into his temples as he smiled at the memory. “She always made me feel like I was her hero. The truth is, she was mine. I hope you have the same someday. Your partner should be someone who builds you up and makes you want to be the best you can be.” Blue eyes twinkled as they assessed her. “I suspect he’s not too far away.”

She returned her daddy’s perusal, a twinkle of her own probably reflecting back.

He wasn’t too far at all.

Just down the road, in fact.

_____

Angel straddled the sturdy sycamore branch, pretending to concentrate on her loose shoe laces as she swung her legs. Fleeting glimpses at her golden-haired companion betrayed the true recipient of her focus. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as he ripped long blades of grass into thin strips and sent them twirling to the ground. Each piece of green debris mimicked the fluttering behind her breast bone, induced by being so close to him.

She leaned forward, the tender skin of her palms scratched by the rough bark, and contemplated lacing her shoes. Anything to keep her mind from fixating on Aiden’s hands, and what else he could be doing with them. She wasn’t sure she was even ready to be having such thoughts. Angel sighed. She was only sixteen, for Lord’s sake. Her mother was probably turning over in her grave.

She looked towards the house, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to see the old, southern colonial house from this far back in the yard, but still double checking that they were a safe distance away from the prying eyes of her father.

Once again, her eyes flicked back to their target, heat suffusing her cheeks when she locked onto his whiskey-toned gaze. He smirked and threw a blade of grass into her lap.

What’s goin’ on in that head of yours?” Aiden’s teenage vocal chords hadn’t yet settled on a comfortable pitch, making Angel giggle as the words squeaked and dipped their way out.

Oh, just enjoying the warm breeze.” And watching you, thinking of our first kiss.

The wind picked up her hair, blowing it across her face. She pulled it back, inspecting its bottle-red color, glad that her black regrowth was hidden under her hat. Twirling a strand around her thumb, she brushed the ends along the crease of her lips, enjoying the pleasant tingle. It wasn’t as good as having his lips on hers, though. It’d been over a week since he’d kissed her, but she still remembered the soft feel of his flesh pressing against hers. When the heck he’d pluck up the courage to do it again, she didn’t know. But she was too chicken to take matters into her own hands. It was supposed to be up to the boy to make the moves.

She shoved the air out of her lungs in frustration, at the same time she heard his breath stutter. Catching him fixated on what she was doing with her hair, she dropped the strands, sat up straight, pushed up her glasses, and crossed her ankles. Maybe she was chicken, but he was probably feeling the same thing. This was Alabama. Southern girls were supposed to be strong. There was nothing wrong with taking charge occasionally. Was there? Besides, if she didn’t do something soon, she’d die of yearning.

Are you ever gonna kiss me again?” She swallowed against a dry mouth, and ordered her galloping heart to settle down.

Hell, yes.”

A buzzing in her belly joined the galloping, and her confidence swelled. That was a yes. His gaze was still attached to her mouth, but he wasn’t moving his lips any closer.

She tutted at his language and his lack of action, raising her eyebrows. “When?”

I’ve been waiting for the right moment.” He licked his lips and raised his eyes to hers.

Well, now’s good …” She leaned forward putting her face directly in front of his. “… in case you were wondering.”

His warm palms landed on her cheeks and he slammed his mouth on hers, pushing her off balance, and nearly dislodging her from the tree. Letting out a squeak of surprise, she slapped her hands down on his thighs to stop from falling, and felt something hard under her grip. Aiden reared back, spitting out a frenzy of curses, putting her off balance again.

Angel blinked back hot tears at his rejection. It wasn’t until his hands clasped at his crotch, his body recoiling against the trunk, and far away from her, that she clued in to what she’d done.

Her eyelids levered wide. “Oh, Lord. I’m so sorry.”

Scooting her tail backwards, she locked her ankles together to secure her perch, and covered her mouth with both hands. If she was ever going to use a swear word, now would be the time. But, she pushed her fingers firmly into her cheeks, until her teeth started to ache.

Aiden’s face was set in a grimace, but he let out a pained laugh. He couldn’t seriously think this was funny. She loosened her hands and watched as his smile grew more genuine, his body unfurling from the fetal position. He was lucky he’d been leaning against the trunk, or he’d have been on the grass with something else broken besides his … boy bits.

The corners of her lips tipped up, a snort escaping. She blushed, slapping a hand back over her mouth. Not only because snorting was unladylike, but because she didn’t mean to laugh at his predicament.

Aiden had no qualms about vocalizing his amusement. He tipped his head back, opened his mouth wide, and let out his raucous laughter. She had no choice but to join him, dissolving into a fit of giggles. It was such a rare thing to hear him laugh like that. Angel sincerely hoped she didn’t have to punch him in the … boy bits … to hear it again.

“Shit, that hurt.”

“Aiden! Language.”

“Sorry, but it did.”

Yeah, I noticed. I am sorry. I didn’t mean to … you know.” She looked at his lap briefly, before inspecting her shoe laces again. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

“It?”

“Don’t make me say the words.”

“My erection?”

She gasped and chewed on her lips, watching a smirk play on his face.

I can’t help it. It happens a lot when I’m alone with you.”

The buzzing in her belly turned to a roar, sending a power surge through her body with its force. “Oh, my God. Would you please stop?”

Her words were bashful, but she was proud of herself for having that effect on him. She wasn’t completely naive. She’d pinched one of her aunt’s romance novels and hidden it under her mattress for weeks, soaking up the newfound knowledge any chance she got. Luckily, she’d been making her own bed for a while now, and didn’t have to worry about her daddy discovering her secret.

She straightened up and smiled. “Could we try that again?”

Hell, yeah.” Angel smacked a hand on his chest as he lurched forward.

“Language!”

Sorry.” His face scrunched before relaxing into a wry smile. “How about I pay for my sins with a kiss?”

She narrowed her eyes, but couldn’t stop the grin. “Yeah, okay.”

This time he let her move toward him slowly, putting his hands on her waist to steady her. The gentle touch burned through her T-shirt. His fingers flexed and pressed into her flesh like he wanted to hold her tighter, or maybe remove the pesky fabric between them. She had no doubt they’d get to that point eventually, but not while they were perched in their tree, with her father not that far away.

Placing her hands on his shoulders, she reveled in their hasty rise and fall, knowing that she was near to panting with excitement herself. This boy was hers. He always will be. She just knew it. When his lips met hers again, all her nerve endings came alive, flushing her body with a euphoria only he could instill. The sound of their mingled breaths joined the smacking of lips, driving her excitement higher. She instinctively moved closer, climbing into his lap, and wrapping her legs over his. She wasn’t worried about falling, she knew he wouldn’t let her.

Aiden pulled back, resting his head on the tree, and gave her a satisfied grin that mirrored her own. “I wish I had my camera right now. I want to capture the look on your face.”

“You take too many photos already.”

She slid her arms closer and locked her hands behind his neck, ready for another drugging kiss. Maybe she’d try tongue this time.

“Aiden?”

Angel twisted her head at the sound of her pa’s booming voice coming from a distance.

“Shit!” Aiden pushed on her waist in a panic.

She had to laugh as she moved back to a safe distance. “I’ll let you have that one for free.”

His face drained of color, and his throat moved like he was trying to swallow a melon. Her daddy loved Aiden, since the first time she brought him home after preschool. She couldn’t see the threat of a shotgun any time soon, but now that they were more than friends, maybe her father wouldn’t deal so well with his little girl growing up.

She saw her pa’s wavy, black hair appear above the bushes, before his mammoth, muscled frame stepped into the clearing under the tree.

There y’are.” He shoved his motor-oil-smeared hands in his pockets and narrowed his eyes, considering them for a moment.

She gripped the branch a little tighter, suddenly worried that the threat of his shotgun might not be so ridiculous after all.

Aiden. Your father is looking for ye. You’d better go on home, it’s supper time. Come in and get washed up.”

“Is he here?”

Aiden’s voice broke on the words, but she knew it wasn’t his immature vocal cords causing the problem. Aiden might have feared her pa, but she’d never seen anything put more fear in him than his own father.

Mr. Thomas ran a law practice in town, and had a reputation for being a wolf with sharp fangs. She suspected he was just as awful at home as he was in the courtroom, but she’d never been inside Aiden’s house to see for herself.

No. He demanded to be let in, but I sent him away.”

Angel scrambled down the tree after Aiden, landing behind where he stood before her father. He tugged at his clothes, looking like he’d rather do anything else besides go home.

Her daddy laid his large hand on Aiden’s shoulder, squeezing in a silent show of support before leading him off. She trailed behind them through the thick undergrowth, raising her feet high with each step, and thinking how blessed she was to have her daddy. He knew when a person needed comfort, and he’d always been generous in giving it. He probably knew exactly what was going on in the house down the street, but he’d never discuss it with her. If there was one thing wrong between her and Aiden, it was her exclusion from his family life. She’d guessed why, but it still didn’t sit well with her. He always shut her out. He should’ve known better. It just made her want to fight harder. If she had to march down the road and bang down his door to finally gain entry, she’d do it. The time was coming. Her patience was threatening to snap.

Chapter Two



Aiden dumped his bike around the side of his house and ran up the back steps, entering through the kitchen door. His mother sat at the table, ignoring her plate of roast vegetables and chicken, preferring to cradle her glass of red wine. She didn’t bother with a greeting, and he didn’t expect one. It was their routine. She only acknowledged him in public.

Her disregard wasn’t what made his stomach drop to his toes. It was the gravy smeared plate stacked next to the sink. It was the newspaper spread open to hide all but his father’s clenched hands, and the slicked back, blonde hair on top of his head. It was the thunder clouds gathering behind his father’s eyes as the paper lowered, and Sir stood to his full height.

He was late for dinner.

He was so dead.

Aiden struggled to keep his body from shaking. His palm, slick with sweat, slipped on the door knob as he closed the door behind him.

He watched in resignation, fighting back tears, as his father started to unbuckle his belt.

I’m going to assume that since you weren’t home in time for dinner, you mustn’t be hungry.”

The smell of the roast meal lingered deliciously in the air. He was hungry. But not starving, thanks to an extra slice of Angel’s chocolate cake that afternoon.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Sir.”

Did I say you could speak, boy?” Spit flew from his father’s mouth, landing on the table.

Aiden pressed his lips together, and watched his mother vacate the room, like she always did when this happened. More tears threatened. His stupid tear ducts needed to grow up. He wasn’t five anymore. He should be used to the sting of betrayal and abandonment by now.

“Take off your shirt and drop your pants.”

He did as he was told, fumbling, and silently cursing his trembling hands. His father moved behind him, pushing him towards the table and shoving his back, so he had no choice but to lean down and hang on.

You’ve been over at the Murphy’s again. I know that’s where you go. Hank can deny it all he likes. That bastard and his spawn have been filling your head with all sorts of fairytales about how life should be. What’s the matter, boy, your family not good enough for you?”

Aiden jerked, pulling in a shaky breath as the first blow landed across the middle of his back.

Those grease monkeys aren’t fit to mix with my blood.” Sir leaned over Aiden, growling directly into his ear. “Why would they want an outsider tagging along, getting in their way? You’re not one of them. You never will be.”

The lash of the belt struck Aiden with enough force to make his eyes roll back in his head. He clenched his teeth harder, and dug his fingers into the edge of the table, jerking with each blow.

You got your eye on Murphy’s daughter? She’s only useful for spreading her legs, but you won’t be mixing our blood and tying us to that family for good. I won’t have it.”

The vitriol spewed from his father’s mouth, thick as molasses. Aiden felt it clogging his lungs and pounding his ears, dragging him under its hatred, and feeding his own hatred for this man. He wanted to fight back, to defend the girl he loved. How dare Sir speak about her like that. She was everything that was good and pure in his world.

The next three lashes struck in quick succession, making him throw his head back at the searing pain cutting deeper each time. He wondered how many his father would be giving him, and how many more years he would have to endure this torture. If it wasn’t for the Murphys, he’d have run already.

The Thomas name is something to be respected and upheld. Until you get that through your head, I forbid you to leave this house.”

Aiden’s body was wrenched upright, his upper arm caught in a bear-trap hold as his father heaved his limp body up the stairs to his bedroom. Thrown face first onto the bed, he lay still, listening to the click of the lock sealing his cell. Raw nerve endings screamed in agony across his back and the top of his ass, and his lungs struggled for air. He tried to stop the freight train of loathing that was gathering momentum. Aimed mostly at himself, because despite his parents’ mistreatment of him … he still loved them, and wanted desperately to please. And, didn’t that make him a dumb fuck.

Groaning, he rolled his head to the side, and folded his hands under his cheek for a pillow. The stupid tears he’d been fighting oozed onto his hands, and his nose leaked all over the bed in a trail of mucus. He couldn’t be bothered wiping the mess away. He knew his pain wasn’t done. Not even close. He’d wear it like a tattoo for a while yet.

Closing his eyes, he willed all the bad shit away, replacing it with images of Angel sitting in that tree. Her floppy hat and baggy T-shirt. The laces of her shoes dangling in the breeze, and the reflection of light filtered through the canopy on her glasses. Her coy smile. Her huge green eyes.

His teeth hurt from grinding them so hard, but a smile still hinted despite the pain. Angel had asked him to kiss her. She’d been eager enough to risk falling out of the tree by climbing into his lap, and aligning him with the gates of heaven.

Her parents had been insightful when they’d named her. She was an angel. His Angel. If he could be a part of her life forever, he’d be the luckiest son of a bitch. Aiden worried that her association with him was dragging her name through the filth, not the other way around.

Pfft. His father didn’t know shit.

_____

He groaned and threw a hand over his face to block the morning sun filtering through his eyelids, hissing at the pain the movement caused. Rubbing the grit away from his eyes with his thumb, he attempted to pry them open and get his bearings. As if the pain in his back wasn’t enough of a reminder, his ready-to-burst bladder, and dry-as-a-dessert mouth, did a great job at slapping him back to reality. He needed to find a pot plant, or something. Fast.

Spying his baseball bag, he prayed to God that he’d forgotten to take out his water bottle as he hobbled over. The zip parted to reveal his plastic savior, half full, even. He raised his eyes to the ceiling muttering, “Amen.”

Downing the liquid in two huge gulps, he then used the bottle to relieve himself. Desperate times and all that. He’d need to prepare an emergency stash of food, water, and a piss container for the future.

The thought had him wondering how in hell he’d ended up in this situation. His friends didn’t have to worry about their basic human needs being met, for Christ’s sake.

He hid the bottle under his bed, noticing several smears of blood on the sheets. Sonofabitch, he made me bleed.

The click of the lock releasing had his head snapping up, and sent his heart thundering in preparation for another fight.

Sir poked his head around the door. “Clean yourself up and get to school.”

He was gone before Aiden could reply. Not that he had anything to say to the man. Except maybe, why? Why are you such a bastard? Why don’t you love me?

The ground swayed under his feet, and he lowered his butt to the bed. How the hell was he supposed to go to school? He’d probably feel better after some food and pain killers, but even then, every move made him relive yesterday’s horror. His brain began to float between his ears, and the room appeared to warp out of shape. Flopping to the side, he hoped his head would hit somewhere close to the pillow, as he cried out in agony.

Aiden kept his eyes closed, pulling in air through flared nostrils, until the room stopped imitating a Tilt-A-Whirl. He knew his father would be back to check on him. He had to think of a plan to get out before then. If he could get himself dressed and down the stairs, he might be able to make it to Angel’s house. But, he didn’t want her to see him like this. Shit, no, that was no good. If he could get dressed and get to a phone, he could ring Hank at the garage. He was the only one Aiden could trust to help him without saying anything to anyone.

He gripped the edge of his mattress in one hand and lowered a foot to the floor, sliding the rest of his body down to follow. Crawling on hands and knees, he made it to his dresser without the room spinning, but couldn’t stop the whimpers of pain. He’d been beaten up plenty of times before, but not like this. His father’s rage was growing, and Aiden was the outlet.

After an awkward struggle, he managed to get dressed, and shuffled on his tail down the stairs to the living room where the phone was. The only sounds in the house were his labored breaths and the dial tone as he picked up the receiver, punching in the number of the garage.

Harvey’s Auto Shop. If it’s broke, we’ll fix it. How can we help you today?” Damn, it was Tina, the office manager.

He hoped she didn’t recognize his voice. He hoped his voice didn’t desert him.

“Uh, hi. I’d like to speak to Hank, if he’s there, please.”

“Sure thing, honey. Hold on a sec.”

The hold music rang tinny in his ears, and white spots danced across his vision. He put his head between his knees, and gripped the phone with both hands, willing Angel’s daddy to hurry.

“This is Hank.”

“Mr. Mur—” He tried to clear his throat, but couldn’t get enough air.

“Aiden? Is that you?”

Lifting his shoulders, Aiden begged his lungs to fill.

What’s happened?” Mr. Murphy’s voice rose in concern.

He hated to drag him into the mess, but he had no choice. “Yeah. I’m … hurt.”

“Are you at home?”

“Ye—”

“I’ll be there in five. Stay put.”

Relief flooded his system, giving his brain the okay to check out. He briefly registered the words before he dropped the phone, tumbling sideways to the carpet.

_____

Aiden’s hearing was the first thing to reawaken. An air compressor, the phone ringing, metallic tapping, a few thick Irish accents battling for who was the loudest. All muffled like they were coming from a distance. Cracking open an eyelid, he recognized Hank’s desk, and realized he was lying on the sofa in Angel’s dad’s office.

You’re back.”

Mr. Murphy.

Aiden tried to lift his head, but apparently, it had morphed into a boulder during his blackout. Something cold was removed from his back, as Hank’s tree-trunk legs moved into view.

Now, don’t you be trying to move. I’ve put salve on your back and a bandage or two, but you need to go careful. I’ll help you sit up so you can swallow something for your pain.”

He gasped as Hank maneuvered his body upright. It hurt like a bitch. His brain hovered about a foot above his head, and his stomach had collapsed in on itself. But other than that, he was ready for boot scootin’.

Curling his hands over the edge of the sofa cushion, he held himself upright while Hank popped the tablets in his mouth, and tipped some cool water down his throat. It soothed his thirst, but awakened his empty stomach. A loud gurgle escaped into the room.

Ye hungry? I’ll get Harvey to get you something.”

“No, don’t tell anyone. Please.”

“Who do you think helped me carry you in here, lad? I didn’t want to put pressure on your back, so he grabbed one end and I grabbed the other.”

Aiden’s face twisted, turning pink as he studied the carpet.

Hey. You can always count on a Murphy to take care of you. We’re not going to spread the word that your pa is a beast. Besides, he’s doing a good enough job of starting gossip on his own.”

“What do you mean?”

Never mind, lad. I shouldn’t have spoken ill of your kin.” He patted the cushion, repositioning it for Aiden. “Lie back down on your side and let the medicine kick in. I’ve got a bucket here for you if you’re likely to lose your lunch, but the food will be on its way shortly.”

Aiden reached for the arm of the sofa, and eased his body down to the cushion. He didn’t look at Mr. Murphy. The look of pity on Hank’s face was too much to bear. But what was worse, was knowing that his own father would never care for him like Hank did. And Hank would never be his father. If he could change one thing in his life, that would be it.

The pain slowly receded to a dull throb, and Aiden let go of the tension in his muscles. He listened to Hank shuffle some papers and tap on his keyboard, until the door swung open and Harvey, Hank’s younger brother, barged in.

Aiden. Good to see you’re back in the room. Did you have a nice kip, ye lazy sod?” He dumped a paper bag in front of Aiden’s face. “Got my lunch for you. Some quiche and salad from the missus. She tries to get me to eat the healthy stuff.” He scoffed. “A man needs more sustenance than rabbit food and a bit of egg. She doesn’t need to know I’ll be swapping it for a burger. If you’re still hungry after that, I’ll get one for you, too.” Harvey smoothed a hand over his red beard, looking pleased with himself.

Thanks, Mr. Murphy. That’s very generous of you.”

“I keep telling you to call me Harvey. Mr. Murphy is this one here.” He poked a large finger in Hank’s direction. “He’s the boss. I’m the talent.”

Angel’s daddy rolled his eyes. “Okay, Harvey. Thanks. Get out of here before you make the boy pass out again from all the hot air you’re blowin’.”

Harvey grinned and left, bumping shoulders with his older brother, Harry, as the man stood at the door.

Are you okay there, son?” Harry’s brow bunched in concern, smudged by grease and sweat. His large fist had a strangle hold on the door knob. Aiden worried he might snap it off.

Harry was the middle child of the three Irish brothers, and probably the most practical and level headed of the bunch. He ran the day-to-day operations in the workshop, and kept Hank’s grand ideas in check.

I’m feeling a bit better, thank you.”

Good to see you haven’t lost your manners. I’ll be back to check on you. Call me if you need me. Anytime.” Harry eyeballed Aiden. “I mean it.” The door knob rattled as he released it and shut the door behind him.

He was so damn lucky to have the Murphys in his life. What would he do without them? A shiver passed over Aiden’s body and he swallowed against a tight throat.

Hank helped him up and he got to work on the food. Quiche had never tasted so good. He probably resembled a stray dog the way he was scoffing down the sustenance, but he didn’t care.

Hank’s discerning eye followed his every move. Worry flowed across the room in waves, wrapping him in an embrace he wouldn’t be able to tolerate. He could feel the unvoiced questions prodding at him, and knew the man wouldn’t hold them in forever. Hank wasn’t stupid. He’d been suspicious of Aiden’s home situation for a while. Sir was careful to put his marks where people wouldn’t be able to see them. He’d ended up with a black eye once, but he blamed that on a stray baseball. The flat set of Mr. Murphy’s eyes and mouth told him the man wasn’t buying his bullshit.

He sat staring at the empty container, his fork still gripped in one hand.

“Are you gonna talk to me, lad?”

What is there to say?”

“Did he beat you because you were late for dinner, or was it because you were with us?”

“Both.”

He heard a hiss of air escape Hank’s nose. “There is no excuse for that behavior. Do you hear me?”

Aiden hung his head. Logically, he knew he didn’t deserve the harsh treatment, but the little boy inside that wanted to please his father believed it was his fault. That he wasn’t a good enough son.

I don’t care if you’ve gone and stolen a car. You’d be in the lockup, but you wouldn’t be lying half dead, bleeding. I nearly took you to the medical center, but I knew that would do a number on your family life. I was a hair’s breath away, lad. And one day, I’m afraid I’m not going to have a choice. I love you like my own. It kills me to have to leave you in harm’s way. Give me the word and I’ll report him.”

Aiden rubbed his chin, his eyes shooting up to Hank’s. He knew the man cared for him, but it was always a shock to hear the words out of his mouth. Out of anyone’s mouth. Despite the rush of euphoria, he let the fear of his father override it. “I can’t do that. He’ll kill me.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

Please … don’t.” The words wheezed out as panic gripped his chest.

His father was a prominent member of the community. He owned a law firm in town and represented all the big names in the county, his sights firmly set on politics and Washington DC. Aiden didn’t want to cause any dramas. He’d never live it down. Literally.

Mr. Murphy’s lips set in a grim line, and the wrinkles on his brow cut deeper as he sat watching Aiden in silence.

Aiden put the container back in the bag to resist squirming. Hank was a formidable man. Aiden had never seen him get angry, but he had a way about him that stopped anyone from wanting to argue. Except Angel.

Aiden figured he wouldn’t be seeing her for a few days. Fatigue settled on him like a lead apron. He let his eyes fall shut and felt the bag being tugged from his hands. A gentle push on his shoulder urged him to lie down. He was on board with that plan. There was no fight left. For now, he was safe and in Hank’s care. That was all he could wish for. It would’ve been better if Angel could be by his side, but he didn’t want her to know about his father. Didn’t want to appear weak in her eyes.

He knew that if he looked in the mirror … that’s what he’d see. Weakness.

Chapter Three



Angel held her glasses in her hand, squinting at the blurry figure in the mirror. She put the frames back on, blinking at her reflection, before lifting the glasses above her brow. Her eyelids narrowed again. No amount of squinting was going to make her eyesight improve, darn it. She dropped the glasses back on her nose and pushed her hair off her pale face.

Plain Jane.

Not that she could dress up her school uniform, but come on. She was sixteen, weren’t things supposed to be changing? She religiously dyed her boring black hair to a more vivacious red, with the help of her cousins, who were all redheads blessed by nature and not the bottle. Her father had the same problem, being the only raven among his flame-haired brothers. But in his case, he preferred it that way.

She huffed and shifted her attention to her lack of chest, cupping each modest swell with a palm. She didn’t look any older than thirteen. When would she start looking like a woman?

Angel’s face twisted in a grimace. She wished she had her mother to talk to. Reaching out, she took a black and white photo from where it was wedged into the mirror frame. The image of her mother, beaming with a newborn Angel in her arms. She’d been a beautiful woman before her life was cut short by a drunk driver. The loss of her mother had unpacked its bags and settled in the core of her heart, a companion for life. It was times like this that it would twinge and throb, reminding her of what she’d never have again. Angel knew her aunts would help her out with anything she needed, but it wasn’t the same.

She put the photo back in its spot next to the one of her and Aiden, taken when they were two years younger, while horsing around in her yard. Her body had awakened to him around that time. She’d always seen him as more than a friend, but right then, she was sure he wanted him. Angel wondered when his feelings had started to change, and what he really thought of her lack of assets.

She hadn’t seen him at school the last two days, and her paranoid mind thought that maybe she had something to do with his absence. Her fingers twisted together. Maybe she’d scared him off by being too forward. Or maybe he didn’t like her as much as she imagined. Untangling her fingers, she rubbed her bottom lip where her teeth had sunk in a little too hard, and reassured herself that he’d been just as into it as she had been. She’d felt his excitement in her hand. Well, more like squashed it under her hand. Ugh.

A loud tapping on the window made her jump with an embarrassing scream. She turned to find Aiden grinning at her through the glass. Forcing her shoulders to relax, Angel dashed over to push open the barrier.

How long have you been there, spying like a psycho?”

He rested his elbows on the window ledge while the rest of him balanced on a sturdy elm branch, moving as it swayed in the breeze. He’d never climbed to her window before. Not that she knew of, anyways. She’d better be more careful about shutting the curtain.

Only long enough to watch you … uh … look at the photo.”

His eyes averted and her gut dropped, heat rushing up her neck. Oh, good Lord. He’d seen her feeling her boobs. She sucked in a breath, almost choking on her own spit.

Sh—ugar.

Lurching forward, she grabbed the window and yanked it closed, narrowly missing his elbow.

Hey! What was that for?” Aiden’s head bounced in and out of view, while his fingers struggled for purchase on the ledge.

“You saw!”

Yeah, I saw. How was I supposed to know you’d be feeling yourself up? Are you coming down or do you need to assess yourself some more? We’re gonna be late for school.”

She growled, baring her teeth, but he just grinned back and started to climb down.

Pausing, he looked back up. “For the record, if you need a second opinion, I’d be happy to give one.”

Ooh, you cheeky—” She slammed her mouth shut before the curse escaped. “You won’t be getting anywhere near them,” she yelled through the glass. He’d descended out of sight, but his laugh reached her ears and tugged the corners of her mouth in a smile.

Picking up her bag, she bolted down the staircase to find Aiden and her daddy seated at the kitchen table, talking about baseball.

Come on. We’re going to miss the bus.” She looked away from Aiden who was fighting a grin, and gave her father a tight hug. “Bye, Daddy. Love you big.”

Love you bigger. Enjoy your day, kids.” He waved them off, cutting another slice of fried egg.

Sweat sprang from her pores as the sun bit down on her skin. Angel ducked under the cover of the trees lining the street, folding her hand into Aiden’s when he offered it. She hummed and jiggled her hand in his. This was one of her favorite parts of the day. Sharing the trip to school with him. The day ahead held more promise when she got to start it by spending time with him. That’s what love does.

Turning her attention to Aiden, she found him staring ahead, troubled thoughts creasing his brow.

Isn’t your dad working today?” Aiden’s voice had an edge, making it squeakier than usual.

“No, he said he had some stuff to take care of.”

Oh.” Aiden let his head fall forward and grabbed the strap of his bag, watching the ground as they walked to the stop.

He did that often. Retreated into his own head. She usually just waited patiently for him to work through whatever had him distracted and to come back to her. But there was something about the tight set of his jaw, and the grip he had on his bag, that had her concerned about where he’d retreated to today.

So, where have you been the last few days?”

Hm? Oh, I had to do some stuff for my father.”

Like what?” She used a playful tone to lighten the heaviness following him, but any mention of his father was a bad omen.

Legal stuff that I can’t tell you about, or you’d have to sign a gag order.” His words were joking, but his face was grim.

Ha. You wouldn’t hurt me. You wouldn’t hurt anyone.” She tried for playful again, although she meant what she said.

“Not if I can help it.”

The bus pulled up, letting out a loud hiss and screech as it stopped and let them on. They lived way out on the edge of town, so they had their pick of the seats with only a couple of other students already seated. Angel waved hello and Aiden gave a quiet nod as they made their way to the back. She plopped down in her usual spot by the window, and Aiden folded himself stiffly beside her. He normally dumped his bag under his feet, but today, he hugged it to him, hunching over it like he was protecting a wad of cash inside. He wasn’t looking at her, either. He just fixed his eyes on the seat in front, and bounced his knee like a jack rabbit. She twisted her hands in her lap, wanting the sick feeling that was invading her stomach to go away.

His tawny gaze darted over her shoulder to watch the passing fields. “Are you comin’ to watch ball practice after school?”

Yeah. I’ll be there, like I always am.”

Cool. Big game this weekend.” He turned back to the front, stretching his neck to watch the road, she guessed.

What is going on?

Angel placed a hand on his shoulder, meaning to get him to relax, but he jerked away from her touch, hissing in a breath.

She snatched her hand away, her eyes levering wide. “You’re hurt?”

I hurt myself climbing your tree this mornin’. I shouldn’t have done it. Sorry about that, by the way.”

The bus pulled over, letting a few more students on, before pitching forward as it took off again.

“Let me see.” She lifted the bottom of his shirt several inches before he tugged it out of her grip, snapping at her that he was fine.

She bit down on her lip, covering her mouth with a hand. She’d seen enough to know he wasn’t fine at all. Angry red lashes that had turned into purple bruises, some of them deep enough to have scabbed over.

Legal stuff, huh? More like illegal.

What really happened?” Her voice quivered, moisture gathering in her eyes because she’d already guessed the truth.

Just leave it, Angel,” he spat out the words, cutting her as deeply as he had been.

She loved this boy with all her heart. She wanted to help him and he wasn’t having any of it.

“No. I can’t.”

“Yes. You can.” His jaw clenched around the words.

Don’t push me away. There’s no way I can stand by, knowing you’re hurting like this.”

“You can’t help me. There’s nothing anyone can do.”

Bullshit!” She twisted in the seat, leaning close so she could whisper-yell. “I can tell daddy and he can call the sheriff. You could come and live with us, we have plenty of spare rooms in that big old house. I can take care of you, and your daddy will be arrested. Probably your mama, too. Don’t try and tell me she doesn’t know what’s going on. What kind of mama allows someone to hurt her baby? I don’t care if it is your pa.”

My father is a lawyer. Don’t you think he’d be able to find a way out of trouble? Who’s gonna believe my word over his? He’s friends with the sheriff. If I say anything, my life will get worse, not better.” His eyes held a desperation that tore through her heart. “I’ll become the sob story that no one can look in the eye, but everyone is happy to gossip about. The kids at school will make fun, or worse, not talk to me at all.” He rested his palm over her clenched fist. “Come on, Angel, you can’t fix this. Okay?”

She pushed up her glasses. “No. Not even close.”

Angel spun away from him and focused on her hands fisted in her lap. She swiped angry tears away with her fingers, knowing some of his points were valid. If she could get proof that it was his father who’d done this, then the sheriff would have to take notice, and Aiden had a chance to get away.

Your pa knows.

Her eyes jerked back to his and her lips parted to speak, but she couldn’t sort through the mix of hope, betrayal, and defeat she was feeling, to form any words. If her daddy knew, why hadn’t he done anything about it?

He came to get me. Fixed me up. I’ve been recovering in his office and going home at night pretending I was fine, until I could go to bed. He phoned the school for me, too. Got that all squared away, somehow. If my father knew, he’d be causing all sorts of dramas for your pa. He’d try to, anyways. Your daddy has more power in this town than my father, and that drives him crazy. But it’s not enough for people to believe such a serious accusation.”

She turned away, wanting to cover her ears. Fields gave way to suburbia as the bus trudged on to school, stopping more frequently now. Angel stared at the houses thinking everything looked the same, but her stomach sank down to her knees with a feeling that nothing would be the same ever again. She could taste it on her tongue, like sour milk. She wanted to spit it out. She wanted to march right up to Mr. Thomas and spit and hiss, and kick his shins for what he’d done. What a brute of a man.

For the first time in her life, she thought she might be capable of hatred.

Chapter Four



Aiden flicked a loose piece of grass off his baseball shirt, and cautiously rolled his shoulders. His back throbbed like a thumb after a hammering, but he was happy. Ball practice was awesome. The guys were more than ready to face off against their rival team that weekend. His teammate’s mama had dropped him and Angel a few blocks away, and now they strolled home, hands clasped.

“Did you see that catch?”

“Yeah. I also saw how you couldn’t get up for two minutes after you landed. Why didn’t you sit this one out?”

Because I don’t wanna make anyone suspicious, and I don’t want to give my father the satisfaction of making me miss out on the good stuff.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I appreciate that. But shouldn’t you rest up before Saturday? How’re you going to slide into home base if you’ve opened up all your cuts again?”

“I’ll take an ice bath.”

Angel pouted her cute mouth and looked up at him with those emerald eyes darkened by concern. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and laid a firm kiss on her lips.

“I’ll be fine.”

“I wish I could believe you.”

Dropping his bag, he moved in front of her, blocking her way. He took her face into his hands. “I’ll be fine.”

Again, his lips captured hers, lingering for a good long taste this time. Angel’s hand landed on his chest and smoothed their way to his neck, leaving a path of heat in their wake. Damn, this girl was his drug. He’d endure anything as long as he didn’t have to be apart from her. He shifted his grip to her waist and angled his head for a deeper kiss. He had to taste her fully, licking into her mouth. Aiden was careful not to push her. He wanted to pull her body into his and obliterate the space between them. But they were on the street, and if either of their father’s saw, there’d be hell to pay. He pulled back, gently setting her away, and smirking at the way she swayed on her feet when he let her go to pick up his bag.

Grabbing her hand, he continued walking, rounding the corner of their street. As always, his eyes found the big, beautiful, antebellum masterpiece that had been in Angel’s family for generations. Its blue shutters stood out against the white walls, proud columns marking its entrance. Grand oak trees protected the street in a canopy of green, as they walked closer to the bend that would reveal his modest, plantation-plain style home.

Angel’s feet slowed to a stop, her arm tugging his behind him. He looked back in question. He didn’t think her ivory skin could get any paler, but she was whiter than his uniform. Her eyes held a disbelief and panic that had his head whipping around to see what was going on.

No. Mother fucker. No.” He dropped Angel’s hand and sprinted towards his house.

Two bulky removal guys carried his desk into the back of their truck. Another two followed with his bed. Aiden forgot about the pain in his back as a surge of rage-fueled adrenaline took over. He stopped across the street, raking his fingers through his hair and pulling hard at the roots. They’d cleaned out most of the furniture already.

Fuck!” He squatted down, gripping his head, eyes fixed on his uncertain future, and the worst hell on Earth packed into the back of that truck.

He searched for his father’s car, not finding any sign of it. The asshole was probably screwing over his employees’ 401K retirement plans.

Angel stepped into his view, clutching at his shirt. “We can run away. Daddy will understand.” She yanked on the material, sobbing. “You can borrow Daddy’s bike. Let’s go.”

They ran back to Angel’s place. She darted up the stairs to grab a backpack and some clothes, while he raided the cupboards for food. His hands shook so badly that he smashed a jar of jelly, the red mush on the floor demonstrating the state of his heart.

“Fuck!”

He zipped his bag and rubbed a hand over his face as Angel came back down. “Where are we going to go? Have you got enough money for a bus fare? Is there even a bus out of town at this time of day?”

I’ve got it all planned. We can hide out at Saunders’ Hardware. You know he has an apartment above the store. I know where he keeps the key. We can’t use the bus, that’ll be the first place they’ll look. It’s too late to ride anywhere, but we’ll have to leave early in the morning and take the back roads to the next county. We’ll hitch a ride as soon as we can. I found Daddy’s emergency stash. That should get us food for a while until we can get work. I have some savings, too.”

“Are you sure about this, Angel? You don’t have to leave everything for me.”

“You stupid boy. You are everything. Don’t you know that by now?”

Adrenaline punched into his system at hearing her words, and he shuffled his weight, not knowing how to let it seep in deep where he needed it. Love wasn’t a familiar term. He knew he loved her. He’d hoped she felt the same. But, belief and acceptance didn’t come easily for his battered heart.

Her eyes moved around the room, taking it all in through a sheen of tears. “Let’s go before someone finds us.”

Aiden swallowed past the guilt lodged in his throat, feeling like a selfish asshole for letting her do this, but unable to contemplate a life without her. He gathered her in his arms, absorbing her strength, knowing he’d never be man enough to deserve the sacrifice she was making for him.


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