Moth (Dragon Triad Duet Book 1)
August 17th, 2020
He thought he could make my life hell.
But it already was.
The one time Hannah Dewitt tries to live a little, she winds up in the crosshairs of a local thug who seems hellbent on terrorizing her.
As it turns out, there is more to Rafe than meets the eye, and their connection stokes her creativity like nothing else.
Drawn to him despite the inherent risks, she can’t resist feeding the flames of this unlikely attraction no matter how hot they burn.
But Rafe isn’t the only monster in her life. Another looms in the background, and he won’t let her go so easily.
Chapter 1: Part 1
Disclaimer: The following copyrighted material is unedited and subject to change.
We’re lied to as children. Monsters aren’t found in the closet or under the bed, and nothing portrayed in horror movies could ever do them justice. The awful truth became obvious to me at an early age. Real monsters lurk inside of everyone—from a kind elderly grandparent down to the very people who tuck you in at bedtime.
We all have demons inside, waiting to emerge when least expected. The only effective weapon against them is denial. Close your eyes, count to ten, and endure the worst of the assault. Suppress the pain, the anger—the fear.
Eventually, the horror fades, and you convince yourself it was all just a dream.
Until the lies stop working. The nightmare becomes a reality, corrupting every aspect of your life.
Until the person you see in the mirror becomes the scariest monster of all. In vain, you try running away.
But you never can.
There is only one choice left—live that pretty, fragile lie and craft the walls of your own ignorant little cage around you.
Like a moth dancing on the edges of a flame.
* * *
Music spills from the club’s brick façade, providing a fitting soundtrack for this busy city street. My nerves aside, I can’t deny that the place has its own unique brand of ambiance. Loud, pulsing notes form the bulk, grating against my eardrums. It’s not my preference, per se—more along the lines of the punky sort of stuff that Mara listens to. Vulgar on the surface, but when the chorus hits, the guitar riffs give way to surprisingly deep lyrics.
It’s the juxtaposition, she explains whenever I raise my eyebrow at the noise seeping from her headphones during our bus rides to campus. You should study it more, Hannah. A few curse words might spice up your writing enough that you’ll make the international news next time.
My cheeks heat at the prospect as I lean against a grungy brick wall paces away from the actual line snaking inside. I’m out of sight here, and there’s no one to stare as my hand falls to the knitted bag hanging from my shoulder. I curl my fingers into a fist just to keep from reaching inside for it—it being a crumpled article from four weeks ago. Sure, the article itself had been buried within one of the most well-read local imprints from my small town, but it featured a short story, written by none other than Hannah Dewitt. Or, in this case, Hannah Matthews. Not that using my mother’s maiden name helped obscure my identity any. Everyone from my parents to those in my hometown knew instantly who wrote it.
The narrative conveyed in the few short paragraphs transcends any pseudo-identity I might hide behind. A spine-chilling horror or as my creative writing professor deemed it—a story of betrayal and violence.
Mara had snorted the first time I showed her the article. “You really carry that around with you?” she’d asked, but her voice had touched on that awed, reverent tone artists reserve for those weird universal quirks we all understand. She just got it.
After three months of being her unofficial best friend, I’m convinced she loves testing our mutual fears more than any other bonding activity. Our fear of rejection. Isolation. Of the unknown.
Like venturing out to a club on the outskirts of downtown at a time inching dangerously close to midnight. It’s one of the most reckless things I’ve ever done, even if I haven’t gathered up the nerve to go inside yet. I’m here, and that’s the important thing. All for the sake of research—how can I write about the human experience without…well, living?
The first step? Break free from my cage—a task easier said than done. Warily, I dig through my bag for my phone. It might not be a cage in the literal sense, but its pink case resembles nothing more than a pretty shackle, linking me to an owner, though he’s miles away. Several unread messages dance across my home screen, none of them from Mara:
Where are you?
Where are you?
Where are you?
My fingers tremble as I hastily compile a reply. At home. Like usual, lol.
A new message flashes across the screen as if the writer knew my response by heart, ready with his own counterpoint. Is your webcam still broken?
I swallow hard and desperately try to ignore the unease unfurling in my belly. I can do this. I went over the plan a million times, fine-tuning every detail, such as insisting the security camera he’d installed in my apartment had spontaneously combusted this morning. It’s a harmless lie on the surface, but it set the groundwork for my fragile confidence. I’m ready for anything.
Yeah, I finally reply. The battery died, remember?
Sweat slicks my palms as I wait for a response. A heartbeat later, my phone vibrates with an incoming message.
Call me then.
Enjoy Santa Barbara, I insist. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine without you for just one night.
Call me, Hannah. Now.
I sigh and bring the phone to my ear. It barely has the chance to ring before someone picks up on the other end. “How are you doing?” my brother demands.
“I’m fine, Branden.” I try my best to keep the strain from my voice. “Now enjoy your vacation. Promise—”
“I can barely hear you…” Static disrupts his words. I just get shouted snippets. “What the hell is that noise?”
“N-Noise?” My heart stops beating. As if from miles away, I interpret the music pulsing in the distance. Crap. He must be able to hear it even through the phone. Turning, I spot a nearby alley and hurry down the cramped space until a dumpster blocks my path. At least here, some of the noise fades.
“Sorry, I was…watching something on the television,” I say, cupping my hand around the receiver. “I turned the volume down.”
“You think you can live by yourself in an apartment and have the TV that loud?”
I grit my teeth at the disapproval in his tone. “It’s not that big of a deal, Bran. I’m sorry—”
“Take a picture,” he demands. “Right now. Your cell phone seems to be working okay if you can’t use the webcam. I need to see your smile.”
“Branden.” I’m blinking too rapidly to ignore the prickling sensation building behind my eyes. It’s such a stupid reason to cry. I’ve prepared for this, too.
“Just one,” he goads in that tone that makes the outrageous sound reasonable. Sane. “So that I can make sure you’re safe.”
“I’m honestly fine,” I whisper in a half-hearted attempt to placate his paranoia.
More static rattles the feed from his end as if he pulled the phone from his ear. “Kaitlin! Pack up. We’re heading back tonight—”
“Fine.” Sighing, I hold up my cell phone and take a picture of the brick wall before me. The shutter sound echoes loudly enough for him to hear it. “Cheese,” I mutter as I flick through my recent photos and select the one I took right before leaving my apartment. My finger shakes as I hit send. “Satisfied?” I ask, knowing that within seconds he’ll be able to see the image—me, supposedly safe and sound, lounging on the couch in my pj’s while smiling wide.
“I’m just looking out for you, Han,” he finally replies. “I still don’t get why you left. I’m just trying to protect you. You know that. And I’m sorry…for what happened the other day. You should have told me you weren’t coming sooner.” His voice hardens the way it does when he’s thinking too long and too hard. Usually, about the past and all the ways I’ve screwed up under his watch before.
“I just want you to enjoy this time with Kaitlin,” I croak. “That’s all.”
In theory, my moving out was supposed to be our chance to start over. Put some distance between us. Cut the cord…
If anything, he’s started to strangle me with it.
Only because he loves me. He does.
“Night, Bran.” I know better than to hang up until he grunts out a muttered goodbye. Only then can I rest assured that he won’t show up outside my apartment in the middle of the night.
But I’ve survived, and as I return my phone to my bag, I refocus on the task at hand—not chickening out of my—technically first—night out with a real live friend. Ever.
Not even Branden can make me turn back now.
Squaring my shoulders, I face the club entrance, no less intimidated by the sight of the line than I was before.
What had Mara called this place? Eccentric. “It’s the best! Really grunge. The kind of place where you’ll find an underground DJ as often as a drug dealer.”
Fortunately for me, there don’t seem to be any drug dealers among the scantily dressed women and men who make up the bulk of the line—not that I would honestly know the difference. Still, something won’t let me scurry from the alley and join them just yet.
Fear? Branden isn’t the only reason I’m hesitant to go headlong into a nightclub, in a strange neighborhood with a “friend” I’ve admittedly only known for a few months. But part of my New Year’s resolution is to live a little. Stop dwelling in my bubble. Stop living life under Branden’s discretion.
And, most importantly, grow as an artist…
Inhaling deeply, I force myself to advance the few necessary steps it takes to join the end of the line. My hands shake as I rummage through my bag for a card Mara gave me. Neon blue, it proclaims the club’s name in a bold black script—Dragon’s Head. When I flash it to the bouncer, he barely gives me a second glance.
And I’m in. Dorothy is no longer in Kansas, but the real world is a dizzying collage of neon lights and crushing music. Dark walls and a press of bodies make this realm so very different from the cloistered, closeted spaces I’m used to. One overriding thought weighs on my mind as I inch my way forward, but I’m smiling the more I mull it over. Branden would kill me.
But at least then he wouldn’t be able to control me anymore.
In this place, control seems to be a foreign concept entirely. Mara hadn’t been lying. Beneath the grime and decay, the venue oozes creative allure in spades. I have to physically stop myself from dragging my journal from my bag and writing down snippets of inspiration. I can’t help it. Poetry lurks in the flickers of bright light and lingering shadow. Stanzas beg to be written about mysterious figures lurking on the outskirts of the dance floor.
Every person here has a story to be told—people watching, in less flowery terms, sure. Either way, this is much better than sitting at home watching old movies in my ratty pair of sweats.
I do my best to meld within the crowd, craning my neck back to take everything in. The high rafters riddled with metal scaffolding. The brick walls illuminated in muted reflections of the pulsing lights. Color abounds, and I almost miss the flash of pale skin as someone grabs my wrist, spinning me around.
“You came!” Mara Chan stands before me, dressed to kill in a black minidress that hugs her curves. Her long black hair hangs loosely down her back, and her light makeup enhances her pretty features and almond-shaped eyes.
She could have easily chosen to be a model rather than an English lit major.
And in her shadow, I instantly feel underdressed. “I thought you said this was casual?” I have to shout just to be heard above the music.
“What do you mean?” She eyes me with a frown and shrugs. “You look great.”
Great—as in boring. My beige sweater—speckled with white bunnies—and a conservative brown corduroy skirt are admittedly the most risqué items in my wardrobe. Even so, Mara waggles her eyebrows.
“Relax! You have that sexy librarian thing going on. Now, let’s dance!” Grabbing my hand, she pulls me out to the center of the dance floor. “The music tonight is fire!”
I spot a DJ in the corner, curating the pulsating, energetic beat that seems to switch on a dime, keeping every dancer on their toes.
It’s an electric atmosphere far different from what I see portrayed on television. Yet my worried, niggling fears meld with the flourishes of the music…
Branden would kill me.
“Hey, buzzkill!” Mara giggles even though she’s forced to shout near my ear. “Loosen up! I’ll get us some drinks.”
She scurries off before I can follow, leaving me adrift amid a sea of writhing bodies. I grip my bag with both hands and try not to panic—a feat made ten times harder as paranoia sets in, nibbling away at my fragile resolve.
Branden would kill me. He will kill me. He’s on his way here, sensing that something is wrong. He’ll find me here and then kill me.
Stop controlling my every moment because he is my brother, not my keeper. I mentally chant the thought as fiercely as I can until it sinks in—a little bit.
Until I remember his explosive reaction when I backed out of the beach trip he spontaneously planned to start this week—a full month earlier than when he usually takes his vacation. You’re so fucking selfish, Hannah.
You hate me, Hannah.
You’re just like them.
You’ll abandon me too.
I flinch as a dull ache resonates through my right arm. I’d started to clutch it with the opposite hand without realizing it. I stop and refocus on my surroundings.
It’s too beautiful here to worry.
Neon lights bathe the room in alternating plumes of color. Yellows. Reds. Greens. They transform the space into an almost mythical realm where the clubgoers around me shift and mutate at random. A girl grinding against a male companion glows pink, then blue before appearing normal again for a split second. She catches me staring and winks, gyrating her hips.
My cheeks flame as I push my way past the dancing couple, hunting for Mara. I don’t see her over by what seems to be the only bar in the back corner. Neither do I spot her long hair swaying in the nearby vicinity. Confused, I keep going, making my way through the club. On my second trip around, I spot a flash of dark hair along a section of booths cordoned off by a neon blue velvet rope. Two massive bouncers guard the opening I assume to be the entrance, and Mara stands beyond them, inside the section.
One look at her and I stop short. Something’s wrong. Her arms are crossed, her chin jutting defiantly.
And three men eye her from various positions spread out along a row of black leather couches. I inch back a step as an invisible alarm in my brain goes off, making my chest constrict. It’s the way they’re looking at her. Like a piece of meat on display.
I love you, Han. The memory plays on the fringes of my consciousness, threatening to unfold in full. No one cares about me like you do. No one…
I close my eyes. Shake my head. Ignore. But when I refocus, I find myself inching closer to that corner, straining my ears to hear above the music. This far from the DJ, and the beat isn’t anywhere near as overwhelming as before, but their voices are so loud I can understand every word. It’s as if they don’t care who might hear them.
“Your daddy’s been falling behind on paying his debts,” one of them says. A man maybe in his thirties with a goatee and thinning black hair. “Lucky for him, there are plenty of ways for what he owes to be paid off.” He strokes his chin while eyeing Mara up and down with an expression of narrowed, hungry eyes that makes my skin crawl. He zeros in on her bare collarbone and licks his lips. “I’d pay it off myself. Just ask me nicely.”
Mara says something I don’t catch because the laughter of another man cuts her off.
He’s older than the other two, his features weathered. Worn. A set of gold chains dangles from his neck, obscuring the collar of his black shirt. He sits sprawled out, his legs splayed, one hand palming the center of his dark jeans. “With a face like hers?” He purses his lips and raises a finger stacked with gold rings. “One night, tops.”
He and the first speaker laugh, trading knowing looks.
But the third man draws my attention. He’s seemingly the youngest, judging from his full head of jet-black hair, but the other two sit angled toward him. Every now and again, they glance in his direction as though to seek approval.
Rather than join in their taunts, he one-handedly tosses a small object into the air. Bright orange ombre, square-shaped… A lighter. He juggles it without looking at Mara, choosing instead to scan the room but in a way that reminds me of one of my father’s hunting dogs. Alert. On edge. Vigilant.
Absently, he swipes his free hand through his hair, revealing just how long it is—enough to brush his shoulders in jagged waves. Too long. The wayward strands obscure his eyes until it’s too late. I can only stare as they dart from some distant corner to…me.
He sits forward, snatching the lighter from the air. Then he snaps his fingers once, drawing the attention of one of the bouncers. He points at me and crooks his finger in a silent command. Come here.
A heavy hand falls over my shoulder not even a second later, shoving me forward. I don’t resist. I don’t scream. It’s like some internal switch is flipped in my head, controlling my limbs and ceasing all thought. My only driving force is instinct, which lays out a familiar framework. Don’t think. Don’t scream. Don’t fight. Obey.
As if from underwater, I hear Mara say, “Leave her out of this! This has nothing to do with her—”
“Shut the fuck up,” the man with the goatee snaps.
It’s like I blink, and I’m here—in this space without any real recollection of moving. My arm is throbbing, my breaths slowing. In some ways, it’s like falling into a well-worn routine. I go numb, turn my brain off. Endure.
You’re so fucking selfish, Han. You’ll leave me eventually, won’t you? You will…
“You wouldn’t be playing games with us, Mara?” the younger man asks, and my brain ceases every thought to fixate on him. His voice is soft, like a snake’s hiss—but deeper too, resonating with the strength of a roll of thunder. Pocketing his lighter, he gestures to me—to my bag, I realize.
One of the bouncers snatches it from my arm and hands it to him. Holding my gaze, he digs through it slowly, withdrawing its contents one by one. My journal. My pink leather wallet. A white case containing my birth control pills. My jade green pen that I borrowed from the Paper Crane, the bookstore I work at—his eyes scan the wording on it, and he scoffs. Finally, he retrieves my cell phone.
He weighs the device on the palm of his hand and then swipes through my home screen.
“What are you doing?” Mara cries, her voice higher than I’ve ever heard it. “That’s hers! Leave it alone. She has nothing to do with—”
“I’m making sure that you wouldn’t be dumb enough to do something reckless, Mara,” he says in that unnerving tone. “Like bring a little friend to record our friendly conversation.”
His cold gaze flickers from her to me and back again. “She’s not from around here,” he says as if that alone proves his suspicion. “Hanging around you. Zhang? Looks to me like a nosy little bitch.”
“She lives here,” Mara hisses, her voice hitching. “She just moved in, and she works for Mr. Zhang. I was just showing her around—”
“She’s not dressed like it,” he counters, eyeing my sweater skeptically. “No. It looks to me like she ain’t dressed to party. More like to poke her fucking nose around where it doesn’t belong. A reporter?” He snatches something from my bag—the article scrap. “This you?” he asks me.
“It’s just an article about her,” Mara insists. “She didn’t write it—”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” he snaps. “Let the little bunny speak for herself. Are you a reporter, bunny? You smell like one—” His nostrils flare pointedly. “But I’m not sure.”
His eyes zero in on my face, piercing and impossible to avoid. It’s like he sees through me, his gaze slicing to the innermost parts of my being. To those emotions I’ve learned to turn off. Impulses I’ve fought to smother.
He stares and stares, all the while toying with my cell phone.
Then he drops it, only to reach for my journal next. Boldly, he flips it open, lowering his gaze to the first page.
At this point, my control snaps. I step forward, straining the grip of the bouncer who tries to stop me. My lips part, a plea slipping out, violating one of my internal, concrete rules—endure.
I break. “Don’t!”