Publishing on 6/9/2015

Content subject to change.

I’m pretty sure the crazed, southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Edmonson Village can hear the loud pounding of my heart, which is currently trying to leap out of my chest. As I wait for Ryder to open his door, I’ve decided I’m being paranoid. I killed a blunt on the way over, so one must assume Mary Jane’s driving some of my thoughts.

Before I can swallow the pasty saliva in my dry mouth, the door swings open, revealing my darkest nightmare and wettest dream. As my breathing hitches, the normal sledge-like paradox I’ve become accustomed to hits me. My toes curl with want for Ryder that I know I shouldn’t have. But I do.

I do so much, it makes me feel dirty.

Hatred—rooted somewhere between wanting him and despising the fact that I do—simmers in my stomach. Its scorching flames lick across every organ in my body. For a second, I allow my gaze to drift over his shirtless chest. Starting at the right side of his neck, my eyes follow a devil’s horns and body along the muscled curve of his shoulder, its spiked tail fading into Ryder’s name etched in intricate black tribal ink above his heart.

With the corner of his mouth curled up in that cocky “I’m an asshole” smirk he’s known for, he scratches at his balls—which are hidden beneath a pair of navy blue basketball shorts—and rolls his head from side to side. “I’m a little busy right now, peach. I figured you might get bored with Brock, but the chick on my couch may not be down with me inviting you in.” He kicks me a wink, his voice dropping to a whisper. “But I’ll shoot you a text after I bring her home. Cool?”

“You’re a dick.” My hand darts up to smack his cheek.

He catches my wrist before it can connect.

My other hand automatically shoots up and experiences the same treatment from his free hand. “Let go of me, Ryder!”

“Now why the fuck would I do that?” He pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, his smirk widening as his blue eyes flitter across my face. “Besides the fact that you’re trying to smack me again, I’m kind of digging this. I bet you’re a feisty little one in bed.” He lightly tugs on my wrists, my chest pressed to his as I attempt to breathe. “Mm. Yeah, I have no doubt you are. I’d gladly welcome whatever torture you see fit. But this smacking shit’s getting played out, momma. At least while lube, lingerie, and sweat aren’t involved. Let’s switch it up a bit. Sound good?”

I push up on my tiptoes, my lips grazing his ear. “I thought you were never going to fuck with me again? There goes that willpower.”

“A man has his limits,” he whispers, his grip on my wrists tightening. “Apparently you love testing mine.”

“I can’t say that I don’t. But I can say that if you don’t let go of me, your balls are my next target.” A smirk dusts my lips as his vanishes. “How’s that for a switch up and test?”

“Please don’t hurt my brother,” a meek voice says from behind Ryder.

I swallow hard, my spine tightening as I step back. My nervous gaze lands on the crystal blue eyes of what I’m sure is an angel. Hairless head wrapped in a hot pink bandana, porcelain skin famished of color, and tiny lips quivering, she clutches a teddy bear as she offers me a dollar bill.

“Here.” She stares up at me, her eyes glassed over. “Mommy paid me my allowance. I can give you this if you promise not to hurt him.”

“I, uh,” I stammer, my attention floating between her and Ryder.

Appearing marginally entertained, he crosses his arms and leans against the doorjamb, watching me sweat my way through this beyond-mortifying experience.

Sure I’ve slammed a dent into her childhood, I kneel in front of her, hoping to undo the damage. “I don’t want your money, sweetie.”

“Then you’re going to hurt him?” A tear slips from her eye.

It’s official. I’m the devil.

“I have candy, too,” she continues, her voice shaky. “Do you like candy? I can give you a Hershey bar.”

“I love Hershey bars.” I shake my head, a slow smile lifting my mouth. “And I was never going to hurt your brother.”

“But you said you were going to hurt his balls.”

Yup. The devil. Open up the ground and toss me in with the fucker.

“Casey.” Ryder rests his hand on her frail shoulder, sending her a quick look of reprimand. “Remember your words.”

“But she did, Ryder. She talked about your balls.”

“She was talking about my football,” he corrects smoothly, a grin sliding across his lips as he kneels beside her. Eyes soft, he swipes a tear from her cheek and gives her nose a little pinch.

She giggles and pinches his nose right back.

“This is my friend Amber,” he continues, “and though she hasn’t played with it yet, she loves my football more than she’s willing to admit.” He looks at me, amusement dancing over his face. “Isn’t that right?”

Yes, Ryder,” I grit out with what I know he’s aware is the fakest smile I can muster.

“Ya wanna know why Amber’s here, Casey?” He looks at me, his amusement exploding by the second.

I narrow my eyes, convinced he’s about to sink me.

He turns his attention back to his sister. “I think you’ll really like it.”

“Yes!” Casey squeaks. “Tell me!”

“Amber stopped by because she’s having lunch with us, and she’s hanging out with you, me, and Spongebob alldaylong.”

Bouncing up and down, Casey claps. “She is?”

“I am?” I get to my feet, my need to put my fist through his balls growing. “I don’t recall making these plans.”

Ryder rises and pinches my nose. “Aww, peach, ya don’t remember? Let me refresh that memory of yours. You called me last night and talked for hours about how excited you were to chill with me and Case here.”

I look at Casey, and the genuine excitement in her eyes causes my heart to stir. I tentatively touch my knuckles to her cheek, and she smiles. Everything inside me screams that there’s no way I can let this child down. “Right.” Smiling, I nod. “Now I remember.”

“Yay!” Casey snatches my hand, her words racing from her mouth as she leads me into the apartment. “Do you like peanut butter and Fluff? Are you gonna be my brother’s girlfriend? Can you paint my nails?”

“Case, you’re gonna scare the girl away.” Ryder closes the door, a victorious smirk on his face. “Amber tends to…flee when put under pressure.”

I shake my head, wondering how sick he really is. “You’re out there,” I whisper. “Like, mental hospital out there.”

“Mm, see what you do to me?” He pinches my nose again, giving it a light shake. “You have me sinking to the lowest depths of morality. Impressive.”

“At least you’re aware you’re not beyond using an innocent child to get what you want.”

“Only for you,” he points out, wiggling his brows. “Consider yourself special.”

I scoff, convinced he’s delusional.

“How can I scare her?” Casey asks with a pout. “They’re just questions, Ry. Mrs. Langley says to ask lots of them.”

“Yeah, Ry.” I make a mental note of her nickname for him, knowing I’ll use it in the near future. “Just ignore your brother, Casey. He’s not right in his head.”

Casey giggles and drags me across the living room. My eyes skirt over a multi-stained Berber carpet hidden beneath an array of roughed up garage sale find looking furniture. A beat-up plaid couch sits against the far wall. Flanking it, a makeshift end table—made from a blue milk crate and round piece of glass—adds a hint of modern décor to the space.

Riiiggghhhttt… That took a ton of imagination.

“There’s no way you’re related to Martha Stewart,” I quip, unable to keep the comment to myself as I sink onto the throwback 1970′s couch. “Not even close.”

“Who’s Martha Stewart?” Casey asks, sidling up next to me.

“Someone your brother’s in desperate need of.”

Ryder chuckles and moves into his kitchen that, on its best day, could hold three people crammed shoulder to shoulder. He snags an apple from the counter and makes his way back over to us. After handing it to Casey, Ryder turns his blue eyes on me, a crooked grin breaking out across his face. “Nope. No relation. Now, are you ready for our date with SpongeBob?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I answer, matching his idiotic grin.

He plops down next to me and flips the television to what I assume is the appropriate station. A whacked-out sailor pelts out a tune, and Casey squeaks in excitement, my presence old news as she hones in on a sponge with eyes and his sidekick starfish.

Ryder nudges my arm.

My breath catches the second my gaze connects with his.

“So you plan on telling me why you felt the need to mark my cheek again?” A curious smile crosses his lips, his voice a whisper. “Or are you gonna make me hold you down in a compromising position to get the info from you?”

I stare into his eyes, hating the way my body responds to his slightest touch. Especially when I’m supposed to be mad at him. It’s the universe’s way of laughing at me. “You like talking shit to Hailey about my life, Ry?”

His brows pull together. “What do you mean?”

“I ran into her today, and she knows everything about what happened to me. Very few people know the full story, and now Hailey’s one of them.” I pause, trying to gauge his reaction. His face’s peppered in confusion as though he has no idea where I’m going with this. “Was I a topic of conversation after you finished bagging her? Huh, Ry? Did it piss you off that much that I picked Brock instead of you?”

He stays quiet for a moment, confirming what I already knew. The dick told her. I rise—ready to bounce the hell out of here—but he catches my elbow and pulls me down onto his lap.

Casey jerks her head in our direction, nervousness all over her face.

“We’re just playing, Casey.” Ryder winds his arms around my waist. “Right, Amber?”

“Yup.” I give her a reassuring smile. “We’re about to deflate your brother’s football. He’ll never be able to use it ever again.”

Ryder clamps his knees together, and Casey shrugs, the sponge once again snagging her attention.

“Let me up,” I whisper heatedly as I try to jack my arms out of the bear hug he has them in. With my back pressed to his bare chest, I can’t see his face, but I hear him chuckle. “You’re an asshole. Seriously. I know you know this, too.”

He touches his lips to my ear, his voice a low sexual taunt. “Come on, momma. Do you honestly think I said something to Hailey? You know me better than that.”

“Do I?” I attempt to wiggle from his hold. I’d have better luck trying to pry myself away from a hungry anaconda. “I’m not so sure anymore. You’re the only one…playing with her—”

Was playing with her,” he corrects, all but tossing me back onto the couch.

My eyes go wide.

“If you try to get up again, you’ll leave me no choice but to hold you down in a compromising position.” He leans in, his nose inches from mine. “But I assure you I won’t bring you a single form of pleasure when I do. No. Instead, I’ll tickle the fuck out of you,” he whispers, grinning. “I have a killer memory. You’re going to hear me out. Understood?”

I take a second to regain my bearings. Once fully composed, I lift my hand and smash my palm against his forehead, moving him to a safe “unheated” distance.

It’s his eyes that are wide now.

I smirk. “You have two minutes to talk your way out of this. You’ve already killed what little high I had left, and you seriously don’t want to see me pissed off.”

He lifts an incredulous brow. “I haven’t witnessed this yet? Impossible.”

“Not even close.”

“Mm. Interesting and quite…tempting.” A lazy grin hits his face as he cups his chin, wicked thoughts swirling behind those baby blues.

I glace at the digital clock on the DVD player. “You now have a minute and forty-five seconds, Ashcroft. I’d use the time wisely if I were you.” I cock my head to the side. “I’m happy my situation with Hailey’s brought you your daily dose of entertainment. It’s good to know my past can amuse someone.”

He stares at me and rests his elbow on the arm of the couch, his expression melting into regret. “I didn’t tell Hailey anything, Amber. She overheard me and Brock talking about it.”

What?” My heart thumps with anger. I’m about to swing solo, getting rid of Brock faster than an unwelcomed Jehovah’s Witness. “You guys talked about me in front of her?”

His brows steepen. “You’re not listening. She overheard us.”

With my patience wearing thin—but aware there’s a child in the room—I dig my nails into my palms, trying to keep my cool. “You have one minute to elaborate before I seriously lose it. If you don’t, I will crush your football.”

Ryder blinks, the look on his face showing that he knows I’m not kidding. “He stopped by a few weeks ago and told me your foster parents are coming to visit in a few months. He wants to do something special for you and them when they’re here. One thing led to another, and yeah, we got into the shit that’s happened with you.” He puffs out a breath, dragging a hand through his hair. “I thought Hailey was asleep, but she wasn’t. We both warned her not to say anything, but apparently she did.”

I shake my head, wishing Brock would’ve at least told me the skank found out. Not that that could’ve prepared me—I’m not sure anything could aid in that department—but it wouldn’t have felt like such a crippling invasion.

Ryder slips a finger under my chin, bringing my eyes to his. “You okay?”

I jerk my head away. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“You’re not bulletproof, peach. Stop trying to act like you are.”

“I’m not trying to act like I am,” I scoff, uncomfortable with the direction he’s taking the conversation. I want to unzip my skin and peel it from my body.

He studies me for a moment, his gaze sweeping over my face. “Pain—in the form of grieving—is healthy, Amber.”

“Oh my God, are you seriously going there? You’re cute and all, but even a dude like you can lose his swoon-worthy factor. Fast.”

“I possess swoon-worthy factors?” A small grin dusts his lips as he leans closer. “Is that a girl term?”

I swallow, my head fuzzy from his close proximity, the dizzying smell of his musky cologne, and the slices of gray specks in his eyes, each delicious component unfurling my sanity as I croak out, “Yeah. It’s a girl thing, and again, if you go there, it can lose its potency.”

He flicks his attention to my lips, a soft chuckle tumbling from his mouth. “Mm. Well, you, Amber Moretti, make me wanna risk losing my swoon factor.” He sobers, his eyes finding mine. “And if you remember anything I ever tell you—no matter what—make sure it’s what I’m about to say. A kickass old man let me in on it before he died.” He pauses and taps my nose, his breath soft against my cheeks. “Our past is what shapes us, the scars it leaves behind molds us, and what we do with the shit that’s left over is what defines us. Don’t let your parents’ conflicts define who you are, peach. You’re better than that. You deserve more than you’re willing to let yourself experience. More than what you think you’re…worth.”

His words, the sincerity behind them, and the way he said them—like he couldn’t grab his next breath if he didn’t—rain over me, a mist of warmth flooding my heart. Shock stills my tongue, tiny fragments of how to respond jumbled in my head as I look into his eyes.

As though he knows he’s left me speechless, Ryder rises and looks down at me. Understanding colors his features before he strolls into the kitchen. “You girls ready for the world’s greatest peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches?” he calls from over his shoulder. “They’ll only cost you a game of Hedbanz.”

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