Follow Me (Corrupted Hearts)

ALSO BY TIFFANY SNOW

In His Shadow
, The Tangled Ivy Series

Shadow of a Doubt
, The Tangled Ivy Series

Out of the Shadows
, The Tangled Ivy Series

Power Play
, The Risky Business Series

Playing Dirty
, The Risky Business Series

Play to Win
, The Risky Business Series

No Turning Back
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Turn to Me
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Turning Point
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Out of Turn
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Point of No Return
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Blane’s Turn
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Kade’s Turn
, The Kathleen Turner Series

Blank Slate

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 Tiffany Snow

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503938397

ISBN-10: 1503938395

Cover design by Eileen Carey

For my sister, Tonya. Your praise and encouragement have meant more to me than you’ll ever know.

1

“The Doctor is dead.”

“Again?”

“Yeah.” I adjusted the Bluetooth in my ear so I could still hear my grandma, then grabbed the netted scoop next to my fish tank.

“Did you remember to feed him? I told you that you work too much at that job and then you come home exhausted. You forget to feed yourself, much less—”

“No.” I cut her off before she really got rolling on my lifestyle choices. “I fed him all the time.” The little goldfish floated on top of the water and I sighed as I removed him. Another one bites the dust.

“Then that’s your problem. You’re
over
feeding him.”

“I thought fish were supposed to be easy to take care of,” I complained, flushing the corpse down the toilet. An ignominious end, but what was I supposed to do with a dead fish? Bury it in a tiny cardboard box? I’d have half a dozen minigraves in the backyard if I did that.

“They are,” Grandma assured me. “You’ll just have to try again.”

“You know, the whole reason I got a fish was that watching them and listening to the water bubbling in the tank was supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I’m stressing out even more about killing them.”

“They
are
relaxing to watch,” Grandma said. “You just haven’t got the hang of it, that’s all. You’ll catch on . . . though maybe you should ask for an old fish this time, one whose time is near. That way you’re not cutting a life too short.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“I’m just being realistic. Do they sell fish by age? I wonder how you tell how old a fish is?”

“No clue. Size maybe?”

“Then get a big one this time.”

I kept my grandma’s advice in mind as I perused the goldfish tank at my local pet store. They’d seen me come in a few times now and the employee loitering by the fish tanks was giving me the side eye.

“Having some trouble keeping the little suckers alive,” I said with a forced laugh. The guy didn’t smile, so I dropped my grin, too. Maybe he took fish lives way serious. I tried to look harmless, which wasn’t hard since I barely topped five two.

Pushing my glasses up my nose—a nervous habit I couldn’t break—I asked, “So can I get an old fish?”

“They’re all about the same,” he said, scooping up a random goldfish and depositing it inside a water-filled plastic bag. He tied off the bag and handed it to me. “Good luck.”

I paid and hurried outside, hugging my flannel shirt tighter over my T-shirt and wishing I’d thought to grab a coat when I left home. It was early October and the sun was shining—a gorgeous Sunday morning—but I was too skinny and perpetually cold.

My Ford Mustang shone in the sun, giving me the warm fuzzies and dissolving the twinge of guilt I had when I looked at the blissfully oblivious fish I carried. The car was my one indulgent purchase when I’d graduated from MIT and gotten a job paying well into six figures. It was fully loaded, complete with a performance package.

I’d been stopped for speeding numerous times, but had yet to get an actual ticket. The cops usually took one look at me—short, bespectacled, unruly mass of hair yanked back in a ponytail—and snorted with laughter. The last time I was pulled over, the officer even asked if I had to use a phone book to see over the steering wheel. Smart-ass.

I appreciated the Men in Blue, but not always their sense of humor.

Sunday was Admin Day—the day of the week I reserved for administrative tasks like groceries, errands, laundry, bill paying, and talking to my grandma.

The cherry red of my Mustang gleaming in the far corner of the lot—furthest away from any other car—beckoned me. The purr of the engine was like an old friend greeting me, only this friend spoke in mechanics and gasoline, via tachometer and speedometer. Those signals were blessedly easy to read, as opposed to actual people with all their body language, obfuscations, doublespeak, and insinuations.

As was my routine, I stopped at Retread, the pop-vintage store that was on my way home. I’d been searching for a mint version of Van Halen’s
5150
album and so far, nothing had come in. But there was always a chance one had shown up, or something else was just waiting to be discovered in the stacks the owner hadn’t yet sorted. I could use eBay or search online, but finding it myself in a store was its own unique reward. Typing in Google’s search box and clicking the Buy It Now button didn’t offer the same kind of gratification.

“Hey, Buddy,” I called out as I pushed open the door to the shop. A little bell clanged tunelessly as it bumped against the glass, announcing my arrival even if I hadn’t spoken. But I always spoke anyway, just so he knew it was me.

A head poked out from behind a dilapidated bookcase toward the back of the shop. The shelves were bowed with the weight of books and records piled up, and I had serious doubts as to how much longer they would hold out.

“Hey, China. How’s it going?”

That’s me. China Mack. Well, not really. My name was China, which was weird enough, but my last name was fifteen letters long and unpronounceable by anyone who’d had the misfortune of having to attempt it. So I went by a shortened version of my middle name—Mackenzie. Thus, China Mack.

“The usual,” I said, wandering over to the “Just Arrived” section, though that was a misnomer. Buddy was so behind, there was stuff that had “Just Arrived” for more than six months now. It wasn’t really his fault. An acute case of ADHD meant Buddy was easily distracted. Kind of like when you start watching a YouTube video on how to repair your iPhone screen and end up two hours later bleary-eyed and watching a compilation video of cats falling off furniture set to the tune of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

“No
5150
this week,” he said, disappearing again behind the bookcase. “But I got an absolutely pristine version of the Beatles’
White Album
.”

I grimaced. “I’m an Elvis fan, not Beatles,” I reminded him, crouching down.

“I keep hoping to convert you.”

“Not gonna happen.” Hmm. I saw the corner of something that looked interesting, buried under about twenty other albums. Glad I didn’t care if my jeans got dirty.

“The Beatles were groundbreaking musical geniuses,” Buddy said, his voice slightly muffled from behind the bookcase.

“They were bubblegum pop who had lucky timing,” I shot back.

“I should bar you from my store for that.”

“Then you’d lose half your customers.” I grinned. The Elvis vs. Beatles argument was ongoing between us, with each of us making insults as to the other’s idol of choice.

Buddy grumbled as he worked, but I knew he got a kick out of our friendly rivalry as much as I did. And I wasn’t joking about the customers. How he kept the shop running, I had no idea. I didn’t even know if Buddy was his real name. He’d introduced himself as Buddy and the few people I’d seen come in the store called him that. I assumed it wasn’t his actual name. Who’d do that to a kid? Of course, I wasn’t one to talk. I’d taken a lot of crap over the years because of my name.

I pulled out the album that had caught my eye, grinning. A near-mint condition of Madonna’s
Like a Virgin
album. Sweet.

“Hey Buddy,” I called. “I’ll give you twenty bucks for
Like a Virgin
.”

“Fifty.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Done.”

Thrilled by my new acquisition, I set the album aside and moved farther into the store. I dug around the store every week and still hadn’t been through all the nooks, crannies, and crevices that were filled to the brim with old records, books, and various vintage paraphernalia.

I passed three boxes that held familiar clay figures. “Buddy, I told you to quit accepting Chia Pets. No one buys them.” I shook my head. Buddy could dicker over prices all day, but he couldn’t turn down free merchandise.

“They discontinued Chia Teddy Bear,” he said. “It’s rare.”

“No, it’s not,” I absently told his disembodied voice. “They began reissuing it as Chia Bear in 2006.” I was distracted by a milk crate full of paperbacks, and crouched down.
Vintage Harlequins . . . cool!
My grandma had read them by the bucketful when I was little. She still did. She was going to be ecstatic at getting a box of these.

“How do you know this shit?”

I let out a girly scream and fell back onto my butt at the voice right next to me. Buddy had come out from behind the bookcase without me even noticing.

“You scared the crap out of me, Buddy!”

“Sorry,” he said, looking abashed. “Still, I don’t know how you know all the crap you do.” He shook his head and walked away as the bell on the door tinkled again.

I went back to pawing through the collection of romance novels. Yes, I had a really good memory for completely useless crap and anything to do with my work, but ask me to tell you last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Actress and I’d give you a blank look.

Whoever had dropped off the books had dug them out of a dust pile because they were coated in dirt and cobwebs. I brushed them off as I stacked them—Silhouettes to one side, the Harlequins on the other—grimacing at the layer of grime starting to coat my hands and clothes. My nose itched and I sneezed, then sneezed again.

“Bless you.”

Eyes watering, I glanced over to see a very nice pair of Italian leather shoes, which were at the end of long legs encased in black slacks. I looked up, then up farther to a leather belt and a button-down black-as-coal shirt of thick cotton. I swallowed, reluctantly lifting my eyes until my gaze fell on a familiar and wholly unwelcome face.

“Find something worth buying, China?” my boss asked.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit
.

Jackson Cooper owned the company where I worked and, for anyone else, seeing their boss outside of work wouldn’t be a big deal. For me, it was a disaster of gargantuan proportions. Tall with eyes a deep, warm brown and chestnut hair, he had the intellectual stamina of a genius and prodigy rolled into one. Combined with the business acumen of a savant and the smoldering sexuality of Christian Grey, he was the epitome of every woman’s fantasy man. Well, maybe not
every
woman, but definitely me.

Which meant, of course, that my limited social skills fled in his presence. At work, I could at least pretend to be occupied with my computer and keep my earbuds in when he walked by. Now, he was looking at me and talking to me and obviously expecting some sort of halfway-cogent response.

“Um, yeah” was the best I could come up with. I felt my face get hot and nervously shoved my glasses up my nose.

Jackson waited, apparently in the vain hope that I’d say more, but I just pressed my lips together and stared. It wasn’t hard to stare at him. I did it all the time from the limited privacy of my cube.

“Okay then,” he said, offering me a polite half smile. “Enjoy your books.”

He walked past as I sat there on the floor, surrounded by paperback romances, their covers adorned with women and men in clinches and bodies half-naked as an invisible wind tore at their clothing.

Oh God.
I wanted to die right then. He probably thought I was actually going to buy all these romance novels, which, who was I kidding, I probably would, but that wasn’t the point. They were for my grandma, not me.

A moment later, I heard the door open again and Buddy call out a stammering “Bye. C-come again,” which meant Jackson had left. Buddy always
tried
to be friendly, but it usually just came across as awkward and vaguely creepy to people who didn’t know him.

“Did you see that?” Buddy asked when I set a stack of two dozen paperbacks on the counter.

“Yep,” I said.


The
Jackson Cooper was in my store.” Buddy’s voice was a mixture of awe and fear.

Everyone knew who Jackson was. And why wouldn’t they? He was a genius bazillionaire who looked like Brad Pitt circa 2000. Women practically killed each other in their rush to land him, and he’d made the
Forbes
Ten Most Eligible Billionaire Bachelors list. Twice.

He’d hacked into the NSA at fourteen and started working for secret government agencies by the time he was sixteen. By twenty-one, he was disillusioned (or so the rumors said) and left the government to start his own business in the private sector. And he’d done phenomenally well, creating a social media platform that hit huge. Which he then sold for top dollar.

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