Oh, my God. I had to be dreaming. Wake up, Nila. Please, wake up.
My knees buckled, following the bag to the floor. Shaking, I collected the photos sitting on top of a mound of clothes. My clothes. Everything I’d brought to Milan—minus the fashion show apparel and my work tools—running gear, a bikini, sweat pants, pyjamas, and a simple collection of blouses, jeans, and maxi dresses.
But on top of it all rested strewn photographs.
Photo-shopped images that never happened.
Doctored snap-shots of lies. Such horrible, horrible lies.
No one will come.
Jethro was right. The police would laugh if anyone asked for their help. What I held cemented my new life being Jethro’s plaything.
Shuffling through the deck, I couldn’t stop a hot tear searing down my cheek.
There was me—smiling, glowing. I remembered the day. V and I had headed to Paris for a local mid-season show a few years ago. He’d beaten me at poker in a silly pub tournament and a patron snapped an image of us. Laughing, overly warm, arms wrapped around each other in sibling affection, we’d been so happy.
Only Vaughn didn’t exist in this photo. The background had been amended to show a fancy restaurant while the man who clutched me was Jethro.
The smile on his face was the warmest I’d seen. His attire of open-neck black shirt and jeans made him look young, in love, and dashing.
I couldn’t study it anymore. Flicking to another one, I slapped a hand over my mouth.
This one pictured my father and me. Or had. He’d splashed out for the annual staff retreat, and we’d gone on a one week cruise around the Mediterranean. We’d stood with the setting sun dancing on the orange tinted waves, dressed in loose fitting ‘cruise wear’ that I’d created only days before. I’d planted an adoring daughterly kiss on his scratchy face.
That kiss now belonged to Jethro.
The ship had been tweaked to show a luxury yacht rather than commercial liner. The sunset cast a different glow. Jethro stood broodily, staring into the camera with such an intense glare of sexual power, no one would disagree that there was chemistry and need between us. The way my body curved into his, the sweetness and trust I displayed, only helped confirm the illusion of a couple besotted with each other.
The photos wobbled in my hands; another tear stained the glossy deception.
I looked up, not caring my heart was ripped out and beating coldly on the car park floor. “How—” Gritting my teeth, I tried again. “Destroying my dress wasn’t enough? You had to steal my past, too?” I held up a photograph of a half-naked Jethro holding my chin as he kissed me. That wasn’t based on my dateless life, but it was so lifelike, so true, so incontestable.
How did they make it so realistic?
Jethro shook his head, rolling his eyes. Locking the bike, he pocketed the keys before turning to face me. Dropping to his haunches in front, he whispered, “I not only stole your past. I’ve already stolen your future.”
I breathed hard, hating the look of enjoyment in his gaze.
Never breaking eye contact, he tapped the photographs in my hands. “You didn’t see them all. Flick to the back. They’re especially for you.”
I couldn’t unglue my lungs. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to breathe without pain again. Splitting the tower of pictures, I glanced at the last ones. Immediately, I looked up. All sense of decency and pride gone.
“Please, you can’t. This—it will break their hearts.”
Tears scalded the back of my throat. My eyes burned, glancing down again. This one showed my empty hotel room—exactly as I left it with last minute ribbon and feathers littering the bed before rushing to the show—but now my toiletries from my nightstand, my laptop, and belongs were gone. Including my carry on and suitcase.
The room was abandoned. It looked as if I’d packed up and left my dreams, livelihood, and family without so much as a backward glance.
This would break my brother and father’s heart, because it was the exact same way of how my mother, Emma Weaver, left us.
But unlike my mother, there was a simple note placed upon the dresser.
“Turn it over. I took the liberty of asking for a close-up, so you can read what you wrote as your final goodbye,” Jethro murmured, stealing the photo from my fingers and tapping the fresh one revealed beneath it.
I curled over my knees, cradling the glossy replica of a goodbye letter penned in my hand. The writing was exactly like mine, even I couldn’t tell the forged sweeps and cursive from reality.
It’s time I came clean.
I’ve been lying to you for a while now.
I’ve fallen in love and decided that my life is better with him. I’m done with the deadlines and unachievable pressure placed on me by this family.
I know what I’m doing.
Don’t try and find me.
I looked up. My heart collided with my ribcage, bruising, hurting. So much pain. I couldn’t contain the sorrow when I thought of V reading this. To be left behind by both his mother and sister.…
“They won’t believe this. They know me better than anyone. They know I wasn’t in a relationship. You said Tex knows all about you and why you’re doing this. Please—”
Jethro laughed. “It’s not for your family, Ms. Weaver. It’s for the press. It’s for the world stage who will make this fiction a reality. Your brother will find out the truth from your father, I’m sure. And if they behave, they’ll both remain untouched. Believe me, this isn’t to hurt them—if I wanted that, I have much better means.” He cupped my cheek, brushing away long strands of my hair. “No. This was just an insurance policy.”
“For what?” I breathed.
“So no one believes your family when they break and try to find you. They’ll be all alone. Just like you. Controlled by the Hawks who’ve owned the Weavers for almost six hundred years.”
Six hundred years?
Jethro sniffed, his temper building like a ghost around us. “Stop crying. The images portray the truth. It proves you did what you did and no one can be angry or distrustful.”
“What did I do?”
“Ah, Ms. Weaver, don’t let shock steal your intelligence. You. Left. Voluntarily.” He waved at the photo. “This confirms it.”
“But I didn’t,” I whimpered. “I didn’t leave—”
Jethro tensed. “Don’t forget so soon what I taught you. You are the sacrifice and you…” His eyes dared me to finish his sentence, to admit to everything I’d done by protecting my family. His fingers twitched between his legs, looking like he wanted to strike.
I’d never been good at confrontation—not that my father yelled often or Vaughn and I argued. I’d grown up with no need to fight. I knew how precious my family was. My mother left, proving just how heartless someone could be if they didn’t hold onto love. So I’d held on with both hands, feet, every part of me. Only to have it torn away so easily.
You’d rather they lived and never saw them again than die because of you.
Hanging my head, I murmured, “A sacrifice comes of their own free will, therefore I left voluntarily.”
Jethro nodded, patting my thigh like the pet he thought I was. Covering the photos with his large hand, he pressed down until my elbows gave out and I lowered them. “Good girl. Keep behaving and the next part won’t be too hard to bear.”
Another rush of tears suffocated me, but I swallowed them back. He’d told me to stop crying. So I would.
Jethro stood, reaching down to scoop up the awful photos and duffel bag of belongings. “Come. We have to go.” He didn’t offer me his hand to climb to my feet.
The simple act of raising myself from cold concrete to freezing air taxed my already fractured world. Rolling vertigo pitched my balance, sending me reeling backward. My arms shot out, searching for something to grab hold of.
With drunken eyes, I begged Jethro to catch me, but he just stood there. Silent. Exasperated. He let me trip and fall.
I cried out as I collapsed on the ground. My fingernails dug into the rough flooring, holding on while the parking garage danced around like a nightmarish carrousel. Pain radiated from my hipbone, but it was nothing compared to the overwhelming nausea.
It wouldn’t be Jethro who ended up killing me, but the inability to deal with a gauntlet of emotions.
Closing my eyes, I repeated Vaughn’s silly nursery rhyme. Find an anchor. Hold on tight. Do this and you’ll be alright.
“Get up, goddammit. Stop acting the victim.” A pinching hand grabbed under my arm, jerking me to my feet.
I doubled over, holding my stomach as another wave of sickness threatened to evict the only food I’d had today—a luncheon prior to the rehearsal of the runway show.
When the debilitating wave left, I glared up. “I’m not useless. I can’t control it.” Breathing hard, I begged, “Please, let me talk to my brother. Let me tell him—”
“Tell him what? That you’re being taken against your will?” Jethro chuckled. “By the look on your face you seem to think I’ll forbid you having any outside communication—cut you off from everything you hold dear.” Letting me go, he scooped my heavy hair from my neck, giving me a reprieve from the sticky heat of not feeling well. “Contrary to what you think, I have no desire to dictate what you can and can’t do.”
Twisting my hair, tugging lightly, he added, “This may surprise you, seeing as you have such a low opinion of me, but you can go online, keep your mobile—even continue to work if you wish. I told you before—this is not a kidnapping. It’s a debt. And until you understand the full complications of the debt, I suggest you keep what’s happening to yourself.”
I couldn’t understand. I was being stolen, yet was allowed access to avenues that could bring me safety. It didn’t make sense.
“You’ve made a decision to come with me, and it’s irreversible. You can’t change your mind, and you can’t change the payments required, so why make others worry on your behalf?” His eyes glinted. “I suggest you become good at pretending if you wish to maintain the pretence of freedom. I won’t stop you from creating extra worry and strain for yourself.” Bowing over me, he smiled. “It only makes my job easier.”
Grabbing the black rope he’d made from my hair, I stepped away from him. “You’re insane.”
He gave me a sideways look, rummaging in the duffel to grab a handful of clothes. Closing the distance between us, he shoved the balled items into my stomach.
Oxygen exploded from my lungs from the force.
Jethro pulsed with anger. “That’s twice you’ve questioned my mental state, Ms. Weaver. Do. Not. Do. It. Again.” Running a hand through his hair, he growled, “Now get dressed. Time to go home.”
I COULDN’T DO it.
It was like looking after a needy, sickly, disobedient child. Bryan Hawk, my father and orchestrator of this mess, assured me it would be a simple matter of a few threats and blackmail.
She’ll come easy if you threaten the ones she loves.
The so-called inexperienced dressmaker had her own agenda. Beneath the chaste little girl, lurked a devious woman who was so tangled and confused she was fucking dangerous.
Dangerous because she was unpredictable. Unpredictable because she didn’t know herself.
I was clueless on how to control her. I didn’t understand her.
For instance, what the fuck happened at the coffee shop? She’d gravitated toward me. She’d licked my thumb like she imagined it was my dick. She’d surprised me. And I didn’t do well with surprises.
My structured world—my rules and agendas—were not something that had room for twists and turns. Unless I was the one creating them. And I definitely didn’t have time for my cock to twitch and show an interest in the woman I meant to torture and defile.
I would get hard when she was alone on my estate and her screams echoed in the woods. I would come with her gagged and subdued and hating me with the intensity of her forefathers.
Her pain was my reward. The fact she got me hard by being shy but so bloody tempting was completely unpermitted.
I checked my watch. The plane was due to leave in thirty minutes. Do it. You know you want to.
I couldn’t stomach her presence any longer. I couldn’t answer any more of her idiotic questions, or pretend I wasn’t raging to teach her a lesson. Her tripping and stumbling fucking got on my nerves. Not to mention her blind love toward a family that no longer had any right to her.
She needed discipline, and she needed it now. Your hands are bound until you get her home.
If I had to listen to one more beg or witness another tear, I’d end up killing her before the fun began.
Nila craned her neck, trying to read the boarding passes in my hands. Flaw, my right hand man and secretary to the Black Diamonds brotherhood, had already checked us in. Along with dealing with shipping my new purchase, The Little Black Dress Harley-Davidson, and staging the runaway scene at Nila’s hotel.
In precisely six hours, a housekeeper would find the photos, notes, and abandoned items, then the gossip columns would spread the story like a well incubated disease.
Nila Weaver’s found love.
Nila dispels rumours she’s in love with her twin by running off with some unknown English aristocrat.
My lips quirked at that. Me? An aristocrat?
If only they knew my upbringing. My history. If only Nila’s father had spent the years he’d had with her preparing her for this day—informing her of our shared heritage, then perhaps she wouldn’t look so fucking ill.