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         Part #1 of RAW Family series by Belle Aurora
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  Contents

  COPYRIGHT

  DEDICATION

  PROLOGUE

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty One

  Chapter Twenty Two

  Chapter Twenty Three

  Chapter Twenty Four

  Chapter Twenty Five

  Chapter Twenty Six

  Chapter Twenty Seven

  Chapter Twenty Eight

  Epilogue

  RAW

  Published by Belle Aurora

  Copyright © 2014 Belle Aurora

  First published 2014

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, addressed “Request: Copyright Approval” at authorbelleaurora@hotmail.com

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Belle Aurora is in no way affiliated with any brands, songs or musicians or artists mentioned in this book.

  Formatting by Frankie Rose

  frankierose101@gmail.com

  Dedication:

  To anyone who has ever loved unconditionally.

  To all the people who have loved someone that did not deserve it.

  And finally, to every person who has followed their heart down the path less travelled.

  This is for you.

  Twenty years ago…

  I can hear them again.

  My neighbors are fighting. The little boy screams for him to stop.

  I kneel down by my window. Closing my eyes tight, I cover my ears and sing to myself.

  I don’t like it.

  Then, nothing.

  I listen hard, then uncover my ears.

  Turning around, I stand a little, peek over the edge of the window, and see him walking fast by the side of my house. He stumbles, falls, and crawls out of my sight.

  He’s hurt.

  My heart races.

  I could get in a lot of trouble. Daddy would be real mad.

  Kneeling down out of sight for a moment, I stand quickly and creep to the doorframe.

  I listen. Hard.

  The TV plays and I hear him snore.

  Hope ignites.

  Tiptoeing down the stairs, I sneak into the kitchen. Getting a chair from the small dining table, I stand on it and reach for the top shelf.

  I get what I need, slide the chair back in, and make my way to the back door.

  My hand reaches for the knob, grips it tight, then…I still.

  I could get in a lot of trouble for this.

  My heart beats out of my chest.

  Turning the knob, it squeaks a little, and fear washes over me. Stopping, I turn it so slowly that it takes forever to make the rotation.

  Finally, I feel the latch click over, and I pull the door open. Taking off my slippers, I put them in between the door and frame so the door can’t close.

  Barefoot and dressed only in my white nightie, I tread softly through the backyard, the soft grass cold under my feet, following the sound of the heavy breathing and soft crying.

  Finding him at the back of the property line under a tree, I see him cover his face with his hands. His body shakes.

  Even hidden away in the dark, he doesn’t want anyone to see his tears.

  He’s trying to be strong.

  My heart hurts.

  Slowly walking closer, I step on a twig. It breaks, and his face snaps up to look at me.

  Jumping up like a jack in the box, he yells out, “Get away from me.”

  Not coming any closer, I put down my supplies and whisper, “You’re hurt.”

  He watches me carefully, looking between the things I’ve brought and my face, as if searching for some hint of this being a joke.

  He scowls and says quietly, “I’m always hurt.”

  Even in the dark, I see the hatred in his eyes. It shines bright as day.

  I see his cheek become darker. Stepping forward with wide eyes, I tell him, “You’re bleeding.”

  Reaching up to his cheek, he touches the wound with his fingertips, pulls it away, then looks at his blood. He rubs it between his thumb and middle finger slowly. Caressing the blood, as if in apology.

  I stutter, “I- I can help you.”

  Lifting his cold eyes to me, he spits, “No one can help me.”

  He can’t boss me around.

  Placing a hand on my hip, I glare at him and whisper-hiss, “I could get into a lot of trouble. My daddy would be real mad. And…and I came to help you.” Suddenly scared for myself, I say a hushed, “Please, let me help you.”

  I need to get back inside before my dad finds out I’m not in bed.

  My face must show my fear because his posture relaxes a little, and he asks, “Why would you help me then?”

  I’m not sure.

  I shrug. “You’re hurt.”

  “No one else cares if I’m hurt.”

  My heart races.

  I whisper, “I do.”

  We stand there, staring at each other a long time.

  Finally, he comes closer to me and asks, “What’s your name?”

  “Alexa. Alexa Ballentine.”

  He nods, but says nothing.

  “What’s your name?”

  He kicks at a stone. “Doesn’t matter. You’ll forget it once I’m gone.”

  My stomach aches. I need to know his name.

  Stepping closer, I promise, “No, I won’t.”

  Lifting his head, he runs a hand through his messy brown hair to keep it out of his face. He watches me a second more before he utters, “Antonio Falco.”

  I want to say it’s nice to meet him, but it doesn’t feel right.

  Shuffling around from foot to foot, I ask, “How old are you?”

  He leans back on the tree trunk. “Eight.”

  He seems older to me.

  He asks, “How old are you?”

  “Six.” Pause. “I’ll be seven soon,” I lie.

  His brow furrows. “You look older.”

  Wow. I just thought the same thing about him.

  Not thinking, I blurt out, “Why does your daddy hurt you?”

  His jaw steels and he explains, “He’s my step-dad.”

  Hearing a noise in the house, I turn, and my eyes widen in terror. Turning back to Antonio, I whisper, “Please let me help you.”

  Lowering his eyes, he murmurs, “Okay.”

  Relief and joy swirl through my body.

  He steps forward into the moonlight and I gasp. The top of his cheek is gaping.

  I swallow hard, trying not to be sick.

  Taking some cotton and antiseptic, I warn, “This smelly stuff stin
gs.”

  But when I dab it on his wound, he doesn’t even flinch. His eyes never leave mine.

  Taking a band-aid, I open it and place it on the top of his cheekbone. It doesn’t do much. The wound is too big. But he still mutters, “Thanks.”

  Another noise in the house makes me jolt. Looking into his brown eyes, I whisper urgently, “I need to go. I’ll see you another time, Antonio.”

  He looks down at the ground. “No. You won’t.”

  And I didn’t.

  Not ever again.

  Sydney, Australia. 2014.

  The knocking on the door won’t quit.

  Burying myself deeper into the mattress, I pull the covers tighter around me and sigh dreamily.

  Knock knock knock…

  “Alexa, get your arse up! Did you forget what today is?” That sounds like Drew.

  My eyes snap open and I gasp.

  “Shit.” I jump out of bed as if I was ejected. “Shit!”

  Running down the hall to the front door, I undo the latch and swing the door open. An annoyed looking Drew stands there. He takes one look at my body and his mouth gapes.

  Brow furrowing, I look down and yell, “Shit!”

  I don’t like to sleep in anything too bulky. A spaghetti-strapped tank and panties are my usual bedding combo. Running back to my room, I hear Drew chuckle and I shout, “Laugh it up, Drew! You’ll get yours.”

  Drew is a fellow case worker, and I forgot – I fucking forgot – that we need to be in court early this morning.

  I moved to Australia from the US when I was eighteen. My foster mom took care of me from the time I was sixteen, and when her health started to decline, she wanted to move to be closer to her family. Being Australian born, that’s where she was headed, and I accepted that I was losing my mama.

  Only, that’s not what happened.

  After days of being depressed over her impending departure, she stated, “You need to pack your things into boxes so I can send them ahead of us. You should only keep a suitcase full of clothes. I’ll make sure I don’t send everything too early, but I still want our stuff to meet us when we get there.”

  My head snapped up.

  Say what now?

  Mom’s face fell at my dumbfounded expression. “You don’t want to come with me?”

  Blinking a few moments, I let out an excited shriek and jumped on her. “Yes! Yes! I do, Mama!”

  Thus ending our little miscommunication.

  Undressing, I spray my body with deodorant for a good thirty seconds before tossing the can aside and rummaging for something decent to wear. I settle for a long-sleeved white shirt tucked into black slacks, and add a thin black belt.

  Definitely courthouse chic.

  Slipping on a pair of low heels, I swipe the sleep from my eyes, release my hair from its ponytail, shake it out, and look at myself in the mirror.

  Not bad. It could be a lot worse.

  Pursing my lips, I nod my head in affirmation.

  It’s going to have to do. I don’t have time right now.

  Stepping out of my room, Drew turns to me and does a double take. His blue eyes widen. “You seriously got…” he gestures to my entire body, “…all of that done in not even five minutes?”

  Rushing to grab my purse in the kitchenette, I say, “Uh huh.”

  He shakes his head, muttering, “I gotta have serious words with my girl. Seriously, though. Who needs two hours to get ready to go to the movies?”

  That is a long time.

  Finally having located my purse and files, I walk back out to him. “Don’t start anything that’s going to backfire. She only takes so long because she wants to look nice for you.”

  Walking to my front door, he scoffs, “I prefer her without all the shit all over her face.”

  Stopping in my tracks, I place a hand on my hip and tilt my head. “Have you told her that?”

  Drew’s lips purse indignantly.

  Just as I thought. No. He hasn’t.

  Lifting my brows and pointing my finger at him, I instruct, “You need to tell her that.”

  We exit my unit and head out to his car. On the way over to the courthouse, he asks, “You know what you need to say?”

  Nodding, I tell him, “It’s straight forward. In and out. Tahlia takes better care of herself than her parents do. And besides that, she’s seventeen. If she wants to be emancipated, I think she’s got a great chance. We’re not talking about a thirteen-year-old here. We’re talking about a seventeen-year-old who left home at fifteen, got a job, and found a place to stay. On. Her. Own. She’s responsible, and…” turning to Drew, I add with a smile, “She’s such a nice girl. So sweet and charming. I think she’s got what it takes to stay out of the system.”

  Drew turns back to the road, smiling, “I think this one’s in the bag.”

  A shit-eating-grin spreads across my face. “I know.”

  I’m giddy.

  As soon as we exit the courtroom, I lose my poker face, rush over to Tahlia, and whisper-shout, “Congratulations, honey!”

  She laughs quietly and accepts my hug. I hold her tight, smiling all the while.

  I love my job.

  She mutters into my shirt, “Thank you. Really. Thank you so much.”

  Pulling back, I place her hair behind her ear and admit, “It was my pleasure.”

  Releasing her completely, I run her through the plan. “So what happens now is that you’re free to do as you please. That is not an invitation for you to have all-nighters and get wasted, you hear?”

  Tahlia rolls her eyes. “Yes, mum.”

  I chuckle. I love how blunt the Australian accent is.

  Smiling, I place my hand on her forearm and squeeze. “You know you can call anytime. Even if it’s not important.” Shrugging, I tell her, “It could be something silly, like advice about a boy, or even what laundry detergent to use for a particular type of stain.” She laughs at me and my smile softens. “Anything, honey. You’re not on my books anymore, but you’ll always be one of my kids.”

  The smile drops off her face; her eyes shine bright. She whispers, “Thanks, Miss Ballentine.”

  Shaking my head, I utter in complete seriousness, “Oh, no. You’re an adult now. You get to call me Lexi.”

  She wipes at her eye to stop the tear before it falls. “Thanks, Lexi.”

  Walking backwards towards Drew’s car, I say, “You’re so welcome.”

  Drew waits patiently in the driver’s seat playing around on his phone. As I approach the car, I feel him watching me.

  Shivers break out over my entire body. My hair stands on end.

  Stopping with a jerk, I try to play it cool. I open my purse and make it look as though I’m searching for something important.

  My heart races.

  Where is he?

  I try to look around discreetly. My gaze drifts across the street to one of the many cafés there. My eyes dart around, looking for the familiar black hoodie. And just as I’m about to give up, I see him.

  He watches me from under the hood of his jacket, reclining on a café chair.

  I know I should report this.

  He’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere. It almost seems like he knows where I’m going to be before I know.

  His head lifts, and his eyes watch mine.

  He never acknowledges me. He doesn’t ever make a move to meet me.

  He just…is. Never bothering me.

  In fact, seeing him stirs something in me.

  He is lodged in my subconscious. The star of my dreams. Which is ridiculous. I know.

  His eyes are fierce. Full of fire. I don’t know what to make of it.

  Drew yells out, “Ready to go, Lex?”

  And I shake my head, realizing I’ve been standing here for close to five minutes just staring at a strange man across the street. Face burning, I reply, “Yeah. Let’s get back to the office.”

  My eyes drift back to him.

  Just one more peek.

  But h
e’s gone. Like always.

  Stalked by a phantom.

  I mentally scoff.

  Figures.

  Arriving at our workplace, I say goodbye to Drew, and accept his four-hundredth congratulations on winning Tahlia’s freedom.

  Smiling all the way to my office, I step inside to see someone sitting in my chair.

  Well, swinging on it with his feet up on my desk like a millionaire businessman.

  “Michael, feet off the desk. Now.”

  Using my mom-voice doesn’t really get me anywhere, seeing as I do it with a huge smile on my face.

  But Michael’s different. He’s a good boy.

  His feet slip off my desk and he smirks. “Got some news for me?”

  Shit.

  My face falls. And when he sees it, so does his.

  Michael is almost seventeen. He has a foster family, but there lies the issue. His mother got out of jail not six months ago, and he wants to live with her again.

  But she…

  “She doesn’t want me back.” He glares down at his feet.

  Walking forward, I place my bag on my desk and take a seat in the visitor chair with a sigh. “Oh, sweetie. It’s not that. There’s more to it than just wanting you back, which she does, by the way.”

  He turns his glare to me. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”

  Leaning forward, I look him right in the eye. “I am on your side. Always. Don’t ever question that.”

  Looking properly chastised but still pissed, he asks quietly, “Why?”

  Leaning back in the chair, I explain, “There’s a huge process when a person comes out of jail. The housing they’re provided is usually not great, and basic as basic comes. Then there’s finding a job. And sticking to it. In your mom’s case, she needs to go to therapy every week, and she’ll have drug tests done on a monthly basis for a while. And honestly, honey…” He looks up. “…she thinks you deserve better. As do I. Her main concern was getting you back for a few months, you turning eighteen, and then going it on your own. Which you will. Won’t you?”

  Michael’s face softens. “Yeah. I just need money first.”

 
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