you ask me. You know the old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family? That pretty much applies to us except in our cases, we did choose our family, or rather to make our own family.”
“None of us had very stellar childhoods,” Zander said with a shrug of indifference. But she could see the shadows in his eyes and knew that they all still carried demons. Her heart ached for them. For what they’d never had.
“We don’t talk about it much,” Justice explained. “We’ve made our peace with the past and left it where it belongs. In the past.”
“Whatever it was, however bad it was, it made you who you are today,” Hayley said gently. “And who you are today is pretty damn special.”
The three men stared at her with peculiar expressions on their faces. As if they’d never considered it that way. Did they, like Silas, not consider themselves good men? And what defined good? The absence of bad? No, good people had bad in them. But it didn’t make them solely bad. Nothing would ever convince her that Silas or any of his brothers, as they deemed themselves, weren’t the very best kind of men.
“You all are the very best kind of men,” she said, vocalizing her thoughts. Then she smiled, bittersweet. “My father would have liked you all very much. You don’t even know me, I’m no one at all of any importance, and yet you’ve all put everything on hold to help put me back together after that horrible night. I was so afraid, but then Silas was there and I haven’t been alone since. I haven’t even thought of that night since. Because of you all.”
All three were shaking their heads. Bewildered by their disagreement, she furrowed her brow, forgetting what she had been going to say next.
“You don’t think you’re good men?” she demanded. “You’re wrong. All of you. And I won’t hear you say you aren’t, or so help me I’ll kick all your asses.”
She was staring at them fiercely, a mutinous expression darkening her features. Then when they burst out laughing, her mouth dropped open in absolute confusion. What was she missing here?
Obviously taking pity on her, Justice winked in her direction.
“We weren’t saying we weren’t good men, although that point is definitely debatable. We were shaking our heads over your asinine assertion that you’re no one and not important.”
Maddox and Zander scowled in her direction even as they nodded in agreement.
“You’re important to Silas, so that makes you important to us. Or at least that was the way it was in the beginning,” Maddox said, a smile warming his eyes. “Now we think you’re pretty damn important to us all for our own reasons, none of which have a damn thing to do with Silas.”
She flushed and ducked her head, glowing inwardly at their statements. She bit her lip, stifling the urge to dispute her importance to Silas. Well, maybe she was important as a neighbor or human being, but not where it really counted to her. As a woman.
“I don’t think Silas quite shares y’all’s opinion of me,” she said in a near whisper, smiling so it didn’t look like she was pouting over her statement.
The men just stared at her with the most bizarre expressions on their faces. Then Maddox burst out laughing and kept laughing until she was ready to kick him under the table.
“I’m selling tickets to this show,” Zander said with a satisfied smirk. “And I’m also starting a betting pool as to how long it takes Silas to correct her way of thinking.”
Hayley put away her violin and closed the case before rising to head for the exit to the smaller auditorium where rehearsals for their spring recital were being held. She was excited to perform for the first time in front of such a crowd. It was a new experience for her, to be certain. In the last year since beginning her studies at the small but prestigious academy, she’d certainly had her share of recitals and performances, but they’d always been on a much smaller scale and never open to the general public.
But the summer symphonic production was the academy’s biggest fund-raiser of the entire year. Every year toward the end of the spring semester, a select few students were chosen to perform at Carnegie Hall. It was an honor to be chosen and an even bigger honor to be awarded a solo. Hayley had been shocked when she, a first-year student, had accomplished both.
She could hardly wait to share her exciting news with Silas and the guys. Okay, so maybe not Silas, since she was certain he wouldn’t care one way or another, and by then he very well could have moved on from her and their relationship. Not that he wouldn’t congratulate her and even tell her how deserving she was. Silas was nothing if not completely supportive of her talent. But it wouldn’t mean as much as she wanted it to mean.
Sighing morosely, she hefted up her case, nearly grinning in delight at the looks of pure envy the other students cast her way. They’d been awestruck the first day she’d brought her new violin to school and more than a little jealous. Well, and she could hardly blame them. She would have been envious in their shoes too. It was not only a gorgeous-looking instrument. It played like pure magic, capturing the essence of every note. Every time Hayley played she lost herself in the beauty of her music, letting it flow into and out of her soul as her fingers danced across the strings, her other hand sliding the bow over the violin like a caress.
A crack of thunder boomed very close by as she followed the flow of students out the door and down the long hallway to the front entrance to the school. She flinched, startled by the loud noise. And then she heard the sound of the sudden downpour unleashed on the roof of the building and grimaced in sympathy for those who had to either walk home or to the subway station.
Maddox and company would be waiting for her out front, illegally parked as always, and she grinned, lengthening her stride. She was eager to see them and share her exciting news. Maybe she would even work up the nerve to invite them, though she wasn’t so certain of that. She didn’t want to set herself up for rejection. God, she was such a coward. But rejection sucked. No two ways about it. She ought to know, having faced it already with Silas, though his was far more embarrassing than if Maddox, Justice, Zander, Jax, Thane and Hartley turned down her invitation.
She paused in the doorway, staring out at the rain coming down in sheets. Her cell phone buzzed and she fumbled with her purse with one hand to grab the phone. She rolled her eyes when she read the text from Maddox.
Don’t come out. Give me a second and I’ll come in to get you.
As if a little rain was going to hurt her. Still, she wouldn’t argue, not with such an expensive violin that she did not want to get wet. She glanced out to see Maddox step from the car, opening a huge umbrella that would easily cover them both. She rocked back on her heels to wait for his arrival when a hand suddenly curled painfully around her elbow, yanking her around.
She let out a startled cry of pain that abruptly ended when she came face-to-face with a sullen-looking Christopher.
“Where the hell have you been?” he demanded. “I went to your old place, but those idiot old people you house-sat for wouldn’t tell me where you’d moved to.”
“Let me go, moron,” she hissed. “Why do you think they wouldn’t tell you? Maybe because I didn’t want you to know? Ever consider that?”
“You’re the one being ridiculous,” he said, moving closer until he was pressing into her body.
She stumbled back, nearly tripping on the door guard on the floor. She felt an icy blast of rain douse her entire back and realized that in her haste to back away from Christopher, she’d backed right out of the open door and into the rain.
Christopher came right out with her, not backing down an inch. He was furious, his eyes so dark with rage that it was instinctive to shrink away and thrust her violin case between them in an effort to ward off his advances.
“You stupid little bitch,” he seethed. “Do you not understand who I am? No one says no to me. No one!”
“I know exactly who and what you are, asshole,” Hayley shouted. “Don’t you ever touch me again. Don’t even speak to m
e or I’ll swear out a restraining order on you. Wonder what Mummy and Daddy would think of their precious little boy then?”
He drew back his hand to strike her but a much larger hand suddenly wrapped around his, stopping his blow in midair. Christopher let out a squeak of surprise and pain and just as suddenly as Maddox had prevented him striking her, he had Christopher on his knees, screaming in agony as Maddox continued to twist his wrist at a backward angle.
Maddox towered over Christopher like an avenging angel, his hair dripping wet, his eyes glacial and so intimidating that if Hayley didn’t know for certain he would never hurt her, she’d be peeing in her pants about now. Judging by the terror on Christopher’s face, he likely already had.
“Get the fuck away from her. Now!” Maddox barked, fury edging every single word. “You don’t touch her, you don’t look at her, you don’t talk to her. You get me? If I ever see you near her, if I so much as hear you’ve been within a hundred yards of her, I’ll break every bone in your fucking body and dump what’s left in the Hudson for the fish to eat. You understand me, boy?”
Christopher’s eyes went wide with fear and he garbled ineffectively for several long seconds before he finally found his voice.
“Y-yes, s-sir,” he stammered out as tears streamed down his cheeks, his face a wreath of agony.
“You owe the lady an apology, boy,” Maddox roared.
“I’m s-sorry, H-Hayley.” His eyes pleaded with her to do something, anything to get Maddox away from him. But she merely stood there staring coldly back at the entitled, insolent brat. “Hayley, please! Get him off me!”
All Hayley could think about was the attack on her nights ago, when she’d prayed for the men to stop. When she’d begged them to let her go and not to hurt her. If it hadn’t been for Silas then, would anyone have even found her body after they’d raped her? And now, what if Maddox hadn’t been here? She’d have liked to think that Christopher wouldn’t have gotten away with assaulting her on school premises in broad daylight, but things like this happened every day.
Tears burned her eyelids and she hugged her violin case to her chest, uncaring of the rain that pelted down on her head, drenching every inch of her body.
“Come on, darlin’, let’s get you to the car and leave Maddox to clean up the trash.”
Thane’s soothing southern drawl sounded just behind her, and she gratefully turned around. Then she launched herself into Thane’s arms, nearly dropping her violin, but Thane caught it, transferring it to his other hand so he could wrap his free arm around her. For a minute, despite the rain, he simply held her, as her sobs mixed with the downpour. Then finally he started her toward the car, his arm solidly around her waist as they approached an enraged Jax.
“You okay, doll?” Jax asked in concern as he opened the back door for her.
She merely nodded as she slid inside the warm interior. Then she looked down in dismay.
“I’m getting the seats soaked,” she said, just as she broke down into tears again.
The door opened on the other side and Thane slid in next to her, holding a towel he’d seemingly summoned out of thin air. Were these men always prepared for anything?
He gently mopped at her dripping hair and wiped the water from her face and eyes, his lips drawn tight, anger glinting in his eyes.
“Where’s that blanket, Jax? Did you get it out of the back yet?”
In answer, a soft blanket was carefully wrapped around her shoulders. Thane pulled the ends together at her front and then leaned back in the seat, curling his arm around her so her head rested against his chest.
“Let’s get the fuck home,” Thane growled. “She needs to get into dry clothing. That little bastard can get his ass beat another time.”
As if Maddox had heard Thane’s demand, he slid into the backseat so that Hayley was now wedged between the two larger men while Jax got into the driver’s seat. A second later, they barreled into traffic and Hayley closed her eyes in exhaustion.
“Thank you, Maddox,” she whispered. “I doubt he’ll ever bother me again. He was getting to be a regular pain in my ass.”
“What the fuck?” Maddox demanded.
Hayley’s eyes flew open in alarm, her gaze instantly going to Maddox.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve had trouble from him?”
She shook her head.
“And you didn’t tell us this why?” Jax demanded from the front seat.
She looked at them in bewilderment.
“Darlin’, you have trouble from some pencil dick like that, you tell us. You do not show up to the same school he attends and continue to take his shit,” Thane snarled.
“I am so paying him a visit later,” Maddox muttered.
“No!” Hayley cried. “I don’t want any of you to get into trouble because of me. Maddox, you scared the wits out of him. He won’t ever get in my space again.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes the message needs to be reinforced,” Jax said in a grim tone.
“We won’t get into any trouble, darlin’,” Thane soothed. “But I can guarantee you that he won’t be trouble for you ever again.”
“Let’s just get you home,” Maddox said in a calm voice. “Silas is back. Let us worry about the dickhead trying to throw his weight around with a woman.”
Her face crumbled. The very last thing she needed to hear was that Silas was back. From the guys. Not one phone call or message from him ever since he’d left, and he couldn’t tell her himself when he planned to return? If she hadn’t already convinced herself he had no interest in her whatsoever, this would certainly have been the last straw.
She stared moodily out the window, refusing to meet any of their gazes as they zoomed through early-afternoon traffic. A few minutes later, they pulled up to Silas’s apartment building and Jax parked in one of the reserved spaces out in front. They helped Hayley from the car and hurried her toward the entrance. While the rain wasn’t as heavy as it had been fifteen minutes earlier, it was still coming down at a steady rate.
They rode up the elevator in the same silence that had cloaked the interior of the car, and when the doors opened, Silas was standing in the doorway to his apartment, a black scowl on his face.
“Nice to see you too,” she muttered to herself.
“Any of you ever heard of a fucking umbrella?” Silas snapped.
Hayley stared woodenly at Silas. “It’s raining, in case that escaped your notice. Surely you don’t expect them to control Mother Nature. I’m going to get changed.”
She turned to the men who had been such great company over the past few days, sad that she wouldn’t see them any longer.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “For everything. I’m going to go dry off now. I’ll miss you all.”
She turned and headed down the hall to her apartment, taking in Silas’s look of bewilderment as she passed him without speaking further to him.
“You got a minute, Silas?” Maddox asked after Hayley’s apartment door closed with a loud thud.
Silas turned his scowl on his men. “I’m going to need more than a minute for you three to tell me what in the hell is wrong with Hayley.”
“She hasn’t had the best day,” Thane volunteered.
“That ain’t all that’s the problem,” Maddox said.
Silas opened his door and motioned the three of them inside. He didn’t like the look on Hayley’s face at all. She had only acknowledged him long enough to reprimand him. And what the fuck was with her sad “I’ll miss you” that she’d barely managed to even voice? There was a finality to her tone that he didn’t like one fucking bit. It scared the hell out of him, especially with his men all regarding him with such grave expressions.
“Start talking,” Silas bit out as soon as they were all inside.
Silas’s expression grew blacker and blacker with every second of the account of the shithead who’d gotten up in her face at school.
“I hope to fuck you taught that little pissant a lesson
,” Silas growled.
“Oh yeah. He’s scared shitless. But I plan to pay him another visit later tonight,” Maddox said calmly. “Our first priority was getting Hayley out of the rain and home. She was pretty shaken up.”
“So what else were you going to bring up? You said this wasn’t all that was a problem,” Silas said impatiently.
The three men exchanged glances before turning their collective attention back to Silas.
“Do you care for her?” Maddox blurted.
Silas reared his head back in surprise. Then he glowered at the men he called brothers.
“Before you tell us it isn’t any of our fucking business, let me just explain why he asked the question,” Thane said, folding his arms over his chest in a gesture of defiance.
“Get on with it, then,” Silas snapped.
“Hayley seems to be under the impression that she doesn’t mean anything to you or that you care for her very much.”
Silas’s mouth fell open in shock. Of all the things they could have said, that was the last thing he had expected.
“Not care for her?” he rasped. “Doesn’t mean much to me? What the fuck kind of fucked-up shit is that? Who put that crap into her head?”
“You did, brother,” Jax said calmly.
Silas stared at them, utterly baffled by this turn of events. His personal life was not up for group discussion. Ever. Whatever he felt for Hayley was between him and her and not to be shared with anyone else.
“Look, it was a rhetorical question if you prefer it to be,” Maddox said with visible irritation. “The point I’m trying to make is that very sweet young woman has it in her head that she doesn’t mean shit to you. Now, if you don’t care about that and don’t care to correct her assumption, which I assume is errant, then fine. You do whatever. Just don’t expect us to stand by and watch you crush her in the process. But if you do care about her and you do care what she thinks and that she’s hurt by your seeming indifference, then I suggest you get off your ass and do something about it before she decides you’re no longer worth the effort.”
“Preach,” Jax said, before turning to open Silas’s door.
“Fucking A, preach,” Thane chimed in as he too walked out.
Maddox remained behind, though, until it was just him and Silas standing inside Silas’s apartment.
“Don’t make the same mistakes that you and I blasted Drake’s dumb ass over,” Maddox warned in a serious tone. “We saw what a good thing Evangeline was, what a good woman she was, and it pissed us off to see the shit Drake pulled with her. He nearly fucking destroyed that woman. Evangeline. And now you’ve got a woman who is every bit as precious, innocent and sweet as the woman you defended so staunchly, only it’s you she wants. Not one of us. No one else. Just you. If you don’t want her, then back the fuck off and stop giving her mixed signals. Let someone else give her the happiness she deserves. God knows she could use some in her life, as fucked up as it’s been so far. But if you do want her, then I’ll tell you one more time. Get off your stupid ass and correct whatever fucked-up shit Hayley has in her head regarding you. And when you figure it out, let me know, so I know whether to make my play.”
Silas’s rage was instantaneous. He lunged at Maddox and curled his fingers into Maddox’s shirt, yanking him forward until he was in his brother’s face.
“You stay the fuck away from her,” Silas snarled. “You don’t touch her. You don’t even think about her in any way except as a woman in your protection. You get me?”
The corner of Maddox’s mouth twitched and turned up into a smile. “Guess that answers that question, doesn’t it?”
Son of a bitch. He couldn’t believe he fell for that baited trap. He shoved Maddox away in disgust and then lifted his hand to run through his hair.
“Goddamn it. She deserves so much better than I can ever give her,” he said hoarsely. He lifted tortured eyes to Maddox, the one person who knew bits and pieces of Silas’s past. A past Maddox was all too familiar with, given that he’d survived very similar circumstances. “You know why I can’t have her, Maddox. Do you seriously think she deserves a man like me? A man so fucked up that his issues have issues. I’ll never be right. For her. For anyone.”
“What I think is that it’s time to cut yourself a little slack,” Maddox said with quiet understanding. “Why not let Hayley decide what she deserves? Lay it out for her. Something tells me you’ll be surprised. She’s not a coward and she’s fiercely protective of the people she loves. Something tells me that she loves you. Or that she’s falling pretty damn hard and fast. But she’s so convinced that you don’t want her that she’s made herself fucking miserable. She doesn’t feel worthy of you, Silas. Think about that for a minute while you’re torturing yourself thinking you aren’t worthy of her. She thinks she’s not good enough for you.”
Silas’s mouth dropped open in absolute shock. “Not worthy? Not good enough for me? What the fuck?”
“Hell of a note when you consider the absurdity of any woman ever thinking she’s not good enough for men like you and me,” Maddox said with a bitter smile.
Silas stared into Maddox’s eyes and saw the same pain Silas experienced in the deepest part of his withered and blackened soul. Pain they both lived with on a daily basis, always swearing to outrun their past. To overcome, rise above it, leave it behind. And yet it was always there. Hanging over them, coating everything in dull, gray shadows.
Silas closed his eyes and swore. What if he could never be good enough for Hayley? Wasn’t it far better to never go down that path with her than to risk it and suffer the horrific pain of having her leave once she figured out what kind of monster she gave her body to every night? How was it fair to her for him to offer false promises, promises he had no idea if he could keep even if he desperately wanted to?
“Don’t fuck it up like Drake almost did,” Maddox whispered in a harsh tone. “You saw what he did to Evangeline. You hated it. I hated it. Don’t hurt Hayley the way Drake hurt Evangeline or you’ll hate yourself for the rest of your fucking life.”