Diamonds in the Dust, exclusive excerpt – read chapter 1!

A dark mafia romance

Men like us, we see things.
We do things, things that make us unfeeling.

That’s the price of power and money, of living la belle vie and running the French mafia. Then she came along like a pretty wildflower pushing through the cracks on a dirty pavement—fragile yet resilient, a breath of beauty among the filth. She was supposed to be just another job, a nameless person I was to pluck from her life and hand to my brother, nothing but a pawn in the gamble of our diamond business.

There’s a psychological label for men like us.
We lack empathy and guilt.
We do things to have what we want, things that make flowers wilt.

The books in order

Diamonds in the Dust (Book 1)
Diamonds in the Rough (Book 2)
Diamonds are Forever (Book 3)

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Chapter One

Zoe

Johannesburg, South Africa

My gaze is trained on the pavement to keep from stepping in the dog poo that litters the four blocks from the sweatshop to my apartment, but I’m not present in the glorious summer afternoon. My thoughts are where they usually dwell, dreaming up fantastic plans of escaping the hellhole I’m living in. Dreaming makes my existence more bearable. Dreaming is my escape.

Near the flea market, the air is thick and heavy with the smell of carbon from the coal train tracks. Everything underneath the train bridge is gray, covered in layers of soot and smog. I glance at the sky. Up there, the air is blue and clear, pure and unobtainable.

With a sigh, I fall in line at the fresh produce stall, using the waiting time to stretch my sore muscles. My back aches from being bent over a sewing machine all day. In my head, I count how far the coins I have left in my purse will go. The end of the month is always the worst, but on the upside, payday is around the corner. When it’s my turn, I take a banana and two tomatoes.

I drag myself the last two blocks home, weary to the bone. I’m eager to feed my empty stomach and soak in a warm bath. Then I’ll collapse into bed with my new stack of library books.

At my building, I curse under my breath. The door that gives access to the street is ajar. The lock is broken again, and it will take ages before it’s fixed. The landlord doesn’t maintain the building. That’s why the façade is black with years’ worth of grime and the inside walls moldy from permanent damp.

With my gaze trained on the floor so I don’t step on one of the cats always begging for food, I push the door open with a shoulder while balancing my tote in one hand and my shopping bag in the other. The gloomy entrance is quiet, strangely absent from meows and furry bodies rubbing against my legs.

My eyes are still adjusting from the bright daylight to the somber interior. The light switch has been broken for years. I frown, scouting the stairs in the sliver of light that falls in from outside before the door swings shut with a creak and basks the space in semi-darkness. The weak glow from the single bulb on the upstairs landing is the only light preventing the inhabitants from not tripping on the stairs.

I’m about to call for the cats when something crashes into me from behind. My mouth opens on a scream, but no sound escapes as a large hand clamps over my mouth and an arm knocks the wind from my stomach as it wraps around my waist and lifts me off my feet.

The bags in my hands drop to the floor. Fear slams into my chest. In a distant corner of my mind, I notice the tomatoes that roll to the foot of the stairs, and a logical, detached part of me worries about the spoiled food even as I start fighting for my life. I twist and buck. With my arms constrained at my sides, I can only kick. I try to bite, but I can’t force my lips apart. The hold over my mouth is too tight. It feels as if my jaw is about to snap. A button on my blouse pops from my efforts. It drops on the floor with a clink and bounces three, four, five times before it finally surrenders quietly in some corner. A smell of spices and citrus invades my nostrils—a man’s cologne. My senses are heightened. In the life that passes in front of my eyes, everything seems louder and clearer. 

“Shh,” a male voice says against my ear, only making my terror spike.

I want to twist my head to the side to evaluate the threat, but I can’t turn my neck. Two men manifest from the shadows. One has long, blond hair and the other is bald with a beard. They move quickly. The blond one snatches up my bags while the bearded one goes up the stairs. He looks left and right before giving a nod.

At the signal, my captor follows with me. I have to breathe through my nose as he climbs the single flight of stairs to my floor. Like this, the smell of the urine on the stairs and the mold on the walls is stronger. It makes me gag. Or maybe it’s how our bodies are pressed together, and what he has in store for me.

The blond has taken my keys from my bag and has the door to my apartment open by the time we hit the landing. I glance at my neighbor’s door, praying to God Bruce isn’t playing his X-Box with his headphones on, but the sounds of his favorite game hits me before the stranger carries me inside.

Lowering me to the floor, he keeps his hand over my mouth. “My men are going to leave.” His voice is deep and his accent strong. The way he rolls the R makes the dangerous words sound sensual. “I don’t want to hurt you, Zoe, but if you scream, I’ll have to. Understand?”

Dear God. He knows my name. I pinch my eyes shut, my chest heaving with every breath. How does he know my name?

He speaks softly, pressing the words to my ear. “I asked you a question.”

I give a tight nod. What choice do I have?

He removes his hand slowly. “That’s better.”

The minute he releases me, I spin around and back up to the couch. “I don’t have money. I have nothing valuable.”

He smiles. “Do I look like I need to steal money?”

I take him in. His face is square with sharp lines, his nose slightly askew as if it has been broken many times. Thick, black hair is styled with fashionable sideburns. The tone of his skin is warm, but his eyes are cold, their color the gray of an overcast sky. He’s not a handsome man, and the broken skin of his knuckles tells its own story.

Swallowing, I drop my gaze to his body. He’s taller and broader than anyone I’ve seen. His chest and legs fill out every inch of his suit. It’s a gray pinstripe—pure wool, judging by the thread—but it’s the perfect cut that differentiates him. He screams money and power. No, he wouldn’t have broken in for money. The alternative makes me break out in a cold sweat.

He advances on me, his gaze slipping to my chest. “However, you do have something of value I need.”

I look down. My blouse is flaring where the button tore off, exposing my bra. Clutching the ends together, I ask through trembling lips, “What?”

When he nods at the two men, I look over at them. The blond one has a model-pretty face. He’s lean and tall. The one with the beard is stockier with eyes so black the pupils bleed into the irises. Both are dressed in dark suits and carry guns.

The bearded man goes through my tote, unpacking the overall I use for work on the table with my purse and hairbrush. The bag with my banana lies next to it. He picked up my tomatoes, the split skins visible through the transparent plastic. When he finds my phone, he hands it to the man who grabbed me. The man pockets it. Then, like my captor promised, his men leave. The key sounds in the lock. I’m locked in with the stranger.

Fear heats me from the inside, making me feel nauseous. Even my hunger disappears. “What do you want from me?”

The man doesn’t answer. As soon as his accomplices are gone, he turns his attention from me to inspecting my living space. His gaze moves from the ratty couch with the broken springs to the framed photos on the wall and finally to the daisy in the vase on the table. His evaluation is invasive. I know what he sees, but I refuse to be ashamed of my poverty, especially in front of a man with an expensive suit who snatched me off the street. 

He walks to the daisy and touches the stem. “Nice touch.”

“What?”

“The flower.” Meticulously, he strokes every petal. “Where did you get it?”

What the heck does that matter? “From the pavement.”

He gives me a doubtful smile. “You didn’t take it from someone’s garden.”

Despite my fear, my anger blooms. “No, I didn’t steal it. It grows wild.”

He doesn’t react to the silent accusation. He only continues to watch me intently. After a moment, he asks, “A boyfriend didn’t give it to you?”

“No.” Where is he going with his line of questioning? Why doesn’t he tell me what he wants?

“No boyfriend, then.”

“No.” I watch him as he moves to the wall to study the photos, my heart pounding like a pendulum against my ribs.

“Your family?”

“Yes.”

He points at the tallest boy on the yellowed Polaroid picture. “Who’s this?”

“Why do you care?”

He looks back at me with a quiet warning in his eyes. He doesn’t need his foreign-sounding words to instill fear.

“That’s Ian,” I say reluctantly, “my oldest brother.”

“The others?”

“Next to him is Leon, then Damian, and me.”

Leaning closer, he studies the girl with the pigtails and too short dress. “You were cute. How old were you?”

I grip my blouse tighter. “Ten.”

He motions at Mom and Dad. “These are your parents?”

“Late parents.”

“My condolences.”

He picks up the book about Venice from the couch and turns the cover. I don’t want him to touch it. I don’t want this man who stole into my privacy to also invade my dreams. My dreams are mine. They’re private, but I’m helpless from stopping him as his gaze skims over the table of contents and the library stamp before he drops it back onto the couch and opens the book on the coffee table. It’s on loan from the library, too, about the same topic, just like the book next to the bath and the one on my nightstand. When he’s done inspecting that one, he goes to the bookshelf and tilts his head to read the titles. Shelf by shelf, he goes through them.

Losing interest in the books, he makes his way to the kitchen. He stops in the doorframe and assesses the shelf with two chipped glasses and a dented pot, the only inherited items that haven’t yet broken or rusted. His attention moves to the geranium on the windowsill. The sturdy, green plant is my pride and hope. I found it in the trash and managed to save it. Whoever discarded it must’ve thought it was dead, but there was still a tiny bit of green in the stalk. It was dry, neglected, and I felt sorry for it. The fact that it fought and survived to bloom and thrive is a reminder to myself to never to give up.

He looks at the darker square on the lanoline floor where the fridge used to stand. I long since sold it when I couldn’t pay the rent, just like the rest of the furniture and everything else that were worth a few bucks. Without groceries, I don’t need a fridge. A few minutes ago, where tomorrow’s dinner was going to come from was my biggest problem. I never imagined my life could get worse.

Suddenly tired, I hug myself. “Look, just tell me why you’re here and then leave me alone.”

He doesn’t acknowledge me. He’s staring at the food cupboard. Instead of a door, it’s covered with a curtain, which I left open, exposing the almost empty jar of peanut butter and crust of bread.

“I suppose an introduction is in order,” he says when he finally turns back to me. “Since I already know your name, it seems only fair.”

“I don’t want to know your name,” I blurt out. The less I know, the better my chances of survival.

He extends a hand. “Maxime Belshaw.”

My shaking gets worse. This doesn’t look good for me. When I don’t move, he strides over, grips my fingers, and presses his lips to my knuckles. The gesture seems taunting instead of chivalrous, and I yank my hand away from his touch.

“Now that we know each other, Zo, we’re going to have a conversation.”

“Don’t call me that.” Only people who care about me call me Zo.

He raises a brow. “Isn’t that what your friends call you?”

The fact that he knows is disturbing. “Exactly. They’re friends.”

Rather than upset, he appears amused. “Zoe, then. Your older brothers, they left town a long time ago. Am I right?”

“If this is about Ian or Leon, I haven’t heard from them since they left.”

“No.” Reaching out slowly, he drags a thumb along my jaw. “This isn’t about them.”

The gentleness of the touch catches me off guard. I have to bend backward to escape the odd caress because my calves are pressed against the couch.

“This is about Damian,” he says.

When he drops his hand, I straighten, trying to hold his gaze without letting him see the fear in my eyes.

“This is how our talk is going to work,” he says. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, and you’re going to answer them.”

“Never.”

I’m not ratting on Damian. Of all the people in our dysfunctional family, he’s the only one who cares. Damian is only five years older than me, but he single-handedly raised me. He looked out for me when no one else did. He’s suffered enough. He didn’t deserve any of the terrible things that have happened to him.

Maxime looks me over. “You’re tougher than I expected. The poor ones usually break easily.”

My anger makes me forget to be frightened. “Fuck you.”

“Did I hit a nerve?”

“Go to hell,” I hiss.

“Fine. We’ll play it your way.” He takes his phone from his pocket and swipes over the screen.

My heart pumps so furiously I feel every beat in my temples. He rests the phone against the book on the coffee table with the screen turned toward me. A video call connects. The video and audio functions on his side are deactivated. Whoever he’s connecting to can’t see or hear us.

A second later, an image fills the screen. I freeze. A chill runs down my spine. Maxime’s cronies are next door with Bruce, and my neighbor is tied up in a chair.

“Bruce!” I jump for the phone, but Maxime easily grabs me, holding me by my arms. I struggle in his hold, but I’m no match for his strength. “What are you doing to him?”

“Quiet,” Maxime says.

I try to kick him, but he easily restrains me.

“Why are you doing this?” I cry out, fighting to free myself while his fingers dig harder into my flesh.

The bald bastard pulls back his arm and plants his fist in Bruce’s face. The chair topples over, Bruce landing on his back.

“No!” I strain forward, trying to reach the phone, but Maxime holds me tightly.

The guard picks up the chair. Bruce spits blood, his eyes filled with venom as he glares at his assailant. The bastard hits him again, this time with a blow on the jaw that sends his face flying sideways.

“Stop it,” I scream. “Leave him alone.”

Bruce grunts as fists fall on his stomach and ribs. A vicious blow splits his eyebrow open. I can’t watch any more. My legs buckle. Sobbing, I fall to my knees. Maxime’s grip moves to my hair. His fingers fasten in the bun I always wear to work. Pulling my head back, he forces me to meet his eyes.

“Are you ready to have a conversation, now?”

“Please, stop,” I say through my tears. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

He picks up the phone, flicks a finger over the screen, and says, “Give it a break.”

After pocketing the phone, he takes my elbows to help me to my feet. Gently almost, he wipes the tears from my cheeks. “It doesn’t have to be like this. It can be as easy or difficult as you make it.” He pushes me down onto the couch.

Teeth chattering, I scoot into the corner, getting as far away from him as I can.

“Stay there,” he says.

He goes to the kitchen. The pipes creak as he opens the tap. A moment later, he returns with a glass of water, which he pushes into my hand.

“Drink,” he says.

I take a sip on autopilot, even if I’m not thirsty.

He sits down so close to me our bodies touch. “Let’s have that little chat. Are you and Damian close?”

I nod, unable to stop the tears running down my cheeks.

“Shh.” He threads his fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp. A pin comes loose and drops into my lap. “Do you visit him in jail?”

I shake my head.

“Use your voice, Zoe.”

The word comes out on a croak. “No.”

“Good. You’re doing well.” He twists a lock of hair that came free from my bun around his finger. “Why not?”

“He doesn’t want me to visit.”

“Why’s that?”

“He doesn’t want me around the people doing time with him. He says they’re dangerous, and they won’t hesitate to use me against him.”

It’s tough surviving on the inside. Damian doesn’t tell me what happens, but one of my friends dated a warden. The stories she told me gave me nightmares.

“Wise guy.” He takes the glass from me and leaves it on the coffee table. “A prison full of hard, unscrupulous men is definitely not a place for a beautiful, young woman.”

“Damian is innocent.” I look into Maxime’s cool gaze. “He didn’t deserve that sentence. Whatever you think he did, he didn’t do it.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“He told me. I believe him. I know Damian. He didn’t steal that diamond. Someone planted it on him.”

“What kind of contact do you have? Do you call?”

“He says the phones are bugged. I write.”

He lifts a brow. “Letters aren’t monitored?”

“Damian knows the wardens in charge of reading the letters. They’re safe. Besides, I don’t share personal information.”

“What do you write about, then?”

“My job.” I shrug. “Everyday life.”

“You mean your lack of a life.”

My cheeks heat with more helpless anger. “You’re an asshole.”

“If you’re so close, why doesn’t he take care of his little sister?”

I glare at him. “How is he supposed to do that from a jail cell? Besides, I’m capable of taking care of myself.”

He casts a glance around the room. “I’ve noticed.”

“Times are hard for everyone.” Dragging my gaze over his expensive suit, I add, “Well, not everyone. The thugs seem to thrive.”

“Don’t be so defensive, and it’ll be wise to watch your tone with me. Do I need to remind you of the consequences of bad behavior?”

Tears choke me up when I think about Bruce. My answer is bitter. “No.”

“Has Damian mentioned his plans for after his release?”

“He still has six of the ten-year-sentence to go.” My heart hurts when I say it. “What plans can he make?”

“He never told you anything about acquiring a mine?”

“Are you joking? A mine must cost millions.”

“Billions.” Almost absent-mindedly, he rubs the stray strand of my hair between his fingers. “Did Damian tell you about money making schemes he’s running in jail?”

“No.” Unease starts digging into my gut. “Why? What is he involved in?”

He drops my hair. “Nothing. Just checking. Have you met any of his fellow inmates?”

“I told you, he doesn’t want me to.”

“Does the name Zane da Costa ring a bell?”

“He’s Damian’s cellmate, but that’s all I know.”

Getting up, he extends a hand. “I think you’re telling the truth, but I’d like to see his letters.”

I let him pull me to my feet. “There are no letters. Damian never writes back.”

“Why not?”

“The wardens who read the outgoing letters aren’t the same ones in charge of incoming mail. Damian doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t like them to know about my existence.”

“What about photos? You must have some more of your brother.”

I don’t want to give him more information he can use against Damian. I don’t want him to witness our poverty growing up. “Those are private.”

“Zoe.” He cups my cheek. “You need to understand that the only choices you have from now on are the ones I give you. I advise you to make those choices carefully. Don’t waste them, because you’ll have little enough. More importantly, don’t test me. I’m not a patient man.”

Gripping his wrist, I move his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”

His lips curve into a lazy smile. “I have a feeling you’re going to swallow those words.”

“Never,” I say through clenched teeth.

“We’ll see.” He points at the hallway. “Get a move on.”

I hurry away from him as fast as I can, but he follows close on my heel down the short hallway and into the room I once shared with my three brothers. Opening the dresser drawer, I take out the box of old photos and hand them to him. Doing so guts me, because those rare moments of our lives captured on film aren’t meant for his hateful, emotionless eyes.

“Thank you,” he says, accepting the box.

“I’ve given you what you want. Let Bruce go.”

“What’s Bruce to you?” He says the name with disdain.

“A kind neighbor.” My look is accusing. “He’s only ever been watching out for me.”

“There’s nothing romantic between you?”

I cross my arms. “No, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Do I need to remind you of your place?”

I avert my eyes, resenting him for taking my power. “You got what you wanted. Please, go.”

“I’m not here for the photos.” 

Sick with fear, I look back at him. “What more do you want? You said you’d let us go.”

“I never said that.”

I take several steps back until my body hits the wall. “Did you lie? Are you going to kill us?”

“No.”

“What then?” My whole body is shaking. Even the hem of my skirt is trembling.

“First things first. We’re going out for dinner.” His gaze drops to my gaping blouse again. “Make yourself presentable.”

I stare at him. “Dinner?”

“You know,” his tone is dry, “the meal you have between seven and nine.”

“I have to go see Bruce,” I exclaim. “He’s hurt.”

He opens the top drawer of my dresser and starts going through it. “He’ll survive.”

Dashing forward, I grab his arm. “Hey! What are you doing?”

He stops and looks at where I’m touching him.

I loosen my fingers and remove my hand. “That’s mine, and it’s private.”

He sweeps aside my underwear and socks and checks underneath my sweater. He does the same with every drawer, and then pulls away the curtain to check inside the closet.

Without another word, he walks from the room and goes through the broom closet in the hallway before searching the closet in my late parents’ room.

Satisfied that there’s nothing of interest, he pulls out his phone. “We’re leaving in five. This is one of those precious choices I’m allowing you, Zoe. You can either fix your clothes, or we go as you are.”

“If I go with you, will you let Bruce go?”

“You’re not in a position to bargain. You are coming with me, but don’t worry about your neighbor. My business isn’t with him.”

Lifting the phone to his ear, he asks for a table for two while making his way back to the lounge. My chest is tight and my breathing shallow. Who is this arrogant man? What does he want? Is Damian in trouble? Is Bruce all right?

My tears are useless, but they flow anyway. Slipping into the bathroom, I lock the door. The window is too small to climb through. There’s no backdoor. I’m trapped in my apartment with a dangerous man, a foreigner with cruel eyes and unknown intentions, but Bruce is even worse off.

I stare at my face in the mirror. I’m a mess. My mascara is smeared under my eyes. The neat bun of this morning is partly undone, my hair wild. I open the tap and rinse my face, washing away the mascara. The pins drop to the floor as I undo my hair with shaky fingers. I don’t bother to pick them up. My brush is on the table in the lounge, and I’m not going there because he is there. Using my fingers, I comb through my hair to tame the tangles. Both my spare blouses are in the wash. I get a safety pin from the box with my needles and thread and pin the edges of the blouse together as best as I can. It takes longer than what it should because of how much I’m shaking. By the time I’m done, a knock falls on the door.

“Open the door, Zoe.”

For a fleeting moment, I consider not complying, but I can imagine how that will go. It won’t take much to kick down the door, and Bruce will suffer again because of my resistance. With my heart in my throat, I turn the key, but I don’t push down the handle. My brain refuses to obey the command. It takes me a moment to search for the courage, but before I find it, Maxime opens the door.

“Let’s go.” He takes my arm and leads me to the lounge.

The blond man must’ve been standing just outside, because Maxime only has to knock once before the door is unlocked. When Maxime drags me through it, I know my life as I knew it has ended.

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Check out the first book in the Diamond Magnate collection, Beauty in the Broken, a standalone dark romance novel.

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Beauty in the Broken Exclusive Preview

Beauty in the Broken (A Dark Revenge Romance)

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.

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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Want to know more about the next Diamond Magnate novel releasing on 19 May 2020? Read Chapter One of Diamonds in the Dust.

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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.)

What readers say…
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“WOW!! This book is insanely crazy and I could not put it down!”
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“This was super freaking addicting!”
“Oh. My. God.”
“I have no words at all for this book…and that’s considered a good thing.”
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“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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Exclusive preview, Old Enough

Coming on 17 July!

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.)

Exclusive Excerpt:

Prologue

One month earlier, lunch hour

Jane

Damn this Pretoria Brooklyn traffic. I should’ve made a reservation in Menlyn, but no other restaurant comes close to Kream in terms of cuisine. The maître d’hôtel knows me thanks to the three-digit sums Orion Advertising spends on company lunches. He’ll hold our table, but punctuality is Francois’ pet peeve.

It’s only spring, but a freak heatwave makes the car’s interior stifling hot. The full effect of the air-con hasn’t kicked in. A trickle of sweat runs from my armpit down my side under my dress. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel, counting the traffic lights as I pass the stately embassy residencies. Six left to go. Francois will let ten minutes slide, but not fifteen. I hoped I wouldn’t have to call, because he’s going to sound irritated, which makes me nervous, and our date will be tense even before it starts. Filling my lungs with positive vibes, I dial Francois on voice commands, but his phone goes straight to voicemail. I leave a quick message, apologizing about the traffic. For the next ten minutes my stomach is in a knot, until I pull into the parking, right next to his Porsche. I don’t relax until I’m inside and spot him in the booth at the back.

When my husband looks up, my heart sinks. His face is perfectly expressionless, which is worse than irritated. He’s angry. As the waiter pulls out my seat, Francois flicks back his sleeve and checks his watch.

“Sorry.” I sit down and offer the waiter a smile before he leaves. “The traffic was terrible. I left a message.” I reach over the table to take his hand. “Did you get it?”

He doesn’t pull away, but he doesn’t close his fingers around mine like he usually does.

“I have to be back in the office at two,” he says.

“I know.” He’s in the middle of a big architectural project. “We’ll eat quickly.” Letting go of his hand, I take the gift box from my bag and put it on his plate. “Happy anniversary.”

He stares at it, eyes cast down, and frames his head between his hands while running circles over his temples with his thumbs. Several seconds pass. Disappointment dampens my mood. I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into the gift. Giving a man who has everything something meaningful isn’t easy. We may not be the most passionate couple, but we have a solid, good relationship based on genuine friendship. Twelve years say something. It says we’re making this marriage work and it deserves to be celebrated. Francois can be awkward and unresponsive when he’s annoyed, but the way he leans back, opens his jacket, and wiggles loose his tie, confuses me. It’s as if it’s too hot in here when the air-conditioner gives me goosebumps on my arms.

I motion at the gift and say with renewed enthusiasm, “Open it.”

With a firm motion, he puts the box aside and leans his elbows on the table, looking at me intently, but still he doesn’t speak.

“Are we playing a silent game,” I touch my shoe to his under the table, “or are you going to say something?”

Tapping his fingers together, he doesn’t break our stare. He continues to delve deep into my eyes for four more heartbeats, and then he says, “I’m leaving you.”

The words come out of nowhere and everywhere. They’re wrong, because he’d never do that to me. He’d never leave me. He promised. Our start wasn’t easy, but I’ve tried my damnedest to be the good wife for him, the wife he wanted. We have Abby. He won’t do this to his daughter.

“I wanted to tell you before,” he says, “but the right opportunity was never there.”

Lowering my voice, I motion at the full restaurant. “This is?”

A shutter drops in his regard, and his demeanor turns distant, inaccessible. “I thought it best to move as soon as possible. I don’t want a drawn-out drama.”

I can’t process what’s happening. There were no warning signs, except for his recent withdrawal, but he always pulls into himself when work gets stressful.

“I’ll be out by tomorrow,” he continues.

“Why?” My question has nothing to do with him moving out tomorrow.

He doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “Debbie.”

I only know one Debbie. “From your office?”

“She resigned.” He adds, “Obviously.”

As if that’s a consolation. “How did this happen?”

“We fell in love.”

Tears prick at the back of my eyes, but I blink them away, not wanting witnesses for my pain and humiliation. “How long?”

He gets that closed-off look again. “It’s not important.”

“The hell it is.”

“Jane.” His tone is chastising. “Your language, please.”

“Can we talk about this at home?”

“There’s no point. My mind’s made up.”

“Yes, there is a point. There are things to be said, explained. If you’re so certain of your decision as you say you are–”

“Jane, stop. It’s hard enough as it is. There’s nothing else to say.”

My heart feels as if it’s going through a blender. Rejection and betrayal are the rotating blades in my chest. A masochistic part of me argues that I deserve this for not loving Francois like he loved me when we started out, but our beginning was anything but normal. No one, least of all Francois, can judge me.

It’s hard to keep my voice even and not give in to the hysterics that hover beyond the threadbare limit of my self-control. “You owe me this at least.”

His answer is not to answer.

“You’ll break your promise, walk out on me, and deny me closure?”

Still no answer. Suddenly, I know why he chose the restaurant over the privacy of our home. In public, he doesn’t have to deal with the breakdown I feel coming.

Pushing back my chair, I get to my feet. “Excuse me, but I don’t have an appetite.”

Relief washes over his features. “I understand. Maybe you should take the rest of the day off, and we’ll discuss the logistics tonight when Abby’s in bed.”

No. I fought for this career, which happened late in my life. I’m not calling in with a family emergency to hide at home with red-rimmed eyes and a hole in my ribcage. If I ever needed to throw myself into work, it’s now.

“You take the rest of the day off.” I push the gift back to him. “It’s a fruitcake with marzipan.” Francois’ favorite. It took hours to make the tiny Rubik’s Cube–Francois’ only weakness–that decorates the miniature cake. The Rubik’s Cube is how we met. It’s a perfect replica of our wedding cake. “Give it to one of the beggars outside.”

With as much pride as a rejected woman can possess, I turn my back on the man who’s given up on us. Every step I trace back to my car cracks and breaks under my feet, my world falling away.

How did this happen?

I don’t know, and I do. It happened twelve years ago, with the tragedy that set the course of my life.

I just can’t face it, yet.

Couldn’t then. Can’t now.

* * *

Brian

It’s lunch hour. The restaurant is full. Golden globes serve as lampshades. The white tablecloths look heavy and rigid, like they’ve been starched to the tables in forty-five degree angles. A pianist plays an unrecognizable tune on a grand piano, the notes subtle enough to provide background music without hampering conversation. The dining room is surprisingly quiet. The hushed conversations are as inhibited as the soft clink of the silver cutlery.

Depressing.

Men in fancy suits and women wearing expensive dresses sip mineral water or wine, their gazes stealing over me as my work boots thud on the shiny floor. The room and everyone in it feel fake. I should leave. I don’t have time to piss, never mind to waste in a place I already know I’m going to hate. Instead of swinging back for the door, I press forward. This is the least I owe Mike for securing the job for me. I’m not going to kick him in the teeth after he’d put his ass on the line to hire me. The headwaiter’s eyebrows pull together at the trail of caked mud I leave behind. They seem a lot like crumbs, in case I have to find my way back to who I am, which is not what’s inside here.

I take a seat at the bar from where I have a view of the room so I can spot Mike when he arrives. A couple of blondes are staring openly. They’re either twins or not far apart in age. When I boldly return the stare, both turn red and giggle. I’m not interested, but I’m not a circus attraction or fuck-toy to be gawked at. The woman across the table from them with the same wheat-colored hair, who I assume to be their mother, turns slightly in her seat, her eyes measuring me with cool hostility as she takes in my attire. Her gaze lingers on my hands, and then she looks away, leaning over the table and whispering to the girls. They lower their heads, but the giggling continues. I stare at my fingernails, black from grime that no scrubbing can erase, and shrug inwardly. Screw her.

The barman places a coaster in front of me. “What will it be, sir?”

He’s dressed in a stiff white shirt and black waistcoat. Poor fellow must be feeling like he’s in a straitjacket.

“Coke, please.”

From my vantage point, I observe the floor. What’s it like to be one of them, to order a meal without looking at the price? What’s it like to say, “Hey, let’s have lunch on Friday at Oscars,” like it’s grabbing a quarter pounder at McDo? Rubbing a hand over the stubble on my chin, I feel my troubles bone-deep. Fifteen grand deep, to be exact. Fifteen grand or Sam doesn’t go to a decent school. She’s my kid sister, and I’m all she’s got, which is why I’m busting my balls slapping bricks at the building site instead of taking notes in my Consumer Behavior class.

I check my watch. Mike’s late. Staring out the window, I look beyond the sculpture of the applauding hands to the State Theater doors. I’ll give it another ten minutes before I pay the outrageous price for the Coke and be gone.

A suave male voice speaks up on my right. “I bet you’re the kind of guy who makes panties drop with the flick of your fingers.”

I turn toward my neighbor. He’s lean, regal, and tall. He wears a dark suit and white shirt with a silk scarf. His black hair is combed back, not a strand out of place. On his left hand, he sports a golden ring with a square onyx stone. If it weren’t oversized, it would’ve seemed old-fashioned, like my grandfather’s wedding ring. His nails are trimmed and clean, his hands soft and white.

He plays with the stem of his wineglass as he studies me. “That one over there, for instance.” He motions at a brunette who I judge to be in her thirties. “I bet you can have her bent over the vanity in the toilet and fucked in less than ten minutes.”

The bartender puts my drink down in front of me. I mumble a thank-you and take a sip.

“That one,” the guy points a finger not so discreetly at a woman in the corner who meets my eyes squarely and gives me a broad smile, “will be on her knees under the table in under ten seconds.”

I scoff at that. “I think you underestimate women.”

“I know a sex magnet when I see one.”

“Thanks, but I’m straight.”

He chuckles. “I’m not hitting on you.”

“Then what are you doing?”

Sussing you out.”

“For what?”

“A job.”

I always need a job, but something about this guy makes my sixth sense stand on end. “I’m not looking.”

“No?” He runs a gaze over my faded cotton shirt, torn jeans, and have-seen-better-days boots. “Are you sure?”

The asshole has me. Half of the time, I feel as if I have poor carved on my forehead, and the other half I feel like I’m naked, like everyone can see into my soul.

He faces forward and brings his glass to his lips. “Ten grand,” he says over the rim.

“Excuse me?”

“Ten easy grand to seduce a woman.”

He looks back at me without as much as a blink. The guy’s serious.

“You’re offering me money to seduce a woman?”

“That’s what I said. I’ll need proof. A photo.”

“Whoa.”

I push back my barstool, but his hand on my arm stops me with a surprisingly strong grip.

“Hear me out,” he says.

“No thanks.”

“Ask me why.”

I shake off his touch and fish for a bill in my pocket.

“Drinks are on me.” He flicks his fingers at the barman. “Put it on my tab.” Then he turns back to me. “Go on. Ask me why.”

Fine. I’ll play his game. I’ve got time to kill, anyway. “Why?”

“She was engaged to my friend. Had an affair not even a week before the wedding.”

Classic case of cold feet. Nothing I haven’t heard before. “Your friend caught them red-handed, and it broke his gentle heart.”

He chucks back the rest of his wine. “Then he killed himself.”

Fuck. That’s heavy. Feeling like a jerk about my mocking remark, I utter a sorry-assed apology.

“It’s not like he put a gun to his head,” the guy says, giving a soft laugh. “He took off on his bike and crashed it on the highway.”

There’s nothing I can say to that, so I sip my soda, letting the guy get his friend and the cheating fiancée off his chest.

“Now you know,” he continues, “why I want revenge.”

“What are you going to do with the photo?”

“Nothing. I just need proof.”

“This will make you feel better?”

He looks at me again. “A whole lot.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I want her to fall off the high and mighty throne she managed to mount through the years. I want her to remember who she truly is and that the fake life she created for herself is nothing but a fairy tale. I want her to remember she’s a whore.”

“You want me to make a woman feel like a whore,” I say with disbelief.

“As long as you fuck her, I don’t care what you make her feel.”

“I don’t want to preach, but–”

“So don’t.” He takes a photo from his pocket and pushes it toward me.

Despite my intention not to get further involved in whatever crazy fuck this dandy has going on, my gaze is drawn down to the piece of paper lying on the counter between us. The woman in the picture is looking away from the camera, like she’s not aware of the photo being taken. Her gaze is proud. It’s fixed on the horizon, and I have an overwhelming urge to know what she’s staring at so intently. Her short, blonde hair is the color of moonlight. It’s styled in waves around her face, accenting her good bone structure. Pale, glossy lipstick makes her full lips look lush. Between those lips and gray-blue eyes, I can’t decide which her best feature is. Whatever the case, she’s a looker. She’s also a lady. I can tell from the fancy, fudge-pink dress with the matching jacket and nude-colored shoes, but most of all from the way she carries herself. She seems self-assured, wealthy, and cultured. Way out of my league.

“She’s pretty. I’m sure you won’t battle finding a gigolo to take up your offer.” My stomach churns at the thought.

He pockets the photo. “Ten grand.”

Fuck. Ten grand is half of my problems gone, and two thirds of Sam’s school year covered. Still… “Nah.”

“A little bird told me she’ll soon be single, so it’s not like you’re risking breaking up a marriage.”

I want to remain indifferent, but that changed the minute I laid eyes on her. I’m curious with an interest that goes deeper than what it should. I won’t admit it, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel it in my gut.

“How long ago?”

“That my friend died?” He blotches his brow with the paper napkin. “Twelve years.”

“Why now?”

“She’s getting divorced.”

I want to ask if it’s because of his consideration for her marriage that he didn’t act on his plan before, but he speaks before I can utter the question.

“Go check her out before you make up your mind.”

The idea of stalking a woman–this woman–makes my insides crawl, but this guy won’t give up. This isn’t a plan he concocted today. It’s obvious he’s been walking around with the fantasy in his head for years. It’s taken root and grown in his soul. That’s what revenge does. A man can’t unearth it like a weed. It seeps into your heart until your blood is as black as your intentions. I want no part of his revenge.

As I open my mouth to tell him so, he says, “Name your price.”

I laugh. How easy everything seems for people with money. “Fifty.”

I throw the word at him, meaning to end this game with the ridiculous sum, but he regards me with the same, unblinking stare from earlier.

“Done.” Reaching inside his pocket, he takes out a business card, flips it over, and slides it my way. “Write down your name and email.”

This time, my laugh is forced. “I agreed to nothing.”

“Understood.”

His easy admittance catches me off guard.

He takes back the card, produces a pen from his inside jacket pocket, and scribbles something on the back before slipping it into my shirt pocket. “Her name and address. Go check her out and decide if she’s worth a fuck for fifty grand. When you send me a photo of the two of you naked doing the deed–and I want a clear shot of her face and the action–I’ll transfer the money. Don’t even bother with Photoshop. I’ll know.” He puts the pen on my napkin. “Name and email address. That’s all I need.”

It’s not a deal, not until I’ve decided, or so I tell myself as I pick up the pen and start writing.

“Good,” he says when I’m done, pocketing the napkin with my details. He holds out his hand.

After a second’s hesitation, I accept, returning his firm shake.

“It’s a deal.”

His smile is polished and toothy, reminding me of a crocodile, but there’s something melancholic about him, a presence of sadness that haloes his aura like a crown of thorns. I’m still gripping his hand when he gets to his feet.

He studies my face. “How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

His smile is knowing. “How many months before you turn twenty?”

The man is no fool. “Eight.”

“Perfect. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.”

He lets go first, leaving me sitting there with an outstretched hand and a business card burning in my pocket. My gaze follows him out of the restaurant to the street where a car waits. The chauffeur gets out and opens the door. A few pedestrians pass, obscuring my view, and then the car takes off, and he’s gone.

Did this just happen? Did a man in a black suit just offer me fifty grand to seduce his dead friend’s cheating fiancée? Taking the card from my pocket, I stare at the embossed print on the white paper. It’s an email address. Nothing more.

I don’t have to do it. Just because I said I’d check it out and shook hands on the deal doesn’t mean I’m committed. Then again, I’ve done worse. I’m not going to pretend to be a good man.

Mike walks up to me, his smile easy. “Hey, mate.” He slaps me on the back and takes a seat. “Sorry I’m late. Got held up by one of the ever-complaining contractors. How’s things?”

“It’s a strange world, Mike.”

“You’re in a philosophical mood.”

“Just saying that everything happens for a reason.”

I do believe in karma. I believe what you think is what you get. Haven’t I been thinking ten grand when I walked in here?

He motions at the card in my hands. “A girl gave you her number? Already?” He gives me a mixed look of admiration and envy. “I can’t leave you alone for ten minutes, and this is what happens.”

“It’s nothing.”

I don’t sound convincing, least of all to myself.

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