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Dare To Love Again (Decadence L.A. Book 3) by Maddie Taylor (1)

Prologue

Screams, startling and shrill, brought Esmerelda Burton bolt upright in bed. The pitch-blackness she encountered when she opened her eyes only intensified her fear and confusion. Covering her ears didn’t block out the piercing noise. It never did. Nothing could obliterate the sounds coming from her own throat, not tonight or the countless nights before this one when the never changing nightmare invaded her sleep.

Esme grabbed her pillow, clutching it to her chest. While she shivered in her sweat-drenched nightgown, tendrils of hair clinging to her face and neck, her tortured cries became muffled sobs as she vented her frustration into the damp linen. Why wouldn’t the awful dreams stop? It was going on four years now.

More than subconscious images conjured by her sleeping brain, these were vivid mental pictures that propelled her back in time to relive a moment she tried her best to suppress by day, but while lying in her lonely bed every night they haunted her tormented mind.

Something soft and warm rubbed her leg. When her face came out of her rumpled pillow she met a watchful green gaze. If Phineas weren’t a cat, she would have called the look he gave her concern. Reaching out with shaky hands, Esme scooped him up and hugged him to her chest. Any other time he would have protested, but when she woke like this, he seemed to know she needed his comfort and allowed it if only briefly.

After several long moments where she focused on nothing but slowing her breathing, the pounding in her ears abated as her racing heart slowed. When her hands weren’t trembling quite so badly, she rolled on her hip and grabbed her phone off the nightstand. She scrolled through her contacts, hit the wrong one twice, before the name she needed appeared on the screen as the call connected.

While she listened to the ring, she silently calculated the time difference between Baltimore and LA. He always said call anytime, but she hated to interrupt his sleep too. He had to work in the morning just like she did. It wasn’t yet midnight on the west coast, Pax didn’t sleep much either. He’d still be up so she didn’t feel quite so needy and pathetic.

“Esme, sweetheart,” he said when he answered, his voice conveying sympathy, but never annoyance. Ryan Paxton knew what she was going through and had never once been put out with her even though this same call happened at least twice a week. She didn’t call him every time the nightmare reoccurred; only when the screams woke her, which meant the vision had played through to the end in her head, to the very worst part.

“Pax,” she breathed out.

“The dream again?”

“Yeah, I hate to bother you.”

“You’re not a bother, how many times do I need to tell you that?” Her husband Andrew’s best friend and partner, they’d met in college, went through the academy together, served on the same unit for the Baltimore Police Department, and they both applied and became special agents with the FBI. During this time, she’d met and fallen in love with Andrew Burton, and Pax had become like a brother to her.

She thanked God for him every day because after she lost Andrew, she couldn’t have made it without his strength to rely on, and through their shared grief their bond had grown stronger. They supported one another, Esme being there for him when things got bad, too. But as time passed, the give and take became largely one-sided as he moved on, but she remained stagnant. Pax worried about her constantly, especially after transferring cross country to the LA field office, a few months ago. He’d tried to get her to make the move with him, saying a change would be good for her, but she simply couldn’t do it, not yet.

“Did you take your Ambien?” he asked, breaking into her thoughts.

“No, I got home late and got busy. When I remembered, I didn’t have a full eight hours left, so I had to skip it.”

“You know you need to plan for this,” he scolded gently.

“I hate being so weak. I should be able to sleep without being drugged.”

“You’re not weak, Esme, you’ve dealt with this better than most people would. But it’s worse when you don’t sleep. What’s your therapist always telling you?”

“Everyone grieves at different speeds.” But she seemed to be going at a snail’s pace. The dreams, if nothing else, should have decreased by this stage. “She thinks I should take you up on your offer.”

“Of course, she does. Two great minds as they say.”

“Right,” she drawled, and he chuckled.

“Seriously, sweetheart, it helped me just getting away from the city.”

“To an even bigger one like LA? Is it any different?”

“Yes, especially the weather.”

“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. Her voice turned quiet when she added, “At least

here, they know me.”

“Fuck! It happened again today, didn’t it?” The explosively uttered expletive made her jump. “Dammit, why can’t they drop it?”

“Human tragedy sells papers, except it wasn’t a reporter this time.”

“Then who?”

“That writer came by the house, again. He’s determined to make his story into a movie.”

Silence greeted this news.

“I told him no, like before. Hollywood is filled with screenwriters, Pax. It could be worse out there.” He lived north of the city, just minutes from the television and movie studios, close enough to camp out on her doorstep.

“I wouldn’t let that happen, sweetheart. And it would help if you changed back to Spade.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d made this suggestion. Even after moving and getting an unlisted number, the vultures had tracked her down. It made sense, especially with a fresh start three thousand miles away, but taking back her maiden name seemed like such a betrayal, as though she was trying to erase the man she’d lost entirely from her life.

“He was a cop, Esme,” Pax assured her, accurately anticipating her reaction. “If he were where I am, Andrew would have suggested the same thing.”

“I should be able to live in peace without giving up my identity.”

Again, there was a pause before he shocked her by saying, “Maybe you should do it, with editorial control over the script. You’d be set for life, sweetheart. Like you said, tragedy sells especially when there is a beautiful widow in the center of it all.”

“I can’t capitalize on his death.”

“Pragmatist Andrew Burton would tell you to go for it. Besides, the experience might be cathartic, to get it out there once and for all. Then the scavengers wouldn’t have your bones to pick over anymore.”

She grimaced at the visual. “That’s what Barb said, and that dealing with it might bring me to closure.”

“You’re paying $250 per hour for her counsel; maybe you should listen.”

“I know you’re both right, but I’m torn. We grew up here, Pax. My good memories of him are here as well as the bad. I worry if I move the good ones will fade away, but if I stay the bad will destroy me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I drove by the coffee shop by accident.”

“Sweetheart.”

“I know, it was stupid even to be close to that side of town, but I had to go by the courthouse. There was a detour, and before I knew it, there I was.”

“Come to LA. I can take time off in a few weeks. I’ll fly out, help you pack, and we’ll rent a U-Haul for your stuff. You won’t escape all the memories, Esme, but you won’t have all the triggers. And you can stay with me until you find a place.”

“You’re wonderful to offer but having your best friend’s neurotic widow underfoot will cramp your bachelor lifestyle.”

“That’s BS and you know it. Besides, I’ve found a club, so my bachelor lifestyle will be perfectly fine with you here. I haven’t told you about it, but it’s something else, unlike any back East. When you’re ready, I’ll take you there.”

Whispering again, the thought of being with someone else, another dominant besides Andrew scared the crap out of her, “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”

“Don’t say that. Andrew wouldn’t have wanted you to be alone.”

And she wouldn’t be anything other than that staying behind in Baltimore.

“Okay, Esme, I won’t push, yet,” he said when she didn’t reply. “How does the fifteenth sound? I’ll take the red eye and be there around lunchtime?”

“I haven’t agreed, yet. Give me time.”

“All right, but not an infinite amount. I won’t see you grieve yourself through your thirties and regret not having the family you talked of incessantly for years.”

“That was with Andrew.”

“And you’ll want it with another good man when the right one comes along. Hear me?” How could she not? His tone had deepened, taking on the stern, unyielding inflection Doms had when laying down the law. It dripped of authority and the unspoken consequences if you didn’t straighten up and fly right. Her husband had it, and Pax had perfected it. She had often wondered if Dom 101 was a required course at the academy, or in special agent training for the Bureau.

Something Esme knew for certain, if she ever did what he said, and found another man, he wouldn’t be a cop, but an accountant, a nerdy computer analyst, or a librarian, someone boring, with an inherently low-risk job, and utterly safe.

“I hear you, Pax,” she murmured to appease him.

“Yeah, but you don’t believe it.” His answer proved he knew her too well.

“I’ll think about it, okay?”

“I’ve heard that before. Think hard, Esme. I want you out here with me where I can put my arms around you when you’ve had a bad dream.”

“That would be nice. I’ll put it in the plus column.”

They spoke a few more minutes, about her work and his, then hung up, but she wasn’t going back to sleep. Not tonight.

* * *

Her throat raw from screaming, the horrific images still haunted her as she reached for her phone. He answered on the first ring.

“Sweetheart.”

“I’m putting in my notice tomorrow, after that, I’m calling U-Haul for a reservation. How big of a truck do you think we need?”

“Thank God,” he uttered softly. “Go to the post office and forward your mail, then start packing, Esme. I’ll take care of the truck and everything else.”

“California here I come.”

“Was it as bad as ever?”

“It’s always the same.” She knew he referred to the dream. “I miss him so badly.”

“Me too, sweetheart, but with us in the same city, at least we can miss him together. Try to get some rest. I’ll call you with flight information tomorrow. Good night, Esme.”

“Night, Pax.”

She hung up, threw back the covers and went to the bathroom to get a drink. When she came back, Phineas had made himself at home on her pillow. He didn’t protest when she picked him up, climbed back in bed, and cuddled him close.

“It’s a big move, Phinny. Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”

He meowed, but she couldn’t decide if that was a meow-yes or meow-hell, no.

Nothing was keeping her here. She’d sold the house within a year after she buried him, unable to live in the home they shared and not be tortured by constant memories. The apartment was only a little better. The drugs helped but walking around like a zombie during the day was a high price. She’d tapered them back to Ambien and the occasional Xanax months ago.

“We’ve got nothing to lose by going, do we, buddy?”

Moving by mid-month meant she’d be gone before the weather turned and the snow came—another mark in the plus column.

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