One look from Stephan DeLuca made my heart pound in my chest, my pulse instantly quickening in his presence. He was gorgeous, tall with short, dark hair, tanned skin, and enough muscle to fill out his football uniform perfectly. Dressed in the navy-and-white jersey and tight pants, his hair still slick with sweat from practice, Stephan looked like a football god.
When he winked at me, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling, something I didn’t do as often as I would have liked. But Stephan had a way of pulling one out of me every time I saw him.
Walcott Prep’s team was gearing up to play in the State Championship game, which was a big deal for our school. Stephan was the starting quarterback. His twin brother, Sabatino, who everyone called Nino, was at his side in the same uniform. Even though they were identical, it was easy to tell them apart. At least it was for me.
Stephan looked angry, even when he was in a good mood. His jaw was always set hard, his expression unreadable, where Nino had a softness to his features that was more inviting and friendly. Despite their similarities, Stephan’s darkness called to me. I understood what it was like to live in the light, all while hiding in the shadows. He knew my darkness and welcomed it. If I allowed him, he would consume me.
“Who are they?” Nicole Avery, the new transfer student, said to me. “They’re hot.”
Switching the textbooks from my right arm to my left, I glanced over at her, unaffected. I was becoming an expert at hiding my feelings. “I’m assuming you mean the DeLuca twins.”
She bobbed her head, about to look back at them again, when I grabbed her shoulder to stop her. “Don’t give them any attention. They thrive on it.”
“Who’s the one who winked at you?”
Nicole hooked her fingers through the strap of the bag slung over her shoulder and licked her lips. “Stephan… what a sexy name. It matches the man attached to it.”
We were in high school, and though Stephan was still a boy, he looked all man. For a second, I caught myself thinking of how his strong hands would feel against my skin. I would have bet they were rough and calloused from all the years he’d played football.
“There’s two of them,” she cooed, clapping her hands together. “One for each of us.”
Stephan and Nino had this effect on every girl in school. They were hands-down the most attractive, the most athletic, and by far, the most powerful. Their father was a businessman, but he had connections to criminal organizations, which made him an even more formidable opponent for my father. It also made him my enemy. Knowing I couldn’t have Stephan only made me crave him more.
“You can have Nino.” I stopped in front of my locker, with Nicole at my side. Her face was glowing over the DeLuca twins. “But stay away from Stephan.”
Her expression changed for a second before she forced another smile. “Are you guys together?”
“No.” I dropped the textbooks inside my locker and removed another book. “He’s bad news. Always in trouble and never without a girl on his arm. Nino is the good one, or at least he’s nice, more approachable. You’ll have a better shot with him.”
I tried to keep Nicole away from Stephan because I wanted him. It didn’t matter if we could never be together, that want never went away.
“I didn’t see him with a girl.”
That was because Stephan’s magnetism was like a force field, which circled around him, making him impossible to get near. Stephan guarded himself, as did I, but he always lowered it whenever I was around. We had the same effect on each other. Our eyes formed an unspoken bond, creating a promise neither of us had ever acted upon.
“You’ll see all the cheerleaders and groupies hanging out at their table during lunch. Stephan is the King of Walcott Prep, and the cafeteria is where he holds his court.”
She covered her mouth and chuckled. “This I have to see.”
I shoved the book into my bag and slammed my locker shut, turning around to face Nicole. “Sit with me at lunch, and you will see.”
When the headmaster stopped me on my way into the building, asking me to escort a new student for the week, I’d agreed on the spot. I was popular but didn’t have friends—my father saw to that. Attractive but never had a boyfriend. Socially speaking, I could have been friends with all the it girls, but I had no interest. Because my father approved of them. Their wealth and social status was good enough for him.
But I would never be one of them. I could never be one of them. Whatever my father liked, I hated. And whatever I wanted, he would take from me. He was a cruel, sick man who terrified me. My pain was his pleasure. For years, I never understood why.
Stephan, Nino, and two of their teammates passed us. I took a step backward to create some distance between us, my lower back digging into the metal padlock of my locker. Nicole’s body grew rigid, her eyes wide when she stared at them. It was obvious she was interested in Nino, where I remained stoic this time. Unreachable.
Stephan looked into my eyes as if he saw through me. And I saw him. I’d always seen Stephan DeLuca for what he really was. Even though I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I knew he saw through me, too.
When the bell rang, I walked with Nicole to class. I went through the motions the entire morning, desperate for a break from the monotony. I was at the top of our class, a guaranteed shoe-in at my father’s alma mater, Columbia University. I’d received my early acceptance the week before. He controlled every aspect of my life, my education and social life included. Nicole was the closest I’d have to a friend, at least until my father found out about her.
I met Nicole at her locker and stared at the brown bag in her hand. The catty girls in our class would have a field day with the new girl bringing her lunch to school.
“Hide that.” I pointed at the bag. “You can’t commit social suicide your first week at Walcott.”
Her nose scrunched in confusion, one eyebrow raised. “Why can’t I eat this? Isn’t that what normal people do during lunch?”
I closed her locker and led her down the hall by the hand. “You would think, but no, not with this crowd. Lunch hour is about socializing and making connections.”
“But I’m starving,” she complained.
“How about a pastry and coffee? My treat.”
She smiled, even though it was somewhat forced. “Thank you. You don’t have to do that for me.”
“Don’t worry about it. What are friends for? I’ve got your back. This place is full of evil bitches who want to see you fail. But I won’t let that happen.” I gave her a closed-mouth smile. “Promise.”
Nicole was the only real friend I’d ever had. She was a girl my father never would have approved of because of her upbringing. But I didn’t care what he thought of her. Money and power wasn’t everything. In fact, it meant nothing to me.
She brushed her shoulder against mine. “Thanks, Bella.”
Only my brother, Mark, ever called me Bella. My father was proper, a boring old stiff. He never used nicknames or terms of affection for either of his children. That would have required him to feel something for us.
Once we reached the cafeteria, which was more like a coffee bar or a lounge, we stood in line to order our drinks.
“At my last school, we were lucky if they served hot chocolate when it was cold outside, let alone custom drinks,” Nicole said. “I feel like I’m at Starbucks.”
“They serve Starbucks coffee here. The pastries are brought in from a bakery in Manhattan every day. Welcome to Walcott Prep, Nicole.” I held my arms out at my sides. “Your entire life is about to change.”
And probably not for the better.
“Call me Nicki. Everyone does.” She flicked her long, blonde strands over her shoulder and turned to glance up at the menu hung on the wall. “What’s good here?”
“I would go with either the cappuccino or a café mocha. But I have a preference for espresso. What do you like?”
“Frappuccino, I guess. That’s the only thing I’ve ever tried from Starbucks.”
“You need more caffeine than a frap to stay awake during Mrs. Donnelly’s class. She’ll put you to sleep.”
She laughed. “I’ll try whatever you’re drinking then.”
I ordered café mochas and chocolate croissants for us, and then we scooted down to the end of the counter, where other students were waiting to pick up their drinks. A group of mean girls I couldn’t stand were glaring at me, their eyes moving from me to Nicole. They knew they couldn’t touch me, or my father would destroy theirs, as he had done to anyone who ever crossed him. But they could get to Nicole, if I allowed them.
“Oh, look, we have a new girl,” Brittany Halstead boomed, her voice loud enough to draw everyone’s attention. “How nice of you to take on a charity case, Isabella?”
I stepped forward, my jaw flexed in anger. “Nicki is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.”
“I’m sure your daddy would love to meet your new friend.” Brittany reached into her Louis Vuitton clutch and removed her cell phone. “How about I give his office a call to arrange dinner? I’m sure he’d love to meet her.”
“Don’t start,” I warned. “You’ll regret it.”
She tilted her head back and laughed. “Doubtful.”
I didn’t want my dad to take Nicole away. He always found a way to ensure I was alone and friendless. Boys were never part of the equation because dating was not allowed under his roof. The great and powerful Senator Parisi chose my friends for me.
Girls like Brittany, who came from good homes and had loads of money, were among the type of people he picked for me. But I wanted nothing to do with them. We had nothing in common, apart from our expensive clothes and education.
Before I could get in another word, the barista called out Brittany’s name and slid the cups along the counter. My name was next, which was a relief. I lifted one cup and a dessert dish from the granite top and handed it to Nicole.
She took it from me without a word, her eyes giving away everything I needed to know. I could tell without her saying it aloud she was embarrassed. By being near me, I’d made her a target of girls like Brittany. I was only trying to make her feel welcome and hopefully, become friends with her.
“I see I was right,” Brittany lilted. “Charity case.”
With the warm cup in one hand and the plate in the other, I turned to say something to Brittany. But I couldn’t move. Surprised to see Stephan now pushing his hands out to the side to get between us, I stopped dead in my tracks. Stephan shut down the conversation without even speaking by shooting a cold, hard look in Brittany’s direction. I noticed a shiver run down Brittany’s body then he said, “Don’t you have the drama teacher to blow, Brittany? I’m sure he could shut you up by stuffing his cock down your throat.”
I tried not to laugh and failed, with Nicole following suit.
Brittany covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes wide in shock.
“Don’t act like everyone in school doesn’t know,” he growled. His voice was deep, modulated, and soothing to my ears. He tilted his head toward the tables. “Go. Get out of here. And stay away from them.”
He meant Nicole and me.
Brittany nodded as if she understood, and then said to her minions, “C’mon girls.”
Brittany didn’t argue with Stephan. She stomped away from us with a loud grunt.
My face hurt from smiling so wide.
Stephan turned to his brother and said under his breath, but low enough for me to hear, “Keep her friend company. I have to talk to Isabella.”
Fear shot through me. He wanted to talk to me? I’d never been alone with Stephan, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be. Because I was afraid of what I would do with him given the chance. What I’d allow him to do to me. So many nights I’d thought of Stephan when I was alone and under the covers, imaging his hand was mine.
Nino looked at Nicole with a sexy smirk. He liked what he saw. She smiled, and her entire face lit up with excitement.
Her skin was like milk, smooth and clear, unblemished. Nicole was a pretty girl, with light features, a slim figure, and kind eyes. It wasn’t hard to see why she was on Brittany’s radar. She was afraid of any competition when it came to the boys at our school.
“Go with Nino,” I said to Nicole. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Okay,” she muttered. “Don’t be too long.”
I smiled. “I won’t.”
With a slight head gesture in my direction, Stephan told me to follow behind him. I handed the pastry dish and latte cup to Nino and asked him to watch my food for me before I slinked out the door behind Stephan. He waited for me in the hallway, down by the gymnasium doors. His arms were folded across his thick chest, his muscles bulging beneath the navy sweater everyone at Walcott had to wear. Stephan was a sight, his legs long and toned in khaki pants that fit him as if they were sewn onto his body.
My heart raced from the anticipation of being alone with him. When I moved closer to Stephan, he pushed into the gymnasium doors and disappeared through them. Was this a game? I was so aroused by the promise of spending time with Stephan my legs trembled. It was good nerves, the kind that propelled me toward him.
The gym was dark, save for the light that filtered in through the high windows on the south side of the large, open room. Stephan climbed the bleachers, not bothering to look back at me until he’d reached the top. He sat and patted the space next to him. His hand slapping against the wooden bench echoed throughout the room.
My heart beat loudly in my ears. It was so quiet inside the gym I’d wondered if Stephan heard it too when I took my seat next to him.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me.” He set his big hand on the bench, filling the space between us. “I’m not going to bite… not unless you want me to.”
I sucked in a breath of air, which sounded like a soft moan when I released it. He stared at me, his deep blue irises intense, frightening. His words said one thing, but his eyes said another. Stephan was dangerous, even when we were kids I knew he had the power to crush me. To destroy anyone in his path. He would ruin me if I let him, and in that moment, I wanted him to show me all the dirty things I’d thought of when I saw him.
I inched my fingers closer to his until they made contact and sparks shot through the tips. Our connection was electric, further intensified when he wove his fingers between mine.
“We’re not allowed to be together,” I said, my voice so soft it was almost a whisper. “My father will kill you.”
He smirked. “Like I care what he thinks of me. I’d like to see him try.”
“You should care. He hurts anyone who gets too close to me. I’m damaged goods, didn’t you know? No one will even talk to me because of him.”
“I’m talking to you right now.” He pushed a fallen strand of hair behind my ear and cupped the side of my face with his hand. “You’re not damaged.”
“You say that because you know nothing about me.”
Stephan moved his thumb from my cheek to run it along my bottom lip. “You’re like a pretty bird locked away in a cage for everyone to see. My beautiful raven.” He released his hold on my face and sighed. “He can’t keep you caged forever.”
Stunned, I stared at him, unblinking. “Free me.”
The words fell from my lips before I could stop myself.
“I will,” he said, hesitating with the next part, “when the time is right.”
He acted as if he could control what happened to me. Little did I know back then that Stephan was no ordinary boy, and he would become an extraordinary man.
Stephan slid his hand into his pocket. He held a velvet pouch from Tiffany’s in his palm so I could see it before he removed a thick choker. “I had this made for you. Someone told me Tiffany’s is your favorite.” Balancing the white gold choker on his finger, he let it dangle there for a second, waiting for me to reach for it.
“I don’t deserve a present.” I looked at him, confused, my eyes moving between Stephan and the necklace. “Why?”
“It’s your birthday, is it not?” He opened the clasp and held the chain with both hands. “It’s rude to refuse a gift on your birthday. Turn around.”
Birthdays and holidays, in general, were not important in my house. Every year, I would get a gift my father’s secretary had sent to me from some overpriced designer with a note written by the woman who packaged the box. Nothing was ever personalized or special. Half the time my parents weren’t even home, leaving my older brother and the staff to celebrate with me.
I did as Stephan asked, my back now facing him. “How did you know?”
“I know everything about you,” he growled.
“Everything?” My voice creaked when I spoke.
He didn’t answer my question. Instead, he moved behind me, his arms now in front of me to lower the chain to my neck. With Stephan touching me, it was as if fire had licked my skin, its destructive flames dancing down my arms. I leaned back, without meaning to get too close, and when I did, Stephan moved his hands to my hips.
“Stephan,” I choked out.
“Raven,” he said against the shell of my ear, causing me to shiver.
I liked his nickname for me. It fit my situation perfectly. My father locked me inside the house, forced me to become the person he wanted me to be. I was a prisoner more than anything. Stephan wasn’t wrong about my life or me. Even when I’d tried to escape, he found me and made me pay for my actions.
“Happy birthday, beautiful.” His warm breath on my skin did something unexpected between my legs. He hadn’t even touched me, and I was wet and panting, wishing he would slip his hand beneath my skirt.
“Thank you, Stephan. This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
“Have you ever been kissed?” He said the words against my neck, his lips so close he could feel my rapid pulse.
“No,” I admitted, which was sad because I was now eighteen and six months away from graduation.
He held my jaw in his hand and tilted my head up until our eyes met. “I want to be your first everything. Even if I can’t have you now, I will at some point. And I want you to wait for me. Will you do that for me?”
“Yes… but my dad will never allow you anywhere near me. He hates your family. He says you’re all thugs and criminals and that no child of his will ever associate with a DeLuca.”
“He doesn’t have to know about us.”
I laughed. “You don’t know him like I do. He’ll find out one way or another. He has spies everywhere.”
Stephan held me tight, angling my body so my head was on his shoulder and his arm was around my stomach. “Then we’d better make use of our time.”
His lips crashed against mine with rough possession, his tongue invading my mouth like he wanted to conquer me. I moaned with each kiss he stole from my lips. He growled as if he was hungry and needed me to satiate his desire. My entire body came to life as adrenaline shot through me, rushing into my veins.
His hand moved from my stomach to my breast, his fingers circling my nipple over the fabric of my sweater. They were hard peaks, pointed at him. It was too hot in the gymnasium, the air too thick to breathe.
Without breaking the kiss, I rolled my sweater and blouse up, giving him access to slide his hand beneath my lacy bra. He pushed it out of the way, massaging my nipples with the pads of his thumbs. He pinched the swollen buds, ripping a scream from my lips that he smothered with another kiss. My core clenched, every inch of me begging for more.
I was acting like such a whore with Walcott Prep’s hottest bad boy. But I didn’t care. Stephan was mine as much I was his. Every part of me knew that was the truth. Sure, we were acting purely out of lust, though for both of us it felt like so much more. I needed this. My life was a series of organized events, choreographed by my crazed father. Times like this were few and far between.
Desperate for the aching between my legs to stop, I clamped my hand over Stephan’s and guided him. He moved my panties to the side, a growl escaping his lips when he dragged his finger along my slick folds.
“You’re the one who’s gonna kill me,” he grunted, and then plunged two fingers inside me.
I moaned so loud he covered my mouth with his to silence me. But as he worked his magic, sliding his fingers in and out of me, hitting every inch of my inner walls like a skilled magician, I came undone. I rocked my hips into his hand to push him further, tightening around his fingers. The long, hard length of his erection dug into my lower back. Knowing I had the same effect on him as he did on me somehow intensified my pleasure.
He kissed my neck as he fucked me with his long fingers, his teeth grazing my skin. “My raven,” he whispered. “One day you’ll be free.” His words seemed to line up with my orgasm, and as he continued to say sweet things to me, my body trembled. Heat pricked my cheeks, spreading down my neck and arms until it covered my chest. Sweat dotted my forehead, tiny beads that dampened my skin.
At the full height of my climax, I whimpered his name, and when I came down from my high, I was gasping for air.
“Fuck, that was hot.” Stephan slid his fingers out of me, his movement so slow he hit another pleasure point that caused me to squeal. “Mmm… that was even hotter.” He stuck his fingers in his mouth to lick my juices from them. “Now that I’ve tasted you…” he said between sucking on his fingers, “… I’ll never get you out of my head. I thought I could stay away from you… I tried to keep my distance.”
“I don’t want you to,” I confessed.
“I don’t think I could even if I wanted to.”
After I moved my clothes back into place, I sat up, still in Stephan’s arms. He kissed me, a quick peck that was enough for me to taste a hint of myself on his tongue.
I grabbed the charm hanging from the choker and rubbed it between my fingers, feeling the beveled edges of a feather. Without asking him, I knew its meaning. I was his raven, his pretty little bird he wanted to free from her cage. And this was his way of telling me I belonged to him. There was nothing I wanted more.