He lowered his voice. “You’re your own, sister. You’re more than just a Weaver. You’re you, and I’m so damn proud of what you’ve achieved.” Twin intuition had always been strong—showing just how much he understood without me ever having to voice it.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Vaughn didn’t get sentimental often, so his praise was a well-placed dagger in my self-control. This time I couldn’t stop the smile breaking through my defences or my heart glowing with accomplishment. “Thank you, V. That means—”
I spun around to face my father. Instead of the grin and look of love I expected, he stood cold and fierce. My stomach tensed, sensing something was wrong. So, so wrong. It was the same look he got whenever he thought of Mum. The same look I’d grown accustomed to hating and running from.
“Dad…what—” He wasn’t alone. My eyes trailed from my father’s pressed tux toward the tall, svelte man beside him.
Holy hell, who on earth...
Thoughts died like windless kites, littering my mind with silent dumbness. He was a stranger. But I felt as if I’d seen him before. He was a mystery. But I sensed I already knew everything about him. Two extremes…two confusions.
“Nila, I want to introduce you to someone.” My father’s jaw ticked, hands clenching into white-knuckled fists. “This is Jethro Hawk. He’s a big fan of your work and would like to take you out tonight to celebrate your success.”
I wanted to rub my eyes and have my hearing checked. Since the day of my birth, my father had never introduced me to a man. Never. And he’d never lied so obviously. This man wasn’t a fan of my work—although he did have incredible fashion sense. He had to be a male model with his height, envious cheekbones, and perfectly styled salt-and-pepper hair. His white skin was flawless—no wrinkles or blemishes. He looked ageless, but I guessed he was late twenties, early thirties despite his greying hair speaking of wisdom far beyond his years.
His hands were concealed in pockets of a dark charcoal suit with a cream shirt open at the throat and a diamond pin piercing his jacket lapel.
“Tex, what are you—” Vaughn’s voice was quiet but possessive. Eyeing up Jethro, he stayed polite by offering his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Hawk. I appreciate your interest in my sister’s talent, but my father has it wrong. Tonight she is unavailable due to a family commitment.”
I would’ve smiled if my stomach wasn’t knotted as the two men assessed each other.
Jethro slowly took my brother’s hand, shaking once. “Pleasure, I’m sure. And I, in turn, can appreciate your interest in keeping your prior agreement with your sister, but alas. Your generous father has allowed me the enjoyment of ruining your plans and stealing her away.” His voice whispered through my gown, sending goosebumps down my spine. His accent was English, same as mine, but slightly more clipped. He sounded posh but rogue at the same time. Refined but uncouth.
My brother wasn’t impressed. His forehead furrowed.
“I hope that isn’t going to be an issue, Mr. Weaver. I’ve heard a lot about you and your family and would hate to upset you.” Mr. Hawk’s eyes landed on mine, capturing me in a cage of golden irises and effortless power. “However, I’ve heard the most about your sister. And I have no doubt it will be a pleasure knowing her.”
I gulped. No one had spoken to me like that—especially in front of my father. Who was this man? Why did his very existence fill me with hot and cold and awareness and fear?
“Listen here,” my father blustered. I tensed, ready for the outrage I knew he was capable of, but his lips snapped closed and the fire in his gaze didn’t erupt. Swallowing hard, he finished, “I presume my obligations are complete?”
Jethro nodded, a lock of hair brushing his forehead. “You presume correctly.”
Fear evolved to panic. Obligations? My God, is my father in some sort of trouble? I clutched his sleeve. “Dad. The show’s over. Let’s go for that drink.” I glanced at Vaughn, cursing my fluttering heart and the mix-match of emotions colliding inside.
My father pulled me close, pressing a single kiss on my cheek. “I love you, Nila, but I’ve kept you to myself for long enough. Mr. Hawk has asked if he can take you out tonight. I agreed. Vaughn and I can wait till another time.”
He didn’t say—only if you want to, of course. It sounded more like a sentencing rather than freedom to date. Why this man? Why now?
Vaughn moved closer. “Tex, we already had plans. We can’t just—”
My father glared at my brother, his gaze weighty with unsaid anger. “Plans change, V. Now give your sister a kiss goodbye. She’s leaving.”
“I am?” I took a step backward, clutching my phone. There was no denying Jethro Hawk was good looking and seemed to be successful judging by his attire, but if I was allowed to date, I wanted Kite007, not this cold outlander.
“You are.” Jethro held out his hand, his gaze noosing me tighter in their golden cage. “I’m taking you somewhere special.”
“She isn’t going anywhere with you unless she wants to, dickhead.” Vaughn puffed out his chest, placing a hand on my lower back. “Tex—tell him.”
My eyes flew to my father. What existed in his gaze sent frost crackling through my blood. His lips were tight, eyes bright and slightly glassy. But his cheeks were dark with rage. He glowered at Mr. Hawk. “I’ve changed my mind. Not tonight.”
Vaughn huffed, nodding in agreement. The thick soup of male testosterone choked my lungs.
Jethro smiled coolly. “You’ve given me your word, Mr. Weaver. There are no rain checks.” Aiming his sharp smile my way, he purred, “Besides, Ms. Weaver and I have a lot to discuss. It’s time we got acquainted and tonight is the night.”
“Excuse me while you all fight over me. But what about what I want?” I crossed my arms. “I’m tired, overworked, and not in the mood to entertain. Thank you for your interest, but—”
“No buts, Ms. Weaver. It’s been arranged and discussed. You will come with me because it’s the only way your night will end.” Jethro lowered his head, watching me from beneath his brow. “I promise you’ll have a good time. And I mean you no harm…do you really think your father would permit me to take you out otherwise?”
Coldness etched his gaze.
Aloofness whispered from his posture.
Calculation radiated from his every pore.
I’d never been so intimidated or so intimately challenged.
My father might have permitted this, but he didn’t condone it. Somehow Jethro had achieved the unachievable and convinced my father he was dateable material. If he could manipulate Archibald ‘Tex’ Weaver, I didn’t stand a chance…and yet…despite the arrogance and chilly façade, he intrigued me.
My father had kept me captive my whole life. This was the first man to stand up to him and grant a glimmer of freedom.
The fear disappeared, leaving a flicker of interest. If this was the only man I could spend an evening alone with, I would take it. I would practice my non-existent flirting skills and grow my confidence so I could ask Kite007 out again. And next time, I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Sucking in a gulp, I placed my hand gently into Mr. Hawk’s. His touch was as cold as his demeanour and just as strong. I froze as his fingers tightened around mine, tugging me forward. “Good decision, Ms. Weaver. I look forward to getting to know you better.”
My lungs dragged in his scent of leather and woods. Words deserted me.
The show disappeared along with my worry and thoughts of Kite007. Gone was the urge to return to an empty hotel room. This man was pure danger, and I’d never sampled anything but safety. “And you, Mr. Hawk,” I murmured.
My date smiled, transforming his face from handsome to ruthless. “Please, call me Jethro.” Changing our grip from handshake to handhold, he pulled me forward—away from my family, away from the men I’d known all my life, and toward a future I had no understanding of.
Vaughn’s hand fell from my lower back.
I didn’t look back.
I should’ve looked back.
I should never have placed my hand into that of a monster’s.
That was the last day of freedom. The last day that was my own.
Individuality and uniqueness—those two words were so precious once upon a time. I’d been brought up with a gruff but fair father and a brother who I would marry if it wasn’t incest, believing I was unique, different, never before created.
I hated being lied to.
I hated even more believing those lies until the truth decided to come for me.
Turned out, I was never an individual; I was a possession to trade.
I was never unique; someone had lived my life many times before, never free, never whole.
My life was never mine.
My destiny was already written.
My story began the night he came for me.
IT WAS TOO easy.
I’d stolen her right before her father and brother. I’d taken her with no blood shed or bones broken.
Power wasn’t threats or uncivilised fighting. It wasn’t brawn or hard-won arguments.
Power was holding something so absolute, a man would do what he was told—all the while cursing your very soul. True power wasn’t wielded by gangs or even loudly-spoken governments.
True power. Limitless power—only graced a fair few. It gave those lucky few the ability—the nobility, to be courteous and polite. All while holding their fucking balls in their hands.
Archibald Weaver was one such example.
I shook my head, disbelieving how the so-called enemy of my family handed over his only daughter. The same daughter I’d seen in tabloids as a rising star of designers. The same offspring who was never photographed with a man on her arm or seen sneaking out of a restaurant with a hidden lover. He’d wanted to kill me. I had no doubt he would try to kill me.
But he would fail.
Just like he failed to protect her.
Because he had no fucking power.
All it had taken was two sentences and Nila went from his to mine. A thrill ran down my spine, remembering the rush when I’d tapped him on the shoulder. His dark eyes had been cool but welcoming, believing I was a stranger there to congratulate. That all changed when I handed over a black-flocked business card and said, “The time is nigh to pay your debts. Your past has found you, and there will be no peace until she’s ours.”
His eyes went from cool to glinting with horror and rebellion. He knew everything I did. He knew there was only one thing he could do—no matter that it would break his heart.
This was his fate. Her fate. Their fate. It’d been written and understood the moment he’d knocked up his wife.
He knew the consequences, and he also knew the power we controlled. No matter his unwillingness and terror, there was no other course of action.
Without a single word, he’d marched me to his daughter and placed her life in my hands. I hadn’t believed my father when he said it would go so smoothly. After all—none of this made sense. But it had. And it did. And now…it was all on me.
My education had begun a month ago. I’d been told of my upcoming duties, given history lessons of past debt collections. But I was as new to this as her.
We came from generations interlocked in the same untieable way.
Now, it was our turn.
And we would have to learn together.
I glared at my conquest. Letting her hand go, she glided beside me wrapped in darkness. I didn’t need a physical claim on her now that she was outside—alone. Was it trust in her father’s judgement guiding her feet or stupidity?
Either way, I would be the last person she would ever see.
I BREATHED A lungful of crisp Milan air as we left the ornate building where the fashion show was held. For late summer, the temperature danced with chill rather than heat. The night had finally claimed the day. It didn’t get dark until ten p.m., so it was late for me. This time of evening, I would normally be buried under a mound of cotton with a chalk pen and scissors deciding what my next creation would be.
Coldness darted through my blood—not from the cool breeze but from him. The silent, foreboding man walking soundlessly beside me.
Who is he? And why don’t I trust a thing about him?
Studying him in my peripheral vision, he seemed to give off two personas. One, a cordial, well-dressed gentleman who looked as though he’d stepped through a wormhole from some ancient century. And two, an assassin who moved like a dancer only because he’d been taught the art of war and murder from the crib.
No words were spoken. No dalliance or small talk. His silence was strangely welcomed and hated. Welcomed because it meant I could focus on my vertigo and not let stress topple me over, hated because I wanted to know him. I wanted to know why my father had vouched for him and just where the hell he was taking me.
“I don’t believe you,” I said, my voice slicing through the crisp evening like the truth masquerading as a lie.
Even in the gloom, with only street lights for illumination, his eyes were bright and such a light brown they seemed otherworldly. His eyebrow rose, but no other interest showed on his face. “What don’t you believe?” He fanned his arm to the left, indicating for me to travel that way.
My feet behaved, tottering obediently in the black velvet heels, but my brain swam with a sudden gyroscope of vertigo. I focused hard on the diamond glinting on Jethro’s lapel. Find an anchor. Hold on tight. Do this and you’ll be alright. The stupid rhyme echoed in my brain. My brother had made it up when we were eight after I’d broken my arm falling off the bottom step of our porch.