Author: Jennifer Ann
Genre: Dark Romantic Suspense
Cover Designer: Amy Q of Q Design
Model: Miles Logan
Publication Date: Mar. 6th, 2018
The South Side is like an incurable cancer, destroying the lives of everyone it touches.
For Brooke, the nightmare is over, and she uses her experience of survival to help those still living it.
Those like Liam.
He’s the smartest high schooler she’s ever met, and gets under her skin in the most delicious way.
She’s the bravest woman he knows, and he’s amazed she cares about his future and the fate of his band.
Their attraction is undeniable, but it’s also forbidden. She took an oath not to sleep with those she’s promised to protect.
But when the King of South Side tangles with Liam and his bandmates, she’s forced to make a choice.
One that could cost her everything.
Jennifer Ann is an award-winning and bestselling author of contemporary romance with darkly complex plots. Much like her characters, she’s in love with the city of New York, trips on airplanes or the back of her husband’s Harley, and everything rock and roll.
**WARNING: INTENDED FOR READERS 18+. INCLUDES LANGUAGE NSFW AND A SCENE INVOLVING ABUSE**
The chaos of the South Side is in full swing as I make my way to the band’s usual Sunday night jam session, bass in hand. Only two of us could make it out tonight, but it doesn’t matter. I would’ve gone alone because I need an escape. Music is the only therapy I can afford.
Despite being no more than 30 degrees out, homeless of all ages litter the busted up sidewalks, some propped up against piles of garbage bags, begging for another fix or a hot meal. Tents and cardboard homes line the alleys, their campfires creating an ominous glow against the tall buildings. Every few blocks there’s a car by the curb that’s been abandoned for months, long-since stripped down to the frame like skeletons. A few dealers lurk in the shadows, hoods drawn as they wait for a signal from an interested buyer.
Often there’ll be a horde of drunk college students curious about this part of the city who don’t have the street smarts to stay the hell away. As I cross the bar scene on Fifth Avenue, they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead it’s the usual mix of liars and thieves who are too poor to start over somewhere else, doing whatever it takes to survive.
Too many of the women openly attempting to hook up with guys outside the bars are inappropriately dressed for the weather. On closer inspection, there’s a fine line between junkies and hookers. Some are so high they left home in little more than their underwear, and some looking to get paid for sex couldn’t string an intelligible sentence together if they tried.
Once you add grime and the smell of literal shit to the list of the South Side’s attributes, it’s understandable why it was once labeled by some pretentious magazine as the least desirable neighborhood in the nation. It’s too dangerous even for the likes of Minneapolis to claim us, and too poor for St. Paul to give two fucks that we exist. The governor and the rich assholes that support him with their high-end department stores and fancy universities would physically have us removed from their precious state if they could find a way.
Every last native to this area comes from a broken home. They thrive on crime and mayhem, not having experienced any other way of life. Drugs and violent crimes have touched the lives of every single kid who grew up on these streets, my story being no exception. We don’t know the security of a traditional family, or what it’s like to come home to find dinner on the table. We’re accustomed to a rough hand and cruel tongue. It’s rare as fuck if your parents are actually married.
The only saving grace is that the neighborhood is run by Marshall “King Marty” Blackwood, my best friend’s uncle, making my crew untouchable by proxy. But even his protection has its pitfalls.
Before I’m able to sneak past the two prostitutes that have become a permanent fixture on the corner outside the abandoned building where we jam, the one who goes by “Candy” calls out to me. Tilting my face back to the dark sky, I flick my half-used cigarette to the sidewalk and start for her, smoke streaming from my nostrils. Any other day, I’d smoke ‘em right down to the filter. Since I came across the spot where my old man hides his cartons, however, I’ve been living large.
Aside from her rank smell, Candy’s mostly harmless so long as she isn’t so wasted she’s babbling about bed bugs or the government spying on us through technology. She’s not attractive by any means, but that’s an industry standard when you’re working the corners on the South Side. Most times she’s more akin to a motherly figure, asking if I’m getting enough to eat, or why I’m out on the streets alone. Chunks rise in my throat when she adjusts her ill-fitting bra, revealing a dark tit. In moments like this, I’m convinced she’s hoping to entice me to fuck her. As many years as she’s been working the streets, letting every dirtbag on the South Side stick it to her, I wouldn’t touch her with someone else’s dick.
Her obnoxiously long, bubble gum pink fingernails wave through the night sky. “Rook, baby, get over here! I wanna get a good look at you!”
“You just wanna cop a feel of my ass,” I tell her with a half-hearted chuckle.
She hums like she’s envisioning doing it. “Can’t say I’d mind.” Her smooth, chocolaty eyes darken on mine, filled with humor and mischief. They’re the only part of her that’s not repulsive. “When you gonna play me some of that guitar in private, sugar?”
Bile rips through my throat with her suggestion. “Sorry, sugar. I don’t play for just anyone.”
“Well I’m not just anyone.” Her voice seems to skip an octave when she wiggles her eyebrows. “I’m somebody around these parts now. King Marty’s men have been comin’ around the past couple a days, probably hopin’ to get up in my business. Matter of fact, you just missed them.”
Candy’s friend hums, setting her hand on her hip. “Girl, this ain’t no Pretty Woman. Seems to me like they’re decidin’ on the next place to bury a bullet.”
She’s not wrong. It can’t be a coincidence that King Marty’s men would be loitering outside the building where his nephew headlines a band.
“Did they ask any questions about me an’ the guys?” I ask.
“Don’t you worry, baby.” Her eyes narrow with a message that’s as crystal clear as the meth she smokes. “I ain’t no rat. I ain’t givin’ him any dirt on you boys for nothin’.”
I glance over both shoulders for any sign of King Marty’s thugs, grunting to myself. No one in the South Side does something out of the kindness of their heart, especially a strung-out hooker who can’t afford a new pair of fishnet stockings.
Resting the headstock of my bass against my legs, I fish my wallet out from my back pocket and find a single $20 bill. Not the most enlightening discovery when I won’t get another check until I’ve finished writing a ten-page paper for a senior in Burnsville, but stealing to stay fed is nothing new.
I press the bill into Candy’s outstretched palm. “There’ll be more coming if you keep me updated on any of their future visits.”
Her lips spread with a thin smile, exposing her rotten teeth and bright red gums. She’s a living, breathing epitome of why I’ll never touch hardcore drugs. “Sure thing, baby.”
Leaving the women behind, I head toward the building I consider to be more of a home than the rat-infested apartment my old man leased for the second year in a row. After ensuring no one’s paying attention, I slip the fake boarded door to the side and slip inside. Wouldn’t want a bunch of squatters discovering the shithole’s open. And apparently there’s more of a reason to be paranoid about who’s keeping an eye on us.
I always get bad vibes whenever Marshall Blackwood’s involved. Even though he’s supposed to be on “our” side, he’s involved in a lot of bad shit, and has a helluva temper. Who the fuck knows what could’ve set him off enough to send his crew.
As I climb the rackety stairwell to the second floor, the stench of dust and weed that clings to the building fills my lungs with a harsh burn. I make my way past band posters faded with age, hanging over ratty couches that arguably house more crabs than every seafood joint in the Midwest combined. A few months back, the band’s name was spray-painted on the wall behind them in blood-red letters by some chick that tagged along. When we first decided to go by “In Disarray” our freshman year, no one had any objections. Sometimes it’s more our way of life than a label.
The brass sound of the drum kit banging along to a Nirvana tune becomes louder with each step. Trask must be letting his sister go at it again as part of her lesson on rhythm, and how to correctly wield the sticks. The little shit is showing improvement, and can maintain a pretty solid beat. We’re always razzing Trask that it won’t be long before we’ll be kicking his ass to the curb so Sasha can fill his place.
I find the brother-sister duo around the corner. Sasha sits behind the drums in the only area big enough to hold our equipment, dark hair flying around her head as her arms twist and bend through the air. Fourteen and feisty as hell, she shares zero physical characteristics of her lanky punk-ass brother. Since she recently grew curves and her baby-face smoothed down, guys started coming around, asking her on dates and shit. If I were Trask, I’d collect their balls in a jar.
Despite having shaggy hair the color of a regurgitated carrot and Owen Wilson’s fucked-up nose from one fight too many, Trask Green is an all-around decent bastard. For what he lacks in looks, although he still manages to bang any chick he wants, he makes up in heart. The guy gave me the benefit of the doubt from day one when we were kids, and I came in as a transplant from Texas. The others were initially cynical of any outsiders who weren’t raised in this cesspool.
Trask taught me crucial ways to survive the South Side, including how not to get my ass kicked by the locals unless I’m jonesing for a fight, where to use fake IDs to score booze, who sells the best pot, and which chicks at South Valley to steer clear of at all costs (one of many reasons I generally only sleep with girls that aren’t from the area). He’s the one who took me to the ER and told the doc I was pushed down a flight of subway steps the time my old man busted my arm in two places. He’s the one who suggested I start charging kids to do their school work, and even hand-picked the richest ones to start a solid client base. He stole me my first mountain bike, and beat the shit out of a kid that tried to jack it a week later.
Every monumental memory I’ve made since moving to the South Side involves Trask in one way or another. Hell, he was even in the next room when I lost my virginity. He’s one of few I’ll ever truly consider to be legitimate family. He’s my brother by choice, just like our other two bandmates. I’d bleed out for any one of the motherfuckers, although I’m hoping they’ll never take me up on it.
“What up, Rook-man?” Trask shouts, throwing me a goofy-assed grin.
Setting my bass on the stage, I lean in while giving him a fist-bump. “Just livin’ the dream, brother.”
He claps me on the back and chuckles in a low, gritty sound. “Aren’t we all.”
I pass by the drum set and ruffle Sasha’s long dark hair. It’s wild from intense drumming, some of it sticking to her slick forehead. “What up, Sasha Fierce?”
Dark eyes snap up to meet mine, glowering with intensity. The mahogany orbs blend into her pupils, giving her a demonic-like charm. She snarls back at me like a cat, curling her upper lip. “Fuck off, Rook.”
With a grunting chuckle under my breath, I reach for my bass, strumming along as she pounds out the last two verses of Heart Shaped Box. We become one entity, the low octaves of my base matching up with her kick drum, the high octaves hitting the snare on the backbeats.
I allow myself to get lost in the melody, closing my eyes and letting the low chords flow through me. The dark notes become a living thing, erasing all the complexities that make up my shit life. If there was a way to stay here forever, playing until my fingertips bled rather than dealing with what’s outside these walls, I would’ve found it by now. This place is my sanctuary—a haven. It’s another reason why I’m unnerved by King Marty’s thugs getting too close.
By the final chorus, Trask and I are wailing out the lyrics in voices unfit for the shower. Sometimes when we’re together, we’re nothing more than a couple of dipshits that even I wouldn’t want to hang with.
After Sasha hits the final beat, she screams through clenched teeth and stands, shoving the worn sticks at her brother. “You guys are assholes.” Bending at the waist, she flicks me off with both hands and sticks her tongue out before heading for the makeshift kitchen.
Unlit cigarette dangling from my lips, I glance in Trask’s direction. “What’s with her? She start her period or something?”
He lifts both shoulders while lighting a joint. “Who the fuck knows.” Settling on the chair behind the drum kit, he smirks my way. “I was at the bodega by my place earlier—saw the rich chick that dates that prick you’re writing a paper for. You end up tapping that ass last night or what?”
“Nah…she had a birthday party or some shit.”
He puffs on the joint, its moldy grass stench filling the air. “Hard to believe she wouldn’t cancel her plans for you. Even the prissiest snobs usually give in with the promise of a Rook-special orgasm.” Eyes the color of the premium weed he deals popping wide, he releases a howling laugh. “Shit, man! Could you be losing your touch?”
I grunt, refusing to humor him with an answer. My usual game involves sleeping with the girlfriends of the jocks that pay me to keep them from flunking out. They’re blissfully unaware that in reality, they’re paying me to ruin their girls. It’s yet another form of cheap entertainment.
Trask twirls a stick through the air, catching it like a pro. “Child services stopped by the house yesterday, asked to talk with my mom.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you tell ‘em?”
“Said she’d left for work. I omitted the fact that she left several months ago.”
When their mom disappeared around Christmas break, pretty much everyone figured she stumbled across a bad scene while trying to score. “They were good with that answer?”
“For now. They’ll be back. And sooner or later, they’ll find out I’m only seventeen.” Scratching his head, he stares off at nothing. “If things don’t turn around, I’ll have to let them take Sasha anyway. Sending her to foster care would be better than watching her starve.”
“Bullshit,” I snap. “You’d never let that happen. You’ve been busting your ass to make ends meet ever since your mom took off. You’ve always been a resourceful bastard. You’ll figure something out.” Lighting the smoke, I inhale deeply, grateful for the sharp burn filling my lungs. These days, feeling anything other than empty is a real treat. “Forgot to tell you—I had an interesting conversation with Candy the Hooker before I came up here.” I glance thoughtfully in his direction while he’s taking another hit. “Sounds like King Marty’s goons have been sniffin’ around her and her girls.”
Trask’s back stiffens. At the same time, a tick passes through his dilated eyes. “What’d they want?”
“Dunno, but I highly doubt it has anything to do with that rank pussy.” Exhaling, I continue to eye him. For someone with a joint in hand, he’s unusually tense. “Why? You know somethin’?”
“Nah.” His gaze darts to the other side of the room. Guilt flickers across his face like cherries on a cop car, as plain as the fucked-up nose on his face. “But whenever King Marty sends them out for something, it can’t be good.”
“You got that right,” I agree, continuing to study him closely. There’s no stopping the skepticism creeping into my thoughts. The whole lot of us aren’t too trustworthy, but we make it a general rule not to lie to each other. We’re all aware Trask sells weed for King Marty, so if it was somehow related to that, he’d come clean. He’s hiding something bigger. “Can’t hurt to watch our backs a little closer,” I add, hoping he’ll take the hint. If he’s worried about something that involves Marshall Blackwood, he can’t be too careful.
The conversation ends there. We break into an abbreviated jam session, cranking out an old B-side tune from one of Bowie’s older albums that we’ve been trying to master. It’s not the same without the other two filling in the melody. More than anything, I get the feeling Trask is still shook up about King Marty’s men the way he repeatedly fucks up on the tempo. As if to prove my suspicion, he splits before we’ve finished the song, claiming he has to help Sasha with homework.
Although he smokes strong enough weed to justify a healthy dose of paranoia, he pulls his sister along like the devil’s on his tail. As they disappear into the stairwell, I can’t stop wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into.
Before I’m fully awake to comprehend what the fuck’s happening, a fist connects with my face, jarring my eye back into its socket. The lick of pain that follows is a familiar, welcoming feeling.
Too bad for my old man, he’s conditioned me to enjoy this shit. To feed off the sharp sting of torment as a reminder of all I’ve survived, and that I’m still here. I just wish it could happen after I’ve had a full night’s sleep. My uninjured eye tries to compensate for the temporary veil of darkness.
“Stupid ass punk!” he roars, his outline a mere blob in the darkness. The usual stench of booze clings to his skin the way pot clings to Trask. “You think I wouldn’t notice you’ve been stealin’ from me? It’s time I teach you a thing or two about respect!”
If I weren’t nursing a bruised kidney from last time I had the balls to goad him, I’d be tempted to shout out a “hooah.” Until you’ve been reamed by a former Army drill sergeant who was forced into early retirement because of a bum knee and hates the entire fucking world, you haven’t experienced a real ass-chewing.
My stomach twists as words continue to blast from his mouth with the precision of an automatic rifle, the consistency of pure shit. “Get on your pansy-ass feet, son! We’re gonna have us a little talk about where you get the money for all those new tattoos and those ugly as fuck earrings you wear like you’ve grown a vagina! If you have that kind of cash flowing from your dick, you should be helping pay the bills around here, not stealing goddamned smokes from your old man!”
Sweet. He’s loaded out of his mind again. Looks like I’m in for another night of whack-a-mole.
Still in a stupor from the unceremonious wakeup call, I throw my blanket off my legs and sit on the edge of the bed, rubbing my hands over my face. “What time is it? Can’t this shit wait until the sun’s up?”
The next blow to my jaw comes so hard and fast that stars flash before my eyes, blinding in the darkness. My head flings backwards, bouncing against something hard under my pillow.
The pistol my best friend gave me for my seventeenth birthday.
Less than three weeks after we moved in, I was robbed at gunpoint. What kind of stupid fuck would think a twelve-year-old would be carrying something of value? At least I learned a valuable lesson.
The old man’s at it again, pacing the room and shouting a bunch of nonsense as my fingers curl around the cool handle. If nothing else, with any luck I can make him piss himself like he’s done to thousands of soldiers.
“On your feet, you piece of shit!”
Grunting, I shove the pistol into the back of my boxer briefs and rise up to meet him, arms held out at my sides. “Do your worst, Staff Sergeant.”
A wheeze is wrenched from my gut with the following uppercut to my ribs. His shouted insults become white static as he throws punches, not seeming to give a shit where they land. Pain ripples through me with the force of a blazing fire, too wild and bright to be contained.
I try to relax as best I can, and let it happen. Putting up a respectable fight would only warrant another punishment. It’s easier to absorb his pain than to worry about the consequences. It’s not like I’m in any fuckin’ sports, and the teachers assume whenever I come to school battered that I voluntarily started a fight.
Before long, the tang of copper and bile fills my mouth. His fist connects with my ribs again, and I momentarily blackout from the pain. From the feel of it, he’s dislocated a handful of them this time. Fuck I hate my life.
Holding a hand out, I stop to spit blood on the floor and twist my spine. Immense pain burns through my chest with every movement. “Fuckin’ hell. Can I call a time out? I think you might’ve punctured a lung.”
The moonlight shifts outside, exposing the monster standing in front of me. Mouth twisted, eyes dark as coal, fists suspended at his sides, it’s like getting a glimpse of the devil himself.
Fuck it. He always tells me I’m not too bright anyway, my favorite quote being,“If brains were made of cotton, you wouldn’t have enough to make a tampon for a flea!” May as well prove it to the has-been son of a bitch.
Pistol aimed directly at his face, I release the safety. “On second thought, keep your hands to yourself.”
His sinister laugh that follows would’ve made Jeffrey Dahmer cringe in fear. “You don’t possess the kind of balls it takes to shoot me, you little stupid ass—”
I squeeze the trigger.