Broadly speaking, there were a few ways one could fuck up one’s life.
Making the wrong enemies came out top, naturally, but there was nothing quite like being embroiled in a murder to really get the mind’s working rewired. The experience clung to one like a whore to a rich patron, the smell of rotting meat to clothing.
But unlike an article of clothing, no number of washings would ever get the stench of murder off. Neither would therapy or pills. Short of blowing one’s own brains out, one would just have to get used to that unpleasant stain—something I had the pleasure of knowing first-hand.
I idly rubbed my left jaw which sported a week-old bruise courtesy of Ryland Wyatt, my ex-friend turned enemy. Meanwhile, a door slammed somewhere in the cold-as-balls apartment that I alone inhabited. Likely an open window letting the draft in, but quite honestly, I couldn’t be arsed to get up and shut it.
And so I sat barefoot and shirtless and slouched in a chair, staring blindly into the electric fireplace. There were many things on my mind, but the most consuming of them was a certain girl with wild hair the same shade as the flames dancing before me—
And that blasted intercom that hadn’t stopped buzzing for the past five minutes.
I slammed my vodka down and went to my desk.
“Evening, Mr Valentine.” The security desk. “There’s a visitor asking for you.”
Irritation flared. “Did I not give clear instructions that I’m not be disturbed? Tell him to send his case to the firm via the usual route, no guarantee I’ll ever read it.”
“It’s a woman, sir—”
“Then tell her to get her pleasure elsewhere. I’m not in the mood to fuck.” I reached the end of my patience and turned off the intercom without waiting for a reply.
I arrived in New York two months ago, brought down from Seattle by a troublesome problem.
It involved a particular mess I had helped set in motion ten years ago, one I did a swell job of ignoring for just as long:
The fatal gun incident that took the life of Horace Beckett, the CEO of a middling construction firm in California.
That was also my first brush with murder, because in reality, Horace Beckett’s death hadn’t been an accident like the news had reported. The man had been shot point blank in his face by his girlfriend, Estelle Valentine, who then went on to seize every penny of his fortune from his two daughters.
Estelle Valentine happened to be my mother, and the girl with hair the color of fire, the face who haunted my dreams every night…
Karin Hope Beckett, Horace’s younger daughter.
Picking up my glass, I downed a healthy mouthful and let the vodka burn its way down my throat.
But no matter how much I tried, no amount of alcohol would remove the stain on my soul.
Back then, I had known the truth behind Horace’s death, and so had my three closest friends. But instead of going to the police, I had forced their silence in a bid to protect Estelle—hence their animosity.
And so for the past ten years, each of us had buried the incident and gone about our lives. All the while the Beckett sisters had struggled to survive, never knowing the truth behind their father’s death.
Until two months ago.
Estelle had resurfaced after spending all the money she’d inherited, and in true fashion, she decided that blackmailing and threatening to frame Ryland, Gabriel and Cameron for the murder was a good idea.
My ex-friends in turn had the temerity to come to me to contain the problem, which was why I was presently freezing my ass off in a city I had no business being in.
Propping my bruised jaw on my knuckles, I picked up a slim black flash drive from the side table, letting it play between my fingers.
As it stood, I had contained the problem, much to their relief. This little device I held was the key to their freedom—a voice recording with Estelle’s full confession, damning enough to convict her of the lethal shooting of her boyfriend ten years ago.
But for all his planning, Ryland Wyatt had missed one crucial thing.
I wasn’t about to give over the last remaining family I had, even if she was a venomous snake.
Horace’s daughter should have stayed away from me like I told her to. From the moment we met, it was clear that she was everything I wasn’t—sheltered, good-natured, absurdly kind.
I knew from the start that if she ever made the mistake of getting close to me, it would end in devastation for the both of us. Darkness simply had no business being around light, and good wasn’t meant to be with evil. Someone like me would only taint her like a drop of ink in clear spring water.
If only she had listened.
The intercom at my desk buzzed yet again, and this time I swore aloud as I strode over to it. Not only did this apartment have shit heating, it apparently also had shit service staff.
“You’re either feeling brave tonight, or you’re sick of your job,” I snapped. “Which is it?”
“She’s very insistent on meeting you, sir.” The man sounded uneasy. “She doesn’t seem like she’s here for company, so I assumed—”
“The only thing you should be assuming is a position on your hands and knees over a mirror so you can fuck yourself. I gave an instruction. Follow. It.”
“Understood sir, I—” He paused, listening to a faint feminine voice speaking on his end. “Sir, she says she won’t leave until she meets you. Shall I call security?”
I frowned, puzzled and pissed off. No one in their right mind would be so daring as to storm my residence and demand an audience with me.
No one except…
I felt a sudden pang of foolish hope, but the thought of it was absurd. Karin Beckett may be impulsive, but she wasn't foolhardy enough to come to me alone, and in the dead of the night at that.
I couldn’t help asking anyway. “What’s her name again?”
“I didn’t have a chance to give it the first time, sir, but it’s Ms Beckett.”
“My god, which one?”
“I’m not sure,” the man said uncertainly, “but she’s a redhead. Young-looking, just pushing five-feet.”
My chest twisted at the image that wrought, as if my heart had clenched around a knife.
It was her. For some insane reason, Karin had come to me.
Bloody fucking hell.
I abandoned the exchange and went to the front door in urgent strides. My blood hammered in my ears every step of the way as I sprinted to the elevator, crossing the distance in seconds.
The last time I had seen Karin was four years ago, from afar. The last time we'd spoken was ten. I'd never forgotten her for a moment, not even when she moved on with her life and forgot me.
The descent down to the ground floor seemed to take an eternity, but what I saw when the doors slid open stole my breath away.
Karin Beckett stood right in front of me, wrapped in a snug army green parka and a long yellow dress, her finger poised in mid-air like she had been about to press the elevator button. Her lips were parted in surprise.
The effect she had on me was instantaneous, like I’d taken a punch to the stomach. I was speechless as I took in the face that had haunted me for years.
God, she was so beautiful it hurt. Her hair was that same bright, wild shade of orange, tumbling past her shoulders in an untamed mass of glossy curls. Her pale skin was more freckled now, the dark gold flecks scattering across the crests of her cheeks and her nose like fairy dust. Light gray eyes peered out of that small face, set with the same patience and watchfulness that always made me suspect they could see right through me.
“Hey.” Karin slowly lowered her hand.
I stared back wordlessly, fury and yearning tearing me up on the inside.
Ten years of being haunted by her in my dreams. Ten years of jolting awake from a fitful sleep, my fingers grasping uselessly at the ghost of her. Now she was right in front of me and I didn’t have a damned thing to say.
Gathering my wits, I stepped aside to let Karin into the elevator. Her wild hair bounced past me as she entered, leaving a trail of sweet vanilla in her wake. She smelled like a fucking sugar cookie, courtesy of her habit of adding vanilla essence to her shampoo. Just the scent of her was enough to make me hard.
I clenched my jaw as the doors shut and the elevator began its ascent. All the while I was acutely aware of Karin’s blistering presence beside me. It was like standing beside a bonfire.
“I don’t know if you noticed,” she began, her voice light and lilting, “but you came down without shoes on. Or a shirt.”
I scowled, belatedly realizing that the scar on my abdomen was fully visible to her. It sat just above the waistband of my pants, an ugly mass of raised tissue.
I shifted to angle that side of my body away from her. “You were unexpected.”
Karin shrugged, wisely choosing not to comment on the action. “You didn’t have to come down. I could have found my way up myself.”
I offered no reply, but instead of being offended, Karin only grew more curious. I could feel her watching my face, observing my expression. She loved to make conversation, delighting in finding common ground with others. Apparently, that hadn’t changed.
Karin was also fascinated by my apartment for some reason, peering around with slightly widened eyes as I took her back to my study. Her demeanor reminded me of a visitor at a museum—politely curious, not at all affected.
I resented her for her nonchalance when raw hunger was eating me up on the inside.
In my study, I assumed my earlier posture in the armchair, making a show of propping my feet up on the chair across me, the only other seat in the room.
“Five minutes.” I sat back and leveled a mocking look at Karin to hide my unrest. “I’d use them wisely if I were you; my time isn’t cheap.”
“Right. You’re a lawyer now.” There was no sarcasm in Karin’s tone, only her usual brand of cheerfulness.
The fireplace apparently caught her interest, and she padded over and held her hands out to the heat. “Whoa…is this real? Or one of those hologram thingies?”
“It’s real,” I assured her, “so don't look to me to pull you out if you fall in. I'll happily watch.”
Karin hastily stepped back. “Allie doesn’t know I’m here, by the way, so please don’t tell her.”
“You’ve nothing to worry about. I’ve no intention to be further involved with the lot of you.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced at my feet on the spare chair before shrugging and heading for the desk.
My hungry gaze never left her as she passed. Her unzipped parka revealed her form with every step she took, the dress she wore underneath clinging to her legs.
While her elder sister was all hard edges, Karin was blessed with curves that had become downright sinful over the years.
My fingers dug into the armrests as I imagined grasping her body, skimming my hands over the generous curves, sinking my hands into her heavy locks of hair. All this time and she still reduced me to a lust-struck idiot just by being near.
Karin braced her palms on the glass tabletop and boosted herself up, seating herself on the desk with some effort. She watched me from her perch, eyes blinking like an owl’s.
“We'd like to have Estelle's confession, please.”
Of course she was here for that. In the minutes that passed, I had almost allowed myself to harbor hope that perhaps she had come for me.
But we belonged to different camps, on different sides of the law. Karin was the daughter of the man my mother killed. I was the one protecting her father’s murderer.
I smiled mockingly. “I’m sure you’d like that.”
Karin’s gaze zeroed in on the flash drive on the side table beside me. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Why won’t you give it to us?” She swung her legs, but I wasn’t fooled by her relaxed demeanor. “And where did you hide Estelle? Is she really in Switzerland like you told Allie?”
“If you think I’ll simply tell you after all the lengths I've gone to, you’re a fool.”
Karin remained silent, taking me in with a gaze that saw more than it gave away. The firelight reflected off her riot of curls, making them seem almost alive.
It was all too easy to underestimate her. She was stunning in a wild way—bright hair, almond eyes and neat features in a heart-shaped face, the form of a fairy sprite that had stumbled out of a forest by mistake. The first thought that came to mind when one looked at her was to remember to breathe, not how the gears behind that beautiful face never seemed to stop turning.
“Ryland, Gabriel and Cam have tried persuading, threatening and bribing for the recording respectively. Let’s hear your speech.”
“I didn't prepare one.”
“Then you must be here to seduce me.” I dragged a hot gaze down her body, pure lust coursing through my veins. “That much trust in your skills?”
Karin shrugged as she swung her legs again, kicking the skirts of her dress. “I’m not here to sleep with you either.”
“Then how did you expect to get it?”
“I thought you’d tell me. There must be something you want.”
“Not if you ask my old friends. They all left empty-handed.”
They were also heirs to massive fortunes and would have gladly surrendered anything I asked for in exchange for their freedom.
But what I desired wasn't money, power, or status. What I desired was something so far out of my reach I had given up all hope of ever attaining it.
“I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about me.” Karin’s expression was completely open and without deception. “Isn’t there anything you want from me?”
I forced my body to relax, glowering at her in growing agitation. “It doesn’t matter what I want from you.”
Because what I want is you.
“We can work something out,” Karin pressed. “I want justice for Dad, and I want Ryland to be free of this for Allie's sake. They’re dating now, you know.” She twisted a lock of her hair around her fingers, something she did when she was nervous or hesitant. “But I don’t think I can sleep with you. You did betray me.”
I bared my teeth in an effort to mask my turmoil. “My loyalties are to myself, and myself only. I never pretended otherwise.”
“You can still do the right thing,” she insisted. “That’s why you went into law, isn’t it?”
“You think I did it out of guilt?” I gave her my meanest smile. “Darling, I don’t give a damn about justice. I’m in it for the money.”
The irony of practicing law as a criminal wasn’t lost on me. As a financial attorney who was in the pockets of some of the dirtiest bastards in the country, I made a killing off vanishing messes.
Justice was blind, that much was true, but not in the way most people wanted it to be. It simply swayed towards the one with the stronger hand, not so much different from a card game.
And I’d always been a betting man.
“You’re not getting anything out of me, love. Best walk away while you can.”
Karin sighed and hopped off the desk.
But instead of leaving, she came over to me.
“I’m not just here for the confession,” she admitted. “I wanted to see you too. Allie told me you got into a fight with Ryland and Gabriel last week.” She raised her brows. “At the same time.”
I stared back sullenly. She had no right to worry about me. I was no one to her but the person who ruined her life.
“I’m here for your inspection.” I held my hands out mockingly, not bothering to get up from the chair. “What's your verdict?”
Karin chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. “I think I need a better look.”
She came closer to me without warning, bracing her hands on the armrests on either side of me. Her legs stepped between my spread knees, coming dangerously near where I was hard for her.
I went deathly still, my heart racing a thousand miles. “What are you doing?”
Karin leaned in slowly, bringing her face close to mine. Her gray eyes were luminous, nearly silver, framed by lush lashes that gave her the look of a doe. Vanilla surrounded me in an intoxicating cloud, filling my nose with her sweet scent.
I found myself shifting back in the chair, trying to get away from the five-foot-three female who was inching closer by the second. “The fuck are you—”
My words died when Karin's small hand came to my face.
“Shh,” she said. “Hold still…”
She gently touched my jaw where the shadow of a bruise remained, her cool fingertips caressing my overheated skin.
I mulishly kept my eyes on a point on her neck, even as my body drank in the feeling of her touch like water absorbing into a parched tongue. I was so fucking hungry for her that I couldn’t move a muscle. I couldn't breathe.
“It looks painful,” she murmured sympathetically.
I swallowed against my dry throat. By now I was right up to the back of the chair in my bid to escape her.
Then I made the mistake of looking up.
Karin’s face hovered just inches away from mine, her face showing the same artlessness and patience that had ruined me from the moment I laid eyes on her. Her gaze lingered on my face as she caressed my jaw in a soft, excruciating touch.
“Does it hurt?” she whispered, her eyes twin pools of silver. Her breath fanned over my face, sweet with a hint of vanilla.
I was vaguely aware that my breathing was coming too damned fast, my nostrils flaring with the effort to keep still instead of grabbing her.
My careful rein on my emotions was unraveling by the second, but Karin… Karin seemed to see through me without any effort at all, looking so damned composed and heartbreakingly lovely while I was tied up in knots.
It had always been this way when it came to her. I never felt a thing in my life, not regret, not happiness nor grief. Not until Karin was involved.
Then everything rushed to the fore and demanded to be let out, like I had saved up every emotion for her alone.
I had to be away from her, for my own sanity. Her presence alone was like crack to an addict, and if there was one thing I knew, it was that I was addicted to Karin Beckett.
I took her wrist and wrenched her hand away.
“If you're done playing Florence Nightingale,” I snarled, “then let's stop this bullshit. Your five minutes is up.”
Karin’s chin set stubbornly. “I’m not leaving until you talk to me.”
“Then I’ll just have to throw you out. Fair warning—I won’t be gentle.” I got up from the chair, towering over Karin with my full height. I let all the ugliness inside me show, holding absolutely nothing back.
“Which will it be, princess?”