My sister became dependent on painkillers after a skiing accident left her leg broken in three places. I didn’t understand and, yes, I judged her. After all, we were talking about her free will. No one was forcing those pills down her throat. It seemed very cut-and-dried to me back then. But I know differently now.
The first time River touched her, Jane finally understood addiction…understood the aching need, the keen want for more…more of his hands…his mouth…his tongue. His complete mastery over her body. She knew the suffocation of crushing anxiety as she waited for her next hit, the flash of terrific pain when it didn’t come.
River seems unwilling to give Jane what she needs; what she ultimately craves above all else. But addicts can’t think beyond the fix. They’ll resort to desperate measures to feed their need…even if they lose themselves in the process. Even if they come undone…
— Chapter One —
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. Eyes so gray they were almost silver, hair as black as those summer nights had been; the rich sound of his laughter at something his friend had said. All of this floated around me, my pulse dancing. But his laugh faded into the moment and he looked at me, the remnants of a smile still on his lips. It was then I felt it. An indescribable sensation at the time, but something I would soon come to know as an undeniable energy. An irresistible force with the power to take me under, willing or not. His gaze lingered on mine for a moment, a brief, fleeting, substantial moment, and then the connection was gone. His friends enveloped him in their attention and I watched as the group returned to their table at the other end of the bar. This wouldn’t be the only time I’d see him—a fate to this day I’m still not certain was a blessing or a curse.
Three years have passed since that summer I spent at Sara’s family beach house in a town so small South Carolina needn’t have bothered putting it on the map. Three months we were there. Sara on summer break from law school, me on break from my life. You see, artists are never truly satisfied unless they are immersed in their passion, and graduating with an accounting degree because you’re too chickenshit to pursue what you really want doesn’t exactly pave the road to creativity. A free summer financed by Sara’s parents was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I left that office with my pitiful little box of belongings and long-ago dead plant before common sense had a chance to do its job. I promised myself this wouldn’t be a mistake. The time I would spend on hiatus from nothing would clear my head and I would know in which direction to go.
When I made the decision I had no way of knowing what that summer would bring. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine the things I’d be capable of, the lengths to which I’d end up going. The intensity with which I would yearn. I had no way of knowing abouthim. The problem with addiction is you crave what you need—whether it’s good for you or not.
So, I’ll tell you my story, but you must promise not to judge, for what you’ll hear will not always paint me in the best light. I will come off, at times, as a woman who should have known better. I was told, after all. But if you allow yourself to succumb to a dark place, if you become truly lost, you will do anything…anything to end the pain—if only for a moment.
* * * * *
I watched him walk away from the bar, my pulse slowly settling into a simmer—calm, but ready to boil again at the first lick of fire. Sara sat next to me, oblivious to the change. Taking a sip of my merlot, I turned to face her, trying to shake off the uneasy feeling enveloping me like a blanket of thorns.
“So, what do you think of this place?” Sara asked, practically lit up by her excitement of returning to the small beach town where she had spent every summer of her life. She’d lived every teenage girl’s dream of a charmed June, July, and August, filled with sun, sand, and boys. Plenty of boys. Or so she’d told me, nostalgia hanging heavy in her words. Me? I’d spent my summers with my nose in a book or a paintbrush in my hand, as pasty white as flour. The only boys who breezed through my life were in said books.
“Great. Crowded.” I glanced over my shoulder at the table in the corner.
Sara laughed. “Always. In a town you can barely turn around in there aren’t too many places to hang out.”
I smiled, placing my wineglass on the bar top. Sara leaned forward to speak to the bartender, and I used the opportunity to turn slightly, feigning a stretch. Our gazes collided then. His was unwavering, as if staring down a complete stranger were a commonplace event. But if it was so terribly inappropriate, why couldn’t I look away? Why didn’tI look away? Who knows how long we stared at each other…ten seconds, twenty…but I eventually broke contact, unnerved.
Unlike Sara, I wasn’t accustomed to men blatantly eyeing me. Also unlike Sara, I didn’t know how to handle it. No sly smiles from me. No invitation in my glances. No free drinks in front of me as a result. No sir. I tapped the bar top. “Hey, I’ll be right back. You said the bathrooms were over there to the right?”
“Yeah, just past the entrance to the restaurant and then down the hall.”
I nodded and slithered off the stool, heading in the opposite direction of the molten gray stare piercing my back. In the restroom I let a long breath ease through my lips, walking to the mirrors. I finger-combed my mahogany waves and stared at my reflection. The woman looking back at me had no idea what in the hell I was doing here either. Leaving a good-paying job to run away to someone else’splace of comfort. Smart move, Jane.Disgusted with myself, I retrieved a lipstick from my purse and reapplied. Its berry color matched the flush of my cheeks. Fantastic. I looked like a crazed woman.
Somewhat under control, I left the sanctity of the ladies’ room, but stopped short when I saw him leaning against the wall, drumming his thumb on a jean-clad thigh to the thrum of music drifting from the bar area.
“I knew you’d have to come out of there eventually,” he said as he walked toward me, looming over my five-foot-nine frame. “I’m River.”
He didn’t extend his hand as I would have expected. Instead, he rested it on the wall behind me, hovering just close enough to send my heartbeat skittering all over again.
“Jane,” I managed.
“Jane.” A slow smile crawled across his lips. Gorgeous lips, I noted. Full and enticing. “I like that name. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run. My favorite book as a child.”
I couldn’t even imagine this man ever being a young child with a reading primer. The fact that this book is the one he cited as his favorite should have sent my book-snobbing self running, but…
My eyes widened and he laughed, reaching out to toy with a tendril of hair that fell across my shoulder. “It’s very nice to meet you, Jane.” A leisurely perusal of my person followed, and pricks of awareness shimmied over my skin. Under my skin.
Settling his gaze on mine, he ran his finger along my cheekbone. “You’ve got eyes like a cat—jade green and full of mystery. They intrigue me.”
With that he left me, speechless and aroused, leaning against the wall. He casually strode toward the bathroom. I tracked his movement, taking in the long length of his body, the wide stretch of his shoulders, until he disappeared behind the door. I made my way back to Sara as if the devil himself and all his hounds were on my heels.
“You about ready?” I asked, breathless, eyeing her half-full wineglass like an adversary—a hindrance to my desire to get the hell out of there.
She looked at me, suspicion bright in her eyes. “Don’t you want to finish your wine?”
I grabbed my glass and drained the last of its contents, setting it down on the bar with a satisfying thud. “Yes, thanks. How about you?”
Her lips curled in amusement as she studied me. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just a long day. You know, with the drive and all.” Running a hand through my curls, I grasped them at my nape, eyeing River from my periphery as he approached. I braced myself for more embarrassment, but he only smiled the most devastating smile I’d ever seen and passed by us on the way to his table.
“Now I see.”
I glanced back at Sara and tried to play dumb. Emphasis on tried. “Now you see what?”
“What happened back there that’s made you all jumpy?” she asked.
I glanced over my shoulder, heart plummeting into my stomach as our gazes collided once more. I returned my attention to Sara. “Um, nothing really.”
Sara crooked her head slightly, looking behind me. “Ah, yes. Madeline’s brother. The girl I introduced you to earlier.” She tapped her finger against her forehead. “I can never remember his name…starts with an ‘R’.”
“River,” I offered a little too quickly. Sara’s eyebrow shot up. “Well,” I said, my hand on my hip. “It’s a unique name—hard to forget.” Not unlike the man, apparently.
“If you say so.” She smiled, toying with the stem of her wineglass. “He was Madeline’s stepbrother before their parents divorced. She only moved here two years ago.”
I risked another glance his way. “So, you don’t know him?”
“No. I know ofhim, though.”
My gaze shot back to Sara at her tone. “Meaning?”
“MeaningI’ve heard some cautionary tales from Madeline. Apparently he’s somewhat of a player.”
Sara polished off her wine and we settled the tab. I could feel the heat of his gaze as it tracked our movement away from the crowded bar. The night air on the other side of the door was a comfort as I followed Sara to her Volkswagen crossover. My mind raced. Something in me rang like a bell, a warning of some sort. Intuition maybe. But cresting above the doubt and uncertainty of my decision to come here was one thought… River wedging me up against that damn wall by the bathrooms, whispering my name against my lips before he did all the things that would turn my world inside out.