Darker Than Love Cover Reveal

It’s finally here! I couldn’t wait to share this beauty with you. A big thank you to Najla Qamber for this stunning cover. This extra-long standalone dark romance is hot and intense and oh so full of feels. Co-writing the story with one of my all-time favorite authors of whom I’m a super fan, Anna Zaires, is an absolute blast and so much fun. I’m sure you’re going to feel that special energy coming right off the pages when you read it. 🙂 Anna and I will have more exciting news for you soon, so watch this space!

Release Date: 28 JANUARY 2020

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Darker Than Love (A standalone dark romance)

Once upon a cold, dark night, a Russian killer stole me from an alley.
I’m dangerous, but he is lethal.
I escaped once.
He won’t let me do it twice.

The revenge is his.
The betrayal is mine.
But so are the lies to protect the ones I love.

We’re cut from the same twisted cloth. Both merciless. Both damaged.
In his embrace, I find hell and heaven, his cruelly tender touch destroying and uplifting me at once.

They say a cat has nine lives, but an assassin has just one.
And Yan Ivanov now owns mine.

(*Darker Than Love is a spinoff of Anna Zaires’ Tormentor Mine series, but you don’t need to read the series to follow this standalone story. For the most reading enjoyment, I highly recommend that you read this awesome dark romance series.)

Darker Than Love Excerpt

Darker Than Love

Once upon a cold, dark night, a Russian killer stole me from an alley.
I’m dangerous, but he is lethal.
I escaped once.
He won’t let me do it twice. 

The revenge is his. 
The betrayal is mine.
But so are the lies to protect the ones I love.

We’re cut from the same twisted cloth. Both merciless. Both damaged. 
In his embrace, I find hell and heaven, his cruelly tender touch destroying and uplifting me at once.

They say a cat has nine lives, but an assassin has just one.
And Yan Ivanov now owns mine.

Excerpt

“So, how long have you worked at the bar?” the guy with the skull tattoos—the seemingly kinder one—asks when I remove my winter jacket and we sit down in the living room. With its Soviet-style orange wallpaper and brown drapes, this place looks like it hasn’t been renovated since the eighties, but the ratty couch we’re sitting on is surprisingly comfortable. Maybe I will take him up on his offer to sleep here. That is, if they don’t kill me and dump my body in the river before sunrise.

I think my captor was just testing my language skills with that proposal, but I can’t be sure.

“Mina?” the man prompts, and I realize I zoned out instead of answering his question. Now that some of the adrenaline is fading, the extreme exhaustion is back, muddling my thoughts and slowing my reactions. I want nothing more than to stretch out on this couch and fall asleep, but I might not wake up if I do.

The Russians might decide that what I heard merits killing me rather than just keeping me captive overnight.

“I’ve worked there for a couple of years,” I answer, my voice shaking. It’s easy to sound terrified… because I am.

I’m with two men who may want to kill me, and I’m in no state to defend myself.

The only thing that gives me hope is that they haven’t already done so. They could’ve easily murdered me in the alley; they didn’t need to bring me here for that. Of course, there’s another possibility, one that every woman must consider.

They might be planning to rape me before killing me, in which case bringing me here makes perfect sense.

The thought makes my stomach churn, the old memories threatening to crowd in, but underneath the fear and disgust is something darker, infinitely more fucked up. The brief sizzle of arousal I’d experienced at the bar was nothing compared to how it had felt when the dangerous stranger caged me against the wall, caressing my face with that cruel gentleness. My body—the weak, ruined body I’ve spent the past year hating—had come to life with such force, it was as if fireworks had ignited under my skin, liquifying my core and burning away my inhibitions.

Was he able to sense it?

Did he know how badly I wanted him to keep touching me?

I think he did. And more than that, I think he wanted to. His eyes—a hard, gem-like green—had watched me with the dark intensity of a predator, taking in every twitch of my lashes, every hitch of my breath. If we’d been alone, he might’ve kissed me… or killed me on the spot.

It’s hard to tell with him.

“Do you like it? Working at the bar, I mean?” the tattooed man asks, bringing my attention back to him. Now he is easy to read. There’s unmistakable male interest in the way he looks at me, an obvious gleam in his green eyes.

Wait a sec. Green eyes?

“Are you two brothers?” I blurt out, then silently curse myself. I’m so tired I’m not thinking straight. The last thing I need is for these two to imagine I’m gathering information on them, or—

“We are.” A smile lights up his broad face, softening his harsh features. “Twins, in fact.”

Shit. I did not need to know that. The next thing I know, he’ll be telling me his—

“I’m Ilya, by the way,” he says, extending one big paw toward me. “And my brother’s name is Yan.”

Oh, fuck. I’m so screwed. They are going to kill me. “Nice to meet you,” I say weakly, shaking his hand on autopilot. My grip is as limp as my voice, but that’s okay. I’m playing a damsel in distress, and the more convincing I am, the better.

Too bad the act is mostly real these days.

Ilya squeezes my hand gingerly, as if afraid of inadvertently crushing my bones, and hope nibbles at me. He wouldn’t be so careful with me if they were planning to brutally rape and kill me, would he?

As if reading my thoughts, he gives me another smile, an even kinder one this time, and says gruffly, “I’m sorry about my brother. He’s used to seeing enemies around every corner. You will walk away from this unharmed, I promise you, malyshka. We need to keep you overnight as a precaution, that’s all.”

Strangely, I believe him. Or at least I believe that he intends me no harm. The jury is still out on his brother—who chooses that exact moment to walk in, carrying a cup of tea in one hand and two beers in the other.

My breath catches in my throat as he—Yan—sets the drinks on the coffee table in front of us and sits down between me and Ilya, unapologetically wedging himself into the too-small space. Instinctively, I scoot to the side, as far as the couch allows, but that’s only about six centimeters, and my leg ends up pressed against his, the heat of his body burning me even through the layers of our clothing.

He’s shed the suede winter jacket he was wearing earlier, and is now dressed like he was in the bar, in the stylish dress pants and button-up shirt. Except his sleeves are rolled up, exposing muscular forearms lightly dusted with dark hair.

He’s strong, this ruthless captor of mine. Strong and superbly fit, his body a deadly weapon under those perfectly tailored clothes.

“Tea,” he says in that smooth, deep voice of his, so different from his brother’s rougher tones. “As per the princess’s request.”

“Thank you,” I mumble, reaching for the cup. My hands are visibly shaking, my breathing is shallow, and I’m sweating—and none of it is an act. I can smell the clean, masculine scent of his cologne—something sensual and airy, like pepper and sandalwood—and his nearness unsettles me, making my insides riot with a confusing mixture of fear and desire. Even if he wasn’t danger personified, I’d be drawn to his magnetic good looks, but knowing what I know about him—about what he does and what he might do to me—I can’t control my helpless response to him.

Even my tiredness recedes, leaving me jittery and high, as if I’d downed two liters of espresso.

I’m acutely aware of his gaze on me as I bring the cup to my lips and take a sip, suppressing a hiss at the scalding temperature of the water. I’m trying not to look at him, to just focus on my tea, but I can’t help staring at his hands as he reaches over and grabs a beer, then twists off the cap with a practiced motion. His fingers are long and masculine, and though his nails are neatly groomed, the calluses on the edges of his thumbs belie the elegance of his appearance.

This is a man used to doing things with his hands.

Terrible, violent things.

A normal woman would be repulsed by the thought, but my heart hammers faster, and an aching pulse starts between my legs, my underwear dampening with liquid heat. The darkness in him calls to me, making me feel alive in a way I’ve never experienced before.

It’s as if like recognizes like, the wrongness in me craving the same in him.

Ilya picks up the remaining bottle, his hands thick and rough, with a few tattoos on the back. There’s no pretense in him, no attempt to hide what he is behind an elegant mask. “To new friends,” he says, clinking his bottle against his brother’s and then, more gently, against my cup of tea. I risk a glance at him, but catch Yan’s hard green gaze instead.

I quickly look away, but not before a betraying flush crawls up my neck and covers my face. “To new friends,” I repeat, staring into my cup as if I might see my fate written in the tea leaves. I’m not sure I want Yan to know about the effect he has on me—though he probably already does.

I’m not exactly at the top of my game tonight.

“Yes, to new friends,” Yan murmurs, his large hand landing on my knee and squeezing it lightly.

Startled, I look over at him and see him tipping back the beer, his strong throat working as he swallows. It’s a strangely sensual sight, and my insides clench as he lowers the bottle and meets my gaze, his eyes darkly intent as the hand on my knee moves a couple of inches up my thigh, closer to where I’m wet and aching.

Oh God.

He knows.

He definitely knows.

“Ilya,” he says quietly, still holding my gaze. “Make us a couple of sandwiches, will you? I think Mina here is hungry.”

“She is?” Ilya sounds confused as he stands up, and I look up to find him frowning at us—specifically, at my thigh, where Yan’s hand is resting so possessively. Slowly, tension permeates his big body, his hands flexing at his sides as his gaze swings to his brother’s face.

“I don’t think she’s hungry,” he bites out, his voice low and hard. His eyes cut to me. “Are you, Mina?”

I swallow thickly, unsure of what the right answer is. If I’m reading this right, Yan has just staked some sort of an exclusive claim on me, one that I would reinforce if I admitted to this made-up hunger.

Is that what I want?

To send away the brother who’s been nice to me, so I could be alone with the man who proposed dumping my body in the river?

“A… a sandwich would be nice.” The words don’t seem to belong to me, yet it’s my voice saying them, even as my brain scrambles to figure out the implications. “That is, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Ilya’s mouth thins. “Fine. I’ll see what we have in the fridge.”

And turning around, he stalks off, leaving me on the couch with his brother.

Coming on 28 January 2020

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A thrilling new book announcement

I have thrilling book news! What is more exciting than announcing the release of a new book? The release of a new book AND a writing collaboration with one of my all-time favorite authors! Anna Zaires and I combined forces to bring you Darker Than Love, an extra-long, intensely dark and sexy standalone book.

Darker Than Love is a spinoff of Anna Zaires’ Tormentor Mine series, but you’ll be able to follow this story even if you haven’t read the series. However, if you’re not familiar with this series, I highly recommend these dark reads! This is the perfect time to catch up. Read more about the series here.

Darker Than Love releases on 28 January 2020, and will also be available in audio and paperback on the same date (and in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese a few months after).

The cover reveal is on 1 November, so watch this space and make sure you’re signed up for my newsletter so that you don’t miss out. We’ll soon have a signup link for bloggers.

Join my Facebook readers’ group and see the teasers, excerpts, and latest developments first!

Anna and I can’t wait to share this story with you! 💜

Darker Than Love (A standalone dark romance)

Once upon a cold, dark night, a Russian killer stole me from an alley.
I’m dangerous, but he is lethal.
I escaped once.
He won’t let me do it twice.

The revenge is his.
The betrayal is mine.
But so are the lies to protect the ones I love.

We’re cut from the same twisted cloth. Both merciless. Both damaged.
In his embrace, I find hell and heaven, his cruelly tender touch destroying and uplifting me at once.

They say a cat has nine lives, but an assassin has just one.
And Yan Ivanov now owns mine.

Pre-order your copy now!

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Amazon UK
Amazon CA
Amazon AU
Apple Books
Google Play
Kobo
Nook

Add to Goodreads

Beauty in the Broken is live!

Beauty in the Broken is now available!

I’m blown away by all the wonderful comments and reviews. Here are a few of my favorites:

“A little masterpiece.”
“Explosive, intense, disturbing, passionate and oh so freakish good you’ll be staying up late reading.”
“It will resonate long after you have read the last word.”
“Pauls’ writing is flawless as always, rich but never pompous, direct despite her use of allegory and the poetic images she manages to evoke with her enviable use of words.”
“Angelina is the most complex, well-rounded character Charmaine Pauls has ever created.”
“Beauty in the Broken is Charmaine Pauls’ BEST so far.”

At 415 pages, this one is a biggie, two books in one, but didn’t want to split it in two. The ending is conclusive and there are no loose ends. I’m hoping to write another novel in The Diamond Magnate series in the near future. The book is very dark, but I promise there is light at the end. 🙂 

A big thank you to all of you for your wonderful support. This story wouldn’t have happened without you! 

If you haven’t read it yet and would like to give it a go, step into the diamond world of South Africa, and get ready for a crazy, wild ride.

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 Read Chapter One

BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN (A Diamond Magnate Novel)
Six years ago, Harold Dalton framed me for theft and sent me to jail to steal my diamond discovery. He gave his daughter to Jack Clarke in exchange for the excavation rights. Today, I’m walking free, and I’m coming for him with a vengeance. Six years of cruelty make beasts out of men. I’m going to take back what he stole from me, and more. I’m not interested in his properties or shares. I don’t want his small change. I want his biggest asset. Beautiful, mentally unstable, Angelina Dalton-Clarke.

Worth billions, she’s the wealthiest widow in the country, and also the craziest. Her self-harming tendencies had Jack declare her incompetent before he put a gun to his head and blew out his brains. Lina isn’t allowed to touch a cent of her riches. Her father manages her finances. He has all the signing power. As her husband, that chore will fall to me. But if she thinks I only want her for her money, she’s sadly mistaken.

* This book is a stand-alone. No cliffhangers. Trigger warning: Contains violence and abuse that may upset sensitive readers.

Beauty in the Broken Exclusive Preview

Chapter One

Johannesburg, South Africa

Damian

Harold Dalton shoots up from behind his oversized desk so fast he almost stumbles over the wheel of his equally oversized chair. “What do you want?”

The coward is afraid. He should be. After all, he framed me and stole my diamond mine. He’s the reason I spent six innocent years in jail.

His fat chin quivers. He doesn’t take his eyes off me as I cross the floor. Taking my time to inspect the room, I make him sweat it out. The home office hasn’t changed, except for three more deer heads staring miserably from the wall.

“What do you want?” he repeats when I reach his desk.

“Ah. Whatever could I want?”

His fingers tremble as he splays them out on the desktop. The cocksucker is so arrogant he either forgot I got out yesterday or believed I left prison a defeated man. Any less of a self-assuming bastard would’ve put a dozen guards in front of his door today. His mistake.

A liver-spotted hand glides toward the drawer where he no doubt keeps a gun, but I’m faster and stronger. My grip on his wrist makes him whimper. I can almost smell the fear in the sweat that stains the armpits of his shirt. I’m not the twenty-two-year-old man who walked through this door in a threadbare shirt. I’m a man in an eighty-thousand-rand suit, a man with a vendetta.

Six years is a long time, long enough to soak in the juices of your vengeance until your heart is cooked in all that bitter acid. Six years of cruelty and torture make beasts out of men. Six years in the company of the hardest criminals and most notorious mobsters also make the right connections and a fortune.

“What do you want, Damian Hart?”

This time, there’s acceptance in the question, the kind only people with money can muster. Bribe money.

Letting go of his wrist, I take two pieces of paper from my inside jacket pocket and slide them over the desk. He unfolds the first, the proof of what he’s stolen, and pales as he reads. The second is an affidavit the corrupt judge signed right after I’d cut off his finger.

The papers flutter in his hands. “Name your price. Most of my money is tied up in investments, but I have property. My house in Camps Bay is worth ninety million. I can sign over the deed in less than twenty-four hours.”

Laughable. “Ninety million isn’t going to cut it. I’d say one thousand four hundred and fifty-five days and a diamond mine worth billions deserve a little more, don’t you think?”

“The mine belongs to investors. Only thirty percent is mine, and I can’t simply give it away. The board has to vote on a change of ownership.”

As if I wouldn’t know. “I’m not after your small change, Dalton. I want your biggest asset.”

The pastry layers of his face crease into a frown.

Turning the gilded photo frame strategically facing the visitor’s chair around, I push it slowly toward him.

His eyes widen as comprehension sets in. Not even the threat of my presence is enough to prevent the anger from erupting on his features.

“You must be bloody kidding me,” he hisses, crumpling the incriminating pieces of evidence in his fists.

Angelina Dalton-Clarke. 

Daughter of Harold Dalton. Widow of Jack Clarke. She inherited her late husband’s fortune. Worth billions, she’s the wealthiest widow in the country, and also the craziest. Her suicidal and self-harming tendencies had Clarke declare her incompetent and mentally unstable before he put a gun to his head and blew his brains out. Lina Dalton-Clarke isn’t allowed to touch a cent of her riches. Her father manages her finances. He has all the signing power. As her husband, that chore will fall to me.

“She’s mentally ill,” Dalton splutters.

“I read the reports.” It wasn’t difficult for a cellmate to hack into the medical files.

Dalton looks as if he’s about to have a heart attack. I wait until his face is purple, giving him time to live the beginning of his end, before I continue with my instructions.

“Send her to the library. I’d like to see my asset in person. Oh, and not a word about our discussion. I’d like to break the happy news to her myself.”

He stands frozen, staring at me with whatever sentiment is festering in his rotten chest. It’s only when I’m on the other side of the room that he jumps back to life, coming around the desk.

I hold up a hand. “I’ll show myself to the library.” Mockingly, I add, “I know the way.”

The helpless indignation on his face as I shut the door fills me with more joy than I’ve experienced in all those years his family stole from me.

I’m from a poor upbringing, but I’m not a complete commoner. I know the rules of the gentry, which is why I give it some time before going to the library. Who knows what state Ms. Dalton-Clarke is in? She may be lounging around in sloppy attire or sunbathing naked. Her hair may be a mess and her face scrubbed clean of make-up. She may need a few minutes to make herself presentable. I’m guessing most women, when faced with an enemy, would amass whatever power they can, even if said power is derived from six-inch heels and red lipstick. Any lesser appearance than the show she puts up for the world will put her at an unfair disadvantage for the surprise visit, and although I don’t give a shit about playing fair, I do believe in treating a woman like a lady when it matters. Telling her she’s going to become my wife definitely matters.

At my order, Mrs. Benedict, the same old housekeeper from before, grudgingly serves me a cup of Earl Grey on the terrace. It’s not by coincidence I’ve wandered out here. It’s the spot where I’d been sitting when Angelina Dalton came to me on the infamous night that sealed my fate. What will it be like to finally face her again? The onslaught of emotions at the thought is a familiar cocktail of apprehension, excitement, and a bloodthirsty need for justice. I’d lie if I say lust isn’t running thick under the surface of it all. Who can blame me? She’s been the focus of my fantasies, both the vengeful and lustful kind, for the past six years.  

Earlier in her father’s study, I barely glanced at her photo. I didn’t have to. Her features are imprinted on my mind, even if we only met that once, an angelic face with outer space blue eyes and a golden cascade of hair. I see her in my dreams and with my eyes wide open. When I close them, I see her walking to me through the French patio doors with a beautiful display of innocence and vulnerability. It’s a night I can never forget. It’s a night when the best and worst moment of my life collided. Whilst Dalton wins the grand prize for fucking me over, she takes the trophy for snatching my heart in a few seconds flat only to throw it back in my face. She’s my best, and my worst. She had no right to be pretty and nice to me when she had no intention of falling as hard for me as she made me fall for her.

The memory is always fresh, always new. Poor as fuck but armed with youth and ambition, I’d donned my only button-down shirt and set out to meet her father not at his office, but at his house. It was an idiotic idea. Any man with a little experience of high society could’ve told me I’d be out of my depth with the formal dinner, from the four forks and knives lined up next to the gold-rimmed plates to the hand-rolled cigars that concluded the five hour-long ordeal. Between the other guests in their tuxedos, I stood out like a mongrel dog among racehorses. I stepped outside for air and sat down on this very terrace wall. I was freezing my butt off without a jacket in the middle of June when she exited in that pretty white dress, her curls pinned in some fancy up-do, with a fucking green granny shawl sporting a couple of holes wrapped around her shoulders.

“Aren’t you cold?” she asked in a voice that rang as beautiful as their fancy dinner bell.

The ignorance of a rich girl. What the fuck did she think? My teeth were chattering and my knees knocking together. I wanted to go inside where it was warm, but I needed another minute to get my shit together. I wasn’t going to let the older men with their expensive clothes and knowledge of cutlery intimidate me. I carried my future in my pocket, a discovery that was going to put me on the map, but I was yet to speak to Dalton, the man who was going to help me make it happen. I was nothing but a poor bastard, and I didn’t want to answer her, not really, because admitting to being cold would’ve been admitting to things I didn’t want the exquisite young woman staring at me to know.

Before I could think of anything appropriate to say, she unwrapped that ugly shawl from her frail shoulders, exposing the thin straps of her impractical evening dress, and draped the moth-eaten wool around me.

“There.” She didn’t quite smile, but she looked pleased. “It was my grandmother’s. It makes me feel safe.”

I stared at her like a fool, dumbstruck by the beautiful, wealthy girl who’d given me her warmth and safety. That’s how her father found us when he stepped through the doors. The minute his gaze fell on us, his eyes turned colder than the winter night. He walked over with an empty tumbler in his hand, his steps unhurried but urgent.

Putting an arm around his daughter, he said, “Go inside, Lina. You’ll catch your death in this cold with no coat.”

The silk of her dress accentuated the tightness of her ass and the shift of her globes as she turned and obeyed.

Dalton’s breath fanned my face, reeking of whisky. His words were soft-spoken but loaded enough to lash like thunder. “She’ll never be yours. She’s destined for someone worthy of her.”

I couldn’t answer, not because I didn’t have a quick comeback. I grew up rough. I knew how to throw back subtle insults, but he’d punched me in the gut with the truth. It had nothing to do with me not being worthy of her. It was that I did want her to be mine. I just didn’t know it until he’d said it, but it was suddenly out in the open, the truth set free by his words, my worst nightmare of a fantasy set in motion. That fantasy haunted me for every long, lonely night I fucked my fist in jail.

“Come on in.” Dalton tilted his head toward the house. “I’m ready to see you about that business proposal.” At the doors, he turned, his figure a stark outline in the light. “Do take off that shawl. You look ridiculous.”

Inside, I sought Lina out despite Dalton’s warning, telling myself it was to return her shawl. I blatantly trespassed in corridors that weren’t leading to Dalton’s office or the dining room until I found her. She stood in front of the guest bathroom with Mrs. Benedict shoving a fur drape at her and mumbling something about her mother turning in her grave. I never did give her back her shawl. I didn’t want Mrs. Benedict to take it away. I draped it over a chair back, hoping she’d find it. Then I’d gone to her father’s study and she’d married Clarke, the man who’d granted Dalton the excavation rights for the mine he’d stolen from me.

Pushing the bitter memory aside, I leave the Royal Albert teacup on the garden table—a perversely careless act for such pricy crockery—and go back inside. Dalton is nowhere to be seen. He’s probably planning my murder for stealing his princess, the one I’m not worthy of. Isn’t karma a funny thing? If Lina turned as self-destructive and batshit crazy as her medical reports claim, our situation is ironically reversed.

She stands in the middle of the library when I enter, not in front of or behind the desk, but right in the middle, between nothing and the fireplace. I take a few seconds. The moment is huge. I’m not going to rush it. It’s not what I expected. It’s not my memory reincarnated. Nothing is left of the angelic girl from that evening in June. She doesn’t come to me with kindness. Her back is stiff and her posture regal. The tip of her nose is tilted to the ceiling, her chin high.

What does a crazy person look like? Not like her. Maybe. It’s hard to say. Take me, for example. You’d never say how warped I am just from looking at me. Does wearing a green granny shawl to a fancy dinner qualify as crazy? Does self-sabotage count as insane? I close the door quietly, like one would close a church door. I’m not sure why, only that I feel like I did when I held my mother’s hand, and she led me down the aisle toward the portrait of Mary carrying the baby Jesus in her arms.

At the sound of the click, Lina’s back turns even more rigid. Her ribcage expands and contracts too quickly, as if she’s battling to breathe. Taking more time, longer than any normal person would find comfortable, I study her. With her hair like spun gold and her skin like bone china, she could easily be a fairytale princess, but that’s not what I see when my gaze drops to her lips. They’re a darker shade of pearl, full and shimmery. Lip balm. It’s not lipstick or gloss. There’s no mascara on her golden lashes or blush on her cheeks. No cosmetic courage. No high-heeled power. What she resembles is an ice queen—cold, untouchable, unobtainable. From head to toe, she’s dressed in black. A polo-neck top with long sleeves covers her from her neck to her wrists. A wide skirt brushes her ankles. Black boots peek out from underneath. The top is tight fitting and the waistband of her skirt broad, accentuating her slim shape and small waist. 

She stands quietly until I’ve done my evaluation. When I finally approach, she meets my eyes with a hint of loathing. The gold and green specs seem to light up the darkest of blues as her gaze flashes with distaste.

I smile. Good. I’m glad she looks at me like that, or I may have gotten lost in the strange unworldliness of her eyes, a dark galaxy dotted with green and gold stars.

“Mrs. Clarke.”

“Mr. Hart.”

She speaks. For six years I passed the sleepless hours of my nights trying to recall the exact sound of that voice, wondering if—hoping that—it has changed. It’s not what I’d hoped for. It’s not harsh or cracked or flawed. It’s still like a bell, clear and resonating strongly.

“I see I’ve been announced.”

Her level stare defies my assumption. “I remember you.”

Just because of that angelic voice, I start counting her shortcomings. She locked herself in a room for over two years. She refused to see anyone, sometimes even her husband. “How can you blame him for killing himself?” people ask. “With a wife like her…” and they leave the sentence hanging.

She tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out of a second story window of their home. That was before the husband shot himself, so it couldn’t be blamed on the tragedy of his death. Speculation has it mostly as the other way around. He shot himself after her suicide attempt.

She spent a year after his funeral in an institution with a fancy name, which is just another term for an asylum. For that year, she was nursed back to health from her alternating disorders of bulimia and anorexia. Doesn’t look like they’ve achieved much. She can do with another few kilos.

The worst is in her eyes. It’s in her silence as she stands there, letting me weigh her and find her too light. Too damn much. The coldness and craziness appeal to me. I’m a man intimately acquainted with broken things, enough to know what stands in front of me is ruined, not broken. I still want her, as much as—no, more—than when she was eighteen and sweet and a princess. A memory of Dalton bringing her into the dining room, dressed in that white frock that showed the cleavage of her small breasts and tight buttocks, flashes through my mind. I knew what he was doing. He was parading her, showing off his bargaining chip.

She waits patiently. Maybe locking yourself up does that to you. It ruins your mind but teaches you virtues.

“It’s been a year,” I say.

She doesn’t ask.

It makes me want to shake a reaction from her, but instead I lash out with my words. I lash out with my eyes, filling them with disapproval. “Do you still have to wear black?”

Her voice is collected, indifferent. “I’m mourning.”

“He’s been dead for a year.”

“I didn’t say who I’m mourning.”

Gripping my hands behind my back, I walk around her. Her head turns as her gaze follows me, but she stops at three o’clock, allowing me to look at places she can’t see, like her sculptured back. It’s too bony, the way her vertebrae show through her top, and somehow there’s perfection in even that. Frailty. Vulnerability. Femininity. I’ve never found skinny women attractive, but Lina is a first for me in everything. It’s a fact that no longer surprises me.

I stop in front of her, drawing her gaze back to me. “Is it true?”

She waits.

I caress the lines of her face with my gaze. “Are you crazy?”

“Aren’t we all to a greater or lesser degree?”

That damn, musical voice. There’s no judgment there, just a factual statement. Clever. It wins her this round. There’s nothing to argue.

“I suppose you’d like to know the reason for my visit.”

She looks straight into my black, soiled soul. “I know why you’re here.”

“Is that so?” I give her a smile that’s meant to be intimidating. “Tell me.”

“For the same reason they all are.”

They all are. I fucking hate the sound of that.“What reason is that?”

“To marry me for my money.”

My vision goes blurry. My anger ignites and unjustly escalates. She makes me see things I don’t want to, images of many rivals on one knee, asking for her hand. That’s where they went wrong. I won’t be asking.

“Yet,” I drop my gaze to her naked ring finger, “you rejected everyone.”

“For the same reason I’ll be rejecting you.”

I smother a laugh. On second thought, I let it out, cold and soft. I round her again, like a buyer evaluating livestock. I lean into her, like an owner staking a claim. She smells of an exotic perfume, something musky and oriental, alluring and deadly, like a pretty, poisonous flower. She’s toxic to me. God knows I’ve suffered every classifiable, slow-killing symptom, but I can’t resist.

“If you think I only want you for your money,” I whisper against the shell of her ear, “you’re sadly mistaken.”

A shiver runs over her body. It starts at her nape and ends at the base of her spine. I feel it where our bodies are touching, separated by two layers of black clothes. This time, my laugh is silent, unnoticed at the back of her head. I don’t need to win a round over her with a mocking smile. This round is mine.

She steps away, putting space between us. Her head is turned to the side, but she’s not looking at me. “You can’t make me.”

“Think again.”

She twirls around, eyes a bit wider and nostrils barely flaring. There’s the tiniest crack in her veneer, and there she is, the crazy woman behind the curtain of ice. The jugular vein in her neck flutters like a trapped butterfly. There’s fire in her, yet.

She places soft emphasis on every word. “I said no.”

“You’re making the mistake of assuming it was a request.”

The frost is back in her eyes, her chin tilted haughtily. “Leave before I call a guard.”

“You don’t want Daddy Dearest to die, do you?”

The little color left in her cheeks vanishes. She’s a wax doll, unnatural and startling beautiful.

“Bribery. Tsk-tsk. A High Court judge, no less.” Taking a photocopy of the signed affidavit from my pocket, I hold it up for her to see. “When this goes public, your daddy ends up in prison. He won’t make it out alive. I’ve made enough friends in six years to make sure of it. A phone call, a message via a guard is all it’ll take.”

She’s big enough to drop her bravado and read the text. When her eyes meet mine again, there’s something else. Fear. More than fear. She’s terrified. “How did you get this?”

Not the question I’ve been expecting. “Does it matter?” I have blood on my hands for the piece of paper I’m clutching, and I’d spill it again.

“Is it fake?”

“If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I never bluff.”

“Does he…?” She swallows. “Does Harold know?”

“I assume he’s having your bags packed as we speak.”

Her chest rises and falls. Clasping her hands together, she drops her gaze to the floor. A few seconds pass. I let her have them to process what’s happening.

When she lifts her unworldly eyes back to me, they’re composed. Serene, if not sad. She’s already accepted what she can’t change. Some may see her lack of fighting as weak. I see it for what it is, a trait of a survivor. She’s doing what she must to get through this. It doesn’t strike me as the kind of behavior of someone with self-destructive tendencies. The ease with which she does it tells me it’s a practiced skill.

“The ceremony will take place on Saturday at the Anglican church in Emmarentia. Four o’clock. Don’t be late. You won’t like the consequences.”

Gripping her fingers, I press a kiss to her hand. Her skin is cold, but her palm is clammy. Inclining my head, I bid my fiancée goodbye.

There’s nothing more to say.

Now we wait.

Until Saturday.

* * *

Lina

Running to the toilet, I empty my guts for the second time. My body heaves, not getting the message from my stomach that there’s nothing left. When the wave finally passes, I slide to the floor, clutching the toilet with both arms and resting my forehead on the rim. I’m hot and cold, shaking all over. I’m frightened.

When I can’t put off getting dressed any longer, I force my legs to stand. Bent-over, I make it to the basin. In the overhead cabinet is a bottle of pills, but there’s no pill for what I’m suffering from. There’s no medicine that will help. Shaking two tablets against nausea from the brown bottle, I swallow them dry. It takes a few breaths for my stomach to settle and a while before my strength returns.

This bathroom, I hate it. I hate the beehive tiles and the spa tub. It’s been mine since I can remember, but I never wanted it. I’ve never been happy here. I always wanted to leave, and now that I have to, again, I’m afraid. There’s no way out of this, though. I can’t let Harold die. If he does, what I want most in the world is gone with him.

After splashing cold water on my face, I go to my bedroom. My wedding dress is laid out on the bed. It’s a simple cut with lace overlaying a silk lining. The pillbox hat with net veil lies next to it. It feels like I’m dressing for my own funeral, tying a bond with another cruel man. I sensed Damian’s desire to hurt me in Harold’s library. I suppose I’ve become good at reading that underlying darkness some men crave.

Moving behind the screen, I strip naked in front of the full-length mirror. I always do. I do so I can look, so I can remember who I am. Turning sideways, I study the scars that line my arms, first the left, then the right. I count every unsightly, embossed line, unevenly spaced from my shoulders to my wrists. Sixteen on the left, twelve on the right. Each one represents the loss of a part of my soul at the price of my life. The parts of me I can’t see in a mirror are too ugly even for me to face. When I can’t stomach more, I pull on a random set of underwear from the drawer before stepping into the dress. I fix my hair into a tight bun and secure the hat with pins. There’s no one to go through this with me. I’m alone. I long for my mother with a fierceness that cripples my heart. It’s her pearl earrings I fasten on my ears, and my grandmother’s necklace I clasp around my neck. It makes me feel close to them, as if I’ll draw strength from their spirits.

“The driver is ready,” one of Harold’s bodyguards says from the open door.

I glance at him in the mirror. It’s Bobby, one of the kinder ones. He’s not looking into the room, but straight ahead. By now, the guards are used to the fact that I never close a door. Respectfully, they don’t stare. That’s what crazy women do. They get dressed with an open door in a house full of men. Closed doors give them anxiety attacks. That’s the real reason the men don’t look. They’re afraid of insulting Harold by admitting with their curious staring just how crazy I am.

“Harold?” I ask cautiously.

“He already left.”

Getting to my feet, I grab a clutch bag in which I’ve stuffed my phone, anti-nausea pills, tampons, and tissues. I never go anywhere without tampons and tissues. My period is irregular, often arriving when I’m under more duress than normal.

“Do you have everything?” he asks.

I nod. My single suitcase has been taken to Damian’s house earlier. He sent a driver to collect it.

“Let’s go then,” he says. “Mr. Dalton will skin me alive if we’re late.”

I don’t show Bobby my fear. Fear makes you vulnerable. It makes you an easy victim. I hand him my bag while I fit my shoes.

“I’m ready,” I announce.

I don’t have a choice.

* * *

Damian

The bells toll in the stone church tower. It’s a haunting and beautiful sound. Rare. They only use the bells for special occasions because they’re old and fragile. The fact that they’re using them for me tells the witnesses in the church I’m a man to be reckoned with. There’s not a face turned to me without fear. It’s there, in their fake smiles and plastered-on expressions of goodwill. They’re only here to witness the beginning of the fall of the Dalton empire.

One, two, three. The last dong falls like a verdict on four. The sound reverberates through the acoustic interior, carrying on the dubious silence that follows. When the sound dies down, the guests stand, and the organist starts playing. The first notes of The Wedding March fill the space. It’s dramatic and theatrical. I picked it specifically, just like the cascades of white roses and the thick candles burning in golden candelabras on both sides of the aisle. Facing the entrance, I await my bride.

Despite the flamboyance, there’s something in my chest, a tightness that borders on nerves when the doors don’t open immediately. My posture is straight and my face stoic, but my hands ball involuntarily into fists. I only relax slightly when the double doors start swinging inward. A fan of light falls into the shadowed church, letting sun into the somber, cool interior. The beams burst through everywhere, up toward the gallery where the organ is playing and down over the stone floor. They keep on stretching, reaching, until the doors are fully open. It’s blinding. After the darkness inside, I have to blink for my eyes to adjust. Like a revelation, a figure stands in the midst of all that pure white. I almost breathe easier, but not yet. It’s a long walk down the aisle, and an even longer way to saying yes.

Dalton stands next to the door. As the music goes into the second sonata, he offers his arm, but Lina steps past him, as if she doesn’t see him, and then she stops. I don’t have time to ponder the observation, because the sonata is in full swing, and she’s still not moving. My heart beats faster. My breathing speeds up. She’s a silhouette of a shadow, obscured by the light. I can’t make out her face or expression, just that she’s not fucking moving. Dalton goes forward. She trips slightly as he nudges her. I’m about to shoot to the end of the aisle and drag her to the altar by her arm when she finally puts one foot in front of the other.

Something in me lifts, making me feel weightless, but it only lasts a second. The same someone who opened the doors closes them. The daylight is expelled, and the interior is once more basked in a gloomy light. It’s then that I make out her face, her figure, her dress. Her fucking dress. God help me. I fist my hands so hard my knuckles crack. From her fashionable little hat to her elegant shoes, she’s dressed for a funeral. In front of all these people, she makes a mockery of me, coming to me in black.

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Cover Reveal – Beauty in the Broken

I’m over-the-moon excited to share the cover for Beauty in the Broken with you. A huge thank you to Jay Aheer from Simply Defined Art for doing such an amazing job. I’m in love with everything about this cover. One of my favorite details is the Hillbrow Tower from Johannesburg, South Africa, which is an important setting in the story, towering discreetly and darkly in the background.

Release Date: 14 May 2019

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BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN (A Diamond Magnate Novel)

Six years ago, Harold Dalton framed me for theft and sent me to jail to steal my diamond discovery. He gave his daughter to Jack Clarke in exchange for the excavation rights. Today, I’m walking free, and I’m coming for him with a vengeance. Six years of cruelty make beasts out of men. I’m going to take back what he stole from me, and more. I’m not interested in his properties or shares. I don’t want his small change. I want his biggest asset. Beautiful, mentally unstable, Angelina Dalton-Clarke.

Worth billions, she’s the wealthiest widow in the country, and also the craziest. Her self-harming tendencies had Jack declare her incompetent before he put a gun to his head and blew out his brains. Lina isn’t allowed to touch a cent of her riches. Her father manages her finances. He has all the signing power. As her husband, that chore will fall to me. But if she thinks I only want her for her money, she’s sadly mistaken.

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Old Enough is live!

Old Enough, a taboo romance about the unlikely love between a young man and a woman old enough to be his mother, and the dark secret he hides of why they met, is now available in eBook and paperback format.

What readers say
“I never knew I’d enjoy a story with an older woman, but how wrong was I?!”
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Fabulous
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Unique
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Magnificent
Phenomenal
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THIS BOOK HAS IT ALL!!!!!

Old Enough (Book 1 of The Age Between Us duology)
I’m old enough to drive a car, buy alcohol, and enter a club.
I’m old enough for her, no matter what her middle-aged friends or society says.
No matter why or how I met her.
I’ll take those secrets to my grave, and her with them, if those secrets don’t ruin us first.

(Book 2, Young Enough, will be available on 28 August.)

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Read an excerpt

‘The rope scene’ excerpt, Old Enough (#1, The Age Between Us)

Coming on 17 July!

~ A dark romance ~

I’m old enough to drive a car, buy alcohol, and enter a club.
I’m old enough to take responsibility for my actions.
I’m old enough for her.
No matter what her middle-aged friends or society says.
No matter she’s the age of my mother.
No matter why or how I met her.
I’ll take those secrets to my grave.
And her with them.
If those secrets don’t ruin us first.

(Old Enough is Book 1 of The Age Between Us duology. Book 2, Young Enough, will be available on 28 August 2018.)

‘The rope scene’ Excerpt:

Jane

An instantaneous cold sweat breaks out over my skin. I fling around to assess the danger. My gaze falls on the profile of a man. My body jerks. I barely contain a scream before I recognize him. Brian. He’s shirtless, wearing torn jeans that hugs his body as if it was designed to make him look like a sex god. A sheen of perspiration emphasizes the well-cut muscles of his torso. A dishcloth is thrown over one shoulder. Leaning back against the sink, he runs his gaze over me.

His voice is dark seduction. “Hello, princess.”

“Shit.” I place a palm over my heart.“You scared me.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

I have more to say, but it takes a moment to regain my composure. Something is different. I look around. The mess I left before going out has been cleaned. The table is cleared, the dirty dishes are gone, and the counters wiped down.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. “How did you get in?”

“I fixed a few things while I waited.” He throws a thumb toward the sink. “Dripping tap. Hook coming out of the wall. And I got in using a key.”

“A key?”

Warning bells go off in my mind. He’s acting like a stalker. I don’t like it, and I do. The latter confuses me.

“I took the key number when I installed the security equipment and had one made.”

“You can’t do that.” I close the door to the garage, making sure to lock it. “This is an invasion of my privacy.”

“Ask me to leave, and I will.”

I part my lips, but I can’t form the words. It’s wrong to let him stay. It’s unwise. Yet, I’ve never wanted something–or someone–more in my life.

He straightens, a small smile bringing out his dimple. “Shall I take that as an invitation?”

His tone is soft. Soothing. I can’t make myself throw him out. My body starts to buzz with something more than the side-effect of the pill. Excitement. Anticipation. A little bit of fear. It’s the good kind, the kind I discovered with Evan.

“You can’t come and go as you please,” I say in an effort to salvage what I can of my common sense.

“I’m careful.” He takes a few steps forward. “That’s why my truck is parked around the corner. And I knew Abby wouldn’t be here.”

After wiping his hands on the dishcloth, he hangs it neatly on the rail fixed to the counter. I’m speechless, unable to formulate anything cognitive. My body is drawn to him like a vampire to blood. If I send him away, I’ll miss out on a night filled with endless possibilities. Who knows how long what we have will last? Can I throw away this chance for the sake of sane and wise?

I already know the answer before he’s leaning on the counter with his palms, studying me with his unique kind of unwavering attention, and so does he. As always with us, words fall to the wayside. I’m utterly and completely caught in his web. He can be a spider with venom, ready to devour his prey, or a praying mantis about to eat its mate. I’m entranced. Hypnotized. I can’t move from my spot by the door. While he’s at ease with the silence, happy to just stand there and watch me like I’m prey, I need to find something to say.

“You cleaned my kitchen.”

His lips tilt in the sexiest way. “Obviously.”

That damn dimple. “Why?”

He shrugs. “I knew you’d probably come home late and be tired.”

His consideration makes a dent in my apprehension. No one has ever made my life easier in such a sweet way.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he says in that same warm tone from earlier.

He lifts something from the counter, holding it in both hands. A coil of rope. He gives a pluck, testing the stretch. He doesn’t say anything. He simply holds my eyes, his gaze communicating a thousand words.

The fear I crave blooms in my chest. The chain breaks, and the dragon is free. My breath catches more at that knowledge than the sight of the rope.

He walks around the counter and stops a distance away from me. “Go to the bedroom and undress. When you’re naked, lie down on the bed. Don’t speak unless you have questions or requests. Otherwise, feel free to be as loud as you wish.”

Buy links, Old Enough (Book 1, The Age Between Us)
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Coming on 28 August 2018
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Dubious, Read Chapter One

 

“Perversely hot, gritty, and richly textured, Valentina and Gabriel’s story is one of the best dark romances I’ve read.” – Anna Zaires, New York Times bestselling author of Twist Me

Repulsiveness personified, that’s me. I own a mirror, and I’m not afraid to look in it. What you see on the surface is a reflection of what runs under my skin. I’m a loan shark. Breaking people is in my blood. The Haynes’s were supposed to be a straightforward job. Go in and pull the trigger twice. One bullet for Charlie, one for his sister. But when I saw Valentina, I wanted her. Only, in our world, those who owe us don’t get second chances. No way in hell will my mother let her live. So I devised a plan to keep her.

It’s depraved.
It’s immoral.
It’s dubious.

It’s perfect.
Just like her.

(Dubious is Book 1 of a duet and ends on a cliffhanger. Book 2, Consent, is now available.)

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“I have no words at all for this book…and that’s considered a good thing.”
“This book was so unexpectedly good on so many levels.”
“Ten stars!”

Exclusive Excerpt:

Chapter One

Valentina

I never take the yellow glow of a light bulb or the blue staccato flicker of the television screen for granted. Looking for signs of life is an ingrained habit for people like me, people who live in fear. Already from the corner, I strain my neck to look at our floor. Then I stop dead. The rectangle of our window stares down at me. Black. Dark.

Oh, my God.

Charlie!

My palms turn clammy. I wipe them on my tunic and sprint up the remaining stairs to the second floor, almost tripping on the last step. A jerk on the handle confirms the door is locked. Thank God. Someone didn’t break in, attack Charlie, and leave him for dead. I drop my keys twice before I fit them in the lock. From inside, Puff starts barking.

The damn lock mechanism resists. One of these days, the flimsy nickel is going to break off in the door. I force until the key turns. In my rush to get inside, I stumble over Puff who runs out to greet me. He scurries away with a yelp and his tail between his legs.

The darkness is menacing. Flicking on the lights doesn’t expel the emptiness or the sick feeling pushing up in my throat. A hollowness settles in my chest as I take in the bowl of half eaten Rice Krispies and the glass of milk on the table.

“Charlie!”

Even if I know what I’ll find, I run to the bathroom.

No one.

“Dammit.”

Leaning on the wall, I cover my eyes and allow myself one second to gather strength. Something wet and warm touches my calf. Puff stares at me with his hopeful, sad eyes, his tail wagging in blissful ignorance.

“It’s all right, baby.” I pet his wiry hair, needing the reassurance of his warm little body more than he needs my caress.

Lightning rips through the sky, the sound lashing out a beat later. I close the curtains. Puff hates thunderstorms. After feeding him, I lock up and knock next door, but, like ours, Jerry’s flat is dark.

Damn him. Jerry promised me.

It’s a wild guess, but I’m betting on Napoli’s being Jerry’s favorite hangout. It’s the only place he ever goes.

The rickety framework clangs under my trainers as I charge down the two flights of stairs. It’s after eight. Having a car thief as a neighbor keeps me protected to an extent, but only from criminals lower in the hierarchy than Jerry. There are the drug dealers, mafia, and gangs to be reckoned with. I remain alert as I go, checking the abandoned houses, parked cars, and alleys. Staying under the streetlights, at least the ones not broken, I walk like my mom taught me–like I’m not a victim.

The brewing storm dissolves, taking with it the rain that would’ve washed away the neighborhood’s stench and soot. It’s summer, but the smoke from the cooking fires gives the Johannesburg air a thick, wintry smell as I cross from Berea into Hillbrow. Most buildings in Hillbrow no longer have electricity. When crime took over, people who could afford municipal services moved to the suburbs, turning the city center into a ghost town. Shortly after, the homeless and others with more sinister goals invaded the deserted skyscrapers. The door and windowless buildings look like skulls with empty sockets and gaping mouths. Doors have long since been used for firewood. What is left is the carcass of a city. The vultures have picked the meat off the bones, and now there are only the scavengers who prey on each other, and if I’m lucky tonight, not on me.

The walk to Napoli’s takes almost forty-five minutes. I’m scared, and my legs ache from standing in the veterinary clinic all day, but worry over my brother outweighs fear and exhaustion. By the time I get to the club, I’m close to collapsing. It’s not the first time Charlie has disappeared. From experience, I know the police won’t help. They have their hands full with murder cases and so many missing persons they don’t have enough space on milk cartons to post everyone. Anyway, most of them are corrupt. I’ll more likely get gang-raped by officials in a police cell than get assistance. I have to find my brother myself.

A group of teenagers in dirty vests sniffing glue at the corner shout insults.

The tallest climbs to his feet, his skin shiny with perspiration and the whites of his eyes like saucers. “Yo, white bitch. What ya doin’ on my block?”

“Hey!” A meaty bouncer in a T-shirt with a Napoli’s logo shuts them up with a look.

The bouncer doesn’t stop me when I push through the entrance, but I feel his eyes burn at the back of my head as I walk down the black-painted corridor into the brightly lit interior. A song from a local rave-rock band blares from oversized speakers. The walls are covered in street art, the day-glo colors popping off the bricks under the fluorescent lights. The club smells of poppers and disco machine smoke. There’s every kind of generalization inside, from the dark-suited Portuguese to the gold-chained Nigerians. Half-naked women do the rounds, most of them looking spaced out.

Please let them be here.

I run my gaze over the bar and the roulette tables at the back. On the left, raucous cheering is directed at the flat screen where a horse race is taking place. The spectators go quiet when they notice me. One of the men touches his buckle and widens his stance. A sign says the money lending office is upstairs. There’s a queue outside the door. That’s where gamblers and people who can’t make the rent or pay off the mafia sign away their lives, pledging interest of up to a hundred and fifty percent on loans that will literally cost them an arm and a leg.

The men playing darts turn their heads as I pass. Shit. I’m getting increasingly anxious. As panic is about to seize me, I spot Jerry’s orange afro in a circle of heads at one of the card tables. Charlie sits in the chair next to him. Almost crying with relief, I push people with plastic beer cups in their hands out of the way to reach my brother. Charlie’s curls fall over his forehead, and his eyes are scrunched up in concentration. He’s wearing a Spiderman T-shirt and his flannel pajama bottoms. The attire makes him look vulnerable despite his age and bulky frame. Anyone can see he doesn’t belong here. How dare the sick son of a bitch who runs this cesspool allow my brother inside?

“How could you?” I say in Jerry’s ear.

He jumps and gives me a startled look. “What are you doing here?”

Charlie is studying the cards in his hand. He hasn’t noticed me, yet.

I press a hand to my forehead and count to five. “You said you’d watch him for me.”

“I am watching him.”

“He’s not supposed to be here.”

“He’s a grown man.”

“My brother is not accountable for his actions, and you know it.”

Charlie looks up. “Va–Val! I’m wi–winning.”

For now, my focus remains on Jerry. Alcohol and gambling are not his only addictions. “What did you give him?”

“Relax.” He gives me an exasperated shrug. “Orange juice, that’s all.”

“Come, Charlie.”

I take my brother’s arm, but the croupier snatches my wrist.

“He’s not going anywhere until his debt is paid.”

My mouth drops open. How could Jerry let this happen? He knows I barely make ends meet. I jerk my arm from the dealer’s grip. “How much?”

“Four hundred.”

“Four hundred rand!” That’s almost half of my weekly wage.

“Four hundred thousand.”

The strength leaves my legs. Letting go of Charlie, I brace myself with my palms on the tabletop. We may as well carve dead on our foreheads.

“It’s impossible.” I can’t process that amount. “In one night?”

The croupier regards me strangely. “Charlie’s a regular. He’s been running a tab, and his time’s up.”

“Jerry?” I look at him for an explanation, a solution, to tell me it’s a joke, anything, but he gnaws on his bottom lip and looks away.

I slam down a fist, rattling the plastic chips. “Look at me!”

The table goes quiet, but not because of my outburst. The men’s heads are turned toward the landing on the upper floor. When I follow their gazes, I can’t miss the man who stands under the light, his hands gripping the rail. He wears a dark suit, like the Portuguese, but he’s anything but a generalization. He’s nothing short of a monster.

His body is muscular. Too big. There’s not enough space in the room for him. He drowns everything in power and dominance. He’s not young, but he isn’t old, either. Rather than defining his age, his years give him the distinguished edge of men with experience. Thick, black hair falls messily over his forehead, the wisps brushing his ears. His features are rogue, wild, and uncompromising. The lines running from his nose to his mouth are deeply etched. They’re the kind of lines men with hard, rough lives wear. A ghastly network of scars runs from his left eyebrow to his cheek. Under the disfigured patchwork, his complexion is tanned. The ruggedness of his skin gives the impression of being marred by bullets. A short-trimmed beard and moustache cover some of his imperfections, but the damage is too vast to hide. It’s a face you don’t want to see in the dark and definitely not in your dreams. It’s a face that stares straight at me.

Heat of the scary kind crawls over my skin. When I look into his eyes, it’s as if a bucket of ice is emptied down my shirt. An unwelcome shiver contracts my skin, and my fear turns from hot to cold. His irises are blue like the far-off glaziers I’ve only seen in pictures. Everything about him seems foreign. Out of place. Dangerous. He’s the kind of bad that’s even out of Napoli’s league.

“Fucken fuck,” Jerry mumbles when he finds his voice. “Gabriel Louw.”

I’ve lived here long enough to recognize the name. His family runs Napoli’s. If Hillbrow is the crime capital, Gabriel Louw is the king of the money lords. They call him The Breaker. He’s a loan shark, and I’ve heard stories about him that make my blood freeze with their brutality.

The best time to run is when your opponent is distracted. If we have any chance of getting out of here alive, it’s now, while Gabriel holds the attention of the room with unyielding demand. Taking Charlie against his will won’t work. He weighs twice as much as me, and when he gets obstinate, he’s an unmovable, dead weight.

“Let’s get an ice cream,” I whisper in his ear, “but you have to come quietly.”

Charlie knows about being quiet. We practice it enough times when we hide from the mafia, pretending we’re not home.

Charlie gets up like I silently prayed he would and allows me to lead him to the door. I pinch my eyes shut and wait for someone to shout, grab us, shoot, or all three, but when I glance back Gabriel lifts a palm, and the bouncer steps aside for us to exit.

Outside, I suck in a breath of polluted air. Clutching my brother’s arm, I walk him back to our side of the tracks, which isn’t much better, but it’s all we have. He talks, and I let his voice soothe me, trying not to think. When we’re home, I’ll go over what happened. For now, I’m too preoccupied with lurking dangers.

At Three Sisters, I buy Charlie a cone with vanilla ice cream dunked in caramel, his favorite. It’s not until we round the corner of our building that trouble strikes again. Tiny leans in the entrance, smoking a joint. When he sees us, he straightens, takes a last drag, and flicks the butt into the gutter.

“Well, well.” He wipes his hands over his dreadlocks and saunters over. “Hello, sunshine. Tiny was looking for you.” There’s an edge to his voice. “Where were you?”

“Ice crea-cream,” Charlie says.

“Is that so?” Tiny stops short of me. He’s not Nigerian or Zimbabwean like most of the people on our block, but Zambian. His skinny frame towers over me, his black skin lost in the darkness of the night, except for the whites of his eyes and teeth. “You’ve got money to spoil your ol’ brother here, but not for Tiny’s tax?”

He calls himself the Tax Collector. He’s not the landlord, but he gathers ‘tax’ on the rent from everyone who lives in our building. He’s a mini-mafia within a bigger mafia, but dealing with him means I don’t have to deal with the bigger mafia, and he’s the lessor of two evils.

Putting his nose in my hair, he sniffs. “You smell like smoke. Club smoke. Who were you with?”

Tiny pretends he owns me. Mostly, he pretends I like him. In reality, he’s a coward, but he still has the power to hurt me. I know this from a split lip and blue eye.

“You’re dating now?”

“It’s none of your business.” Charlie’s key is not on the cord around his neck. I’ll have to ask Jerry about it later. I fish my key from my bag and hand it to Charlie. “Go up and lock the door.”

Charlie takes the key, but doesn’t move.

“Go on,” I urge. “I’ll be right up.”

“O–okay.” Charlie takes two steps and stops.

I give him an encouraging smile. “Quickly. I don’t want you to catch a cold.”

Tiny grabs hold of my hair. I close my eyes. Please, Charlie. Obey. I don’t want him to see this. When I lift my lashes, my brother is climbing the stairs on the side of the building.

“Got the money?” Tiny pulls on my ponytail.

The bond on our flat is fully paid. My parents paid cash for the property years ago before anyone could predict how crime and dilapidation would render their investment worthless.

“We don’t pay rent,” I bit out. This means nothing to Tiny, but I have to try. God knows why, but I try every time.

“You still owe.” He grins, flashing a row of straight teeth. “Tiny can’t let you stay without paying tax. What example will that be for the others? Give it up, Valentina.”

I freeze. “Don’t you dare say my name.”

He scoffs. “That’s right, because you’re my bitch.” He yanks on my hair. “Ain’t it so, bitch?”

“Go to hell.”

“Now, now. That’s no way to speak to Tiny.” He clicks his tongue. “Who’s gonna protect you if Tiny ain’t around?” He tilts his head. “Won’t ask you again. Where’s Tiny’s money?”

I swallow. “I’ll have it by the end of the month.”

“You know the rules. The fifteenth is payday.”

“Please, Tiny.” Tears burn at the back of my eyes. A cold weight presses on my heart.

In the middle of the dirty road, he pushes me down to my knees in the gravel, the stones digging into my skin. His eyes take on a feverish light as he unties the string of his sweatpants and lets them fall to his ankles.

“If you bite again, you’ll walk away with more than a shiner. This time, I’ll break your arm.”

Taking the root of his dick in one hand, he grips my hair in the other and guides my mouth to his cock. Disgust wells in my throat.

He pushes against my lips. “Suck me, white bitch.”

I don’t do anything of the kind. I tune out of the moment and become an empty shell. It’s a routine he knows well. He lets go of his penis to catch my jaw, squeezing painfully on the joints until my mouth opens of its own accord. Then he simply uses me, pumping and shoving until I gag. Tears roll over my cheeks. The saltiness slips into my mouth, mixing with the taste of sweat and filth. Mercifully, like always, Tiny comes fast. Not even a minute later, he ejaculates with a grunt and shoots his load into my mouth. When he pulls out, panting like a pig, I turn my head to the side and spit.

He chuckles. “One of these days, you’re gonna swallow.”

I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “When you’re pretty and your parents are rich.”

“Come on, baby.” He pulls me up by the arm, his dick hanging limp between us. “Give Tiny a kiss. Let Tiny taste himself on that useless mouth of yours, because you sure as fuck don’t know how to suck cock.”

“Let go.” I jerk free and snatch my bag up from where it has fallen on the ground.

His laugh follows me down the road as I run to our flat, hating myself as much as I hate him.

Jerry leans on our door as I come up the stairs. He looks away, avoiding my eyes. He must’ve left Napoli’s shortly after us. That means he slipped past me in the street while Tiny got off in my mouth.

“You’re a scumbag.” I try to push him aside, but he doesn’t budge.

“Val…”

“Did you get a kick out of watching?”

He shoves his hands into his pockets. “I’m sorry.”

“For being a peeping Tom or dragging Charlie to Napoli’s?”

“I couldn’t resist the temptation. A Napoli’s VIP pass doesn’t happen every day.”

“Four hundred thousand rand, Jerry.”

“We’ll sort it. Don’t sweat.”

“Right.” The only way to sort it is to disappear, and we have nowhere to go. “How long has this been going on?”

He scratches his head and has the decency to look guilty. “A few months.”

“You dragged Charlie out there at night, without my permission?”

“Come on, Val.” Jerry braces his shoulder on the door. “I said I’m sorry.”

I knock for Charlie to open. I’m physically and mentally too exhausted to fight now. “Whatever.”

I cook and clean for Jerry to keep an eye on Charlie while I work, and although Jerry is a thief, he’s not physically mean, at least not to Charlie.

After a while, when Charlie doesn’t open, Jerry takes Charlie’s key from his pocket and hands it to me. Puff barks as I unlock the door. He waits with a wagging tail.

“Good night, Jerry.”

“Can I come in?”

“It’s late. I need to study.” I use the excuse even if I know there’s no way I’ll focus on a textbook tonight, but it’s the quickest way to get rid of Jerry. Otherwise, he’ll stay until four in the morning.

“Oh, come on. Just an hour.”

I close and lock the door on his plea, waiting until his shoes shuffle down the landing. I brush my teeth three times before I fix Charlie scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, put him to bed, and settle down on the sleeper couch with Puff.

Sleep doesn’t come. I think of Charlie and the handsome fifteen year-old boy he’d been. He was one of those all-rounders who was good at sports and first in his class. He was my big brother. My hero. Two years younger than Charlie, I was in primary school when he went to high school. He fetched me when the bell went at the end of the day, carried my schoolbag, took my hand, and walked me to ballet practice. We didn’t tell my parents he made a deal with Miss Paula to work in her garden so I could carry on dancing. If they knew, my father would’ve demanded he worked for money to buy necessities, those necessities being booze and cigarettes. Charlie helped me fit the ballet shoes Miss Paula lent me and waited the hour the dance practice lasted before walking me home to fix me a sandwich. He could’ve hung out with his friends, but he didn’t. He took care of me.

If the accident hadn’t happened, if I didn’t want a stupid piece of chocolate cake that night, Charlie would’ve been Charles. My brother would’ve grown into the man he was born to be. Like every night, I weep into my pillow, shedding bitter tears that won’t help one damn bit. Brain damage is irreparable.

* * *

Puff cries at the door, letting me know he needs to go. The sun is up, but it’s barely five. I wait downstairs on the cracked concrete while he does his business against a dead tree and throw a stick for him to fetch a couple of times. Beside himself with joy, he trips over his paws to lay the broken branch at my feet. Puff is always a happy dog. One morning, yelping coming from a garden trashcan alerted me. I pulled out a starved, dirty, flea-ridden puppy. To this day, Puff is scared of trashcans.

He’s not done playing, but I have to call Kris and tell her I won’t make it to work today. I hate leaving her in the lurch, but I’ve got to figure out what to do. Four hundred thousand rand isn’t going away. Maybe I can explain about Charlie’s condition at Napoli’s. Maybe if Jerry backs me up, we stand a chance. Napoli’s is part of the big fish. They make mince of petty criminals like Jerry, but he’s a regular, no less with a VIP pass. They feed on addicts like him. They need his business.

Back inside, Charlie is up. He offers me a smile that breaks my heart, because it’s a smile that hasn’t grown beyond fifteen years. Ruffling his hair, I turn to the kitchenette so he won’t see the tears in my eyes. I call Kris, but her phone goes straight onto voicemail. Perhaps she’s in the shower. I leave a quick message, telling her I won’t be in and that I’ll call back later to explain.

“Are you not going to wo–work?”

“Not today.” I open the cupboards and scan the contents. There isn’t much. Charlie eats like a horse.

“What’s for brea–breakfast?”

I can’t tell him how sorry I am. We can’t have mature discussions about guilt and penance. “How about cookies?” The simple treats that make him happy are all I can offer.

“Cho–chocolate?”

There are flour, powdered milk, one egg, and cocoa. I can concoct something. If I could, I’d give him the world.

I heat the two-plate, portable oven, and let him mix the dough. While the cookies bake, I shower and dress before sending Charlie to do his morning grooming. At the same time the timer on my phone pings for the oven, there’s a text message from Jerry.

Run.

A tremor rattles my bones. I shiver, even if it’s hot inside from the oven. Hurrying to the window, I peer through. A black Mercedes is parked across the road. A woman sits in the front, but with the glare of the sun on the window I can’t make out anything other than her black hair. A man in a suit gets out from the driver seat and another from the back. He holds the door. A third man folds his large frame double to exit, adjusting the sleeves of his jacket as he looks up and down the street before turning his head in the direction of our window.

Gabriel Louw.

My breath catches. I jump back before he sees me. Charlie comes out of the bathroom and starts making his bed like I taught him.

“The coo–cookies.”

They’re burning. I switch off the oven and use a dishcloth to dump the baking tray on a cork plate, trying not to panic.

There’s no backdoor or window. The only way out is through the front. We’re trapped. I lean on the wall, shaking and feeling sick.

Please, don’t let him kill us. Scrap that. Rather let him kill us than torture us.

Everyone from Aucklandpark to Bez Valley knows what The Breaker does to debtors who don’t pay. He has a reputation built on a trail of broken bodies and burnt houses. Puff, always sensing anxiety, licks my ankles.

Footsteps fall on the landing. It’s too late. Fighting instinct flares in me. My need to protect my brother takes over.

I grab Charlie’s hand. “Listen to me.” My voice is urgent, but calm. “Can you be brave?”

“Bra–brave.”

Puff barks once.

The knock on the door startles me, even if I expected it. I can’t move. I should’ve taken Charlie and run last night. No, they would’ve found us. Then it would’ve been worse. You can’t outrun The Breaker.

Another knock falls, harder this time. The sound is hollow on the false wood.

“Stand up straight.” Don’t show your fear, I want to say, but Charlie won’t understand.

No third knock comes.

The door breaks inward, pressed wood splintering with a dry, brittle sound. Three men file through the frame to make my worst nightmare come true. They’re carrying guns. Dark complexions, Portuguese, except for the one in the middle. He’s South African. He moves with a limp, his right leg stiff. Gabriel is even uglier up close. In the daylight, the blue of his eyes look frozen. They hold the warmth of an iceberg as his gaze does a merry-go-round of the room, gauging the situation to the minutest details with a single glance.

He knows we’re unprotected. He knows we’re frightened, and he likes it. He feeds off it. His chest swells, stretching the jacket over his broad shoulders. He taps the gun against his thigh while his free hand closes and opens around empty air.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap.

Those hands. My God, they’re enormous. The skin is dark and rough with strong veins and a light coat of black hair. Those are hands not afraid of getting dirty. They’re hands that can wrap around a neck and crush a windpipe with a squeeze.

I swallow and lift my gaze to his face. He’s no longer taking stock of the room. He’s assessing me. His eyes run over my body as if he’s looking for sins in my soul. It feels as if he cuts me open and lets my secrets pour out. He makes me feel exposed. Vulnerable. His presence is so intense, we’re communicating with the energy alone that vibrates around us. His stare reaches deep inside of me and filters through my private thoughts to see the truth, that his cruel self-assurance stirs both hate and awe. It’s the awe he takes, as if it’s his right to explore my intimate feelings, but he does so probingly, tenderly almost, executing the invasive act with respect.

Then he loses interest. As soon as he’s sucked me dry, I cease to exist. I’m the carpet he wipes his feet on. His expression turns bored as he fixes his attention on Charlie.

Taking back some power, I say, “What do you want?”

His lips twitch. He knows I’m bluffing. “You know why I’m here.”

His voice is deep. The rasp of that dark tone resonates with authority and something more disturbing–sensuality. He speaks evenly, articulating every word. Somehow, the musical quality and controlled volume of his voice make the statement sound ten times more threatening than if he’d shouted it. Under different circumstances I would’ve been enchanted by the rich timbre. All I feel now is fear, and it’s reflected on Charlie’s face. I hate that I can’t take it away for him.

“I’ll only ask you once,” Gabriel says, “and I want a simply yes or no answer.” Tap, tap. Tap, tap. “Do you have my money?”

Spatters of words dribble from Charlie’s lips. “I–I do–don’t li–like them. Not ni–nice me–men.”

The man on the left, the one with the lime green eyes, lifts his gun and aims at Charlie’s feet. It happens too fast. Before I can charge, his finger tightens on the trigger. The silencer dampens the shot. I wait for the damage, blood to color the white of Charlie’s tennis shoe, but instead there’s a wail, and Puff falls over.

Oh, no. Please. No. Dear God. No, no, no.

It has to be a horror movie, but the hole between Puff’s eyes is very real. So is the blood running onto the linoleum. The lifeless body on the floor unfurls a rage in me. He was only a defenseless animal. The unfairness, the cruelty, and my own helplessness are fuel on my shocked senses.

In a fit of blind fury, I storm the man with the gun. “You sorry excuse of a man!”

He ducks, easily grabbing both my wrists in one hand. When he aims the gun at my head, Gabriel says, his beautiful voice vibrating like a tight-pulled guitar string, “Let her go.”

The man obliges, giving me a shove that makes me stumble. The minute I’m free, I go for Gabriel, punching my fists in his stomach and on his chest. The more he stands there and takes my hammering, my assault having no effect on him, the closer I come to tears.

Gabriel lets me carry on, to make a fool of myself, no doubt, but I can’t help it. I go on until my energy is spent, and I have to stop in painful defeat. Going down on my knees, I feel Puff’s tiny chest. His heartbeat is gone. I want to hug him to my body, but Charlie is huddled in the corner, ripping at his hair.

Ignoring the men, I straighten and cup Charlie’s hands, pulling them away from his head. “Remember what I said about being brave?”

“Bra–brave.”

So much hatred for Gabriel and his cronies fills me that my heart is as black as a burnt-out volcano. There’s no space for anything good in there. I know I shouldn’t give in to the darkness of the sensations coursing through my soul, but it’s as if the blackness is an ink stain that bleeds over the edges of a page. I embrace the anger. If I don’t, fear will consume me.

Gabriel gives me a strangely compassionate look. “You owe me an answer.”

“Look around you.” I motion at our flat. “Does it look like we can afford that kind of money? You’re a twisted man for giving a mentally disabled person a loan.”

His eyes narrow and crinkle in the corners. “You have no idea how twisted I’m willing to get.” Gabriel grasps Charlie by the collar of his T-shirt, dragging him closer. “For the record, if you didn’t want your brother to make debt, you should’ve declared him incompetent and revoked his financial signing power.”

“Leave him alone!”

I grab Gabriel’s arm and hang on it with my full weight, but it makes no difference. I’m dangling on him like a piece of washing on a line. He swats me away, sending me flying to the ground, and presses the barrel of his pistol against my brother’s soft temple where a vein pulses with an innocent life not yet lived.

“Va–Val!”

He cocks the safety. “Yes or no?”

“Yes!” Using the wall at my back for support, I scramble to my feet. “I’ll pay it.”

Charlie cries softly. Gabriel looks at me as if he notices nothing else. His eyes pin me to the spot. Under his gaze, I’m a frog splayed and nailed to a board, and he holds the scalpel in his hand.

He doesn’t lower the gun. “Do you know how much?”

“Yes.” My voice doesn’t waver.

“Say it.”

“Four hundred thousand.”

“Where’s the money?”

The ghost of a smile is back on his face. Behind the scarred mask is a man who knows how to hurt people to get what he wants, but for now he’s entertained. The bastard finds the situation amusing.

“I’ll pay it off.”

He tilts his head. “You’ll pay it off.” He makes it sound as if I’m mad.

“With interest.”

“Miss Haynes, I assume.” Despite his declared assumption, he says it like it’s a fact. Everything about him shouts confidence and arrogance. “Tell me your name.”

“You know my name.” Men like him know the names of all the family members before they move in for the kill.

“I want to hear you say it.”

I wet my dry lips. “Valentina.”

He seems to digest the sound like a person would taste wine on his tongue. “How much do you earn, Valentina?”

I refuse to cower. “Sixty thousand.”

He lowers the gun. It’s a game to him now. “Per month?”

“Per year.”

He laughs softly. “What do you do?”

“I’m an assistant.” I don’t offer more. It’s enough that he already knows my name.

He regards me with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. “Nine years.”

It sounds ridiculous, but the quick calculation I do in my head assures me it’s not. That’s almost five thousand per month, including thirty percent interest on the lump sum. I can’t call him unfair. Loan sharks in this neighborhood ask anything between fifty to a hundred and fifty percent interest.

“Nine years if you pay it back with the lowest of interests,” he continues, confirming my calculation.

Of course, I’m not planning on staying a vet assistant forever. It’s only until I qualify as a vet in four more years. By then, I’ll be earning more. “I’ll pay it off faster when I get a better job.”

He closes the two steps between us with an uneven gait. He’s standing so near I can smell the detergent of his shirt and the faint, spicy fragrance of his skin.

“You misunderstood my offer.” His eyes drill into mine. “You’ll work for me for nine years.”

My breath catches. “For you?”

He just looks at me.

“Doing what?” I ask on a whisper.

The intensity in those iced, blue depths sharpens. “Any duty I see fit. Think carefully, Valentina. If you accept, it’ll be a live-in position.”

I know what any duty implies. He’s no different than Tiny. Loathing fills me.

Gabriel regards me as if he’s making a bet with himself. “Either I shoot your brother and you walk away, or he’s free, and you work off his debt.”

“Give me whatever contract I need to sign, and I’ll find my own way to pay you.”

He chuckles. “It’s my terms or none.”

What choice do I have? My knees feel shaky, but it’s hardly the time to be weak.

“I’ll do it.” As I say the words, a ball of ice sinks to my stomach.

For a moment, he looks surprised, but then his expression becomes closed-off. “You have five minutes to pack.”

“I have a condition.”

The amusement is back on his face. He taps the gun on his thigh and waits.

“I want my brother’s safety guaranteed.” If I’m not around, Charlie will need protection. I don’t want a repeat of what got us into this mess.

“Fair enough. He’ll have my protection.”

“I need to call someone to fetch him. He can’t stay alone.”

He takes his phone from his pocket, punches in a code, and pushes it into my hand. “You’ll use mine until we’ve ensured yours isn’t compromised.”

Turning my back on them, I type my only friend’s number. While I’m dialing Kris, the man with the dark eyes searches my purse that hangs over a chair in the kitchen. I watch the men from the corner of my eye, my hand shaking as I wait for Kris to take the call.

“It’s Valentina,” I say when she answers.

Dogs bark in the background. “I didn’t recognize this number. Do you have a new phone? I saw you called earlier, but I haven’t listened to your message yet.”

“Kris, listen to me. I need you to fetch Charlie. Can he stay with you for a while?”

“What happened?”

“Charlie made debt at Napoli’s. I’m with the creditor.”

“What?” she shrieks. “You’re with a loan shark? Where?”

“My place. Things have changed. I’m going to work off Charlie’s debt, but he can’t stay alone.” My cheeks grow hot as I add, “It’s a live-in position.”

“What about your job here?”

“I’m sorry. I know how much you need me.”

It’s always hectic at the clinic, and I feel bad for what I have to do. Kris is one of the best vets I know. She gave me a job when nobody else would, and I hate turning my back on her.

Gabriel checks his watch. “You have three minutes.”

“I have to go. Will you call me when you’ve got Charlie?”

“I’m on my way.”

“Thank you, Kris.” I glance at Puff’s body, forcing down my tears. “You’ll have to–”

Gabriel takes the phone from my hand. “Hello, Kris.” He keeps his piercing gaze trained on me. “The door to Valentina’s flat is broken, but don’t worry. I’ll have it replaced.” He cuts the call. “Two minutes. I suppose you’ll pack light.”

Stress drives me as I shove the few outfits and toiletries I own in our only travel bag. What will become of Charlie? For now, he’s alive. I’m alive. That’s what I need to focus on.

Gabriel’s cronies help themselves to the cookies cooling on the table. Gabriel says nothing. Only his disturbing stare follows me as I move through the room.

I’ve barely zipped up my bag before he says, “Let’s go.”

Adrenalin from the shock makes me strong, strong enough to walk to my brother with confident steps and take his tear-streaked face in my hands.

I go on tiptoes and kiss his forehead. “Remember what I said about being brave. You can do it.” I want to say I’ll call him, but I don’t want to lie. “Wait for Kris. She’ll be here soon.”

Gabriel takes my bag and steers me to the door, stopping in the frame to say to the man who shot Puff, “Stay with her brother until the woman arrives and bury the dog. Have the door fixed before you go.”

The man nods. He’s shorter than Gabriel, but not less muscled.

I look over my shoulder and take in everything I can–Charlie’s haphazard hair, his soft hazel eyes, and the washed-out Spiderman T-shirt–because I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.

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