The edge of dominance, p.20
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       The Edge of Dominance, p.20
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         Part #4 of The Doms of Her Life series by Shayla Black

  competition between them over a certain blond nurse volunteer, but they glanced at one another and promptly got on the same page with a nod.

  “What’s this?” Liam stood tall and watchful at the entrance of the kitchen, scrutinizing the scene.

  Her heart dropped. She’d really wanted to get away from home without a confrontation.

  “I’m going to talk to River and make him listen. Please don’t try to stop me, Liam. This is the only way I can help Macen.”

  “We said no. You promised us that you’d not seek out your brother.” Liam’s expression hardened. “There’s no real proof of Hammer’s wrongdoing. I doubt the evidence will hold up in court. We don’t want you risking yourself.”

  “I made that promise before the police zeroed in on Macen. The stakes are higher now. So is the price he’ll pay if I don’t do this.”

  “River tried to kidnap you. Have you forgotten? Hammer and I never will. We almost lost you again. Do you not realize the hell he nearly put us through? And now I’m supposed to let you go meet that devil?”

  Liam had always been protective, and she wouldn’t have him any other way…but right now she needed support, not heroics. “If I take you with me, can you be calm and talk rationally?”

  “Oh, there’ll be no talking. There’ll be my fist in River’s face.”

  “This is why you can’t be going with her, son,” Bryn chided softly. “Let Raine handle this. She must.”

  “River won’t lay a hand on her, man,” Seth assured. “You have my word.”

  “Mine, too. And if the two of us aren’t enough incentive, there’s always my friends, Smith and Wesson.” Beck patted the bulge beneath his shirt. “The princess will be safe.”

  Raine nodded. “I won’t do anything reckless.”

  Liam paused as if seeking fortitude. Then he glanced at his mother and sighed. “I must be mad. Fine. I won’t stand in your way.”

  “Really? You won’t?” She hadn’t expected him to give his permission—ever.

  “Liam and I chatted over tea earlier, lass. He knows I’m right,” Bryn supplied. “He simply doesn’t like it.”

  “I don’t.” Liam approached Raine and pressed his hand to her belly. “You’ll both be careful, won’t you?”

  “I promise. I’m going to surprise River. This time, everything will be on my terms. Then I’ll come home to you and Hammer because you’re all I’ve ever wanted.”

  “Then go.” Liam caressed her hair, concern pouring from his dark eyes.

  “Thank you for understanding. Oh, and Macen is with his lawyer, right?” At Liam’s nod, she bit her lip. “Don’t tell him about this yet. He’s got enough going on without stressing about me. I plan to be home before him.”

  “Christ, Raine. You’re asking me to deceive my best mate.”

  “No, I’m just asking you to keep this between us until I have good news. Once I’m back here safe and sound, he won’t have anything to snarl and growl about. Well, not much.”

  After finishing her breakfast, Raine rose with Beck and Seth in tow. As they headed for the door, Liam set his plate aside and wrapped her in his arms, holding tight before he begrudgingly released her and kissed her hard. “Hurry home. I love you, Raine.”

  “I’m doing this for us.” She brushed a hand over the life growing inside her. “All of us. I love you, too.”

  Once outside, they climbed into Seth’s rental and headed to River’s address. As they exited the car, the California sun beat down. A strong Santa Ana wind blew, and the hot air whipped at her hair, masking the pounding of her heart in her ears.

  She rapped on the hollow wooden door and waited, feeling Seth and Beck hovering protectively behind her.

  After pounding footsteps, the door swung open. River stood, frozen, his expression sharp. “Raine. Who the hell are these clowns, more johns?”

  Here we go… “I came to talk to you like a reasonable human being. Stop assuming I’m a whore!”

  “I didn’t say you were by choice.” The pity in his eyes stung her.

  “These are my friends. They’re here to make sure you don’t pull the same stupid shit you tried at the spa.”

  River looked downright skeptical. “So they’ve never seen you naked?”

  They had—more than once—but not for sex. That answer would only confuse her brother. “Is that really your biggest concern? I’m here to talk to you about the mess you’ve made of my life. And unlike the last time you blindsided me, you’re going to fucking listen.”

  “If Liam could hear you now, little one…” Seth murmured behind her.

  Yeah, her Irishman hated when she cursed. But now wasn’t the time to think about that. She flashed a glare over her shoulder at the big blond PI.

  Seth shrugged. “I think he’d be proud. Go get ’em, tiger.”

  Shaking her head, Raine faced her brother, only to find him with his arms across his chest.

  “There’s not much you can say to convince me I’m wrong. You’re embarrassed you’ve become a victim. I understand. I’ll help you out of your despair.”

  “Oh, my god, are you, like, a brick wall?” She charged at him, poking her finger in his hard middle. “First of all, I’ve never been in ‘despair’ with Hammer or Liam. They have both loved me unconditionally, unlike my own family. Second, I don’t give a shit if you feel as if I haven’t justified my life to you. You left, and I owe you nothing. So don’t for one second, think I’m here groveling for your approval or asking you to rescue me. Third, I will not leave until you admit you’re an impulsive dumb ass who unjustly accused Macen. The police are in his face because you and that morality stick you’ve got shoved up your ass have decided—without hearing my side of the story—that I’m some damsel in distress you have to save. I don’t need you.”

  “Wow,” Beck whispered behind her. “She’d make a bitchin’ Domme.”

  Seth chuckled softly.

  River scowled. “If you don’t need rescuing, why didn’t you say that at the spa?”

  “I tried. But no. You just decided I needed abducting.” She tossed her hands in the air. “I didn’t have a speech prepared that day. I do now, so you better be listening.”

  “Look, I blame myself for not coming back Stateside sooner and making sure you were all right. It fucking eats at me that I was nearly eight thousand miles away, serving Uncle Sam, when Rowan died and you left home. I wish I could have saved her life and you years of misery, prostitution, and rape. I get that Bill was no peach, and these guys are probably better in some ways—”

  “In every way,” she swore, eyes burning. “They love me in ways I never knew men could love.”

  He reared back. “I don’t want to hear about your sex life.”

  “That’s it! I have fucking had it with you.” She stomped her foot, fuming. “Forget about sex.”

  “Hard to do when I’m looking at my pregnant sister.”

  She stared upward, grasping for patience.

  Beck and Seth were about to hear her vomit out her past. The sadist knew some of it. The PI might be aware, too… But privacy had ceased to matter. Only Hammer did.

  “Do you want the truth or do you just want to stand there and judge me like a prick?”

  “Oh, no.” River shook his head. “I want to hear this.”

  “Good. Can I come in and tell you my story? Without you butting in or adding your two cents?”

  “Not without us.” Seth set ground rules immediately.

  She turned to her bodyguards for the day. “Of course not.”

  When Raine turned back to make sure her brother understood, River stared warily between the other two men, then shrugged and opened the door wide. “All right. Come in.”

  The cool, dark motel room was nothing fancy. The bottle-green carpet didn’t quite match the mustard walls. A black-and-white landscape hung above the massive bed. The kitchenette looked well used. A jug of whey protein sat on the counter, next to half a dozen discarded eggshells. Apparently, he
’d just finished breakfast.

  He gestured her to the desk chair near the door. There was a bistro table on the far side of the room, near the fridge. But when River offered up those seats, Beck and Seth refused to stray from her side.

  With a raised brow, River sat on the edge of the bed that looked too rumpled for mere sleep. “I’m listening.”

  Now that she had his attention, emotions pelted Raine, short-circuiting her thoughts before she could finish them.

  “Start at the beginning,” River encouraged. “Bill sold you to Hammer as a minor and…”

  “What?” Where the hell had he heard that? “Not even close. This all started because our dear daddy had a nasty temper.”

  River nodded. “I know. I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

  “You’re not alone, though mine are purely emotional now. Hammer took me to a plastic surgeon back when…” She held up her hands and shook her head. She was getting off track. “My last couple of years under Bill’s roof, I slept with a knife under my pillow. I had just turned seventeen when the drunk busted down my door one night to take my virginity.”

  “What?” River breathed. “Jesus…”

  “I resisted. He beat me. I think he meant to kill me that night, too.”

  River pressed his lips into a tight line. “I thought the violent bastard just hated me.”

  “He hated everything, especially us. I managed to slash his cheek, grab a ‘go’ bag I had stashed just in case, and sneak out my window. It was three in the morning. I had eight dollars to my name and nowhere to go. He made damn sure I had very few friends.”

  “Yeah, he was good at isolating everyone. Manipulating and making those around him feel small.”

  So her brother had experienced that firsthand. Maybe convincing him that Macen was the best thing that had happened to her as a kid wouldn’t be a total uphill battle. “Exactly. After I left, I wandered around in a stupor for two days. Dehydrated and starving, I was in agony. Bruises, cuts, a cracked rib. I was ready to give up, throw myself in front of a car or something… I hid in the alley behind Shadows and cried.”

  “Storm cloud…” He looked stricken.

  “That’s where Hammer found me. He took me in. He…adopted me, for lack of a better description. He fed, clothed, healed, protected, educated, coddled, helped—all the things family should do. For that, the police are calling him a pervert, a child molester? They’re trying to charge him for crimes he never committed.”

  “After what you survived with Bill, I don’t blame you for whatever choices you made. You were a kid. If you’d stayed with Bill, he would have killed you. So I’m damn glad you got out. But I blame Hammer. He took advantage of you. In exchange for his care, he forced you to give him sex.”

  “No, he didn’t! If any man ever laid a finger on me against my will, I’d do exactly to them what I did to Bill. But Hammer never tried. I worked for him as an assistant, cook, bookkeeper, and errand girl. I kept his life running smoothly. He maintained boundaries between us, even when he knew I’d fallen in love with him. Even when I threw myself at him shamelessly.”

  “So he waited a few weeks before taking advantage of your gratitude and molesting you? Touching.”

  “Are you the world’s biggest asshole?” Beck gaped. “I’m a doctor. Why don’t you let me cure your condition? A lobotomy ought to do it.”

  She shot the sadist a chastising stare. “Please… I got this.” Then she turned to River. “What he said.”

  Seth sighed noisily. “Liam and Hammer are right. This is pointless. He’s never going to hear.”

  “Dude…” Beck shook his head. “I was at Shadows the night Hammer brought your sister into the club. He. Didn’t. Touch. Her. God knows he fucked everyone else—”

  “Thanks for the reminder,” she snapped.

  River sat up and pointed at her belly. “Obviously, he took you to bed at some point. When?”

  “That’s pretty damn personal, and she doesn’t owe you an answer except that she was over eighteen,” Seth reminded.

  She ignored the big blond hulk. “Last November fourth. That’s the first time he ever laid a finger on me, more than six years after he took me in. Macen never touched me, pimped me out, or engaged in any sexual behavior with me until three months ago. I was almost halfway to nineteen when I lost my virginity, and it wasn’t to Hammer. Everything about that was purely my choice.”

  And when she remembered how badly she’d hurt Macen, remorse shredded her.

  “Lousy fucking choice, too,” Beck grumbled. “Zak was a raving piece of shit.”

  Raine gestured toward Beck. She couldn’t argue with facts, but his corroboration didn’t hurt, either.

  Her brother took a moment to digest that. “Why did Hammerman give Bill money, if not to buy you for sex? I saw the old fuck just before he died. That’s what he told me.”

  “And you believed him?”

  River had the good grace to flush. “He kept a copy of every money order Master Pervert sent. It made sense…”

  “Well—big shocker—Bill lied. Hammer paid him to stay the hell away from me. He voluntarily gave that bottom-feeding asshole two thousand dollars a month for six years to keep me safe. He bought me a car. He paid for my college.” She teared up when she thought of all Macen had done for her. “He is the first person in my life to ever stay. He could have left me in the alley or called CPS, who might have sent me to a home even worse. But no. He risked everything to help me and expected nothing in return.” She slapped a hand to her chest and began to fall apart as the enormity of Macen’s sacrifice hit her again. “And because your head is in the gutter, you’ve taken his selfless act and convinced the police it’s something dirty. He may be lost to me forever because you can’t fathom sticking your neck out to help a kid in need without wanting sex for it.”

  Raine slapped a hand over her mouth as sobs fell free. If she’d pissed River off and he refused to recant his story to the police, Hammer would spend the rest of his life behind bars. Fear sliced its sharp scalpel down her middle and gutted her.

  Seth dropped a hand on her shoulder. Raine tried to collect herself and carry on, but the hell Hammer faced drowned out her words.

  “Storm cloud?” River sounded concerned.

  She swiped the tears from her cheeks with a watery nod. “If it wasn’t for Hammer, I would have ended up like Rowan.”

  “Dead in the desert?” River’s voice hardened.

  “It was so much worse than that. So, so much.” She bit back more sobs. “You left that July, and she turned thirteen in August. He started raping her on her birthday that year. He’d gotten her pregnant twice by the time she was fifteen, and he had them terminated both times.”

  “Oh…” River groaned, looking pale and stunned. “I had no idea. Stop.”

  “No. This is the truth, and you need to hear it. Rowan let Bill molest her over and over to shield me because no one else was there to stop him. When she ‘went off to college,’ he killed her for the great sin of wanting to leave him. Then he turned his attention on me. I had no idea what was going on prior to that, and I can’t tell you how guilty I feel for being so fucking oblivious. She suffered and I did nothing…”

  Raine couldn’t say more. The regret and guilt undid her.

  Seth rounded her chair and knelt in front of her, concern softening his green eyes. She shook her head. If she took his comfort now, she’d only fall apart more.

  She had to be strong enough to make her brother see the truth.

  River rose from the bed, swallowed. “I had no idea. Bill kicked me out that summer because I challenged him about Mom’s ‘escape.’ I was suspicious and I’d gotten big enough to fight back when he hit me for it. He beat the shit out of me a lot as a boy, but he never touched me like that… Jesus. I’m so sorry I left. I was angry and I missed Mom. After that, I was just a kid with no job or social skills, trying to learn how to feed myself and survive. I ended up street fighting for money. I almost killed a guy
with my bare hands, so I went to juvie. The judge told me to enlist when I turned eighteen or go to prison, so I joined the service. Once I was there, I just wanted to forget it all and be someone normal.”

  “We were all Bill’s victims. But why didn’t you listen when Hammer and Liam tried to tell you what my life was like? Or when I explained?”

  He shook his head and raked a hand over his scalp. “I’m a soldier, storm cloud. Until seventy-three days ago, that’s all
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