“What we have is fucked up. For God’s sake, Zach, we grew up together.” The echo of innocence pinged through my heart, leaving me bereft. Long ago, we'd been two kids playing in the yard, building forts that stood as tall as skyscrapers to my young eyes, yet they’d barely allowed Zach to stand inside the carefully constructed walls. He'd been my big brother, someone I always counted on and looked up to.
Until the day he'd wrecked me. I recalled that life-altering moment as if it happened yesterday. Only thirteen, too unsure of the change in his touch, struggling to understand what it meant. I’d sprawled stiffly beside him, incapable of moving as his fingers slipped beneath my panties. He’d smothered my fearful cry with a sweaty palm and had spread my thighs before burrowing past my innocence. Zach had taken something precious from me that night, and in turn I’d taken the freedom of the only man I'd ever love.
I’d killed him.
The reality of what had happened at the river was too painful and a tear crept down my cheek, as if trying to sneak past Zach's watchful gaze.
“You never cry.” He slowly lowered his fist. “In all the years we’ve fucked,” he said, “you never cried. Not once. Why now? Because of him?” His mouth twisted into something ugly…something arrestingly terrifying. “He's your past, Lex. I'm your future, and I'll do whatever it takes to bring you back to me.”
We slept the day away, Zach’s naked body trapping my own. Several times, I tried to extricate myself from his grasp, but his arms always tightened in warning. At some point, I’d fallen into a restless sleep where images of Rafe and the island tormented me.
Still haunted by the echoes of convoluted dreams, I hugged my knees from my spot on the four poster bed as Zach raided the closet. “Who’s cabin is this?” I asked, glancing at the window, where bright light had filtered through the curtains before we fell asleep. Now a strip of black peeked through where the material hung open, indicating the sun had set long ago.
“A friend’s. He comes up here in the fall to hunt.” As Zach sifted through flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets, I wondered if the owner stored his rifles somewhere in the house. My gaze zoomed in on the closet, hoping to catch a glimpse of a gun.
“You’re so transparent,” Zach said. “You won’t find a gun in this place. He doesn’t keep them here.” He removed a black wife-beater from the dresser and pulled it over his defined pecs and abs. The sweats he wore swam on his toned frame, drawstring cinched tight. My brother was all hard muscle, and obviously, the owner of this place wasn’t. He grabbed a white tee and tossed it at me. “All you need to know is we won’t be interrupted for a few weeks.” Pointing a finger in my direction, he told me to get dressed.
I tugged the soft cotton over my head and eyed the door. The dresser and the closet were on either side, and Zach stood smack in the middle of the doorway, effectively blocking the exit. Watching me with the air of a predator, he rubbed the stubble on his chin.
I avoided the intensity in his probing stare and instead took in the room, the unfamiliar cabin walls, the smooth oak furniture. That damn window that taunted me, whispering to my desperation to slide it open and crawl through, except I knew he’d stop me before I could. The adjacent bathroom was a dead end for escape as well, with only a small vent-type window to allow air in.
“A few weeks, Zach?” Maybe logic would penetrate his thick skull. “What about your career? Won’t interrupting your training like this set you back?”
“My career is gone. It went down the drain the minute I thought I’d lost you.”
“Dad won’t be happy about that.”
“I don’t give a fuck what Dad’s happy about. I don’t about care about any of it, Lex. I’m done with MMA. You’re all that matters to me.”
I shook my head, feeling completely cornered. “I can’t live like this. Don’t make me.” Clenching my hands to keep from gouging flesh, I gnawed on my lip instead. “C’mon, Zach. If you don’t let me go, you’ll be on the run for the rest of your life. That isn’t a life.”
“As far as the world knows, you’re dead.” He shifted his feet and poked a finger at his chest. “I don’t have to run at all—I just have to make sure no one finds out you’re still alive. We’ll lay low here for a couple of weeks and go from there.”
His twitchy gestures made me nervous, and I wondered if alcohol was the only substance he was withdrawing from.
“How’d you do it?” he asked, his sudden question derailing my train of thought.
“Fake your death.” He leaned against the doorjamb, folded his arms, tapped his foot. A dragon breathed fire down his right bicep. Unlike Rafe’s tattoos, which were beautiful, symmetrical, and understated in their simplicity, Zach’s begged for attention with detail and flaming color. “Better yet, how’d you get past your fear to do it?” He clenched his jaw. “You must have been desperate to get to him, for you to go anywhere near the river, let alone crash your car into it.” He tilted his head. “Must have been desperate to get away from me to fake your own death.”
I averted my gaze. Zach read me too easily. What would he do if he found out Rafe had kidnapped me? He might read something into it that wasn’t true. Just because Rafe had taken me, that didn’t mean I hadn’t been where I’d wanted to be in the end. But even worse he might get the same idea as Rafe and use the phobia against me. If he hadn’t thought of that already.
“Answer me,” he said, bringing me back to the moment with his biting tone.
“It wasn’t easy.” I stood, straightened my shoulders, and the muscles in my thighs tightened, readying to fight, to flee. I quelled the urge, as he had me trapped and there was no way I’d get past him and out that door. My stomach grumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours, and it gave me the perfect excuse to try and get out of the room. “Is there anything to eat in this place?”
He signaled for me to go to him, and I couldn’t help but notice the tremors in his fingers. I tried to pinpoint when he’d started drinking, but the onset of his alcoholism had been gradual, like a bad cold that begins with a sneeze and a vague ache in your glands until the next thing you know, you’re laid up in bed feeling like death incarnate. His drunken fits had been sporadic at first, beginning somewhere around the time I’d graduated college and escalating after I’d started dating Lucas.