EXCERPT: Noble Prince - Author Devney Perry

10/04/2020

EXCERPT: Noble Prince

CHAPTER 1

Scarlett

I loved you.

I jolted awake, sitting up with a gasp as I clutched my racing heart. It boomed inside my chest as loudly as a gun’s blast in my mind.

A nightmare. Just a nightmare. Were they nightmares when they attacked during the day? I rubbed my eyes, then looked around the room.

The vinyl blinds over the filmy windows weren’t the right size for the frame and daylight escaped their edges, streaming onto the bedspread beneath me.

Pink, purple and white daisies dotted the canary-yellow fabric on the quilt, sheets and matching pillowcases. The print had likely been chosen for its attempt at cheer—and to hide the sad state of this room. Except every daisy in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that I was trapped. Every pastel in the rainbow couldn’t camouflage the reality of my situation.

My life was a series of hells and I kept trading one for another.

I stood from the bed, closing my eyes at the first dizzying step. My head pounded from the lack of sleep, food and water. But I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. And sleep was fraught with gruesome images I didn’t have the energy to relive, so I’d forced myself to stay awake the past ten nights. I’d sat in the living room with the cop assigned to Scarlett duty and stared at the wall.

Napping during the day was dangerous too, but after dark, the nightmare felt more real. Probably because it wasn’t actually a dream. It was a memory my mind kept pulling up over and over. Blood. Death. Fear. It was more terrifying than any horror movie.

Reality had a way of trumping our imaginations.

The stench from a pizza my current babysitter had brought over for lunch wafted through the large crack under the door. Bile rose from my stomach, but I swallowed it down and shuffled to the adjoining bathroom, cringing at the mirror’s reflection.

I look like shit.

Worse than shit. My skin was tinged with gray. The circles under my eyes were so deep and purple they could have passed for bruises. My cheeks and lips had lost nearly all their natural pink flush.

I needed food. I needed rest. I needed the hideous dream that found me whenever I succumbed to my exhaustion to disappear. I needed . . . the list was so long it would take hours to recite, but it all came down to this—I needed out. After nearly a year of treading in a sea of my own mistakes, I was close to drowning.

It was time to start making my way to shore.

I splashed some water onto my cheeks, washing away the sheen of sweat from the nightmare. Then I buried my face in the one and only hand towel. The terry cloth was embroidered at the hem with more goddamn daisies.

Tossing the towel aside, I leaned in closer to the mirror, inspecting my lower lip. The split had almost healed. My tongue darted out, feeling the slight rise where it had been. Eventually, the faint mark would fade, but not the memory. I could recall with absolute clarity how I’d gotten every bruise, every cut and every scar.

Jeremiah might be dead, but I’d always remember him hitting me hard enough to split my lip.

And for that, he could rot in his own hell.

I pushed thoughts of Jeremiah away and walked out of the bathroom to tug on a sweatshirt. It was part of three outfits I owned, and I preferred this matching set above the others only because my sister had given it to me. Somehow, knowing that these were her clothes made it easier to forget that I’d been wearing them the night Jeremiah had died.

These sweats were the only link I had to Presley at the moment. And my shoes.

I’d taken to sleeping with my sneakers on at this house. It would be easier to run if I was wearing tennis shoes, not that I had anywhere to go. I was stuck.

The bedroom itself was sparse, having only a bed and a wobbly end table. The rest of the place was more of the same, the few pieces of furniture staged for function, not comfort, in this dump of a house.

My home for the foreseeable future.

My prison.

And it was all Jeremiah’s fault. That son of a bitch. I’d met his mother. The sentiment was true. If not for the anger and resentment, I’d be numb, so for now, I clung to my rage, letting it fuel me forward when sleep deprivation and starvation threatened to bring me to my knees. I’d survived enough, and a shoebox-sized house in Clifton Forge, Montana, was not the thing that would push me over the edge. Neither was Jeremiah.

He didn’t get to fuck up my life, hit me, then kill himself, leaving me with the nightmares. He didn’t get to be the one who broke me.

I loved you.

That’s what he’d said before the bullet tore through his skull. I loved you. Bullshit.

My father had told me he loved me. He’d told my sister. He’d told my mother. Then he’d beat us under the guise of that love. Was there a man on earth who actually knew what it was to love a woman?

Jeremiah had claimed those three little words but they’d been as empty as his promises for the future. If he’d actually loved me, he wouldn’t have kept me in that clubhouse. He wouldn’t have hit me, hurt my sister and left me to suffer the consequences of his lies.

If he’d actually loved me, he would have let me go.

I flung open the door to the bedroom and the smell of garlic and cheese slapped me in the face, making me gag. Sucking in breaths through my mouth, I walked down the hallway toward the front of the house.

The officer on duty was in the living room, sitting in one of two overstuffed recliners. He’d taken the nicest of the pair, his attention fixed on his phone.

I passed him for the kitchen, my shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor.

“Have a nice nap?” he asked as I opened a cupboard.

“Yeah,” I lied, taking out a glass and filling it from the tap. When I’d been brought to this safe house, the water had run orange from the faucets and even after ten days of use, it still had a rusty tinge and taste.

But I drank it regardless, then went to the other chair, plopping down and letting the spring in the back dig into my spine. I hated the brown upholstery nearly as much as I hated the daisies. Though neither could beat my absolute abhorrence of this house.

There wasn’t even a television. The cop who’d been here with me last night had brought a deck of cards and a cribbage board, so the two of us had played for hours. But the cops assigned during the day never seemed to think of something to do to pass the time. They had their phones, their connection to the outside world.

While I was trapped. Never alone. Always alone.

Today’s officer was young, his dark hair combed neatly at a harsh part above his right eyebrow. He had a pimple on his chin and his navy uniform—a starched, long-sleeve shirt and matching slacks—looked like they’d been washed less than five times. His badge was too shiny and his gun too new. But for today, he was my protector. One of three cops per day who’d come to stay here with me and keep me safe.

“What’s your name again?” I asked. They’d all started to blur together.

He tore his eyes from his phone and gave me a tight smile. “Nathan.”

“Nathan,” I repeated and tapped my temple. Nathan, the pepperoni, sausage and garlic fiend. I’d remember him now.

The air currents from the heating vents sent a waft of pizza smell from the box still on the kitchen counter. Nathan must have left it out for me, thinking I’d be hungry. Thanks, but no thanks. One slice and garlic would be seeping through my pores for a week. Every few minutes, I stifled another gag, until the need for fresh air drove me from my seat.

I passed the collapsible card table and folding chairs in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen and walked to the back door. Nathan didn’t even notice where I was headed until the slider scraped on its track.

“Hey.” He shot out of his chair. “What are you doing?”

“Just getting some air.” Before the stench made me dry heave. Pizza had never been my favorite food and after today, I’d be avoiding it for good.

Nathan hesitated, his gaze flicking up and down my body twice as he sized me up.

What he saw was a skinny, frail woman who looked like she was about to topple over from the emotional weight bearing down on her bony shoulders. A woman who’d fought her entire life and was running out of punches.

“It’s only the backyard,” I said, giving him my best version of a tired smile. “No one can see me if I stay inside the fence.”

Just let me go outside. Please. I was suffocating in here, not just from the smell, but from the drab walls, reminding me with their ugly beige that the past year had been nothing but poor choice after poor choice. That I was here because of my own selfish decisions.

“Please,” I whispered. “Five minutes.”

Finally, he nodded. “Stay close.”

I slipped through the door before he could change his mind.

The sky was covered in clouds, muting the light, but I lifted a hand to my face to shield my eyes. Then I pulled in a deep breath of the winter air and held it in my lungs. It had been ten days since I’d stood outside. Ten days that had felt like a lifetime.

Snowflakes drifted to the ground, dusting the empty yard with a fresh layer of white. The top of the tall fence had tufts on each picket, and like the inside of the house, the yard was nearly barren. Only one shrub grew in a corner, its branches barely wide enough to catch the snow. Otherwise, the yard was empty, square and flat.

To my left, the top of a swing set peeked over the fence in the yard next door. To the right sat a playhouse, the opening of its yellow tube slide gaping at me. These were family homes. Did the neighbors wonder what happened at this house? Did they wonder why it was so quiet and lifeless? Or why, three times daily, one police officer left as another arrived?

The cop on shift never parked here. He was always dropped off in another car, the same one that picked up the officer leaving. While yesterday’s babysitter had been in the bathroom, I’d peeked through the front window. The driveway hadn’t been shoveled and a red truck sat parked in front of the garage, covered in snow. Besides the path of footprints leading from the street to the front door, this house appeared abandoned.

The neighbors likely thought this was a sad, pathetic house and so was the person who lived inside its walls. They weren’t wrong. I was as miserable and lonely and pitiful as this dismal house. My walls were crumbling down and when all that remained was a heap of bones and flesh, there’d be no one to mourn the desolation.

Not even Presley.

And I have myself to blame.

I took one step into the yard and glanced over my shoulder. Was Nathan watching me? No, he had returned to his chair and his phone. I took another step and the fluffy snow under my shoe gave way to the icy crunch beneath.

Two steps became fifteen and when I reached the gate that led to the alley, I brushed my fingers along the frozen latch and flicked it open. I cast one more glance at the door.

Screw this place.

If what waited for me outside this fence was just another prison, at least it would be one of my choosing.

I pushed through the gate, relishing the rush of adrenaline that spread through my veins as my foot stepped into the alley behind the house. It was trash day and large green bins dotted the narrow lane. They were all empty and askew from when the garbage truck had come through earlier. I picked the largest tire rut in the snow and started walking, my legs warming instantly despite the cold.

Presley’s clothes were baggy on my thin frame, and I burrowed into the olive-green sweatshirt, pulling the hood over my hair, which hung limp past my shoulders. The ends dangling to my waist were a year overdue for a trim. My sweatpants were cinched tight and rolled at the band in an effort to keep them from falling off my protruding hip bones.

The frigid air bit at my cheeks as I walked but there wasn’t a breath of wind. The snow floated as it fell, blanketing the world and cloaking me in its peace.

Clifton Forge, Montana.

This town had been my sister’s choice. Presley had wanted a life in a small, sleepy town, and though I’d spent little time here, I’d say she’d definitely found one. With the mountains looming in the distance, there was a pretty view every direction you turned. But what I suspected Pres loved most was the community.

I’d come here once, last summer—well before my twin sister had even known I was in Montana. The few places I’d stopped, I’d been hounded by strange looks as people tried to place the familiarity of a face so much like one of their own. If not for my long, blond hair versus Presley’s short, stylish cut, the two of us were nearly as identical now as we had been as toddlers.

Maybe if Presley had told people she had a twin, they would have put it together sooner. But from what I could tell, I was a surprise to everyone, even those closest to her. Not that I faulted her for turning me into a secret. I would have forgotten about me too.

She’d come here to start over, to build her own life, and though a part of me envied that she’d done it with such incredible success, mostly, I was happy that she’d found a home. A family.

They sure as hell treated her better than her real family ever had, me especially.

At the end of the alley, I turned, wanting to get out of view in case Nathan came looking. The sidewalks had been plowed but fresh snow covered the concrete and my footprints marked my path.

I turned again, winding through the neighborhood and past quiet homes. Not a car or truck passed me as I walked, probably because people were at work. It was a workday, right? Friday? I’d begun to lose track in the blur of sleepless nights and hazy days.

Block after block, I trudged, relishing the burn in my legs, until finally, I spotted a busier road ahead. I aimed my feet toward the bustle, picking up my pace as my stomach growled.

I was hungry. For the first time in days, I was hungry. A smile tugged at my mouth. I should have ditched that safe house last week.

There were 179 dollars in my pocket. Like my shoes, I kept the cash with me always. It was all I had left of the money my mother had given me the day I’d escaped Chicago, and I’d kept it close ever since, in a pocket or tucked into a shoe.

After I’d caught Jeremiah trying to steal it from my purse, I’d started hiding it. That should have been my first clue he was no longer the boy from my youth. But even with the missing twenty-dollar bills, the strange disappearances at night, the paranoid behavior and the lack of affection, I hadn’t realized just how far he’d fallen.

How far we’d fallen.

When I reached a busy intersection, I looked up and down, past the traffic, in search of a restaurant or coffee shop. A grocery store caught my eye.

I crossed the street, keeping my head down as I hurried. The smell of fried chicken greeted me in the store’s parking lot and my mouth watered. I dusted off my sweats, damp from the snow, and pulled off my hood. I combed my fingers through my hair and parted it in the middle, creating a frame to hide most of my face. My reflection in the store’s sliding doors showed a flush in my cheeks from the cold air.

Well, looking like a drowned rat is better than a corpse.

A blast of heat hit me as I entered and took a black basket from the stack inside the double doors. Then I followed my nose to the deli.

The woman behind the counter pasted on a smile, though her gaze was wary as she scanned me from the waist up. If I were in her hair net, I’d stare wide-eyed too. Nine months of living in a motorcycle club’s compound hadn’t done much for my looks.

“What can I get for you?” she asked.

“I’ll have the lunch special, please.” I pointed to the menu, where they had chicken and steak fries for five dollars. “Two piece.”

She nodded and went about preparing the meal, putting it into a white to-go container. Then she slapped the price sticker over the latch and handed it over.

“Thanks.” I didn’t linger and made my way through the produce section, palming an apple for my basket. Then I found the dairy aisle, getting a small bottle of chocolate milk.

My stomach growled with every step as I wandered up and down the aisles, shopping by my hunger pangs. I added a jar of pickles and a package of Hawaiian rolls, the sweet ones Presley and I had begged our mother to get whenever she’d let us go to the store as kids.

Mom would buy them in cash so they wouldn’t show up on the receipt Dad would pore over after work. Dad didn’t like sweet rolls. He didn’t like Mom spending his money on anything he deemed unnecessary.

So she would buy them with the small allowance he granted her each week. Dad thought she used that twenty-dollar bill for lattes on the way to drop us off at school when really, Mom spent it on us. Lollipops or slushies. An ice cream cone or a Hawaiian roll. Presley and I would scarf our treats down in the car and agree without hesitation when she’d make us promise to eat a good dinner so Dad wouldn’t suspect that we’d snacked.

I missed my mother.

I missed my sister.

Presley was here, somewhere in Clifton Forge. And though I had a phone in my pocket—the third item I kept on me at all times—I wasn’t ready to call her yet. First, I had to eat something and regain my strength.

Because I’d need it.

I had one hell of an apology to make.

For ruining her wedding. For bringing death to her doorstep. For not returning one of the many texts she’d sent me in the past ten years.

For hating her strength. For being jealous that she’d been courageous enough to leave. For blaming her when I’d been the coward, too scared to make the leap.

Another long list. I only hoped she’d be able to forgive me.

My trip through the store came to a halt in the cookie section. I was debating between the chocolate cream and fudge swirl cookies when footsteps thudded down the aisle. I ignored them, assuming it was another customer in search of sugar, and put both packages of cookies in my basket.

I turned from the shelves, ready to check out, and ran into a solid wall.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Cringing at the familiar, gravelly voice, I lifted my gaze. It traveled up the broad chest I’d crashed into, past a square, clean-shaven jaw, to a pair of the deepest blue eyes I’d ever seen.

Luke’s eyebrows were pulled together above the bridge of a straight nose that cleaved his face in two. I’d noticed the symmetry of his features ten days ago, when he’d sat me down in his office and questioned me about Jeremiah.

It had been easier to study the handsome Clifton Forge chief of police than relive the horrors I’d seen just hours before.

His dark brown hair was short and clean cut. He stood with a proud, authoritative posture, his strong shoulders pulled back and his hands fisted on narrow hips.

“I asked you a question,” he clipped.

I hefted the basket hanging from my elbow. “Shopping.”

“You’re in protective custody.”

“Am I?” I dared, then made the move to sidestep him and head to the register. The basket was heavy and I wasn’t exactly at my best today.

But Luke moved in tandem, blocking my path. “I got a call from Nathan that you ran.”

“Walked. I walked.” Right out the back door.

His jaw clenched as he glared down at me from his towering height. He stood inches over six feet and I was getting a cramp in my neck trying to hold his scowl. Even irritated, he was handsome.

I hadn’t seen Luke since he’d deposited me at the safe house. The night Jeremiah had committed suicide in my sister’s house.

After the gunshot, a strange man had hauled me out of my sister’s house. I’d fought hard, kicking and screaming as I attempted to rush to Jeremiah’s body, but he’d dragged me from the scene. Call it shock or insanity, but I’d thought if I could just touch Jeremiah, I could put the pieces back together. I could erase the bullet’s path and rewind time.

Except the man who’d had me had been too strong and had hauled me outside into the freezing March night. Then Luke had appeared. He’d stood before me, much like he was now, and had given me something other than blood to focus on.

His gorgeous face.

He’d taken me to his truck, put me in the passenger seat and cranked up the heat. Then he’d told me to sit tight and wait. Maybe I should have run for it that night, but much like today, I had nowhere to go.

After Luke had done whatever cops do after an armed man holds two women hostage before taking his own life, he’d driven me to the police station, where he’d taken me to his office and asked me a sequence of questions.

I hadn’t answered a single one. Instead, I’d noticed how his eyes had a ring so dark around the edge it was like the graphite tip of a freshly sharpened pencil. I’d studied the shape of his mouth, stern and serious, and wondered what it would look like with a smile. I’d concentrated on the bob of his Adam’s apple whenever he swallowed.

I’d studied Luke and ignored his questions until he’d given up and gone in search of answers from someone else.

Presley must have enlightened him as to all that had happened with Jeremiah, because after two hours alone in his office, he’d returned and told me it was unsafe for me to be in public. That my life was in danger and he was putting me into protective custody.

That was the moment his words had registered and I’d stopped studying his face.

I’d gone along with it, too fatigued and shaken to argue. But that was ten days ago. Things were different now. Yes, I was still wearied, but the shock of all that had happened in the past nine months was fading. And I’d rather take my chances than waste my days staring at a beige wall.

“Do you mind?” I pointed down the aisle. “I’m hungry and would like to check out.”

He glowered and stood to his tallest. “Give me the basket.”

Maybe another woman would have caved, but there was nothing truly fearsome about Luke Rosen. I knew exactly what frightening men looked like, and it certainly wasn’t him.

“I’m good.” I took another step, but he blocked me again. “Seriously, do you mind? I want to eat and then I’m going to go find my sister.”

“You’re going back to the safe house and I’m locking you inside.”

Rage surged in my chest. “No.”

“Let’s go before someone sees you.” Luke reached for the basket and I yanked it away with a feral snarl. “Scarlett, I will haul you out of here if I have to.”

I tried to sidestep him again, but damn it, those long legs of his were a lot faster than mine. “Move.”

“Give me the basket.”

“Move!” The sleepless nights and the hysteria were catching up to me and the outburst came out as a wailing shriek. It came from the woman who’d been trapped for far too long.

Luke’s eyes darted above my head. A couple stood at the end of the aisle, their cart immobile as they stared.

“Goddamn it, Scarlett,” Luke said, lowering his voice. “Just put the basket down so we can get out of here. You’re drawing attention to yourself.”

And I did not care. Not at all.

“If you’re not going to get out of the way, I’ll just go around.” I spun on my shoes, whirling the opposite direction, but when I went to take a step and carry my basket away, I suddenly found its weight missing from my arm. He’d stolen it from me before I’d had the chance to clutch it tight.

Then the world was spinning. The floors, the ceiling, everything flipped topsy-turvy.

I’d fainted.

No, that wasn’t right.

I was being carried. Hauled. That had been Luke’s threat and damn it, I’d underestimated him. The chief had made good on his word.

His shoulder dug into my belly as he walked. I lifted my face, pushing the hair out of my eyes. My basket of food sat exactly where I’d been standing. My chicken and rolls and cookies and chocolate milk. The items grew smaller with every one of Luke’s strides.

“Put me down.”

He kept walking.

“Put me down!” I shouted.

Still, he kept walking.

I lifted a hand and raised it above my head. My hair kept falling in front of my face, obscuring my vision, but that didn’t stop me from using every ounce of strength I had left. I brought my fist down on Luke’s lower back. Except my aim was shit so I didn’t hit his back. No, my fist bounced off his firm, perfect ass.

Luke didn’t so much as break his stride. “I promised Presley I’d keep you safe.”

And without another word, without stopping, he carried me in a fireman’s hold out of the grocery store and into the snow.

I was going back to the daisies, whether I wanted to or not.

Hello, Scarlett. I’m rock bottom.

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One Comment:


  1. Jennie said:

    Can…hardly…hardly…WAIT!!!!!!!

    Reply

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