Heavy bars close behind me with a clang. I feel the sound in my bones. A series of mechanical clicks hint at an elaborate security mechanism beneath the black iron plating. I knew this would happen—had anticipated and dreaded it—but my breathing quickens with the knowledge that I am well and truly trapped.
“Can I help you?”
I whirl to face the administrative window where a heavyset woman in a security guard uniform stares at her screen.
“Hi,” I say, pasting on a smile. “My name is Abigail Winslow, and I’m here to—”
“Two forms of identification.”
“Oh, well, I already filled out the paperwork at the front desk. And showed them my IDs.”
“This isn’t the front desk, Ms. Winslow. This is the east-wing desk, and I need to see two forms of identification.”
“Right.” I dig through my bag for my driver’s license and passport.
She accepts them without looking up, then hands me a clipboard with a stack of papers just like the ones I’d already filled out.
I’ve been dreading this day for weeks, wishing I’d been assigned any other project but this one. You’d think I was being sent here for a crime. My professor—the one who’d forced me into this—warned me that prisoners were not always receptive to outsiders. Apparently nobody here is.
I complete each form, arrange the pages neatly on the clipboard, and bring them back up to the window. The guard accepts them and gives back my IDs…still without looking at me.
My hands clench and unclench, clench and unclench while the guard eyes my paperwork.
Seconds pass. Or are they minutes? The damp chill of the place seeps in through my cardigan and leaves me shivering.
Leaning forward, I read the name tag of the guard. “Ms. Breck. Do you know what the next steps are?”
“You can have a seat. I have work to do now, and then I’ll escort you back.”
“Oh, okay.” I glance at the bars I just came through, then the open hallway opposite. “Actually, if you just point me in the direction of the library, I’m sure I can—”
Thunk. The woman’s hand hits the desk. I jump. Her dark eyes are faintly accusing, and I wish we could go back to no eye contact. How did I manage to make an enemy in two minutes?
“Ms. Winslow,” she says, her voice patronizing.
“You can call me Abby,” I whisper.
A slight smile. Not a nice one. “Ms. Winslow, what do you think we do here?”
The question is clearly rhetorical. I press my lips together to keep from making things worse.
“The Kingman Correctional Facility houses over five thousand convicted criminals. My job is to keep it that way. Do we understand each other?”
Heat floods my cheeks. The last thing I want to do is make her job harder. “Right. Of course.” I shamble back, landing hard on the metal folding chair. It wobbles a little before the rubber feet stop my slide.
I understand the woman’s point. She has to keep the prisoners in and everyone else out, and keep people like me safe.
I reach down and pull a book from my bag. I never leave home without one, even when I go to classes or run errands. Even when I was young and my mother used to take me on her rounds.
I would hide in the backseat with my nose in the book, pretending I didn’t see the shady people who came to her window when we stopped.
A little green light above the barred doors flashes on and there’s an ominous buzz. Somebody’s coming through, and I doubt it will be a library volunteer. I slide down.
Pretend to be invisible.
It’s no use. I peer over the top edge as a prisoner saunters through the door, and my pulse slams in my throat double time.
He’s flanked by two guards—escorted by them, I guess you’d say. But they seem more like an entourage than anything. Power vibrates around him like a threat.
Read, read, read. Don’t look.
The prisoner is half a foot taller than the guards, but he seems to tower over them by more than that. Maybe it’s his broad shoulders or just something about the way he stands, or his imperiously high cheekbones. The dark stubble across his cheeks looks so rough and unforgiving I can feel it against my palm; it contrasts wildly with the plushness of his lips. His short brown hair is mussed. There’s one scar through his eyebrow that somehow adds to his perfection.
The little group approaches the window. I can barely breathe.
“ID number 85359,” one of the guards says, and I understand that he’s referring to the prisoner. That’s who he is. Not John Smith or William Brown or whatever his name is. He’s been reduced to a number. The woman at the desk runs through a series of questions. It’s a procedure for checking him out of solitary.
The prisoner faces sideways, spine straight, the corner of his mouth tilted up as if he’s slightly amused. Then it clicks, what else is so different about him: no visible tattoos. Tough guys like this, they’re always inked up—it’s a kind of armor, a kind of fuck you. This guy has none of it, though he’s far from pristine; white scars mar the rough skin of his hands and especially his forearms, a latticework of pain and violence, a flag proclaiming the kind of underworld he came from.
The feel of brutality that hangs about him is compelling and…somehow beautiful.
I drink him in from behind my book—it’s my mask, my protective shield. But then the strangest thing happens: he cocks his head. It’s just a slight shift, but I feel his attention on me deep in my belly. I’ve been discovered. Caught by searchlights. Exposed.
My heart beats frantically.
I want him to look away. He fills up too much space. It’s as if he breathes enough oxygen for twelve men, leaving no air for me at all. Maybe if we were in the library and he needed help finding a book or looking something up, then I wouldn’t mind the weight of his gaze.
No. Not even there. He’s too much.
Two sets of bars on the gate. Handcuffs. Two guards.
What do they think he would do if there were only one set of bars, one guard?
My blood races as the guards draw him away from the window and toward the inner door, toward where I sit. His heat pierces the chill around me as he nears. His deep brown eyes never once meet mine, but I have the sense of him looming over me as he passes, like a tree with a massive canopy. He continues on, two hundred pounds of masculine danger wrapped in all that beauty.
Even in chains, he seems vibrant, wild and free, a force of nature—it makes me feel like I’m the one in prison. Safe. Small. Carefully locked down.
How would it feel to be that free?
“Ms. Winslow. Ms. Winslow.”
I jump, surprised to hear that the woman has been calling my name. “I’m sorry,” I say as a strange sensation tickles the back of my neck.
The woman stands and begins pulling on her jacket. “I’ll take you to the library now.”
“Oh, that’s great.”
That shivery sensation gets stronger. Against my better judgment, I look down the hallway where the guards and the prisoner are walking off as one—a column of orange flanked by two thinner, shorter posts.
The prisoner glances over his shoulder. His mocking brown gaze searches me out, pins me with a subtle threat. Though it isn’t his eyes that scare me. It’s his lips—those beautiful, generous lips forming words that make my blood race.
No sound comes out, but I feel as though he’s whispered my name right into my ear. Then he turns and strolls off.
I back up until the truck stops me. I’m sweating, but the hot metal is almost a relief. Warmer and more human than the flesh-and-blood beast that looms in front of me.
But I have something to say too. Something true. And I want him to listen. “You might hurt me. You might touch me. But I will never, ever touch you. Not of my own free will.”
I’m shaking by the time I’m finished talking. Tears are threatening again, but I don’t care about them. They don’t make me weak. I know what real weakness is. I saw it inject itself with drugs and hook up with abusive men just to get its fix. I watched it die. That will never be me. Never.
He reaches up to cup my cheek—the side without the scrape. On purpose? I don’t know. He trails his thumb over my eyebrow and down my temple. Places he couldn’t touch when I had my glasses. Like he’s learning me, mapping my face. The inside of my chest feels bright and quivery, but I keep my frown.
“So I can touch you?” he asks gently. “But you won’t touch me back.”
My voice trembles. “I didn’t say that.”
“Didn’t you?” His hand trails lower, down my neck. Goose bumps rise all across my chest and over my arms despite the heat.
He caresses my skin right where my collarbone is, softly, with the back of his knuckles. I clench my fists at my sides, dreading what comes next. He’s going to keep moving lower, until he’s touching my breasts. And then what will I do? Cry? Scream? There’s no one to hear me. The guy from the truck has disappeared over the ridge.
I let my eyes close. “Stop.”
“You don’t want this.” His tone is conversational.
“I hate you.”
“What do you want, then?”
“I want you to die. I want to hurt you. I want you to let me go.”
He laughs softly, a puff of breath against my forehead. “In that order?”
My teeth clench together. “Take your pick.”
“You know what I think, Abby? I can call you that, right? It’s cute. Like you.” His hand curves to the side, feathering light touches along the cashmere of my sweater. He grips my hip as if we’re dancing. And we are dancing. It’s a sick song he plays.
“I think you want to fix me. That’s what you were doing at the prison. That’s what you’re doing now. But the thing is, Abby, it’s not going to work.”
He forces me into the stream. Freezing-cold water swirls around my ankles and fills the insides of my boots, numbing my feet clear to the bone. I try to pull away, but he holds my wrist tight. I’m shivering. I can’t believe he’s not cold without a shirt on. Not that I should feel sorry for him considering he used his shirt to gag and blindfold a cop.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asks.
“The other side.”
He shakes his head. “We’re walking the stream.”
“I can’t,” I say.
He pulls me closer; he still seems obsessed with the gash on my face, which maybe should be a good sign. I force my focus onto the trees in the distance, anything but the rise and fall of his hard, scarred, mud-streaked chest. It’s around dinnertime; I can tell by the slant of the sun. Up close he smells like sweat. Not pine, not cologne, not musk, just man sweat.
“What?” I try to yank my wrist from his hand, but he fists my hair and pushes my face nearly into the water. He splashes water onto my cheek. I close my eyes against the cold spray of it, spitting it out of my nose and mouth, trying to twist from his grip.
“God!” I say as he lets me up. I sniff and wipe my eyes.
He inspects my cut and grunts his approval, as if infection is this huge threat right now. He pulls my hand. “Come on.”
“I can’t even feel my feet!”
He frowns, furrowing his dark brows. “Fine.” He bends over and loops my arm around his neck and just hoists me up.
I pull my arm back and struggle against his hold. “Put me down!”
“You want to walk? Or I still have that .357. I could put a few holes in you, and you could float. Is that what you want?”
I loop my arm around his neck, feeling weird, like I’m participating in my own captivity. But it seems better than the alternatives. Don’t struggle. Wait for your chance.
I’m coughing, wheezing. I had asthma as a kid, and that’s what it feels like now as the pepper spray stings me all the way down. “Get off!” I gasp. “You’re too heavy—I can’t—get air.”
“It’s the spray you hit me with,” he says. “Breathe normal.”
I gasp for air, panicking. “I can’t!” Is this how I die? Suffocation?
“Pretend,” he says, letting up his knee. He shifts so that he’s straddling my back. He grips my wrists now, pressing them above my head, and I feel his boots locked over my thighs. His weight is off my back. “It’s something every thug like me knows, how to not breathe in the fucking Mace.”
I choke and cough. I still can’t breathe. He’s going to let me die. He’s going to sit on me and watch me die.
“Relax,” he says softly. “You’re making it worse by panicking.”
Hoarsely, I try to get air. The sounds scare me. I really can’t breathe. I suck faster as the panic rises.
“Hey,” he whispers. “Shhh.” He brings his head near mine, breath tickling the back of my neck. “Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent, okay? It swells your throat and sinuses, but it doesn’t shut them.”
He continues to speak in his calm, strangely soothing voice. Why is he soothing me? I can feel him rattling against my defenses with every word. “You’re still getting air, okay? Focus on that, Ms. Winslow. That little passage of air you can still breathe through. Slow it down now, got it?”
I can’t slow it down. It’s like I don’t know how to breathe anymore, and I’m shaking.
And suddenly he’s stretching his big body over me, on top of me. His weight isn’t entirely on me, or else I’d be squished; it’s more of a dull weight, as though he’s holding himself against me, warming me, pressing me to the forest floor. Into my ear he whispers, “Breathe with me.”
I suck in a faint breath. “Get off me, you caveman!” Why is he even trying to help me?
“You’re okay, baby,” he says. “Match my breath.”
I feel his chest expand against my shoulder blades. He’s like a big, warm animal on me. I twist, but there’s no moving. He presses down harder, and something about his weight soothes me. I hate that he’s actually calming me, helping me. I don’t want him to make me feel good—he’s my enemy.
I wheeze lightly.
He breathes on, hot and slow against me. A bird calls in the distance. I can hear the hum of the highway, the drone of a helicopter. My eyes tear, and my limbs feel floppy and warm, and suddenly I’m doing it—I’m breathing. I take an almost regular breath.
“There you go,” he whispers.
“Fuck you. I don’t want your help.” I gasp in another breath.
His whisper caresses my cheek. “Nice and slow, Ms. Winslow.” There’s something sensual in the way he says it. “Nice and slow.”
He breathes again, as if to demonstrate. On the next breath I match him. Soon we’re breathing together. It’s strangely intimate, like we’re two wounded creatures under the forest canopy. It’s almost like dancing.
Almost like having sex.
I crane my head around just enough to see that he still has his eyes shut tight, dark eyelashes wet with tears from the irritation of the spray. Did I hurt him? Did I burn his eyes?
“Stop moving around,” he growls. “Lie still.”
Like I have any choice with him pinning me. My heart pounds under his weight.
Breathe in, breathe out.
It’s as if we’re in some kind of time-out, a no-man’s-land with the two of us fucked up and lying on the forest floor on a bed of pine needles that actually feels sort of soft and nice. The moments stretch on and on. I wonder how long it will take him to recover.
Maybe I really injured his eyes. Could I have hurt his eyes permanently?
He shifts, and I think maybe he’s getting up. But he doesn’t.
In a weird way I’m glad. If he got off me, that would end this strange, relaxing time out. It would bring back the harsh reality of who we are to each other.
For now, there’s nothing I can do with him lying on my back, and I let my limbs go soft, let my breathing calm, giving myself permission to relax. I feel like jelly suddenly, spread underneath him, spine flattened out. Us breathing together.
My eyes drift closed. The warm patch on my neck feels lit up every time he breathes out, and I imagine his lips hovering just over my skin.
I imagine him kissing me there, and a wave of forbidden feeling swells through my core.
My eyes fly open. There is no way I’m turned on.
Except I am.
My heart races. My breath gets fitful again.
“Hey,” he says. And then more softly. “You’re okay.”
I become aware of a hardness against my thigh. An erection. A melty sensation pulses through my pelvis. I’m trembling deep down, and it’s not just fear; it’s excitement.
Horrified, I try to shake him off, and he tightens his legs and arms around me. I feel his weight and warmth keenly now. “You don’t want to give me any more trouble, do you?”
“No,” I whisper huskily.
The energy of sex runs wild between us, and I don’t know how to stop it. Does he know? I flash back on him in the prison waiting room, the way he looked at me, and all that power and beauty barely contained in shackles. How stupid I was to think he was beautiful.
“No, you don’t want to give me trouble,” he affirms. “So we’re going to stay just like this until my eyes can recover.”
“So you can kill me?”
“If I was going to kill you,” he says, warm and tickly beneath my earlobe, “don’t you think you’d be dead?” There’s something about the way he says this that makes my belly quiver, and I can’t stop focusing on his erection. His big, strong heart beats against my back, beating my heart like we’re conjoined in some primitive way.
His breath feels soft on the side of my neck, and heaven help me, I want to feel more of him. I imagine his skin on my skin. Dimly I’m aware that my breath is changing, speeding, shallowing.
I stiffen as he presses his lips to the warm spot; it’s a kind of kiss. Or is it? And then he whispers, “Penny for your thoughts, Ms. Winslow.”
Oh God, he knows. This man who’s going to kill me, this man I’ve been breathing with, he knows.