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FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE





NASH & NATASHA



THEN THERE WAS YOU SERIES

BOOK 3







BY




Copywrite © 2018 by SM Stryker

www.smstryker.com

Cover Design © by Krys Janae

Editing by Codi Johnson


All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This contemporary romance is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission.


The publication use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. This eBook is licensed for your personal use only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.


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CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 47

CHAPTER 48

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 50

CHAPTER 51

CHAPTER 52

CHAPTER 53

EPILOGUE

CHARACTER PROFILES

TITLES BY SM STRYKER

SM. STRYKER

ABOUT THE AUTHOR



PROLOGUE

What doesn’t break you makes you stronger ~Unknown

NASH

FIFTEEN YEARS EARLIER 2002

When I think of funerals, today isn’t that stereotypical day, or at least it wasn’t. The sun beats down on me as rivulets of sweat trickle down my back making a little path until it absorbs into the waistband of my slacks. I guess it’s a good thing I needed to get this suit cleaned. I hate wearing stiff monkey suits, but I’m still officially a Marine, and although it’s not in a military cemetery, I’m still paying respect to a fallen soldier. So here I stand in my blue dress bravos, sweating profusely. I hate wearing stiff monkey suits. Pulling at my tie, I feel as if I’m suffocating.

Gravel crunches under my feet as I make the long trek out to the graveside service. Others follow behind me like a trail of lemmings.

Leave it to Alec for picking a plot at the furthest end of the cemetery just to have a view of the lake and be shaded by a weeping willow.

When Alec and Natasha, Alec’s kid sister, lost their parents in a tragic car accident, one of the first things Alec did was to buy this plot for them. We sold everything they had to afford it; he wouldn’t settle for anything less. Their parents died suddenly and hadn’t made plans. He knew his mother would love the spot and swore he would do whatever it took to place the whole family there.

Thinking back to my childhood a smile spreads across my face at the fond memories I had with Alec and Natasha; we were the three musketeers. The smile falters on my face. Life changes so quickly when we least expect it. One minute, you’re on top of the world, the next, you’re burying your best friend, and you’re all alone. No family or friends left.

The birds singing in the trees capture my attention. The fragrance of newly mowed lawns and freshly bloomed spring flowers scent the air. An annoying bark of a squirrel on a branch of the willow overhead pulls me back to why I’m here sweltering in the blistering heat. Maybe all the commotion near the annoyed rodents once quiet home is upsetting him. Fucking hell, the sounds, and smells, it’s right out of a regular Disney movie. Of course, without the funeral.

Standing back, I observe all the people streaming in to pay their last respects to one of the nicest, friendliest, and most loyal people I’ve ever known. I question God, why he would take someone like Alec.

Christ, I’m going to miss him.

Even though Alec could have been buried at a military cemetery, he chose to be buried with his family and have the military service here instead. He made it clear, after his parents passed, exactly what he wanted.

Seven service members raise their rifles, shooting three times in unison in a three-volley salute.

A pastor dressed in all black holds a maroon bible as he talks about loss and finding comfort in Jesus. As the only family member here; yeah, I know I’m not his family, but we grew up as if we were brothers, I sit in the front row of chairs by myself, my mind anywhere but here. Glancing down, I stare at the black bucket full of blood-red roses and realize they’re the same color as the pastor’s Bible and wonder if it’s a coincidence.

He speaks of Alec as if he knew him. This is bullshit and I wonder if anyone is actually listening to the words he’s spewing.

The tranquility of the day changes as soon as the officiant starts to speak. The wind begins to blow, pushing in dark grey clouds that seem to appear out of nowhere. Instantly covering the sun. Everything turns ominous. Claps of thunder shakes the ground as bursts of lightning streak the unforgiving sky. The heavens open, catching everyone unprepared and scrambling for shelter. If I didn’t know better, this would be straight out of a horror flick. So much for the happily singing girl with animals frolicking after her and hello nightmare at a hero’s funeral.

It hasn’t rained in three goddamn weeks, and of all days to rain, of course it would be today. Maybe it’s Alec, taking his anger out on everyone. He always said that if he died he would haunt us all.

Two servicemen lift the flag up off the coffin. As they start to fold it, an officer starts the recite the Thirteen Flag Folds poem.

The 1st fold of our flag is a symbol of life.

The 2nd fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life.

The 3rd fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veterans departing our ranks who gave a portion of their life for the defense of our country to attain peace throughout the world.

The 4th fold… blah blah blah

My mind wanders back to Mr. and Mrs. Turner funeral; Alec and Natasha’s mom and dad. That was the day my life was turned upside down, the day they took Natasha away from us.

The wind shakes the little tent bringing me back to the poem.

The 13th fold, or when the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost reminding us of our nation’s motto, “In God We Trust.”

The wind is turbulently blowing in all directions as everyone tries to find shelter under the little tent set-up at the gravesite. The tiny pop-up tent is barely large enough for ten people, but there are at least fifty people trying to cram under it for protection. I just sit there, unaffected by anything going on around me.

Another service member raises his trumpet. The sounds of taps blaring beside me makes my stomach roil. I’ve heard it played for too many of my friends, and it’s one song I wish I would never have to hear again.

Another clap of thunder and a streak of lightning sends everyone running for their cars, not even waiting for the end of the ceremony. Cowards. The flag folder holds the flag on end so that the corner of the folded flag can be inspected at eye level by the presenter.

As the presenter presents the flag to me, since there’s no one else here to represent his family to receive it, he recites the Marine presentation of the flag. I stare at his white gloves as he hands me the flag. They look big on his hands, he must have stubby fingers. I don’t know why I focus on them, maybe so I don’t have to hear the words he’s speaking. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's service to Country and Corps." Then he tucks three of the rifle casings into the back of the flag. “These three casings represent Duty, Honor and Country.”

I hold tight to Alec’s flag, the wind starts to whip and howl, lifting our temporary cover with the riotousness of the raging wind.

That’s when I see her. She’s dressed all in black; suit jacket, skirt, stockings, and her shoes, holding a small black umbrella. I’m surprised the wind hasn’t snapped it out of her hands. She’s wearing a black fedora, tilted slightly to the side of her head, and forward hiding her eyes, not only from the brim of the hat but the dark netting that covers her entire face. An echo of bold red lips are the only color I see through her lacy black veil that reaches down to her chin. Even her hair, which is pulled back into a sophisticated coif updo style, is almost black. It’s as if she brought the change in the weather.

Standing there, mesmerized by the elegant poised creature walking toward the casket, I wonder who she is. She looks so out of place, and I wonder if she is at the wrong funeral. Looking around, I see no other burials in the area. Who the hell is she?

The raging weather doesn’t affect her as she continues to approach. Her head never leaving the sight of the casket.

Oblivious to anything or everyone else around me, I hadn’t even realized that the tent had been tossed like a fallen leaf and blown away by the merciless winds. Everyone has run for safety as the thunder rumbles once again. I stand there, alone, everyone including the pastor is gone. It’s just her and me. My eyes stay focused on her. Watching her, mesmerized, hypnotized by her exquisiteness, by her enigma.

Walking up to the casket, she closes her umbrella, gracefully setting it on the ground. The rain drenching her as streams of water spill off the brim of her hat. Yet she stands unaffected by the weather; resolutely, and unwaveringly, as if praying. Her head slightly bowed as the rain soaks into her suit jacket.

My eyes drink in her body, wandering down her back to her feet. Mud splatters dot the backs of her black lace stockings as her spike heels sink into the soggy ground. Standing back, I watch her, again wondering who she is since I’m not able to get a good look at her face. Whoever it is, must have known Alec well, but I knew everyone that he knew, so I’m at a loss. Most people wouldn’t bother in weather such as this. The rain continues to pour down on us and I too am now soaked, but I can’t take my eyes off the mysterious creature in front of me.

Alec Turner never had a girlfriend, he wouldn’t allow himself to get tied down knowing that he would be in country. He never wanted to put a girlfriend, or wife for that matter, in that type of situation knowing he might not make it back.

The beautiful creature steps up to the casket, taking a rose from the bucket. Her trembling fingers, bring it to her nose, inhaling its fragrance before setting it on his rain-soaked casket. She’s breathing hard, as if it is physically exhausting to just be standing there. It’s the first sign of any emotion I see in her.

Bowing my head, I closed my eyes to pay my last respects to Alec, my brother, my best friend.

Startled, my eyes spring open, pulling me from the silent words I was speaking to my lost friend, when I hear screaming, shouting, and swearing.

My eyes search to see who’s yelling. There’s no one else around. I focus on the prim and proper woman standing in front of me.

“You Goddamn son of a bitch! I told you not to go,” she screams. A sob breaks loose from her throat. “I told you not to try and cheat death, but you didn’t listen.” She drops to her knees, sinking into the freshly dug soil. Her long perfectly manicured fingers sink into the squelchy brown soil, disappearing into the mud before she starts hurling it at the dark walnut casket. Handful after handful is slung. Glops of brown goop slide down the polished wood, plopping back down on the soggy ground.

My heart thunders in my chest. I feel for the woman that’s crumbled on the ground. Who is she?

Her hands are caked in mud. Her chest heaves as she struggles to rake in ragged breaths from her exertion. Dark muddy water sluices down her arms. Her once pristine alabaster skin is now stained brown. “Why didn’t you listen?” she’s sobbing now, her head bowed and her body shudders from her cries. “You left me. You left me and now I’m all alone again.” She’s on her hands and knees. “We just found each other again, and now… and now I’m all alone…” She shudders, “All alone. You left me all alone. You promised you would never leave me again.”

Her breathing is jagged and harsh as she struggles to suck in oxygen. It’s heart-wrenching. I don’t know who this woman is, but I ache for her agony, for her loss.

Setting the flag on a chair, I step over to her. Resting my hand on her shoulder, an innocent touch just so she knows she’s not alone. I feel the need to try to console and soothe her but startle her instead. Removing my suit jacket, I kneel, placing it over her shoulders. I know it’s wet, but at least the layers will keep her shaking body warm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, I didn’t want you to get colder than you are.” She peers up at me, mud splattered on her face. Lifting her veil to wipe it away with my handkerchief. Our eyes meet, her icy blue eyes search my face, as mine search hers.

My brow furrows as I try to comprehend what I’m seeing in front of me. Alec, Alec’s eyes peering up at me.

Stumbling backward and catching myself on a chair, my eyes never leaving her face. Tilting my head, I examine her face.

Could it be? After all these years. My God, it must be.

My heart stutters in my chest. I can’t catch my breath.

“Natasha?”

CHAPTER 1

When someone you love dies, you never quite get over it. You just slowly learn how to go on without them. But always keeping them tucked safely in your heart. ~Unknown

NASH

FIFTEEN YEARS EARLIER

“Natasha?” She’s staring at me as if the fog has lifted. Her eyes go wide with recognition.

“Connor?” Tears stream down her dirty cheeks as her eyes continue to search mine.

Shit, of course it’s her. I haven’t seen her in seven years.

Fuck, she is right, she is all alone.

I would never have recognized her if I had passed her on the street, if it hadn’t been for her eyes, eyes that were identical to her brothers. She’s changed. Today is only the second time I’ve seen her in a dress, and well, the years have been extremely good to her. She’s sophisticated and refined. Not the little Tomboy that could throw a baseball from third base to first like a rocket.

She’s definitely grown up now. She’s an elegant, glamorous, and classy woman. It’s hard to think the woman in front of me is the little Tomboy that was taken away from us.

We grew up living next to each other. She was the little tomboy sister to Alec; my best friend, my brother, and the man lying in the coffin in front of us.

Natasha was the pain in the ass little sister I never had. She was like a rash you could never get rid of, and I loved her more than anyone knew. She always knew when Alec and I were trying to sneak out, trying to get away from her. It was as if she had a sixth sense. She really wasn’t that bad, in fact, she was pretty cool. She wasn’t the typical girl that was prissy and whiney and full of drama. Hell, she wasn’t ever afraid to get her hands dirty, God, she would be the first to jump in, always wanting to prove herself. Finally, we just quit trying to escape from her, and she became part of our group.

She always wore boys oversized jeans, and a big and baggy sweatshirt. Chucks were always her shoe of choice, pink ones. They were the only thing that gave her away as possibly being a girl, and let’s not forget the Mariners baseball cap or a beanie in the winter. Her long dark hair was always braided, and she never wore a stitch of makeup. She didn’t need too. She was a natural beauty. Her skin had a natural glow and with her long dark lashes that swept across her cheeks. God, she was stunning. Most people didn’t even realize she was a girl, hell, she was just one of us.

And, God, she was tough. She wouldn’t play girls sports, she always played whatever Alec and I were playing. If it was baseball, she would practice until she was better than most of the boys on the team. Football, damn, she was fast, and had soft hands, she was able to catch anything that came her way. If Alec and I did it, she did it too.

I remember tryouts for baseball. She had twisted her hair up under her cap that she kept pulled low on her face. She was amazing. Alec and I kept eyeing each other wondering if anyone had caught on, but they never did. Well, not until she hit a home run. She ran across home plate; the whole team was there to slap her on the back and helmet to congratulate her and when she took her helmet off, her hair tumbled out. Man, coach was pissed we hadn’t told him. We called her Nat and it stuck. At first, the other guys on the team objected. She was better than most of them, but Mr. Turner, Alec and Nat’s father, had already looked up the rules and there was nothing that said a girl couldn’t be on the team, and again, she was good. Really good.

It was always the three of us. We battled the world together. We were three strong musketeers. Family.

In the years that I had known Nat, I only saw her cry once. She didn’t even cry when she broke her arm falling from our treehouse.

I smile at the old memories.

And the only time I had seen her in a dress was the only day I saw her cry. The day of their parent’s funeral. The day she was forced to live with her aunt and uncle in a different state, ripping our family apart.

Alec and I were a couple years older than Natasha. We were almost eighteen, but because of her age, she didn’t have a choice. Somehow, they were now her legal guardians until she was of age.

They wanted Alec to go too, but since he was almost eighteen and a senior in high school, they allowed him to live with me and my parents. It didn’t make sense to move him when the year was almost over. That was the last time I had seen Nat. That is until today and I know, Alec never got the chance to see her again either.

She lunges for me, knocking me to the ground. Her arms wrap tightly around my neck as her body shudders. This wasn’t the actions of the poised woman that originally stood in front of the casket, this is Nat, My Nat. Catching her, I hold her tight, inhaling her scent, learning the new fragrance of her shampoo and perfume. Holding her against me, I regain my balance, cradling her in my arms, pretending that for this single moment it’s okay to hold her like this even though I know that if Alec were here, this wouldn’t be allowed, but I pretend it is anyway. I tell myself that I’m just comforting an old friend and that it’s what anyone would do in my situation. I’m comforting the sister of my dead best friend. Hell, who am I kidding, I know it’s so much more than that. This is Nat, I’ve been in love with her since we were kids. And deep down, I always will be.

Sure, I’ve been with other women, but they weren’t my Natasha. When they took her away, it ripped a hole in my heart so big that no one or nothing could fill that empty void.

Picking her up I carry her to my truck. She clings to me, weeping in the crook of my neck.

Setting her inside, I ask, “Where’s your car?” Glancing around, I don’t see any other vehicles in the parking lot.

Grabbing a couple blankets from the back seat, I remove my soaked jacket from her shoulders and wrap the blankets around her.

Her teeth are chattering as she mumbles, “I took a Taxi. I’m staying in a hotel downtown.” Starting the truck, I turn on the seat warmers and crank up the heat turning the vent toward her.

Putting the truck into drive, I say, “That won’t do. You’re staying with me for as long as you need.”

“No!”

Surprised at her response, I glance over at her. Did I hear her wrong?

“Did you just tell me no?”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” she fumes. She crosses her arms over her chest, and my eyes drop to her tits. Snapping her fingers that are up at her face, she says, “Eyes up here.” My eyes flash to hers and I can’t help but smile. “I’m not the same naïve little girl that was taken away from the only family I knew. I’m a woman, capable of making my own decisions, so don’t goddamn tell me where I can or can’t fucking go. You lost that right seven years ago.”

“Hold the hell up.” Jerking the car across two lanes to a parking lot, I slam the truck into park, glancing at her. “How did I lose that right? I’m not the one that took you away. In fact, Alec and I fought to keep you here. My parents tried talking to your aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t allow it.” I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about, but I’m in no fucking mood to deal with it now. “Why didn’t you call me and tell me you were coming into town?”

If looks could kill… I’d be a fried bird on an electrical wire. She huffs out a breath. “And I was supposed to get your number where? Was I supposed to just pull it from my ass? Because you sure as hell never called me.”

“You sure have a foul truckers mouth for being a prim and proper bitch.”

“I’ve always been like this, I just never let it show,” she mutters, looking out her side window.

“I call bullshit, because you were never like this Nat.”

“Stop calling me that! My name is Natasha.”

Taking a deep breath, I try to reel in my temper. “Look, I know this has been a hard day for you, and because of it, I’ll overlook the way you’re acting. I don’t know what happened to you when you left, but you sure as hell weren’t like this.”

“Just drop me off at my hotel, I don’t need you or anyone else.”

I scoff as I pull into what she was calling a hotel. This is far from a hotel. It’s more like a cockroach inn. Steering through the graveled parking lot, I dodge the large potholes. Granted, I have a truck, but these holes are large enough to hide a small car. The place is a dive. Peeling paint, sordid men and women loitering around. Not the place I would want a dog to stay, let alone Natasha.

“Where’s your phone?” I demand. If she’s going to stay in this seedy motel, I want her to have my number just in case.

“I don’t have one,” she says almost sounding embarrassed under her breath.

“What do you mean you don’t have one?” My heart beats frantically in my chest as I weigh my word carefully. Turning, all I can do is glare at her. Who doesn’t have a phone these days?

“Things change Connor. I’m not the same little girl that followed you and Alec around. You and Alec were gone and I had to learn to survive on my own, by myself. I have no one to call, so there is no reason for a phone.” Her voice was quiet; the fight had left her. “I need to go. I have an early flight out in the morning. It was good seeing you, Connor.” Leaning over, her soft warm lips press against the side of my face, stirring things in me that I haven’t felt in a long time.

Whiplash. The woman with the trucker’s mouth is gone, the woman kissing me is my Nat. Her walls came down for just a brief minute.

Maybe it’s better that she leaves. I need to keep a straight head. I don’t have the luxury of old teenage dreams. I need to just walk away. The possibilities of working with the FBI is no place for a relationship, especially just starting out with them. I’ll be putting in a lot of hours to show them my dedication. Her being Alec’s little sister makes it complicated, and I don’t do complicated. The last thing I need with this job is to get sidetracked. That’s how people die.

But instead of doing what I know is right, I pull my wallet out and hand her a business card. It was one that Alec and I had designed for the security company we were going to start when he came home, but the world has a way of detouring our life sometimes. “Here’s my number just in case you ever want to call and… I don’t know, just catch up.”

She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks, but I’m leaving tomorrow, and well, I’m kind of used to being alone.”

“Take the card, Nat. I’d really like to catch up on the last seven years.”

“I told you, my name is Natasha. Nat died seven years ago.” She reaches for the card. “I’ll take it, but I know I’ll never use it.” Her fingers brush over mine as the memories of that night seven years ago flashed through my head.

It was the night before she was taken from us. We were all mentally and emotionally exhausted. The funeral for her parents had been earlier that day. Alec and Nat were staying the night at my house. We were in the family room watching TV. The fire was burning in the fireplace and the three of us had been crammed together on the couch. Alec had gotten to warm and had moved to the floor. Soft snores evidenced his exhaustion, leaving Nat and I still cuddled together.

She had been crying, so I had pulled her onto my lap trying to comfort her. I needed to be strong for her. I didn’t want her to go, but I didn’t want her to see me break, and I knew I was going to as soon as she left. Leaning my forehead against hers, I inhaled her soft sweet fragrance. God, she smelled good. Cradling her on my lap she stared up at me, blank-faced. Lifting her hand to my cheek, she held it there. The warmth of her hand against my cheek sent prickles down my spine and awakened urges in me that I knew I shouldn’t be feeling for her. Then she started to trace my face with her fingers as if she were blind using her soft touch to learn my face. Her hand was soft and warm. Her eyes stared into mine, studying and searching, tilting her head from side to side as though trying to memorize every freckle, every mole, every inch of it.

Turning in my lap, her knees straddled my thighs with both hands now on my face. I just sat there and let her touch me, the need for her aching in the pit of my stomach.

Over the last year and a half, my feelings for her had grown. I knew I couldn’t do anything, Alec would kill me. So, I kept my feelings for her to myself, my secret that I wanted to shout out to everyone. I didn’t want her to go, she was mine.

I was still in my slacks and dress shirt from the funeral and my feelings for Nat were evident and straining under my zipper.

As odd as it sounds, I’d never had sex. For me, it was because of my feelings for Nat. The more I was with her, the more my feelings for her grew. I didn’t want to be with anyone else, but then again, the three of us were always together, none of us dated, thank God, because I don’t know what I would do if someone ever asked her out.

I watched Nat as she explored my face. Her fingers traced my nose and brow, then my cheek and ear, drawing it down to my lips. Her thumb ran over my bottom lip, her mouth opened, and the little pink tip of her tongue mimicked her thumb slipping it across her bottom lip.

My eyes dropped to her mouth as my heart raced in my chest. I was almost panting.

Her eyes darted to mine then back to my lips as her hands cradled my cheeks. Leaning in, she brushed her moist warm lips against mine. I thought I would explode. Fireworks blasted inside me. Gasping for my next breath; my pulse roared in my ears and all I wanted to do was to hold her and taste her and ease the throbbing of my dick. Fuck, I wanted to make her mine.

It was awkward at first. Which way do I turn my head, teeth clinking together, noses bumped, but then as if we had been doing this forever, we were in unison. Her fingers slipped through my hair, clenching it so fucking tight in her fists. God, it hurt so good. My arms wrapped around her petite frame, holding her tight against me, never wanting to let her go. We breathed through each other. Tears stung my eyes at the realization that I was in love with Natasha, and she was leaving in the morning.

How could this be happening? We had wasted so much time. I should have told Alec. Let him hit me for loving his little sister, but now it’s too late.

My heart was being ripped from my chest leaving a large gaping hole and there was nothing I could do about it. Mom and dad tried talking Alec’s aunt and uncle into letting her stay, but they were adamant about her going. It was hard enough to get them to agree to Alec staying and he turns eighteen in a couple months.

Nat clears her throat as the memories slowly fade.

Seeing Nat brought back so many of the feeling that I had for her. I don’t know what happened in the years since she left, and I don’t know that I ever will now. “Well,” I say, my voice raspy with emotion. “I’m here if you need me or just want to talk.” I tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. “I wish you would change your mind and come stay with me. I’ve missed you and I don’t like the idea of you staying here. This isn’t a place for you.”

Reliving the day when she was taken away from us, away from me, I wonder how different things would have been. I should have demanded that she stay with us. She didn’t belong to them, she belonged to us, but I was just a kid; not even eighteen. The state would never have allowed it. Fuck, her aunt and uncle wouldn’t even let us talk to her when we called. And all my letters were sent back unopened with big bold words written across the front: ‘RETURN TO SENDER. ADDRESS UNKNOWN.’

My gut twists and my heart pounds in my throat, as if it were being ripped from my chest once again. Trying to swallow the lump of emotions lodged in my throat, I grip the steering wheel so tight, my knuckles ache with the pressure.

Shoving the door open, the dome light catches the glimmer of a tear sliding down her cheek. She walks away from me one last time.





CHAPTER 2

NATASHA

FIFTEEN YEARS AND THREE MONTHS EARLIER

Working as an assistant to a highly desired event planner is preparing me for the expected responsibilities that I will have in my future. The experience that I am receiving is what I will need when I marry. I will be expected to be the perfect wife; to throw the most elegant lavish social events while staying poised, refined, and sophisticated. My job as Louis’s wife will be to fluff him and make him look good. Nothing like an arranged marriage.

Little does anyone know, I’m also secretly taking online courses for business school. I would never be allowed to actually attend college and strive for a career, so I’ve been cramming as many credits in so no one will find out. I will be graduating in a couple of weeks. It’s hasn’t been easy since I not only have my job but Louis to care for. Social events, the opera and any event he deemed mandatory, smiling and looking pretty on his arm. Although, I am never allowed to speak. I’m hoping that someday I can escape this life called hell, go back home and make a life for myself.

Louis Kingston III is my betrothed. Not by choice.

Our engagement announcement was just published in all the prestigious papers and is considered the event of the year. Not that I have any voice in what I want or the planning of it. Again… No voice. I’m just supposed to stand there and accept everything his mother wants. After all, that’s what I’ve been groomed for, ever since my aunt and uncle took me away from Alec and Connor.

I was introduced to Louis within the first week of arriving at my new home. At first, I didn’t understand, but when I overheard his mother and my aunt speaking about what will be expected of me as his wife, my life spiraled. He’s ancient and fat. Pervert.

For years I fought it, but with the disobedience came punishment. “Alec and Connor are going to come and take me back home,” I would scream.

“Alec and Connor want nothing to do with you,” they would say. “They’ve never even called or written you for that matter. They’ve never sent you birthday cards, nothing. They were glad to be rid of you,” they would sling back at me. And after time, I started to believe it. Why hadn’t I heard from them? Is it really true? Eventually, I just accepted my fate. The realization was like a punch to my gut. How could Alec and Connor just turn their backs on me? I thought I meant more to them. We were three strong, the three musketeers. Fucking hell, we were family.

So, I finally gave in to the fated future I was being groomed for. I would learn to be the perfect wife. Well mannered, educated, and proper, learning quickly that Louis would always be right no matter if he was wrong. There would be no respect for me or my mind; I’m just arm candy, a glorified party planner for all his business parties and eventually the mother of his heir. But of course, I would never be allowed to care for them. He would hire the best nannies to make sure I didn’t teach them incorrectly. Fucking hell, the thought makes me sick. Not of being a mother but having to be with that man. He’s twenty years older than I and he looks even older.

I don’t understand why they picked me; it isn’t as if I’m from money. Aunt Susan and Uncle David hardly make enough to get by. Their little jewelry store is barely existing. It’s hardly worth anything, let alone a multibillion-dollar merger of families to build a megacorp. I’m Natasha Turner. Fuck, I forgot, they changed my name: Natasha Welch. I’m still Alec’s sister and now, it seems I’m alone.

Or am I?

I received a call at my office that changed my life. What if it’s all been a lie? What if everything that I have been told for all these years was nothing but a lie to make me conform? Make me believe that Alec and Connor had washed their hands of me. Forgotten about me. It made me believe that thing would finally work out for me.

“Elegant Beginnings, this is Natasha, how can I help you?”

“Nat?” I know that voice. My heart is in my throat and my stomach twists as tears burn my eyes. There are only two people that call me that. “Nat, it’s me…”

“Al… Alec? Is it really you?” My voice is quiet. My phone slips from my shaky hand.

“Nat, are you there?”

“Alec?”

“Thank God. We’ve been searching for you for years.”

My brain is whirling, and I can’t comprehend what he’s saying. Alec is on the phone; my Alec, my brother, after seven years he’s finally calling. Anger erupts through my body. Susan and David’s voice echoes through my head. “Alec wants nothing to do with you, he’s never even called you, never written you or sent you birthday cards, nothing. He was glad to be rid of you.” Keeping my voice low so no one can hear me, I seethe, “Seven fucking years, you’ve waited seven fucking years and now you contact me? Go fuck yourself!”

Tears flood my eyes as I drop the phone back on the cradle of my desk phone. How can he think he could just walk back into my life without a second thought?

Within seconds, my phone rings again. Taking a deep breath, swallowing down all the pain and hurt. I compose myself and become the woman I’ve been groomed to be. “Elegant…”

I don’t even get the words out before I’m interrupted. “…Nat, please don’t hang up. Just give me one minute, please.”

Closing my eyes, tears burn behind the closed lids. Relenting I say, “One minute, that’s all you get. That’s one minute more than you’ve fuckin’ given me the last seven years.”

“It’s not what you think Nat. We’ve been trying to find you. It’s a long story, which would take more time than I have. I’m in country…”

In country, in country, why does that sound familiar? Oh shit! “…What do you mean you’re in country?” He’s in the military?

“I’m in Afghanistan…”

“My God, Alec! What the fuck are you doing there? Why?”

The love for my brother comes flooding back. My heart thunders in my chest as my breath hitches. I blink away the tears that start to sting my eyes again with the reality and the knowledge of possibly losing my brother.

“…Nat, I don’t have much time to talk, I’m heading out on a mission and only have a minute. I’ll be back in a couple months and we will come and get you.”

“Alec, I don’t want to wait. I need you, I need to get out of here.” I’m almost hyperventilating. He doesn’t understand. My life is on a timer. If I don’t get out of here, I’ll be forced to marry Louis.

“I promise, I’ll be back to get you. I have to go, Nat, I love you. Remember that. Always.”

The tears that I’d been fighting to hold back are now streaming down my face. I’m sobbing, and everyone around me is staring. “I love you too, Alec. You better keep your promise, or I’ll kill you myself.”

Alec chuckles. “It’s a deal. Bye, sis.”

“Bye Alec.”

Hanging up the phone, I make my way to the restroom to clean up my face. I have a client coming in, in the next fifteen minutes, and the last thing I need is to look as if I’ve been crying.

It’s times like these that I wish I had a friend, but Susan and David never allowed such trifle. Louis was the only person I was allowed to spend time with.

I need a plan. I need to figure out a way to get away. I’ve been stashing away part of my paycheck every payday, but I know there isn’t enough. I smile at the label I gave my ‘Fuck You’ fund and walk back to my desk. I almost have a spring in my step. I have something to live for. Finally.



CHAPTER 3



ALEC

FIFTEEN YEARS AND THREE MONTHS EARLIER

“Elegant Beginnings, this is Natasha, how can I help you?”

Thank God, I finally found her. It was just a fluke that my google search on her popped up today with the notice of her recent engagement.

“Nat?” I know this must be a shock for her, but why isn’t she saying anything? “Nat, it’s me…Alec.”

“Alec? Is it really you?” Her voice is quiet, as if not understanding it’s me on the line.

“Thank God. We’ve been searching for you for years.”

I don’t know how my aunt and uncle were able to get guardianship of Nat, but it will end as soon as I get back. Not that she isn’t old enough to make her own choices now, but God, I didn’t think I would ever see her again. She was gone, vanished. All the contact information we were given was wrong. Wrong numbers, fake addresses, nothing. For all we knew, they could have sold her into the sex slave trade.

“Seven fucking years, you’ve waited seven fucking years and now you contact me?” Her voice is a low rumble. She’s furious. “Go fuck yourself!”

“Hello? Nat?” What the fuck? She hung up on me. I never thought I would get this kind of reaction. She fucking hung up on me.

When I realized that the guardianship papers from Susan and David were fake, I panicked. I didn’t know how to find her. I was cut off with no way to contact her, so I started to look further into them and what they had to gain in taking Nat. I knew whatever it was couldn’t be good and I needed to get her out of there as soon as possible. God only knows what’s happened to her these last seven years.

I don’t have much time; our team is leaving on a mission. Dialing her back, I need her to know that I, hell, we never forgot about her.

“Elegant…”

“…Nat, please don’t hang up.” My voice comes out in a rush. She needs to hear me out. “Just give me one minute, please.”

I could hear the anger in her voice “One minute, that’s one minute more than you’ve fuckin’ given me the last seven years.”

“It’s not what you think Nat. We’ve been trying to find you. It’s a long story, which would take more time than I have. I’m going in country…”

Nat gasps. “…What do you mean you’re going in country?”

“I’m heading back to Afghanistan…”

Another gasp, but this time I hear her voice quiver. “My God, Alec! What are you doing there? Why?”

“…Nat, I don’t have much time to talk. I’ll be back in a couple months and we’ll come and get you.”

“Alec, I don’t want to wait. I need you, I need to get out of here.”

I know I don’t have much time. I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t get to her in time. According to the engagement announcement, they’re getting married in three months. That’s quick for a high society affair. What’s the rush? “I promise, I’ll be back to get you. I have to go, Nat, I love you. Remember that. Always. Remember, I always keep my promises.”


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