The flare of a cigarette, the sound of a stranger’s voice, and the handsome Irishman in the shadows–I wanted it all, but I wasn’t allowed to want.
Ronan was danger and beauty, murder and mercy. To me, he was a mystery, but he was also the only man who ever knew me.
In that single stolen moment before I had to give my life to someone else, I imagined myself with him, the man with scars and bruises. The one who knew what hurting meant far more than I did at that time.
Instead I was given to another man, one who broke my soul right along with my bones.
Through it all, there was always that memory of the man in the shadows, the one who said–not in words–that I was strong, that I could endure, that I was more than just a princess in a ballgown.
Now Ronan is the only man who could keep me safe from two warring families that wanted my blood. The spark that started two years ago burned brighter with each touch, each glance, each kiss. He woke me from the nightmare, giving me life with soft touches and sharp words.
Two years ago, Ronan gave me strength, but he took something in return. I never gave him my heart, but hearts like mine are made to be stolen.
He was beautiful. I mean, like inarguably. It was simply fact. A law of nature. Dark hair. Blue eyes like the sky at noon. Dark scruff along his hard, square chin. He wore a tuxedo with the tie pulled loose. An angel kicked out of heaven for the trouble he caused.
There was blood on the collar of his white shirt. Blood from any number of wounds on his face. A black eye. A split lip. A tiny butterfly bandage over a cut on his cheekbone.
He was beautiful, and he was savage.
“What happened to you?” I whispered.
He touched the cut on his lip. “You should see the other guy.”
I stepped forward, drawn by the joke attempt. His eyelashes. The sudden urge to be on a side of kindness. Either side. Any side. Just to experience it however I could. “Who hurt you?”
His eyes snapped to mine, sharp and bright, and my skin prickled. Uncomfortable and aware.
“No one,” he said, ice cold despite the blood on his collar. The black eye and split lip. “Not for a long time.”
I thought he was joking, and I smiled, but his face was resolute. Calm in its strength. He wasn’t joking. He wasn’t being sarcastic. He’s been beaten, but he was telling me it didn’t hurt him.
Like he’d made a choice, and that was that. Pain didn’t matter.
“It’s that easy?” I whispered. Scared in my belly because it was only there that I could acknowledge that I knew what was coming for me was going to hurt.
“No,” he said and his hand, the one with the scar, the one I’d touched, brushed my cheek, his thumb at the edge of my lip. “It’s not easy. It’s very hard. But it’s how you survive.”
His thumb pressed against my lip, and I gasped, my lips parting. I could taste the salt of his skin and everything in me screamed to leave. This wasn’t just foolish, it was dangerous. For him.
For me. Especially for me.
But I couldn’t move. He pressed and pressed until my teeth cut into my lip and it hurt.
It hurt, and he kept pushing.
It hurt, and I stood there. Taking it.
Why was I doing this? Why was he? It felt like a warning and a lesson, and it felt real. Like the grass under my feet. Like the booze in my belly. Not at all like the threats inside that house, whispered and insinuated. The pain, the taste of blood and salt from his finger. The look in his eye willing me to stillness.
“Don’t let them hurt you,” he said.
His words broke the spell and heart pounding, I stepped back but I didn’t leave. Like a fool, I stayed.
He didn’t have to be a Morelli to be trouble. Or to get me in trouble.
This man was lethal. And so attractive it hurt. It actually hurt.
“Who are you?” I asked, licking the blood off my lip. Hoping for a lingering taste of him.
He shook his head. “I am no one.”
Someone came to stand in the doorway, breaking up the light, casting a shadow across the stranger’s beautiful face. Both of us turned to look.
“Jesus, Princess,” my Irishman whispered when he saw who was standing there and he must have realized who I was.
“Poppy?” It was the Senator, and I went cold. Tried so hard not to, but head to toe the chill settled over me. “Everything all right?”
“I’m fine,” I said and smiled to prove it. He always believed my smiles. Everyone did. They were very good smiles. Or maybe he just didn’t care.
“We’re about to make the announcement,” the Senator said, and he summoned me with his fingers. A kind of snapping thing like you’d do with a dog, and I told myself, like I had for a while now, that it wasn’t personal. It was actually the opposite of personal. He treated everyone like that. That that made me feel better wasn’t something I was actually proud of. But I was seeking comfort from any corner.
“I’ll be in in a second,” I said. I wanted to say goodbye to this stranger. To these quiet moments of rest.
Or maybe I just wanted to pull my leash as taut as possible, to see how far it would stretch.
“Poppy?” The Senator smiled when he said my name, but the steel was there. That terrifying sharpness. Turns out my leash didn’t stretch far at all.
“You heard her,” the Irishman said from the shadows. “She needs a second.”
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Jim stepped into the light; he was smiling but it was the razor’s edge. Jim was blonde and blue eyed. He wore glasses that made him look smart. He worked out just enough that the suits he wore looked good.
Everything about him inspired comfort and confidence.
Voters loved him.
I’d never been so scared of someone in my life.
“I’m coming,” I said, and I stepped into the light with Jim Maywell the junior senator of New York who was 28 years older than me, and at midnight, we were announcing that I would be his wife.
Jim grabbed my hand too hard. But I expected it, and made my hand as small as I could in his. There was a trick to it funneling my fingers, so he couldn’t grind the bones together. I’d learned that fast. I wondered if that would be interesting on my application to the catering company.
Experience: eating canapes off trays and mitigating the pain my fiancé wanted to inflict on my body.
We stepped off the small patio into the doorway with the sound of the party filtering through the walls.
Don’t do it, I told myself. Don’t look. He’s not for you. Not ever.
But of course I couldn’t stop myself, and I looked back over my shoulder, but the Irishman was gone.
Nothing was left of him but the taste of blood in my mouth.
M. O’Keefe is the darker, more dangerous pen name of bestselling author Molly O’Keefe. She is the USA Today Bestselling author of the Everything I Left Unsaid series and the upcoming Stolen Hearts. To find out more visit www.molly-okeefe.com