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The Living Canvas (Master of Trickery, #2)

Pepper Winters





  New York Times Bestseller

  Pepper Winters

  The Living Canvas

  Copyright © 2019 Pepper Winters

  Published by Pepper Winters

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, including electronic or mechanical, without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it to the seller and purchase your own copy. Libraries are exempt and permitted to share their in-house copies with their members and have full thanks for stocking this book. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

  Published: Pepper Winters 2019: [email protected]

  Cover Design: Ari @ Cover it! Designs

  Editing by: Editing 4 Indies (Jenny Sims)


  Pepper Winters is a multiple New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today International Bestseller.

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  The Living Canvas Blurb:

  “Must be brave, stubborn, and impervious to the tempers of loved ones.”

  The first line hissed with history.

  “Hours are endless, pay is non-existence, quitting absolutely forbidden.”

  The second line ached with truth.

  “Able to function on no sleep, refrain from running when times get hard, and be more than just a living canvas but a lover.”

  The third thrummed with honesty.

  “Other attributes required: forgiving, opinionated, and not afraid to tell me when I’m wrong. Must also enjoy being touched and kissed at any time of my choosing.”

  The fourth glowed with promise.

  “Call or email ‘YOUR HEART, HIS SOUL’ if interested in applying.”

  The final made my future unfold.

  The advert was so similar to one I should never have applied for.

  A twist of fate that brought two destined people back together.

  A job I would take in a heartbeat if the employer could offer such terms.

  But I wasn’t free.

  Neither was Gil.

  Therefore, my interview could never happen.



  The Living Canvas Blurb:


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Chapter Thirty-Nine


  Epilogue Two









  WHEN DID KINDNESS become weakness?

  When did compassion become blindness?

  I believed strength, true strength, came from seeing past someone’s actions and trusting the goodness inside them. I believed words were just words and lies were just lies and they didn’t really m
atter, because, in the end, the truth always came out.

  A person was a product of their upbringing and society’s doctrine, and so, I chose to see past that creation and see the real soul hurting underneath.

  I chose weakness to be kind.

  I became blind to show compassion.

  It made a total fool out of me...

  Chapter One



  -The Past-


  Seven months, three weeks, and eight days after that God-awful night in Motel Gardenia, Tallup vanished from school. She’d ensured my life had remained an utter misery. Her attention constantly on me. Her threats chasing me, her rules hunting me.

  She’d steadily let herself go—no longer wearing tight, prim skirt-suits but hiding her small frame in loose-fitting dresses. Her face fattened, along with her waistline, and fellow teachers joked that she’d reached middle-age spread.

  I didn’t care she no longer looked like a soul-sucking succubus. I was glad she resembled the rotting grossness inside.

  Thanks to her, I could no longer look at Olin with Justin.

  I could no longer pretend life was okay.

  Distance hadn’t healed my heart. Love hadn’t triumphed over evil.

  I found it excruciatingly difficult to keep my distance, all the while far too disgusted with myself to ever talk to Olin.

  Every day, it grew harder and harder to stay in town.

  I only had a few months until graduation. I honestly didn’t know what kept me from leaving. I knew what I wanted to be now: I was an artist. It was the cure to my insanity. And artists didn’t need degrees or university accolades. Artists were talented, or not—born with the gift or refused such a skill.

  I had everything I needed to succeed.

  And I needed to run. Run. Run.

  Run far away and never look back.

  But Olin...

  I’d lost her but at least I could still protect her. We walked the same streets. Attended the same school. Lived in the same town. That tiny piece of togetherness sustained me and imprisoned me whenever I thought of leaving.

  But then...Tallup vanished.

  A new teacher replaced her. Education continued on as if nothing odd had occurred. And the principal made a half-hearted attempt at explaining the switch. Tallup got a job teaching English in Japan. She’d accepted. She’d be missed. Yada yada.

  For a week, I didn’t trust it.

  Every day, I expected Tallup to be at the front of class, ready to stare me into submission, her smirk hidden at breaking Olin and me apart.

  But Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday...she didn’t return.

  The next week, hope did its best to make me drunk. Instead of listening to lessons, I plotted ways to talk to Olin. To explain. To fix us.

  But each time I tried to catch Olin’s gaze, Justin was there. Making her smile through her sadness, his touch soothing her sorrows away.

  By the third week of Tallup missing, I grew braver.

  She’d crippled me—taken my virginity, my goodness, my strength and left me lacking in every way. But...with her gone, I was free.

  Free to chase Olin and claim her back.

  But...I’m not free.

  Because why would Olin ever forgive me? Why would she ever love me?

  She’d given her heart to someone else, and as much as that crucified me—worse than any forced sex or drunken beating—I had to honour her choice.

  I left school knowing I’d lost any right to her.

  I went to bed so fucking sick of being weak.

  I made a pact to talk to her on Monday.

  To lay the truth at her feet.

  To let her judge me, hurt me, hate me.

  And then...I’d kiss her.

  I’d kiss her.

  Beg her.

  Do anything to make her mine.

  And if she forgave me, I would never, ever let go.

  * * * * *

  Sunday night.

  Fate decided it hadn’t finished toying with me, delivering its final blow on my tragic mess of a life.

  I had a script planned. Every word and apology ready for Monday morning and making Olin mine.

  But then, a visitor arrived.

  Not a man looking for a whore, or a drug dealer looking for his cut.

  Just a petite woman with the soul of the devil.

  My teacher.

  Who’d been missing.

  Who’d come to finish me.

  I’d answered the knock thanks to my father being drunk in his bed and his current whores having fifteen minutes rest before new clients arrived.

  The house was quiet, for once, and I had homework to do before I left for an evening of graffiti.

  But as I wrenched open the door, my fist curled around the handle and my heart stopped beating. Tallup stood on my dirty stoop, her hair dull and eyes angry. Her cheeks pinched with age and sleeplessness.

  The fury inside me exploded outward. “What the fuck are you doing here!?”

  We weren’t on school property.

  No one could hear us.

  I refused to be polite to this bitch.

  She hoisted something higher in her arms. A bundle of fleece and blankets. “I came to find you.”

  “Why?” My knuckles whitened around the handle, holding tight. If I didn’t, I’d hit her, strangle her, kill her. “Leave. I have nothing to say—”

  “Here.” Her arms snapped forward, shoving her swaddled package into my chest. Instinct made me take it, clutching it tight as she ripped her touch away. It fell a little before I had full control.

  The bundle was warm and heavier than I expected.

  And it moved.


  My eyes shot to hers. “What is this?”

  She wiped her forehead with weariness, but her gaze was just as evil, just as cruel. “It’s yours.”

  A small mewl sounded, ripping my eyes down and shooting me with dread.


  With sick urgency, I brushed aside the peach fleece and stared at the downy head of a newborn. I almost dropped it in my rush to give it back. “Take it.”

  Tallup shook her head. “I don’t want it. I never wanted it.” She laughed, a little crazed. “I was on the pill. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

  “You’re saying it’s mine?”

  “That’s what I said, didn’t I?”

  I gulped for air. “But that was months—”

  “Nine months this week. It was premature. Eight days early. Guess it knew it wasn’t wanted.”

  I turned stone cold. “How do I know it’s mine?”

  “Because I say it is.” Her voice darkened. “It’s yours.”

  “I don’t want a kid.”

  “Neither do I.”

  “What do you expect me to do with a baby?” I narrowed my eyes at the blackened street. No neighbours spied. No one heard our dark conversation.

  “I don’t care.” She shrugged. “I honestly don’t care if you kill it.”

  “If you care so little for its life, why didn’t you end it when—”

  Her eyes snapped to mine. “I tried, believe me. I went to the clinic. I filled in the forms. I waited for a doctor to suck that nuisance straight out of me.”

  I couldn’t hate her more than I did. A cold, oozing, insidious hate.

  Her voice turned brittle. “I almost went through with it. but...I was raised better. We’re Christian. Abortion is a sin.”

  I laughed out loud. I couldn’t contain it. “And raping a student isn’t?”

  She stiffened. “I vividly remember you enjoying having your cock inside me.”

  “I vomited after each assault. Did that not hint that I couldn’t stand you?”

  Her face etched with fire. “You came.” Her lips twisted into a nasty smile. “If you didn’t, that thing wouldn’t exist.”

  “That wasn’t pleasure, you bitch. I came because you force-fed
me Viagra—”

  “I don’t have time for childish nonsense.” She looked at the starless sky, then back at the peach blanket forced upon me. “Just because I couldn’t kill it doesn’t mean I want it. I hate children. And the past week has proven just how much I loathe everything about them.”

  Instinctual protectiveness made my arm latch tight as if her words were spears. “Adopt it out then.”

  She rolled her eyes. “That would lead to questions about who the father is.” Chilly calculation filled her face. “Do you want people to know it’s yours, Gilbert? Do you want me to tell them you forced yourself on me and this is the result?”

  I shook with rage. “You forced yourself on me.”

  “Yes, but who would they believe? Have you grown up so much you’re willing to put your life on the line to prove...what? That this baby isn’t yours? Because I promise you, a paternity test will undeniably show that it is.”

  My mouth went dry as the baby squirmed and cooed. It didn’t know its very existence was being argued against. It didn’t know it wasn’t wanted.

  Sadness filled me. Sadness for the life born from hate. A life that should never have been created.

  “If you don’t take it, I’ll drop it off at the shelter. It can disappear into foster care. Maybe end up in a situation like yours—”

  My blood ran cold. “You’d never do such a thing.”

  How could she? She was a teacher, for Christ’s sake.

  I clutched the blankets closer. “You teach kids for a living. Why can’t you love your own?”

  She smiled tightly. “It’s because I teach that I don’t want my own. I only teach because my mother was a teacher, and that was what was expected. I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I’ve hated it since the moment I started.”

  I forced my anger to subside, doing my best...for our kid’s sake. “This is yours as much as mine. Stop being such a cold-hearted witch. I know you could love—”

  “Shut up, Gilbert. I’m not keeping her.”


  My insides bottomed out.

  My world changed.

  My priorities shifted.


  A girl.

  I have a daughter.

  I grew up in an instant.

  I was no longer a boy, but a man.

  A father.

  A father who would never be like his own. Never be a parent who didn’t put their life on the line to protect his child.