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Hardcore volume 2, p.1
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       Hardcore: Volume 2, p.1

           Staci Hart
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Hardcore: Volume 2


  More Books by Staci Hart

  Deer in Headlights (Hearts and Arrows 1)

  Snake in the Grass (Hearts and Arrows 2)

  What the Heart Wants (Hearts and Arrows 2.5 Novella)

  Doe Eyes (Hearts and Arrows 3)

  Fool’s Gold (Hearts and Arrows 3.5) - COMING FEB 2015

  Hearts and Arrows 4 - COMING 2015

  Once (FREE short story)

  Hardcore (Erotic Romantic Suspense Serials)

  Volume 1 - NOW AVAILABLE

  Volume 2 - PREORDER

  Volume 3 - March 24th

  Click here to sign up for the newsletter to receive exclusive news, giveaways, and release information!

  Copyright © 2015 Staci Hart

  All rights reserved.

  stacihartnovels.com

  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 publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

  Cover by Quirky Bird

  TABLE OF CONTENTS

  EYES WIDE OPEN

  TWIST THE KNIFE

  PROMISES, PROMISES

  STARING AT THE SUN

  PRICE TAG

  ALL THIS TIME

  THE LINE

  To Becca, for keeping me honest.

  par·kour

  pärˈko͝or/

  noun

  1) The activity or sport of moving rapidly through an area, typically in an urban environment,

  negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing.

  2) Badassery

  COLD SEEPED INTO MY body, the hard concrete biting at my shoulder blades. I shifted, sending a bolt of pain through my skull, down my spine, and wave of nausea rolled over me. I moaned.

  “Cory?”

  Erin’s hands touched my cheeks as my mind creaked and groaned into motion like rusty gears. My lids fluttered opened to the shadow of her shape, and I blinked to clear away the fog.

  “Talk to me, Cory.”

  I glanced around and realized I was lying on the floor in the kitchen, but I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. “Hey.” My lips were dry, the word harsh and quiet.

  Her eyes were shining. “Thank God you’re okay. How do you feel?”

  “Like shit,” I croaked.

  “Do you know what day it is?” She looked into one eye, then the other, checking my pupils.

  My brows knit together, trying to retrace my steps. The last thing I remembered was coming home, finding Jade —

  Jade.

  Everything came back in a tidal wave. Jade hovering over me with her face twisted. Van’s lips on mine. Jill. She said she’d kill Jill. Faces and words rushed through my mind, and the air left the room, left my lungs empty and burning.

  “Oh, God, Erin—” A sob ripped out of me, and tears rolled down into my ears.

  Her eyes were shining as she leaned over me, cupping my cheeks with a trembling voice. “Shhh. You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay.”

  The pounding in my brain was like a kick drum, but I barely felt it. Jade’s betrayal tore through me. She’d bet Jill’s life for Van’s painting, her payoff at my expense. It was something I hadn’t known she was capable of, but somehow, I wasn’t surprised. I took a breath, willing the pain to stop as it burned like a wildfire in my chest.

  “Can you get up?” Erin asked.

  “I don’t know.”

  “I can bring a pillow in here if you want to lie for a second.”

  The comfort of my bed versus the kitchen floor was no question. “No, I can try.”

  I took a deep breath as Erin and I clasped hands, and she pulled, slipping an arm under my back as I sat. Everything I’d eaten rushed up, and I leaned away from her, emptying the contents of my stomach onto the cement floor.

  Erin held my hair out of the way and rubbed my back as I wretched until my body was empty. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.

  “Lie back down, Cory.”

  “Mm-mmm,” I answered in dissent with my eyes squeezed shut, unable to shake my head or say more as I waited for the nausea to slip away. “I think I’m okay,” I whispered after a minute.

  “You sure?”

  “Yeah. Help me up.”

  She leaned down so I could hook an arm around her neck and grabbed the back of a dining chair as she helped me stand. I leaned into her, and she braced herself under my weight.

  “You ready?” she asked.

  No. “Just go.”

  We made our way through the loft, stopping at intervals when I thought I was going to lose it or pass out, but I got to my room without puking again, which was a small miracle. There had been very little talking, only what was necessary to get me into bed. She bustled around pulling off my shoes and tucking me in, closing the curtains and clicking off lights. She left once for the kitchen, returning with a glass of water and an ice pack that she slid under my head. I sighed with relief at the magic of it against my aching neck and skull. It wasn’t until Erin was in bed next to me and my rolling stomach stilled that I finally spoke.

  My eyes were on the ceiling. “I tried to get out of the job, Erin. I told her I wouldn’t steal from Van, and she said she’d kill Jill if I didn’t.”

  “What?” Erin’s voice was deadly low.

  I didn’t speak, just waited for her to process.

  “She said that? She threatened Jill?”

  “And me too. But she said she’d start with Jill.”

  “I can’t believe this.” She paused for a long second. “When I walked in, she was on top of you. I dragged her off and popped her in the face, but she just looked at me like …” Erin shook her head. “I don’t know. Like she’d lost it.”

  I let out a breath, but it didn’t vent the pressure in my chest.

  “I didn’t know if she was going to walk away. She just stood there, staring down at you.” Erin paused. “I was ready to take her down if she touched you again, but she just left the loft — didn’t say a single word.”

  “Something is different.”

  “I know.”

  “I’ve never been afraid of her before, not really, but that look on her face … ”

  Erin took a deep breath. “Cory, this is not okay. She can’t do this.”

  “The Rothko is worth too much, Erin. I don’t think she’s going to give up.”

  Erin was quiet, but I could almost hear her thinking.

  Another wave of nausea rolled over me, and I squeezed my eyes shut as my skin prickled with sweat. “Water?”

  She reached behind her for the nightstand. “Yeah, here.”

  I took the glass with shaking hands and tilted my face, trying to bring it to my lips without spilling it. The cold water was crisp, and I gulped it greedily. I rested the glass on my stomach and relaxed back onto my pillow with a sigh.

  “How bad do you think the concussion is?” Erin asked.

  “I’ve had worse.” My head thumped, and I closed my eyes. “I think I want to try to sleep.”

  “Okay. Take this.” Erin dropped ibuprofen into my waiting palm, and I popped them into my mouth, chasing them with a sip of water. “I’m going to go clean up. I’ll be back to wake you up every two hours, so don’t bitch. I’ll call Sam too and tell him we won’t be in for a few days, okay?”

  “‘Kay,” I answered, my eyes already closing.

  She paused in the doorway for a long moment. “We’ll get everything sorted out. I promise.”

  But I found no comfort in her words as I drifted into the dark arms of sleep.

  It was afternoon when I finally woke for good
, still stiff and aching. My headache had quieted to a dull thud, and I reached for the glass of water, emptying it in a chain of thick swallows.

  I lay back in bed, eyes on the exposed pipes over my bed. Jade had played the ultimate card, the only card she had on me. There was no way I could refuse, and she knew it. I wouldn’t sacrifice Jill’s life for anything or anyone. As much as I wanted to believe that Jade wouldn’t hurt Jill, I wouldn’t take a chance. Not with so much at stake. Not after seeing Jade snap. She had crossed the line and wouldn’t go back. She would squeeze until it was over. But she didn’t need everyone. Only me. It was all on me.

  The defeat and resolve were crushing, but I wasn’t angry or sad. I was empty.

  Only a few hours earlier, I’d had hope. I had fight. But Jade erased it with a word. Any ideas I’d manufactured about my future had been shattered.

  Maybe it was for the better. I could never be good for someone else. I wasn’t even good for myself.

  I made an attempt to sit up very, very slowly, certain I was going to vomit, but once I was upright, the nausea passed. All that was left was my exhaustion. I slipped my hand into my hair to touch the back of my aching head, running my fingers over the knot where it had connected with concrete.

  Jade’s words rang in my ears. Give me a reason. Just one. My jaw clenched. I wouldn’t give her that reason she wanted so badly.

  I shifted to place my feet on the cold floor, taking a moment to steel myself. When I stood, it was slowly, uncertain whether or not I was going to drop, but the only imposing remnants of the concussion were in my shaky knees as I made my way across the room to my dresser. I peeled off my jeans with one hand, hanging onto my dresser with the other, then shed my shirt, leaving the clothes in a pile at my feet. Black leggings and a tank were the maximum I could manage, and once I was dressed, I shuffled toward the kitchen, following the voices of my friends.

  Morgan, Cher, and Erin went quiet, pity and anger written all over their faces. I smiled half-heartedly and sat down next to Cher.

  Cher’s saddle-brown eyes were soft when she turned to me. “Are you hungry?”

  I nodded and pinched the bridge of my nose. Everything was too bright, too loud, and I wished I’d stayed in bed. My stomach grumbled in protest at the thought.

  “How about a PB&J?”

  “God, that sounds like heaven.”

  She chuckled as she collected supplies, putting her care into a small task she thought would bring me comfort.

  Erin peered at me from across the table. “How are you feeling?”

  I rested my arms on the table with sagging shoulders. “Better, but still like shit. Did she come back?”

  Morgan was wound up and ready to fight. “No, and she’s lucky. This is bullshit, Cory. She can’t do this.”

  “Feels like she already did.”

  Cher shook her head as she slid a plate in front of me. “That doesn’t make it right or fair.”

  I picked up a triangle of bread. “That’s life.” I took a bite.

  “She can’t force us to do this,” Morgan snapped. “If you don’t want to steal the painting from Van, we’ve got your back. Jade can’t do it alone, and that is our leverage.”

  They really didn’t understand at all. I set the sandwich down and looked over the three of them. “Do you really believe that she’s going to let us walk away just because we said no? I said no this morning just before she beat me unconscious.”

  “Something she’ll fucking pay for, if I have anything to do with it,” Morgan huffed. “We don’t have to do this, Cory.”

  “No, you don’t have to do this. I do.”

  The three of them spoke at once, loud enough that I flinched.

  “No, hang on,” Morgan put out her hand to quiet everyone. “You’re not doing anything alone. Jade is full of shit. There’s no way she would actually hurt Jill.”

  My chest was hollow. “I don’t believe that, not with the amount of money on the line. She may not have the guts to do it herself, but it wouldn’t take much for her and Jace to find someone who would.”

  Cher shook her head, incredulous. “Jill’s like family. She’s bluffing.”

  “Fuck.” Erin’s face tightened, and when she met my eyes, I knew she understood. “Cory may be right,” she said as she turned to the other girls. “Think about it. If she didn’t have to see Jill or get her hands dirty? If threatening Jill was the key to her getting millions?”

  Morgan’s lip curled. “I didn’t sign up for this shit. It’s too far. We’ve either got to take her down a peg or down to the ground.”

  “We would just fuck ourselves,” I said. “We turn her in, we may as well turn ourselves over, too. There’s only one way out of this. I do the job, and when it’s over, we all walk away from her. Until then, we just need to ride it out.”

  Morgan wasn’t having it. “Are you so sure she’s going to leave you alone?” She shook her head. “I don’t think you should cave, Cory. I think you need to fight.”

  “But if I fight and lose, what’s the price that I’ll pay? Because I already feel like I’ve paid enough.” No one had a response. “Jade’s done with me, and I’m done with her. She’ll find someone else to push around, someone who doesn’t talk shit. But me? She wants me out. Just not until I do this for her.”

  Morgan stood, pushing the chair back with a jarring scrape. “I don’t like this.” She paced around the room.

  “Me either, but what other choice do I have?”

  She chewed on her thumbnail as she walked the length of the kitchen.

  Erin rubbed her face, pausing to press the pads of her fingers into her eyes. “Do you have any sort of plan?”

  My headache drummed a little harder. “I’ve been a little preoccupied.”

  “I’m sorry, I—”

  I waved her off. “It’s okay. There’s roof access that I can use to get into his building. I’ll have to knock out the security cameras and pick the lock on his door, but it won’t be hard to get in.”

  “Are you taking Jade?”

  I raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think she’ll let me go alone?”

  “Probably not.” Erin bit her lip. “She doesn’t need you to be there as long as you get her the information. Could you just tell her what she needs to know to do the job herself?”

  Erin wasn’t going to let it go, so I conceded, certain it was futile. “I can try.”

  “What are you going to do about Van?”

  My stomach twisted so tight at the sound of his name, I almost doubled over. “I have to end it. It’s the only way. He can’t know the truth about the painting, and I won’t steal from him and then lie about it.” The empty space of my apathy filled with sorrow as I realized the truth of my situation, realizing what I would actually have to do. I pictured myself ending it with Van, saw myself taking that painting off his wall and giving it to a bunch of thugs for money. Emotion rolled through me.

  “Maybe Van could help you, if you’d just tell him. Maybe we could frame Jade.”

  I shook my head, trying to push the hurt away. “He’s too straight for that, too good.”

  “You can’t assume you know anything about what he would or wouldn’t do. Isn’t telling him better than not saying anything?”

  I shook my head. “I wouldn’t expect him to be on board with something like this, especially after finding out I was planning on stealing from him. Why would he give me a second chance? Because if it were me, I would think, ‘Wow, that chick turned out to be a crazy bitch.’ And then I’d call the cops and walk away.”

  “What if he doesn’t want to walk away?”

  I huffed and pushed my plate away. “Don’t be stupid, Erin.”

  “You’re not even giving him a choice,” she pressed. “You’re making the choice for him because you’re scared, and that’s not fair to either of you.”

  “I just don’t believe that there’s any reality that exists where he would take a chance on me after all of this.” The words wer
e the honest truth, but they left my dry, tight lips with pain in their wake.

  She shook her head. “And I don’t believe that’s the real reason. You’re afraid he’ll reject you, and this is easier than facing that. You’d rather end it with him thinking you’re just a bitch instead of finding out you’re a thief.”

  I sucked in a breath as the truth seared through me.

  Erin softened her voice at my reaction, though not enough to be considered cajoling. “Maybe he won’t handle it like you’re afraid he will. Isn’t it worth the risk?”

  I crossed my arms and breathed deep, burying the sting of her words. “You don’t know him, Erin.”

  “Neither do you,” she shot back.

  My cheeks were hot, my voice edging frantic as I stood and pressed my palms to the table. “That’s my point. Just stop. Stop it. I don’t want to talk about it, okay? It’s not a big deal, and it’s over.”

  She huffed, shaking her head at me. “You’re a goddamn liar, Cory.”

  “Well, what the fuck else am I supposed to do?” I stared her down through a curtain of tears. “Tell me! What?”

  The silence hung over us.

  “Exactly. So fucking drop it.” The words wavered.

  Pity radiated off of the three of them, and I pushed away from the table, not wanting it.

  I’d taken two steps when the metal warehouse door opened with a scrape, and I looked back to find Jade standing in the threshold. Fire blew through me at the sight of her, and I felt my losses, felt her power over me. All I wanted was to take that power back.

  And that was when all hell broke loose.

  I charged her, the room loud as everyone scrambled in the chaos. I had almost reached her when Erin grabbed me around the waist.

  I roared, straining against her arms.

  No one held Morgan back. She bared her teeth and arched over Jade, grabbed her by the shirt and twisted a handful. Jade slammed her in the shoulders, but Morgan barely budged. The only real movement was her fist as it pulled back and released like a spring. Jade’s head snapped back, and she screamed, clutching her nose as Cher squeezed her way between them. Everyone was shouting as Cher somehow wrangled Morgan away, and Erin whispered in my ear to calm down, to let her go. That it wasn’t the time. My pounding head agreed, but the rest of me wasn’t hearing it.

 
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