Authors: Heather Knight
Tags: #Dark Erotic Romance
The Other Brother
A Stand-Alone Dark Romance, Book 3 in the
Snow and Ash Series
© 2016 by Heather Knight
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The Snow and Ash Series
On June 14, 2018, a well-known super-volcano blew, covering half of North America in a thick layer of ash and leaving sulfur and other gases trapped in the stratosphere. With the sun’s rays deflected off the earth’s surface, the planet is now enveloped in a volcanic winter that will last years, perhaps decades. No country, no climate, no civilization remains unscathed. Even the mighty U.S. Government has fallen. Millions died in those first weeks. Even more starved off, froze to death, or were taken by illness. Those who remain fight over what few resources are left.
Each of these stand-alone novels takes place in or near the once lushly forested Appalachian Mountains, which, if you look at a one of the few remaining maps, is located in what was once the mid-southern United States.
The Other Brother
begins four years into the volcanic winter.
SEPTEMBER 14, YEAR 04
(Four Years after the Ash)
“I don’t know if we should get married.”
“I understand.” Colonel Kent Barry clenches his hands into fists and looks out the window. The right side of his face flushes, and the mottled burn scars on the left side of his face pull the corner of his mouth down slightly. “I am not an attractive man.”
My heart sinks. “You think I mean your scars. It’s not that at all.”
“Right. Fine. Now, if we’re done here…”
Shit. “It’s not you. It’s me!”
“Jesus. Are you kidding me?” He looks like he’s going to throw me out. I clench my toes, my fingers, my face. Everything.
“No!” My face is hotter than a volcanic pit. “Your brother broke off our engagement because I told him something. It was enough for him to risk the alliance and literally flee the city. You shouldn’t have to marry me and then find out.”
His eyes flicker, and he just stands there staring at me like he expects me to continue. You don’t just throw stuff like that out there and not explain.
I shake ever so slightly, and I feel like I have bees in my stomach. I never talk about what happened. It’s too private, too hideous. But like I said, I can’t marry him without telling him first. I pick at my thumbnail and hope—pray—I don’t die from the shame. “I was fifteen. Just a couple months after Yellowstone erupted. Right when things were getting bad, you know?”
He nods curtly.
The bees in my stomach morph into hornets, and the glue that holds me together begins to crack. I fold my arms over my chest. “A gang came through our subdivision. They were looking for food, guns, stuff like that. I tried to hide, but they found me.”
“They hurt you?” He says this guardedly, like he’s afraid to say the word.
I shake harder and I want to run away, but like that day four years ago, there’s no place for me to hide. “There were five of them. They held me down and raped me.”
He swears under his breath, and I know what he’s thinking. I’m dirty.
“I don’t like to be touched,” I say before he can speak. “I don’t care how hard you try or how gentle…I’m always going to hate it. If you marry me, you’ll be stuck with someone who will never want it. So you and your brothers really need to think. Just how bad do you want this alliance?”
“So you’re saying you’re not going to…”
Startled, I look up and shake my head. “No, that’s not… I’ll do whatever you want. I wouldn’t cheat some guy out of… It’s just, I’m no bargain.”
He’s silent. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but he’s definitely evaluating the situation. I can practically hear him tick.
“That’s why Nico broke our engagement. I told him.”
He frowns. “You’re very honest.”
What I am is a goddamn human sacrifice. “I’m never going to be happy. That’s just how it is. But other people can be. If this brings peace between the territories, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
He looks away, and I can see the no in the stretch of his neck.
This hurts way worse than his selfish little brother publicly crying off. This guy actually wants to do the right thing, but marrying me, he’s screwed. Any man would be.
I’m so fucked up. I think I might cry.
“You can have a girl on the side. I won’t say anything.” I hate that I’m begging. “I’ll even have sex with you if that’s what you want. Just don’t…” I look away as though I can pretend he’s not here, I’m not here, and this conversation is not happening. “Don’t humiliate me by trying to please me. It’s not going to happen, and it’ll only make me hate you.”
“That’s…that’s a lot.” Those eyebrows go up in the air like he’s still trying to process the shock. The way he tugs at his collar, it’s as though he’s suffocating. Desperate to escape even. I don’t know why I ever hoped he’d say yes.
The alliance is so done. I’ll be going home with my father. He’ll be disgusted with me, and I don’t blame him. I feel as if I’m standing over one of those sinkholes you hear about, and I’m going down. Down. I retreat a step, knowing the conversation is over.
“It just didn’t feel right, not telling you. You can say whatever you want. I’m too plain; I’m too awkward.” I bite my lip. “It’s all been said before. Just don’t tell them…you know. I don’t like people to know.”
I’m done here. I want to run far away where no one knows me, where even I won’t know who I am. I can’t bear this tough, immaculate guy looking down his nose at me like I’m a mutant reptile. I spot a door, a different door than we came in through.
“Bianca,” he says in that crisp, sharp tone of his.
I’ve gotta go. I’ve. Got. To. Go.
I reach the hall and spot a door to the outside just down the hall. I don’t care how cold it is or how deep the snow; I go for it.
Colonel Barry has no idea how lucky he is. His wounds scarred over. He might be different now, but he healed. There are some wounds that never stop bleeding.
~ ~ ~
“How, Bianca? How? How could you possibly alienate not one, but both of them? What did you do? Damn it, you’ve single-handedly wrecked the whole deal!” My father’s face is almost purple.
“We just talked.” My voice is small.
“Well, what the hell did you talk about? Huh? Must have been quite a conversation.”
My chest flutters. “I—I just I told them the truth.”
“The truth about what? What, Bianca, what truth? Damn it, the whole alliance!”
I cannot form words. I cannot defend myself, and silence fogs the room.
I hear a floorboard squeak in the back hall behind me. I turn, but no one’s there.
“What in Sam Hill is so wrong with you that you scared two men off? Couldn’t your truth have waited until after the wedding?”
“I’m not like you! I’m not a liar!”
My head reels with the sting of his slap. I’m paralyzed, not with pain but with the sickening thrill of having gone too far.
“Your selfishness has ruined months of negotiation. Damn it, you’re useless to me. Useless! Amy, you deal with her!”
Dad looks me up and down like I’m covered with slime, and storms through the grand arched doorway. All the doors are grand or arched or double arched here at the Barry territorial seat, the former Biltmore House.
I clutch my face, but the sting of his blow is nothing compared to my own self-contempt. Innocent people will pay for what I’ve done.
“Let me see that.” Mom pulls my hand away from my face and touches it lightly. “Well, that’s not too bad, honey. I can fix that up so no one will ever be able to tell.”
I run my hands up into my hair. No one will see my bruise? Who cares if he hit me? “They’ll know I’ve shattered the alliance. He’s right; I’m completely useless.”
“Honey, you’re a really strong girl. You’re at the gym all the time. You practice harder than any soldier.”
Is she trying to comfort me? I don’t tell her that I train all day to keep anyone else from hurting me.
“You should try and use those skills.” She strokes my hair the way you soothe a nervous cat. My hair is blonde and super curly. It’s really long when it’s wet, but once it dries, it shrinks to about halfway up my back. The only way I can keep it from tangling is to keep it tightly braided at all times. Otherwise it’s a knotted hell.
“Maybe you could visit one of the outposts. We always need good people there. Just for a few months, you know. You don’t have to stay away forever.”
“Okay.” Her words hit me like a punch in the gut. I’m an embarrassment now?
“Good,” she says, and I hear the relief in her voice. “You were always such a good girl. So different from Letitia. Now let’s go get your stuff. Your father will want to leave as soon as—”
“I’m sorry. Am I interrupting something?”
I whirl around, and the shock of seeing the colonel sucks the blood from my head. I try to respond, and failing miserably, I look to Mom.
She smiles as though he hasn’t interrupted a thing. “Colonel Barry. No. Not at all. Bianca’s just going to go pack her things. We all are.”
He cocks his head like he’s confused or something. “Packing?”
Mom blushes. “Well, I’m sure, you know, after… I think it’s for the best.”
I focus on a corner where two baseboards meet as my face goes hotter than an oil-dipped torch. What is he doing here, anyway? Aren’t things awkward enough?
“If that’s what you want, of course,” he says. His voice is smooth and deep. Every inch the polished officer.
Mom smiles and takes a breath as though she’s about to say something.
Kent steps forward. “You won’t mind if I have a word with Bianca.”
It’s not a request.
She smooths the back of her hair and flicks me a glance.
He stares at her, and when she doesn’t move, he raises his chin. “If you don’t mind.” He casts a glance at the French doors.
Mom blushes. Her eyebrows practically disappear into her hairline, and she clasps a hand to her chest. “Oh! Of course. I’ll just be upstairs.”
She smiles tight-lipped at me and leaves the room. Her stiff gait tells me she’s seriously mortified. I’d like the floorboards to split and suck me to hell, if that’s not too much to ask. I swallow and look everywhere but at him.
He’s so freaking silent.
“What?” I finally demand.
He moves closer. “We never got a chance to finish our conversation.”
Sweat stings my pits. He’s got to be kidding. “Oh, I think we did.”
When he moves closer, I have to force myself not to step back. I raise my chin, and I try to keep my face impassive. It takes everything I have.
“You surprised me,” he admits.
“I don’t doubt that.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you away.” His voice is soft, full of apology.
This gets my attention. When I look at him, I find his hands balled at his sides.
“You didn’t scare me,” I say with perfect honesty. “I’m just a little sensitive about, you know.”
Of course I flush again and look at the floor. He moves closer, and my stomach does a little flip when he takes my hand. Oh, dude. You have got to go away.
“I understand. I wanted to thank you for telling me up front.”
“Sure,” I say, and my body feels like it’s made of unmovable steel parts. “No problem.”
“Does your family know? About what happened to you?”
I suck in a breath. “No! Well, my older sister does. She was there, but Mom and Dad? No!”
“Why would I tell anyone?”
“What about your sister? Was she…”
I shake my head. “We had an old entertainment center. The kind that was for big TVs? She hid in there.”
“So her little sister was being raped by a gang of men, and she just hid?”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“She could have hidden you. How old did you say you were? Fifteen? How old was she?”
“Twenty. And it’s none of your business.”
“It is my business. I’m going to be your husband.”
A sizable block of lead settles over my chest. “But I thought…”
“I changed my mind.”
I shake, both with gut-wrenching relief and fear. “Why?”
“Because the alliance is important to me. Because you told me the truth even though it meant facing your father’s anger.” He takes a breath. “Because when you look at me, I don’t feel like you’re only looking at my scars.”