This isn’t right at all.
Frustration caused Kat to toss her pen across the desk. After six different attempts at the same cartoon, she’d hit her limit.
She needed to get something new up on her store, since she’d kept up with a biweekly schedule for over two years without fail, but nothing had come to her. Somehow, all those cute little ideas she normally had, the quips, the humor, the adorable characters with large eyes and charm, sat just out of reach.
Kat folded her arms on her desk and dropped her head onto them. Her back ached from the hours she’d spent staring at her sketch pad, from all the attempts that had led to nothing. She kept thinking that if she started drawing, some idea would come to her.
It always had before.
Each time she tried, her brain went AWOL, and she found herself back in that damned hotel room. A flash of pain, the memory of a smirking face—
“Knock it off!” She stood, shaking her hands as if that would dispel the memory she’d been running from for the past few weeks.
It didn’t work, but what other option did she have?
Kat paced, then reached to smooth her hands over her hair. She grimaced at how oily it was. How long had it been since she’d washed it?
Days. Maybe longer?
The sensation grossed her out, but the idea of stripping down, of taking a shower, that seemed far worse. She hadn’t been willing to attempt it, choosing instead to use clean wipes on the important areas.
Fox Asher, the doctor who had taken care of her at the hospital, had said no baths anyway.
Fine by me. What does it matter?
Kat sighed and shook her head. She’d never been a coward before, so what was wrong with her now?
The ringing of her phone made her jump, her fingers clutching the front of her button-up pajama top, as if holding it closed made it into some sort of armor. Once it filtered through her head that it was only her phone, Kat cursed herself and picked up her cell from the desk.
Sunny’s name flashed across the screen, and the desire to ignore it hit her.
Then again, if she didn’t answer, Sunny would show up with Garrison, Connor and Trent in tow. Kat had ignored calls for days, having no desire to talk to anyone, but that sort of understanding only went so far.
Not only was Sunny sweet, but the Doms of Sanctuary, the BDSM club that felt like the one place in the whole world where Kat belonged, were both protective and tenacious. The last thing she needed was for any of them to show up and disturb her hiding.
She sighed and answered the call. “Hey, Sunny.”
“Kat…” Sunny’s voice was exactly what Kat didn’t want to hear. It was pity and worry.
At least it was Sunny and not Ell, though. Sunny was sweet and worried, but Ell had been there. Kat couldn’t handle seeing that knowledge in Ell’s face.
Kat forced some levity into her voice, faking a smile she didn’t feel. “What’s with that voice? Did you make the mistake of taking my advice and hiding Trent’s paddle?” The last word caught in Kat’s throat.
Something that would have made her laugh before felt like swallowing rusty nails, and that same memory of pain hit her.
“I just miss you,” Sunny said, ignoring Kat’s statement. Damn, it would have been so much easier if Sunny was carefree. Instead, she had that ‘I really care’ tone of voice.
“I’ve been busy with work,” Kat lied.
“Uh-huh. Well, I thought maybe you could come over soon? We could have dinner. I’ll cook something you love.”
“I’m swamped right now. It’s not a good time.”
Sunny sighed. “You can’t just hide away from the world.”
“I know how you feel, but you don’t have to go through this alone.”
Kat squeezed her eyes shut and trapped the words she wanted to scream inside her head. She wanted to tell Sunny that she had no idea what Kat was going through, that she didn’t need sympathy, that what she needed was to get back to regular life and forget the whole thing as soon as possible.
Yet…when offered a chance at regular—meaning dinner with her friends—Kat couldn’t stomach the idea.
“There isn’t anything to worry about,” Kat said. “I really need to get going, though. We’ll talk again soon, okay?”
Sunny’s voice echoed through the line, but Kat didn’t want to hear it. She hit the End button, her head pounding, her breath racing. She all but collapsed into her office chair, her knees weak and her hands trembling.
The ringing of the phone made her squeeze her eyes shut as she dropped her head into her hands and ignored the sound.
Her life had changed so much but she couldn’t move forward.
And each time she shut her eyes, all she could see was the face of the man who had done it to her, who had turned her into this, and she wasn’t sure if that would ever go away.
* * * *
Dean smiled at the happiness on Ell’s face.
Fuck, how long had he wanted that for her? How many years had he spent watching over her, wanting nothing more than for her to get the life neither of them had had growing up?
And here she was, looking right at home helping Sunny at the women’s shelter Sunny ran.
“Well don’t you look happy?” Dean asked as he took a seat in Sunny’s office.
A flush to Ell’s cheeks said life with the three men she’d somehow ended up with suited her.
It certainly wasn’t what Dean had expected from her. Ell was tough as they came, so he’d always figured she’d end up with some spineless man that she could run around all day long. Of course, as seemed normal for him, he had no fucking idea what women wanted, as evidenced by her ending up with three Doms.
“Stop it,” Sunny said, that edge to her voice when she was protecting someone else.
“It’s fine,” Ell said. “If Dean isn’t causing problems, someone should probably check him for a pulse.”
Dean set his hand over his chest, feigning hurt.
“Now,” Ell went on. “Why are you here? You didn’t come all this way just to drop off these.” She held up a stack of his business cards.
“Of course I did.”
No, I didn’t. Dean could have dropped those off anywhere, or even just given them the information over the phone to hand out to women at the shelter who might need a lawyer. He handled mostly divorce cases, some custody as well, so it made sense for him to help.
Ell lifted her eyebrow, silently calling him out.
Dean let out a loud sigh. “Fine. I wanted to see if you’d heard from Kat.”
Ell’s smile came on quick, as if she’d suspected as much, but she didn’t keep that smile for long. It fading gave Dean his answer.
Sunny spoke up. “I talked to her this morning, but she got off the phone fast. I tried to get her to agree to coming over, but no luck.”
“I went over to her new place,” Ell added on, “but if she was in there, she didn’t answer and there weren’t any signs of her. She moved after…” Ell trailed off for a moment, and that old anger surged inside Dean at the tremble in her voice as she skipped over what they all knew. “But I don’t think anyone has gone inside her new place. Well, except for Toya.”
Dean snorted. Toya did as she damned well pleased as the owner of Sanctuary. No doubt she’d hired the movers herself and ensured the new place was up to specifications, especially for Kat, who had been the heartbeat of Sanctuary for years. “How is she?”
Ell and Sunny exchanged a loaded look, but it was Sunny who answered. “I don’t know. Going through something like that, it takes a toll. It doesn’t go away all at once.”
Dean lowered his voice to a whisper, as if that made it better. “What exactly happened?”
Ell shook her head. “I don’t know. Fox couldn’t tell me, of course, because he’s her doctor, but I know it wasn’t good. His face gets serious each time she gets brought up.”
Dean slumped forward. It was about what he’d expected, which was a whole lot of nothing. No answer, no understanding, no information. He hadn’t reached out directly to Kat because he didn’t think he had any right. They’d been acquaintances—nothing more.
Ell tilted her head as if trying to figure something out. “Are you two…?”
“No. Nothing like that. We never even played together. She’s just a sweet girl, and I hate to think of her suffering.”
Boy, was that one hell of a whopper. Sure, they weren’t like that, and yeah, they’d done nothing sexual together, but he knew damned well there was something there. Or, maybe it was better to say he felt something, and he wanted more.
He still remembered seeing Kat as the detective, Olin Ramiz, had escorted her from that motel room. He’d known Ell was fine, had already seen her, but to watch Kat wince as she walked, to see how her broken gaze remained on the ground, how a sheet stained in blood was wrapped around her, how she flinched when Fox had reached for her, it had broken him.
Or, perhaps it was better to say it had woken a part of him he’d tried to destroy. That old part of him, the one that had survived his childhood, that had helped him to make it through what would have killed so many others, it had roused when watching Kat.
Which was dangerous.
Dean had worked hard to smother the old him, to bury it beneath layers of charming smiles and well-made suits and spot-on small talk.
He let out a long breath, trying to release the memory, trying to quiet the part of him that still wanted to exact revenge for what had happened.
“No word on the asshole who did it either, right?”
Ell gulped but answered anyway. “Nothing. Jerry’s off the radar for now, it seems. He probably took off because he realized it was only a matter of time before he got himself caught if he hung around here.”
Dean tried to hide his disappointment. Sure, it was good that Jerry wasn’t around, wasn’t looking for revenge or another shot at Kat, but fuck…Dean wanted the chance to get his hands on that man, personally.
He thought back to so many years ago, to the way blood had stuck to his hands, to how Dean could watch someone gasp for breath and not give a single fuck.
He shook his head then swallowed hard, trying to cage that part of him in the deepest hollows of his soul. He plastered on his perfect, charming smile, the one that hid what he was capable of. “Well, I should get going. If you hear anything, let me know.”
Sunny and Ell both agreed, and as Dean left the shelter, his mind spun. He wanted to see Kat, to ensure she was okay, but another part of him? The one that ached for the chance to get hold of Jerry, to punish the fucker for what he’d done, it wasn’t fair to subject Kat to that.
Dean was a lot of things, but the word good only fit with the fact he was good at fooling others.
Kat was better off without him around her. She’d suffered the actions of too many monsters already.