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OVER AND OVER like a mantra, I silently say my name: Paisley Lang Meadows. They’ve taken everything else. I won’t allow them to take my identity, too. I’m going to hold onto who I am until the very end, which likely will come sooner than later.
For the last thirty days, my keepers—two short, stocky men with beer bellies and bad breath—have referred to me as it. They energetically elbow each other while exchanging aren’t-we-so-damn-clever expressions and saying things like, “Look at it all scrunched up in a ball.” A fetal ball, to be exact.
When you’ve been locked in a perpetually-cold room and stripped down to nothing but bra and panties, it’s kind of tough to stay warm if you don’t curl into yourself. Plus, there is the not-so-small issue of modesty. I don’t fancy a couple of rotten-toothed bastards salivating over my barely-covered personal parts.
My favorite it phrase is when they ask me, “Is it hungry?” Then they slap their stubby knees and laugh as if they’ve just heard the funniest joke in the history of the world. My captor, whom I’ve never met, has put these clowns in charge of feeding me and keeping me alive until it’s my turn to be killed.
I think I can say with great confidence that I know what the inmates on death row must feel like. Awaiting one’s day of execution is a heavy burden to bear. But unlike the horrible, hardened criminal in a jail cell, I have committed no crime. Plain and simple, I am a victim of abduction.
During my time in what I have aptly named the dungeon due to the dank darkness, I have seen at least fifty girls my age come and go. At one time or another, all of them have been chained to rows of rusted pipes like the one that keeps me bound to this damp, mildewed cement wall and floor. Just like me, those girls were here to be sliced and diced for their organs. I say were because all of them are gone. Deceased. Healthy thirteen-year old hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys bring big money on the black market.
Based on how quickly the others were taken to slaughter—within days, hours or even minutes of their arrival—I would say that I am the only one to be left alive for this length of time. Having nothing to write with or on and no way to make a mark on the solid cement, I keep count of the days with my hair. Every evening after I’m fed, I pluck out a long, dark, wavy, strand and wrap it around the orangey-brown pipe. So far, Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dumb haven’t noticed. But it wouldn’t matter if they did. Last night they made it clear I had eaten my last morsel. Tonight it would be my turn on the harvesting table.
Despite missing the meal, I don’t feel hungry. There’s something about the anticipation of death that mutes one’s appetite. When I hear the footfalls echoing down the corridor in front of the dungeon, I have a sudden, overwhelming, nervous-induced, urge to pee. There’s a recessed, metal drainage hole in the middle of the floor that me and the others were instructed to use as a makeshift toilet. But doing so would mean standing up and making my way over to it. Knowing I am moments away from having my internal organs extracted from my body takes my legs away. My knees are so weak they couldn’t hold me up much less support me while I cop a squat and attempt to urinate. Oh, well, the discomfort of a full bladder will be of little consequence when I am dead. At least I can take comfort in that.
My heart jumps up and then lodges in my throat when I hear the squeaky knob turning on the dented, metal door to the dungeon. Helen Keller could see it’s less than sturdy. In fact, it’s rather rusty like everything else in this hellhole. Ironically, it appears to be barely hanging on its hinges. Had I or any of the other girls not been bound by brand new, invincible and industrial-sized chains, it would have been easy enough for us to escape through it.
Pulling my knees up closer to my chest, I wrap my arms tightly around them just below my knees and struggle to remain emotionally strong. I refuse to beg or plead or become hysterical. I won’t give these filthy, bloated bastards the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I’ll face the end of my life with the same dignity my parents did. Sadly but proudly, I saw how courageously and relentlessly they fought with everything in their power to save me. To keep these thugs from taking me. But no matter how determined my parents were to defeat the foe, it’s impossible to outfight bullets. In their honor, I am determined to be just as brave.
It always takes a minute for my eyes to adjust when the light filters in from the door. This time is no different. I slowly raise my head and squint hard.
I’m expecting the high-pitched, grating, mocking voices I’ve had to endure day-in and day-out. Instead, I get a singular one that booms and bounces off the cement walls. “It’s over, Little Lamb. The Butcher is dead.”
If I were a believer, I might think it was God Almighty Himself. When my eyes finally focus, I know for certain it’s not. According to what I learned at vacation bible school—I went one summer with a kid from my neighborhood—God doesn’t wear a solid black suit with a crisp, white shirt, a grey, silk tie and Portico cap-toed oxfords. I recognize the style from a copy of GQ my dad kept in his study. A nice pair of well-made shoes was the only thing he ever splurged on.
This elegantly-dressed man walks over to me and offers his big, tanned hand as if I’m supposed to take it without making any inquiries. Since that isn’t my style, I fire off every question that enters my mind. “Who are you? Where are Twiddle–Dee and—I mean, the two men who were guarding me? Who sent you? What are you going to do with me? Wh—”
He shakes his head, effectively silencing me mid-word. “I’ll answer all your questions once we’re out of here.” Then he turns to a man standing in the shadows. His skin is so dark, I didn’t see him there. In that low, powerful voice that seems to resonate through the concrete and into the most intimate parts of my body, the suit says, “Toss the bastards into a pile, and set them on fire. Make it quick, Dago. We’ll be waiting for you in the car.”
I watch as Dago nods and disappears into the darkness. Once again, Mr. Sexy Voice reaches down to help me up. This time, I shake my head. “I’m not going to stand up in front of you in my underwear.”
He smiles sweetly, but his smoldering gaze is so hot it makes me feel even colder than I already am. “Little girls hold no allure for me.”
Suddenly feeling irritated and energized by his remark, I jump to my feet and plant my hands on my hips. Due to malnourishment, they’ve lost some of the soft curviness that filled out my jeans before the abduction. My long, previously-well-toned legs are now super-slender and covered in downy-like stubble.
Despite being bound, I tried to keep my limbs strong by doing isometric exercises. When I could muster the strength, I used the heavy chains holding me hostage as resistance. But without adequate food and water, I’ve lost a lot of the muscle mass I’ve spent pretty much my entire life building.
One of the most important things my parents, Ashton and Lauren Meadows, taught me was the value of a healthy lifestyle. Before heading out on a family hike or suiting up for a spirited session of Canadian doubles on the tennis court—me and mom against dad—he would always say, “A family that exercises together, stays together.” I guess he wasn’t counting on one of us getting kidnapped and the other two being shot down in cold blood.
I know that sounds callous, but don’t think for a second I haven’t spent every single moment of the last month grieving my heart and soul out for them. Because I have.
My knees knock together while the man I view as my savior cuts through the thick, shiny chain links that have me tethered. I have no idea where the tool he is using came from. It’s as though it appeared out of thin air, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat or a bouquet of flowers from his jacket pocket.
When he grabs the heavy chain and tosses it into the corner, I boldly say, “I’m not a little girl, mister. I’m a grown-ass woman!”
His dark gaze meets mine before slowly traveling down and resting on my chest. “Your training bra says different.”
A flash of anger flushes my face; but, before I can formulate a snappy comeback, he slips off his suit jacket. Gently, he wraps it around my shivering shoulders, scoops me up into his arms and says, “Time to go, Tiny Titties.”
Cradling me against the massive expansion of his chest, he breaks into a run as if racing towards a finish line. Had I not been busy holding onto to his hulking frame for dear life, I would have slapped his sexy, neat-bearded, ruggedly-handsome face. How dare he be so insulting? As soon as I have a few decent meals, I’m sure my breasts will plump up nicely.
When we reach the car, he supports the full weight of my body with just one hand and opens the back door with the other. I fully expect him to deposit me onto the plush, cream-colored leather seat. Instead, as smooth as silk, he slips onto it with me in tow. Less than ten seconds after he shuts the door, I look through the rose-tinted car window and see black-as-soot smoke billowing from the block structure where I had been held. I can almost hear the globules of fat from Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dumb crackling in the fiery flames.
When I arrived here—wherever here is—I was blindfolded. Until now, I had no idea what this slaughterhouse looked like. A single tear escapes my eye when I realize I am finally free. Just as the big, salty drop rolls down my cheek, Dago slides into the driver’s seat, guns the engine and we’re off like three bats out of hell.
Shifting me in his lap, Mr. Fancy Suit reaches into his pants pocket and hands me a handkerchief. It’s dusk now, and the sun is setting, but I can still see well enough to make out the elegantly embroidered monogram, CTB. Dabbing the tear away, I gaze up at the sexy, square, stubbornly-set jaw of my savior. It’s true; chronologically, I’m only thirteen, but I have the heart of a woman. I meant what I said to him earlier. I’m not a little girl. I’ve always had an old soul, and the last month alone has aged me a good five years. In my mind, I’m legally of age.
As if he can’t bear my unspoken admiration, he growls, “Don’t look at me like that, Little Lamb. I’m not a goddamn hero. I’m as dark as they come. It’d pay you to remember that.”
A grown woman would not let those sorts of comments deter her, so I won’t either.
Reaching up, I run my trembling fingertips over the stubble that’s been beckoning me from the moment I first laid eyes on him. The texture is like short, coarse blades of new grass in the springtime. I can’t help but wonder what his beard would feel like against my lips, my breasts and even more intimate places. He jerks his head away as if I have slapped him. Slowly, I let my hand drop back to my lap. “Does the prince of darkness have a name or just initials?”
His smile is small and seems to be laced with sadness. “Carson Tanner Blackthorne.”
“The third?” I ask, grinning. “Given the expensive, obviously-tailor-made suit and the sleek Mercedes, I figure you come from several generations of money.”
“You figured wrong.”
“So, you’re a self-made man. I can respect that. I’m a self-made woman, too. I’m independent and don’t need anybody.”
He furrows his brow. “Does the princess of independence have a name?”
“She does, but she won’t tell until you answer all her questions just like you promised.”
He takes a deep breath. “You’re a smart kid—”
“As I was saying, I’m sure you’ve already figured out that I killed The Butcher, formerly known as Dr. Dean Mendle. He was discharged from the military six months ago for mental instability. When he got out, he fell on hard times and decided the most profitable and expedient way to settle his debts and make a load of loot to boot would be to harvest healthy organs from female teens, then sell them on the black market.”
“I never met him face-to-face, but I heard the others talking. I was well aware of why he took us. It was obvious he was the one who ordered my abduction and put those putrid-smelling simpletons in charge of me.”
“Per my client’s orders, I killed them as well.”
“I’m an assassin. A gun for hire. A professional killer.”
I know Mr. Blackthorne expects me to be shocked. Likely, he expects me to be sickened by his admission. Or, at the very least, be terrified of him. But the truth is I’m grateful to him for saving me. And instinctively, I know he means me no harm.
He looks at me as if I’ve grown a third tiny titty.
“Why do I kill?”
“Lots of reasons, but mostly because the evil motherfuckers I put on ice or burn to ashes deserve to die.”
I rest my cheek against his powerful chest and curl my fingers around the soft handkerchief he gave me earlier. “My name is Paisley Lang Meadows, and I’m glad you killed them.”
He clears his throat the way someone does when they’re uncomfortable with an unexpected or undeserved compliment. “Well, once you’re back home with your family, Paisley, you can forget all about me. In time, what you’ve been through will become a distant, fuzzy memory.”
A powerful onslaught of fresh tears stream from my eyes. In between sobs, I say, “My parents are dead. They were murdered by those pigs the night I was taken.”
“Fuck! I should have tortured the fucking shit out of them before putting a bullet in their heads.”
I sniffle. “Why didn’t you?”
“In my line of work, time is always of the essence. No dallying around. I get in, I get out without a trace. Don’t you have any grandparents, aunts or uncles?”
I shake my head and blow my nose. “My parents didn’t have any siblings, and their parents died before I was born. Terminal illnesses and car accidents took them out. Like I said before, I’m independent. I don’t need anybody.”
“Well, that’s damn fine and dandy,” he says, raking a hand through his thick, chestnut-brown hair. “But I can’t leave a half-starved, thirteen-year-old woman-child on the street.”
Finally the tears subside. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed to let them out. Snuggling closer to the heat of his hard, muscled chest, I whisper, “Then take me home with you, Mr. Blackthorne. I won’t be any trouble. I promise.”
My lids grow heavier than the chains that once bound me. As I drift off to sleep, I hear him say through gritted teeth, “Fuck me all to hell.”
Five Years Later
THE WEEKS, MONTHS AND years spent away from Blackthorne have slowly bled into each other, leaving me even lonelier than I had been in my most solitary hour—in what I had believed was my final hour. But thanks to my dark knight in a suit of Armani armor, I live and breathe, eat and sleep, hope and dream that one day I will see him again.
The night he murdered my captor and rent asunder that which had held me prisoner, I was a scrawny teenager who had no idea what to do with a grown man. I’m eighteen now—legally an adult—with soft curves and a raging desire that burns me up from the inside out. Unfortunately, I still have no idea what to do with a grown man. Five years in a private, all-girls school in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly conducive to male companionship. Even if I had been surrounded by a sea of men, I would only have eyes for my dark knight. The undying flames of want flicker bright and hot in my heart, licking low between the petals of my flowering womanhood whenever I think about him. The affliction of this unquenchable and ever-lasting inferno started the moment Carson Tanner Blackthorne held me in his arms.
As he gently cradled me in the back seat of his magnificent Mercedes, he wanted me to see him as a hard, cold and unfeeling killer. But somewhere in the darkest depths of his eyes, I saw a softness. A small, open window to his soul that had not yet been closed off by the nature of his business. Beneath his steely façade, I caught a glimpse of a man who still feels. Still hurts. Still has the ability to care.
He cared enough to pay for my tuition at this school. Enough to make sure my needs—except the sexual ones, of course—have been met for the last half a decade. And, most telling of all, he cared enough to stay away.
Hannah Caruthers knocks loudly on my dorm-room door. “Hurry up, Paisley! We’re going to be late for rehearsal. You know how miffed old lady Bagwell gets when we’re tardy.”
“Coming!” I yell while pulling on my graduation gown and securing my cap with bobby pins.
Hannah huffs. “I just bet you are.”
My face heats with embarrassment. The first night after arriving here at Bennington Private School for Girls, I was missing Blackthorne awfully bad and feeling horny as hell. As I clenched his white, silky-soft, monogrammed handkerchief close to my heart, I slid my other hand into my panties.
In my eagerness for relief, I failed to lock my dorm-room door. Just as I was gasping my pleasure and whimpering my dark knight’s name, the bubbly, blonde—Hannah—came bursting in to introduce herself. It’s been five years since she caught me diddling my clit, and she’s never let me forget it.
Pushing the last pin into place, I check my look in the mirror. The reflection staring back at me is one of a well-put-together, soon-to-be high school graduate. My body belies a maturity my face does not. I still have a sprinkling of little-girl freckles across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.
Perfectly-applied makeup conceals most of them, but I know they’re there. I was hoping they would fade over time or disappear completely before I see him again. I haven’t laid eyes on him since the night he rescued me. From utter exhaustion, I had fallen into a deep sleep as Mr. Blackthorne gently held and rocked me in his lap. When I woke up, I was in this room, wearing a pair of sinfully-soft flannel pajamas.
Agnes—the den mother—told me my guardian had hastily dropped me off. According to her account of events, I could tell he had concocted that story about a family emergency which required his immediate attention. It wasn’t in his nature to dally around. I get in, I get out without a trace. Only he left a couple of significant traces: a huge donation to Bennington’s and my most prized possession—the handkerchief bearing his initials.
Although my enrollment didn’t comply with traditional guidelines, the school readily accepted me along with Blackthorne’s overwhelming generosity. The funds paid my tuition in full for five years as well as covering the cost of construction for the brand new library and indoor swimming pool.
Initially, I was pissed and hurt to the bone about him abandoning me. But in time, I realized he did what he thought was best. He found a socially acceptable and honorable way to take care of me. Like he said down in the dark basement of that slaughterhouse, “Little girls hold no allure for me.”
Taking a deep breath, I smooth the black silk gown over my hips, flip the tassel to the left side of my cap and whisper, “We shall soon see if this woman holds any allure for you, Mr. Blackthorne.”
REALIZING THE WHISKEY GLASS in my hand is nearly empty, I let out a string of low curses. It’s been the day from hell. Three kills across two states has left me soul-weary. All I want is some peace and quiet in which to finish off this bottle of booze. But when I see Dago entering my sanctuary—the private office on my yacht—I know that’s not going to happen.
He’s eagerly waving a fancy, egg-shell-colored envelope embossed with light, gold lettering. From behind my oak-finished desk, I can make out the word Bennington in elegant cursive in the upper, left-hand corner. Without opening it, I know it’s an invitation.
Smiling brightly, he says, “It is Paisley’s big night. You should be there.”
I grunt. “I don’t do weddings, funerals or high school graduations.”
“I know, but I thought you might make an exception for her.”
“And why the fuck would I do that?”
“Because on a night like this one five years ago, she got under your skin. She has been living there ever since,” Dago smugly says, tossing the envelope onto my desk.
I pick it up and flip it into a nearby waste basket. “That’s bullshit. You saw what a wreck she was when I found her practically naked, huddled into herself and trembling in that Godforsaken basement. She was a helpless kid—a victim of a madman. What was I supposed to do, just leave her there?” I ask, shaking my head. “I tossed her a bone just like I would have any stray.”
“A bone would have been dropping her off at the Department of Social Services. Enrolling her in the most expensive, prim-and-proper private school in the state was something else entirely.”
“What of it? A quality education is important if a person hopes to succeed in today’s world.”
“You have no formal education, and you are hands-down the most successful man I know.”
I drain the last drop from my glass and then fill it to the brim again. “Pulling a trigger doesn’t require a diploma.”
Dago grunts. “Maybe not, but it demands street smarts, skill and nerves of steel.”
“Thanks for the unsolicited ego boost; now scram. This scholar of life prefers to be alone.”
My loyal, longtime friend and right-hand man sighs dramatically, indicating he has no intention of leaving. Based on his serious facial expression and stubborn body language, I know I’m in for one of his long-winded spiels.
Perching on the corner of my desk, he interlaces his fingers in his lap. “How long have we known each other?”
Careful not to slosh the liquid fire onto my shirt, I take a soothing swallow of amber-colored liquor and say, “Too damn long if you think you can so easily disobey my orders. Get your ebony ass off my desk.”
He doesn’t move. “I have been with you for twenty years, Carson. Two decades of destroying evidence and cleaning up one dead body after another. Watching you end the lives of hundreds of men like it was nothing. When will it be enough?”
“When I’ve eliminated every evil fucker who walks the earth.”
Dago stands and looks down at me with sorrow-filled eyes. “If you killed around the clock for the next fifty years, you could never accomplish that self-imposed task.”
“Yes. No one is forcing you to take these jobs. You have enough riches to last you three lifetimes. Are you not tired of the carnage?”
I down the rest of my drink before answering. “It’s never been about the money. And, yes, I’m sick to death of death, but a man can’t just forsake a calling.”
“He can if the voice calling him is only in his head.”
Using the edge of the desk, I push myself to my feet and place my hands on Dago’s muscle-bound shoulders. “If I were able to stop, what would you suggest I do with myself?”
He shrugs, and my arms weightlessly rise and fall with the motion. “You could take up painting, maybe bird-watching,” he says, chuckling. “Or, you could buy a private island somewhere in the tropics, settle down with a good woman and have lots of Blackthorne babies.”
“And where exactly am I to find this woman who’s dying to tie herself to an assassin, who’s chomping at the bit to pop out his offspring?” I snarl, letting my hands slide off his shoulders.
Bending down, Dago digs the envelope back out of the trashcan and hands it to me. “Bennington All-Girls Private School.”
I laugh bitterly. “You’re out of your fucking mind. I’m seventeen years older than Paisley. That makes me practically old enough to be her father. She’s a child.”
“By law and every other way I can see, she is a woman.”
My tone is razor sharp with accusation. “You’ve been snooping around on my computer.”
“Nope. I was sitting at this desk earlier, cleaning your gun when an IM popped up. Den mother Agnes was sending you an update on your little lamb.”
“So? I receive reports on the performance of all of my investments.”
“This message had nothing to do with Paisley’s scholastic accomplishments. I quote, ‘Per your request, Mr. Blackthorne, I’m sending you Miss Meadow’s senior superlative picture. Everyone here is exceedingly proud of our valedictorian just as I am sure you are.’” Dago grins arrogantly. “So do not hand me any bullshit, Boss. From afar, you have been watching this girl grow into the smart, resilient and gorgeous young woman she is now.”
“You left out innocent. She’s as innocent as a newborn kitten.”
“And whose damn fault is that?”
“What are you getting at?”
“There were plenty of prestigious private co-ed schools in this state, but you chose Bennington. Why?”
“Because it was the best fit for her.”
“Or, maybe it was the best fit for you and your ego.”
One-handed, I grab Dago by the throat, lifting his heels a couple of inches off the floor. “You’ve got thirty seconds to explain yourself before I snap your neck in two.”
I wouldn’t really harm him. I save my brand of punishment and justice for the scumbags who’ve earned it. Bad men who do terrible, unforgivable things. Men like my father.
Dago stares into my exhausted, bleary eyes and says, “You want me to lay things out real clear for you, then I will. You did not want Paisley to be around any horny, virile young men a.k.a. possible suitors a.k.a. potential husbands. That is why you put her in an all-girls school. You have been selfishly saving her for yourself. You respect and admire her strength and tenacity. Her ability to survive. The two of you have a whole lot in common even if you refuse to see it. Why can you not just admit she means something to you?”
I release him. “Because she doesn’t. Like I told you before, I don’t turn my back on strays. That’s all there is to it.”
He gingerly rubs his throat where my fingers had been. “Well, your stray is a sexy-as-shit babe who thinks the sun rises and sets on the massive shoulders of the man who saved her. Hell, a blind man could have seen the hero-worship blazing in her eyes that night.”
I exhale heavily, feeling the warmth of the alcohol softening my limbs and loosening my tongue.
“I won’t tarnish her mind, body or soul with my brand of savagery. Miss Paisley Lang Meadows deserves a man better than the likes of me.”
“Try telling her that. Attend her graduation, listen to her valedictorian speech and then make up your mind. Long-lasting, fulfilling romances and even marriages are built on way less than mutual respect and hero worship. I would say the two of you are way ahead of the game.”
Buy on Amazon: myBook.to/LynnCooper