Two days before high school graduation
It felt like I’d been waiting forever for my eighteenth birthday. I was counting down the days with a fervor that was different and more desperate than most teenagers. Nothing magical happened at eighteen, but I’d been longing to be considered an adult ever since I was sixteen. Hell, I’d felt like a damn adult much longer than the last two years. That’s what happened when you grew up on the fringes of a place like the Point and had parents who were more concerned with ruining their lives than making their children’s lives better.
It didn’t matter how grown up I felt or even how mature I acted. Until I was eighteen, I was considered a kid, a child, someone too young and too inexperienced to know what they really wanted. Or, in my case, whom they really wanted. I was sick to death of everyone in my life acting like I couldn't make up my own mind. They took it upon themselves to decide what was best for me and who should and shouldn’t be allowed in my life.
I was tired of hearing how big the world was and how there was so much out there for me to explore and experience. I felt like I was being shoved out the door under the pretense of it being for my own good. I wasn’t stupid. The people who loved me the most wanted me away from the person I loved the most. They never bothered to try and hide it.
I had no plans to leave the Point. It was ugly, mean, hard, and unforgiving, but these streets were home and I couldn't imagine being happy anywhere else. This place had long since made my hands and the edges of my soul dirty. It was something I would be hard-pressed to hide should I go anywhere else. I’d have to spend my days trying to camouflage the filth I was so familiar with. Here, no one looked twice at the pretty teenager with shadows in her eyes and blood on her hands. I was one of many.
I wasn’t interested in leaving behind my sister or her fiancé, Race. We were an odd, dysfunctional family, but we made it work.
I didn't want to be too far away from my mother, who was living in a group home as she slowly, painfully tried to recover from her alcoholism and PTSD from an accident she caused that ended up taking the life of a young mother and her child.
But more than anything, I absolutely didn’t want to leave him.
I couldn’t imagine a day going by without catching a glimpse of Noah Booker. I mean, he was impossible to miss. Six-and-a-half-feet tall, body built like a professional athlete, dark and brooding with the prettiest gunmetal-gray eyes, he was the entirety of every one of my teenage fantasies. I barely noticed the jagged scar dividing one side of his face. White and raised, it cut one of his black eyebrows in half, slashed over a high cheekbone, and ended somewhere under the chiseled edge of his hard jaw. He never talked about it, but Race, Booker’s boss, let it slip that Booker got the scar when he was locked up. Or maybe it wasn't as much of a slip-up as a thinly veiled warning. Race never kept it much of a secret that my infatuation with his massive, dangerous, ex-con enforcer made him extremely uncomfortable. He’d warned me over and over again that Booker wasn’t for me. And he’d made it clear to the man who broke knees and smashed heads for a living that he was to stay as far away from me as possible.
They called it puppy love. It wasn’t.
To me, it was a vicious kind of love, filled with teeth and claws that I could feel digging at my insides every single time someone patted me on the head and told me how young I was, how much life I had yet to live. This love was rabid, and I was tired of having it on a leash. I wanted to let it free, wanted to let it sink its razor-sharp fangs into the man who had awoken the primal need inside of me. It was only fair he felt the same kind of crushing bite and painful pressure around his heart that I did every single day.
I was solely focused on getting to Booker. It barely registered I was done with high school and had new doors opening all around me. I couldn’t care less about getting my hands on my diploma. A piece of paper with Karsen Carter written on it in pretty calligraphy meant exactly nothing to me. The only thing I was focused on was the fact I was finally old enough to make my own choices. And I’d always picked Booker. Over and over again he was my number one priority.
My sister was so excited that I was finally about to graduate. I knew she was proud of me and proud of herself. For a while there, when both of our parents crashed and burned, she doubted she was going to be able to take care of me. She viewed my graduation as a badge of honor; proof we both made it, we both survived after we were tossed into the deep end by the very people who were supposed to love us above all else. She wanted me to be as thrilled as she was. She didn’t want me to lose sight of how far we’d both come.
Brysen was only a couple of years older than me, trying to put herself through college, and holding our entire family together. She thought she was going to break, but then she met Race, and like a fairy-tale prince, he swooped in and fixed all the places in Brysen’s life that were cracked and broken. Only Race wasn’t a prince, and the Point didn’t have room for anything as frivolous as fairy tales. No, Race Hartman was the golden king of the underground, ruling over criminals and misfits. His throne perched upon broken laws and questionable morals. His story ended with blood and brutality, but my sister stood by him anyway. She didn’t want to wear a tainted crown and rule next to him, but there was no way for her to avoid it completely. Race was always there for her, to clean the rust and grime from her tiara every time it touched something nasty. He did his best to shield both of us, but when you lived in the Point, there was no escaping the way the city bled into everything.
My sister was frantically throwing together a graduation party. She wanted it to be perfect. She needed it to be flawless. Our parents had left us to our own devices for so long, we both forgot what it was like to celebrate being together and enjoying every milestone for the massive accomplishment that it was. Ever since Race gave her stability and built us a place to call home, Brysen went big any chance she got. Birthdays were ridiculous. Holidays were insane. And now graduation was going to be so over the top, I was almost scared to see what she put together. I offered to help, but when she shooed me off and ordered me not to ruin the surprise, it was easy enough to slip out the front door of our apartment in the iron and glass castle near the water. Race moved us into the high-tech fortress two years ago. Booker moved into a unit a floor below ours around the same time. It was such a sweet kind of torture to have him so close, yet so far.
Race and Brysen had spent the last year trying to convince me to go to college out of state. I received more than one scholarship offer and visited a couple of beautiful campuses as far away from the Point as one could imagine. None of them felt right. The air was too clean. The people around us smiled too big and wide. The cities all felt too clean, bright, and shiny. But the biggest problem was that Booker wasn’t in any of them. I couldn't imagine the boys my own age looking at me like they saw every secret I was trying to keep, and there was no way I could imagine showing interest in any of them. No one mattered as much as Booker did. It had been that way since I was sixteen. My infatuation with him was innocent and unchecked because even when I didn’t know how to control what I was feeling, he always understood what was at risk and kept a purposeful and respectful distance between us.
But today was different. I was eighteen.
I was an adult.
I was legal.
I was ready.
There wasn’t a single reason, aside from Race’s objections, for Booker to turn me down anymore. Yeah, Race paid him, but Booker was more than intimidating and there was a call for his kind of work in plenty of places around the Point.
I convinced myself that once we were together, once he told Race he loved me the way I loved him, he could find another king of crime to work for. He could catch bullets for any of the bad guys who called the Point home. And if Race got violent, Booker was bigger. It wouldn’t be pretty, and it would piss off my sister if her man’s very pretty face got pounded into a bloody pulp. But I fully expected him to fight for me, just as he’d done so many times in the past. There was no way the elegant and refined Race could put down a bruiser like Booker. Very few could. It was one of the reasons I was so drawn to him. Booker had a habit of saving my life, and he never hesitated to put himself between me and whatever was trying to hurt me.
Today I was finally old enough to have him.
Best. Birthday. Present. Ever.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to bop down to Booker’s place. He even left the door unlocked most days so I could get in. We lived in a fortress that had more eyes in the sky than a casino in Vegas, so he didn’t need to worry about simple things like locked doors. My crush on the behemoth of a man was pretty much common knowledge all around. Booker tended to treat me like I was an annoying kid sister. But there were times, when no one else was around, I could tell he was looking at me differently. He was hard to read, something that kept you alive in these parts. But I spent so much time watching him, I could see what no one else could. Those steely eyes softened, melted into a soft dove gray when he looked at me while no one else was paying any attention.
I glanced up at the camera that I knew was tracking my every move. I gave a little wave to whomever was monitoring the feed tonight. Race’s security guys were a part of my everyday life. Where I went, they followed. It was sort of like having an army of overprotective big brothers. Annoying yet necessary. It was a good thing I was obsessed with Booker. Having eyes only for him over the last few years meant I didn’t bring boys home to meet the family. I was pretty sure trying to date a guy my own age would have been impossible with those eagle-eyed brutes hanging around.
The butterflies in my stomach started sword fighting the closer I got to Booker’s door. I spent a lot of time making goo-goo eyes at the giant man and aimlessly trying to make conversation with him. He was too cold and reserved to attempt any harmless flirting, and I was always very aware of the line in the sand where Booker was concerned. He tolerated my infatuation and presence, but he always made it clear he was humoring me. He was the one who often reminded me there was a big, wide world out there, ripe for the picking. He told me I should never settle. However, when I tried to explain the only thing I was dying to experience was him, he diverted the conversation and pointedly told me that I was way too young for him. He also believed I was way too nice. He didn’t talk about his past, or his time in prison, but I had a feeling that wherever Noah Booker had been before made the Point look like Sesame Street.
When I was in front of the door, I took a second to make sure my white-blonde hair was smooth and sleek. I ran my tongue over the front of my teeth to make sure none of the plum-colored lip gloss was stuck to the surface. I wiped my hands down the front of my black skinny jeans, the ones that made my admittedly long legs look even longer and took a deep breath. It was now or never.
Today was the day.
As I was lifting a hand to knock on the door, a high-pitched giggle from the other side drifted through the wood. A deep rumble of sound that I assumed was Booker responded. His chuckle sent chills racing up and down my spine. I frowned when the sound of another giggle, even higher than the first, followed. I fell back a step when a very female moan assaulted my ears.
I lifted a shaking hand to my chest and took another breath. I knew Booker wasn’t a saint; there was no way to expect a man as virile as he was to wait for me to graduate past jailbait status. Sure, I quietly hoped he would, because that was how fantasies worked. But, reality was rough and I knew none of the men circling my life spent much time without beautiful companions, Booker included. However, today was special. Today was important. Today was the day everything changed. I knew he knew it. I’d told him no less than fifty times over the last week that today was my eighteenth birthday. He had to know what today meant. He had to understand the wait was finally over. There was no reason for him to be in his apartment with someone else when he could be inside with me.
My hand shook when I turned the knob. There was a loud voice screaming inside my head, one warning that I was about to make a huge mistake. I could practically see a red warning light flashing, telling me to ABORT, ABORT, ABORT! I was a smart girl, but smart girls do dumb things when a foolish heart is involved.
I opened the door and walked in on a live-action porno.
The apartment smelled like cigarettes, cheap perfume, sweat, and something musky and unknown. I blinked in the low lighting, wishing the room were pitch black so I didn’t have to witness all my hopes and dreams dying a horrific death.
Booker in all his big, tattooed glory was sitting on his leather couch. That wasn’t anything I hadn’t walked in on before. But the naked girl on his lap was a new addition, and so was the half-naked girl standing behind him, hands pulling his head back as she shoved her tongue down his throat. The girl in his lap had her hands splayed over his broad chest, and she was bouncing up and down like he was a ride at an amusement park. I hated to admit it, but it took me a full minute of staring in slack-jawed surprise to realize she was actually moving up and down on Booker’s dick. I blinked at the scene playing out in slow motion before me, feeling my lungs seize and my heart twist into a knot. Any other day this wouldn’t have mattered as much. But today, how could he be with these girls on the day we could finally be together?
I must’ve made some kind of noise, because the next thing I knew, the girl fucking his face with her tongue stopped what she was doing and looked right at me. She was wearing way too much makeup, but that didn’t stop her from being stunning. My wounded mind—as well as my crushed heart—wondered if she was one of the girls from the strip club where Booker worked most nights. If she wasn’t, she should consider a career change. It didn’t take a savant to recognize she was all woman, not a girl on the brink of womanhood. The distinction never seemed to matter until this very moment.
The woman looked me up and down, a practiced smile tilting her garishly painted mouth. “We got company, big guy.” Her voice was rough and raspy, like she smoked a thousand cigarettes a day.
Booker turned his head, quicksilver eyes gleaming in the dim light. He grunted, hands digging into the hips of the woman still grinding on top of him. Her head was thrown back, face cast in the throes of ecstasy. It was a little much, or maybe it was my heart exploding inside my chest that was too much to bear.
His scarred eyebrow lifted in silent question. The expression gave him kind of a devilish, wicked look. “Did you knock, Karsen?”
That’s what he was worried about? He’d never worried about if I’d knocked before today. How about the fact that my heart was shattering and spilling out of my chest onto his hardwood floors? I blinked back tears and sucked in a painful breath.
The pretty girl hovering behind him reached out and ran her long, red nails through the dark brush of Booker’s black hair. “Is she the one you told us about? She’s the little girl who lives upstairs who thinks she’s in love with you?”
I couldn’t stop the gasp that burst forth. It was bad enough he had them here on what was supposed to be our special day. Okay, special to me, but still. Hearing he talked about me like that, called me a little girl and questioned my feelings, it burned through my blood like acid.
Booker nodded, curling an arm around the woman on top of him to still her erotic movements. “That’s her.”
The other woman’s smile lost some of its edge, softening around the sides. She cocked her head to the side and looked me over again. “Pretty little thing, isn’t she?”
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I felt like I’d walked into the middle of a nightmare and couldn’t find my way out. The woman Booker was currently having sex with turned her attention to me as well. She looked impatient and annoyed by the interruption, readying herself to continue her ministrations.
Booker turned back to her, telling the woman behind him, “If you like the innocent, girl-next-door-type, I guess she’s all right.”
Ouch. Direct hit.
I was both innocent and the girl next door . . . literally. There was no getting around it.
“You like them a little dirty and a lot more experienced, don’t you, big boy?” The woman in his lap licked the side of his face and I cringed.
Booker snorted. “I like easy.” He turned his attention back to the woman uncomfortably close to his crotch. “Nothing about her is easy.”
I was stuck to the spot, trapped by all the jagged, sharp pieces of my broken fantasies. I wanted to bolt, to run as far away as I could, but I couldn’t move. I felt like the shards would rip me to shreds any direction I turned. Even when the naked woman continued making out with the man of my dreams right in front of me, I was stuck in the same spot. The noises they were making were loud and graphic and all-encompassing. I could hear them echoing in the empty places in my chest where my heart used to be.
Finally, the other woman in the skintight leather skirt and black bra walked over to where I was locked in place. Her hand was light on my arm and she touched me like I was made of glass, even though I wanted to claw her eyes out.
I blinked up at her numbly, letting her guide me around and tow me toward the open front door. “Don’t worry, sweetie. There are better guys out there for someone like you. Guys much nicer than the type of guy Booker is . . . he’s made for women like me. You are still too new, too pristine, honey, and all he’ll do is ruin you.”
Everyone said that. I was sick to death of everyone telling me that. I didn’t want someone better for me, I wanted Booker.
I finally gasped, pulling a burning breath into my starved lungs. “Today’s my birthday.” The words came out on a shuddering sob. I have no idea where that came from, why I’d share such an intimate detail with the woman who was next in line for Booker’s dick. I’d stop thinking rationally the second I heard the giggling through the door.
She made a sympathetic noise and patted my arm. “Happy birthday, honey. You deserve something special.”
“Roxy. Get back in here. We’re moving to the bedroom.” The other girl’s voice was excited, and I felt her words settle in my stomach like a lead weight.
“I thought he was special.” The words were barely a whisper.
The woman squeezed my arm and I was shocked when she leaned forward and touched her brightly painted lips to my cheek in a kiss that was more like a whisper. I should’ve pushed her away, called her a whore, smacked her across the face . . . something, anything. But all I could do was watch as her perfect, painted face blurred into a melted blob as tears obscured my vision.
“The fact that you think that proves you’re the special one. Get out of here and go live the kind of life that doesn’t have guys like Booker and girls like me and Rowan in it.” She backed up gently and firmly shut the door in my tear-streaked face.
I don’t know how long I stood outside the door crying and trying to pull myself together. It was long enough to hear laughing voices quiet and disappear as they made their way farther inside the apartment. Once the tears stopped, I used the hem of my t-shirt to wipe away my smeared eye makeup, rubbed away the traces of moisture on my cheeks, and marched back upstairs to Race’s apartment. I wasn’t even all the way through the door before I was telling Brysen I wanted to change colleges. I wanted to go out of state and get as far away from the Point—and from Booker—as possible.
Today was supposed to change everything . . . and it did. But not in the way anyone expected. Not in the way I’d dreamed about for years.
Right then and there I made the decision that once I left the Point, I had no plans to ever come back. The city simply wasn’t big enough for me and Noah Booker and all the pieces of the heart he broke on my birthday.