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All of Nothing by Vania Rheault (1)

Chapter 1

She wasn’t coming.

Jaxon Brooks leaned against the cool church wall, the murmuring of the wedding guests carrying to him down the hallway. He hid in a small room, that, judging by the posters on the walls, was used as a space for Sunday School for younger children.

“Jesus is always with you!” proclaimed one bright poster attached to a cork board with pushpins.

Jax had never felt more alone than he did at that moment.

No, that wasn’t true.

The organist began to repeat the song he and his fiancée had chosen as the hymn that would be played while the ushers led the wedding guests to their seats.

It was the fifth time the song had been played, and his wedding guests knew something was amiss. No one would still be arriving at this late time; the ceremony should have started twenty minutes ago.

The joy in the atmosphere had begun to slip away.

Jax pulled a flask from the inside pocket of his tux and took a long swig. He needed to face facts. His bride-to-be had abandoned him, and he needed to stop the wedding and send everyone home.

His parents would be devastated. They’d been so happy their lonely son had finally found someone to share his life with.

A black-haired woman pushed a vacuum cleaner into the room. She took a step back when she noticed him, fear shooting through her eyes, her gaze locking onto his flask.

“What are you doing?” Jax barked. His muscles, tight from stress, loosened at the chance to lash out. “Surely you don’t expect to vacuum now. There’s a wedding starting soon.”

It gave him no satisfaction when she paled. She gripped the vacuum’s handle until her knuckles turned white. “I, I’m late, and I—”

“I don’t care. Do you expect the bride and groom to say their vows over the growling of an ancient vacuum cleaner?”

Tears sprang to her eyes, and for just a moment, Jax felt a pang of remorse. It quickly faded. He was miserable; why shouldn’t she be as well?

Nothing had gone right for him in sixteen years.

He narrowed his eyes, calculating her measurements.

Tears spilled down her cheeks, mascara smearing under her eyes. She was short, too slim, her collarbone visible beneath her worn and stained t-shirt, but he could work with that. Her feet, clad in tennis shoes, looked too small to fit Gwen’s pumps, but if the dress hid her feet, she needn’t wear any shoes at all.

The cleaning lady wasn’t entirely unattractive, though the pitch black color of her hair washed out her complexion, and the pink and blue cotton candy stripes at the ends made her look ridiculous. Her t-shirt hid, or tried to hide, a pair of small, perky breasts. Ragged jeans with holes in the knees encased delicate hips and thin thighs.

No one would believe he’d marry someone like her, or if they did, they’d think perhaps he was finally lightening up a little.

Not that it mattered what people thought.

He only needed her for as long as it took to say, “I do”, accept congratulations, and then he’d drop her in the nearest gutter where she came from.

“Marry me.”

* * *

Raven Grey could smell the whiskey from the doorway, even though he leaned against the far wall in the corner of the room.

She hadn’t meant to walk in on him, hadn’t meant to see anyone. She’d overslept—it had been her job to clean the small church before the ceremony scheduled that day.

Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment; she wanted to finish her job and leave. But of course, he was right, she shouldn’t even be here. She should have been long gone.

Raven licked her lips, her mouth watering. What she wouldn’t give for a swig of that whiskey in his flask.

God, she needed a drink.

Of anything.

“What—what do you mean?”

“My fiancée walked out on me. I have no bride. Stand in for her, and I’ll give you whatever you want.”

His eyes pinned her to the industrial carpeting that covered the floor.

Raven lifted her chin, wiping away her tears. “I’m not surprised.” Bullies were no strangers to her. She dealt with them every day. Only, this one . . . this one could complain to her social worker and get her fired. It’d been a long time since she’d held a steady job, and the placement agency made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate any fuck-ups.

The man wearing the impeccable tux tilted his head in acknowledgement. “I thought I had found someone who could tolerate my . . . aloofness. But it appears I’ve been mistaken.”

Raven sniffed. “Is that what being an asshole is called these days?”

He ran his hand through his short-cropped blond hair and slid the flask into his jacket pocket. Straightening his gold cuff links, he murmured, “I do not think you are in a position to judge me.”

If looks could kill, she’d be deader than Old Vic, who’d frozen to death last winter when all the shelters had filled, and he’d been left on the street. Alone.

Raven twitched in the tennis shoes she’d been given by an organization that helped women get back on their feet. They donated gently used clothes and helped women like Raven with their résumés. Not that her résumé contained much, but if she didn’t keep this job, she’d need it to look for something else.

How could she stand in for a bride? For the type of woman who would marry a man like him? Even in the shadows of the Sunday School room, Raven could tell the man oozed money. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if she was let go. Not if he paid her, and she could use the cash to buy some decent clothes and maybe another stint in a rehab center.

She took the chance. “I’ll do it if you pay me.”

“Of course you will,” he sneered. “Gwen was marrying me for my money, but in the end, my house, bank accounts, and social status, weren’t enough for her to put up with me. I don’t know if that makes me respect her more or less. I’ll give you all the cash I have in my wallet.” He pulled out a black leather billfold from the inside of his tux’s jacket. Slowly, he counted out the bills.

Raven swallowed. She hadn’t seen so much cash in one place in a long time.

“Two thousand dollars. Take it or leave it.”

She’d be a fool not to take it. But she wouldn’t let him cheat her out of it. She knew his type. Users. Every last one. “Pay me first.”

He scoffed. “You can hardly tell me what to do. You’ll do this my way, or I’ll speak to the pastor and explain his janitor thought she would add to my ceremony by vacuuming up broken Goldfish. He may not appreciate it when I tell him if that would have happened, I would have discontinued my generous donations that no doubt fund his parsonage.”

Getting herself mixed up with this man was a bad idea. She knew it by the way her stomach churned—and it wasn’t from the bottle of wine she’d drank last night.

Raven tried to suck in a breath, but fear clogged her throat. She’d been trying so hard this time. One little mistake could bring her whole recovery down like a house of cards.

She believed every word he said.

One word from him and she’d be out on her ass, and everything she’d gained these past couple months would be gone.

“What do you want me to do?”

Victory flashed in his eyes, and the predatory look that covered his face made Raven sweat. Her fight or flight response kicked in, adrenaline pumping through her veins. He looked like every man she’d ever come across in the street, pegging her as an easy victim.

Sometimes she was, and sometimes she wasn’t.

Today she was.

And he knew it.

“Leave everything to me.”

* * *

Jax slipped his phone from his pocket. He had several texts from his mother and brother asking if Gwen was all right and what was happening.

Jax texted Erik. “Gwen bailed, just as you said she would. But I have a replacement. Meet me in Gwen’s changing room.”

“Come on,” he said, pushing away from the wall. “I’ll show you where to get dressed.”

The woman, girl really—she looked young but had a travel-weary look to her—took a step back.

“How do you expect anyone to believe this? Are you trying to tell me not one person at your wedding has ever met this woman? You didn’t have a rehearsal dinner? She didn’t have a bridal shower?”

Jax crossed the room in two long strides, and he grabbed her arm, the bones under his fingers prominent under his touch. The girl was skinny to the point of malnourished.

Junkie.

He gritted his teeth. Jax knew where his two thousand would go.

Up her nose.

Erik was walking down the dark hallway when Jax pulled Gwen’s stand-in out of the Sunday School room.

“Cover her face with the veil when you dress her,” he said, nodding toward his brother. “No one will know the difference.”

“What sort of messed up plan is this?” Erik snapped. “Cancel the wedding so we can go home.”

Before the cleaning lady had come into the room, Jax had expected to do just that. He’d had no other choice. Send everyone home, have his personal assistant send back the crystal, the china, the vases, and art Gwen had chosen for their registry.

Jax pushed the pale waif toward Erik. “She’ll do. We just need to get through the ceremony.”

Erik shook his head. “It’s never that simple.”

“It’s easier than canceling and having to explain to everyone why Gwen left me. I’ll figure something out after the ceremony.”

“This is insane. There’s no way you can pull this off.”

“Can you bring her to Gwen’s changing room or not? The dress and everything she’ll need was delivered last night. I’ll go into the sanctuary and let everyone know.”

“Know what? That you bought off some . . .” Erik swept his eyes from the woman’s head down to her feet. “Homeless girl? I have to say, this is a new low, even for you. Do you even know her name? What’s your name, love?”

“R—”

“Her name is Gwen,” Jax snapped, cutting off the woman whose stare bounced between the two of them as if she watched a tennis match on TV, trying desperately to keep her eye on the ball. Her color had come back, and she was no longer shaking or crying, but it would take some work for her to look like a bride. Too bad there wasn’t anyone who could help her with that. The wedding had been planned on the small side, and Gwen’s maid of honor, her only bridesmaid, hadn’t shown up—that had been his first clue things weren’t going to go according to plan today. “Let’s just make this easy on everyone, shall we?”

He turned on his heel and strode down the hallway toward the sanctuary, where the organist had started once again playing the song, for God knows how many times in a row.

Jax didn’t trust Erik to help “Gwen” dress for the ceremony. Erik was more apt to help her find a taxi and send her as far from the church as he could, just as quickly as possible.

But he counted on the girl.

He counted on the girl’s greed to make her put on the dress and walk down the aisle.

He’d been wrong about Gwen, but he wasn’t wrong about this street urchin.

She needed money, and Jax wasn’t above using that to his advantage.

* * *

“You don’t have to do this,” Erik said, leading Raven down the empty hallway.

He had no idea what she could and couldn’t do. Raven wanted to tell him so, but it wasn’t any of his business, and besides, what was the point? She was in it now, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t. Just keep walking and go out the back door. I’ll make up something to tell Jax.”

“Jax?”

Erik pushed a light-colored wooden door open. Sunlight streamed through the dirty glass of a large picture window, where a dress hung on a hanger framed by white panes. The rays of light illuminated the white gown making the satin and lace shimmer.

“That’s my brother’s name. Jaxon Brooks.”

Raven crossed the room and reached out to touch the dress, skimming her fingertips over the smooth satin. She expected Erik to tell her not to touch it—to keep her grubby fingers off the fine material—but all he did was sit in a chair and pull out a package of cigarettes.

He offered the rumpled plastic pack to her, a brown filter peeking from the hole in the top.

“No, thanks.” She wasn’t a smoker; she preferred to spend what little money she came upon on booze. Now if Erik had offered her a flask . . . but no. Raven had to remember why she was doing this.

With an unlit cigarette between his lips, Erik stood and pulled the hanger from the window fixture. “Better get this on,” he mumbled around the smoke. “Now that Jax has a way out, he’ll want this over and done with. If you’re sure you’re going through with this, you better hurry up and strip.”

Raven’s heart leapt into her throat. The last time she’d been told to strip she’d been looking for work and had stumbled into a stripper joint. The owner wouldn’t hire her until he saw “the goods.”

The gig had given her some pocket money—little had she known the owner would skim most of her wages before he paid her—and it hadn’t been enough to get back on her feet. It had just been another unsuccessful attempt in a long string to turn her life around.

“W-what?” she whispered, the sound of her voice barely coming from her mouth. What would Erik do to her before she dressed? Rape her? Make her give him a blow job? They were alone in this back room, and he outweighed her by a good hundred pounds. It would be nothing for him to overpower her, take her on the couch, his hand pushing her head into the cushion to drown out her screams.

“You can’t put the dress on if you’re still in your clothes. Gwen’s maid of honor didn’t show up, so I’m all you’ve got to get this dress fastened. If you’re that modest, I can turn around, but love, you don’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”

What he said could have been taken as an insult, but the spark of mischief in Erik’s eyes calmed Raven’s racing heart.

He was teasing her.

Raven wasn’t used to a man being friendly with her. Well, not friendly just to be friends. Raven knew what “friendly” meant. It meant a man would do anything to get into her panties, and if his charm didn’t work, he’d move on to force. Those were the kinds of men in Raven’s life, except for Axel.

Erik jutted out his arm to pull the sleeve away from his wrist. Revealing a gold watch, he said, “We better get moving.”

“Okay.” Raven undressed and tried not to feel self-conscious. The shelters she’d stayed at didn’t condone communal sleeping areas, and Raven only undressed in front of other women, but Erik acted like he really didn’t care what she looked like under her clothes.

The design of the dress allowed her to keep her ill-fitting cream bra on, for which she was thankful. While she didn’t mind being clad in only her underthings in front of Erik, she didn’t want him to see her boobs.

“What’s my brother got on you, anyway?”

Raven’s eyes shot to his in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Erik snorted and gently nudged her, turning her around, giving him her back and the rows of pearl buttons that needed fastening.

The dress fit almost as if it had been made for her, and if she were the type to believe in fairy tales, she’d feel like Cinderella on her way to the ball.

But her life hadn’t been a fairytale, not since she was fifteen, and she knew fairy godmothers didn’t exist.

And Jaxon Brooks was no Prince Charming.

“My brother knows two ways to get what he wants: he’ll either blackmail or bribe someone to get it. He’s a cold fish, that one, and you might think that’s a shitty thing to say about your own flesh and blood, but I can see him for what he is. He didn’t always used to be like that, mind you, but it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who acts like he does. He has his reasons, though. We all do.”

Erik was right. Raven would never feel sorry for someone like Jax. Looks, money to spare. What could possibly have gone wrong in his life that couldn’t be easily fixed with the resources someone like Jax had?

“It’s why Gwen could leave him, you see.”

Raven shivered as Erik’s fingers trailed down her back, deftly doing the small pearl buttons as if he’d had a million times before. The dress hung heavily from her body, pounds of lace and satin, and she imagined Gwen, the mysterious Gwen who had been able to get away, would have felt like the dress was an anchor, pulling her down, drowning her.

“No, I don’t.”

“Gwen realized all the money in the world wasn’t worth it, if Jax couldn’t love her. So, there goes the bribery. And, well, Jax didn’t have anything on her, either, so he couldn’t make her stay. Is he blackmailing you, love? Or is he bribing you?”

“He’s doing both.”

The words slipped out before Raven could keep them inside her head, and she tensed, waiting for the slap she was sure would come. It was one thing for someone to say ill of their own family, but it was a different matter if someone agreed.

Erik didn’t hit her, only laughed and turned her around. “An honest one.” He tilted his head, and Raven flinched as the blond man scrutinized her. He looked like Jax, only . . . a softer version of the man, somehow. If Raven had lived in a different world, she would have let herself be attracted to him. “It would be interesting, love, if he were to marry you for real. I think he’d have met his match.”

“He’s not my type.”

Nodding gravely, he said, “He isn’t anyone’s.” He tucked the unlit cigarette behind his ear. “Let’s get that veil on you and get out of here. If the organist has to play that song one more time, we’re all going to go batshit crazy.”

* * *

Jax stood at the front of the church, sweat sliding down his back as his guests stared at him, perplexed.

Erik and the girl were taking too long.

She’d all but drooled as he counted the money in front of her, but he could have underestimated Erik’s dislike of his plan, and maybe his brother had sent her away to protect her after all.

But she’d look scared enough when he threatened to report her to the pastor of the church, though Jax doubted the old man would have taken any action. The pastor didn’t look like he cared much about anything. All this time while waiting for the ceremony to start, he’d been playing Candy Crush on his cell phone, not a care in the world.

It’d taken all of Jax’s strength not to grab the phone from the podium and fling it through the stained glass window. He could have taken Jesus out, right between the eyes.

He was already going to hell, and the thought didn’t bother him much.

Movement at the back of the sanctuary caught his eye, and Erik gave him the thumbs up. They were ready to start.

Jax blew a relieved breath through his mouth.

“She’s ready,” he murmured to the pastor.

“Good, good,” the pastor said, clicking off his phone. He nodded to the organist who began to play the “Wedding March.”

His mother, sitting in the front row with his father, melted into the pew in happiness.

His fake bride’s beauty took him aback. Only twenty minutes ago she’d look like a strung-out druggie, but this woman looked radiant.

Erik had erased any vibe of poverty the girl had given off.

She glided to the altar, her face full of apprehension, holding a bouquet in one hand, accompanied by his brother, her other hand resting in the crook of his arm. If anyone asked why Erik gave “Gwen” away, he’d have nothing to say, and he hoped Erik made up a good story. As it was, Erik wouldn’t have forced her to walk the aisle alone. That was his brother’s way.

Through the white veil, Erik kissed her on the cheek, and the woman smiled.

It faded when she turned to him.

Jax didn’t know why it pissed him off, but it did.

He wasn’t a monster, dammit. He’d had a heart. Feelings. Once.

“We are gathered here today to . . .”

Jax tuned out the pastor.

Fortunately, the service Jax and Gwen decided on was a short affair, and only fifteen minutes passed before he and “Gwen” were saying their vows and he was slipping a band onto her finger.

She did the same for him with the ring he’d given her from his pocket.

Her small hands shook.

She was probably glad she wasn’t going through with this for real, and he didn’t blame her. Jax could barely look at himself in the mirror; how could he expect his wife to wake up to him for the rest of her life?

“You may now kiss your bride,” the pastor said, closing the book that had guided him through the ceremony.

Jax fought not to lean away. Kiss her?

“Gwen” looked equally appalled.

But he had to kiss her. There wasn’t a happily married man in all the world who didn’t want to kiss his new wife in front of his family and friends.

He lifted the veil and took a moment to look at her—really look at her. Not just to pass her off as some gutter rat who had somehow found her way inside the church.

Erik had swept her hair away from her face, revealing delicate, arched eyebrows. Her skin was smooth and clear, though her eyes held a kind of sadness and tiredness he carried with him, always. High cheekbones gave her a regal look, and her full lips sparkled with either spit or gloss; he wouldn’t know until he kissed her.

Suddenly, that was all he wanted to do.

He pulled her into his arms, her frailty catching him off guard.

Jax took her lips with his, swallowing the small gasp she made as he did so. It took only a second, and she was kissing him back, wrapping her arms around his neck.

He could be thankful she was a fine actress. He wouldn’t have anyone questioning if their love and passion for each other were true. It would only be after the ceremony, after her disappearance, when the lies would start.

When the applause died, and the tittering started, Jax lifted his head. His breath hooked in his lungs, and an erection strained his pants. That wasn’t the reaction he’d expected to have, kissing this woman, this girl who would snort the two thousand he’d give her up her nose.

Disgusted with himself, he tried to keep his face passive as he turned to the congregation.

“Keep your head down,” he growled.

He dragged her down the aisle while his guests stood and clapped.

Staring at the floor, she stumbled as she tried to keep up, and he pulled her closer to him. He didn’t want to slow down. He wanted to avoid the receiving line his mother would want to form, and Jax pulled her into the pastor’s office located off the lobby in front of the church.

As Jax caught his breath, Erik said from behind him, “I started a rumor that Gwen didn’t feel well, and you were bringing her right to the hotel. If she felt better, she’d come down for the reception.”

“Thanks.”

The woman had taken a seat on a small loveseat in the corner of the office, sitting in a cloud of satin and lace, gripping Gwen’s bouquet made of white calla lilies and baby’s breath.

“We need a few moments with the pastor, then I will take you wherever you need to go.”

Erik dropped down onto the loveseat next to her and laid his arm along the top of the cushions. His brother, dressed in his best man tux, and “Gwen,” in her dress, looked like the couple who had just gotten married.

Jax turned away.

He’d never find happiness like that.

In fact, Erik seemed so at ease with this woman, Jax wouldn’t be surprised if his brother remained in contact with her.

“That was a beautiful ceremony, just beautiful,” the pastor said, narrowly missing the doorframe as he punched buttons on his phone. “We just need the marriage license signed, and then you are free to celebrate.”

The pastor slipped a black folder from beneath his arm and spread out two pieces of paper.

The woman handed Erik her bouquet and stood next to Jax by the pastor’s desk.

He whispered in her ear, “Don’t sign your real—”

“Jax! Darling, the ceremony was wonderful! Just wonderful! Erik told me Gwen wasn’t feeling well, so I won’t take any of your time, but I just wanted to say congratulations and hopefully we’ll see you at the hotel later.”

Jax rested his hand on the small of the woman’s back as she signed the paper, and he addressed his mother, who was peering around the pastor’s office door. “Thank you, Mother. I’ll go down to the reception, of course, after I see Gwen to our room at the hotel.”

“A terrible thing, to be sick on your wedding day!” his mother chirped. “But perhaps now that the ceremony is over the nerves will calm down a bit.” She looked expectantly at the woman beside him, and his bride gave his mother a brief smile of acknowledgement.

To Jax’s relief, his mother accepted the small token, and beaming happily, shut the door, muting the murmuring of the wedding guests.

Jax scrawled his name on the line next to hers.

“I can take her back,” Erik said, rising from the loveseat. He slicked his hands through his hair and pulled the cigarette from behind his ear, placing it between his lips.

“That isn’t necessary,” Jax snapped, annoyed. His brother didn’t need to spend any more time with this woman, and the fact Erik wanted to angered him beyond all comprehension.

“Then at least help her out of the dress,” Erik said, his voice smooth and low. “You were the one who got her into it.”

Jax gritted his teeth.

“Good luck, love,” Erik said, and kissed the woman on her temple.

“Thank you,” she whispered, the blood draining from her face. She stepped away from Jax and the tense line of her shoulders relaxed ever so slightly with the space between them.

It wasn’t a surprise he scared her. He frightened most people he met. If it wasn’t his gruff demeanor, it was his cutthroat business attitude. And if it wasn’t the unrelenting way he ran his business, it was his cold-heartedness that made most people stay away from him.

“Thank you, Pastor Clark,” Jax said, shaking his hand. “I’ll be getting Gwen to the hotel, so she can rest.”

“Good luck, you two,” the pastor mumbled, once again staring at his phone, his thumbs flying across the screen.

Jax handed the woman the bouquet and guided her down the hallway with this hand placed on the nape of her neck.

Skittish, she shuffled along the hallway, her breath coming out in frantic gasps. “You can leave me here. Now that the wedding is over, I can finish my job.”

Anything to make him leave. While it made sense to leave her at the church, he wanted to be seen climbing into the limo with her by anyone who was loitering around the church yard. “No. I will help you change, then bring you home.”

He pushed the door open.

As she stepped into the back room he said, “Come on. Let’s get this dress off you.”

* * *

Raven didn’t want him anywhere near her. She wished Erik hadn’t gone. Erik’s explanations about Jax hadn’t made her any more comfortable around him. He had an aura of mercilessness about him, like he’d never care about anyone or anything, ever.

But she wanted the two thousand dollars he’d promised her.

If he hadn’t changed his mind.

He pinned her in place with his piercing hazel eyes. The color was evident now, with the way he stood in the sun that still shone through the window.

The harsh planes of his face were sharp, and his frown made her insides quake. Her stomach churned bile, and she swallowed against the sour taste in her mouth.

She took a step back.

He took two forward.

They danced until her back pressed against the window, and there was nowhere for her to go.

Jax grasped her shoulders and spun her around.

Raven fought tears and pressed her lips together to hold in her sobs. What was he going to do to her?

Erik hadn’t hurt her, but Jax wasn’t his brother. She was at Jax’s mercy, and there was no kindness in his touch.

She gripped the pane as she felt Jax’s hands near her veil.

Her head swam from lack of oxygen, yet she couldn’t bring herself to pull in a breath.

But all he did was pull the combs from her hair and fling the veil onto the floor.

His fingertips skimmed her skin, under the sloppy updo Erik had helped her with.

He trailed his fingers down her neck, between her shoulder blades to where the small buttons started, and Raven tried with all her might to hold still, to not bring attention to herself.

She didn’t want to be in her bra and panties in front of Jax.

He did each button with such agonized slowness, by the time he’d done four, she could have sworn he was doing it to torture her.

Raven waited while he unfastened every single button on the dress. By the time he was finished, she wanted a drink so badly, her hands shook against the window, the glass warm from the sun beating against it.

“Turn around,” Jax ordered.

“N-no.” She didn’t want to face him. She didn’t want to look at him. Raven wanted him to leave, let her dress.

Let her go.

She didn’t even care if he gave her the money now.

It wouldn’t be worth it.

“Turn. Around.”

His voice was deathly low, and afraid of the consequences ignoring him would bring, she slowly turned to face him, the satin of the wedding dress brushing against her ankles.

Reaching for a bravado she didn’t feel, she spat, “What are you going to do, rape me?”

Jax grazed his fingers along her collarbone, down lower to her cleavage, his fingers brushing the sweetheart neckline of the dress. “No.”

She could get through this if she had a drink. Just a few gulps. A guy like this, he’d have a premium whiskey in his flask. None of the cheap stuff she usually drank because she couldn’t afford anything better. “I need a drink.”

Then you can do what you want to me.

She didn’t say it aloud, but the words hung in the air. If he was going to do something to her, it would be a hell of a lot easier to get through it buzzed.

Raven might not have finished high school, but she was smart. Street smart.

She couldn’t outrun him.

And resisting would make it that much worse.

Jax pulled the silver flask from his pocket, unscrewed the cap, and handed it to her.

Tentatively, she took a small sip. The flask was almost full.

She took pull after pull of the whiskey, relishing the burn in her throat running down to her belly. The alcohol immediately went to her head, and she sagged against the window in relief. It’d been too long. Too long without a drink.

Too soon she emptied the flask, and her cheeks burned in shame.

She’d finished at least five fingers of whiskey, chugged them like they were Kool-Aid.

He took the flask from her without a word, the metal scraping against metal as he screwed the top onto the opening. A rustling of fabric as he slipped it back into his pocket.

“Do you feel better?”

The carpet was a burnt orangish brown, and Raven couldn’t lift her eyes from the ugly color.

“Look at me.”

She couldn’t keep the tears at bay any longer, and they ran down her cheeks, dripped onto the skirt of the dress. Raven couldn’t bring herself to lift her head.

The alcohol, the giddy fizz in her bloodstream, battled with the self-loathing as it always did whenever she succumbed. The combination dueled in her foggy brain and despite the tears, she laughed, finally locking her gaze with his.

Jax brought his hand to her cheek, and she flinched, used to being slapped whenever a man decided to pay her face any attention. But he merely wiped the tears from her skin, ran his thumb along her jaw.

“Let me.”

Raven laughed. Let him? Let him what? What was he asking permission for? The church was quiet, silence heavy in the room. The pastor had probably gone, all the wedding guests were on their way to the hotel for the reception. There wouldn’t be anyone to help her if she said no.

Slowly, Jax ran his hand down her neck, cupping her throat.

He could choke her, simple as that. Choke her, crush her windpipe.

She’d been in this position before.

The look in his eyes wasn’t violent, though, and Raven knew violence, knew cruelty.

No, the look in Jax’s eyes . . . she couldn’t describe it, exactly. But his hazel eyes lacked malice, lacked coldness.

Through her whiskey-filled mind, she realized it then. It wasn’t a desire to hurt her. It was simply desire.

She hadn’t seen it on a man’s face, not like this.

Raven had seen desire in the form of jealousy, envy. That kind of desire mixed with hate, greed, and vehemence.

Jax just wanted her.

But he stood there, waiting.

Raven’s heart hammered.

He was waiting for her to say no.

And she knew as sure as she knew the sun was shining outside that if she said no, he wouldn’t touch her.

She licked her lips. He might not give her the money, either. And oh, she needed that money. Needed it to try again.

Her blood pulsed under his thumb still pressing into her neck.

Whispering, she said, “Do what you want.”

Jax’s mouth crushed down onto hers.

* * *

He was out of his mind. Out of his mind with lust. Out of his mind with rage, he even wanted to touch her.

She’d captivated him from the moment she walked up the aisle, and he couldn’t do anything but think about having her.

Jax didn’t even know her name, and he was too far gone to care now. She tasted of the whiskey she’d downed, like a dying woman who’d finally found salvation. Unless she had a tolerance as high as his, she was drunk. Jax shouldn’t be trusting her to tell him what he could do, but she’d said yes, and that’s all his cock wanted to hear.

He tore his lips from hers and greedily kissed his way down her neck to the tops of her breasts. He lapped at her skin and smiled in satisfaction as she shivered.

Pulling the dress from her body, his lips followed, trailing down her stomach.

Jax pulled her tattered panties from her hips and leaving the dress in a pool on the floor, hoisted her onto the window’s ledge.

The dress made a convenient padding for his knees. He knelt, and Jax spread her thighs apart, surprised she groomed herself in that way. He lowered his head and delicately licked her, running a finger along her opening, finding her wet, inviting.

“Jax,” she panted, and forked her fingers through his hair.

Spellbound by her musky scent, for a moment he wondered how she knew his name, but he pushed the insignificant thought aside, sliding his fingers into her.

The tip of his tongue focused on her clit, teasing her, and he brought her to climax, her muscles clenching around his fingers, come dripping from her opening.

He wanted his cock there now.

Jax pulled his fingers from her as she moaned, and he kissed her, wanting her to taste herself on his lips.

“Turn around.”

She complied, using one of his forearms to steady herself as she still wore Gwen’s white satin pumps.

Pressing her against the window that looked into the garden of the church, Jax undid his dress pants and slid them down just enough to push his cock inside her, not giving a fuck about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases. All he wanted was release.

They fit together as if God had made them for each other. But as Jax fought for control, gripping her hips, he knew finding someone who would tolerate him for the rest of his life was a child’s bedtime prayer at best.

His sandpaper to her silk, he came after several vicious thrusts, leaving a part of himself behind.

Bracing his hands against the window, he spooned her, and fought for breath. “Did I hurt you?”

The standard question. He asked it every time. Not that he cared about the answer. All the women he’d ever screwed told him no, anyway, and “Gwen” was no exception.

“Good. Get dressed. I’ll have my driver drop you wherever you need to go.”

He tucked his limp cock still oozing with come into his briefs and zipped his pants.

She didn’t turn around, and for that, Jax was grateful. He couldn’t look into her eyes now.

Jax left her alone and closed the door behind him.

* * *

The buzz of the whiskey was gone.

Raven didn’t feel any different than she always did when something like this happened.

Shame. Remorse. Guilt.

There was something about sex, something dirty when love wasn’t involved, and the feeling it gave her made her skin crawl.

But the fact that he’d gotten her off, and that way, surprised her, perhaps softened those feelings. Such an intimate act, eating her out. He hadn’t been rough with his fingers either, had simply wanted to give her pleasure. At least, that’s what she assumed, since he hadn’t gone out of his way to be cruel, as he so very easily could have. Raven hadn’t experienced civility in a long time.

She bent to the floor and searched for her panties in the puddle of satin. While she dressed, Raven hoped that Jax would just leave her. Even if it meant she’d given herself to him for nothing. She didn’t want to see him again.

Jax wasn’t in the hallway waiting for her, and unbidden disappointment filled the pit in her stomach. In her mind, she’d already spent that two thousand dollars on rehab. New clothes.

Another chance.

She should have known not to trust someone like that. Someone who already had it all and didn’t care about the people he’d had to step on to get there.

Raven put the vacuum away after giving the Sunday School room a quick once-over. Jax might not have her fired, and it would behoove her to still try her best to keep her job at the small church.

When she let herself outside, a limo sat next to the curb, and Jax leaned against it, his ankles crossed, a frown puckering his lips.

“Get in.”

The whiskey slithered in her gut.

He’d waited for her.

“Get in,” he repeated, opening the limo’s door.

She could run. He’d never chase after her. He’d let her go and never think about her again. But she slid across the black leather seat.

Tinted windows.

Raven pushed herself against the door, giving him space on the long bench.

“Where do you live?”

“What?” she asked, twisting to look at him.

There wasn’t a strand of hair out of place, and his hazel eyes glued her to the seat with an impatient glare. His tux, though he’d just finished screwing her, remained immaculate. Even the flower pinned to his lapel that matched the bouquet she’d carried still looked fresh, untouched.

He looked like a model in a bridal catalogue.

Cold.

“The driver cannot drive unless he has some direction in which to go.”

Raven had taken three buses to make it to the church from the part of the city where she could find a bed at night. Shelters, a dark corner of an abandoned building. A church pew. She kept what little she owned in a storage cabinet at her friend Elle’s beauty salon. It was housed in one of the few remaining storefronts on Z Avenue. But she couldn’t ask Jax to bring her there.

She’d never admit she didn’t have a permanent place to stay.

She named a rundown plaza two miles from Elle’s salon. It was close enough to Z Avenue she could find a place to stay before the beds filled up, but far enough away Jax would never know her actual whereabouts.

With a curl to his lip, Jax repeated the address to the driver, who looked at them in the rearview mirror.

Raven sagged in relief when Jax didn’t close the partition that separated driver from passenger.

The bus ride to that part of town took better than two hours. Raven had to change busses, and wait through several stops to pick up more passengers, to make it to the church she cleaned three times a week, but the limo driver found the plaza in less than forty-five minutes.

Jax didn’t say anything the entire way.

The limo idled at the curb, and Jax made it evident the way he cleared his throat he wanted her gone.

“The money . . .” she tried, timidly, afraid of what he would do.

He slid across the bench, leaned around her, and opened the door.

With a vicious shove, he pushed her out of the limo, and she fell to the ground, bashing her hip against the cracked and crumbling curb.

“What the hell?” she cried and kicked the limo’s wheel with the bottom of her shoe.

Rage made tears burn her eyes, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry again. She’d shown him weakness once, and that was once too many.

Jax pulled his wallet from his pocket and counted out the cash.

He flung the wad of bills at her, and they fluttered in the wind.

Desperate not to lose one dollar, Raven scrambled on her hands and knees frantically chasing after the money as it blew down the sidewalk.

“Never try to find me. Ever. You’ll never get one more penny out of me.”

Jax slammed the limo’s door shut, and as Raven clutched the last bill she’d managed to keep from flying away, the limo disappeared down the rundown city street.

She leaned against the chain-link fence that enclosed the plaza’s parking lot.

Dandelions and burrs grew in with the sparse grass.

Greasy pizza scents floated to her from across the parking lot, making her stomach growl.

She still wore the plain gold band Jax had slipped onto her finger during the ceremony.

In one last act of fury, she flung the gold ring into the street where it skittered across the road and stopped by a pile of fast food garbage.

He’d never even asked her name.

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