I dart back through the tunnel, headed toward the locker room. Flashbacks from last night pelt me like paint gun bullets as I tear down the corridor. With my one free hand, I fist my hair.
I can’t think about that right now.
Kylian, my best friend, is always the first one out of the tunnel when we play at home. And tonight is homecoming. Coach Reeves pulled us aside yesterday after practice to let us know that scouts from Ohio State and Ole Miss would be here to watch us stomp the shit out of our rivals from Boca Raton.
I rub the back of my head, trying to shut out the image of Skyla’s deflated expression when I mentioned the scouts to her last night.
What the hell was I thinking?
Blurting the news was basically my dickhead way of pushing her out of my life and decimating any expectations she might have.
Because there’s no future for me and my best friend’s sister, no matter what I’ve made her believe over the past few months.
Her life is charmed, filled with promise.
My life is the exact opposite. Being raised as the second to youngest sibling in a Russian mafia family with a group of brothers and sisters who could singlehandedly hold off most small armies makes me different than everyone around me.
Because I’m a target…for more enemies than I care to count.
Most people I know don’t wear bull’s eyes on their backs. But mine’s like a homing device, flashing bright red for the biggest scumbags in South Florida.
And I’m destined to be hunted down by the same motherfuckers who killed Dad and Dima, and almost killed Luka, my oldest brother and the boss of our organization.
Unless I shine like a super fucking nova tonight for those scouts.
They’re my ticket outta Miami, far away from this life.
Far away from Skyla.
And far away from all the shit that dragged me deep into the pits of hell last night when I should have been resting up for the big game. Shit that nobody can ever know about, especially my best friend.
I push open the black double doors. “Ky, what the hell are you still doing in here?
Kylian slowly turns away from his locker. His shoulders square, his eyes glow with fury.
He walks toward me, glaring at me with such disdain that I stumble backward into the wooden bench behind me. I don’t like that look on his face.
“It’s our night.” I try again. “Why do you look so pissed off?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He bares his teeth, fists clenched at his sides. “You really have to ask?”
A chill slips down my spine.
He gives me a hard shove, catching me off-guard. “I know exactly what happened last night.” His voice is tight with anger. “You fucking cocksucker.”
“You think you can have everything, don’t you? Free ride to college, NFL glory, every fucking pussy on the planet screaming for your cock.” He shoves me again.
“What the fuck?” I shove him back with a grunt, my pulse exploding against my neck. How the hell did he find out? “Kickoff is in three minutes. We need to get the hell into the tunnel. We’ll talk later.”
“No more talking.” He creeps closer to me. “You don’t scare me. Neither does your fucking thug ass family. You don’t get to just take what you want because of your last name.” He shakes his head and lets out a sharp laugh. “Always so fucking entitled because people kiss your ass wherever you go. But Skyla’s different. She’s better than you. You don’t deserve her.”
“That’s none of your goddamn business.” I grit my teeth, gripping my own helmet tight. But I let out the breath I’d been holding. He knows…about Skyla.
And he’s right. She is better than me.
That’s why last night never should have happened.
Skyla and I both have goals.
Hers is becoming a surgeon.
Mine is making it to twenty-five without a hole blown through my skull because of shit my family has done. Things I’ve done. Things that haunt me like persistent little fucker demons who make sure I never forget they’re there, lurking in the dark corners of my mind. Little voices that remind me of my past, always looping through my mind.
I need to get the hell away from his place or else I’ll end up just like the rest of my brothers. Last night locked my future in place and football is the only thing that’ll break me free.
“You would ruin her. I know who and what you are, Zak. I know what you do. And I’m telling you right now to stay the hell away from my sister. I might not have guns or knives or fucking rocket launchers or whatever the hell else your family keeps stocked in their underground arsenal. But I have the power to crush you…when you least expect it.”
“You’re nothing without me.” A rush of anger floods my insides. “Before I came around, you had nobody. I gave you a life, fuckhead. I put you on the goddamn map. I worked your ass off on the field to make you the player you are, I’m the reason why the scouts are looking for you to be their newest rookie left tackle. Don’t you forget it, Ky. I made you.”
My blood boils, my insides on the verge of combusting.
“You’re an arrogant sonofabitch who doesn’t give a damn about anyone but yourself.”
I suck in a breath. “Nice to finally know what my best friend really thinks of me.”
“Best friend, my ass. Your ego is choking me to death right now.” His eyes narrow. “Maybe someone needs to prick it.”
He pushes past me and shoves the double doors open so hard, they slam on either side of the wall. Without a look back, he stalks in the direction of the tunnel.
I scrub a hand down the front of my face.
He wouldn’t get this angry if we were just talking about Skyla.
The next few minutes fly by in a blur. I run toward the tunnel and take my spot up front. Kylian usually runs out next to me.
Tonight, he’s at the back of the line, his eyes dark with hatred.
I stick my helmet on my head and lead the charge onto the thick green turf field. A surge of electricity usually surges through me at this point before a game – a mix of excitement, anticipation, and an insatiable thirst for glory.
But tonight, the audience’s screams are muffled by Ky’s caustic words. My own knee-jerk response echoes between my ears. Those words were like the sharpest weapons. I can’t ever pull them back. I didn’t even mean them. They flew out before I could suck them back in.
The damage has been done. So much more than anyone knows.
And judging by the hatred twisting Ky’s expression, I don’t think it can be fixed.
I violated the code. Crossed a line.
Worse, I broke his trust.
I go to the center of the field with the opposing team’s quarterback, my mind in overdrive. I stare at the coin as the referee flips it into the air. When it lands on the back of his hand, he looks at me and points.
Home team ball.
I stand there, staring at him until Coach Reeves gives me a shove.
“Let’s go, Zak. It’s all you tonight. Do what I know you can do.” He slaps me on the shoulder pad and looks at me. “It’s all waiting for you. All you gotta do is take it.”
We kick off the ball. It goes deep into the end zone. One of the receivers runs the ball out like an asshat and is tackled at the five yard line. I lead the offensive line to the field and get into position to call the play.
The ball comes flying at me. On the first play, the running back is stuffed behind the line and we lose two yards. My jaw tightens and I bite down hard on my mouth guard.
“Did you really think you were gonna get away with it?”
I push the ominous voice to the back of my mind and call the second play. Fucking guy gets stuffed again and we lose another two yards.
Third down and thirteen yards to go.
A bloody and bruised face flashes in front of my eyes. I blink fast to clear my vision, but the toxic memories assault my brain.
“You picked the wrong people to fuck over.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Coach Reeves screaming from the sidelines. I can’t hear him but his face and the tips of his ears are bright red.
If looks could kill…fuck. We’d all be screwed.
I take a deep breath.
“You know what we do to scumbags like you? Scumbags who are stupid enough to think they can beat us?”
I call a shotgun pass in the end zone, my voice loud and strong. But it’s not enough to drown out the other voices in my head.
The ball is snapped. My head jerks right, fingers digging into the ball. Nobody is open. All of my receivers are covered.
I twist left and the one thing I see before the defensive tackle blasts me is Kylian’s face.
My best friend.
The guy who’s supposed to have my blind side.
The same guy who just let the defensive tackle pummel me to the ground.
“You made your bed.”
A rush of breath explodes from my lungs as he drives his chest into me. My body flies sideways, airborne before I crash head-first into the turf. Sounds fade to white noise around me. Bright lights blur into blobs of color, flashing in front of my eyes. I stare up at the dusky night sky, into the panicked faces of my teammates, seeing their lips move but not hearing a damn thing.
“Now you’re gonna die in it.”
Eight Months Later
“Cheers, bitches. Tonight is our last night together before we go back to school. Let’s make it count!”
Tequila splashes over the rim of my shot glass when Riley clinks my glass a little bit too hard. I force my lips to form a tight smile before glancing down at the top of my dress. A big wet blotch sits right on top of my boobs.
“Sorry about that Sky. I guess I got a little overeager.” Riley flashes me the fakest smile. My fist itches to crack her in the jaw.
She is seriously such an asshole. I don’t know why my sister Laney picked her, of all people, to be friends with.
Laney puts her hands on my shoulders and turns me toward her. With a critical eye, she checks out the damage. “Luckily, we didn’t go for the Jägermeister shots. Tequila is clear. It’ll dry in no time.” With a bright smile, she gives my arms a squeeze. “You’re still gorgeous. And if anything, it’ll draw the eyes to your fabulous boobs.”
She always looks for the silver lining. It’s one of the many reasons why she’s so amazing.
My sister is the exact opposite of Riley. She always has sweet, encouraging words, a warm smile, and the kind of electric aura that pulls guys like a magnet to steel. Not to mention that she’s stunningly beautiful and smart as a whip.
Laney is perfect.
And it’s been hard as hell growing up in her shadow. But all of that is about to change. I’m finally ready to start a brand-new life where I’m the only St. James around. There won’t be anyone to compare me to. I’ll be on my own for the first time in my life with nobody measuring me against my sparkling sister.
Laney is a year older than me, but even after she left for college, her reputation remained. Teachers loved her, students worshipped her. She was president of Student Council, an honor student, and an all-star cheerleader. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty much invisible to everyone in her wake.
Except for that one night months ago when I thought things were about to change for me…where everything I’d been wishing for was on the brink of becoming my reality.
But just as quickly as the hope flared in my heart, it fizzled faster than an open can of soda.
My lips twist when the image of his sexy, cocky smirk flickers in front of my eyes.
The bastard completely fucked me. I’d been in secretly in love with him for years and he used it against me.
And Zak Malikov still has me on a leash, to this day, because I know all too well what he’ll do if I say a word about what happened.
He doesn’t know that I went to the hospital after he’d been taken off the football field during the homecoming game. He has no clue that I pretended to be one of his sisters just so I could get through the emergency room doors to see him.
Karma totally came back to bite him in the ass the next night.
My gut clenches. I’ll never forget the expression on his face when I peeked into his room. It was defeat – painful and agonizing defeat, something compete foreign to the most popular guy in the senior class.
And dammit, I hated myself for caring after what he did to me.
I grit my teeth. For years, he treated me like I was invisible, like he couldn’t even be bothered with acknowledging me. It made sense. I was nothing like the girls he usually dated. I was the quiet, studious, messy bun type who preferred to do the New York Times crossword puzzle and practice my suturing on grape skins than to go to parties on Saturday nights. I always got a pity invite because of my twin brother, Kylian.
But I never fit and Zak knew it. He played on it to get what he wanted.
I’ve always been the square peg searching for the right hole. Here’s hoping I’ll find it in a few short weeks when I start school at Brown University.
I pull my eyes away from my dress, daring to scout the darkened bar as the memory of Zak Malikov snakes through my mind. I wrap my fingers tight around my shot glass, my pulse picking up speed in anticipation of what my gaze might find. My blood bubbles in my veins at the thought of seeing him and clawing his eyes out of his gorgeous skull.
“You looking for something, Sky?” Riley asks, following my eyes.
I snap my gaze back to the group. “No.” Definitely, most certainly, absolutely no.
“Don’t be intimidated,” she continues in her bitchy tone. “I know you’re not used to being out in this kind of place.”
I narrow my eyes at her. Laney is laughing with one of the other girls we’re standing with so she doesn’t hear Riley goading me. Not that I need anyone jumping to my defense. I’m more than capable of handling myself. And even though I am a little intimidated, there’s no way I’d ever give Riley the satisfaction of knowing it.
“Do you see any guys you like? I mean, we’d never be scoping out the same type, of course, but I’m just curious to see who gets your panties in a twist.” She sidles closer and drops her voice. “I mean, you do like guys, right? I never could tell for sure. I’ve definitely never seen you with one.”
If I squeeze my glass any harder, it will shatter in my hand. I only wish it was Riley’s neck.
I cock my head to the side. “It’s funny you ask me that because I’ve always thought you look like the type who’d be right at home with her face buried between a girl’s legs.”
Riley’s eyes widen the slightest bit and her fake smile is back in force. “If they’re properly shaved, why not? I’m game. Although I’m not really there for the natural look. That’s more your thing, isn’t it? No makeup, hair always up in a bun, grungy clothes. You probably don’t care too much about trivial things like waxing.”
I didn’t think I could hate this bitch any more than I did before we rolled in here tonight.
“Get your hands off of me!”
I whirl around at the sound of Laney’s angry voice. It’s not one I hear often.
Tyson Van Dyne leers at her, his hazel eyes glassy. I want to smack that lecherous smirk right off of his chiseled face. It’s not fair that such a pompous douchebag should be blessed with the looks of a Greek god.
“Screw off, Tyson,” I growl, giving him a shove backward. He moves his menacing gaze to me, his lips curling into a nasty smirk.
“This has nothing to do with you, Myla. This is about me and Laney.”
“My name is Skyla,” I seethe, moving between him and my sister. His dipshit friends surround us, a sea of dumbass trust fund kids with not a single functioning brain cell between them. “And she told you to piss off.”
His eyes flash. “You’re mine, Laney. Everyone knows it. When are you gonna stop fighting it?”
Laney flips him off. “I’m not a fucking prize cow. I don’t care what you think you were promised but it is never, ever happening.”
Tyson lets out a chuckle. “Never say never, sweetheart. I always win and you know it.” He reaches around her back and pulls her close to his chest. “This isn’t close to over, Laney. I’ll get what I want or nobody will.”
With all of my might, I slam my fist down on his arm but he’s too wasted to even blink an eye. Then the king of the idiots turns and walks away, his court following close behind.
I pull Laney away from our group. “What the hell was he talking about?” I ask my sister, whose expression has gone from relaxed and carefree to pinched with panic.
She shakes her head, long blonde curls catching the light and glowing like a halo around her face. “It’s nothing. You know he’s always talking out of his ass.”
That’s true enough. Our fathers have been in business together for too many years to count and as he’s gotten hotter and hotter, his demeanor has become insanely toxic to the point where breathing in the same air might actually be lethal to people around him.
“Then why do you look so rattled?”
Laney waves her hand. “I was just surprised to see him here. I figured he’d have gone back to Princeton by now.”
I let out a snort of laughter. “Princeton, what a joke. I think Daddy Van Dyne must’ve had to buy half the campus for him to get admitted.”
Laney giggles and loops her arm through mine. “Come on. It’s our last night. Let’s not waste time or breath on that jackass.”
“Okay. I’m going to run to the ladies’ room real quick to check out my mess of a dress.”
“It’s already dry.” Laney winks at me. “But fine, don’t take my word for it.”
I watch her walk back to the group. A deep sigh slips from my lips. She is definitely hiding something about Tyson. Laney never gets angry and she definitely doesn’t flip people off, especially the son of her father’s longtime business partner.
I walk through the crowded dance floor toward the ladies’ lounge. The hairs on my arms prickle. If that prick did anything to her—
My back wrenches as my foot slides out from under me. Arms flailing, I desperately try to avoid face-planting into the giant puddle of what I’m hoping is only booze on the floor. I do what feels like a full three-sixty before I collapse into a strong set of arms.
I choke back a gasp when I finally look up and see the face I spent way too many months pining for…followed up by a boatload of months where I wished him dead.
“I should have let you fall so you know how it feels to hit rock bottom.” His deep blue eyes glitter with disdain but his arms are still snaked around my waist, tight enough where my face is practically pressed against his thick, muscled chest. His familiar cologne invades my nostrils and even though I try like hell to resist dragging his sultry scent into my lungs, he manages to consume me.
Just like he always did.
I push away from him but his grip is too firm.
“Like I don’t know already?” I smack him hard across the face. “Or maybe you don’t remember what you did to me?”
His jaw tightens and he grabs both of my wrists and flips me around so my back is against a wall. He leans into me. A rush of breath catches in my throat before my shocked yelp hits the air.
“You knew exactly what you were getting into. I never made you any promises.”
My jaw drops. “But you sure as hell made sure you got what you wanted.”
“I wasn’t the only one who ‘wanted.’ Let’s not bullshit one another.”
I can’t argue. I’d fantasized about my brother’s best friend from the second he walked into our home years ago. Not that he ever noticed me. But that one night, something changed between us. Or so I thought. But it wasn’t real. His feelings weren’t real. How could they be? I could never be his type.
Unfortunately, my feelings were very freaking real and my heart was very much broken when he turned his back and walked out on me.
“Get the hell away from me. I never want to see you again, you sadistic cocksucker.”
“If memory serves, it wasn’t me sucking cock that night.” Rage casts a shadow over his rage. He digs his fingertips deep into my wrists, making me wince.
And fuck me if heat doesn’t pool between my thighs as his hard cock presses against my stomach.
My knees wobble as they always did when he flew into my airspace. With a brutal war waging between my body and my mind, I am caught in the middle, dangling over the edge of sanity as all the filthy, dirty things he did that night come back to pummel me like paint ball pellets.
I hate him. Hate him!
But oh my God, I want him. So badly!
The corners of his lips lift into a sinister smile. “You can run to Rhode Island for school but you’ll never escape.”
“Fuck you.” My voice quivers, heart thrashing in my chest.
“Nothing can change what you did. What we did. I own you, Skyla.”
The he lets go of me and takes a step backward, malice glimmering in his gaze as it rakes over me. The eye raping leaves me aching and sore, it was so vicious.
He is pure evil.
“You deserve what you got.” I spit out the words, my lungs quaking. Shivers assault my body under his murderous stare.
But he doesn’t say a word. He just turns and walks away.
My jaw drags on the floor, my mind unable to comprehend what just happened. I’d pushed what happened to the dark corners of my mind, hoping that the threat would just disappear.
Except, he’s very much alive and well.
“Sky.” Laney runs over, her high heels clunking on the shiny lacquered dance floor. My throat clenches.
Please tell me she didn’t see that…
She grabs me by the hand and pulls me along behind her. “We have to leave. Now.”
“What’s wrong?” I ask, out of breath from our sudden sprint to the exit.
“Riley is waiting outside with the car.”
But she doesn’t answer my question.
“Was Tyson bothering you again? We can go to security. They’ll kick his ass out.”
Laney just shakes her head, her big eyes wet with tears. “I just need to go.”
We rush out of the back door and climb into Riley’s Mercedes. “Maybe I should drive. I only had that one shot, and Riley—”
Riley peels out of the parking lot. “Oh, calm the fuck down. I’m fine.”
I grab my seatbelt and clip myself into the backseat, a silent prayer to get home safely looping through my mind.
She pulls onto the main road. The car lurches forward. I grip the edge of the seat, my pulse punching a hole in my throat.
Riley rambles about some guy whose number she got when a blinding white light flashes in my periphery. I choke on a stilted breath and grasp the side of the door. Her words are drowned out by blaring horns and the sickening crush of metal against metal.
The oncoming car plows into the passenger side door, shoving us into the center of the road. My body jerks at the impact, head slamming against the side window. Screams fill the car, the sounds muffled by shattering glass. Sharp shards fly at me, slicing at my skin. My vision blurs, breaths shallow.
One final thought echoes between my ears before I fall forward into a pit of blackness.
God didn’t listen.
My prayers didn’t work.
Maybe karma is coming back to bite me in the ass.