Beneath This Mask (Beneath #1)(5)


by Meghan March

Huck and I had stayed until closing one night, and I’d ducked into the restroom for a pit stop before starting our trek home. I was kicking myself for not leashing him while I stepped away, because when I came out of the bathroom, he was off exploring the other side of the four and a half acre park. Before I could even open my mouth to call him back, I was slammed face first into the brick wall. I’d been paralyzed with shock for a beat before I’d started struggling against his hold. Sour breath wafted over my shoulder as cruel hands roamed my body, tearing at my clothes. His garbled words didn’t register; all I could hear was the blood pounding in my ears. I pushed against the wall, scraping up the skin of my hands, and found my voice. I have no idea what I’d yelled, but Huck had come barreling toward us, his puppy bark transforming into something deep and vicious. The man had stumbled back, seeing the hundred pound monster heading for him, teeth-bared, and run for the fence, scrambling over it before Huck’s snapping jaws could reach him. I’d dropped to my knees, adrenaline pumping, lungs heaving. Huck had barked at the fence for only a few moments before racing back to my side and guarding me against any other potential threats. He’d shown his loyalty before, but that day … I let out a long breath and shook off the memory, grateful to my pup that a close call was all I had to remember.

Back to happier thoughts—Juanita. She was living with her daughter and son-in-law in New Jersey. She was now a full-time stay-at-home grandma. I was glad she got to spend as much time with her family as she wanted, rather than the limited amount she’d been able to take before. Her social network accounts were splashed with pictures of her beloved grandkids and all of the fun they were having together. It made me think back to my childhood. She’d been the one to take me on nature hikes through the woods at our country house, and take me swimming during the summers at the Hamptons. She played a central role in all of my best memories. I swallowed the lump in my throat. It was better this way. I’d give it a few years—let the dust settle—and then I’d contact her.

The other person I kept tabs on was my mother. Not that there were many tabs to keep. She’d basically gone into hiding, although not nearly as successfully as me. She had, I’m sure, much to her horror, gone back upstate to live with my grandparents. It seemed that her stable of wealthy friends had turned their backs on her. Not surprising considering most had lost millions investing with my father. They might have recovered easier from the losses than the people who’d lost their whole lifesavings, but it didn’t make them any happier about it. According to every article I’d read, my father still hadn’t given up a single sliver of information as to where the money went. His sentence had equated to multiple lifetimes in federal prison. Unless there was an upside for him, he’d never talk. Then there were the news articles I avoided—the ones that speculated on my whereabouts. It seemed that the leading hypothesis was that I was living off my father’s ill-gotten gains in Switzerland. Every time I accidentally ran across one of those articles, I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that they wouldn’t be speculating if they knew my actual whereabouts. And then I’d head back to Voodoo and get another tattoo. More camouflage. Another mask to hide behind. I hadn’t quite moved into the facial piercing phase, but depending on what the news said, I could be headed that way. I also kicked myself for not thinking of getting colored contacts. My eyes were too damn distinctive not to attract attention. But it was too late now. People would ask way more questions if I suddenly showed up with brown eyes.

I shimmied my black skinny jeans off and scrubbed the grit from my knee and hands. After patting the raw skin dry with paper towel, I hissed as I poured the antiseptic over the scrapes.

“Fuck, that hurts,” I murmured through clenched teeth.

The door cracked open. I stilled. Was Simon checking out my thong-clad ass at this very moment? Surprisingly, the thought didn’t bother me. The man was built, and I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed for eating crackers.

“Damn, Lee. Now that’s what I like to see when I get to work.” A rough hand cupped my right ass cheek, and Con’s head bent low over my shoulder. “It’s been too long, babe. Need to get you home.” He kissed my neck. “Get you in my—what the fuck?”

He spun me around and grabbed my hand. “What the hell happened? Did someone put their hands on you? Push you around? Was it like last—”

“No! Nothing like that.” Con, Delilah, and Yvonne “Yve” Santos, my boss at the Dirty Dog, were the only ones who knew about my near miss at becoming a sexual assault statistic. Harriet would worry too much. And beyond those four, I didn’t really have anyone else to tell. Depressing thought to some maybe, but it was my choice. The fewer people I let in, the fewer people I had to lie to. They’d become dearer than my actual family, and they deserved better than the half-truths and outright lies I fed them. I met Con’s concerned blue gaze. “Huck decided he wanted to chase a carriage. I fell off my bike.”

Con looked out the bathroom door to where Huck snored, taking up the entire break room couch. “Damn dog.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, maybe you should go home.” My spine stiffened.

“It’s just a couple of scrapes. I’m fine. Besides, you know I need the money.”

“Because you’re stubborn and won’t let me pay you more so you don’t have to work so damn much.”

“That’s because I’d feel like a whore.” We’d had this conversation a hundred times. If he paid me more than he did before we’d slept together, I’d feel like I was getting paid for services rendered. You know, above and beyond.

“Like I said, stubborn.” He smacked my ass. “But I like that thong. What do you say? Come home with me tonight if you’re up to it?”

Inexplicably, my mind snapped to the man only a few walls away. I stalled. “Umm … I don’t know … Ask me later?”

He gave me a chin jerk before heading toward the corner of the break room and his makeshift office. Con may look like a tatted-up bad boy, but from what I could tell, he was actually a fairly astute businessman.

An hour later, Simon came around to the register to pay for his new tattoo. I’d been stealing what I’d hoped had been covert glances over my shoulder the entire time he’d sat, shirtless, in Delilah’s room. But every time I glanced his way, his eyes had flicked to mine. Intense, assessing hazel eyes that I wanted to see up close so I could figure out how the green, brown, gold, and gray swirled together. I didn’t understand my attraction to him. Yeah, he was pretty to look at. But so were lots of guys. He had the cut muscles and banging six-pack that said he took care of himself. But again, so did a lot of guys. Con, for one. But, for me, Con was about comfort, being close to someone for a night because I missed the feeling of being touched. With Simon … it was burning curiosity and flaring lust. I wanted to know how his hands would feel against my skin. If he’d strip me naked and trace the lines of ink with his fingers … and then his tongue. If he’d like the little surprises I had tucked beneath my clothes. Con had never even seen them, and I’d sworn Delilah to secrecy after I’d accepted her dare. When Simon stopped in front of the counter I was shifting on my cushioned stool, trying to relieve the ache my wandering thoughts had produced.