Sunday, January 19, 2020


Copyright 2019 © Marita A. Hansen

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the author, nor circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. For subsidiary rights inquiries email:
All characters, names, places, and incidents in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, or real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
UK English is used due to the New Zealand setting.
All other variations are also due to where the book is set, as well as the characters’ cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. This is why some characters use different speech patterns from others, such as in the use of ’cause versus cos or was versus wuz, the latter representing a Māori accent. Though, please note that not all Māori speak the same way, plus many of my characters are of mixed heritage, such as Ash Rata. Ash is half Croatian, almost half Māori, and the rest Romanian. But due to where he grew up in South Auckland, New Zealand, he speaks more like his father than his mother.
I hope this explains the way in which dialogue is presented in Ashes to Ashes.

Although ASHES TO ASHES is the sequel to CRYING OUT SILENT it can be read as a standalone.

The filming of the music video was going terribly, Dante’s anger growing by the second. His dark eyes were boring holes into the director, the man poking a lion without even realising it. And it was never a good idea to make Dante angry, because he had a wild temper. But the director kept on going, pushing Dante over the edge—both literally and figuratively.
Dante jumped off the stage with a loud thud, his boots echoing throughout the auditorium. His eyes remained on the director, a fifty-something man with a crop of grey hair and a beard to match. Martin shot to his feet from behind the camera, startled by Dante’s sudden and undoubtedly aggressive approach. They were about the same height, six-foot-one or two, though Dante was considerably more muscular, which was accentuated by his clothes. Black leather pants encased powerful thighs, while a black singlet revealed more of his impressive chest than concealed it. A sheen of sweat also glistened across his exposed flesh, making the colourful tattoos on his arms appear even brighter, including the tribal one around his left eye, the dark green pattern normally looking black. If it came down to a fight, the director was no match for Dante’s brawn—and it definitely looked like Dante wanted to plant his fist in Martin’s face.
Dante all but shunted the director back with his chest, a bull ready to take down the arrogant matador. “Don’t talk to me like that, motherfucker!” he bellowed in Martin’s face. “I ain’t some bitch you can push around. This is my video. My manager is payin’ you to make me look good, not treat me like some useless piece of shit!”
Martin stumbled back, looking both terrified and stunned, probably not expecting such aggression from a rock star. But Dante was no ordinary rock star. He was a dangerous man who’d been in a gang in his youth, the infamous Skins, a group he still associated with. He’d also been a drug dealer, not someone people should mess with, which was why I scurried across the auditorium to stop him from doing something he’d later regret. Even though I hated being around aggression, I was worried Dante would land himself in jail for assault. I was usually a coward, one who ran a mile or froze in fear when situations got heated, but no one else was doing anything, the video production crew probably too scared to challenge Dante. I just wished that Jade hadn’t popped out to answer a phone call. Our manager was one of the few people who could calm Dante down, but I couldn’t wait for him to come back.
Looking like Dante was a second away from planting his fist in Martin’s face, I slipped in between them, startling Dante out of his rage. “Take a deep breath, Dante,” I said, staring up at him. Even in my booted heels, he was considerably taller than me, my slim physique also making me appear smaller.
“How about you take a break,” I said. “Go grab a coffee or a juice from that cafe down the road.”
Dante stepped away from me, appearing uncomfortable with my close proximity, most likely wary of the crew assuming things about us. The tabloids were constantly speculating that we were more than bandmates, a few even printing stories about us having an illicit affair. Of course it was all untrue. Dante was devoted to his partner, the mother of his baby, while I was head over heels in love with his older brother.
“I’d rather have whiskey,” Dante all but snarled.
A different kind of concern filled me, Dante a recovering alcoholic. “You know you can’t have alcohol,” I replied. “You have a loving partner and a baby at home who need you sober. Think about how upset Clara would be if you fell off the wagon, Dante.”
He let out a shuddering breath, his anger dwindling, replaced by abject defeat.
I also let out a breath, but a relieved one, though my relief didn’t last long. Dante’s eyes shot back to the director as the man pulled out his phone, threatening to call the police on him. An almost animalistic growl escaped Dante’s mouth, what Martin had said only serving to reignite his temper.
Dante,” I said more sternly. “Please don’t do something you’ll regret. You need to—”
“What I need is Clara,” he snapped, mentioning his partner. “Not this bullshit!”
He stepped around me, causing Martin to shoot to the side, falling over a chair. Dante ignored him, looking more intent on getting away from the director than hurting him. He stormed towards the exit, crashing through the double doors. Although our manager was going to be furious with him for leaving, I knew it was for the best. Dante was far too wound up to work, plus, if he’d stayed, I didn’t think I could’ve stopped him from attacking Martin.
I turned to the director, giving him an apologetic smile even though he didn’t deserve it. “I’m so sorry,” I said, hoping he wasn’t going to make a fuss over what Dante had done. “Can we please put this behind us, and try again tomorrow?”
Martin ran a hand over his beard and shook his head. “I can’t let this pass. If it wasn’t for you, that animal would’ve attacked me. He has no self-control.”
“Because he was upset over the way you were treating him, and honestly, Martin, you were patronising him, treating him like a stupid child. You shouldn’t have done that, after all, he is the star of the show.”
“I don’t need that upstart,” Martin fired back, his blue-grey eyes stormy. “I have top artists clambering to hire me. And I wouldn’t have accepted this job if it wasn’t for you, L, because I have no interest in working with that...that...” He flung his arm out, obviously wanting to call Dante every name under the sun, but instead finished with, “man.”
I blinked at him, rather surprised by his remark. “You wanted to work with me?”
Some of the anger melted away from Martin’s brutish face. “Very much so. I’ve admired your work for so long, especially your instrumental pieces. I’d much rather make a video for you than Dante, but Jade mentioned you’re only working on Dante’s career, not your solo one.”
“Yes, I’ve put it on hold,” I replied, rather flattered he knew my music. I’d mostly concentrated on classical and heavy metal compositions prior to my best friend hiring me to work with Dante.
Martin stepped in closer, lowering his head a touch, the man towering over my small frame. “Honestly, L, you’re too good for this type of trashy, showy music. You’re also too classy to be working with an ex porn star.”
“Dante wasn’t a porn star. Those viral videos of him were taken illegally. One of his ex-girlfriends put cameras in his room without his knowledge.”
Martin raised one of his bushy eyebrows at me. “Did she make him fuck hundreds of women, too? Because his room looked like a brothel.”
I stiffened. “Please don’t talk about Dante like that, and quite frankly, I’m appalled that you watched those videos. No wonder you came in here, treating the poor boy like that.”
Martin shook his head. “He’s not a poor boy, he’s a grown man who needs anger management. He’s also completely unprofessional, saying the rudest things. If he can’t treat people with respect, he doesn’t deserve to be treated with respect back.”
I frowned, his words unfortunately true. Dante was disrespectful to everyone, me included. I’d complained to Jade numerous times over it, but Dante showed no sign of stopping his unacceptable behaviour. It was a concerning matter, precisely because it led to incidents like this.
“I can tell you agree with me,” Martin said, running a hand over his beard again.
I grimaced, not liking where the conversation was heading. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to speak ill of a colleague. You’re also only seeing one side of Dante. He’s normally cheeky and easy-going. Maybe he’s just having a bad day and unfortunately took it out on you,” I said, lying for Jade’s sake. My best friend had already paid Martin in advance, and a considerable sum at that. I couldn’t have him walking out, leaving Jade out of pocket.
“Well, if I’m to stay,” Martin said. “Dante needs to learn to take instruction without threatening me.”
I nodded. “I’ll have a word to him, as will his manager.”
The dark cloud lifted from Martin’s expression. “Thank you, L. You’re truly a pleasure to speak to, as well as to work with. I must compliment you on doing everything right today.”
“No, thank you, Martin. I appreciate your kind words.”
He nodded and placed a hand on my arm, saying something about getting back to work, but I couldn’t take his words in, his touch distracting me too much. It took all of my willpower not to flinch away from it, my issues with being touched coming to the forefront. But I didn’t want to insult the man, so I bit my tongue, allowing him to direct me over to the area where my guitar solo was being filmed.
He brought me to a halt in front of the large, round bed. It was covered in emerald green sheets to complement my long ginger and golden hair. “How about we film your part of the video,” he suggested, indicating to the bed. “We don’t require Dante for this section, plus it’ll at least fill the next hour or so.”
I nodded, quite happy to get my section over and done with. Filming music videos wasn’t my favourite part of being in a rock band. It was a necessary evil that I had to endure, especially today, what Martin had in mind for me rather... embarrassing. But it wasn’t my place to question such a famous director.
The production crew moved into place, making me feel a touch caged in. I ignored my fear and went to climb onto the bed with my electric guitar, fully aware of what I was supposed to do. I’d read the script thoroughly, making sure that I didn’t waste anyone’s time.
Martin grabbed my arm before I could get on the bed, pulling out a startled cry from me, what he’d done taking me unaware. He instantly let go. “I do apologise, L, it’s just... your hair isn’t quite right. It’s too perfect. We need to mess it up a bit so it gives the impression that you’ve just had sex.”
He threaded his fingers through my hair, doing just that. I forced myself to remain still, wondering why he hadn’t told the hairstylist to style it this way in the first place. She’d spent quite a while making my hair perfect, so smooth that there hadn’t been a strand out of place, and for Martin to mess it up within seconds felt like a travesty to her hard work.
He removed his hands from my hair. “Lie on the bed with your guitar draped across your body,” he instructed.
I went to do just that but he pulled me back again, what he was doing starting to get to me, but I refrained from reacting this time, not wanting to cause trouble.
He looked down at my chest. “We also need to fix this top. I don’t know what Wardrobe was thinking.”
To my disbelief, he started undoing the buttons on my blouse, and if I wasn’t so shocked, I would’ve stopped him. Within seconds he had my blouse undone, pulling it apart to reveal my bra.
“Better,” he said, staring down at my breasts.
I glanced around, wondering why no one was reacting to the way he was treating me, but the crew just stood behind their equipment as though it was perfectly normal. Maybe it was, my experience with filming videos not exactly extensive, though I was now wishing I’d left with Dante.
“Lie down,” Martin said.
I did, but only to move away from him. I glanced at the crew again, not seeing anyone acting surprised or shocked by his behaviour, just men doing their jobs. Maybe I was misreading the situation, because Martin’s expression was now purely professional, no sign of the earlier sparkle of lust in his eyes. Or maybe I’d imagined that too, working myself up over nothing.
I laid the guitar across my stomach, strumming it like I was supposed to. Martin indicated for an assistant to fan my hair out. The assistant did as instructed, quickly moving out of the camera’s range as the music for the video started playing. I lifted my mid-section up as my guitar solo approached, partially raising my body off the bed like in the script. My fingers flew across the guitar, no sound coming from it, just me pretending to play along to the recording of Dante’s voice, which blasted from the speakers, along with the accompanying instruments. The drummer and bassist had left well before Dante’s and Martin’s argument, their parts completed early.
I continued pretending to play the guitar, smiling at the camera softly. I felt like an idiot for doing it, even though Martin looked pleased. He eventually yelled cut once my part came to an end. Rising up from behind the main camera, he clapped loudly, appearing extremely happy with me.
“Now, that’s how it’s done,” he said, smiling wide. “Professionally and without tantrums, and even better, in one take. It’s a pity your bandmate doesn’t have the same work ethic as you do, L.”
I didn’t reply, not wanting to insult Dante.
“Well, today wasn’t a total waste,” he added. “I’ll look forward to working with you again tomorrow.”
Relieved he was happy, I pushed off the bed with my guitar. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”
“I don’t think anyone would regret working with such a lovely lady as yourself,” he replied.
My cheeks flushed at his comment. I still found it hard dealing with people treating me like a woman. Even though I was intersex, my parents had raised me as a male, clueless to what puberty had in store for me. As the years progressed, I started looking more female by the day, people constantly calling me Miss. Men also hit on me, not realising I didn’t have what they wanted between my legs. Regardless, I didn’t feel like I was either male or female, instead, I was something entirely different, my own personal sex.
Martin turned his attention to the video crew. “Everyone, please pack up. Be back here by seven in the morning. We’ll have a lot of filming to get through due to Dante setting us back.” His attention returned to me. “Until tomorrow, L,” he said, giving me a slight bow. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
“Thank you, and likewise,” I replied, watching as he walked away.
I turned to go in the opposite direction, needing to get my belongings from the changing rooms. My eyes fell on the man who’d fanned my hair out. He was looking at me with obvious interest. He was very attractive... or what people would consider attractive, because my tastes were much fussier than the average Joe or Jane. I didn’t like hot men, I liked beautiful ones. I also didn’t like being stared at, which the man was doing, making me feel uncomfortable. It was getting harder and harder dealing with people’s interest in me. I was used to working in studios, not out front for everyone to ogle. It was also starting to get scary, especially with how much my fans obsessed over me. Jade had recently banned me from reading my fan mail after I’d received a slew of perverted letters, detailing everything they wanted to do to me.
I quickly rushed towards the door that led to the changing rooms, eager to get back to the studio so I could lose myself in what I loved to do: creating music—my passion. I slipped into my changing room, closing the door behind me, my thoughts wandering back to another passion of mine. Ash Rata—Dante’s older brother. I put my guitar in its stand, still upset that Ash hadn’t called me since the concert in Sydney, which was the day he’d broken up with his partner after she’d accused him of having an affair with me. Of course he hadn’t. Ash was too noble and loyal to ever cheat. But his partner had refused to listen, allowing her jealousies to get in the way of being with such a great man, one I loved unconditionally. Unfortunately, he was totally oblivious to my feelings—unlike Tiana. His now ex could clearly see that I loved him, everyone but Ash seeing it. All I was to him was a friend, which was all I’d ever be.
It hurt, yet what could I do? I couldn’t possibly do what Dante had suggested, turning up at Ash’s place, attempting to seduce him. I couldn’t seduce anyone. I was too shy. Even though people dressed me in revealing clothes for music videos and concerts, portraying me as some sort of sex kitten, I was the complete opposite. I’d only willingly had sex once, and that had been one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. Or more accurately, I’d attempted to have sex. It had been with a fellow musician. Not only was my fumbling and inexperience embarrassing, but her reaction to my crotch was downright humiliating. She’d actually laughed, telling me I couldn’t even please myself with a dick that small let alone her. I’d been so mortified. I’d gotten dressed in a rush, not listening to her backtracking apologies, the woman realising she’d not only upset me, but had deeply hurt me with her thoughtless comments. It had taken so much to accept her advances, and I hadn’t even been that wildly attracted to her, just had given in to my friend’s prodding that I should at least give people a chance. And I’d only chosen to go with a woman because I’d been too terrified of men at that stage of my life due to being raped at fifteen. I’d also assumed she’d be more understanding of my condition since she’d claimed to like both males and females, my body a combination of the two.
No, I wasn’t a sex kitten by any stretch of the imagination. I wasn’t anything other than celibate and lonely. I turned to the mirror, staring at the person I’d become, so different from what I saw in my head. I didn’t see the ‘sexy’ twenty-seven-year-old woman everyone else saw, I saw the scared intersex kid from high school, who’d desperately wanted to fit in... still desperately wanted to fit in.
I glanced down at my crotch, seriously considering taking the next step to becoming fully female, because I was sick of fighting a losing battle. And if I was being completely honest with myself, I’d wanted to be fully female for a long time, just had felt ashamed for rejecting my male side. It had been preying on my mind ever since a doctor had given me information about gender reassignment surgery after I’d started growing breasts. Yet, more than twelve years later, I still hadn’t gone under the knife.
I sighed, wishing I wasn’t such a coward, otherwise I would’ve done it years ago. Also, rejecting my male side wasn’t the only thing that was holding me back. The fear that something could go wrong was just as strong, if not stronger. I was also afraid of not being able to win Ash over, even after going through with the op. I closed my eyes at the thought of Dante’s older brother. I’d been in love with Ash from the moment I saw him twelve years ago, when he’d rushed into my homeroom on the first day of Fifth Form, late because Dante had caused him trouble. I remembered everything he’d said to the teacher, how he’d gotten mad with the man for telling him off, then had climbed over his friend’s desk to get to his own one, receiving another telling off. And I’d been absolutely besotted. He’d been so beautiful with his wild, black hair and model-perfect features. He was still perfect now, just taller and more muscular, as well as tattooed. The designs on his neck and left arm, the latter extending to his pec, were so beautifully rendered. I’d imagined kissing them so many times, tracing the tip of my tongue over every line and swirl of the Maori patterns, the man my own personal masterpiece.
My changing room door opened, pulling me out of my fantasy about Ash. I opened my eyes, startled to see Martin entering the room, his presence instantly sparking fear. With the exception of my close friends, I couldn’t handle being alone with men, what had happened to me as a teen causing lasting trauma.
I quickly started doing up the buttons he’d undone. “Sorry,” I said, not understanding why I was apologising since he was entering my space uninvited.
“You have nothing to be sorry about, beautiful,” he said.
I went still at the compliment, Martin not having called me anything other than L in front of others. He bit his bottom lip, his obvious interest increasing my fear tenfold. Nothing good had ever come from men showing interest in me, their unwanted advances often causing me to freak out.
My eyes flicked to the door. “Um... I wish I could stay and chat,” I lied, trying my best to keep the tremble in my voice at bay, “but I just got a call from my sister, asking me to meet her.” I forced myself to smile apologetically so he didn’t feel insulted.
“She can wait a few minutes,” he said, approaching me slowly like a lion stalking its prey.
I backed up into the wall. “What are you doing?” I said, jerking my head to the side as he reached for my hair.
“You have the most gorgeous hair.” He ran his fingers through the long strands. “So bright and lovely, like yourself.
Without warning, he grabbed my face, causing me to gasp, but instead of jerking away, I froze. The memory of Ant Torres doing the same thing flooded my mind. I’d been fifteen at the time, Ant sixteen, yet his young age didn’t stop him from assaulting me, what came afterwards changing my life forever.
“You are so beautiful,” Martin said, “so fucking beautiful.”
Before I could protest, he planted his lips against mine. Snapping out of my stupor, I went to push him away, but he pressed hard up against me. I couldn’t even struggle, his much larger body making it impossible to fight him off. He eventually broke the kiss and started running his lips over my neck.
“No!” I cried, my voice coming out soft, even though I wanted to scream it, my fear working against me.
His large hands moved to my breasts, kneading them roughly as he continued to suck on my neck, causing me to start crying.
He stopped what he was doing, his eyes moving to mine. “Why are you crying, sweetheart? I’m not going to hurt you, we’re just going to have a bit of fun.” He unzipped my pants and pushed a hand inside them. “Be a good girl... or is it a boy?” He fondled me below, making me gasp as one of his fingers brushed over my dick. “I can’t tell,” he said, rubbing circles around it, fear causing it to shrivel up inside my body.
“Please stop,” I choked out.
“If you’d just relax, you’ll like it, cutie,” he said, not letting up.
I started trembling, more tears dropping onto my cheeks.
“Ssh,” he said, kissing my wet cheeks, “there really isn’t any reason for you to be scared, L. I don’t mind that you’re different.” His hand moved around to my behind, his fingers burrowing down the back of my pants. “You have everything I need here.”
I cried out as he pressed a finger against my hole.
“Get your filthy hands off L!” a loud Texan voice hollered, startling the both of us.
Martin’s hand whipped out of my pants. He spun around to face my manager and best friend. Jade was standing in the doorway, levelling him with an intense glare.
Martin straightened, puffing out his chest. “How dare—”
Before he could get another word out, Jade launched himself at him. I quickly scrambled to the side as Jade punched Martin in the face. Despite Jade being considerably shorter than Martin, he didn’t show one ounce of fear. He shoved Martin into the wall, looking like he was going to hit him again.
Martin lifted his hands in surrender, his voice pained. “Stop! I did nothing wrong.”
“Bullshit!” Jade hollered. “You assaulted my best friend!”
I’d never seen him look so angry, Jade usually a restrained businessman, but right now, his pretty-boy Korean face was a mask of fury, the veins in his neck ready to burst.
Martin inched to the side. “Calm down, Jade, you don’t want to do this. I’ll destroy your company.”
Jade stepped in closer, his dark eyes blazing. “More like I’ll destroy you.”
Martin visibly swallowed, looking like he believed him, and he should. Jade owned a top music label, not to mention having his fingers in other companies, my friend liking to spread the risk.
Jade pointed at the door. “Get out!” he screamed at Martin. “Before I decide to do it!”
Martin shot out of the room, leaving me alone with Jade.
As soon as he was gone, Jade was in front of me, his hands going to my face. “Oh, L,” he said, looking distraught. “I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t understand why he was apologising, he’d saved me, but I couldn’t tell him that. My voice had disappeared, only sobs coming out. He let go of my face and pulled me into a hug. Jade was one of only a few men I felt safe around, someone I trusted unconditionally.
He ran a hand down my hair and kissed the top of my head. “I won’t let him anywhere near you again,” he said, softly. “I’ll also go with you to the police, backing up what you tell them.”
I pulled away from his hug, not wanting that. All I wanted was to forget this ever happened, like what had happened in high school.
Jade took hold of my hand, giving it a squeeze. “Grab your stuff,” he said, letting go a second later. “I’ll take you to a police station now.”
I shook my head. “I just want to go home.”
“After you’ve given a statement.”
“Please, no, I can’t go to the police,” I replied, starting to panic. “If the media finds out what happened, it’ll be splashed all over the news. I can’t deal with that. My mam also wouldn’t be able to handle it. I can’t do that to her,” again.
“Okay,” he said sadly, knowing where my fear stemmed from. “Just let me take you home, I’ll deal with everything else.”
I nodded, so grateful to him. “Thank you, Jade.”
He nodded back, watching silently as I fixed my pants and pulled my jacket on. I grabbed my bag and guitar, allowing him to direct me out of the room, leading me to his car in the parking lot. Before I knew it, we were heading for his house, not my apartment.
I sat up straighter, definitely not wanting to go there since Dante also lived at the same address. I couldn’t handle any more drama, I just wanted to be alone.
“Not your house,” I said. “My apartment.”
“You shouldn’t be alone, L.”
“I have to. I can’t handle being around others right now, especially Dante. He was so mad at Martin earlier. I had to stop him from attacking him. If he starts ranting—”
“Okay,” Jade said. “I’ll take you home, but I’m staying with you.”
“There’s no need for that, I’ll be fine. No one can get inside the building without a swipe key.”
“I’m staying, L, end of story.”
I didn’t reply, knowing he wouldn’t listen, and right now, I was grateful. Jade always made me feel safe—like Ash. My mind returned to Dante’s brother as Jade drove me home, wishing that I could go to his place instead. Although Jade was understanding, he couldn’t fully understand what I’d just gone through, both now and in the past. But Ash could. He understood how fear overtook me, because it overtook him at times too, the both of us having been raped at the same age.
The next few days went by painfully slow, Jade continuously asking me whether I was all right, while Dante stalked around at work like a bull in a china store. He blamed poor Jade for hiring Martin after he’d found out what had happened to me. But worst of all, he wanted to go after Martin, describing all the ways he would kill the man.
He continued to pace my office, looking like a gang member in his worn-out leathers and black singlet, his muscular arms bunching up as he continuously clenched and unclenched his hands.
“You can’t do anything,” Jade said, watching Dante warily. “Martin’s already flown back to the States.”
Dante growled, “The fuckin’ coward.” His eyes went to me. “Though, it doesn’t change a thing, you still needa lay charges against him.”
I shook my head. “If I do that, it’ll be front page news. I couldn’t handle that.”
“But, L,” he said, now looking concerned, “you can’t let that rapey bastard get away with this.”
“Please, Dante, don’t take this personally. Let me deal with it in my own way.”
He flinched, looking like I’d slapped him. “I’m not taking it personally.”
“Clearly, you are,” I said softly. I’d seen him react to a similar situation a number of months ago, right here in my office. It was after he’d found out that his partner had been sexually assaulted by her work colleague.
He went to open his mouth, probably to plead his case.
I cut him off, “Please don’t turn this into an argument, Dante. You know I can’t handle arguments.”
He looked like he was going to disagree, but instead nodded his head. “If you need me, call me. I don’t care if it’s in the middle of the night, I’ll come straight over,” he said, his joker side nowhere to be seen. No darlings, no loves, just genuine concern for my wellbeing.
“Thank you,” I replied, so relieved he was backing down.
“Don’t thank me,” he said, looking sad. “I wish I hadn’t left now. I feel—”
I cut him off again, “You’re not responsible, Dante, so don’t even think it. Martin waited until everyone had left before he did anything. I was just lucky that Jade came looking for me.”
Dante turned his attention to Jade. He walked up to him, giving our manager a pat on the shoulder, changing from telling him off to showing his appreciation. “Thanks for lookin’ out for my sis,” Dante said, his words surprising me. He usually called me love or darling, like he called all females, but never sis. It made me feel good that he thought of me as family.
He turned back to me. “Does Ash know?”
I shook my head at the mention of his brother. “I don’t want him to.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“Because he’ll do something stupid if he found out. You know him, know what he’s capable of.”
Dante nodded, fully aware of his brother’s violent side, Dante’s aggression nothing in comparison. Although Ash had never been violent towards me, or any other woman, he was a totally different person around men. He often got into violent fights, one even ending in him killing a man, something he’d confided in me about. I was horrified over his confession, but had kept it a secret, fearful he would go to prison. Though, the scary thing was, if he killed again, I still wouldn’t tell a soul, and he would definitely murder someone if they gave him reason to.
Like Martin.
Dante shoved a hand through the mess of black waves framing his face. “I should leave,” he said, turning for the door, looking like he needed to get away before he went against my wishes, arguing with me further.
I knew I was a coward for not going to the police, but I’d always been incapable of sticking up for myself. And the way Dante left without pressing me showed he knew it too, because he hadn’t folded this quick when he’d argued with his partner over similar matters.
Jade’s sad eyes went to me. “Are you all right?”
I nodded. “I’ve dealt with much worse, Jade,” I answered, my words unfortunately true, Martin’s actions paling in comparison to what Ant Torres had done to me. “I’ll get past this, like I got past Ant.”
Jade’s right eye twitched. “I wish you’d told me about that monster. I wouldn’t have worked with him if I’d known what he’d done to you.”
“Martin or Ant?” I asked, not sure which of my attackers he was referring to.
“Ant, although it applies to Martin as well. Dante’s right. They could assault others if you don’t let people know what these men did to you.”
“Ant was punished, Ash saw to that, while Martin...” I exhaled loudly. “You know I’m not strong enough to weather the media frenzy it would bring. Please just let me deal with this my own way.”
He sighed, looking as defeated as Dante had. “The way you deal with things is to cut yourself off from people, L. Please don’t take off again. I need you here, both as a friend and professionally.”
I gave him a sad smile. “I won’t run again, I have an anchor here.”
He returned my smile, probably thinking I meant him, which I didn’t.
My anchor was Ash Rata.

I gently laid my baby down in her cot, holding my breath, afraid she would wake up. Lily had been teething, her first year molars coming through early, keeping me up most of the night with her crying. I was exhausted, only my boarder looking bright and sparkly this morning. Kara had even made me breakfast, a plate full of bacon, eggs, and hash-browns, with a glass of freshly squeezed juice. I knew why she was pandering to me, but it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. I was still kicking her manipulating arse out of my house. I was a stupid fuck for letting her rent a room. I’d taken pity on her after my brother had dumped her for another woman. And what did she go and do in repayment? She’d actively worked to break my partner and I up, feeding my now ex with lies about me cheating on her with L. Although L was a beautiful woman, I’d never even considered cheating on Tiana with her. I hated cheats and Tiana knew that, so it stung even more when she’d accused me of being one. She’d screamed and yelled at me, not even considering that I was telling the truth, which had led me to walk out on her.
I went to tiptoe out of Lily’s room, stopping as Kara appeared in the doorway, blocking my path. Afraid she was going to wake Lily up, I flicked my hand at her to leave. She did, sashaying her hips as she walked down the passage, making her arse jiggle. I closed Lily’s bedroom door quietly, following after Kara, annoyed that she hadn’t left yet. Even after all she’d done, she was insisting that I give her a proper tenancy notice, which was ridiculous considering we didn’t have a contract. I hadn’t even asked for a bond.
She stopped in the dining room and crossed her arms over her massive tits, her tight leopard-print top almost splitting apart from being a size too small. “I don’t want to take this to the tenancy tribunal, Ash, but I will if you push me,” she said with a strong Croatian accent, something I had no problem understanding since my grandfather spoke the same way. Kara was full Croatian, while I was half, along with Māori and Romanian, the latter two from my father’s side. It was why people had a hard time telling what nationality I was. They usually thought I was either Italian, Spanish, or Brazilian even though I spoke with a strong Māori-New Zealand accent.
“You destroyed my relationship,” I growled at Kara. “You don’t have any rights.”
“Not according to the tenancy act,” she replied, wiggling her blonde head with attitude, “and Tiana destroyed your relationship, not me.”
“Cos you kept filling her with lies ’bout me fucking L!” I boomed.
She placed a finger to her full, lying, conniving lips. “Shush, you’ll wake Lily.”
I gritted my teeth. “I wouldn’t be yelling if you weren’t ’ere, riling me up,” I all but hissed.
She rolled her pale blue eyes as though I was a child throwing a tantrum, the woman having a bad habit of patronising people. “How about you stop letting your temper get the better of you and actually think. I did you a favour getting rid of Tiana. She never helped with Lily, and don’t get me started on the amount of times I heard you two argue. Love dies, Ash. Get over it, I have.”
“Love hasn’t died, I still love Tiana.”
“While I still love your brother, but he doesn’t want me, while you left Tiana. You could’ve worked it out with her, but you chose not to. Like myself, you had to move on.”
I grunted, knowing she was right about that, but I still didn’t want the conniving bitch living under my roof. “Take me to tribunal, I don’t care, just leave,” I said, walking past her.
She followed me into the kitchen. “Stop being so pig-headed, Ash. I’m good with Lily. You need me here. You can’t work without a babysitter and I have nowhere else to go. I also love looking after the little darling, unlike Tiana. I understand Lily’s not Tiana’s, but she isn’t mine either, and I treat her like she is.”
I opened the fridge, searching for a bottle of water. “That’s cos you’re a crazy bitch, who’s tryna push herself into my life. I’m not a substitute for my brother.”
“I know you’re not, Ash, and I’m not treating you like you are.”
Still holding the fridge door open, I glanced back at her. “Stop lying, Kara, I’m not a fool. You only want me cos I look like my bro, but unlike Dante, I’m not attracted to you.”
She scowled at me. “Of course you are,” she swept a hand over her body, “look at me, I’m hot.”
I didn’t reply, the woman wrong about many things, just not that, because she was hot. She reminded me of a young Marilyn Monroe with her curvy figure and long blonde hair. Yet, unlike Norma Jean, she was far from innocent-looking. Her cold blue eyes were calculating, always assessing what she could get out of people, or who she could fuck as well as fuck over.
“I still don’t have any interest in you, Kara,” I replied firmly, “so do right by me, like I did right by you. I took you in when no one else would help you, and all you’ve done is lose me the woman I love and my son. You’re lucky you ain’t six feet under for that.”
She rolled her eyes again. “You wouldn’t hurt me, Ash, so don’t even pretend that you would. You forget I’ve known you for a while.”
I grunted, annoyed she’d called my bluff. I turned back to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water, almost jumping out of my skin as she ran her long fingernails down my back.
“Will you fuckin’ stop that?” I growled, pissed she wouldn’t give up.
“I love it when you get angry,” she purred. “You’re so sexy when you lose your cool.”
“While you’re a sadistic bitch.”
“No, just horny,” she said, licking her lips like she wanted to suck me dry. And if I let her, she’d drop to her knees and have my cock in her mouth within seconds. I wondered what Tiana would think if she knew how Kara was treating me. Kara was like Janus, the two-faced god. She showed Tiana a nice, innocent side, pretending to be a mate, while coming onto me so strong that I’d had to literally push her away more than once. I’d met aggressive females before, but Kara made them all look like declawed kittens, the harpy a breed of her own.
“I’ll only stop when you give me what I want, Ash,” she said, winking at me.
“You ain’t ever riding my dick, so quit it, Kara, it’s gettin’ old and sad,” I said, taking a swig of water.
“I’m not old!” she snapped, misinterpreting my words, her English not completely up to speed. “You know I’m younger than you. I’m not sad either, just horny. You made me that way, so fix it.”
I sneered at her. “Go frig yourself to pictures of Dante cos it ain’t gonna happen.”
Her face hardened. “Stop talking about that govno!” she snapped, calling my brother a shit in Croatian. “He abandoned me.”
“What did’ja expect after you treated him like crap? You kept pushing and pushing until he’d had enough.”
“It’s not my fault he’s a pussy who couldn’t handle me, whereas you...” She placed a hand on my chest. “You’re all man. You could handle me.”
I removed her hand from my chest. “While you could never handle me, so keep your hands to yourself.”
“Or you’ll do what precisely, dragi?”
“Stop callin’ me that.”
She stepped in closer. “But you are a dear, one that’s so fucking hot I want to lick you all over.” She pressed up against me.
I put the bottle of water down on the bench and took hold of her shoulders, moving her to the side. “Not happening,” I said, heading out of the kitchen.
“Why?” she barked. “You have no partner now.”
I stopped in the sitting room, the woman one step behind me. “I have no interest in you, Kara. Never have and never will. Dante and I have completely different tastes in chicks.”
“But I’m every man’s taste!” she said, both sounding and looking offended.
“Not mine.”
“I think you’re lying, you good for nothing man!”
I laughed, the way she’d said it sounding funny.
“Don’t laugh at me! I’m the only reason you can still work. I look after Lily, not your so-called taste in women. Where is Tiana?” She looked around the lounge theatrically. “I don’t see her.”
“Which is hardly surprising since I split with her.”
“I’m still a better option than her. I would pleasure you at night, while looking after your child during the day. I’ll also cook you good Croatian food. Tiana can’t do any of those. She was always whining she was tired, never lifting a finger to help you with Lily, and I know you didn’t like her cooking.”
I grimaced, most of what she’d said true. Tiana had barely looked after Lily. I understood she didn’t want to raise another woman’s child, but if she wanted to be with me, she had little choice, because I wasn’t giving up my baby girl no matter how much I loved Tiana. I’d gotten Lily’s mother pregnant while Tiana and I weren’t together, Tiana having left me due to my drug dealing business. I’d eventually split up with Beth after I’d found out she’d cheated on me with my brother Dante, moving back with Tiana, giving up dealing to be with her and my now eleven-year-old son. So, when Beth had said she was pregnant, everyone had assumed it was Dante’s baby. We’d learned otherwise not long before Beth got hit by a car. Lily had survived, but Beth had died, leaving me with a new-born and very little help from my partner, who was now my ex.
“You know it’s true,” Kara said, rubbing it in. “Tiana isn’t good for you. You two were constantly arguing. Worse, you haven’t fucked her since I moved in here.”
I jerked my head back. “What the hell, Kara? How the fuck would ja know that?”
“Tiana told me.”
“Why would she tell you that?” I asked, annoyed that Tiana had spoken about our sex life, or lack thereof, to someone as lecherous as Kara.
“I’m her friend, and she was upset that you stopped touching her.”
“You’re not her friend, you’re a snake in the grass, while I wuz tired. That happens when I’m forced to work around the clock, then hafta come home to look after a baby, while she slept. What did she expect?”
See, she was bad for your health, while I’m good for it. I look after Lily well, allowing you to sleep.” She stepped in closer. “I can also remedy your sexual drought, because a man as sexy as you should have sex every day, multiple times.”
I sneered at her. “Fuck off.”
“Oh, no, I want to fuck all over you,” she said, giving me a wicked grin. “I masturbate to thoughts of you every night. I’d pay you to have sex.”
“I’m not a fuckin’ whore,” I snapped. “If you want a ho, go pay my father. He’ll take your money.”
Her cold blue eyes sparkled. “He may be able to make me come, but he’s not who I want.” She unzipped the front of her top and unhooked her bra, releasing her massive tits.
“For fuck’s sake,” I snapped, turning away from her. “Put those things away.”
She moved up behind me, pressing her tits against my back.
I spun around fast. “Stop it, Kara,” I said, backing up.
She followed me, reaching for my crotch.
I smacked her hand away. “I’m warning you, Kara,” I growled.
“You’re all talk, Ash,” she said, running her hand over my crotch.
Having had more than enough of her shit, I grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her against the wall, getting a startled yelp out of her. I lowered my face to hers, the chick quite a bit shorter than me. “I’m not a nice man, Kara,” I growled low. “I’m more likely to fuck you up than fuck you.”
She did a little shake, her pupils growing big. Before I knew what was happening, she grabbed my head and yanked it down, smashing her lips against mine. I put my hands in between us and pushed away from her, getting a handful of tits in the process. I instantly whipped my hands away, horrified I’d touched them.
She laughed, looking pleased with herself. “Now that, Ash, is what I’m talking about.” Her eyes dropped to my crotch. “And it looks like it turned you on too, big boy.”
I covered my crotch, disgusted that I was hard.
She took a step towards me.
I backed up fast, almost falling over the coffee table. “Keep the fuck away from me!”
She placed a finger to her lips. “Shush, you’ll wake up Lily.”
I quickly moved to the side as she went for me again. I didn’t want to touch her, but she wouldn’t stop. “My father wuz right, I should never have let you stay ’ere.”
She shook her head. “He wasn’t right because I’m perfect for you, Ash. Unlike Tiana, I’m happy to help raise your child. I can’t have children, so this is a perfect setup.”
I sneered at her. “So, you’re after my kid.”
She shook her head again. “No, I’m after you, Lily is just a bonus. We can be a family.”
“You’re delusional.”
“No, I’m realistic. You need someone to help raise Lily, I need someone to care for me, and Lily needs two parents.”
“You’ll never be Lily’s parent.”
Step parent.”
“I know what you mean, and it’s not happening. Firstly, I’m never gettin’ married, and secondly, I don’t want you, Kara. End of story.”
“Not until I say so.” She reached behind her back and unzipped her skirt, dropping it to the floor.
“Stop doin’ that!”
Smiling at me, she leaned forward and shimmied out of her barely there G-string, dropping it to the floor too. Now completely naked, she ran her hand over her clean-shaven pussy, dipping her finger between her slit. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t turn you on,” she said, licking her full lips, looking like she wanted to wrap them around my cock. My cock twitched at the sight, but my mind didn’t want anything to do with the barracuda.
“Take your loose cunt and fuck off,” I growled. “Cos I’m never gonna fuck it.”
Her eyes widened, then her hand whipped out, slapping me across the face.
I grabbed her wrist. “That’s the only time I’ll let you hit me, Kara. Do it again, and I won’t be so nice.”
Nice?” she hissed. “You aren’t fucking nice, Ash. You’re a nasty, bitter man who refuses to see what’s good for him.”
“You’re not good for anyone, Kara, you’re poison,” I said, letting go of her wrist.
She shoved my chest.
I sneered at her and took a step closer, making her stumble back. “I ain’t Dante. I won’t let you push me around.”
She sneered right back. “Don’t delude yourself, you’re just like your brother. Even when I pushed him, he never raised a hand to me, like you won’t. You’re too noble, Ash. You’re not your father, you wouldn’t hurt a woman.”
I glared at her. “I can still toss you out on your fat arse.”
Her eyes widened. “You didn’t just say that!”
I grinned. “You bet I did.”
Her hand whipped out again. I caught it before it could connect with my face and shunted her back, pushing her against the wall again. I pressed my body against hers, causing her to inhale sharply.
“There you go,” I sneered. “You’ve got my body against yours. Enjoy it, cos it’s all you’re gonna get.” My sneer turned into a smile. “And here’s sumpthin’ for you to mull over, draga. I may not be able to kill you, but I’m fine with setting Killer onto you,” I said, mentioning my father’s ex, a hitman with multiple personalities, three to be precise. Killer was deadly, Murderer even deadlier, a true psychopath without a shred of empathy, while the third personality was a teenage girl with masochistic tendencies, her name Pain.
Kara inhaled sharply. “You wouldn’t!”
She was right, but she didn’t need to know that. “He’s already asked to put a bullet in your head, so don’t tempt fate.”
Her face dropped, Kara clearly believing me.
I sniggered, amused that I’d stunned her into silence, not something that happened often. She was hard to shock, especially with her rough background, my brother’s ex having survived the Bosnian War.
I let go of her and turned to the front door, now in a good mood, getting one over Kara better than downing some uppers. Plus, it was about time I put her in her place, something that was long overdue.
“Get dressed and leave,” I said, reaching for the door handle, hoping there was a cheque in the mail. “I want you out by the end of the day.”
I opened the door, jumping at the sight of one of my best mates standing on my front step. L had her hand raised, looking like she was about to knock. A stunning smile lit up her beautiful face, the chick the complete opposite of Kara. She was so sweet, a sex kitten who had no idea how hot she looked, and today was no different. Her perky tits were on full display, the sunlight making her white blouse see-through, her lacy bra visible underneath. It was why I was finding it incredibly hard to keep my eyes on her face, even though it was a face I adored. She had stunning hazel-green eyes and fine porcelain features, the woman a right doll, her gorgeous ginger and blonde hair framing everything perfectly. Ever since she’d returned from Wales, I found it hard to think of her as the kid I was friends with back in high school. Twelve years ago, she’d looked like a pretty boy, with bright orange hair and a less curvy figure, if you could even call it curvy now, because she was so slim.
“Hello, L!” Kara chimed behind me, making me stiffen. I’d forgotten Kara was there, L like a breath of fresh air in a cave filled with choking smoke.
L’s gaze moved past me, her eyes going big at the sight of the naked bitch at my back. “No, no, no,” L said, shaking her head, her expression horrified. Then she was spinning around, looking like she was about to bolt.
I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside, causing her to squeal. I let go of her and shut the door so she couldn’t escape. “It’s not what it looks like,” I said, wanting to strangle Kara.
L took a step away from me. “What it looks like,” she said, her voice trembling, “is that you had sex with Kara.”
I grimaced, insulted that she thought I’d stoop that low. “I have no interest in doin’ that barracuda. Never have and never will.”
“Then why is she naked!” L yelled, thrusting a finger in Kara’s direction.
“She’s sexually harassing me, won’t take no for a bloody answer. She thinks if she walks around naked I’ll fuck her like Dante did. Screw that, I don’t like nasty women.” I looked back at Kara, wanting to piss her off. “Especially ones with fat arses and fake tits.”
Kara’s eyes widened. “My tits are real!” she said, not defending her arse, the chick getting a bit too comfortable with eating my food. Still, I’d only said it because I knew it would rile her, like she was riling me, because I didn’t care if she was fat or thin. I liked women of all sizes. Small arses, big arses, I had no type in that regard, only that they were sweet-natured, like Tiana used to be and L had always been.
Kara’s sulky expression disappeared. A sly smile replaced it, not boding well for me. She made a ticking sound, like a snake with a forked tongue, her cold blue eyes moving to L. “He’s lying, L. He pushed me against the wall and pressed his body against mine. Mmm, it felt sooo good. Ash baby has one enormous cock, so big when it’s hard.”
I stiffened. “Did you forget what I said ’bout Killer?” I snapped, sick of her manipulating people.
She ran a finger over her lower lip, giving me a smug smile. “Don’t fool yourself, Ash, you would never put Killer on me. Despite Dante dumping me, he still loves me. If you got me killed, he’d never forgive you, and I know you love your brother too much to do that.” She licked her finger and lowered it to her pussy, biting her lip, looking at me like she’d experienced my cock inside of her. She had no shame, sex not meaning the same to her as it did to me—or anyone else. She’d worked as both a porn star and a hooker, the woman used to exposing herself to others.
I turned back to L, who looked like she believed every word Kara was saying. “She’s lying. I would never fuck her. She ain’t my type.”
“Then, why did you get hard over me?” Kara said.
I shot her a dark look over my shoulder. “Stop tryna manipulate L into believing your bullshit. Pack and leave before I call the cops on you.”
She shook her head. “You wouldn’t bring the cops here, you hate them, plus I know where you hide your drugs. You wouldn’t risk it.”
I stalked over to her, Kara backing up fast. “This is my house!” I yelled at her. “I work myself to the bone so that my daughter can live in a nice suburb, and I will not tolerate you undermining me! This is it, Kara. I want you gone by the end of the day or I’ll kill you myself!”
“You don’t mean that,” she said, now looking worried, something in my expression telling her I did. The woman was able to drive any man insane, pushing them past their limits, making them do what they normally wouldn’t.
“You know I don’t speak just to hear my voice,” I growled.
“But you said the same thing after I got into the shower with you last night.”
“She what?!” L yelled.
I shot L an annoyed look over my shoulder, both of the women now pissing me off. “I didn’t want her there, so stop bein’ so gullible. I got out as soon as she got in. Ever since Tiana moved out, she won’t stop comin’ onto me. I can’t turn around without her tryna jump my bones.”
Guilt flashed across L’s face. “I’m sorry.”
“The only thing you’re sorry about is that he doesn’t want you,” Kara spat at L.
L flinched, looking like Kara had slapped her.
“Ignore her, L,” I said. “She’s bein’ spiteful cos she can’t get me. She knows you’re just a mate.”
Kara rolled her eyes. “You’re as thick as your brothers at times, Ash, even worse than Sledge,” she said, mentioning the youngest one. “Totally clueless. L admitted to wanting you, hell, she even said she loved you.”
“Stop lying, Kara, I’ve had more than enough of your bullshit.”
“Then ask L if you don’t believe me.”
I turned back to L. “Tell her that you don’t want me like that.”
L wrapped her arms around her midsection and dropped her gaze.
I frowned. “L, tell her.”
She didn’t reply, just kept staring at her booted heels.
“You can’t be serious?” I said, taken aback that Kara was telling the truth. L still wanted me? I’d thought she’d gotten over her high school crush years ago.
L looked up at me, her eyes misting over. “You know I had a thing for you back in school, so why would it be any different now?”
“But, you told Tiana you weren’t interested in stealing me from her, that we were just mates.”
“You wanted Tiana back then, so it’s not like I had a chance of winning you, while now... You’re single and you haven’t shown any interest in being with me other than as friends.”
“Cos that’s all I thought we were.”
“Not to me!” she cried, sounding hurt.
“Then, why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because you could never want someone like me.” She turned to the door, looking like she was going to bolt again.
I rushed over, slamming my hand against it, stopping her from escaping. “No, you don’t,” I barked, not letting her startled look stop me from saying my piece, what she’d done hurting me. “All those times you came over, pretending to be my mate, you were only ’ere cos you wanted to fuck me?”
Her eyes went wide. “No!”
“Well, it sure as hell sounds like it. Tiana kept tellin’ me you were only hanging around cos you wanted to steal me from her. I defended you against her, tellin’ her she wuz just bein’ paranoid, that all you wanted wuz to be my mate, and now you’re tellin’ me that she wuz right all along?”
L shook her head vigorously. “No. I would never have done anything to come between the two of you. I just wanted to be near you, that was enough for me.”
“Don’t lie,” Kara said. “You want all of Ash. Admit that you were secretly hoping he would get with you after he left Tiana.”
L swallowed, looking guilty as sin, her silence confirming Kara’s words.
My jaw clenched. “Did you tell Tiana that I wuz cheating on her with you?”
Her eyes went big again. “No! I would never have done that. I told her that you had no interest in me, tried to reassure her, but Kara kept feeding her lies about me and you.”
Kara sniffed. “Well, you made it so damn easy since everyone but Ash knew you loved him, correction, love him, because you just can’t keep away from my dragi.”
“I’m not yours, Kara,” I said.
She spoke over me, “It’s why Tiana was so easy to manipulate. If you didn’t keep coming over, L, I wouldn’t have had anything to work with. Though, you did Ash a favour with helping me get rid of that silly woman. She wasn’t good enough for him, never was and never will be.”
“Stop insulting Tiana!” I snapped, knowing that wasn’t true. I was the one who wasn’t good enough for Tiana, my mates pretty much spelling it out when I’d first hooked up with her. She’d been so sweet, so perfect back in high school, nothing like the paranoid woman she’d grown into. Being with me had tarnished her, worn her down.
Kara shook her head at me. “No, you need to learn some home truths, Ash. Tiana isn’t good for you on so many levels. She refused to help you with Lily, she also refused to give you what you need: sexually, mentally, and culturally. You should never have gotten back together the first time. You broke up for a reason. It was inevitable that you’d break up again.”
“What would you know? You weren’t even ’ere back then.”
“Tiana told me all about it. You forget I became her best friend. She told me everything. She mentioned about how much it hurt when you moved onto another woman whiplash fast after she’d left, and how devastated she was when she found out you’d gotten that same woman pregnant. She also couldn’t get over how you fought harder to keep Lily than Angelo.”
I stiffened at the mention of my son with Tiana. “I fought damn hard to be keep him with me. Tiana’s the one who kept Angelo away.”
“And what kind of person does that to someone they supposedly love, Ash? Enlighten me.”
I clenched my fists. A person who cared more about their own feelings than mine. It made me wonder whether Tiana’s words of love were real. The second time around, she’d pleaded with me not to break up with her, telling me that she loved me. When I refused to back down, she took my son away, stopping me from seeing him. That wasn’t love. That was spite.
“I can see you believe me,” Kara said. “It’s written all over your face. You know it’s over with Tiana, you’re just finding it hard to fully let go even though you split with her. And I understand it hurts that you won’t get to be with your son, but you have a baby daughter to think about now. You need to think about Lily’s future and I’m willing to make sure it’s the best future for her, for you, and for me.”
“No?” she said, looking at me in disbelief. “I’m offering you everything, Ash.” She held her arms out, clothed only in desperation. “Why won’t you listen to reason?”
“The reason you’re ’ere is cos I look like the man you love. The other reason you’re ’ere is so you can mooch offa me.”
“You have no money, so don’t be silly, and I’m still not after you as a substitute. I’ve always liked you, Ash.”
“It doesn’t matter. Find someone else, cos I don’t want you. All I want is to work hard so I can look after my daughter, cos I won’t get to raise my son cos of your fuckin’ interference.”
“You can’t blame me for Tiana’s vindictiveness. I heard she did the same thing when you two split the first time. This is on her, not me. It’s also on L for always coming over, making Tiana paranoid. Tiana could clearly see L loved you, I didn’t have to do hardly anything.”
I turned back to L. She was where I’d left her, trembling by the door.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a small wavering voice, accentuating her lovely Welsh accent. “Kara’s right. Tiana was paranoid about me. I tried to tell her she didn’t need to be, but I couldn’t hide my feelings for you. I just don’t understand how everyone but you could see it.”
“Fuck!” I tugged on my hair, angry that I’d been played.
“Yes please,” Kara said.
“Go away, Kara!” I yelled.
“Fine, you stupid man, I’ll leave.” Kara snatched up her clothes. “You win, L. You can have him. I’m done with being rejected. I’ll move out, find a man who’ll appreciate me.” She disappeared down the passageway.
I returned my attention to L. She backed up against the door, looking scared.
“What the fuck, L?” I said, feeling insulted. “Why are you lookin’ at me like I’m gonna hit you?”
“You hate me now,” she replied, still trembling, her eyes awash with tears.
“I don’t hate you, just pissed off you played me.”
She blinked rapidly, giving me a disbelieving look. “I didn’t play you. All I’ve ever done was try to be your friend. It’s not my fault you make that so hard.”
“What do ya mean by that?”
“I love you, but you could never love me back.”
“I do love you.”
“As a friend.”
I didn’t reply, because she was right.
Hurt crossed her face. “And I know why. It’s because I don’t have a vagina. I understood that way back in high school. How could I not? You never looked at me like you looked at Jenna and Tiana back then. All I was to you was a boy. But I’m not a boy, I’m not even a girl, I’m just me. And it hurts that you don’t see that. Do you know how many people send me love letters? How many people email me, telling me I’m the most beautiful person in the world? Thousands,” she said, not lying, her fan base enormous.
She continued, “Yet the one man I want can’t see what they see.” She swiped at her tears. “Don’t you think I’m attractive at all?”
“Of course you’re attractive, you’re beautiful.”
Her face went slack. “You think I’m beautiful?”
“I’d be blind if I didn’t.”
She took a step closer to me, hope filling her eyes. “Beautiful enough to want me?”
“L...” I breathed out. “Please, can we not go there.”
She tensed. “Why? Because I don’t have a vagina? I can get one. I’ve just been putting off the surgery, but I can make it happen, if you want.”
“It shouldn’t be what I want. You do that for yourself, not me.”
“But I want you.”
“Don’t L me!” she snapped, jolting me, her raised voice unusual. She was usually a timid li’l thing, barely saying boo. “You either want me or you don’t.”
“It’s not like that between us.”
“Because you can’t get past what I was born with,” she said, indicating to her crotch. “Do you think it’ll make you gay for wanting me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“What’s so ridiculous about that? You admitted I’m beautiful, yet you never made a move on me after you split with Tiana.”
“It’s been barely a week, and I thought we were just friends.”
“So, I’m friend-zoned forever?”
I didn’t reply, not knowing what to say without her thinking I was insulting her. And it wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being with her in the past, I had, but right now I wasn’t in the right headspace to deal with what she wanted from me. I had so much on my plate, so much stress weighing me down, I didn’t need to add more to it.
She shook her head at me. “I can’t keep doing this, I’m done. Have a good life, Ash.” She turned to the door.
I slammed my hand against it yet again. “You’re not leaving.”
She bunched up her hands and turned around, glaring up at me. “Why? You admitted I’m not good enough for you.”
“I didn’t say that. Hell, L, you’re far too good for an arsehole like me.”
“No, I’m not, you’re too good for me, have always been out of my league.”
“Stop putting yourself down.”
“How can I not with the way you treat me?”
“I treat you good.”
“Not in the way I want. And it’s because of this,” she said, touching her crotch.
I dropped my gaze to it, knowing I wouldn’t see anything. She was flat as a pancake down there, her dick closer to the size of a large clit. I’d seen it in high school when Ant Torres had pulled her pants down in the locker room. She didn’t even have balls, just puffiness around her clit... dick, whatever it was, because I wasn’t sure.
“You won’t see anything no matter how hard you stare,” she said, drawing my attention back to her face. “My dick is so small that Ant called it a clitoris.”
I stiffened at the mention of Ant, the sick fuck having raped L, and more than once. It was how L and I had first connected, the both of us having been raped at the same age. As a result, we’d made a suicide pact, planning on drowning together. I’d changed my mind at the last minute when I saw her panicking in the water, gasping for air, fear making her fight for her life. But she was too weak to keep above the surface, so I’d tried to help her, but she’d kept panicking, wearing me out, the both of us almost drowning. And we would’ve if it wasn’t for my coach rushing into the water with one of my friends, my coach saving me, Joel saving L.
“Did Ant contact you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, he used to say it when we were younger.” She bit her lip, looking uncertain. “Do you want to see it?”
“See what?”
She indicated to her groin. “You know what I’m talking about.”
I took a step back. “What the fuck, L? No.”
“Then, what about my breasts?”
“No, L, I don’t wanna see ’em either.”
“Then, why do you stare at them when you don’t think I’m looking? Dante’s right, you send me mixed signals all the time, making me believe being with you could be possible.”
“When the fuck did the bastard say that?” I snapped, sick of my brother always sticking his nose into my business.
“He says it all the time. And you want to know why he says it? Because it’s true.”
I grimaced, feeling ashamed she’d noticed me looking. “I like tits, okay, and you have a perfect pair.”
Her lips parted, a gasp escaping. “You really think they’re perfect?”
I indicated to them. “Well, they are.”
Her bottom lip trembled. “Do you want to look at them?”
“I already said no. What has gotten into you?”
You, Ash. This is out in the open now. We need to deal with this or you need to deal with me not being in your life.”
I screwed up my face, not wanting to lose her friendship. “That’s not fair, L, you can’t do that to me. You’re one of my best mates.”
“I need more than just friendship.”
“You were fine with things until today.”
“I was never fine with it!” she snapped, a flush of red spreading up her neck. “It hurt being around you, Ash. Hurt so bad. But I couldn’t stop coming around. I love you, and if there’s even a remote chance I could get you, I have to try.”
I didn’t reply, not knowing what to say to that. I might have thought about doing things with her, even being with her, but to actually step over that boundary, changing from friends to lovers... It wasn’t just a line in the sand, it was a massive leap, making it impossible to return to what we had before. I could lose her completely if I fucked up.
“Ash,” she said, stepping up to me. “You said I’m beautiful. We’re close friends. Can’t we try to see if we can make it as partners?”
My gaze shifted to the drawing I’d done of Tiana, which also included my son, the picture hanging on my wall. Getting with L wouldn’t just jeopardise our friendship, it would give Tiana even more of a reason to stop me from seeing my son. She’d accuse me of lying to her again, telling me she knew she was right, that I had cheated on her with L. And although I hadn’t, getting with L so quick wouldn’t prove my case.
“You still love, Tiana,” L said, “don’t you?”
I turned my attention back to her. She was looking at the same picture, defeat written all over her face. “Yes,” I said, not watering it down for her, although it hadn’t been why I’d been looking at the picture. “I have since I wuz fifteen.”
L exhaled a shaky breath. “While I’ve loved you since I was fifteen. Please give me a chance, Ash.”
I didn’t reply, not knowing what to do. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I’d only just broken up with Tiana. “Fuck!” I said, spinning around, unable to deal with this anymore. I bolted down the passage and into my room, closing the door behind me, needing to escape from all the women pressuring me to do shit I didn’t want to.
I slumped down onto my bed and put my head in my hands, not knowing which way was up or down, L having turned my world completely on its arse. I didn’t want to lose her as a friend, but this was too soon after my breakup with Tiana, not to mention too strange to deal with. I’d put L in the friend pocket, safe, always there, a person I could talk to without the complications that came with a relationship.
The door opened, drawing my attention to it. L stepped into my room, looking terrified, yet resolute. She closed the door behind her, her eyes not leaving me... she started to undo her blouse buttons.

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