It’s that time again.
Almost release day.
I left you hanging with this duet. I know. Please don’t hate me. I promise it’s worth it. Here’s a little something to sate your hunger for more Jay & Stella. Make sure you preorder here.
“Black dress, black hair, fake tits, drinking a cosmo by the bar.”
Jay leaned back and watched his security guard walk through the throngs on the dance floor, toward the woman he’d described.
He hated the ghost that haunted him in this moment. The déjà vu. He had spent far too much time ruminating over what he’d lost. What’d he’d thrown away. Even though he’d never had her. Not really. She’d loved an idea of him, not his true self. He’d shown her glimpses of who he truly was, the wickedness inside of him. And she’d loved those parts. Because she could love wicked things. Or at least, she’d thought she could. Jay was an intelligent man … he was smart enough to know that Stella would never be able to love the core of him.
He’d been reckless, selfish and dangerous even thinking that he could’ve made it happen. That he could have merged the cold, calculated, powerful and deadly life he’d created with the warmth and light Stella brought.
She would have hated him.
He would have hated himself for not letting her go. For tearing apart all of the dreams she’d had, for treading on all of the futures she may have had with another man.
Jay’s fist clenched. The mere thought of another man touching skin he’d marked, skin he owned, turned his blood hot. The need to hurt—to end—any man who thought he had the right to what was his was overwhelming.
The entire point of him letting her go was for her to find someone capable of giving her what she deserved, but Jay could not be sure if she found someone else that he wouldn’t kill the man. He sought control in every facet of his life, but he could not control himself when it came to Stella.
He could control himself even less in her absence.
He knew that people were talking. That his employees from both his legitimate and illegitimate businesses feared him even more than they had before.
Jay wasn’t sleeping. As soon as he left his offices downtown, he came here until closing. Then, when night held the deepest shadows, he went to do things that could only be done in the dark. Things that he’d hid from Stella. Things that would’ve eaten away at her love for him like erosion on rock.
The soft whirr of the elevator doors opening and the click of heels on the floor interrupted Jay’s thoughts. Well, not completely. He was always thinking of Stella. Her absence was a black hole in his mind. Left him distracted. Which was dangerous, especially with the stirrings in his territories. This was not the time to be distracted.
Which was why the knockout with the fake tits was sauntering into his office. He hadn’t touched another woman in months. The only woman he wanted to touch was across the fucking world and out of his reach.
“Mr. Helmick,” the woman in front of him purred.
And it was a purr. She was like a cat. Eyes sharp. Cunning. Knowing.
This woman was not ignorant to what he was. What this was. She knew the score. Had heard the rumors. She likely wore the dress that molded over her tits like a second skin precisely to try and lure in a big fish tonight. If not him precisely, then someone with a lofty bank account who was either deluded enough to think she liked him for his personality or smart enough to know that he was getting laid no matter her true feelings.
Those were the kind of women he had gravitated toward before Stella. The predictable, hungry and shallow ones. The ones after money and willing to do whatever and whoever it took to get there. Jay did not judge or blame those women; he appreciated them and enjoyed them. Because their motives were clear and simple, they were easy. They were willing to submit to his every whim, ready to mold themselves in to whatever shape they thought he’d like most.
“Take off your clothes,” he demanded, still sitting in the chair, still seeing Stella standing there, talking about her cat and forgetting people’s birthdays.
The woman did not hesitate. She smiled in a practiced way that made most men’s cocks twitch and shimmied out of her dress.
She wasn’t wearing anything underneath.
There was no fight in her. No battle. No anger. No outrage. Only hunger. And not for him. For what she could get from him.
Stella had obeyed him when he’d uttered this command at his home office. But she’d done it with fury. She’d done it despite all of her best instincts, and she’d done it because she’d had no choice. Like him, she was trapped in the connection between the two of them
The red string of fate.
“It will twist and tangle through the course of time, of life, circumstances. But it will never break. The red string will always keep them connected.”
The memory caused physical agony, and Jay had to clench his fists on top of his desk so he didn’t throw his glass of whiskey at the wall just so he could watch something shatter. Break.
Jay’s eyes flickered upward at the movement in front of him. He’d forgotten the naked woman was even there. She was walking toward him. Sauntering with a practiced sway of her hips.
“Did I tell you to move?”
She stopped immediately, a sly grin teasing the corners of her artificially plumped mouth.
Jay ached to create it. To use this woman and her body to sate the hunger that had been burning inside of him for months.
He wanted to break something.
He wanted to break her.
Just because he could. Because if he did that, then there would be no way back.
No way back to her.
“Leave,” Jay bit out, barely able to move his mouth.
She blinked, the smile still frozen on her face. What she didn’t do was move.
Jay remained still. “Get out. Now.”
She flinched at his tone, and he was glad.
He didn’t watch her redress, didn’t watch her give him one last look, didn’t revel in the shame on her face. No, he pretended to work. Pretended he wasn’t longing for the one thing he couldn’t have.
Then, once the lights had been turned on, the club emptied, he stalked in to the night to sate the one need he could sate: the need to create pain.
“You’ve been skimming, Jacob,” Jay said, voice flat. He was staring at his accountant in his bespoke suit with his Rolex and diamond cufflinks, all bought with Jay’s money.
Jacob blinked rapidly. He was already afraid. The man knew a meeting at three in the morning in a warehouse in a desolate part of the city did not mean good things. Especially when you were guilty.
Which Jacob was.
Jay had his accounts audited by a totally separate accountant once every six months. He usually did it himself every three as well. But he’d been … distracted, so Jacob had managed to embezzle from under his nose. Three million fucking dollars.
Jay fingered the knife on the tray in front of him.
“It’s impressive,” Jay continued, already bored of this. “That you’re brave enough to steal.” He looked up at the man who was sweating through his shirt even though it was a cold night. “From me.”
Jay held up his hand. “I did not tell you to speak. And right now, Jacob, you really want to listen to me.”
Jacob’s eyes squeezed shut, and he began crying. It disgusted Jay, this show of weakness, the lack of spine. This man knew he had broken the rules. Jacob knew what kind of man Jay was when he started this job two years ago. Jay had made sure of that. He had also made sure that he hired the best. Men without wives, children, without anyone who would miss them, could possibly become complications. If his accountants did fall in love, got married, Jay dismissed them with severance pay and assurances that their mouths would stay shut about the nature of their work for him.
Each and every one of them knew that they would die if they crossed him. So Jay felt no sympathy or remorse for what he was about to do to this man. He’d had a choice. Jay paid him a fuck of a lot of money, and he could’ve quit at any time if he’d so wished.
Instead, he’d gambled with his life for a fucking watch and a nice car.
“You’re greedy, Jacob,” Jay announced, assessing the scalpel he held up.
It was at that point when Jacob tried to flee. They all did at some point. A survival instinct that didn’t know logic kicking in. Karson, who was standing behind him, grabbed him by the shoulders and put him back down on the chair. Not gently.
“I told you not to speak,” Jay clipped, feeling frustrated. He put down the scalpel, suddenly feeling tired, exhausted. He took the gun from his shoulder holster and shot Jacob point blank. The body slumped and slipped down from the seat. Jay wiped the blood from his face before sliding the gun back into his jacket.
He barely glanced at the corpse. “We need a new accountant,” he said to Karson.
Karson nodded. “I’ve already vetted three.”
“Make sure they’re not cowards,” Jay instructed. “I can deal with criminals, but I cannot deal with men pathetic enough not to accept the fate they choose.”
Jay walked away, wondering if he was talking about himself.
“It’s knock off time, so I’m gonna ask you the same thing I ask you every night … come to the pub for a drink?”
I smiled at Brent, grasping the keys to my rental from my purse.
The creases around his ocean blue eyes deepened with his cheeky grin, one that was entirely white and straight except for one crooked tooth which made the grin and his rugged face all the more handsome.
His voice was smooth, light, teasing, and made infinitely more sexy by his accent, one that I was surrounded by daily and one that never got old.
Brent was the stuntman for the show we were working on. A local from ‘down South’ and the epitome of a rugged mountain man. I didn’t know if he was actually from the mountains, but he was the guy who came to mind when I thought of such men. He was criminally attractive with dirty blond hair, a permanent tan and muscles bulging from the sleeves of his tee that was so faded there was no logo on it anymore. He smiled easily and had an air about him that he could fix anything that broke down in the vicinity. Which he had done many times on set. His hands were callused, tanned and always stained with oil or dirt.
They couldn’t have been further from the hands that were neatly manicured, smooth, tanned and were more likely to be stained with blood than any kind of oil or dirt.
So theoretically, Brent was the healthiest and safest option for a rebound. Shit, Brent was husband material. The me before the arrangement, before him, wouldn’t have let Brent ask me out more than once. This was a man who you moved across oceans for.
In another life, at least.
“Raincheck,” I replied with a smile. The expression was forced, stretched and painful.
His brows furrowed ever so slightly. “You’re not gonna be able to say no to me forever, darlin.’” His tone was still teasing, but there was a roughness to it. A sexual undertone that had grown these past months. It started subtle, a glint in his eye when he spoke to me, the casual touches, the way he looked at me. It had gotten more intense lately, with the wrap of the show looming.
It wasn’t uncomfortable, his attention. Wasn’t lecherous or sleazy. It would’ve been comforting if it hadn’t reminded me of everything I’d lost. Of what I’d never have again. That my ability to love a decent and kind man was fucked.
I smiled sadly. “Maybe not,” I agreed. “But tonight, I still can.” I winked at him and walked to my car.
His eyes burned into my back as I did so.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I pulled into the small space under the shade of a eucalyptus tree with lush green bushes to my left and a garden complete with a fountain and various stone statues on my right. I considered the limestone fairy I parked beside, with greenery crawling up her wings, as my friend. My guardian. Maybe I was going a bit insane? Then again, she hadn’t started talking to me or anything, so it wasn’t full-fledged lunacy. Not yet at least.
After the slam of my car door, there were no sounds aside from the low rumble of the waves. No roar of cars, no sirens, no neighbors. Sure, I was thirty minutes from town—town being the small metropolis of Killsmore that consisted of three great coffee shops, one supermarket and three pubs—and where most of the crew was staying, but I was right on the ocean. The small ‘bach’ I’d found online had somehow been vacant for the exact amount of time I needed it for. The closest neighbor was ten minutes down the dirt road I drove in on. When I’d first followed my GPS here, I’d frowned at the dust rising from the tires of my car, at the farmland around me, thinking I’d really fucked up and that I’d been catfished.
But then I’d pulled past the gates, ornate iron gates with plants curling around them. Drove down the winding drive edged with trees, carefully planted to hide the cottage away from the world, feeling like my private sanctuary.
Then the small house came into view. With a red corrugated roof and a porch that had grapevines climbing up it, making it look as if nature was taking over the house. Roses of every color were planted along the front with a porch swing to the right of the red front door. Large windows everywhere.
The front door opened right onto the ocean. Or that’s what it seemed like. The windows along the living room were floor to ceiling, barely any walls to obstruct the view of the beach and water beyond. Sapphire and aquamarine … a different ocean than the one I’d looked upon on another continent. In another lifetime.
A different ocean that carried the same memories.
If I was a smart woman, one who wanted to heal, to forget, I would’ve left this beautiful paradise that reminded me of my wretched, painful past and found something else. Something that looked upon the hills, the landscape of New Zealand, something closer to town, closer to distraction. But I hadn’t. I’d closed the front door, walked across the tastefully decorated living room and opened the sliding doors, stepping onto the balcony and breathing in the salty sea air.
It was somewhat of a ritual now. After saying hello to my resident fairy. After making sure that there were no flowers I’d forgotten to water, no packages that I’d ordered at two in the morning after a bottle of wine.
Then I’d step inside, inhale the smells of this new place that was becoming home to me, opening those doors, inhaling the air that was all too familiar. That reminded me of a man who was a stranger yet knew me better than anyone.
Then, I’d make something for dinner, depending on my mood, my energy levels or whether I’d remembered to go to the store that day. Janet, the woman who rented the cottage for me, would sometimes ‘pop by’ with a basket of muffins, a lasagna, homemade granola, cherries, her favorite wine. Pretty much anything and everything. She had wild, bright red curls, creased tanned skin and had a penchant for the color purple. Her voice was thick, husky and evidence of a smoking habit she’d kicked five years ago. Her husband died six years ago, and she swore she would never marry again, but she’d surely have a lot of boyfriends. I knew all of this because she told me. On my second night here, she’d arrived with two bottles of red, dinner and an evening’s worth of stories about her life.
She had no children, and I thought that a waste since there were plenty of women who would’ve benefitted from having a mother like her. Warm, confident, unapologetic about who she was. It was ugly and cruel of me to wish she had been my own mother. To wish my biological mother out of my life and out of existence for my own selfish reasons, so that I didn’t have a darkness inside of me. So I didn’t fear my own mind. Wasn’t terrified of my own memories.
But wishing wouldn’t do me any good. And if my mother hadn’t been my mother, I probably wouldn’t have been fucked up enough to find myself in Jay’s office that night, or in his bed all the nights after.
And despite how much pain those nights had caused me, despite how much he’d ruined me, I didn’t want anything or anyone to be the reason I didn’t have the memory of him. The ghost of him.
I allowed myself to enjoy having dinner with Janet one night a week. A Sunday afternoon with her in the garden. Opening up the fridge to an eggplant dish she’d cooked for me along with more wine because she was starting to know me too well.
The air was colder now. Summer was creeping away, giving way to fall, even up here up at the top of the North Island where the weather was warmer than the rest of the country. My arms prickled from the chill. Not just because of the bite to the air but from the impending wrap of the show. It had been months. An uncommonly warm summer which meant I’d never felt a chill, leaving my skin as tan as it had ever been despite how religious I was with my SPF. There was a hole in the ozone layer here, apparently. Made the sun harsher. Causing me to burn that much quicker.
I’d already been burned, so the fire of a different kind felt nice. It was turning me in to something else. Or at least someone who looked different. My skin was no longer peaches and cream but a milky caramel. My hair was longer, bleached by that harsh sun, barely any strawberry left in my blonde. I’d put on weight where I’d needed it. If it was up to me, I would’ve forgone food except for when it was absolutely necessary and existed off coffee and wine. But there was Janet. And there was Brent on lunch breaks, bringing me a plate piled high with his crooked smile and easy conversation. I’d eat the whole plate without even realizing it, just so I could listen to him talk while making sure my mouth was full so I never had to offer any information about myself.
The food was fresher here. Purer. I could taste it. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t enjoy much, really. Even the company of a good man, a strong, comforting woman, some of the most beautiful landscape in the world, the kindness of the people of this country.
Oh, yes, I was the definition of a cliché. Living and working in paradise, eating excellent food, being asked out by ruggedly handsome men yet not enjoying a single bit of it.
I looked good, though. With my permanent tan, with my long hair, with my new curves. But I was all sharp angles on the inside. Even breathing cut me open all over again. The pain hadn’t dulled. Not one single bit.
I grabbed a glass from where it had been drying on the rack beside the sink. My eyes focused on the single plate, the mug—I was a tea drinker now—the single set of cutlery.
It was the ordinary things that hurt me now. The evidence of me living my life alone. Spinsterhood.
“Jesus Christ, I sound like Bridget fucking Jones,” I muttered to myself, opening a bottle of red and filling the glass up, right to the top. I didn’t fuck around with the half empty bullshit.
The native birds sang as I walked out the sliding doors off the living room, breathing in the salty air that rubbed in all of my open wounds. It was cold, cold enough that I should’ve gone back in to grab a sweater, but I kept walking down the sun-bleached wooden steps that travelled down to a sandy path which led to the beach beyond.
My ocean, it seemed.
This little cottage—bach as it was fondly called in New Zealand—was nestled between acres of farmland that the owner refused to sell despite lucrative offers. This meant that the only resident of this beach for many miles was me. It was rather breathtaking, looking at the way the land bent in front of me, mountains looming in the distance, seeming to plunge into the turquoise sea. The last of the sun pressed down on me just as hard as the ocean breeze.
I sipped my wine, walking slowly, looking at nothing and trying very hard to think about nothing.
“I’m a sinner, pet. You know this. My job is lies. My very existence, inhaling and exhaling, are a series of mistruths, secrets and betrayals. There was no way I could admit to you, or myself, that I was capable of loving. Because I knew I was, and I knew that my love would be your curse. Knew that it was an inevitability to fall for you. Knew I’d ruin your life loving you. So I lied. Like only a sinner can.”
The memory burned hot, even as the air chilled my exposed skin.
He was right. His love was a curse.
“Nice night for it.”
I jumped, twisting around in the direction of the voice that just spoke.
Standing in front of me was a man. A man holding a gun.