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The lovers surrender no.., p.4
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       The Lover's Surrender (No Exceptions), p.4

           J. C. Reed
 
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  My eyes came to rest on today’s date. Brooke had met up with him. What were the chances he’d be mentioning her to someone else? Probably zero, but I had to know anyway. Fighting the onset of desperation, I leaned over Kenny’s shoulder and pointed to the folder.

  “Click on this one.”

  As instructed, he opened it. Instantly, hundreds of pictures flicked to life, all large. All professional looking. All taking part at some kind of dress-up party.

  “It seems to be work-related,” Kenny commented, stating the obvious. “I doubt we’ll find anything here.”

  “Go through them,” I commanded.

  “You sure?”

  “Yeah, just to make sure we’re not skipping anything.”

  I didn’t know what I expected to find. Maybe just seeing Grayson’s models would make me imagine what kind of man he was.

  Kenny started to click through one picture after another, opening and closing them all.

  “There are a lot of girls in here. Lots of good-looking girls,” Kenny said, amused. “My best guess is Brooke is friends with one of them. Maybe she can get me the numbers of a few.”

  I frowned at him for not taking this seriously. “Very funny.”

  Kenny looked up, casting me a side-glance, and I realized he hadn’t been joking.

  “What?” he said and shrugged his shoulders. “I’d hook up with them if they were available. I mean, we’re talking professional models. I certainly wouldn’t say ‘no’.”

  “Aren’t you dating Sylvie?”

  “She’s not the exclusive type.”

  I frowned. “You made that conclusion based on what?”

  Kenny shrugged again and said nothing. I realized it wasn’t the time or place to make further comments, so I decided to drop the topic.

  As Kenny continued to comb through the pictures, the sour taste in my mouth intensified. My heart raced. My stomach churned as the intensity of my suspicion grew stronger, until a hint of nausea rose in me.

  And then, there she was.

  “Stop here,” I whispered. Kenny’s hand hovered in the air, ready to resume.

  In front of us was a picture of a woman, half-naked, draped over a chair in a seductive pose, next to two other models. Her hair was tied up in a complicated style, and her face wore so much makeup, other people would have had a hard time recognizing her. But I would recognize her eyes anywhere.

  I stared at Brooke’s face.

  It was her, without a doubt. The same brown eyes. The same high cheekbones.

  “I’ll be damned,” I cursed. “What the fuck was she doing there?”

  Her dress was shorter than anything she usually wore and almost transparent.

  There was an air of confidence about her, a hint of sexiness—like the one of a stripper ready to glide down a pole, showing off her body in the process. Posing the way she had, she didn’t look like the Brooke I had fallen in love with. She looked like a different woman.

  Like someone I didn’t know at all.

  “I don’t think she’s friends with them,” Kenny said by means of resuming our conversation.

  “What makes you say that?” I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

  “Well, for one, she’s half-naked,” he said. “ Maybe she is doing it for fun.”

  “For fun?” I turned to stare at him.

  Kenny shrugged. “Lots of women take pole dancing or stripping lessons. Why not modeling, too?”

  Could that be the case? Was Brooke trying to learn to be sexier than she already was?

  “Well, I want it deleted,” I said.

  “Sure.” Kenny shrugged and pressed a few buttons. The photo disappeared from the screen. “What about the others?”

  I stared at the screen as I felt the pressure in my head increasing. “You think there are others?” I finally asked.

  Kenny clicked on a folder, and sure enough, more pictures of Brooke popped up. Anger surged through me as I realized they were far worse than the first one.

  The room seemed to be alive with people.

  People dressed up.

  Men standing next to Brooke, eyeing her.

  Men who watched her as though she was some sort of merchandise ready to be bought.

  Kenny’s suggestion was absurd.

  It didn’t look like Brooke was posing for fun.

  I balled my hands into fists again and took a few deep breaths, even though I could barely contain the need to slam my hand right through the wall. For a few moments, I couldn’t say a word, too shocked by the discovery.

  “At least it’s not porn,” Kenny mumbled after a long moment, in what seemed a poor attempt at making me feel better.

  I shook my head and grimaced. “No, it’s worse than that.”

  Kenny chuckled nervously. “Well, if Sylvie did this kind of thing, I’d ask her to move in with me. This shit is hot. I’d be proud of her. Come on, we’re talking about pin-up girls in lingerie.”

  “Well, hot shit or not, I want these taken down and deleted for good. Can you do that?” I asked through clenched teeth.

  “Should be easy enough, but chances are he has some kind of secure server somewhere where he keeps backup copies. It could take me two days to track it down for you and erase the backup stuff. But if I do it, I’ll have to erase them all, and it wouldn’t be without leaving a trace.”

  “Just do it,” I said, hopeful until I noticed Kenny’s expression. “What?”

  “There’s just one problem.” Kenny swiveled his chair around and faced me. “He might have sold them. If he’s a professional photographer, which I think he is, because he’s the owner of the building and he seems to have quite the followership, then there’s the possibility that he’s already sold at least a few. Maybe he’s given away the rights.”

  I raised my brows, not seeing where the heck he was heading. “So?”

  “It would take me days, if not weeks or months, to track down all the digital copies and delete them, with no guarantee that they might not still end up online somewhere. From the look of it, he might have even sold them straight to print.”

  “How do you know?” I asked.

  “Let’s just say I’ve attended this sort of event and ordered the originals.” He laughed. “Just not from him. And it wasn’t really a transaction in the seller’s favor.”

  I frowned, having no idea what the heck he was talking about. But for once, I had no interest in figuring out Kenny’s riddles. “So you’re saying it’s impossible to get them all and destroy them.”

  Kenny nodded. “If they’re on the web, I’d say it’s impossible. And if you’re lucky and they’re not online, you’d still have to find out who bought copies and what they did with them.”

  I sighed and began to pace the room. Kenny swiveled around in his chair, his back facing the pictures on the screen. “It’s a nice one though. She has great legs. She looks hot. The damage is minimal, if you ask me. It’s not really a big deal.”

  Without thinking, I switched off the screen.

  I couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear that she was so readily on display.

  Looking so sexy, so different, so confident.

  It was as though she was a new woman—one I didn’t know. And I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that someone might have touched her, jerking off to her pictures, doing God knows what else. Demanding that she undress. Maybe inviting her back to his home.

  His bed.

  “She did nothing wrong, Jett,” Kenny said warily.

  “I know that. But fuck…” I swallowed hard against the waves of anger rushing through me like hot lava.

  “What are you going to do?” Kenny asked after a moment.

  “I’m buying the rights to all of them, so I’ll be the sole owner, obviously,” I said dryly.

  “All of them?”

  I shot him a sideways glance. “Yes, of course. All of Brooke’s photos. Before they end up online. The last thing I want is her half-naked pictures belonging to someone. I can’t bear the thou
ght of someone jerking off to her pictures.”

  Kenny shook his head slowly. “How do you think you’ll accomplish that?”

  “I’m calling this Grayson guy, you know, talk man to man. Settle it with an amount of money he can’t refuse. And if that’s not working, I’ll make sure he changes his mind. He has to. Everyone has a price. I’ll just have to find out what his is. In the meantime, I need you to comb through the web for any copies, leaked or uploaded on purpose, while I try to get the originals.”

  “What about Brooke?”

  I hesitated. “She can’t know.”

  “You’ll keep another secret?” Kenny asked.

  I stopped my pacing near a couch and plopped down, no longer able to ignore the pounding sensation in my skull. “Just until her pregnancy’s over.”

  Kenny shook his head. “Man, I’m telling you, you’re hitting deep water. If you decide not to tell her now, the shit’s going to hit the fan eventually. Did it even occur to you that Brooke might not want to stop working for him?”

  I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees as I observed him, taking in his words. “You think she would continue doing this stuff even though she’s pregnant?”

  Kenny watched me in silence for a few seconds. Eventually, he resumed the conversation. “Well, I could be wrong, but if she’s not doing it for fun, I think she’s doing it for the money. You said she had debts. Maybe she thinks she has no choice.”

  “I’ll be her buyer.” I stared him down, my grim expression daring him to question my decision.

  Kenny shook his head slowly. “Behind her back?”

  “Yeah. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.” At Kenny’s confused look, I added, “The Lucazzone estate. I’m trying to find a buyer. As long as Brooke has connections to the estate she inherited, she won’t be safe.” I started to pace the room again. “She should have told me if she needed money. I would’ve helped.”

  “Maybe she doesn’t want you to, considering…”

  “Fuck, man, you’re not helping,” I cut him off, irritated by his need for brutal honesty. “I get it. No need to remind me that she’s a proud woman.”

  “No, what I’m trying to say is that if you had told her earlier, she might have confided in you. Now she doesn’t trust you anymore.”

  I stared him down again, my anger consuming me.

  “I gotta go.” I turned around and headed for the door, ignoring Kenny’s voice calling after me.

  “Where are you going?”

  I didn’t reply as I stepped out the door and walked to the training halls.

  I needed time alone.

  Time to think.

  Time to reconsider my plans.

  To admit that I had failed.

  Maybe not telling Brooke had been a mistake.

  Maybe I should have let her in on some secrets, stopped playing games, given her a little bit of information—enough to make her feel that she knew everything and feared nothing.

  Kenny had been right all along.

  Brooke needed something—anything.

  The problem was I had no idea what I could tell her without making her worried, without risking her health. I had no idea how to repair the damage to our relationship. I had so many secrets. I didn’t see how adding one more could cause more damage. If only it weren’t exactly the same sentence that pushed me into hot water with her in the first place.

  There’s still time to tell her.

  Kenny’s words rang in my head.

  But what if he was wrong and it was too late?

  What if that Grayson guy had touched her? Made out with her? Fucked her?

  The thought made me want to punch someone. It got me furious beyond hell.

  Contrary to Brooke’s belief, our relationship wasn’t over. I refused to lose her. How the fuck couldn’t she see that?

  As long as I still loved her, which I knew would be forever, or as long as forever existed, I would fight for us.

  Or at least until I knew for sure she had stopped loving me.

  Stopped wanting me.

  Maybe I couldn’t force Brooke to give up her new pastime, but I sure could make it clear to her that I’d be the only one who had her pictures.

  I might not be able to tame her, but maybe I didn’t even need to and surely not by force.

  Maybe all she needed was for me to put some distance between us, move away for a while until her bitterness settled a little.

  Picking up some punching gloves and peeling off my shirt, I stepped in front of the training mirror, my gaze brushing over the many scars I had acquired in my previous life as a member of a gang. They were ugly, hard, visible reminders of a past I wanted left behind. And yet, as much as they had hurt, compared to our breakup, they seemed barely more than a few scratches gathered along the way. The wound Brooke had created was invisible but more shattering than anything I had ever experienced because it contained a single truth:

  She didn’t trust me enough.

  The knowledge stung, knowing that she never might.

  An insurmountable obstacle.

  Getting married might be a problem. Because how could she possibly become my wife when she couldn’t even entrust her heart to me?

  BROOKE

  Present day

  I used to think love was a lesson to avoid, something to capture and throw away if it so much as glanced in your direction. That was until I met Jett Mayfield.

  The man who had changed my life.

  The one man who instinctively knew how to mess with my head.

  Pressing my hand against my heart, I couldn’t help but wonder if my ribs were as bruised as they felt from my heart pounding so hard against them whenever I so much as looked at him. How could it possibly be that just looking at him could break and melt my heart at the same time, and yet being away from him made my heart die?

  I had no idea.

  All I knew was that loving him was not a choice. I had thought his secrets would crush me, and they had, but so had seeing him renew my faith, making me feel hope again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

  By telling him everything that had happened over the past three days in my crazy life, I felt like a burden was being washed away. As if sharing pain with him would halve the demons inside me. Or maybe it was his green eyes and the gentleness that resided in his touch that opened my soul to him in the knowledge that it was him who could erase all my pain.

  At least two hours passed during which I recalled the past events in minuscule detail: how someone had left me an envelope at the hotel, containing information about Nate’s impending release and the secret visits Jett had paid him; how I took a new job, met new friends, went out, and that the next day, one of said new friends, Gina, was found dead. I told him of the detective who paid us a visit, questioning me, and how familiar he seemed, that I was sure I had seen him at the hotel. Eventually, I finished with all the things the detective told me about Jett.

  Throughout my monologue, Jett didn’t interrupt me once.

  Not once did he judge or question me.

  He just listened—truly listened, as if it was a peculiar story, something extraordinary, except it wasn’t.

  It was a story of fear.

  A story so frighteningly real it almost felt unreal.

  A story I hoped would have a happy ending.

  At times, he looked at me with a worried frown—like when I mentioned having found Gina’s belongings at his place. At other times, he sat there impassively, even when I expected a reaction—any reaction—like when I told him about the job. Right now, his frown was back in place. I had recounted the story about the detective five times, and each time his worry lines seemed to deepen. His hands were clenched into fists, and his rigid stance became more uncomfortable to watch.

  I knew how I sounded.

  Like a crazy lunatic.

  Fear engulfed me at the thought that he didn’t believe me, or worse yet, that he thought I was making up the story, and he didn’t have the guts to
tell me.

  “He really looked and acted like a detective, Jett,” I whispered and rubbed my hands together in the hope the knots in my stomach would disappear.

  “I believe you, without a single doubt.” He intertwined his fingers with mine, and I let him.

  Relief washed over me as his thumb began stroke my skin. For a moment, I stared at his hand, big and strong against mine—until his voice drew me back.

  “The guy who interviewed you. What did you say his name was?” he asked, his face turned away from me.

  It was his first question, carefully phrased as if he had no idea whether I’d allow him to ask it. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I watched him.

  “I think Sparrow. No, wait, that’s wrong. It was…” I paused and wet my lips as I racked my brain. “Barrow. Detective Barrow. Why are you asking?”

  “I’m trying to figure out why he would meet with you.” His gaze remained focused on our hands.

  “It wasn’t me in particular he wanted to see, Jett. He interviewed everyone. That’s why I believed him.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “No.” I cast my eyes down, trying to remember. “I was the first one he interviewed, and then I left. I don’t know what happened after that. Only that he was interested in you, knew your name, and he showed me pictures.”

  “And the next day you found my apartment a mess?”

  I looked at him. My silence forced his gaze to meet mine. “Not just a mess. It was vandalized, Jett.”

  He nodded, as if that confirmed his suspicions. “What kind of pictures did he show you of her?”

  “Just one. It was a headshot of her dead—in the street. There was blood on her neck. Two dots had been drawn on her face, which I’m sure she didn’t have when I last saw her at the club.”

  My voice was shaking as another cold shudder ran down my spine. His hands left mine. I sensed him moving. When I looked up, I watched him pick up a blanket from a drawer, then walk back to me to wrap it around me.

  “Thank you,” I mumbled.

  Jett sat down next to me, his arm going around me to pull me toward him. Together, we leaned back, my head cradled against his chest.

  “I can’t believe she’s dead,” I continued.

 
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