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       Born Sinner (Se7en Sinners #1), p.1

           S. L. Jennings
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Born Sinner (Se7en Sinners #1)


  Born Sinner

  Copyright © 2016 by S.L. Jennings.

  All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

  Editor: Tracey Buckalew

  Proofreader: Kara Hildebrand

  Cover Designer: Hang Le

  Photographer: Tess Farnsworth

  Model: Tyson Holley

  Creative: Maud Artistry

  Formatting: Champagne Formats

  Table of Contents

  TITLE PAGE

  COPYRIGHT

  PROLOGUE

  ONE

  TWO

  THREE

  FOUR

  FIVE

  SIX

  SEVEN

  EIGHT

  NINE

  TEN

  ELEVEN

  TWELVE

  THIRTEEN

  FOURTEEN

  FIFTEEN

  SIXTEEN

  SEVENTEEN

  EIGHTEEN

  NINETEEN

  TWENTY

  TWENTY-ONE

  TWENTY-TWO

  TWENTY-THREE

  TWENTY-FOUR

  TWENTY-FIVE

  TWENTY-SIX

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  TWENTY-NINE

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  PLAYING WITH MONSTERS BY AMELIA HUTCHINS

  I didn’t cry the first time it happened. I should have, but I didn’t.

  He hadn’t deserved my tears.

  That’s what I’ve held onto every day since—even when I didn’t believe it.

  He was a mean boy that always did bad things to me. He looked under my skirt while pretending to pick up a pencil. He cornered me on my way to the girl’s bathroom. He drew lewd pictures and stuffed them in my backpack for me to find.

  He’d wanted to hurt me. He deserved what he got.

  I didn’t cry when he’d lured me from the playground, threatening to punch me if I didn’t go.

  I didn’t cry when he’d tried to unbutton my shirt.

  I didn’t cry when he’d put my hand down the front of his jeans.

  And I didn’t cry when I’d said the words.

  The words that had sent him walking out into the street into oncoming traffic, just as a yellow school bus raced by.

  “Turn around. Walk.”

  I should’ve known then I was doomed. A good girl would’ve cried.

  It’s cold tonight, but not just any kind of cold.

  The kind of cold that seeps into your pores and leaves a dusting of frost on your bones. The kind that chills your blood, making it congeal in your stiffening veins.

  I’ve walked the same route to work every night, saying silent prayers for safety. Dope dealers and prostitutes scurry from the flickering harshness of broken streetlights like cockroaches, dodging undercover cops and the prying eyes of passersby. No one speaks to each other unless they want something, and even then, they settle for swift words in clipped tones. I’m invisible here. No one wants anything from me. And even if they did, I have nothing to give.

  “Watch it, bitch,” an asshole in an ugly green parka barks as he nearly mows me down, his gravelly voice loud enough to drown out the hip-hop music blaring from my ear buds. It’s begun to snow and, instead of focusing on his steps, he’s resorted to walking through anyone who stands between him and the warm, dry shelter where his next drink is waiting.

  “Excuse you,” I sneer, glaring back at him from over my shoulder.

  “Yeah, fuck you,” he spits, casting his middle finger to the heavens.

  I feel it inside of me. The heat of his hatred. The blackness of his soul. His eyes are empty, glazed depths of sorrow and poison. His yellowed, clammy skin is merely a vehicle for the chemical waste wrapped around weakening bones.

  I find the whispers flooding my mind before I can resist them, the voices so distinct that I can no longer hear J. Cole’s lyrical diatribe rattling my skull. I should fight them, but I don’t. I don’t want to. Not this time. I’ve been fighting pricks like this my entire life. At some point, you learn to fight back.

  Electric synapses fire with the command, and my lips part to utter a single word.

  “Fall.”

  He doesn’t even see the patch of ice before the heel of his scuffed boot skates across it. Arms flail violently as he tries to regain his balance, but it’s too late. He’s airborne—suspended in time like the feather-light snowflakes swirling around us. And before a single scream is ripped from his throat, he hits the piss-stained sidewalk with a deafening crack.

  I exhale through the taste of metal in my mouth and keep walking, leaving pain and chaos in my wake. I turn up the music as loud as it’ll go to drown out the desperate cries for help.

  I never said I fought fair.

  “You’re here early,” Lily smiles as I enter the dingy corner store where we work. Beautiful, blonde and bright, she’s much too angelic to be working in a dump like this.

  I peel off my fingerless knit gloves and rub my palms together before stowing the ear buds in my coat pocket. Eduardo, the store manager and the owner’s nephew, is too cheap to turn up the heat. “Bored, and Sister had a date. Thought you could use the company. Busy tonight?”

  Lily’s sky blue eyes scan the shelves and racks of chips and six packs. “Not really. But I’m glad you came in.” She smiles again. She’s always smiling. Always ridiculously optimistic. And while that would annoy the crap out of me with anyone else, I genuinely enjoy her sunny disposition. It’s a welcomed change from the doom and gloom of our little slice of purgatory outside.

  I step around the counter that’s halfway encased by bulletproof glass. Eduardo was also too cheap to spring for one that at least touched the ceiling, but some protection is better than none. “You here by yourself?” I frown. Even with the added security of cameras and an alarm system, working the night shift at any establishment in this part of town isn’t safe. Especially for someone like her.

  “Logan is stocking in the back. I’m fine, really. You worry too much.”

  I shake my head, wishing she worried more. Lily doesn’t know the horrors I’ve seen—the horrors I’ve created. To her, I’m just a troubled girl with a dark past who she wants to love and nurture. But in reality, I’m a troubled girl with a dark past whose thoughts and words are weapons. And while Lily is one of the only people I can call a friend, she can’t know about me. No one can. Or else I’ll end up just like my mother.

  I stash my coat and bag under the counter and slip on the ugly maroon vest we’re forced to wear. It’s not doing me any favors over my black sweater and ripped, faded jeans, but somehow Lily still looks svelte and glamorous in it. I’m clueless about what she’s doing working in a rotted out neighborhood on the south side of Chicago—she looks like she comes from money, even though she swears she’s not. Something about her won’t let me believe that.

  There’s a stain that poverty leaves on everything it touches. It coats your palms when you’re cold. It bleeds onto your lips when yo
u’re hungry. It paints your skin when you’re sick. You can try to scrub it away, but the result is always the same. You’re one of society’s forsaken.

  Lily has never worn that stain. I would have recognized it if she had.

  A bell jingles from the doorway, startling us both. I nearly gasp audibly when I see who it is.

  “God, not this guy again,” Logan bristles behind us, holding a cardboard box full of Pop Tarts. Lily and I didn’t even hear him approach.

  “What?” My voice is barely a whisper. The wind has been knocked out of me.

  “That dude gives me the creeps.” Logan shakes his head, sending muddy brown curls dancing across his forehead. He drops the box and moves in closer, whispering, “I seriously think we should tell Eduardo about him. He comes in every night and buys the same exact thing…especially when you’re working.” He points his gaze at me.

  “So? Maybe he works the night shift too?” I shrug.

  “The night shift at a slaughterhouse. He could be a rapist or serial killer. You really want someone like that stalking you?”

  I roll my eyes. “He’s not stalking me, Logan.”

  “You don’t know that, Eden. He gives me a bad vibe.”

  “Well, I think it’s cute. Romantic, even,” Lily chimes in, reaching up to ruffle Logan’s shaggy brown hair. I wish I could have warned her not to do that. His greasy mop probably hasn’t been washed in weeks.

  “Whatever. The fucker is trouble. Just look at him.”

  And as if some biological instinct hooks itself within muscle and bone, transforming me into a lust-strung marionette, I can do nothing but.

  The first time he came in nearly six weeks ago, he’d scared me. It was after three in the morning, and I hadn’t heard the door chime. At least I don’t think I did. I’d been engrossed in a new paperback and my Kendrick Lamar playlist, and didn’t notice him until he’d been standing silently before me. No sound of footfalls or the rasp of his breath. He’d just stood there, watching me, waiting for me to notice him. I’d nearly shrieked and fallen off my stool.

  The next night I was stunned once again by his presence, but this time, the flavor of my curiosity was something different altogether. I actually let myself look at him, while silently praying that he couldn’t see me.

  He was tall and built like someone who trained religiously. I thought maybe he played for the Bears or maybe even the Bulls, but the way he moved was almost too lithe and graceful to pin him as an athlete. However, there was something uniquely feral about it. And his face…hard and menacing, yet unquestionably pretty. Almost like he knew he was gorgeous, but didn’t want to be. Still, even the dark scruff on his chiseled jaw seemed precise and elegant.

  When he approached the register, I tried not to stare at him, but I wanted to see his eyes. I needed to know what darkness lurked behind this massive beast of a man. But he wouldn’t look at me. He simply slid his Arizona Iced Tea and pack of mints across the counter and waited for me to ring him up. He never said a word.

  I couldn’t breathe. The air had been sucked right out of the room. I felt lightheaded and my fingers began to shake violently. The whispers began to snake their way into my skull, urging me to say the words. Look at me. Look at me. But my tongue had turned to lead that not even my mind’s compulsion could move.

  I was grateful. I had a feeling his gaze could turn me to stone.

  He came in every day after, buying only his canned iced tea and wintergreen mints. Sometimes it was at the start of my shift—sometimes toward the end. He never spoke, never met my eyes. I’d watch him from across the store and mentally record his movements and the way his dark clothes seemed to stretch around his body like a designer glove. Something about him was dangerous—not in the criminal way—but in the way that made my senses hum with anticipation and fear every time I heard the door chime. The way that made me afraid of myself.

  Tonight is different though. He’s dressed in similar clothing, and he goes straight to the back for tea and mints. And he doesn’t meet my eyes. That’s nothing new. But there’s something else…something is off. I can feel it in the way the air seems to pulse with excitement around his frame.

  It’s 10:40 p.m., and I’m not scheduled until 11. How would he have known I had come in almost half an hour early? I look to Logan, whose dark eyes are trained on the mysterious stranger/my would-be stalker.

  The man approaches the register with unhurried steps, although I can tell that tension grips his shoulders like a vise. I make a move to the counter to ring him up like I do every night, but before I can take a full step forward, Lily darts into my path, beating me to it.

  “I’ve got it,” she smiles sweetly. “Still my drawer, and I don’t want to mess up tonight’s count.”

  Right. Although, that’s never mattered before.

  A voice echoes in my head, but I shut it down before I can make out the words.

  Lily rings up the items swiftly without her usual friendly chatter. But just before the man can escape our intense scrutiny, she plasters on a smile and asks him, “Will there be anything else?”

  I hold my breath as he slowly lifts his chin to face her, giving me a full view of the man who’s haunted my daydreams every day for the past six weeks.

  Gray. His eyes are gray, but the most stunning shade I’ve ever seen. As if they were plucked from the crying heavens, coated in stardust and cast in steel. His eyelashes are thick and dark, much like the hair that layers his chin and surrounds full, sensual lips. A marled charcoal beanie sits atop his head, allowing just the tips of his hair to tease me.

  He’s too beautiful to be cold, but I know, without a doubt, he’s frozen solid to the core. Still, every cell in my body is engulfed in flames just by his proximity. I’m almost certain I could melt the bulletproof glass just by squeezing my thighs together.

  He squints for one quick fraction of a second, and before I can even decipher the inflection, he turns and stalks out the store. I’m speechless…scared. But not of him. I’m scared of the way my body burns for this complete stranger who has never even spoken to me.

  “I told you…totally psycho,” Logan proclaims after a long stretch of uncomfortable silence. “He’s probably that guy that called and asked for your schedule earlier today, Eden.”

  I hear him. I just don’t want to. “What did you say?”

  “Yeah. Eduardo answered. Some guy wanted to know what your hours were.”

  I frown. “You sure he was asking about me?” I’ve never been the topic of interest. And I’ve worked damn hard to keep it that way.

  “Pretty sure. He asked for the girl with the silver hair, tatts and a nose ring. You’re the only one around here that fits that description. We didn’t tell him anything, of course. But still… someone was looking for you.”

  I touch short, black polished nails to my dove gray locks reflexively. To the outside world, it’s a fashion statement. But the truth is, my once jet-black hair started losing its pigment years ago. It was just a few strands at first. But then almost overnight, I had the mane of an 80-year-old.

  I turn away from his questioning glare and pick up the box of Pop Tarts, if only to fight the urge to wring my hands. “I’m going to restock these,” I murmur, stepping from behind the counter.

  “Hey, Logan, why don’t you take off a little early? I can stick around to keep Eden company,” I hear Lily say as I stuff strawberry pastries onto wire racks.

  “You sure? What if that guy comes back? Maybe I should stick around just in case…”

  “No, no. Us girls can take care of ourselves, I promise. And if he comes back, we have Eduardo’s taser behind the counter.”

  I don’t have to look up to know that Logan’s face is screwed in uncertainty. He wants to go; it’s Friday night. But he also wants to be a decent human being. At least that’s what he wants Lily to believe.

  “Well…ok. If you think you two will be alright.” The promise of a cheap beer and a joint win out over chivalry. I could make him
stay if I really wanted to, but I won’t. I don’t like being in his head. I don’t like the bitter taste of his blood on my tongue.

  “We will. Go and have a good time.”

  I take my time shelving junk food and barely lift my head when he bids us goodnight. I want to like Logan, but his soul is murky, his thoughts impure. I don’t know what they are specifically, but I can feel the intensity of them. Lust. Indulgence. Aggression. He wants to be a good guy, but this city has poisoned his heart and compromised his morals. He is merely a prisoner of this man-made Hell.

  “You feeling ok?”

  I swallow a shriek and grip my chest in surprise as I lurch forward. “Shit, Lily! I didn’t even hear you. Are you trying to kill me?”

  “Not today,” she chuckles. “Sorry. Almost done?”

  “Yeah. Two minutes.” I squat down to arrange the last of the processed treats, careful not to touch the grimy floor.

  “Ok. Come up front when you’re done. Something I want to—”

  Her head whips to the glass double doors, but from my crouched position, I don’t see anything. “What is it?”

  “Nothing.” But she doesn’t look my way. “Hey, do me a favor and run to the back for more potato chips. Do it now.”

  I glance over at the chip display. “It’s fully stocked. I think Logan beat me to it.”

  She doesn’t acknowledge my words. Instead, she moves swiftly to the front of the store. But before she can make it, the door chimes. Someone’s here.

  The voice is deep, the accent Russian. There’s a second set of footsteps following the first. Then a third. A cold dread sweeps through the store, a bone-chilling sensation that makes me shiver from my spot on the dingy linoleum. I slowly force myself to my knees, hoping to get a view of the entrance. I’ve only had a couple run-ins with the Russian Mafia, and this can go only one of two ways: they respectfully pay for their stuff and leave, or they cause a ruckus, emboldened with vodka and recent violence, and get grabby with Lily.

  I look to my friend--she looks as cool and calm as if a doting grandma was eyeing her from the doorway. “Anything I can help you gentlemen with?”

 

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