Sheltered by an overprotective family, Amy Sager—a shy twenty something poet from Canada—just wanted to break out of her shell and be free to live her own life. What better way to assert her newfound independence than by moving to San Francisco? However, when she meets a tall, blood-drenched stranger she gets more than she bargained for. Jackie is everything she should never want. Violence, lies, and even murder taint this strange man, but she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him…like a moth to flame. When their relationship strains her loyalty and his livelihood, it isn't long before violence consumes her independence and Amy’s quest for freedom turns into just another story of a good girl caught on the wrong side of the tracks, too far gone to turn back.
He smells like blood. The scent clashes with the harsh aroma of sesame seed oil, coffee, and chai tea, burning the inside of my nostrils. I find myself sniffing deeper without meaning to, breathing him in—though I don’t dare look up from the book lying open on my lap, and I never stop reading aloud. “These violent delights have violent ends...” My voice trails off as my grip on the page slips, accidentally smudging a neat row of printed font. Just like that, Shakespeare becomes a black stain on my sweat-soaked fingers, and I can’t stop thinking the same thing over and over again. It has to be a lot of blood. The smell churns my stomach. I have to breathe in through my mouth, which doesn’t really help me escape the other flavors wafting from his corner. Smoke. Not exactly like that from a cigarette…it’s more pungent than that. Acrid—as if someone dumped lit charcoal on my tongue, and I’m instantly reminded of the time Rory took me to his precinct’s gun range in some misguided attempt to help me “break out of my shell.” I will always remember that sound. The weight of the weapon in the palm of my hand. The smell that filled my lungs the moment I’d pulled the trigger. The man watching me from the back of the semi-crowded restaurant smells like blood. He tastes like gun smoke. He has eyes like midnight that watch impatiently as I fidget beneath the spotlight. “And in their triumph die.” Scattered applause erupts from the audience, but it’s noticeably halfhearted. Rather than read one of my own poems, I’d recited a classic: the ultimate cop-out. Boo. Hiss. Snore. On another night, I’d die of embarrassment and swear to try harder next time. Tonight, I’m shaking for an entirely different reason as I scramble up from the stool and make my way off stage. May, the host of tonight’s impromptu poetry night, smiles at me. I try my best to smile back, but I can’t quite make my lips move when my eyes are too busy drifting in the opposite direction. To him. His hands are hidden within the pockets of a black leather jacket, which shields most of his muscular frame. He’s also wearing a normal pair of jeans, but they seem abnormally coated in dark splotches. They catch my eye and send my brain scrambling to come up with a logical explanation. The result of the earlier rainstorm? Or the cause of that fucking smell? Breathe. The silent command helps. I suck in air and blow it out as I make my way through the narrow dining room while someone else takes the vacated stage. Her poem is original, and she recites each word clearly, displaying a distinct flow—though I only hear the opening line: “Life is but a series of cruel intentions…” It’s still enough to resonate inside me, more deeply than Shakespeare’s words ever could as I shove my tattered copy of Romeo and Juliet into my bag. Life is a series of cruel intentions. Some inflicted by others. Some we inflict upon ourselves. Like the way I take the time to button up my coat before palming the brass handle of the main door. For a moment, it’s almost like I’m a normal woman preparing for a normal walk home from a night of humiliating herself for the umpteenth time. A normal woman who isn’t counting the heavy, abnormal footsteps following in her wake. One. Two. Ten. Fifty. It’s like my shadow has substance, matching me step for step with every inch that I travel toward my apartment. Some nights, it’s easier to pretend that the sounds are just from the many other commuters heading home—I’m not the only person in the world, after all. If I try hard enough at make-believe, I can imagine that there is no specter who creeps closer once my apartment building comes into view. Neither is there any suspiciously warm air ghosting the back of my neck. Nor is there a hand that shoots out the moment I reach for the battered door to my building, pinning it in place. “Will you let me in tonight?” The voice is gruff—male—and the name he calls me isn’t in English. On his tongue, it sounds like “woo deep moie.” Butterfly girl. Altogether, it’s such a cheesy line that I choke on something that could have been a laugh in another setting. Tonight, however, when paired with the blood—God, I can taste it now that he’s this close—the words take on a bitter edge. There’s a challenge hidden in his tone. A challenge that’s always there, no matter how many times we play out the same scenario. “Have you wised up, Amy?” I mull that question over. It’s late, and it’s quiet enough to hear the sounds that drift through the paper-thin walls of the building. Someone coughs. A woman laughs. A television blares. My fingers tremble as they clutch my canvas messenger bag, and I shift it to my other shoulder in an attempt to hide the nerves. “You’re afraid,” he deduces, each word heating the back of my neck like the blast from a furnace. “You’re bleeding,” I counter, lowering my voice to a whisper. Drip. Drip. I swear I can hear each telltale drop hitting the pavement while a familiar urgency shakes me to the core. Let him in, damn it! For some reason, it’s so much harder this time to wrestle one of my hands from my side and use it to swat his away. As he withdraws, I curl my grip around the metal handle and pull the door open, revealing a narrow hallway, painted gray. “Come in.” I choke out the words, but he’s already on my heels, driving me up the three flights of stairs to my flat. The hallway is empty this time of night, thank God, but I can’t escape this insane feeling that a million pairs of eyes are on me at once. Peeping through the cracks beneath the doors. Lurking behind the bars that shield the scattered windows in the hallway. Crouching underneath the ratty staircase. Our invisible audience watches me race for the green door with the peeling paint and fish my keys from the side pocket of my bag. “Come in,” I repeat, though he’s already at my back, shoving me inside the moment I fit the key in the right slot. “Sake,” he gasps out while staggering to the armchair in the corner of my living room. For the first time, I turn to look at him. Really look. He stands out from the shadow like a twisted Ying Yang symbol—just pale skin, marred by countless obsidian swirls that blend in with the darkness. Black hair falls messily across his face, obscuring most of it, but his eyes shine through, and they are darker than anything else in existence. Pure black. They meet my own as he snaps his fingers twice. “Get the sake.” His words come slower this time, betraying the accent he typically works hard to disguise. “Hurry up.” “Um…” The nervous sound tears from my throat before I can help it, as I turn to the cramped corner that doesn’t deserve to be listed as a “full kitchenette.” My fingers tremble even more as I push open the cupboard underneath the sink and reach for the shoebox tucked beneath the snaking pipes. I feel a stupid sense of guilt when I settle the box on the counter and pry off the lid. Stay away from alcohol, Amy, Dad always warned. The stuff will bring you nothing but trouble. Just ask your mother. Inside the shoebox, two green bottles clink together like the sound of my promise breaking. “Does it matter which one?” I choke out. The black characters printed on each gray label differ slightly. From across the room, he laughs darkly under his breath. “Whichever one looks more dangerous.” I settle on the bottle that has an extra character drawn in—just a single black line. Then I swipe a random cup from the cupboard above the sink and turn to him while wrestling off the cap of the bottle. Carefully, I pour a hefty amount into what I’m mortified to discover is a Minnie Mouse mug from a trip to Disneyland ten years ago. “More,” he commands, and I quickly tip the bottle again, filling the mug nearly halfway. “Show me it,” I urge the moment I come close enough. I steel myself by setting the bottle and mug down on my coffee table, next to my worn volume of Emily Dickinson’s My Letter to the World and Other Poems. With my eyes on the gray cover, I acknowledge the hiss of him shedding his coat, followed almost immediately by the sound of more droplets of moisture striking the floor. Some of it rain. Some of it not. I take my time looking up again and observe him from beneath my eyelashes. His legs seem uninjured, at least; his jeans cling to the muscle around his upper thighs, enhancing the strength he exudes even while sitting. Near his right pocket gleams a dark black stain that I choose to assume is grease. By the time I reach the white shirt shielding his upper body, that fragile illusion shatters. It’s speckled with red. The color is so vibrant in some places that it almost looks deliberate: ruby colored tie-dye. I notice the wound then—a cleanly cut slash surrounded by the darkest splotches of red. It’s just underneath his collarbone on the left side of his chest. “Knife?” I wonder, the back of my throat tight. He nods just once and meets my gaze, those impossible eyes searing me from the inside out. “Knife.” I inhale sharply, surprised by how little my fingers shake. “I’ll get the kit.” He nods and shifts to a more comfortable position, spreading his legs apart and bracing both hands on the armrests of the chair. I can tell from the way he stiffens that he’s aware of just how much blood he’s losing. A muscle in his jaw twitches as he clenches his teeth and sits forward slightly, trying his damnedest not to get any on the chair’s peach-colored upholstery. The misplaced concern makes something inside me ache. “How many do you think you’ll need this time?” I call as I drift over to the hall closet beside the front door. The calm is all forced. Only God knows how deep the wound is. Just how close the knife had come to striking his heart. Just how much time he has left if I don’t get him closed up fast enough. He chuckles again, the sound raising goosebumps over my skin. “As many as my ‘butterfly’ thinks are necessary—” He breaks off for a suspiciously wet cough that I struggle to ignore. Focus. Tucked on the shelf, above a row of hanging sweaters, is a bright pink Hello Kitty lunchbox. I carefully pull it down and carry it by the handle over to the armchair. “It’s gonna hurt,” I warn as I flick back the lid, revealing a disgusting array of pink thread and a pincushion shaped like a rubber duck. I had never been so ashamed of my own naivety before him. I used to be just Amy Sager: the woman who wore bulky sweaters, knitted in her free time, and liked to attend poetry readings at ten o’clock at night—even though she rarely gathered up the nerve to read her own work. “You promised that I’d hear my poem tonight,” he scolds as if reading my mind. I shrug and ease a needle from the pincushion. “That’s not really important at the moment…” From the corner of my eye, I see him nod just once. “Hand me the drink.” Up this close, his voice resonates in my bones. So deep and yet so soft at the same time. It’s the kind of voice that could easily get on stage and recite that cliché line from Romeo and Juliet but earn a standing ovation doing it. Obediently, I set aside the kit to pass him the Minnie Mouse mug brimming with alcohol. He throws his head back, but when he hands me the mug again, I’m surprised by how little he actually drank. “For you,” he says in a tone that warns me not to argue. However, his eyes are playful, peeking from beneath a damp fringe of black hair. “Your hands shook so badly the last time. I need them steady.” My cheeks heat up at the memory of the mangled scar on his left inner thigh. Without a word I accept the mug and tip it back. God, that stuff burns. I struggle to choke down a sip. Then another while he watches. His hands—steady despite the way he winces at every movement of his arm—are there to ease the mug away. He’s not laughing now as I fish a strip of colored thread from the bottom of my kit and try to eye how much length I’ll need while he strips off his shirt. In an instant, I know why he wanted my hands steady. The knife pierced him right along the edge of the ornate collage of black ink that forms the wings of a massive dragon tattoo, which I know spans the length of his back. There will be a scar—he won’t be able to help it—but a somewhat neat job might salvage the overall effect. An artist to the end, he is. I’m amused by that facet of him even as my mind races with the questions I don’t dare ask. Who, this time? How? Why? Where? My city—once calm on the surface to my woefully sheltered self—is now a smoldering volcano, spitting up white-hot bits of magma. He’s just a small piece of it, searing me alive while I prime the eye of a needle with hot pink thread. I’d learned in the past few weeks that regular sewing needles aren’t the best for stitching flesh when the blood makes everything slippery. Thinner, quilting needles work a little better, along with a sturdy gauge of thread that won’t tear under strain. Nana sure would be proud that I am using the skills she taught me, solely to decorate throw pillows in mutated images of cats, for this. Small stitches, Amy. I can almost hear her correct me as I tie off the thread with a secure knot. “Take your time. There’s nothing worse than getting a tangle in the thread and having to start all over…” I inhale sharply when I turn back to him and eye the ink painting his beautifully sculpted chest. The gash is bleeding in the center of it. His eyes are on my fingers. They reflect a sense of trust that blows my mind with the same intensity with which he’s blown the rest of my life apart. Biting my lip, I reach for his discarded shirt and use the edge of it to wipe away most of the blood. “Sorry,” I apologize in advance before I wad the fabric up and press it to the gash with as much force as I can muster. He grits his teeth. Sucks in a breath. Swears. Whatever he says is in Cantonese, but I catch the gist after months of having him spoon-feed me terms. “Sorry, sorry,” I say again—a side effect of the Canadian blood in me. Most Americans can’t seem to stand that much remorsefulness. But he isn’t American, and in his world there is no such thing as an apology. No concept like regret. Regardless, his gaze burns deep into my own as I continue to hold the pressure for exactly ten more seconds. The moment I let up, he grabs the bottle of sake and lets half of it pour into the wound and run right down his front, pooling in his lap. I reach for my threaded needle and he sucks in another breath, his fingers clutching the armrests on either side of him. Before I start, he nods to his right knee with an authority I can’t resist. I want you here. I carefully perch myself on his lap and settle against his chest while I prepare myself. Then I try to prepare him, even though he doesn’t need my reassurance. “Easy does it.” The words come out in a rush as I pinch as much of the skin closed as I can with two fingers and then go in with my needle. Stitch. Stitch. Inhale. It’s a simple routine that gets me through the worst of it—his smothered grunts of pain, a few more muttered curses. Halfway through, though, I have to stop—leaving the needle dangling from a strip of bloody thread—to snatch the Minnie Mouse mug from the floor. My grip slides so much that I have to prop the edge of the mug on the crook of my opposite elbow just to take a sip. I set it down empty, my eyes streaming and throat burning. With a steady inhale, I turn away from the scarlet smeared over Minnie’s smiling visage and then get back to it. His blood paints me all over by the time I finally tie off the final stitch. The job is as neat as can be expected. I’m almost proud of myself, considering the room is starting to blur and the delicious burn of alcohol leaches through my skin. It’s almost enough to counter the fear, and I notice just how handsome the man sporting the bloody wound actually is, with a stern jaw, perfect mouth, and mocking smile. His eyes are the most beautiful of all—obsidian set within a porcelain face. He leans forward before I can react and swipes his tongue along my bottom lip as if stealing the last drops of sake away for himself. My already racing heartbeat doubles. The scent of blood dissipates, and I start to smell him underneath: the rich aroma of coconut and spice and a million other nuances I will never truly uncover. I wish I was brave enough to swipe him back, but I can only turn away to fish a packet of alcohol wipes from the kit. I carefully clean the blood off the needle and then stab it into the pincushion. Next, I attack my hands while he watches. He doesn’t say a single word while I do my best to wipe away his blood. Instead, he shifts against the back of the chair, cradling my body with his. His heat seeps through my sweater. My body reacts, tensing…tightening up. I shudder when his fingers find that groove at the nape of my neck and he teases it with his thumb, absently stroking a path down to my shoulder. “Ten,” he declares after glancing down at the row of stitches holding his wound together. His voice is steady again, the accent firmly under control. “You did good, butterfly.” I suck in air and consider the words I want to say next. “Thanks,” I blurt on a sigh, rather than ask one of the many unspoken questions hanging between us. Why do you smell like gun smoke? Instead, I rest my head on his shoulder and just breathe him in. For four beautiful minutes he lets me almost forget why he’s here. What this means. But then he shifts, and I feel a sense of dread knowing what will happen next. Sighing, I watch as he gingerly reaches into his pocket and withdraws a plastic sandwich baggie that contains a single white pill. “Open.” I obey without question. With painful slowness, he plucks out the pill between two of his fingers and places it on the tip of my tongue. “Swallow.” I do, and even though it’s too soon for the narcotic to have any effect, my eyelids feel heavy and the aftereffects of the sake lull me into a heavy sense of calm that makes it easier to curl up on his lap, ignoring the blood and the fact that I will need to buy yet another cover for my armchair. He whispers Cantonese to me as my eyes fall shut, and I feel myself drift off.
About Lana Sky
Lana Sky is a reclusive writer in the United States who spends most of her time daydreaming about complex male characters and legless cats. She writes mostly paranormal romance, in between watching reruns of Ab Fab and drinking iced tea. Only iced tea.