Theirs to Cherish, p.1part #8 of Wicked Lovers Series by Shayla Black / Romance & Love
“I know this is awkward and that your pregnant wife is probably pissed you’re here, so I’ll make this quick. Will you help me disappear?”
Callie Ward stood with her arms crossed against the blustery November wind, just out of the beams of the mini-mart’s lights flooding the parking lot. She stared at Logan Edgington, nervously tapping her toe. The former Navy SEAL had no reason to help her, given how bratty she’d once been to him, but he was the only person she knew who could make her vanish, this time for good.
He crossed his beefy arms over his wide chest and looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. She’d lost everything else, so why not?
“Disappear?” He glanced at his watch. “It’s midnight, Callie, so yeah, Tara wasn’t thrilled when you called. I left my warm house for this ‘life or death’ shit, and you’re telling me now that you just want to get out of town? Didn’t I hear that you’re collared now?”
Automatically, Callie pressed her fingers to the bare hollow of her throat, missing the familiar wire of white gold with its delicate lock. “Yes, but—”
“You know how this works. Talk to your Dom. ”
“He’s the one I’m running from. ” Her voice trembled.
The moment Callie had realized the extent of her “Sir’s” betrayal, she’d run like hell. She’d gotten too comfortable. Complacent. Almost dangerously happy.
She sniffled, then sucked it back, refusing to cry. She would not think about the fact that she’d fallen in love with Sean Kirkpatrick—if that was even his name.
Logan’s pissed-off-Dom glower gentled as he leaned in, now all protective male. “Did he threaten you? Hurt you?”
Not the way Logan meant. But what the hell could she tell him without giving everything away?
Crap. The cover story she’d planned on the three-hour drive from Dallas to Shreveport wasn’t going to fly. Logan was too smart not to see the holes in her tale. Then again, sheer utter terror had a way of rattling a girl’s train of thought.
She was going to have to trust Logan or he’d walk away. It wasn’t as if he’d ever pursued her, so she couldn’t accuse him of prying the story out of her because he had ulterior motives. He’d only ever had eyes for pretty redheaded Tara. And he didn’t worship the almighty buck. Logan was one of the good guys, a straight shooter all the way. He couldn’t be bought, nor would he ever willingly put her in danger. It made sense to choose the devil she knew over the one she apparently didn’t at all.
If Logan was going to help her, he deserved the truth—but not here.
“Can we sit in your car? It’s freezing. ” And she didn’t trust that hers wasn’t bugged.
Logan looked as if he didn’t much like the question, but after a brief hesitation, he shrugged and led her to a big black truck. He unlocked it with his key fob and opened her door. A minute later, he settled himself in the driver’s seat. “If this asshole hurt you, Thorpe won’t stand for it, especially under his roof. ”
Mitchell Thorpe. She closed her eyes, picturing his familiar, stern face. So often, she could swear that his penetrating gray eyes saw right through her. He’d given her a job, a home, a circle of friends, a lifestyle she craved. He was the first man she’d truly loved. He’d always have a chunk of her heart.
It killed her to know that she’d never see him again.
“I can’t drag Thorpe into this. It’s too risky. Anyone who knows me would assume I’d go to him first. ” She wrung her hands. “I hate to put you in this position, but no one would suspect that I’d ask you for help. Everyone at Dominion knows I’m not your favorite person. ”
He frowned. “I like you a lot, Callie. I just think that, as a sub, you’re bratty as hell. You don’t bend much more than an inch and you don’t trust worth a damn. ”
Callie drew in a breath and gave him a shaky nod. “I know. I have reasons. ”
“Every stubborn sub does. Look, you’re not my problem anymore. I’m just laying it out there. ”
“I really can’t afford to trust anyone, but you’re my last hope. I feel terrible for involving you, but more than anyone I know, you can handle it. I have nowhere else to turn. I can’t go back to Dominion. Ever. ” She rubbed her hands together and closed her eyes, praying like hell that she wasn’t making the biggest mistake of her life. If she was, she could be dead by sunrise.
“What the hell have you gotten into?”
“My name isn’t Callie Ward. Nothing that you—or anyone else—thinks you know about me is true. ”
He sat back in the shadows, looking somewhere between skeptical and tense. “Okay, then who are you?”
“My mother called me Callie when I was little. But I’m sure you know me by my full name. ” She swallowed. Please, God, let this be the right choice . . . “I’m Callindra Howe. ”
Logan’s eyes nearly popped out. “The Callindra Howe, the missing heiress from Chicago?”
Of course he’d heard of her. Her name had been splashed all over the news for the last nine years. There were almost as many reported sightings of her as there were of Elvis or aliens. Poor little greedy orphan who’d killed her family for a buck, according to the press. Callie wrapped her arms around her middle. If they only knew the truth . . .
She nodded. “That one. ”
“Bullshit. You were a pain in my ass sometimes, but you’re not the kind of woman to slaughter her loved ones. ”
“Thank you! I was framed. I don’t even know by whom or why. ”
Logan’s expression turned flat. “Why should I believe you’re her?”
Good question. The only thing she had of her former life was her mother’s Fabergé egg, but Logan had no clue it had been Cecilia Howe’s pride and joy before ovarian cancer had quickly snuffed out the bright light of her smile. With no way to corroborate the egg’s authenticity at the moment, Callie had left it in her backpack, shoved in the trunk of her car.
“I’ve got nothing but the truth. I’ll tell you what really happened and hope that you’ll believe me so that when I beg you to make me disappear for good, you will. ”
“I’m listening. ” He tossed his forearm over the steering wheel and stared, looking like an immovable mountain.
Callie swallowed nervously. “What you know is that nine years ago, my father and sister were shot in our house and that the gun was found in my room, wiped clean. ”
“Your boyfriend told everyone that you killed them for the money the night you ran off together. ”
Holden had been gorgeous, defiant, wild, and full of grand ideas. In retrospect, planning to run off with him had been stupid, but her sixteen-year-old heart had believed in the concept of soul mates. She’d talked herself into believing that he was hers. If she’d had any idea that he would end up betraying her for money, she would have never accepted that first ride in his car or given him her virginity.
“He was willing to say anything for the big bounty on my head. ” She snorted. “I was young and naïve not to realize that.
“We’d been planning to run away together for a few weeks. His family had no money, and he had a crappy home life. When he said that he wanted me to be his new family, my young heart fluttered. Besides, I didn’t want to be Callindra Howe anymore. I felt like a freak. Most girls my age took dance classes and worked a summer job to buy a beat-up car. I had riding lessons. I spoke fluent French. By the time I was ten, I’d visited every continent except Antarctica. I had a trust fund and got a Porsche the day I got my driver’s license. ”
“It doesn’t sound that bad,” Logan drawled.
“In retrospect, it wasn’t. At the time, I felt isolated. I worshipped my dad, but he’d been remote since my mother’s death. And my younger sister, Charlotte, had turned rebellious. ”
“So when your boyfriend paid attention to you in order to get laid and get closer to your money, you thought he was the answer to your problems?”
“Pretty much. ” And her stupidity still stung. “Anyway, the night my father and sister were killed, I was late for our family dinner. The second the meal ended, I told my dad that I had to finish studying for a test. I ran back upstairs to call Holden and give him the green light. At a little after ten, I pretended to go to bed like all was normal. I’d packed the night before and I was ready to leave. I grabbed my backpack and was shoving in a few last-minute items when I heard the first shot downstairs, in my father’s room. I thought I had to be mistaken or my sister had turned the TV up really loud. Who would be in our house shooting? I heard Charlotte head down the hall and for the stairs. ” Callie clenched her fists. “She screamed suddenly. I heard another gunshot, this one much closer. She didn’t scream again. I peeked out the door to see if I could help her, but the blood . . . ” Callie pressed her lips together. “She was only fourteen. ”
Her throat closed up and tears threatened, but Logan squeezed her hand. “Go on. ”
“I wanted to run to her, but the killer started charging down my hall. So I grabbed my pack and climbed out my window, down the big tree to the ground. I’d done it a thousand times.
“He shot me just before I made it to the ground. Flesh wound to my hip. It stung like a bitch, and I bled off and on for days, but I kept running for my life. Holden was waiting for me in his car one street over. I got in, sobbing. I called the police and told them everything. They immediately suspected me when I told them I’d fled the scene. They wanted me to come in for ‘questioning’ and swore I was just ‘a person of interest,’ but within an hour, the media had me labeled a suspect. I was too dazed and scared to face interrogation. The whole thing was a blur, and I had no witnesses who could say I hadn’t killed anyone. I didn’t want to face the fact that my family was gone. So I ran. ”
“No one suspected Holden? After all, if your father died, you stood to inherit a lot of money. ”
She shook her head. “He parked in front of an elderly couple’s house. They spied on the teen ‘vagrant’ slouched in his beat-up Mustang for twenty minutes because he was blasting Usher in their very white upper-crust neighborhood. They were sure they’d be horrifically murdered any second. ”
Logan’s mouth flattened in a grim line. “Then?”
“Within an hour, we traded vehicles with a drunk guy in a bar’s parking lot, Holden’s car for his old truck. The guy was wasted enough to say yes. After that, we headed from Illinois to Indiana. ”
Callie hadn’t told any of this to a single soul—ever. Hell, she’d barely let herself think about it in years. Just saying the words hurt like peeling off the layers of her skin one at a time until she was a bleeding, oozing mass. The worst part was, she could spill her guts, and Logan might not believe her. He could call the police because it was the right thing to do. They would take her to jail. And who knew what would happen then . . . except that it wouldn’t be good.
“Then a few days later, your boyfriend ratted you out?” he asked.
“Yeah. I was still bleeding, my hip infected. Holden heard about the reward for turning me in and he called. ” And damn if she wasn’t still bitter about that. “When I stepped out of the shower for my shampoo and overheard him on the phone, I threw on my clothes, took the truck, and split. ”
“Keep going,” Logan demanded.
“From there, I dashed to the next town over and paid cash for a little sedan. I had about thirty grand with me, money I’d taken from my father over a few months so Holden and I could start a new life. My dad never missed it.
“Since it was winter, I bolted south. Spent some time in Kentucky. When people there got suspicious, I adopted another name, colored my hair, and slipped over the border into Tennessee. Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma . . . Any place I could find a rent-by-the week motel and a transient job, that’s where I went, at least until I thought someone might be onto me. Then I’d be gone again. ”
“How did you find Thorpe?”
“I waited on some lifestylers while working at a twenty-four-hour diner shortly after I got to Dallas. Some were still in their fet garb at three a. m. when they walked in. I was curious, so I asked questions. They gave me answers. One of the unattached Doms invited me to go to Dominion with him. Out of curiosity, I said yes. He turned out to be a troll, and it didn’t take Thorpe long to throw him out, but I begged to stay. I’d finally found the perfect place to hide. A secretive community where no one expects to know your real name and no one is going to out you. I could dress different, change my hair, wear a lot of makeup, and no one would raise a brow. Not a soul who knew me as a child would ever admit to knowing what a fet club was, much less think to look for me there. Thorpe asked a lot of questions at first. I made up a lot of lies. After a while, as long as I did my job and promised to give him a heads-up if I planned to skip out so he could hire someone else, he left it alone. ” She sighed, struggling to hold it all in. “Then came Sean. ”