He’s very good at being bad…
Outwardly, Noah Carter is riding high as the tech world’s hottest new genius. Inside, he’s still reeling from the abduction of his wife and baby daughter eight years ago, and then the devastating discovery of his child’s body. For years, he kept up hope that his wife was alive, but now that she’s been declared legally dead, he’s thrown himself even more deeply into his work, cutting himself off from emotional ties because they just hurt too damn much.
Then he meets Kiki Porter, an eternal optimist with a killer work ethic and dreams of fronting a band. And everything changes. Even though he tries his damnedest to fight it…
Sexually, they are combustible together. But their true fire is emotional, though it is a slow to burn. But once it lights, it is all consuming. The relationship grows emotionally, the sex is hot, things are good.
But just when it’s looking like they might have a real future together, the past comes back to haunt them. And Noah’s going to have to decide what he’s willing to give up for love …
All Wicked Novels Stand Alone.
Wicked Torture is part of the Wicked Nights - Standalone Novels series.
Wicked Torture - Buy Now
About this StoryPublication Date 11/14/2017 Story Type Book Series Wicked Nights - Standalone Novels Genre Contemporary Romance
Nothing in this world is solid—I know that better than anyone. The way the world can suddenly shift beneath you. The way you can fight so hard and still lose everything. The way happiness can slip through your fingers.
Luck has never been my friend. On the contrary, it has mocked and teased me, dangling happiness like a carrot that is just out of reach.
I know that—I’ve known it for my entire life, and it has always eluded me.
That’s why I should have known better. I should have never let him get close enough to break my heart.
But I did, and now he’s back.
I should have run, but he touched me, and I froze. Then he kissed me, and the world fell away.
And all I can do now is hope that he has the strength to save us both.
She had an obsession with swizzle sticks.
Noah tried to concentrate on his date’s words, but it wasn’t easy. She kept twisting the plastic stick between her fingers, then lifting it to her cherry red lips and teasing small drops of liquid from the end with her tongue.
He supposed that she thought it was sexy. That somehow, by stroking her tongue against the thin rod, she was making him hard.
Which was probably for the best. He hadn’t wanted to come out tonight, after all.
Or, correction, he hadn’t wanted to come out tonight with an actual date. He’d wanted a pick-up. A one-night stand during which he could exorcise all the demons that had been roiling inside him, building up since the last time he’d let himself go. When getting lost in his work no longer had the power to battle back the memories or the guilt.
A hot, fast, intimate encounter with no strings and absolutely no purpose except the participants’ mutual satisfaction. Hers, in the form of the explosive orgasm that he was more than happy to provide. His in the simple act of stepping outside of himself and away from the ghosts and the memories. Of getting lost in erotic sensations and the comfort of knowing that even though he’d destroyed two women completely, with thiswoman at least he could bring pleasure.
Correction. Three women. He’d destroyed three women.
The voice in his head was harsh. Insistent. And he winced, his body tightening as if steeling himself for a blow.
Three woman, yes. But not really. Two women, and a child.
Darla, his wife.
Kiki, his love.
And little Diana, who never even saw her first birthday. Oh, God.
His stomach lurched, and he fought the urge to close his eyes in defense against the memory now filling his head. His sweet Diana’s lifeless body, as clear and crisp and horrible as the reality had been all those years ago.
He’d never forget—hell, he didn’t want to forget.
But it had been almost nine years since Darla and Diana had been kidnapped in Mexico City, and his friends were right—he had to move on. His wife and daughter were gone, and he was here. Alive and well and trying so damn hard to block out the morass of guilt and loss, to keep it at bay with long hours of work and clandestine moments of physical release that never provided any true relief despite his continued delusions that it would help.
Which brought him right back to Evie and her swizzle stick.
“She’s a lawyer based in LA, but she spends a lot of time in Austin,” his friend Lyle had said when he’d insisted that Noah meet Evie for drinks. “She’s pretty and smart and funny. And if it doesn’t work out it’s just one night out of your life. So suck it up and meet her, okay?”
Noah had wanted to say no. But he also knew it was time to start clawing his way back into the world.
So he was starting with Evie. And Lyle was right. She was smart, and she was pretty.
She might not be anonymous, but she was probably good in bed, and God knew he needed someone tonight. Needed those few moments of pure oblivion.
This week had been harder than most, and if Evie could help him forget…
He shifted in the leather armchair as he looked at her. They were tucked away in a dark corner of the bar, a small cocktail table between them. She’d stopped sucking on the swizzle stick, and now she was using it as a pointer.
“I’ve always loved this hotel,” she said, indicating the interior of the Texas-themed bar area. The Longhorn cattle head mounted above a fireplace. The oil paintings of ranch scenes. The sofas upholstered in cowhide and leather.
Before he’d moved to Austin six months ago, he’d imagined that all of Texas resembled the inside of this bar. He’d been deeply relieved to learn he was wrong.
It was a Wednesday night, but even so, the place was crowded. The Driskill Hotel had been an Austin landmark since the 1800s, and Noah had become familiar with its restaurant, bar, and rooms during his first weeks in Austin after moving from LA. At the time, his condo was still being painted, and so he’d spent ten days in one of the suites until his own place was ready.
“It’s haunted, you know,” he told her.
“That’s what everyone says, but I stay here every time I come from LA, and I haven’t once seen a ghost. I always tell them I want one of the haunted rooms, but I never get that lucky.”
“Lucky,” he repeated. Considering how hard he worked to avoid the ghosts in his own life, he wasn’t sure he agreed with her evaluation. “Sounds fascinating in theory, but wouldn’t you be scared? Or aren’t you that kind of girl?” He added the last with a tease in his voice. Because he did like her. And it wasn’t her fault that she’d signed up for the deluxe Man-With-Issues package. And it really was time; he needed to start dating, not just fucking. He needed to slide back into the world.
“Scared? Oh, please.” She waved a hand as if to dismiss the idea. “I’m a lawyer, remember? That’s probably why I’ve never seen one. The ghosts run from me in terror.”
He laughed, and she grinned, her smile lighting up the darkened bar. For a moment their eyes met and a single thought entered his head—maybe.
“Would you like another?” He nodded to indicate her fruity cocktail. He’d finished his own drink—two shots of bourbon, straight up—and he didn’t really want another. But the air had become thick with potential, and he needed time to decide what to do about that. Dive in … or make an excuse and call it a night.
“Another drink sounds nice,” she said. “And more conversation sounds even better. But the acoustics in here are tricky, and I’m starting to think this chair might be haunted, after all. I’m pretty sure I’m going to disappear into this cushion and come out in some other dimension.”
Her eyes twinkled as she spoke, and he knew where she was going. What he still didn’t know was if he should follow her there.
“My suite’s just a few floors away,” she said. “Definitely quieter. It’s messy—I have depositions spread out all over the coffee table. But the couch is comfortable and there’s a wet bar that’s nicely stocked…”
She trailed off with a small shrug of invitation.
“And you don’t have anywhere to be tomorrow morning,” he pointed out, remembering what she’d said when they’d spoken that afternoon. Her case had settled during the lunch break when the plaintiff she’d been examining decided that he wasn’t feeling litigious after all. Suddenly, she not only had this night free, but most of tomorrow as well, since she’d been unable to change her evening flight back to Los Angeles.
“True,” she said, tugging her purse up to her lap as if in preparation to leave. “We can talk all night if you want. Or not talk,” she added boldly, as if he could have misinterpreted the direction of this conversation.
“There is a certain virtue in silence.” He kept his tone light. Flirtatious. But inside he was still debating.
Lyle’s voice seemed to fill his head. “I’m not saying you need to marry her. But put yourself out there. Interact with the world. Start breathing again, man. Trust me. It’s worth it.”
Of course, Lyle would think so. Like Noah, Lyle had closed himself off from anything resembling a real relationship. But that was before Sugar Laine walked into his life. Now, Lyle was the happiest that Noah had ever seen him, and Noah knew that had everything to do with Sugar.
Noah wasn’t Lyle, but maybe his friend was right. And, honestly, Noah had known for months—hell, maybe years—that it was time to move on. Time to stop with the quick and dirty encounters that did nothing to dull his pain.
Time to heal.
Somehow, though, he never found the enthusiasm. Or maybe that was just an excuse. Another way of punishing himself for walking away from the woman he loved in favor of the woman he’d owed.
And since he’d never have either of them again, he needed to kick his own ass, pick up the pieces of his life, and start building something real. After all, there wasn’t a tech gadget he couldn’t design, build, or repair. So why was he so clueless when it came to his own damn life?
It was time, and it would be easy. Painless even, because God knew Evie embodied everything he admired in a woman. Strength. Intelligence. Ambition. Humor. Beauty. She was as desirable as Lyle had promised and obviously enthusiastic.
In other words, he was all out of excuses.
He stood up, intending to tell her to lead the way. But the words that came out of his mouth shocked them both. “I’m sorry, Evie,” he said. “You’ve been wonderful, but I have an early meeting, and I should probably get home.”
“Oh.” He’d surprised her as she was rising, and now she teetered awkwardly on her heels, as if his unexpected words would physically topple her.
He reached out a hand to steady her, and for the briefest moment, he considered pulling her close and fighting his way past his hesitation. She was everything he should want in a woman—with the unfortunately insurmountable problem that she wasn’t what he wanted at all. Or, rather, she wasn’t who he wanted.
Goddamn his stupid, unrealistic fantasies.
And while he was at it, goddamn Kiki, too.
He was being an idiot and unfair, and he knew it. An idiot, because he’d made his choice to walk away from Kiki long ago, and he knew damn well that he’d shattered her in the process. Even if he could have seen his way clear to look her up after all these years, he’d forfeited his right to come crawling back.
Unfair, because not ten minutes ago he’d been ready to take the plunge with Evie, and yet here he was, dodging and shifting like a damn coward, trying to swim up out of the deep black ocean of loss and pain. A familiar pain that wrapped him like a blanket, so cloying it was almost comfortable. And he knew damn well that there was only one way to fight it—he needed to take the girl to her room and try to fuck the darkness out of him.
The way he’d done with countless other women.
The way that never worked like it should. That only dulled the sharp edges of his pain, but added no light to the darkness.
That wasn’t what he wanted. Not anymore. One of the reasons he’d moved to Austin was to heal, after all. To heal, and to break bad habits.
Still, it was tempting, and it took more strength than he expected to shake his head again and say very gently, “I really am sorry. I’m not … ready.” She’d been polite enough not to mention the tragedy in his past, but he was certain that Lyle must have at least told her that he’d lost his wife and daughter. Hopefully, that softened the blow of rejection.
She’d regained her footing, and now she stepped back, her forehead creased as her eyes flicked over him, expertly assessing him as she would a witness. “It’s been almost nine years, I’m told.” The sharp edge of her voice sliced his heart. So much for softening the blow. “If you don’t get ready soon, I can’t help but think you’re going to end up sad and alone.”
With a thin, sympathetic smile, she turned and walked away, leaving him to watch her go and wonder at her perceptiveness. Because she was right.
He was going to end up sad and alone.
Hell, he already was.
Built more or less in the shape of a rectangle, the hotel spanned most of a city block, with entrances on each of the three sides that abutted a street.
Usually when Noah grabbed a drink at The Driskill, he left through the bar entrance and emerged onto Seventh Street. From there, he could walk the partial block to Congress Avenue, the main downtown artery. He’d head south, checking his phone for messages and putting out fires as he maneuvered the short distance home. A few blocks before the river, he’d hook a right, enter his building through the Third Street entrance, and take the elevator up to the fifteenth floor and the studio he’d bought when he’d moved to Austin earlier in the year.
At the time, he’d considered getting a bigger place—God knew he could afford it—but what would be the point? He was rarely at home. His work was his life, just as it had been for years. And frankly, the only reason he ever bothered to come to the condo at all was because it disconcerted the janitorial staff when he slept on the couch in his office.
Besides, when he’d looked at the building, all the available larger condos had views of the Capital building. He preferred the smaller space and its stunning view of the river. Every morning he watched the walkers and joggers. The kayaks and paddleboats. The infinite shades of green that lined the river’s wide banks, then burst into color when the peach blossoms bloomed, shifting the usually green-tinted vista to a vivid pink.
It was vibrant. Alive.
He’d set up his desk in front of the window, and on weekends, he was training himself to work from home. He’d sit at the desk and draw schematics or scribble notes while he watched the activity below. Parents pushing strollers as they walked lazily down the paths. Children tottering on bicycles, obviously fresh out of training wheels. Joggers, determined to lose those extra five pounds. Lovers walking arm in arm, deep in conversation.
There was a never-ending stream of life fifteen stories below him. And the more Noah looked at it, the more he was starting to believe that maybe one day he could rejoin that current.
But not now. Not tonight.
Besides, it was dark. If he went home now, he’d only see the reflection of the moon on the still water. Beautiful, yes. But also surreal and far too lonely.
All of which was why he didn’t leave the hotel through the bar, as usual. Instead, he took the stairs down to The Driskill’s ornate lobby, then crossed over the marble floor to the main entrance. A doorman hurried to pull the heavy wood and glass door open for him, and a valet nodded speculatively, expecting a ticket. Noah shook his head to indicate that he had no car, then shoved his hands into his jacket pockets as he turned right and walked the short distance to the corner.
He’d learned that Austin rarely got too cold, but right now there was a definite chill in the air, which he relished. Although he’d lived most of his life in Southern California, he’d enjoyed his time in New York, especially the changing seasons, and it was nice to be able to pretend that Thanksgiving and Christmas might come with at least a drop in temperature, if not Autumn colors and snow.
He crossed the street at the corner, and then hesitated. Turn right, and he could be home in less than ten minutes. Turn left, and he’d invariably find himself in a bar, and the evening would end with him either alone and feeling sorry for himself, or with him in a hotel room, creeping out before dawn while a woman whose name he couldn’t remember slept soundly in a rented bed.
He turned left.
He had no specific intent, but he couldn’t bear the loneliness of his own studio. For a moment, he considered texting Evie. Apologizing. Asking if she wanted to meet at one of the nearby bars. He dismissed the idea, afraid that she’d say no. Or, worse, that she’d say yes.
Instead he just walked, pausing briefly in front of Maggie Mae’s, a local establishment that long-time Austinites told him had been a Sixth Street fixture for decades.
He considered going in, but he could hear the intense beat of the live music even from where he stood on the sidewalk. And when he peered through the windows, it was obvious that finding a seat would be damn near impossible, much less squeezing in to sidle up to the bar.
Some nights, it would be worth it, just to get lost in the rhythm of the music and drown out the noise in his head.
Tonight, he wanted to be able to hear his own thoughts, though he wasn’t sure why. He might have the skill and intellect to have turned the balance sheet of the new Austin division of Stark Applied Technology around in under a year, but outside the realm of business and tech, the inside of his head remained a morass of regret and longing and confusion.
Frankly, he was getting damn tired of it.
He continued until he reached The Fix on Sixth, another local staple. The drinks were excellent and the bar food put every other joint on the street to shame. He’d heard a few rumors that the place might close, though he had no idea why, and he hoped it wasn’t true. He liked the place, and the owner, Tyree, always remembered his name.
Tonight, The Fix looked to be in no danger of going out of business. Even on a Wednesday, he had to push his way through the crowd that clustered near a wooden stage bordered by two walls of windows that gave a view of the corner intersection and the pedestrians and cars humming about outside. There was no performer, not yet, but a man Noah recognized as one of the bartenders was adjusting the height of a microphone in front of a single metal stool.
On any other night, Noah might have stayed to listen. Right now, he wanted to escape the crowd.
He wound his way through the throng, passing the long bar that extended deep into the room as he made his way to the smaller—and blissfully quieter—bar area in the back.
From behind this secluded bar, Tyree waved a greeting. A large black man with broad shoulders and arms as thick as a woman’s thigh, he was often mistaken for the bouncer rather than the owner of The Fix. He was, however, more suited for the latter. Tyree had some of the kindest eyes that Noah had ever seen, and an easygoing manner that wasn’t suited for tossing rowdy patrons out on their asses.
“What’s your poison, Noah?” he asked after passing something fruity to one of two college girls sitting at the bar. Their blonde heads were bent close together, and Noah could almost make out words as they alternated whispers with stolen glances at the second bartender behind the rail, who seemed unaware of them as he expertly mixed the Manhattan that Noah had requested.
“Are you new?” Noah asked. “You look familiar, but I’m not sure why.”
“I’ve been here a few months,” he said, wiping his hands on a bar rag. “But I just started working a regular night shift yesterday. Before, I filled in at night or covered lunch. I’m Cam, by the way.”
“Cam’s a grad student at UT,” Tyree explained as Noah frowned, still trying to place him. He studied the guy’s face—young, but not naive, with intelligent blue-gray eyes, dark brown hair, and a single earring—and tried to remember where he’d seen it before.
He shook his head, still pulling a blank. “What are you studying?” Maybe that would jar his memory. Noah was certain he’d met the guy before, and his inability to place the kid was bothering him more than it should.
If Cam answered, though, Noah didn’t hear it, because at that moment, there was a lull in the din filtering in from the front room, then a smattering of applause before a male voice announced that there was a pre-show surprise. A local performer he hoped they enjoyed.
Noah tuned it out. When he was younger, he’d loved live music. Now, it just brought back unwelcome memories.
He glanced at Tyree. “I didn’t think you brought bands in on Wednesdays.”
“Usually don’t. This one’s getting quite a local following, though, and they leave soon on a three-state tour. The lead singer asked if they could do a farewell performance.” A wide grin lit his face. “Honestly, I think he mostly wanted his girlfriend to have the chance to try out her new song on a live audience. She’s not part of the band, but she’s got chops.”
“She’s not his—” Cam began, but Noah wasn’t listening anymore. Because the voice from the front room had reached him, low and clear and hauntingly familiar.
It couldn’t be. Could it?
He stood, then moved to the doorway that separated the two areas. He squeezed in between patrons knotted in tight groups, the words seeming to pull him closer even as the voice made him want to draw away.
“…and when I’m feeling blue, I always circle back to you…”
He didn’t hear anymore. How could he now that he was looking at her? Now that the wild roar of emotion and memory was filling his head?
Now that he was staring at the woman he’d loved.
The woman he’d destroyed.
And the woman whose voice was even now tearing his heart into pieces.