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Soul Food: A Steamy Paranormal Romance Standalone by Michelle Gross (1)

Prologue

 

Hot, angry tears slid down my cheeks as I was pulled out of the recording studio, held between two burly security guards in the elevator, and dragged the rest of the way out of KY Entertainment in front of everyone that knew the truth. They all looked the other way as if what was happening to me was an everyday occurrence. I was shocked. Stunned. Hurt.  Three months. Three long, sleep deprived, yet painfully happy months, I wrote and recorded my voice, and my words.

And just like that, I lost them within seconds as an altered to hell voice burst through the speakers with my song. My fucking words.

The betrayal ripped a hole in my chest.

My dream blinded me. I trusted the words of a snake and his daughter who I thought was my best friend.

The moment they let go of my arms, I spun around but they were already blocking my way, preventing me from going back inside. “Let me go,” I jerked away from them, not caring to wipe the tears from my eyes. “I need to see Mr. James and Liz!”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Thomas, we’ve been given strict orders not to let you inside the building,” one of them said.

“This is bullshit,” I hissed, locking my gaze on both of them. “You know I’ve been fucked.” They looked away from me because they knew, they knew just as everyone in the building did, most likely long before I did. The truth of those thoughts hit me, and it hurt worse.

I’d been meek, happy prey that had walked into a den of predators so innocently and thankful that Mr. James wanted me to come in and audition.

“That’s my song she’s singing,” I screamed at the building. “That song wasn’t meant to be sung like that—altered voice and upbeat!” I sounded defensive because I was. Not only was the song stolen, it meant something. Its words carried a tragedy, and they butchered it!

Liz and I grew up together. We went to grade, middle, and high school together. I helped her ace every test, and she helped me get with the boy of my dreams freshman year. We took chorus together all through high school. We just graduated and got completely wasted to celebrate just two short months ago.

Liz didn’t have a terrible voice per se, but she couldn’t carry a high pitch to save her life. In chorus, she had counted on me to sing the high pitches for us both while she barely sung above a whisper so that she didn’t break her pitch. Which was why she needed all that modification on my song.

“We can’t let you in, Ruth.” The assholes even knew my name after three months of walking in and out of these doors.

Sniffling, I brought my hands to my eyes and tipped my head up to look at the impressive building before me. In black bold lettering, KY Entertainment Studios mocked me on its white concrete walls.

I turned and walked away, but three steps was as far as I got. I was unable to let it go. This was my dream. One I thought I shared with Liz, and she took it all for herself and her crook of a father let her.

I let my anger control me for a second too long as I walked over to the flower bed, picked up a rock and chucked it at one of the glass windows, shattering it completely.

My anger went up in smoke about the same time the bald policeman handcuffed me and placed me in the back of his squad car.

______

“I’m being charged?” I asked the man in front of me who was writing the report. I looked at him incredulously as I leaned back in my chair. “What about theft? They stole my songs.” I glared at the two next to me.

Mr. James chuckled, tilting his head at me while arching his brows to the man as if to say, “What do I need from her? I’m Brian James. She’s nobody.” He was in his forties, but he was virile and brimming with power and wealth.  “I don’t think I’d need to take an eighteen-year-old’s songs.”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A smirk rested on Mr. James face while Liz—my former best friend—sat there with her lips trembling. She even found a tear to go along with it. Jesus, she wasn’t meant to be a singer, but she had acting down to a tee. “I thought we were friends, Ruth.” She fluttered her eyelashes at me, and for a moment, I thought I saw a brief wink. “I thought you’d be happy for my first song release.” Liz’s voice shook as she whined, “Why are you lying? This really hurts.”

I scoffed, gripping my chair’s arms to keep from attacking her as she sat next to me.

In eighteen years, I’d seen plenty of unfair things, but I never thought Liz would betray me. I couldn’t get past the fact that she was my best friend. She was all I had. Ma’s family wanted nothing to do with me because of Liz. My older cousins—those who knew me the best—judged me for hanging out with Liz. She was too rich, too privileged, too white. Ma shared their opinion.

As if my pill-popping mother was in any position to judge. Liz was like the patch of green in a barren field. The girl never criticized me, and I didn’t hold her upbringing against her. She was my peppermint-patty-sharing best friend.             

Until now.

Liz was the light to my dark. The sun to my moon. The yin to my yang—look, I could go on forever. I loved this chick sitting next to me, lying through her teeth, and I thought she loved me too. In high school, we made a pact to pursue a record deal with her father and become famous. It was all we ever wanted. She wanted the attention, and I wanted my words to be heard.

“Do you have proof of your claim, Ms. Thomas?” the policeman asked me.

“Yeah, all of my songs. I keep in my journal…” I looked to Liz who was semi-smirking at me. She knew where my journal was—in the recording room. As soon as Liz’s betrayal hit my ears, I forgot my notebook and tried going to Mr. James office. “It’s at KY Entertainment though.”             

“I’ve never seen her with a journal,” Liz lied.

I slumped in my seat. “Liz, why are you doing this?” I wished my voice didn’t break, but it did. “Our pact. Our dream. I thought that was what we were after?”

She shook her head, blonde hair swaying so perfectly. Her big, round blue eyes met my much darker ones. You’d never think she was being so deceiving. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, revealing more of her small face. The designer hoody she wore draped over her tiny body like a dress, and the Gucci jeans she wore cost more than everything in the apartment I lived in. She looked like an angel while I looked like I was asking for attention no matter what I wore—even though we were wearing the exact same thing, only mine were thrift shop purchase. It was amazing how different it looked on me. It had always been this way. I’ve brought the wrong kind of attention since I was fourteen. I looked like a woman before I even was one. My curves were thick, my ass was huge, but my heart was even bigger and that was why it was hurting so much.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said in a shaky voice as another tear slid down her cheek.  With that fib, just like that, I knew I wouldn’t win. I was never going to.

In that moment, I understood why my cousins judged me for hanging out with Liz. They saw what I couldn’t. Until now.

Thirty minutes later, I was walking down the concrete steps with Liz and her father behind me. They didn’t charge me—I guess my notebook of songs were payment enough for not having to go to jail or pay for the window, but they did threaten me with a restraining order if I went back to the building. I was disturbed at how quickly my day had gone from a contented heart to a dull and broken one ending with a sad, empty thud.

Stopping at the bottom of the steps, I took a deep breath and asked over my shoulder, “Why Liz?”

“Why what?” she returned. I could hear her heels clanking the stone as she neared.

I gripped my sweaty palms and finally let myself glance at her. “Was this all a scheme?”

Our entire lives couldn’t have been a lie. I’d been by her side for so many things. When her mom and dad split up, I was there. When her mom committed suicide not even a year later, it was me that she called. It was me that was by her side as she cried. What happened? Where did our friendship go wrong?

“Let’s go, Liz,” Mr. James told his daughter as he pressed his cell phone to his ear, placing his free hand inside his pocket. Until now, I never truly saw how he was the very definition of rich while his daughter was the very definition of privilege. Maybe I was too happy and thankful that I had a friend like her? Maybe I turned a blind eye to my own black heart—guilty for feeling lucky that my friend gave me the opportunity to live my dream? Maybe that was where we went wrong. Liz was all sugar and spice and kept her true feelings—her judgment, her bias, and her hate—tucked away from me. Did I reap what I sow? I’d admit that as we got older, deep down, I had sensed the change in our directions, but I stuck by her because she was Liz. It wasn’t because her father was someone like Brian James… Or was it?

Just as quickly as I let myself think that I knew it wasn’t true. I would have never taken advantage of our friendship. I never once brought up her dad’s position in the entertainment business. She was the one that brought it up. She was the one that planted the seed of hope in my heart with plans of becoming this epic duo. Light and dark, she’d said over and over.

Feeling furious once more, I glared at Mr. James. “You’re a grown man. How could you play me like a fool? How can you expect me to sit back and let you take my songs?” I shook my head vehemently and pinned Liz with my accusing scowl. “And that was not how that song was supposed to be sung, you knew that.”

“I’ll call you back.” Mr. James ended his conversation and eyed me like a bug in need of squashing. “Go on ahead, Liz, I want to speak with Ruth alone.”

“Did you honestly believe we could shine on stage together?” she muttered as she walked by. “There’s only room for one of us.”

I opened my mouth to say something, then nodded instead, realizing there was nothing to say that would matter or mean anything to her. Letting the tear slide down my cheek, I told myself it would be the last time I’d ever cry over Liz. She was dead to me.             

“What did you expect when you walked into my studio?” Mr. James said, cutting into my thoughts. “Did you think you’d get an easy pass into this world just because you were friends with my daughter?”

“You know it wasn’t like that,” I bit out. “I proved myself in that recording room. I proved myself with lyrics that are now all over the fucking radio. You both stole that from me.”

“We never signed the first contract, Ruth.” He came closer until he was towering over me. “You walked into that studio every damn day for one person only, and that was Liz. Honestly, three months ago when she approached me about you, I was skeptical. I didn’t think you would have any talent as a singer or songwriter. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you had both. Think of your words as a thank you gift.”             

“What?” I hissed.

“For Liz taking pity and being friends with someone like you for so long.” It wasn’t only what he said, it was the way he said it that riled me up, like his words were the truest things ever spoken.

“Someone like me?” What was wrong with me?

“You don’t have a father, and your mom’s a pill-whore. You’re probably well on your way to becoming an addict yourself.” His hand swayed around contemptuously toward me as he said it.

  It didn’t matter that what he said about her was true, ain’t no one disrespecting my ma but me. She was god-awful, but that woman was the only thing I had. I’d be damned if I’d let anyone the right to talk about her, especially when the crook played me like a fool for the last three months.

And apparently, his daughter had been playing me my entire life.

“You ain’t got no business bringing up my ma,” I muttered.

“I’m willing to let all this go. Hell, you’ve got raw talent. I could use a songwriter like you.” His filthy gaze traveled up my legs, over my hips, then my breasts. I never felt so disgusted or humiliated in all my life. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

Stepping forward, I swung out and smacked him across the face. He let me, smiling after I did. “You’re disgusting.”

“And you’re going nowhere.”

And then he was gone, and so was my dream.

______

I have no idea what led me to this unfamiliar street and the abandoned library. I was just walking around aimlessly when I tripped over a rock and smacked into the open door. Falling into the doorway, I barely caught myself before dropping to my knees. Fear slithered its way up my neck. I had already been at the police station for destroying property today. I didn’t need to see that policeman again for breaking and entering. Dusting off my jeans and stepping outside, I closed the door back and then cupped my hands to the dirty glass to peer inside. Soiled books rested on the shelves. Curious as to why the place wasn’t cleaned out when it closed down, I glanced around to find a name for the place but there was none. Shrugging, I walked away returning to my harrowing thoughts of how my best friend wasn’t really my best friend.

I thought it was all by chance, but looking back now, coming here must have been a dark fate I so easily walked into.

The sound of the door popping open froze me in place. I turned slowly and eyed the door like it was an ax murderer. I went over and shut it once more, then squinted around. It was bright out and the sun was even hotter, so no one really gave much attention to me as they rushed to get out of the heat.

Hurrying away again, I sighed when I heard the creak again. I wasn’t going back. Someone else could deal with the broken door. Just as I said that though, I peeked over my shoulder and glanced through the window. A white light floated around the corner of one of the tall bookshelves before disappearing around the corner.

What the hell?

Did someone break in? Was that why the door was broken? Whipping out my phone, I contemplated calling the police, but did it really matter if someone was in there snooping around a bunch of old books? Did I want to encounter the police again? This place was run down and should have been demolished. Someone could have built a nice little business here.

Whether a lapse in sanity or claiming those steel balls that come with growing up in my neighborhood, I ventured into the old library.

“Hello?” I called out. “Is anyone in here?” Stepping further into the doorway, I said, “If you own this place I’m sorry. I just want to let you know that your door’s broken.” The place was eerie and quiet. The further I got away from the window, into the dark, it was even creepier. When no one answered, I whispered, “Please be nothing.”

It was apparent no one else was in here so; I wondered if I had imagined the light. Would today’s betrayal be what triggered me into becoming a crazy old bat like my ma? I ran my hand across a layer of dust on the books and studied the dirt on my fingertips a second before I sighed.

I better get the hell out of here.

Just as I turned around, my phone started going off, scaring the life out of me. I grabbed my chest, inhaled, and tried to calm my heart rate. “Jesus!”

As I dug into my front pocket that the scary shit truly happened. A single book fell off the main bookshelf. My phone continued to ring as I peered into the darkness. “Is someone in here?” I asked again. I took in a shaky breath.

Okay. It most likely fell when I jumped. My thunder thighs were that thundering.

Yeah, right.

That’s what I thought as I went to retrieve the fallen book. Any sane person would have run out of the building like their life depended on it by now, but not me.  This was how every chick died in a horror movie.

My phone finally stopped ringing. I bent down—I swore I heard the chuckle before I even touched the book, then I did touch it, and a wave of air blew over me and everything else in the building.

The door slammed shut. I rose up and took off running into the dark. And then I heard the male voice—deep, rumbling, and menacing.

 “So unwise.”

I whipped around, searching for who spoke, but I saw no one.

Today was numbing. This small bit of fear was slightly thrilling. Maybe I conjured the demon to me because of that. I was so desperate for nothing and everything. I was so lost and bitter, so betrayed, that he was drawn to me like a moth to a flame.

Or maybe it was fate.

“Foolish girl, why would you come in here?” asked the disembodied male voice.

I was terrified. The stark contrast of his voice sent goose bumps over my flesh. “Sorry,” I whispered, then ran for the door.

Panic seized my lungs when I jiggled the knob but the door wouldn’t open.

“I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere,” he said through a sigh like being trapped in here was a trouble for him instead.

“Why won’t the door open?” I asked him, still jerking the knob and throwing my weight against the door trying to get it to budge.

“Um,” he paused. “Because I locked it. You’re not leaving here.”

 How could he have locked the door? Wouldn’t I have heard him?

Slowly, I turned and looked around for him. “Where are you? I can’t see you.”

He chuckled dryly. “Come back here and let it be a surprise.”

Oh. Hell. No.

I stepped over to the window and banged on it. “Help!” I yelled at the couple walking by, but they completely ignored me. No, it was like they couldn’t hear me. Were these windows soundproof?

“It’s no use,” he informed me. “No one can hear you. I lured you here.”

Ignoring him, I picked up a chair and slung it at the window. When nothing happened, my shoulders slumped. My brain focused on the words the mysterious stranger said. “What did you mean by lure?” Cautiously, I peeked over my shoulder, but he wasn’t there. Only the darkness greeted me.

“I can give you what you want,” he said. “And in return, you can give me something that’s yours.”

Tilting my head, I peered into the darkened book room, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see him anywhere. It was fucking creepy. His voice was coming from somewhere in the back where the book fell.

“You picked the wrong girl. I have nothing.” My voice sounded muffled over the roar of my pounding heart.

“Just get back here, Ruth.”

I paused. “How do you know my name?”

“Like I wouldn’t know my target.” Quietly, I took a step to the side trying to look around the shelves. “Fuck it.”

I screamed just as something jerked my feet from under me. It dragged me to the back of the room—the very place I didn’t want to go. I caught a bookshelf with my hand, but it toppled over. Looking toward my feet, I saw nothing. Once I reached the fallen book, I stopped and was able to scramble to my feet. I was seconds from bolting toward the front again when I saw him, not him but it.

I hadn’t seen him the first time since he blended in with the darkness. My eyes widened as I took in the black flames, or at least that was what it looked like. A massive undulating shadow in the shape of man. Only he wasn’t human. It was like looking at a menacing rainy cloud rippling with dark energy.

What is he? Whatever it was I wanted out, but I couldn’t move.

Crimson eyes blinked from the shadowy man. There was a shimmer in his silhouette, like maybe he was moving closer. There was no mouth or eyes. Nothing. Just a shadow with burning red eyes.

“Your soul sang to me, Ruth. It’s why I’m here.”

I shivered. “Please,” I begged, then closed my eyes. “This can’t be real.”

“But I am,” he responded.

My eyes popped open. “What are you?”

“A demon. A soul reaper.”

Not good at all.

I sunk to my knees. “This can’t be real,” I whispered, then I stared straight into his eyes. “You can’t be real!” I screamed. “I refuse to believe it!”

“You touched the book—my book.” He slithered closer. “Your soul is mine now.”

“Because I touched a book?” I blinked. “You mean that if I had walked away, I would have been okay?”

Was I dreaming right now?

“Yes.”

“Is this a dream?”

“I’ve been called a nightmare, but never a dream.”

Well, that was insightful and not helping my panic. Placing my hand over my chest, I bravely scooted back on my knees. “Are you going to kill me?”

“A person can’t live without a soul.” His voice was like an echoing mountain—cavernous and terrifying—but also devastating. That eerie tone along with the absence of a physical form shouldn't exist.

His answer was earth-shattering. My heart fractured, but despite the fear, it was sadness that overwhelmed me. I took a shallow breath and whimpered. As his presence loomed closer, I covered my face and cried. Through my agony a rhythm found me and manifested itself. I hummed the melody and then the words came.

Here lies broken homes,

Crumbled fences.

Here lies rattled chains,

Stolen kisses,

Forced upon commences.

I wonder how it feels to stand ten feet tall. Does it hurt it when you drag your hands through the sewer of that blackened heart?

Does it hurt when you close your eyes, swallow your drugs, and look the other way?

Does it hurt when you force your hands in places it should have never been?

Does it hurt when the thing you touched turned to ashes, gone up in smoke?

Here lies silent tears,

Because no one heard her

So her end was near.

Something pressed against my lips. I opened my eyes to see an extension of the shadowy man pressing against them, to what? Silence me?

Words. Rhythm. Songs were my comfort.

I couldn’t stop myself from singing, just like I couldn’t stop myself from breathing even when it felt like I was suffocating. My dreams, even my life might have been taken from me, but this voice—I prayed it echoed in Heaven and Hell for everything that it was worth.

“Ten years,” he muttered.

Blood-red eyes descended upon me, and I felt his overwhelming presence touching every part of me.

“Your soul is not the same as when I first saw it, it’s fractured. A broken soul is a nasty soul.” He stepped away from me. “Do you want what was stolen from you so badly? I can give it back to you. Your voice lights your soul. I’ll give it all to you for ten years.”

“What?” I wiped my eyes and stared, dumbfounded.

“I’m saying I want you to have everything you ever wanted, but only for ten years. Then I’ll take it all away.”

I sucked in a breath.

“What will it be, Ruth? Shall I eat your soul now or in ten years after I’ve given you everything you’ve wanted?”

“Either way I’m dying?” I choked on my words, those god-awful tears of mine returning.

He hummed pleasingly. “It’s amazing how well you’ve adapted to your fate. Yes, human, you’ll die today or ten years from now. The choice is yours. Either way your soul is mine. I’m just letting you pick the date for when I devour it.”

When I remained silent, the shadow moved. Something pressed into my chest, and I gasped. Looking down, I saw a black cloud of darkness resting there. Was that his hand? The darkness slipped inside me, and I could taste something akin to decay.

“In case you needed a demonstration. Choose Ruth.” I stared up at him, and the countdown began. “Five, four, three—”

“Of course I want to live!” I screamed as the tears slid down my cheeks.

“Good choice.” He pried his limb from my chest, and I slumped forward. “Your soul is too vibrant to waste when it’s bitter in betrayal. I’ll give you everything, Ruth, so that when I come for your soul, it will purr as I sink my teeth into it.”

I wish I was numb like I had been before entering this building. How could this be happening? Was I dead? Did someone drug me? Why did this feel real? Were the tears running down my cheeks really there?

Or was I as crazy as my ma after all?

I couldn’t tell, but every part of it felt real.

 “Take the book and go.” The dusty tome scooted toward me. When I made no move to grab it or even step forward, he hissed. “Leave before I change my mind.”

I eyed the window through the crevices of the books on the shelves. The bright sun on the outside was a powerful beacon of freedom. So close yet so far. “Is this a trick?”

The front door creaked open. Taking a few giant steps backward between the shelves, I looked toward the beam of sunlight through the crack—my salvation.

“Oh, and Ruth,” he began, “when my help comes, accept it.”

He was gone in an instant leaving behind a puddle of dark red flowers. I stumbled out of the library, in disbelief. The book I didn’t pick up was now in my hands. When I tried to drop it, however, it set my skin on fire. I screamed and struggled to get rid of it. The agony only stopped when I quit my frantic motions.

Looking around, no one watched. No one cared. No one would even believe me.

I didn’t believe myself.

My eyes and mind had turned against me just like my ma’s had her.

But if my mind hadn’t gone bad, then that meant I had ten years to live before a demon claimed me.

I laughed as I walked home. Laughed until I was crying again. By the time I made it to my rancid apartment where Ma and I lived, I was numb again—a preference over pain and fear.

“Ruth?” said a male voice. I hadn’t been paying attention to anything whatsoever. “Ruth Thomas?” he asked again.

I turned to the man in the expensive suit, and my anger from earlier returned. The last man I encountered in a suit fucked me over. I could blame Mr. James for marking my doom. If I hadn't been so lost in my head, I wouldn't have stumbled into that library in the first place.

“Yeah?” I said hesitantly.

“Hi, I’m Bishop with Black Hearts.” I blinked as he offered his hand to me. Black Hearts was only one of the biggest entertainment companies in America. I eyed the third floor where our apartment was before I took his hand and shook it. “We caught a whiff of your brawl at KY today and knew we wanted the person behind those lyrics.”

I studied him. “You mean, you believe me?”

Oh, and Ruth, when my help comes, accept it.

Was this the soul reaper’s doing?

“All you gotta do is prove it by showing us your talent.”

Ten years. Ten years.

Was it enough?

I thought of Liz’s murderous expression the moment I walked on a stage, and my heart rate increased tenfold.

My soul was no longer mine. Did it matter if I dipped it in darkness?

Like I needed to do that to crush Liz’s world.

I just had to find my place on stage and pour my heart out.

Like I’d always wanted.

This wasn’t about her. This was for me.

Ten years. Ten years.

I’ll take your deal, demon, I’ll make my soul good and fucking tasty while I’m at it.

 

 

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