Home > Stripped (Stripped, #1)(14)

Stripped (Stripped, #1)(14)
Author: H.M. Ward

Uncle Luke pinches the bridge of his nose and glances up at me. "I wish I had better news, kid. I really do." He holds out a hand for me to take a seat, but I don't move. I stare at him with my lips pressed together, waiting for him to drop the bomb. I'm braced and ready for it.

"Just tell me."

He sniffs and looks away as he rubs his tired eyes with the heel of his hands. Luke reaches for a paper that's on the counter and tosses it to me. "A friend dropped this off. He thought I'd want to know. When I saw it..." He shakes his head, not finishing the sentence.

Ice shoots through my veins as I flip the paper to the front page. I don't want to look at it, but I have to. My stomach twists in knots as I look down. Boldfaced letters stare back at me, robbing me of breath. It feels like I've been sucker punched so hard that my knees give out. The paper falls to the floor as I stagger, grabbing the counter to hold me upright. "No, Uncle Luke. This isn't real. It can't be."

Luke races toward me, grabbing my arm. "I'm afraid it is. No amount of money will make this go away. The papers are already headed out. Come morning, everyone will see this, Jonathan—including your mother."

"No. There's no way. She wouldn't." I shake him off and pace the room, trying to piece it together, but the pieces only fit into one shape. "Tell me it's not real! Tell me she didn't do this to me!"

"I'm sorry, Jonathan." It's the only thing he says about her, about Cassie. "The first flight I could get you on is in the afternoon. We should put off the media for at least a little while, but your mother is another story."

"I cost you a hell of a present for babysitting me." I say it into the air, as I stare out the window. How could I be so wrong?

"That doesn't matter, Jonny. It's just stuff." I glance at him and wonder why he doesn't want to kill me. "There are other things that take priority. Head up to your room and stay there until we leave for the airport."

I do as he says without a fight because I don't have it in me. The hours tick by so slowly that they feel like weeks. By the time the sun rises, I've been sitting by the window in my room for hours. I see her smiling face race up the walk to the front entry. Cassie presses the bell and Luke opens the door. He threatens to fill her ass with buckshot if she doesn't leave, but she won't.

It kills me, but I manage to get up and walk halfway down the stairs so she can see me. Cassie stops talking and gives me the most pitiful look. "Jon, I—"

"I don't want to hear it." That's all I say. At least I think that's all I said. Seeing her there is like letting someone reach into my chest and rip out my heart. I can't stand it, so I turn and walk away. Maybe I'm in shock, or maybe she broke my heart. Either way, I'm f**ked. When I get home all Hell is going to break free and it's because of her. Eventually anger will fill the memories of her, but in the meantime they sting like a mother.

Cassie Hale held my heart in the palm of her hand, and crushed it.




When I hear Jonathan's voice a lifetime of memories flood my mind, but the one that sticks out is from the art show and the way the air was drenched with sulfur and charred wood—and the way Jonathan pressed me to the ground, using his body to shield me. He barely knew me then, but he did it without a second thought. Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I wonder how differently my life would have been if I didn't have my stupid, naïve, morals back then, if I kissed him and he kissed me back—if I let him make love to me. But there's no time to think about that now.

I have seconds to sneak out of the room, but Beth is on my arm, hissing in my ear. "Oh no you don't. You fought for this job and now you're keeping it." Beth laces her fingers together and jerks me close. We're hip to hip as my heart slams into my rib cage.

"Beth, I have to go." I try to peel her fingers off my arm, but she doesn't release me, so I do the only thing I can think of and drag her skinny ass across the floor, toward the door.

She shrieks, "Oh my God! Stop!" When I ignore her, she drops to her knees while hanging on my arm. Wrapping her arms around my waist, she clings to me like a slutty koala bear covered in glitter. "Cassie, think this through!"

I make an undignified sound as she slows me down. I'm going to lose my balance and fall on my ass if I don't pry her off. Attempting to twist out of her grip isn't working. "Damn it, Beth! Let go!"

"No! This is the biggest mistake of your life! It'll put you right back where you don't want to be, and once you walk away you can't come back." Gripping my corseted waist tighter, she shifts her weight and throws me off balance, but I recover and continue to wrangle her to the door. "Hercu-freak!"

"Beth, I swear to God, I'm going to kill you if you don't let me go right now." She won't let go—Beth's good like that. When she thinks I'm making a colossal misstep, she'll dig in her heels and do everything she can to prevent it, but seeing Jonathan Ferro would be a mistake, especially after everything that happened. I'm wearing next to nothing and am covered in glitter. The baby oil on our skin is making it really difficult for Beth to keep a hold on me. Her hands slip down to my h*ps and her fingers dig in.

We're both whisper-screaming at each other and by the time her arms slip down to my thighs, I can barely move. That's when her death grip suddenly slips, and she falls to the floor without releasing me. Her arms act as a lasso around my legs. They slip to my knees, and then to my ankles, before I come tumbling down. Beth makes an oof sound as she lands on her boobs and snatches my ankles as I try to crawl away.

It's at that ungodly moment that we're spotted. I'm actually crawling across the floor on my hands and knees with Beth slithering behind me with her fingers wrapped around my foot. There's a wake of sparkles on the floor behind us.

"Peter has no idea what he's missing." His voice is a whisper, but it catches my ear just as Beth's arms yank me back and my face hits the floor.

"I doubt that," Sean Ferro's voice makes us freeze. It booms through the room with a clear undertone that demands we stop.

Body tense, I release Beth at the same time she lets go of me. I don't lift my face, I don't look Jonathan in the eye. Between heartbeats, I hope he's forgotten me, or at the very least, no longer wants to kill me because of what I did to him in Mississippi. I'm close to trembling as I try to remain completely still, but my muscles disobey me and twitch. I grab my wrist tightly and try to hide every emotion that is swelling within me, ready to burst across my face at any moment.

"Come on, Sean. Pete's a man. Every guy loves to see shit like that. Am I right ladies?" Jonathan is walking towards us. I don't lift my face, but Beth does.

She speaks and tries to take the attention off of me. "Most men do, sir."

Jonathan is standing adjacent to me with his hands in his pockets. It's the same thing he did when we were younger. It hides his uncertainty from his brother. "See? Sean, let's just keep these two. I already told their manager to forget about the wait staff. As cool as it would have been to see the waitresses rip off their shirts during dinner, that part's cancelled. And it's a goddamn bachelor party. We can keep these two here and if Pete wants to come in, he can. If not, he'll hang out in the main hall. No harm, right?"

Sean stands there perfectly rigid. His eyes sweep over Beth and me. There's too much silence and I swear that he can hear my pulse pounding. It's so damn loud that everyone should be able to hear it. Sean steps toward me, like he senses my fear. "Why were you two fighting?"

Beth laughs. "We weren't fighting for real. It's staged." She moves toward Sean and tries to take his arm, but he evades her and steps closer to me.

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, it's part of the show," Beth lies. I see her feet behind Sean's. He's right in front of me, towering over my small form, staring holes in the top of my head. I won't look up.

"Very well, I want to hear it from her."

Beth laughs nervously. "Uh, she can't talk, Mr. Ferro."


"Yeah, horrible boating accident when she was a kid. She looks down like that to cover a nasty scar on her throat. You can kind of see it under the make up on the side of her neck. Don't tell our boss. We're not supposed to have scars."

Fuck! Why did she say that? I continue to stare at my toes, but now I have two sets of eyes on me instead of one. Jonathan stands off to the side where the scar is located and I hope to God he doesn't make me look at him. I'm not certain if he recognizes me or not.

Jonathan is watching me closer now, his eyes sweep over the side of my face again and again as if he knows he's missing something. For a moment, there's no smile on his lips, no laughter in his voice. When he finally steps away, he shakes his head and says, "Maybe you're right, Sean. This is too much for Pete. We should send them all home. Will you walk this lovely woman out?"

In that second, things change. I glance at Beth out of the corner of my eye. She starts to sputter excuses as to why she can't leave me, but Jonathan cuts her off, "It's all right. I've made arrangements so you two will still be paid. Sean, go pay their manager."

Sean sighs like he's irritated and turns on his heel after watching me a moment too long. Beth starts to speak, but Jonathan talks over her. "Please, follow Sean out." Although Jonathan's tone is softer than Sean's, Beth still does as he asks which makes me want to kill her.

After a moment the room fills with silence. The silvery curtains flutter behind Jonathan as we stand in front of one another, both of us staring at our feet. When he glances up and tries to meet my gaze, I don't let him. I keep my chin buried in my chest and stand there perfectly rigid with my mind melting inside my head. I can't... I can't... keeps replaying over and over again, like a scratched CD.

Jonathan swallows hard. "So, you're a mute now?"

My lips quiver as they part. No words come out, but my heart tries to. I snap my mouth shut and go to turn away, but he catches my arm—which is a strict no-no with this job. The action makes me look up at him, and as soon as I do it I realize my mistake. I couldn't resist his eyes the first time, but now—it's worse.

We didn't part on the best of terms the last time I saw him, actually he thought I used him. Me. Like that would ever happen. The thing is, I didn't fight to correct his misconception. There were reasons, the main one was that I thought he'd see the truth anyway, but he didn't.

The Ferro men all have that hot temper, but it's Jonathan who'll hold a grudge until he's older than dirt. Jonathan's eyes sweep over my face, trail down my neck to my corset and lift again. "I knew you had a peculiar view on sex, but stripping is usually further down the road than kissing." Damn, he sounds bitter, and the way he spits out the words like they're pitch forks doesn't help any. That smug, arrogant, smirk on his face tells me everything I need to know. He hates me. Fine, it's better that way. I have no desire to rehash the shit I've lived through—the things he doesn't know about.

I reach for a good comeback and come up empty handed. I settle for a timeless classic, "Go to hell," I growl and try to yank my arm away, but he holds on tight.

"I'm already there, sweetheart, and honestly quite shocked to find you here." His eyes burn into me like twin flames of pure heat. The intensity sends a jolt through my core that explodes in my stomach. His touch is making my brain short out, so I twist my wrist free and glare at him. His eyes dip to the floor and his tone changes—back to light and fluffy—like nothing could possibly be wrong, like his brother isn't going to kill him when I'm through with him. "So," he beams his pearly whites at me, "how's your evening going, Cassie?"

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