From USA TODAY bestselling author Tia Louise comes a love story about revenge…
by Tia Louise
My finest trick?
Convincing you I’ve forgotten.
Names on a list.
Faces in a crowd.
One little girl.
They told me to get over it.
I can’t do that.
I want them to pay.
(A STAND-ALONE, “Bright Lights” novel. This is Molly’s story.)
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★★★ EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT ★★★
© TLM Productions LLC, 2018
CHAPTER 1: A HIT
Couples move around the dance floor, and I study them as I wait.
Most keep a respectable distance, “room for Jesus,” as the nuns would say—hands clasped, hers on his shoulder, his on her waist, six inches between their torsos. Others are hugged close, too close for propriety in the dining room of this posh Seattle hotel.
An older woman sneers, and her cluelessness makes me want to laugh. She thinks that’s bad.
Oh, to have such an easy life.
I guess I can’t complain. A nobody orphan from the streets of New Orleans, I’ve lived in Paris, Nice, Canada… Now I’m sitting in this marble-lined venue wearing a thousand-dollar Gucci dress and sipping an eighty-dollar glass of wine.
How times change.
“Shall we dance?” My escort’s low baritone voice ripples across the table to me.
My blue eyes meet his dark ones, and I smile demurely. “You don’t have to seduce me, Dennis.”
He grins and holds an elegant hand out to me. I allow my gaze to travel from his perfectly manicured nails up the line of his tailored gray suit jacket over a deep purple shirt and matching grey tie. A purple handkerchief peeks from his breast pocket.
I’ve never seen Dennis Langley in a suit before tonight, and in spite of what’s to come, I’ll give him points for his meticulous sense of style. Too bad he’s an asshole.
“I like kicking it old school.” Straight white teeth appear behind full lips.
His face is clean-shaven, and he’s slim, which will make my job easier.
I don’t take his hand. Instead, I stand on red-bottomed stilettos and smooth my palms down the front of my thigh-length black dress.
“You’re too young to be sentimental.” I smile for him, let him think I’m amused.
“And you’re in no position to argue.”
With a shrug, I place my hand in his larger one. “Suit yourself.”
Dennis is tall-ish. I’m petite, but in heels, my lips are at the top of his shoulder. He holds me close against his body, and his heat radiates into me. It’s off-putting.
I don’t want to inhale his spicy scent or feel the whisper of his breath at my temple. The breath is the essence of a person, and his essence is rotten despite his outward appearance of elegant propriety.
The song is “Moonglow,” a piano standard, and he leans closer, his lips grazing the shell of my ear. “What do you do for a living?”
Blinking slowly, I put my private disgust aside and think about who I want to be tonight. “I’m a computer programmer.”
It’s an easy lie and easy to believe in this part of the country.
“Were you born in Seattle?”
“Issaquah. I graduated Issaquah High, purple and gold.”
“It’s the Eagles now.”
“Is that so?” He leans back, and the grin curling his lips tells me he’s pleased with my ability to play the game.
He doesn’t want to know my truth.
“Oh yes.” I look over his shoulder again, away from his eyes. “Big local controversy, part of the district wide ban on racial stereotypes in local mascots.”
“How very PC of old Issaquah.”
We sway side to side, his hand moving further around my waist, drawing me closer to his body.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
I resist exhaling deeply. It’s time to get this show on the road, give him what he wants. I’m glad, honestly, as it will get me out of this place sooner and back to where I want to be, back to the life I prefer.
“Only a step-brother. He was quarterback of the high school football team until he blew out his knee. Now he works at Cougar Mountain Zoo.”
“A stepbrother…” The word rolls from his tongue as if he’s preparing for something delicious. “Were you home alone together much?”
He’s encouraging me, and I continue unspooling the lie.
“Yes,” I answer slowly, seductively. “Even after his injury, he was still so fit. He liked to walk from his bedroom to our shared bathroom in nothing but a towel… so I could see the V in his obliques.”
“What else would he do?”
I make my voice breathy, high like Marilyn Monroe. “He would wait until I went to bed at night, then he would come into my room.”
“How old were you?”
I know Dennis prefers them younger, but it doesn’t seem to matter this time.
“What happened?” His voice is eager.
“He would get in my bed and slide my panties down my legs to my ankles.”
I speak right in his ear, a breath above a whisper. “He’d kiss me, sliding his tongue over and over. Then he’d touch me, circling and circling.” I gasp and do a slight shiver as if I’m reliving it. “The circles would grow harder, holding me down as my legs shook and I cried out as I came.”
Dennis steps back, dark eyes blazing. “You loved it?”
I bite back a smile. I’ve got this guy right where I want him.
Making a worried face, I continue speaking in my baby voice. “It was so wrong… So dirty… But it felt so good. I could never tell him no.”
His large hand tightens on mine, and he turns leading us off the dance floor at a steady pace. I’m practically running to keep up with him, the long, gold chain around my neck swaying over my bouncing breasts.
We don’t stop until we’re at the shiny brass elevators. The doors slide open, and he growls when it’s not empty. I’m inwardly relieved. I don’t want him touching me any more than absolutely necessary.
Inside, he repeatedly presses the button for the tenth floor until the doors close. We rise, high and fast, gently slowing when we reach ten.
He holds my hand like I’m a child as he strides down the hall, fumbling with his pocket until he pulls out the door card.
“What about the bill?” I whisper, breathless, keeping up the charade.
“They’ll add it to my room.” His voice is gruff daddy.
An electronic bleep, and he pulls me inside an open suite with a picture window offering a stunning view of the Seattle skyline. An ice bucket holds an open bottle of champagne on the far table.
I only have a moment to notice before he turns me, slamming my chest to the wall. He’s on me at once, breathing down my neck and fumbling between my legs for the hem of my dress.
“Tell me about your toys.” My skirt is up, exposing my bare ass. “Did you collect Barbie dolls?”
Manicured nails scratch at my thong, finding the scrap of material and ripping it away.
Closing my eyes, I calm my mind, centering my thoughts and summoning my strength. I move my focus away from his words and actions and toward my purpose for being here, just like I was trained to do.
Slow it down…
See the end.
I’ve been tracking this monster since a thirteen-year-old runaway named Brittanie cried in my lap and told me how he’d raped her.
It’s been a year since that day.
We first crossed paths in the basement of a tattoo parlor. In a room with velvet couches and ornate chairs. It was an orgy, with men and women in various states of undress scattered around the room. He’d been on the couch complaining because there were no teenagers for him to fuck.
I was so ready to finish him that night.
Tonight, I will.
Expectancy floods my chest, radiating through my arms and legs, filling me with strength. I visualize my movements before I even make them.
“I played dress-up.” The baby-voice drains away as I lift the thick gold chain from around my neck. “I wore combat gear and attacked the enemy with my bare hands.”
In a fluid motion, I spin in his arms, whipping the chain over my head and down around his, wrapping it repeatedly around his neck.
Another spin, and I’m behind him, on his back, twisting the heavy metal tighter and tighter. My movements are so fast he doesn’t have time to recover. Surprise is my ally. Once he realizes what I’ve done, it’s too late for him.
The gold chain cuts into his neck, trapping the air in his lungs and preventing more from entering through his mouth. He drops to his knees with me on his back, gagging and struggling frantically to free himself, to get me off him.
Only he can’t get me off him.
I’m small and petite, but my will makes me strong.
I press my knees harder into his spine, twisting and pulling the chain, tighter and tighter as he snorts and claws at his neck.
My lips curl with a smile as his skin turns a darker shade of red…
Satisfaction is a rose blooming in my stomach, and I lean into his ear. “Now I collect the souls of men who rape thirteen-year-old girls.”
He snorts one last time, and I lean up.
The chain links create black and purple bruises in the shape of ovals along his neck. So far, my plan is going exactly as it should—quiet, tame, final.
Dennis is the fourth predator I’ve successfully tracked down.
The first put up a fight.
He was a big fat man, and I rode his back around his stateroom on a train as he smashed lamps and overturned furniture until he finally fell like a bucking bull at a rodeo.
Dennis goes down like a roped calf, mute and docile.
Still, I hold on. I’ll wait a few minutes longer to be sure he’s dead. Then I’ll meticulously clean his fingernails and all traces of me from his body with the tiny kit I carry inside my bra.
While I wait, I scroll through what I know of his crimes, the lives he’s destroyed, and I give the chain another pull. Only one more, however. I don’t want to cut his head off. That’s a mess even I don’t have the time or the energy to clean.
No, I’ll walk out of this room without leaving a trace.
Like I always do.
No evidence; no looking back.
Another ten seconds, ten ticks on the clock, and my job here is done.
One less predator in the world.
One less little girl to be hurt.
* * *
At 3 a.m., I arrive at our apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
Following cleanup, I walked around the city for a while to clear my head. I inhaled and exhaled slowly as the light rain fell on my face and hair. I walked until the essence of Dennis Langley was out of my system, and I could breathe easily again.
I walked until the only thing left was the satisfaction of justice served.
Like Spider-Man or Catwoman, sometimes it takes a private citizen to do what the authorities can’t accomplish…
And usually those private citizens have a reason.
A fucking good reason.
Just like me.
The metal door of our two-story walkup scrapes when it opens. I hold it, guiding it closed so it doesn’t slam. The huge warehouse studio is dark and quiet, and I step lightly doing my best not to wake Joshua, who’s asleep in bed, lying on his stomach under a picture window.
In my closet, I take off the heavy chain, and for a moment, I touch the links, allowing them to rest on my fingertips as I study them, savoring their weight and strength. It’s a gift I only wear on special occasions. It’s my weapon of choice.
The Louboutin heels are clutched in my hand, and I slip them in the shoe rack hanging on the door, then I kneel and dig behind the boxes on the floor searching for the sleek black case.
It opens quietly, cushioned. Inside is a tiny pink handgun, a Ruger LC9S 9mm pistol. It’s the size of my palm and fits easily in my boot. Lifting it out, I take the yellowed sheet of paper from under it. Opening it carefully, I study the list I made so long ago.
The first four names are written in a teenager’s immature script.
Guy Hudson (LH)
Robert Esterhaus (MD)
Lewis Rain (heart attack)
Gavin Hudson (LH)
Dennis’s name is written in a more mature hand, with precise, even lettering. Taking the small pencil from the bottom of the case, I put a line through it and add (MD).
Molly Dixon, cause of death.
Keeping this list is part ritual, part nostalgia. I started it when I needed a sense of control. I needed something concrete, confirming my plan. I needed something physical to hold, to take the idea out of my head and make it part of the real world. It was my roadmap to the men who’d hurt me, and even if I don’t need it now, I respect the little girl who did.
I fold the paper and place it under the black velvet, return my tiny gun to its place, and arrange the chain in a circle around it. Then I close the lid and put it in the back of my closet behind the boxes and blankets.
Closing the door, I pause to inhale, exhale before going to the kitchen, where I take a bottle of rosé wine from the refrigerator. It’s a Willamette Valley pinot noir rosé—dry and cool, refreshing, and very expensive.
I’m relaxed, breathing easily as I take a lingering sip. Sliding the zipper down the back of my thin black sheath, I let it fall in a puddle at my feet, leaving me in only a black lace bra. I disposed of my ripped thong in a dumpster far across town, far from the hotel and any connection to where I live and work. Unfastening my bra, I drop it on the dress and go to Joshua’s dresser.
I take out a white tank, a “wife beater,” and slip it over my head.
I hate that expression, but I take another calming sip of wine before setting the glass on the table and walking to the bed.
For several seconds, I look out the window at the lights of the city. Our view of the park has become so familiar to me… I wonder if I would call this place home. It’s been a year since I moved in here.
My eyes drift down to Joshua’s bare back. The moonlight drenches his skin in silver, deepening the lines where he’s attractively muscular. He takes a deep breath and rolls onto his side, and my stomach tightens when our eyes meet.
In this light, his gray eyes appear dark. Dark eyes, pale skin, messy, pale hair. He’s my own private vampire, and a smile curls his full lips. I never believed I’d be sexually attracted to any man after what happened to me.
I was wrong.
“Where have you been?” His voice is husky but gentle.
Joshua doesn’t challenge me. He only teases me, as if we share a secret—only, it’s a secret he’s never been told. He is not an accomplice.
“Working.” My voice is low and even. Natural.
I watch the muscles in his arms ripple as he pushes up to a sitting position, leaning his back against the headboard. “Late night.”
“My client could only meet after hours.” Reaching for the blankets, I move them away so I can climb into the king-sized bed beside him.
He slides down with me, resting his head on the pillow so our faces are close. I prop up on my hand, studying his expression, his square jaw covered in dark scruff.
Joshua is a rich boy, the son of a software developer who sent his only child into the world to do good with his obscene trust fund.
“How did it go today with the Realtor?” My hand is on the pillow, fiddling with the satiny-soft case.
“It’s a big house—big enough for five girls—but it needs work.” I watch his eyes travel to my lips, to my hair. “Still, it’s what we’re looking for. It’ll get them off the street and give them a safe place to crash.”
When I moved into Joshua’s apartment a year ago, he suggested we open a halfway house for runaway teens, girls who are too young to work, who need to finish high school or get their diplomas, girls who are at risk of becoming prostitutes or drug addicts or victims of crime on the streets. Girls whose lives wouldn’t last long otherwise. I agreed because it suits my goals. He can help them find a better life. I’ll help them vindicate their past.
“It’s finally coming together.”
“Finally is right,” he sighs. “After a year of permits and paperwork and tests and interviews… Jesus.”
“Has it been a year?”
“It will be in a month.” He stretches out a finger and gently touches one of the silver scars striping the inside of my forearm. “One year, and I still don’t know the story of this.”
Silver-white lines hide across the inside of my upper arms, the inside of my upper thighs, my lower stomach. I only cut myself in places that were easy to hide. My own family never saw them… or my adopted family—my one older “sister” Lara. I hid them until I found a better way to express my pain and rage.
Until I was trained to stop hurting myself and start hurting the men who deserve it.
Joshua is one of two people who have ever seen my scars.
Tracing my finger along the line of muscle in his arm, I think out loud. “Why did you choose me that night?”
His dark brow furrows in confusion. “What?”
“That first night on the street, when you walked up to me and started talking. Why did you do that?”
His sexy grin appears. “That’s easy. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
I shake my head, looking up toward the window. “Be serious, Joshua.”
“I am serious.” He scoots closer in the bed, sliding warm palms along the bare skin of my waist, higher under my shirt. “Have you seen your tits?”
“Stop!” Falling onto my back, I catch his wrists, pushing them down before he reaches my breasts. “I said be serious!”
He stops trying to grope me, but now he’s on top of me, his warm body pressing down on mine, his weight supported by his forearms. I love this feeling, surrounded by his juniper and citrus scent. Joshua’s is the only body I want heating mine, the only breath I want on my skin.
“Okay, seriously? First, I love that dimple in your chin…”
“Ugh, it looks like a butt.”
“Does not. It’s sexy.” He leans down and slides the tip of his tongue up my chin.
“Ew!” I push against him and wipe my face with my hand.
“Oh sure. Ew.”
“I don’t know where that tongue has been.”
“It’s about to be in your mouth.” He comes at me, and I start to laugh, arching my back and pulling away.
“Stop! What else? You said first, so there has to be a second.”
He rolls his eyes. “Second, you reminded me of Natasha Fatale.”
“Who the hell—”
“From Boris and Natasha.” He grins.
My eyes roll. “I’ve never had dark hair.”
“Maybe not, but your face has that look.” His words provoke a frown, and he laughs, leaning down to kiss my collarbone. “That’s the one, right there.”
“Like you’re seriously up to no good.”
His lips travel to the side of my neck, higher into my hair, and I can’t deny the heat following in their wake. “Joshua…”
How does he do this? He knows when to hold me close and when to give me space. A year ago, when I was alone, he gave me a place to live. He gave me his bed and then tried to sleep on an air mattress. It was the first night we made love.
“You never ask me what I do.”
Lifting his head, his eyes meet mine. “Would you tell me?”
I don’t answer.
He pulls out my arm and leans down to kiss my scars. “You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
Dropping beside me in the bed, he rotates my body so my back is against his chest. His palm is flat on my stomach, but he’s not pushing for more.
“That’s all?” I ask softly.
His voice is low at the back of my neck. “You’re tired. I’ll let you sleep.”
“Until 2 a.m.,” I tease.
“It’s after three.”
“Sorry, until 5 a.m.”
Strong arms circle my waist, and he’s so warm and patient.
A home I don’t deserve.
I don’t know what would happen if Joshua found out what I do. I’ve hidden it from everyone, but I can’t hide from him forever…
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