Falling in deeper, p.19
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       Falling in Deeper, p.19
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  because I refused to ‘prove I loved him.’ I would be a laughingstock. Girls would whisper about me behind my back. Besides, I’d eventually have sex anyway, so it didn’t matter who I did it with first, right? I liked him well enough.” She rolled her eyes. “These were the things I told myself. I was young and stupid, and my mother worked three jobs to try to feed me and my little brother, so she wasn’t really around to give me advice.”

  “So you had sex with him and you got pregnant.”

  She nodded. “I found out two days before my sixteenth birthday. He’d planned to take me out for dinner and a movie that night to celebrate, like on a real date. I was so excited. I’d bought a new dress with money I didn’t really have. I told myself that, of course, he loved me and I loved him. But that home pregnancy test changed everything. The day I found out, I told him. He dumped me, called me stupid for getting knocked up, and said he knew I’d been screwing around behind his back. Which wasn’t true.”

  Stone nodded. “Asshole. That was how he absolved himself of any responsibility.”

  “And he spent the night of my sixteenth birthday with another girl, one he knew I didn’t like. I heard he knocked her up just before graduation and they eventually got married.”

  “Did he not know how to put on a condom?” He scowled.

  “He didn’t like them. They were ‘unnatural.’ He swore that if we timed it right with my cycle, I couldn’t get pregnant. What I didn’t understand was that I’d never had a normal cycle, so I didn’t know when I might be ovulating.” She sighed. “I didn’t understand a lot of things, actually.”

  “You were a kid. And without parents to guide you . . .”

  “I didn’t know what to do. Once I found out I was pregnant, I knew my mom would freak. I hid it as long as I could, but she eventually figured it out. She kicked me out of the house.”

  “At sixteen?” He gaped as if he could scarcely believe what she was saying. “You may have screwed up, but she had a responsibility to finish raising you. Where did she think you and the baby were going to go?”

  “She didn’t care. I’d been a glorified babysitter for a long time anyway. She favored my little brother. By then, he’d gotten old enough to take care of himself after school and cook his own meals if she couldn’t be there. I was just another mouth to feed and a teenage problem to deal with.” Lily tried to shrug those facts off, but deep down, they still hurt deeply.

  Stone gritted his teeth and shook his head as if he didn’t understand at all. That was a balm to Lily’s heart, especially when he took her hands in his and gentled his voice. “What did you do next? What happened to the baby?”

  Now the conversation got difficult. She tried to wrap her arms around herself, but Stone wasn’t having any of that. He hugged her to his chest and pressed a kiss to her forehead. Instead of feeling intrusive, his touch gave her strength.

  “I went to my friend Erin’s house. Her mom had gotten pregnant with Erin’s older brother, Corey, when she was sixteen. She understood and took me in. I moved into Erin’s room with her and kept going to school. I found a county clinic that gave me cheap prenatal care. I was working part-time and planning to finish high school. I had the future mapped out. Or so I thought. But nothing worked out that way. Erin was killed.”

  “Did Canton spare you because you were pregnant?”

  She tried hard to hold herself together. “I think so. I was thirty-eight weeks along. He told me if I said a word to the police about what I’d seen, he’d hunt me down and cut my baby from my belly and laugh while he killed us both.”

  More horrific glimpses from the past began to bombard her, the most terrifying times and faces. Images that haunted her to this day. The sounds of ripping fabric, the smell of blood, even too much male laughter still sometimes set her off.

  “Then?” he prompted.

  She clenched her fists and slammed her eyes shut. Just get the words out. “The baby was a girl. Regina Rose. Stillborn.”

  He froze. “Your baby was . . . dead?”

  “Yeah. The cord wrapped around her neck.” Lily’s nose tingled as the tears welled again. She tried to sob, tried to grieve. Her expression collapsed. She could almost cry. Almost . . . but not quite.

  God, when would she be able to put her terrible past behind her and have a decent future?

  “In less than a year, you got pregnant, you lost your boyfriend, your family cast you out, you watched your best friend be raped and murdered, and then your baby died?” He looked at her as if it was a wonder she’d survived. “Lily?”

  That wasn’t all, and as long as she’d come this far, she might as well tell Stone the rest of Canton’s sins. “All that, yes. About a week after Erin was killed, I gave birth alone. I left the hospital alone. I went back to my mom’s house, hoping she could spare a little empathy for me. When I got there, she made it clear I wasn’t welcome by calling the police. They came and picked me up and asked me questions about Erin’s murder.”

  Less than twelve hours after her daughter’s death, she’d been in a station house being interrogated until exhaustion set in. She’d still been bleeding, hungry, reeling.

  Stone gripped her tighter, holding her closer. “Let it out, baby. I’m here.”

  Lily looked down to realize she was holding him so tightly, her body was shaking. “I was weak and I wanted the interrogation over. I wanted justice for Erin. So I told the police I would testify. They set me up in a safe house and found me a doctor.” She sobbed—a dry sound without tears, a grief without healing. “While they pumped my IV full of antibiotics and fed me soup, Canton sent his goons over to my house to kill my mother and little brother. She had the merciful death. They slit her throat quickly. My brother, they tortured. He had over a hundred cuts on his body. He called 911 after they left and was able to tell the police that ‘one of Erin’s friends’ was looking for me, but it was too late for him. He died an hour later. He was twelve.”

  The guilt of so many deaths sat on her chest like an anvil, slowly crushing her. She wanted so badly to move on with her life, be happy. Every time she revisited that year, Lily remembered all the reasons she didn’t deserve peace or joy and never would.

  “Oh, Jesus, baby.” He stroked her crown and kissed her forehead. “I don’t know how you got through all that without crumbling.”

  “I did crumble.” She pulled away from him. “Don’t you get it? That’s why I can’t be normal. That’s why no one can really love me.”

  He took her face in his hands, forcing her to look into his dark eyes. “You are worthy of love and I love you. Canton took your family, your friends, and years of your life away. Don’t let him take your heart and soul, too.”

  Lily wanted to heed his words so badly but . . .

  “So many people died because of me. Because I was stupid. Because—”

  Stone didn’t let her finish that sentence. He captured her mouth with his own and stole inside. It wasn’t a kiss of passion. He filled her with tenderness and comfort. He held her with shaking hands and told her without words that he wouldn’t let her suffer alone anymore.

  Confusion and yearning wracked her. Let him soothe and ease her? Or take the self-punishment she deserved? Give this man all the love she could muster in her scarred heart? Or leave him because Canton would find and kill him, too?

  She wrenched away from Stone, staring, breathing hard, shaking her head. “I . . . I don’t know—”

  “You don’t have to know right now, baby. I’m here. I’ll fix it. I’ll wipe this fucking dirtbag off the face of the earth.”

  Lily sent him a rapid shake of her head in denial. “You can’t. You just got out of prison. I’m not worth you risking your freedom.”

  “You are to me. I would move mountains to give you happiness and peace.”

  “Then don’t go after him. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.” Her fingers bit into his shoulders. Her tears crept ever closer to her lash line. One rolled down her cheek, then n
othing more. “I couldn’t live with myself if I lost you. After I left Los Angeles, I spent so many years existing but not being important to anyone. By design. If no one cared, no one would mourn if Canton found me or if I had to leave abruptly. If I didn’t invest my heart in anyone, then I wouldn’t really miss anyone once I was gone.” She hugged him close, trembling against his body. “Then came you.”

  “Fuck this.” He held her in his arms and cradled her against his chest as he darted across the hall with her.

  Lily didn’t fight him as he laid her on the bed and tumbled down after her, wrapping her in the sheets that smelled like Stone and comfort and the sex they’d shared. She grabbed on tightly, never wanting to let him go.

  “Baby, you can’t stay afraid and running forever,” he murmured in her ear.

  He spoke the truth, and she didn’t know how to hear it. “I don’t have many choices. He found me in Dallas. Those flowers had to be from him. The car bomb . . . He wants to finally silence me forever. That would give him a clear path to become governor. If you let me leave and I run—”

  “You’d be alone, and it will take him anywhere from days to years to find you again. But that kind of guy? He will find you. Why not take a stand? Stay? Fight him finally? I’ll help you.”

  She stroked the steely curve of his shoulder. “I would never want you in danger.”

  “And I’d never leave you to face it alone. If you don’t want me to kill the son of a bitch, then let’s do this the right way. Let’s contact the authorities. Testify, baby. Put him behind bars. End this for good.”

  That sounded so wonderful and noble . . . and so unrealistic. “If I agree to do that, the police can’t protect me.”

  “But I can. Jack and Sean and the Edgington brothers, too. They’re the best, baby. Governments hire them to protect and defend. I can track Canton’s movements via his computer or phone. They can give you a fortress until the trial is over. We can make this work. If he goes away, you’re free.” He brushed her hair from her face and thumbed her cheek, making everything inside her melt. “You can have a future with me.”

  In some ways, what he said made sense. If Canton was behind bars, he couldn’t simply hop in his car or get on a plane and hunt her down. Yeah, he probably had underlings more than happy to do his bidding, but if she testified, if she lopped the head off that snake, maybe it would die. The others in his organization didn’t have a personal beef with her. It was possible they’d let it go.


  And maybe she was fooling herself.

  It wasn’t as if she’d never considered testifying before. But she’d always held back. Lily had been tied to a chair while she watched Erin lose the fight for her innocence and existence. She’d been the one to identify her mother’s and brother’s bodies. She’d seen firsthand what Canton could do.

  But Stone was right. What sort of life would she have if she didn’t do something to end his reign of terror?

  Not long after leaving Los Angeles, she’d roamed around, hitchhiking, looking for someplace that could be home. One dark night in Bakersfield, she’d thought of stepping out in front of a speeding semi. She’d been standing on the side of the freeway at night in the cold, starving and wondering where her next meal would come from. It would have been so easy to end the pain with one impact.

  She hadn’t been able to put that driver through the guilt and hell to end her life. Instead, she’d stepped back and marched down the freeway, eventually making her way east through Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Amarillo, and eventually Dallas, where Thorpe had seen her in a diner. She’d sat down to a plate of eggs and a cup of coffee she couldn’t afford because she hadn’t eaten in three days. The waitress had disappeared into the kitchen, and she’d been looking for the exit when Thorpe had offered to pay her bill if he could have ten minutes of her time. She’d shrugged and figured that nothing terrible could happen to her in public. At the end of their chat, he’d offered her a job and a place to crash. Finally, she’d had a steady roof and people who felt like friends. It was the most normalcy she’d had in years. But she never let anyone so close that she couldn’t bear to leave.

  Until Stone.

  “A future? I don’t know. I hear you about Canton always hanging over my head if I don’t do something. But—”

  “You don’t want to put anyone else in danger. I get it. But you don’t have to be brave alone anymore. Think about it, okay?”

  “I will.” She owed him that much. She owed it to any sort of future they might have because she loved him, too. And she didn’t know how she would ever live without him again.

  Chapter Twelve

  AFTER their eventful morning, Stone watched Lily cook in silence. They ate, then she lost herself by trolling through her favorite pop culture websites and another book she’d found at the cottage before she opted for a nap. He tucked her in with a kiss and told her to rest up. If he felt gutted by everything she’d admitted to him today, she must be fucking exhausted.

  Once he knew she’d drifted off, he rang Jack, who picked up almost immediately. “What’s going on there?”

  Tons, but nothing Jack needed to know. “Not much. You have something to report?”

  “I talked to Thorpe an hour ago. Axel is still sleeping. Sean gave him a little something to help that along so he’d stay out of your hair for a while. Sean told me to say ‘You’re welcome.’”

  “I owe him big.”

  “He’s going to head over to Lily’s old apartment soon. He has to let the police presence over there die down. And the press are crawling everywhere, speculating about the reason for the car bomb. I’ve heard them say the cause was everything from a vengeful ex-lover to al-Qaeda.”

  Stone sighed. “But nothing about Canton?”

  “Thankfully, no,” Jack assured.

  “Still can’t find the bastard?”

  “It’s as if he’s dropped off the face of the earth. I don’t like it.”

  Stone didn’t either. Anyone capable of raping a girl or torturing a little boy deserved to be gone from the face of the earth—and not on his own terms. But he squashed his homicidal leanings—for now—and prayed they could figure out how to end this nightmare for Lily. He’d ten times rather meet the guy in a dark alley and dust him without having to involve her at all. But she was right; he’d probably end up doing more hard time. Scuttling his urge for vigilante justice sucked, but going through legal channels was the only way he saw for him to have any sort of future with her. Besides, he couldn’t deny that going back to prison was the last fucking thing he ever wanted to do.

  “Keep looking and tell me how I can help. Please,” Stone said. “Lily has been through even more than you know, man. She needs this nightmare to be over.”

  “You’re in love with her.”

  Jack didn’t ask, and Stone didn’t bother to deny. “I think I always was. These last couple of days have made that really fucking clear for me. She comes first, period.”

  “That’s how it is, you know. You find that perfect woman and bam. You’d do or say anything to make her happy and keep her safe.”

  Absolutely. When they got out of this shit, he was going to call his father, make up for the past, then put a ring on Lily’s finger and live a life so wonderful she couldn’t do anything except be happy.

  Until then, he had to tie up every single loose end. “Exactly. So why was Canton never arrested in connection with the murders of Lily’s mom and brother?”

  “Canton himself had an airtight alibi. The kid didn’t live long enough to ID anyone. The crime scene didn’t produce any physical evidence or witnesses. It happened fast. Based on what I read, I’d bet they took the family by surprise and subdued them within seconds because there didn’t appear to be much of a struggle.”

  “But the kid managed to tell the cops that his killer claimed to be one of Erin’s friends who was looking for Lily, right?”

  “Sure, but he didn’t know the guy’s name. The police suspected that Lil
y might know who the assailant was, but they never could find her. She’d already fled.”

  Shit. As much as Stone didn’t like the truth, it made sense. “Did you ever track down the rest of Erin Gutierrez’s family? Maybe they could shed some light. The girl had a mom and an older brother who took Lily in when she was a teenager. They must have been devastated by what happened to Erin and wanted justice.”

  “I just started looking for them yesterday. Here’s what I know so far: Renee Gutierrez left Los Angeles. She got picked up for DUI in Seattle about four years ago. She skipped bail. I’ve heard rumors she crossed into Canada, but they’re unconfirmed. Corey found himself in and out of juvie for a bit. Someone made an attempt on his life, and they transferred him out. I’m double-checking some facts but I think he wound up enlisting and fought in Afghanistan. He’s currently listed as MIA, but I’m trying to track down the details. I’ll let you know.”

  “That would be great. Thanks. I need one more favor.” Stone swallowed, trying to choke down the lump of grief on Lily’s behalf that clogged his throat.

  “What’s that?” Jack asked.

  Stone hated having to ask anyone for anything but he couldn’t protect Lily if he was focused on too many other things besides keeping her safe. “Can you look for a burial place for Regina Rose
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