Beta, p.13
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       Beta, p.13

         Part #2 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
 
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I stifled a heart-wrenching, gut-wracking sob as the man I loved walked away from me, every line of his body hard and conflicted and taut. I stared at him, watched him, and refused to look away until exhaustion took its toll, pulling me under like a riptide.

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  * * *

  I woke to the sounds of the city, a breeze wafting over me. The bed beside me was empty. Night had fallen long ago. I sat up slowly, stiff and sore. My heart ached. I didn’t even get that moment of forgetting, the split-second illusion that everything was okay. I wanted that moment; I needed it. I glanced at the balcony, saw Roth sitting in one of the chairs, feet up on the railing, still shirtless in a pair of blue jeans, barefoot. I stood up, stretched the kinks out of my back and neck. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing in Alexandria, despite several days of travel. It didn’t matter, though. Not then. Not in that moment.

  I smelled him as I approached him, the Scotch on his breath. He peered up at me as I slid between the back of his chair and the wall, and took the seat beside him. He had the bottle in one hand, a rocks glass in the other, a bucket of melting ice on the table, along with a second glass, empty and clean. I took the empty glass, clinked four cubes of ice into it, and pried the glass from Roth’s hand, poured until it was nearly overflowing.

  I took a sip, hissed and winced at the burn, then took another sip, which went down more smoothly. A third sip morphed the burn into a warming glow. We sat drinking Scotch in silence, in the relative darkness of night, Manhattan ever wakeful and busy and endless around us.

  The bottle was three-fourths gone, and I suspected he’d been out here drinking most of the night. I didn’t know what time it was, and I didn’t care.

  “’M a little sloshed, I’m afraid. ” His voice was slurred, a low stumbling growl from beside me. “A lot, actually. Probably couldn’t stand up even if I tried. ”

  “That’s okay. ” I took another long sip. “I might join you. ”

  He took a drink, ice clinking and clattering. He twisted his head sloppily to gaze at me. “Why are you still here?” He enunciated his words very carefully, precisely, his accent bleeding through more strongly than ever.

  “Because I love you. I chose you. Remember? You brought me here. You made me yours. And then you told me your secret. And even knowing that you killed my father, I still chose you. I couldn’t stay away then, and I can’t stay away now. I won’t. Not just can’t, Roth. Won’t. I won’t abandon you, especially not now. How could I claim to love you if I walked away now? You need me, now more than ever. ”

  “Never needed anyone before. Not anyone. Father kicked me out, disowned me. And damn him, I survived. Nearly didn’t, a few times. Nearly got myself killed more than once. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing when I started running guns for Vitaly. I got into that by accident, you should know. ” He glanced at me, blinked blearily. “I never intended to get into that. I started out like I told you, buying fishing boats and real estate, that sort of thing. And then I was out for drinks with a man who was rumored to have several apartment blocks in Moscow for sale. We were in…Kiev? Maybe Kiev. And he—this man, he asked me if I wanted to make a quick and easy ten grand. Well, of course, who doesn’t? And when he said all I’d have to do was take a suitcase from Kiev to Istanbul, I knew it was no good. But I’d just had a sale fall through, a big one. And I owed money. I’d borrowed, so I owed. I needed that ten grand. So I did it. ”

  Roth took another long drink, emptying his glass, then set the tumbler down on the table between us.

  “I met Gina two weeks later,” he continued. “In Athens. She took me home to her apartment. I remember standing outside the door of her flat in Athens, wondering what I was getting into. I’d seen the craziness in her eyes already. You couldn’t miss it, even then. Two drinks together, and I knew she was dangerous. But I went into her apartment with her anyway. Later, after we’d fucked, she lay beside me and looked at me. I remember what she said. I remember it verbatim. ‘You know, Val, now that you’ve fucked me, you can’t ever leave me. I won’t let you. ’”

  He blinked and lifted his hand to his mouth as if he’d forgotten that’d put down his now-empty cup.

  “Gina, she was fucked up in head, in the things she wanted us to do. In bed, I mean. I’m quite honestly too drunk to be tactful right now, so I’m sorry. She wanted to tie me up. She wanted to blindfold me and do all sorts of nasty shit. Not really true BDSM, just…she demanded total control. Wanted total subservience from me, sexually and otherwise. ” He ducked his head, staring at his knees. “I went along with a lot of what she wanted. Most of it. I drew the line at a few things. She got off on pain. Giving, and receiving. I’d let her hurt me, but I wouldn’t hurt her. I wouldn’t let her peg me. She went mental when I said no to that. I gave her control, though. I let her have it. It killed me, deep down. I hated it. Hated her more with every day that passed.

  “Every time I did what she wanted, it was because I was afraid of her, afraid of her father. Not of her physically, but of of her unpredictability. Like, if I didn’t do what she wanted, I went to sleep nervous. I could wake up hogtied. I did once, actually. Went to bed after an argument and woke up hogtied. Slipped me a mickey in my drink, but I was already drunk and angry and didn’t feel it. Woke up tied hand and foot, hands to feet behind my back. She left me like that for hours. Because I wouldn’t…god, so filthy to think of now, but she wanted me to felch her. I wouldn’t. Fuck no, I wouldn’t. Bad enough argument, I worried I’d just never wake up. She’d slit my throat in my sleep. ” He shot a sidelong glance at me. “Does my need for control make sense now, love?”

  I thought of the times he’d given me control sexually, let me do what I wanted to him. Now, hearing this story, it made so much more sense. Made the trust he’d shown me that much more heady. I could only nod, trying to hold back emotion. “Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Makes me love you even more for letting me have control the way you have. ”

  He nodded. “That was hard. That day in the shower? You remember that? What you did with your finger? I always, always drew the line at that. Letting her do that kind of thing to me. I never would. It was just…my personal line. And she hated it. It made her so, so angry every time. But I let you do that. I gave that to you. Because…I knew you. I understood you. I knew you wouldn’t hurt me, wouldn’t embarrass me. Wouldn’t demand something you didn’t think I’d mind giving. ”

  “Never, baby. I love you. I love you so much. ”

  “I know. ” He watched me empty my glass and pour another. “Catching up quick, aren’t you, love?” In all the time I’d known him, he’d never sounded so English. I’d heard him sound formal, almost stuffy, precise, arch and crisp. I’d heard him sound gruff and harsh and vulgar. But this? This was a side of Valentine that I never knew existed.

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  “Yeah, getting there,” I said.

  Silence sat thick between us. And then he twisted his head to look at me, a strange expression on his face. “I’d kill for you. You know that, right? When they come, I’ll kill them. All of them. As many as they send. ”

  I swallowed hard. “I know. I wish we could just…sell everything. Take your money and go. Buy a big boat and live out there. Like we were. Just you and me. They’d never find us. I’ll live that life with you. ”

  He shook his head. “I wish we could, too. But Kyrie, I’ve—I’ve put this off long enough. Hidden from them long enough. Avoided. Pretended I didn’t know they were watching and waiting. I have to end this. ” His gaze cleared, the haze of alcohol burning away under the intensity of his expression. “Let me hide you. Send you with Harris somewhere they’ll never find you. Let me handle this. Handle her. I’ll take care of things, and then we can—”

  “No. ” I stood up. “No, Valentine. Not happening. I’m not leaving your side. I don’t have anywhere to go. I have no one and nothing but you. I’m staying. ”

&n
bsp; “What about Cal? And Layla?”

  I shrugged miserably. “I love them. Of course I do. But my brother? Cal has his own life. He doesn’t know anything about any of this, and it’s better that way. He’s a college kid. He plays beer pong and hazes new frat pledges and studies for midterms. And Layla? I don’t want her involved. I go anywhere near her, all of this could spill over and put her in danger. She’s my best friend. Closer than a sister. And I just can’t put her at risk. ”

  Roth nodded. Stood up, put his hands on my shoulders for balance. “Okay, then. ”

  I waited, but he didn’t say anything else. “Okay? All that, and all you have to say now is ‘okay’?”

  He frowned down at me. “What do you want me to say, Kyrie?”

  “I don’t know. ” I turned away, watched the red taillights and white headlights streaming in opposite directions far beneath me. My voice was small and broken. “Anything. Tell me you love me. Tell me it’ll be okay. ”

  His silence was long and fraught. “I can’t tell you it’ll be okay. I won’t lie to you. ”

  I turned in place and put my back to the railing. I waited, watched him. His eyes were lucid and searching me. He was still drunk, but in the dark, depressed, hopeless stage. “That’s it, then?”

  “I’m drunk, Kyrie. I haven’t slept in days. Haven’t showered in longer. I’m a mess. I’m fucked up. I don’t know what I’m feeling or how to deal with it. I’m scared to sleep. I’m scared to touch you. To let you touch me. I’m…useless right now. ”

  I let out a long, tremulous breath. Summoned my courage. My determination. “Come on. ” I took his hand, led him inside.

  He followed me, let me pull him into the bathroom. He stood still, eyes narrow and hooded, watching me as I gingerly unbuttoned his pants. “What are you doing, Kyrie?”

  “You’re taking a shower, and I’m going to help you. I need one, too. Let’s take this slow, okay? One moment, one hour, one day at a time. ”

  I lowered the zipper, tugged the denim down. I knelt, helped him step out, let him steady himself with a hand on my shoulder. He stood before me in a pair of gray Calvin Klein boxer briefs, muscular, toned, and beautiful. I turned on the water, set it to the hottest it would go, and let it steam up the bathroom. I stood in front of him, still in my jeans and T-shirt. I wanted him to reach for me, to help me out of my shirt, out of my pants. But he didn’t. He just stood there, and my heart broke a little. I peeled my shirt off slowly, never taking my eyes from his. I unbuttoned and unzipped my jeans, stepping out of them. I waited in my bra and underwear, watching as his chest filled and lowered with deep breaths, his eyes moving over my body.

  Not looking away from his conflicted blue gaze, I reached up behind my back and freed the hooks of my bra. Shrugging out of it, I let the undergarment fall to the marble. Tugged the waistband of my panties down with my thumbs, let the underwear fall to the floor, and stepped free. And then I was naked in front of him, and his hands were twitching at his sides, his brows lowered, muscles heavy, fists clenched, chest heaving.

  I waited.

  He took a step toward me, and my heart lifted, my pulse beating just a little harder. “Kyrie…. ”

  “Roth. I’m here. I’m yours. Don’t be afraid. ”

  “I’m not afraid,” he growled.

  “Then touch me. Prove it. ”

  “I have to prove myself to you?”

  I shut down the hurt. “No. That’s not what I meant. You won’t hurt me. I won’t hurt you. I’m not her. You’re not there anymore. You’re with me. You’re safe. ” I stepped toward him. Put my hands on his waist, smoothed them up his back, trying to block out the pain in my heart at the way he flinched at my touch. “It’s me, Valentine. You can trust me, you know that. I love you. I just…I need you to love me back. ”

  He blinked, squeezed his eyes shut, spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m trying, Kyrie. I’m fucking trying, okay?”

  12

  HOME

  VALENTINE

  The war within me was a furious onslaught of need versus fear versus memory versus nightmare. She stood naked in front of me, tanned taut skin, lush curves, long blonde hair sleep- and wind-mussed, eyes reddened and wet with tears. She was trying to hide her emotions from me, trying to be strong for me, but I could read her like a book. She couldn’t hide from me, and I hated that she felt like she had to. She needed me. She wanted me. What had happened between us on the boat… had fucked her up, no matter what she said. But she was soldiering on. Forgiving me. But yet…she doubted. I felt it. I saw it in her.

  It hadn’t been right. She’d done it for me; she’d given herself to me because she’d seen my need. But that hadn’t been me. Hadn’t been us. It was something I couldn’t wrap my brain around, something I couldn’t adequately define or explain to myself.

  And now here she was, naked and willing. Telling me she loved me. Begging me to touch her. To love her. And Jesus, I wanted to. Needed to. I needed her. I had to remind both of us of who I was. I had to know Gina hadn’t somehow stripped me of my capacity for love and gentility and passion; just as importantly, I had to know she hadn’t robbed me of my strength or my masculinity.

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  But I felt fear. Deeply rooted, powerful, gripping, paralyzing.

  Fear isn’t manly. When I ran from Gina and her father, I had some money and my name. I never used a fake name. Never pretended to be anyone other than myself. Yet when I ran from the Karahalios clan, I was running not just from the specter of death, from what Vitaly wanted me to do, from what Gina wanted me to do, but from my own lack of control with Gina. I’d acquiesced to her in so many ways. I’d given in again and again. I’d done things, let her do things I hadn’t wanted to. All because I had been afraid. More than I’d ever reveal to Kyrie, or even admit to myself. I had buried all that as deep as it would go once I was free of Gina, and I’d left it there, buried and denied, for almost a decade. And now it was all coming up. Coming back. Scenes from the past flashing before my eyes.

  I was paralyzed.

  Not just by what Gina had done to me while I was cuffed to that bed. I could get over that. I’d resisted her. She hadn’t broken me. I held on, held out.

  No, the real nightmares came from the memory of nights in years past, nights I’d spent wondering what Gina would make me do next. I’d been just a kid. Not a virgin when we met, not by any means. Not innocent, but in no way prepared for the madness and insatiable cruelty of a woman like Gina. I’d been afraid of her. Damn right, I had been. Still was. Evil I do not fear. Death I do not fear. Violence and blood and torture I do not fear. The unpredictable blood lust, the cruelty for the sake of sadism, and the way she savored fear, delighted in agony, relished manipulation and madness—that I feared.

  So, standing there with Kyrie naked and waiting for me to be her man—the man I was, the man I had been and should be, all I could feel was the fear of bygone days. Remembered fear. The feeling of filth on my skin after Gina finally left me. Wanting to scrub my skin until it bled to get the film of self-loathing off.

  When I finally escaped to New York, I hadn’t touched a woman for more than a year. Couldn’t look at a woman, couldn’t bear to be touched, kissed, or spoken to unless it was for business. And the first time I did finally take a woman, it had been an escort. A prostitute. The terms had been laid out ahead of time. There would be no date. No illusion of romance. She would not speak. She would not touch me. If she wanted me to stop, she would say my name: “Mr. Roth. ” At which point she would receive half-pay and would leave immediately. The first time, I’d been a bastard. I paid her triple. I hadn’t hurt her, but I’d been gruff, harsh, demanding. I’d done what I needed to do to relieve the ache, and then I sent her home. I hadn’t spoken a word. It had been brusque, cold, and cruel. The next time, with the next prostitute, I’d forced myself to go slower, to be kinder, gentler. As time went on, I learned a balance. I established m
y demands at the outset. Made it abundantly clear that this was to be a one-sided transaction, nothing more. It was about me taking what I needed and being done. Then one of the escorts broke the rules. She kissed me. She touched me. She’d refused to pretend to come. They all pretended; I knew that, and I didn’t care. This one, she didn’t pretend. She let me do what I wished, and then she’d…kissed me. Asked me if I wanted to try again, but this time not for business, no money changing hands. Just a man and woman in bed together. She wanted to come, too, she said.

  I went with it. I didn’t follow her lead, but instead of merely taking what I wanted, I paid attention to her physical cues and tried to make her come. In so doing, I discovered a deeper pleasure. Something hotter and more intense than my own orgasm. Making that escort—whose name I never even asked—feel pleasure gave me something, did something to me.

  When the night ended and the girl finally went home, I sat on the balcony of my high-rise, thinking. Reflecting. And I decided to embark on a quest. Instead of taking pleasure, I would give it. Under my terms, under my control. So I sent the escort a check for half a million dollars and a note thanking her for teaching me a valuable lesson.

  And then I met Kyrie.

  There had been other women in the years between that first meeting and sending Kyrie the first check. But when I made my decision, when I knew without a doubt that I had to make her mine, I stopped seeing anyone else. I cut ties with the escort service. Erased all the phone numbers of willing and discreet women I had on call. Over a year, not a single touch, not a look. By the time I had Kyrie sleeping in my guest room, I was crazed with need. I’d built up Kyrie in my mind. Made her into this…goddess. This was a woman who would change my life, a woman without compare. I made her into something no person could ever live up to.

  And then…Kyrie did the impossible. She not only lived up to my expectations, but she shattered them. Defied them. Surpassed them and made me need her all the more desperately. God. And then I told her my secret, expecting it would be the end. She’d left. I’d wallowed in despair. But she came back, and she pushed me. Gave me life back. Healed me. Made me believe in love.

  I’d told her I loved her, but I hadn’t known what love was. I needed her. Wanted her. But love? What was that? I didn’t know.

  She’d taught me. She was still teaching me.

  Her voice in the present shook me out of my silence. I’d been lost in my thoughts for who knew how long, the water from the shower sending steam billowing around us.

  “Roth?” Her voice was soft, hesitant. She held out her hand to me, an invitation. “Come in the shower with me. We don’t have to do anything. Just be near me. You don’t have to do anything or say anything. Just…be here with me, okay?” The resignation in her voice sliced deeply, cut me down where I stood.

 
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