Authors: Lisa Cardiff
Vargas Cartel Series, Book 2
Copyright © 2015 by Lisa Cardiff. All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: June 2015
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
To my Dad. I miss you every day.
Table of Contents
“Hattie, baby.” Evan’s arms circled my waist. “You’re safe.”
“I’m safe,” I answered weakly, my hands hooking like talons into the hem of my dress. The idea of reciprocating his embrace twisted my stomach into knots. I didn’t feel safe. I felt alone, adrift. Ryker had severed every last rope tethering me to reality.
Evan’s fingers tangled in my hair and he lifted my face, forcing me to look him in the eye. Guilt heated my cheeks like a scarlet letter. Shuttering my thoughts, I grudgingly held his soul-searching gaze. One of his hands trailed down the side of my face, along my jaw, and pausing over the mark Ryker left on my neck last night.
A mixture of guilt, shame, and anger pumped through my veins. I bit the inside of my cheek and inhaled through my nose, pushing away the kaleidoscope of emotions. “I don’t know. I’ve been drugged, tied to a chair, choked, cut by a knife, shot at, locked in a room, and that’s just naming a few of the things that happened over the last few weeks. Do you plan to inventory all my injuries on the side of the highway, or can it wait?”
He withdrew his hands and backtracked a few steps. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just glad I have you back. The rest will sort itself out.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Can you get my suitcase out of the trunk?”
“Sure.” He grabbed my small, blue hard-shelled bag and transferred it to his car.
“What are we going to do with that car?”
“Leave it on the side of the road.”
He opened the back door of the car, and I slipped into the seat, pressing my body as snugly as possible to the opposing door.
“Hattie, I missed you,” he said after ten minutes of painful silence.
He draped his arm over my shoulder and his leg pressed against the length of mine. We’d sat like this at least a hundred times in the past as some faceless driver chauffeured us to and from an event for his father or some charity function. This time, however, our proximity felt stilted and uncomfortable. Evan felt it too. His body was stiff against mine, and lines bracketed his thinned lips.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you. What happened to me wasn’t your fault.”
He didn’t abduct me. He didn’t reject me. He didn’t kick me out of his life and tell me to be with someone else. Ryker did. Yet somehow, I couldn’t summon any hatred. He sent me away because he cared about me. It was the only ending possible, but the knowledge didn’t stop my heart from dying a little with every growing mile between Ryker and me.
“You can lash out at me. I can take it. Whatever you need me to be, I’ll do it.”
He squeezed my hand. “If you need someone to be your punching bag, then I’m your man.”
Sobs split through my lips, and hot tears burned like lava down my cheeks. My chest felt hollow. My head throbbed. I couldn’t take this. Any of it. I didn’t want Evan to be nice to me. He should hate me. I hated myself. He would hate me too if he found out what I did with Ryker.
“Shh,” Evan whispered, pulling my head against his shoulder. “Don’t cry. Remember what I said when you called me?”
“About wanting to be together again?”
“Yes.” He stroked the back of my head. “I don’t care what happened in the past, and by the past, I mean everything before we got in this car together.”
I lifted my head from his shoulder. “But—”
He pressed two fingers to my lips, interrupting me. “I love you, Hattie, and I think you still love me. That’s all I care about. The rest of it doesn’t matter.” He slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a black velvet box.
My stomach flipped. “No, Evan. I can’t do this. Not right now.” I blinked, barely able to see through the haze of tears.
“Just listen.” Evan slid the ring on my finger, and I covered my face, refusing to look at him or the ring. “Here’s what I’m proposing with this ring.” I shook my head. “Hattie, please open your eyes.”
I sucked in a jagged breath and pried my eyes open. “Yes.”
“I hurt you. You need more time to get over what I did and what happened over the last few weeks.”
“I do.” I wiped the tears from my face.
“That’s fine, but in the meantime, I want you to wear this ring, and I want to announce our engagement.”
He slanted forward and leaned his forehead against mine. “Because I want everyone to know I’m standing by you through this, and so is my family.”
“I don’t care what other people think,” I protested halfheartedly.
“I do. I want people to see you as a survivor, not a victim.”
“What does this ring have to do with that?”
He scraped his chapped lips across mine, and I jerked my head back. I couldn’t be intimate with him. Not yet. Maybe never. This was so confusing.
“I need everyone, including you, to know I support you and love you no matter what.”
“Evan, I don’t want to rush into anything.”
He threaded his fingers through mine and lifted my hand to his lips, kissing the inside of my wrist. “We’re not rushing into anything. From the first moment I saw you, I knew I wanted to marry you. This ring symbolizes us taking control of our lives and doing what we should’ve done right after we graduated from college. We’re reclaiming our future…together.”
I wished it were that simple. I wanted it to be that simple. Evan offered me a way to push forward and recapture everything I’d lost. Ryker’s words floated through my mind.
“You’re going to meet Evan where Highway 307 intersects with the road leaving the villa. Then, you’re going to forget about me, about what happened between us, and you’re going to give Evan his second chance.”
I glanced out the window, staring sightlessly at the miles and miles of white sand and turquoise water. Evan didn’t push. He didn’t argue his case more than he had, but he didn’t need to. Ryker had done it for him.
“Okay.” A dull pain clawed up the walls of my chest and nausea churned in my gut. I agreed to give Evan a second chance. So what if the second chance included a marriage proposal. I had already lost Ryker—the only man I’d ever craved more than my next breath. He had burrowed under my skin and infiltrated my mind and heart. Did it matter who I spent my life with if it couldn’t be him?
A smile split Evan’s face. The old me would’ve drunk in the perfect symmetry of his face and smiled in response. The new me was dead inside, and working my lips into something resembling a smile seemed like too much effort. Would I ever shed the emptiness clinging to me like a shroud?
“Is that a yes?”
My throat constricted until I could barely suck in a breath, but I forced out my answer. “Yes.”
He leaned in to kiss me, and I turned my head to the side instead. This moment marked the beginning of the rest of my life. Less than a week ago, I didn’t know if I’d have a future. I should’ve been happy. Overjoyed. Why did everything still feel so bleak? Pointless?
Two weeks later…
My fingers tapping my thigh, I glared at the white stick taunting me from the marble countertop one foot in front of me.
My heart battered my ribcage from a combination of too much adrenaline and too much fear.
How long did this take again?
I scoured the instructions for the fifth time in as many minutes. Two more minutes, and then I’d know whether my stupidity in Mexico gave me the one thing I couldn’t explain away with silence or more lies: a baby.
I watched the clock on my phone, waiting for the additional one hundred and twenty seconds that crawled like one hundred and twenty hours to expire. When the clock moved from 7:32 to 7:34 a.m., I closed my eyes, bracing for the result.
Whatever happened when I opened my eyes, I’d deal with it. I didn’t have to make a decision right away. I had time. I had choices. I had resources. I blew out an exaggerated breath and pried my eyes open one at a time. With shaking hands, I lifted the white stick.
I wasn’t pregnant.
I settled onto the white tiled floor, my back pressed into the door still clutching the stick. Mindless tears tracked down my face, and for the first time since I got home, I felt like I could breathe. Really breathe.
I shoved my fist into my mouth to stifle the sobs gaining momentum second by second. Always conflicted. Relief warred with utter misery. I would’ve died a thousand soul-plundering deaths if I saw two lines, but one line eliminated the last connection I had with
I couldn’t say his name. Ever. I couldn’t even think it. I’d tailspin into a chasm of melancholy before the second syllable of his name exited my mouth.
I was so fucked up. I wanted him. I hated him. Even nameless and unspoken, he infiltrated my body like a parasite, weaving his way into my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
The way he smelled.
The way his velvety voice sent tremors down my spine.
The way it felt as he slid inside of me.
Pain cleaved through my chest as I strangled in the prison of my self-pity. This was harder than I’d thought. If I’d known returning to my real life was going to be so hard, I would’ve refused to leave the Vargas Cartel compound.
“Hattie,” Evan hollered as he knocked on the bathroom door.
I held my breath, not making a sound, not moving an inch.
Leave me alone.
“Hattie?” He yelled my name like a curse. Maybe I was cursed. I felt doomed. Doomed to a life of tragedy.
I rubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands. “Yes.”
“Are you okay?”
I wished everyone would stop asking me that question. They wanted me to say yes. They expected me to say yes, but part of me wanted to tell the truth. I’d never be okay. I stopped being okay the minute I walked into that bar in Mexico…maybe before that.
“I’m fine,” I answered instead. Nobody wanted the truth. The truth was ugly. I was lost. The Hattie I knew a couple of months ago had disappeared. No matter how many times I tried to pull my life together, I couldn’t. Too many pieces of the puzzle were missing.
His feet shifted on the hardwood floors outside the door and the floor creaked.
“I made breakfast.” I didn’t respond. “Yogurt with chia seeds and fruit.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks,” I said, wiping my nose with a tissue. I couldn’t believe he knew what I liked for breakfast. We had lived together for two years, and he hadn’t acknowledged my preference once.
The door handle rattled. “Will you unlock the door? You’re scaring me.”
My gaze dropped to the stick in my hand.
. I surged to my feet and tossed the stick along with the folded directions back into the box. I rolled it inside a towel and hid it in the cabinet under the sink.
If Evan found it, I would have a lot of explaining to do. I hadn’t let him so much as kiss me on the lips since I moved back into his apartment the day after we flew back from Mexico. He slept on the pull out sofa bed every night, and I slept in the bedroom. He’d know the pregnancy test didn’t have anything to do with him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled as I cracked the door a few inches. Evan was fully dressed, his sandy brown hair perfectly gelled, and his jaw shaved with military precision.
The faint smile on his face evaporated. “Have you been crying?”
I glanced at the floor and rubbed my temples with my fingertips. My head throbbed from a combination of sleepless nights and nonstop bickering with Evan. “No. Not really.”
“Hattie,” Evan cautioned, closing his hands around my upper arms. I jerked away before I could stop my reaction. I didn’t want his hands on me. I never wanted his hands on me.
“I’m fine. Okay. Stop looking at me like I’m going to break.”
He raked his hands through his hair, and his eyebrows knitted in confusion. Then, he shook his head, and his face hardened into a cold mask. “Jesus, Hattie. This is getting old. You flinch if I touch you. You still won’t let me sleep in the bed with you. You turn to the side when I try to kiss you. You treat me like a stranger. What the hell? How long are we going to play this game?”
I slipped by him and walked to the kitchen. “What game?” I asked without glancing over my shoulder.
“You won’t tell me anything about what happened, which is fine. I get it. You’re still not ready to trust me, but you haven’t told your therapist anything either.”
I spun on my heel, my hair whipping the side of my face. Fear and anger skittered down my spine. “How the hell would you know what I tell my therapist?”
He held out his hands in front of him in mock surrender. “I don’t. She hasn’t told me anything except that you haven’t opened up to her. That you’ve spent every session feeding her a bunch of uninformative answers.”
“There’s nothing to tell.” My hands shaking, I lifted the coffee carafe and poured the dark liquid into a mug. “You know what happened. I was abducted, and now I’m home. That’s it. Sitting in a room, dissecting every detail with a stranger won’t miraculously heal me.”
He slapped his hand against the countertop, rattling my coffee mug. “Dammit, Hattie. If you didn’t have anything to tell, you wouldn’t be acting like this.”
I focused on the television streaming the morning news across the room. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t take this anymore. Every morning and every night we had the same conversation. It was an endless loop, replaying over and over. “It’s only been two weeks. Can’t you give me time to process everything that’s happened? When I’m ready, I’ll talk. I promise.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and then whispered, “I’m trying. I really am. Don’t give up yet.”
He leaned his hips against the kitchen counter and sighed. “Okay. You’re right. I won’t push you. I promised we’d work through this together and we will.”
I lifted my cup of coffee to my lips, letting the steam curl around my face. “I’m sorry. I wish I could offer you more.” The last two weeks had passed in a blur of nothingness. Holed up in our small two-bedroom townhome, I went through the motions of living, but I felt detached from everything and everyone. Nothing seemed real anymore. I floated through life like a zombie…lifeless, brainless, and indifferent.
“I asked for a second chance. You moved back in. You’re wearing the ring.” He knitted his fingers through mine, lifting my hand, displaying the engagement ring he gave me two weeks ago. “But you can’t be mad at me for wanting more.”
“More?” My mind raced with the implications of his request. Could I give him more? I wanted to move on with my life, but was Evan the answer? I didn’t know. The thought of being intimate with him repulsed me.
He swiveled around and pinned me against the countertop. “Yes. I want my girlfriend back. I want the woman I’ve loved for the last four years back. I want to hold you. I want to kiss you. I want to laugh with you. I want to make you happy again. Is that so bad?”
I swallowed over the lump lodged in my throat. “I wish I could be her again, but I’m not sure it’s possible.”
“Anything’s possible.” He rubbed his hands up and down my arms. “But you have to get up every day and try.”
He was right. I barely left the house anymore. I went to the therapist twice a week. I ate dinner at my parents’ house every Sunday. That’s it. I took a leave of absence from school, and instead of graduating next month, I’d put it off indefinitely. Vera had been blowing up my phone every day since I stepped foot off the plane with Evan. I never answered her calls, but I did send her a text every day or two. I couldn’t face her yet. She’d want answers. Answers I wasn’t ready to give. Answers I might never be ready to give.
He leaned forward, his lips only inches from mine. My mind pleaded with me to push him away. Instead, I squeezed my eyes shut and forced my muscles to melt into him. I needed to let go of the past and move forward. That meant exploring if there was anything left between Evan and me. His lips brushed across mine. I balled my hands into fists.
I can do this.
I can do this.
I tilted my head to the side and parted my lips, pushing my limits, moving outside of my comfort zone. He tasted like coffee and toothpaste all mixed together. His tongue moved against mine, testing my willingness.
It’s not bad.
I’m not hurting anyone.
I’m not cheating.
Slowly, I uncurled my fists, breathing through my nose. My eyes popped open, and I studied his face. His eyes were closed. He looked relaxed…peaceful even. I counted to ten in my head.
Eight, nine, ten
…and that was all I could manage for today.
I turned my head to the side, breaking the kiss. “Stop.”
He backpedaled a few micro-steps and nodded. I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth, and he flinched as though I hit him.
“I’m sorry,” I said for at least the hundredth time in the last week. “I just…” My voice faded to silence, and I shook my head from side to side almost imperceptibly. “I don’t know.” How could I explain why I stopped kissing him? Why didn’t I want to kiss him? Sleep with him? I couldn’t, unless I revealed the whole sordid story of my abduction and how I still wanted
, the man who abducted me.
“No, it’s okay.” He smiled, his eyes dancing with mischief, and if I weren’t completely miserable and disgusted with myself, I would’ve savored his happiness and committed it to memory. “It’s progress.”
My shoulders sagged in defeat, and I repressed a long sigh. “Yeah, I guess. What are you doing today?”
“I have a few things to take care of at school, and then my mom and I are going to lunch.”
“Really?” Evan rarely spent one on one time with his mom.
“Yep. We have a party to put together, and you know how my mom loves to plan.”
“What kind of party?” I asked, my heart stuttering in my chest.
“It was supposed to be a surprise. My mom wanted it to be a surprise, but I don’t want you to panic.”
My eyes flared, and my stomach somersaulted. “A surprise?”
“My parents are hosting an engagement party for us next weekend.”
My mouth opened and then closed in rapid succession. The edge of my vision blurred. My knees wobbled, and I braced my elbows on the countertop so I didn’t collapse. My emotions seesawed up and down, but mostly down. Always and inevitably down.
“Breathe, Hattie, breathe.”
His words ricocheted through my soul like slivers of glass. “I can’t do it. I’m not ready,” I finally blurted out.
“It’s time, Hattie. Even your therapist agreed it’d be okay to take this step forward. You have ten days to prepare yourself to join the world of the living again. You’ll be fine.”
Panicked, I shook my head from side to side. “No,” I whispered, but it came out more like a groan than a word.
Evan moved forward, closing the space between our bodies. He grabbed my hands, but instead of feeling comforted, I felt like I was suffocating under the weight of his expectations.
“Hattie. I won’t leave your side the entire night. If you’re uncomfortable, squeeze my hand and we’ll leave. We can do this.”
“I don’t want anyone to ask me about Mexico. I can’t talk about it.”
“That’s fine. I’ll have my mom put out the word.”
A nervous laugh tumbled out of my mouth. “Evan, please, your mom can’t control every conversation.”
“Then you don’t know my mom as well as you think you do.”
I fell silent for a few excruciating seconds as I evaluated my options. I didn’t have any options. I was out of time. I couldn’t hide forever. “Okay. I’ll do it.”