Authors: Elle Hill
Table of Contents
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Rae Monet, Inc.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
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It’s easy to be president of my fan club
when you’re the only member.
My warmest thanks to Deborah Gilbert, an editor who takes the sting out of edit rounds.
In the night-dark room, the red pool glistened like oil. The liquid sat thick, unmoving, edges curling to the wooden floor below while silver-white light from the moon curdled along its smooth surface. The room, still and cold. A square window, its pane lying shattered below, glared down upon the scene. The bright blue moonlight and cool air of a Southern California winter streamed through the open window.
The woman huddled directly below the window, motionless and quiet, staring at the puddle and listening to the almost inaudible sounds of her own breathing. Logic told her she was alone in the house, that the damage had been done, but she couldn’t bring herself to move, to make any noise, to shake the shards of glass from her hair and flee the room and all its horrors. Her palms stung and her legs shook, but her eyes remained clear as she stared straight ahead.
I shouldn’t be here
, she thought.
One of her legs jittered in a series of tiny muscle spasms. She held her breath, but of course no one burst into the room. The pool shuddered in response to the vibration. The center gleamed red-black, like a, like a ruby dipped in ink. Better to think in terms of oil, ink, and gemstones than to imagine where it came from, what it meant . . .
Why am I here?
she wondered. Her legs ached from the strain of sitting there for so long, but she remained as still as possible. Below her, the house groaned briefly as old houses do. She jumped and tucked her knees even further beneath her. Chilly air stirred the hair on her arms, and she shivered.
I don’t have to be here
, she told herself.
I don’t want to be here. I want to be somewhere, anywhere else. Anywhere but here. Anywhere. I want to go away from here
Around her, the room grew brighter. She closed her eyes and hid her face in her chilled hands. Within seconds, the sounds and scents shifted very slightly from California dust and old house to sand and seagulls. Hardly daring to believe, she lifted her head and breathed.
Instead of glass, warm sand coated her hands and speckled her dark hair. Rather than a dim, musty room, a sunny ocean vista spread before her. A scented breeze puffed her hair around her head and into her eyes. She laughed and extended her legs, now clad in cut-off denim shorts. Her nose burned with salt and her skin slowly began to warm.
“I did it!” she whispered, and then looked around, somewhat irrationally, to make sure no one had heard. She was alone on the beach.
I want to stay here. I won’t go back there, where I was scared and helpless. I don’t want to be scared anymore
It was difficult for her to maintain such bleak thoughts. The vast, noisy, gorgeously chaotic ocean spread before her and the sun baked her cold bones. This beach faced south, and the sun dangled in the southwestern sky, casting an elongated, shimmering reflection in the ocean’s choppy surface.
The woman inhaled the clean breeze, quickly braided her hair to keep it out of her eyes for a moment or two, and grinned at the scene.
As she watched, the reflection on the water grew smoother, shinier, less corrugated. The water around it started to darken. Light leached from the sky, which darkened from pale blue to midnight. The sea air grew chillier, dustier, the sunlight dimmed and grew silvery. The sand firmed beneath her.
“No!” she yelled in frustration and slammed her hands down into the sand. She felt cold wooden boards and shards of glass under her palms. Her hands stung and throbbed, and glass tinkled to the floor from her hair. The room loomed dark, quiet, and chilly. The pool gleamed still and red-black in the moonlight.
She wanted to weep, to scream, to cower and whimper. But she’d promised herself she wouldn’t be scared anymore; she owed it to her sanity, to herself, to keep trying.
Overhead, a car rumbled through the structure like an earthquake, shaking the cement ceiling and the floor below. A veteran Southern Californian for whom traffic sounds formed the backdrop of his existence, Reed scarcely noticed. He strode toward his beat-up pickup, parked before a bend in the third level of the parking garage. The temperature, dipping well into the fifties, had other Angelenos huddling in their oversized coats, but Reed remained jacketless. He’d never been especially sensitive to temperature.
He only had sixty or so dollars in his pocket and few to no opportunities to garner more. Luckily for him, the parking garage opened its gates after nine p.m.
His pea green (he’d purchased it eight years ago and always meant to repaint it) Chevy hunkered forlornly at the end of the aisle. As he drew closer, sounds echoed to him from just beyond the turn: grunts, brief cries, and the scuffle of shoes on pavement. Eyebrows raised, he increased his pace to a casual jog and rounded the bend.
Not fifteen feet from where he stood, three people engaged in a surprisingly fierce fight. Two tall, solid looking people—one man and one woman—attacked a single man. He was slighter than both the others and was clearly losing, but he kept doggedly fighting. They twosome hailed kicks and punches to the smaller man, and he lashed out as often as he could sneak in a blow.
“Hey!” Reed called, striding toward the group. Three heads snapped toward him. Everyone,
including the victim
, flashed identical expressions of enraged annoyance on him before resuming the fight.
He reached the tangle of limbs and shoved the taller man, one of the aggressors, away from his victim. Accidentally, he thought, the woman delivered a backhanded slap to his face, and he stumbled backward.
, that hurt. This woman definitely ate her Wheaties.
The fighting halted, and all eyes turned back to him and his undoubtedly red cheek, which throbbed with each thump of his heart.
“Back off,” the tall man, half of his face covered in angry pink scars, growled at him. “Get the hell out of here.”
Wiping blood from his face, the smaller man glared at him and shook his hand to dislodge red droplets. The woman turned fully to Reed, teeth bared.
“Hey, I’d love to jam,” Reed said smoothly, “but there’s this little thing called unfairness. Two on one just doesn’t work for me.”
The woman, her strong, white face twisted into a knot of rage, took a step toward him and ostentatiously sniffed. “He’s one of them,” she hissed.
“I don’t know you, lady, but you and your boyfriend better haul your asses out of here right now.”
She raised her fists and he braced for her attack, but just then a shiny, silver Lexus came barreling around the corner. The driver slowed the car, taking in the curious scene.
“Not the best place,” the man said gruffly to his companion, placing a hand on her arm. She lowered her hands to her thighs.
The woman scowled at Reed. “I don’t know you yet,” the woman said quietly, still glaring at him, “but I’ll remember you from now on.”
“Bully for you,” he said quietly. “Now go.”
She backed slowly away from him as if expecting him to jump her the second she turned her back. Her partner continued staring at Reed, his face smoothing into blankness. After a moment, Reed gestured impatiently for him to follow the woman. He turned and strode to her side. She spun and stepped into effortless synchronicity with him; walking together, footsteps tapping a single crack, they effected a fluidity that reminded him of dancers. Professionals. The pair quickly reached the stairs and descended without once glancing back.
Reed turned back to the shorter, wirier man, who stared at him through narrowed eyes. “You okay?”
“Who are you?” Blood slipped slowly from the man’s nose and over his lips. Growling in irritation, he swiped a hand across his lower face.
“My name’s Reed. Hey, man, you need some help? I can drive you somewhere if you need.”
“I mean which Family are you with, you idiot,” the man snapped. He leaned back, cracking his spine.
Reed took a step toward the man. “After I stepped in for you, you will not disrespect me,” he said quietly. “My family is none of your business. Do you or do you not need a lift?”
Staring at him, his watery eyes crackling with intensity, the man finally nodded, very slowly. “I could use a ride home,” he said.
“All right.” He nodded toward his pickup. “This is my ride. There are some napkins in the glove compartment. Use them.”
After Reed unlocked his pickup, the other man climbed in. He grabbed some fast-food napkins and dabbed at his face.
The truck fired up almost immediately. As he guided the unwieldy vehicle around the turns, Reed quietly remarked, “I need to know two things. First of all, you have my name; I’d like to have yours. Second, where do you live?”
“Alberto,” the man said right away. “Alberto Daleth. I live in Pasadena.”
They remained silent for a few minutes. Finally, Alberto asked, through the wad of napkins obscuring his nose and mouth, “Does the last name sound familiar to you?”
Reed glanced at the other man, sitting slightly hunched in his seat, one arm around his stomach, the other pressing a ball of napkins to his face. Alberto was younger than him, maybe by four or five years. He was medium-height and stringy with longish, wavy black hair and Kewpie-doll brown eyes that, under different circumstances, could easily convey youthful innocence. He’d never seen him before today.
“No. Should it?”
Slowly, Alberto shook his head. “Neh. I just thought, since the woman thought we knew each other, you might’ve heard of me. What’s your last name, brother?”
Reed merged onto the Two North before leveling another look at Alberto. “I guarantee we’re not brothers. My last name is Jayvyn.”
Several minutes passed, during which Alberto supplied his home address. After another minute, he asked, “Aren’t you even curious about why those two jumped me?”
“Not really,” Reed said. “I figure it’s none of my business.”
“You kind of made it your business,
, when you jumped in the middle of it,” Alberto said dryly. He patted his nose and stared at the napkins.
“All right. So why?”
“Their Family and mine, we got some differences.”
Reed heard the capital “F” loud and clear. “They didn’t strike me as gang members,” he mused.
“What, and I do?” Alberto laughed. “I didn’t peg you for a racist son-of-a-bitch.”
Scowling, Reed said, “They fought and moved in tandem like professional fighters, maybe military.”
Alberto nodded slowly. “That’s pretty close to the truth. Hell, it’s complicated. They just don’t like my Family so much. They take every opportunity to kick our asses.”
“Sounds like gangs to me.”
Alberto sighed. “Whatever, man.” After a minute, he said, “What city you live in?”
“Echo Park? I lived there for a few months when I was a kid.”
Reed shook his head. “I’ve lived in L.A. my whole life,” he said.
“You had, like, a mom and dad and everything?” Alberto asked tentatively.
Reed turned brief eyes to him. “Both for a while, but my mom mostly raised me.”
“Did you ever belong to a—some kind of organization?”
Reed sighed. “Just because my mom was a sister doesn’t mean I joined a gang. I never pegged you as a racist SOB.” He raised his eyebrows at the other man.
Alberto laughed. “Man, I am so not talking about gangs right now. I think there are some people you should talk to. I think you may be related to me and my Family and not know it.”
Reed whistled as his truck shuddered dramatically to a stop in front of the address Alberto had given him. “Nice digs,” he commented.
Alberto grunted as he awkwardly slid out of the vehicle. “Yeah, not bad, right? My Family owns it.” Half hidden in lush green foliage—since, in Southern California, winter was the wet season—the sprawling, two-story, Craftsman-style house almost appeared carved out of the scenery. It was difficult to gauge the exact size of the house, but it was clearly the home of a wealthy family.
Walking slightly hunched, his right arm banded across his stomach, Alberto led him to a rocky path through the spacious yard. After painfully navigating the three steps leading to the porch, Alberto paused in front of the giant, arched wooden door. “Welcome to Casa Daleth,” he said, grinning. He swung open the door with a flourish.
A sleek, blue-gray dog bounded to Alberto and shoved its nose into his free left hand. He petted it absently while scanning the entranceway, presumably for other people. “Good girl,” he muttered.
The two men entered the foyer and into a spotlessly clean interior. The flooring alone, a light brown stone inlay, cost more than Reed made,—had made, in a year. Maybe several years. The foyer opened up into a living room or sitting room or whatever the hell rich people called the place where people sat and talked. The house was done in comforting, earthy colors and decorated, oddly, with slightly bedraggled plants in expensive, mosaic pots. A wide, full-length mirror, its edges outlined with a heavy border of pressed tin, sat flush with the wall opposite the couch.
“That you, Berto?” a young woman’s voice called from somewhere off to the right.
“Come here, Mari!” Alberto, the typical post-teenager, yelled. Within a minute, a tiny brown girl, no more than twenty-five, hair twisted into two low ponytails to accentuate her wide-eyed, innocent look, stepped into view. An inch or two over five feet, slim and fragile, the young woman shared Alberto’s huge brown eyes and clear, light brown skin. She looked like an angel. “This is my sister, Maricruz,” he said, rather redundantly. “Mari, this is Reed.”
“What happened to you,
?” she asked in a voice that, although sharpened by concern, still managed to sound like some kind of musical instrument,— an oboe, maybe, or some kind of flute.
“I ran into some Clan,” he said, and limped—a little more ostentatiously than before, Reed thought—to the nearest couch, a champagne-colored, suede sectional. He eased himself down with a loud groan.