Flame Chapter 1

Flame (Dragon Triad Duet Book 2)

Blurb:

Falling for a man like Rafe was just the beginning.

As danger looms overhead and her secrets are revealed, Hannah will have to trust him now more than ever.

But Rafe has his own past and, once uncovered, the truth may send her running for good…

Or the consequences will plunge her into a series of choices from which there is no turning back from.

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: The following is copyrighted material.

I still remember the first time I ever put the tip of my pen to a sheet of fresh paper and scribbled whatever came to mind. What that felt like. In a word? Clarity. I went from voiceless to limitless. My words had power again, however little it might have been.

Amid the deepest depths of my brother’s obsession and my parents’ indifference, I had an identity all other aspects of my life had stripped away.

I became a writer.

For years it’s been the one thing I’ve always excelled at. Creating. Crafting. Emoting.

And yet, lately, it feels like I’ve run out of the right words. My emotions can’t be wrestled onto paper anymore. Gone is that defining identity, and once again, I’m a blob molded by my life circumstances.

So much for being a writer. I can’t even voice the truth out loud—the event that, in so many ways, led to this present like the first in a series of falling dominoes.

A story that isn’t really mine to tell.

Ironically, I used to imagine what life might be like outside of the cage my past forced me to craft around myself. I just never envisioned this—freedom found in a monster’s lair, far different from the one I grew up fearing. His world is darker, stranger, lonelier…

And in so many ways, hauntingly beautiful.

I’m a moth, ignited by the intoxicating flame that tempted me to fly so near to it. In the aftermath, all I can do is lie on the ashes of my wings, blinking up at a beige ceiling as my brain struggles to reconcile everything that has transpired within the past forty-eight-hours, ending with me alone in the bed of a man I barely know.

Rafe.

The man embodies so many contradictions it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Judging from the coolness of the sheets beside me, I doubt he slept here. I strain my ears, but I don’t pick up any noise or footsteps throughout the rest of the apartment, either. The only clue of his presence I find at all, once I creep from his room and down the hall, is an empty cup on the kitchen counter beside a brown paper bag of leftover takeout from last night.

As I approach it, I happen to glance from one of the many windows at the street below. It’s too early for rush-hour traffic, but several cars dart past at a steady rate—and my heart lurches at the sight of each one. No matter how hard I try to talk myself out of the growing paranoia, I swear every passing vehicle resembles Branden’s.

Is Branden’s. Though it’s only a matter of time before he comes after me. Running was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done where my brother is concerned. He requires the same logic my father drilled into me around his hunting dogs—never turn your back. Never let your guard down.

And, most importantly, never give the beasts a reason to chase.

Not that he has to do much work to find me anyway. I spot my phone resting on the coffee table, though I didn’t put it there. Ignorant of its use as a tracking device, someone even hooked it up to a charger he must have retrieved from my apartment—though he left it off. That little token of kindness isn’t the only one I spy as I rise to my feet and start to pace from room to room.

I spot my shoes beside the door leading downstairs. My toothbrush and toiletries have been left for me on the counter in the bathroom. Three boxes of my belongings sit piled in a distant corner of the hall, rescued from my apartment. Out of consideration, some of my clothing has been neatly folded on the top box for easy access.

That same person probably left my bag within view too. Inside it, I find all those trivial reminders of a life that seems like a stranger’s to me now. A crumpled business card and a battered gold lighter are just meaningless trinkets. Even my journal. Its pages are still filled with old writing, including my draft essay for the Fenwick program—my only hope for continuing school in the fall.

The proposed topic? Describe and conquer your inner demons.

I laugh out loud at the idea of it. How pathetic was that? To pin my entire success on a whim. My “talent.” Scoffing, I flip the book open and scan the pages. All those pretty, carefully penned words read flat. Empty. Useless, emotionless lies. For the first time in my life, I’m numb as I stroke my thumb along a page. There is no spark.

But one person ensured that I wasn’t without this possession anyway—an amount of caring that contrasts sharply with the dark-eyed figure dwelling inside my head. The creature capable of sowing the heavy footsteps I catch advancing up the rickety staircase leading to the apartment’s entrance. I know even before the door opens who is behind it. I can smell him—ash and smoke.

His very presence is heralded by a shift in the air, like a drop in temperature warning of a storm. Rafe.

“You’re awake,” he grunts in acknowledgment while closing the door behind him. He’s wearing a pair of gray sweats and a white beater top—a casual alternative to his usual jeans and black leather. In his hands is another brown paper bag and a faint aroma emanates from it, making my stomach rumble.

“Come here.” With a curt nod, he beckons me into the kitchen where he unloads the contents of his bag on the counter—two steaming breakfast sandwiches wrapped in paper. He hands one to me, claiming the second for himself. As our eyes meet, his expression softens, his lips quirking into a frown.

“You bruise fucking easily, rabbit,” he says, stroking my cheek with his thumb. His eyes travel down to my throat, fully exposed by the wide neckline of the shirt I’m wearing now—an oversized black one of his. The earnest sympathy in his tone makes me stiffen self-consciously. Apart from last night, I have no fresher mental image to compare my appearance to.

I can’t even look in the mirror.

“Is it that bad?” I ask.

“Damn right,” Rafe says, whistling through his teeth. “I doubt even the old ‘sunglasses’ trick will help you, bunny.”

I brush my fingers along my jaw and barely feel any pain. It’s like I’m numbed to everything but the here and now. His smell takes precedence over any other sensation, his nearness overwhelming.

Whenever I try to think about the million other pressing concerns in my life, only a few stick out.

“I have to work today,” I say absently, though panic sets in at the thought of leaving. Branden will be looking for me, for one. My lease runs out by the end of the week thanks to his efforts. I have no idea how to navigate my usual routine, taking all of that into account. “That’s what I’m worried about,” I add with a tattered laugh. “I have to work today.”

“I’ll talk to Zhang,” Rafe says, referring to my boss. He turns away from me and rummages through the fridge, withdrawing a brown bottle of beer. Despite the early hour, he pops the lid off on the edge of the door and takes a deep swig, throwing his head back.

For the first time, I step outside of my own worries and put myself in his shoes. He looks almost as bad as I feel. I have a sinking suspicion as to why.

“The missing girl. Faith,” I say thickly. “You knew her.”

“Yeah…” He swipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, his gaze distant. “She was a good kid. What happened to her is fucked up.”

He sounds genuinely upset, and I hate the jealousy that unfurls when I try to imagine why. Just how well did he know her?

No better than Branden, a part of me snarls in response. He’s the one who had her hair clip, you idiot.

Ashamed, I focus my attention to the window as another car drives past. A sharp pain in my hand makes me realize that my fingers are clenched, the nails cutting into my palms. “Do… Do they know what happened to her?” I whisper.

Maybe I’m a masochist, feeding off the weight of the heavy sigh he releases. His obvious regret drills in this reality like a hammer on a nail—this is real.

“Not yet. They found her body on the outskirts of the city, and—” he breaks off with a grimace. “I’ll spare you the details.”

Traffic is still moving down below, and another car zips by too quickly to inspect in full. I tear my gaze away and find myself staring down the hall instead, toward a stack of boxes. Tell him, my conscience warns. Tell him now.

“She was in trouble,” I say, skirting around the truth again. Trouble that wound up with her dead and a piece of jewelry hidden among my belongings. My palms grow slick with sweat at the memory, my pulse increasing. “H-How?”

Rafe grunts, and I turn to find him taking another sip of beer. “She got caught up with the wrong motherfuckers and paid the price for it. And I couldn’t help her…”

“Her friend,” I say. “The one we saw the night of the vigil. She claimed a man, DW, was the one bothering her—” Not Branden for whatever it’s worth. “Do you know who that is?”

“No,” he growls. “If I did, I’d be ripping the sick fucker apart, wouldn’t I?”

“And Faith never told you anything?”

“I know he’s a cop,” he says in an icy tone. “And that he was using her somehow. As a drug mule? An informant? I don’t know. It’s not like I can go ask Gino about it, now can I?” He slams the bottle onto the counter and takes a bite from his sandwich, an obvious clue that he’s done talking about it.

For now.

But I can fill in some of the blanks on my own. Faith fell in with his rival Gino—a thug who owns what Mara deemed a “tittie bar.” There she met a monster who supposedly made her do awful things.

A monster who found her silence well worth killing her for.

But that doesn’t explain why her hair clip is in a shoebox in this very apartment. A threat? A warning? Branden isn’t reckless. He took my only other piece of leverage against him, ensuring no one would believe me even if I came forward.

He wouldn’t implicate himself in another murder so easily.

So why taunt me with that item in particular?

The more I think about it, the more confusing it all becomes until I’m rubbing at my throbbing temples, trying to make sense of the tangled web.

“Drink,” Rafe commands, drawing my attention.

I blink to find the rim of the beer bottle beneath my nose.

“I don’t drink,” I insist, shaking my head.

“The fuck you don’t.” Rafe fixes me with another searching look, but one devoid of sympathy. An eyebrow raised, he tilts the bottle toward me again. “Trust me, bunny. You need a fucking drink. You look like shit.”

It’s the way he says it that makes me inch forward and warily press my lips to the bottle. Shit, some level of despair beyond any flowery prose or descriptor.

Satisfied, he manipulates the drink with one hand, allowing me to take the smallest, most cautious sip. It’s gross, and I choke down the liquid as he pulls the bottle away.

“Did you sleep?” he asks next.

I shake my head, and he scoffs as though I’ve insulted him.

“Come on.” Grabbing his sandwich, he pivots on his heel, approaching the door.

“Wait…” I contemplate coming clean now. Telling him everything. I have to. “I need to tell you—”

“Whatever you want to say, hold it,” Rafe snaps with surprising intensity. “I don’t want to hear shit until I’ve eaten.” He heads for the stairs, leaving me no choice but to follow.

The second I cross over the threshold after him, paranoia plays a chilling game on my psyche. Branden could be lurking below right now.

Waiting for me.

“It’s okay.”

I look up to find Rafe halfway down the staircase. “No one’s going to fuck with you here,” he says.

“You don’t know that.” My fear isn’t faked for the sake of drama. Branden always has a way of controlling me—no matter where I go. Nausea crawls up my throat as I recall the latest example. “He… He’s been tracking me through my phone—”

“No one will ever fuck with you here,” Rafe insists. “Trust me.” He juggles the items in his arms to free up one hand that he extends to me. The fingers are bruised and riddled with scrapes, and yet it’s still the most appealing sight I’ve been presented with all morning.

Finally, I entwine my fingers with his. Rather than head for the front of his shop, he takes me past the back room. There, the short hallway ends at the door leading into a narrow alley. Cool air raises goosebumps over my flesh as we step out into the morning, drawing attention to the fact that all I’m wearing is his shirt, nothing else.

“In here.” He opens a nearby door that conceals another staircase. A doorway at the top of it exits onto a wide space beneath the open sky—the building’s roof.

With a confidence that betrays just how often he must come here, Rafe guides me forward to a waist-high length of plywood spanning the edge of the rooftop. Below, traffic picks up, and I can’t resist scanning every car, hunting for a familiar model.

“Don’t,” Rafe warns as if reading my mind. “No one can see us up here.”

He sits with his back to the railing and arranges his food and drink beside him. “Sit.”

Once I do, he grabs his sandwich and takes another ravenous bite. “Eat,” he commands with his mouth still full.

I gingerly sample a bite of mine, registering the flavors of sausage, egg, and cheese. “It’s good.”

But he didn’t bring me up here to eat. Blazing in the growing sunlight, his gaze contains a million unanswered questions. Much like a book with a blank cover, it’s impossible to discern what he’s thinking at a glance. I have to touch him—running my fingers along his forearm the same way I would flip through pages—and tension turns his muscles to stone.

“Damn right, it is,” he agrees with my assessment, leaning his head back. His jaw tightens with a hint of seriousness he’s concealed until now. “So, tell me… Those cameras I found in your place. Were they your idea or his?”

My cheeks catch fire. The cameras. One in my living room above my TV placed in plain sight. The other, presumably hidden in my bedroom without my knowledge or consent. God only knows what the footage might reveal—me dressing. Undressing. Sleeping…

With Rafe.

“It caught us, didn’t it,” he suspects in between swigs of his beer. “Is that what set him off?” He nods to indicate my bruised frame. “The fucker watched us.”

The thought hurts to explore in full. I have to squeeze my eyes shut and digest it in pieces—Branden, watching me with Rafe. Watching. Watching. Watching.

It doesn’t sink in until now as a mangled sound rips from my throat. A laugh? A scream? I’m not sure whether I’m cackling or crying as I bolt onto my knees and vomit.

“Damn.” I hear Rafe sigh amid the clink of this bottle being set aside. A heartbeat later, he shocks me—his fingers are in my hair, smoothing stray strands away from my face. “The fucker must have gotten quite the show, huh? Come here.”

In his arms, I find a surprisingly warm refuge. Heedless of the mess still dribbling down my chin, he sits back, guiding my head onto his lap.

“Don’t let him inside your head,” he warns. “That’s what he wants. To disgust you. To shame you. He wants you to second-guess the person you are without him. Fuck that.”

“You don’t sound embarrassed,” I croak, finally pegging the sole emotion coloring his voice. Pity for me, but surprisingly no unease for himself. No anger, either. A glance at his face reveals he’s sporting his trademark stoic expression. “Or violated.”

“I don’t have shit to be embarrassed about—” he pauses in his petting of my hair and meets my gaze directly. “You don’t either. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Conviction resonates in his voice—he truly believes that.

But he doesn’t know the awful truth still churning my stomach. Namely, the true identity of “Bran.” The way he’s watched me for so damn long. The horrible suspicion that planting the camera in my room wasn’t done with the sole intention of catching me with someone.

He wanted to see me. Control me.

Exploit any part of my life that he could.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Rafe repeats, flexing his fingers as if force alone can drive that fact into my skull. “Sex is sex, bunny. You made your choice to fuck me. I made my choice to fuck you back—and it was damn good.”

I flinch at how casual he makes it sound. Like he’s said that line before—many times.

“You left last night,” I point out, switching to a subject that makes him stiffen this time. He’s right. I didn’t sleep at all.

But did he?

“Were you with Bonnie?” Would I even have the right to be upset if he had been with the perky blond?

“I was up here,” he admits softly.

I observe him more carefully, noting the shadows beneath his eyes I’d missed before. The slight redness to them. He’s disguised it so well, but he’s wrecked.

“All night?”

He nods. “All fucking night. Any more questions?”

“What were you doing up here?” I glance around the wide space skeptically, but I believe him.

“Thinking,” he says, snatching his beer for another sip. His clenched jaw evokes troubles well beyond my personal issues.

“Thinking about Faith?”

He nods.

“And your uncle?”

Irritation flashes across his face. “What about him?”

I struggle to remember some of the conversation I’d overheard between the two. “He wanted you to do something about what happened to her. About Gino—”

“He wants me to do a lot of shit,” he says, neither a confirmation nor a denial.

“I heard what he said to you the other night, too,” I confess. “He thinks Gino had something to do with Faith’s death, doesn’t he? And he wants you to confront him. Attack him?”

Or worse.

“Don’t worry about him.”

“What if… What if Gino didn’t hurt Faith?” I suck in a breath, fully prepared to confess the truth. “I—”

“Gino has a motive, but I hope the bastard wasn’t that stupid,” Rafe says. Going off the low note in his voice, he truly means it. “Whoever killed Faith, I pity the motherfucker. He’s a dead man walking.”

“Because of your uncle?” I blurt out. I recall how the older man had reacted to the news. As if Faith’s death were some kind of personal slight against him.

Rafe shrugs. “Because, bunny, people who do bad shit tend to have it catch up to them eventually. Faith’s killer is running out of places to hide.”

I bite my lip. Despite everything Branden is, and everything he’s done…

Some part of me won’t stop clinging to that damn, pathetic phrase—you owe him.

“What the fuck were you doing eavesdropping anyway,” Rafe demands, thankfully changing the subject.

“I couldn’t sleep, and your uncle isn’t exactly the quietest person in the world.”

“And?” he adds pointedly. “What else did you hear?”

I swallow hard. “And… He doesn’t appreciate your art.” It seems so childish to point out—but the insult bothers me more than it should. I’ve seen his drawings. How he looks when in the throes of his craft. I know what the mere act of sketching lines on paper means to him.

Even now, he’s tensing, his expression constricted as he chugs more of his beer. At his sides, his fingers twitch as if itching for a pen.

“My turn,” he says, once again putting the focus on me. “So, you left him. Bran. What now?”

Any hint of vulnerability vanishes from his expression. His features harden, and a sudden thought strikes me—he already knows what I’ll say, or at least he thinks he does.

I need to go back.

“I don’t know,” I confess, relaxing against the firmness of his knee. “It’s not like he left me much of a choice, to be honest. He bought out my lease. The landlord already found a new tenant. I’m homeless. And if I don’t figure things out soon, I won’t be able to take the classes I want to next semester either.”

“Why is that?”

I hesitate, but as his fingers sink through my hair, I find myself speaking. “I wanted to enter this program—the Fenwick program,” I admit, fully aware of how childish it sounds now, all things considered. “If I’m accepted, it will mean an internship and a foothold into the publishing world. Otherwise, I’d be stuck taking random credits and waste a year. Though hell, it’s not like I had a shot of getting in, anyway.”

“Bullshit,” Rafe coldly interjects. “You know you’ll get in. That’s what scares you. Getting in means leaving the fucker behind. Whether or not you even realize it, he’s controlling you.”

My lips part, but any retort I might come up with dies in my throat. He’s right, and it’s unnerving how easily he can read me. His fingers trace my scalp to reinforce the comparison, picking through my thoughts as though I’m an open book, turning my previous impression of him on its head.

“It doesn’t matter if I can’t get my entry written in time,” I say.

Without some kind of academic pursuit to justify my father’s funding, my entire quest for freedom might go up in flames as well. Not to mention if Bran decides to convince him to stop paying my tuition anyway. A tired laugh trickles from me, but inside? I’m screaming.

Branden’s won again. Though, despite his efforts, I’m not back in his cage just yet. By pure luck, or by design?

And, despite all his faults, is he really capable of murder?

“You’re worried about him,” Rafe deduces, unable to hide the jealousy tainting his tone. “Bran.”

“He’s a cop,” I reply. “He’s been tracking my phone. He probably already knows I’m here. Any minute he could trump up a warrant and—”

“Cop or not, I won’t let anyone touch you.”

My body flushes warm in response to his confidence. It’s more than a boast.

“You’re sure of that?” I peek at him through my lashes, but he doesn’t look smug. Just exhausted. “You don’t know Bran,” I argue.

“Stop. Look at me.” He cups my chin, his grip firm but gentle. “I don’t care who the fuck he is. No one will touch you while you’re with me.”

I should counter that. I know the opposite is more than likely—at the same time, I’m too tired to say a word.

In the resulting silence, his hands find my hair again, easing me down against his thigh. Somehow, he makes the position seem far from sexual. Natural, no different from lying in his bed.

Should that insult me?

Thrill me?

“Fine,” I finally croak without deciding on an emotion to feel. “So…is this your way of asking me to stay?”

“Stay.” He leans back against the railing, stretching out his legs. The motion provides enough surface area to rest on, should I decide to.

“Don’t stay,” he adds with a shrug. “It’s your fucking choice.”

I have several reasons to question that—Branden will do whatever he can to get to me, no matter who I’m with. I shouldn’t expect so much from a virtual stranger. He’s done so much for me already…

Rather than drill him for more answers, I let my eyes drift shut.

Something tells me, given his track record with the truth, I’ll find out soon enough.

For better or for worse.

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.

Falling for a man like Rafe was just the beginning.

As danger looms overhead and her secrets are revealed, Hannah will have to trust him now more than ever.

But Rafe has his own past and, once uncovered, the truth may send her running for good…

Or the consequences will plunge her into a series of choices from which there is no turning back from.

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