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Authors: Sawyer Bennett

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Praise for
Sugar Daddy

“This book devastated me in the most wonderful way. Beck and Sela are so scorching and real together that I didn't want to let them go. I can't wait to devour the rest of this series!”

—#1
New York Times
bestselling author
M
EREDITH
W
ILD

“A totally gripping take on romance and revenge!”

—
New York Times
bestselling author
L
AUREN
B
LAKELY


Sugar Daddy
is raw, gritty, and exceptionally hot. I couldn't put it down.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author
M
ARQUITA
V
ALENTINE

“Wow! Sawyer Bennett steps out of her ice skates and into her Manolos.
Sugar Daddy
is a hot read that only gets better with every page.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author S
USAN
S
TOKER

“I read it in less than three hours because I am a freak reader when I like something. This book is great!”

—
USA Today
bestselling author
MJ
F
IELDS

“Sawyer Bennett has talent that knows no bounds and this book proves it. From page one to the end I was captivated and enthralled. I can't wait for more!”

—
USA Today
bestselling author
C
HELSEA
C
AMARON

“Sawyer Bennett does dark with amazing facility, drawing me in with Sela's story, and holding me there with Beck's.
Sugar Daddy
is compulsively readable, deliciously dirty, and passionately written.”

—
USA Today
bestselling author CD R
EISS

“Sawyer Bennett delivers a titillating novel that balances between the desire to seek revenge and the yearning to hold on to love. It's sexy and addicting, and I devoured every last word.”

—
M
EGHAN
Q
UINN
, author of
The Randy Romance Novelist

Sugar Free
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Sawyer Bennett

Excerpt from
Max
by Sawyer Bennett copyright © 2016 by Sawyer Bennett

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

L
OVESWEPT
is a registered trademark and the
L
OVESWEPT
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Max
by Sawyer Bennett. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

ISBN 9780399178603

Ebook ISBN 9781101968147

randomhousebooks.com

Book design by Elizabeth A. D. Eno, adapted for ebook

Cover design: Sarah Hansen

Cover photograph: Tymonko Galyna/Shutterstock

v4.1

ep

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1: Sela

Chapter 2: Beck

Chapter 3: Sela

Chapter 4: Beck

Chapter 5: Sela

Chapter 6: Beck

Chapter 7: Sela

Chapter 8: Beck

Chapter 9: Sela

Chapter 10: Beck

Chapter 11: Sela

Chapter 12: Beck

Chapter 13: Sela

Chapter 14: Beck

Chapter 15: Sela

Chapter 16: Beck

Chapter 17: Sela

Chapter 18: Beck

Chapter 19: Sela

Chapter 20: Beck

Chapter 21: Sela

Chapter 22: Beck

Chapter 23: Sela

Chapter 24: Beck

Chapter 25: Sela

Chapter 26: Beck

Chapter 27: Sela

Epilogue: Sela

Dedication

Acknowledgments

By Sawyer Bennett

About the Author

Excerpt from
Max

“Oh, Sela. What have you done?”

Beck pulls away from me slightly, his hands holding my upper arms with such gentleness. Those eyes I've come to love swimming with fear. My own eyes fill with wetness again and with one blink, the tears go streaming down my face. I haven't been able to stop crying since…

“We need to get her to a hospital,” Caroline says.

I immediately shake my head in denial despite the fact I'm covered in JT's blood. Despite the fact he just tried to kill me. “I'm okay.”

Beck's hand moves…fingers touching the base of my throat so lightly if feels like butterfly wings, which is totally at odds with the panicked tone of his voice. “You've got some bruises.”

I shake my head again. “I'm fine.”

Then a sob pops out of my mouth, and Beck is pulling me back into his arms to hug me tight. My face presses into his chest, my arms around his waist locking on desperately. I feel slight pressure on my shoulder, followed by a circular motion, and I know it's Caroline offering physical comfort as well. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, the tears continue to leak out.

I have to tell them.

What happened.

What I did.

But I can't seem to open my mouth and make the words form.

As if sensing my inability, Beck releases me and puts his hands to my shoulders. He pushes me back so we can see each other clearly and Caroline's hand falls away. More tears stream down my face, blurring his features. But I know that same look of worry is still there.

“Is JT dead?” Beck asks in a shaky voice.

I can't answer, but merely nod my head.

“Christ,” Beck whispers, and I rapidly blink to clear my vision because I need to know if Beck hates me for this.

When he comes into focus, I see he cuts a worried glance at Caroline, but then his eyes come back to me. His hands come up and palm my cheeks. “It's okay, baby. It's going to be okay.”

And just like that, the stranglehold on my vocal chords releases. My words pour out in a cascade of desperation, stuttered with tiny sobs. “I didn't mean to. I had no choice. He was going to kill me.”

“It's okay,” Beck says in a low soothing voice, but I know it's not. “It's okay. You're safe now. I've got you.”

“Oh God,” I moan piteously, my eyes flicking between his and begging for absolution. “I killed someone.”

“Shhhh,” Beck says, his hands pressing in on my face to urge me to listen to him. “I need you to tell me what happened so I can figure out how to fix this, okay?”

“You can't fix it,” I cry out as I wrench free from him. I look down at the front of my blood-soaked T-shirt and wave my hands at it. “Do you see this? I killed JT. You can't fix that.”

“You need to calm down—”

I spin toward the office door, my head dizzy with stress and emotion. “No. I need to go turn myself in—”

Beck grabs my elbow, stopping me dead in my tracks and then pivoting me toward him. “You are not turning yourself in until you tell me what happened.”

“I murdered your b-b-business partner,” I yell at him, and it's in this moment that I realize I still have some reason about me because I almost said “your brother.” I caught myself though, because Caroline's in the room and she has no clue about the relation.

My body shudders as I remember JT telling me he raped Caroline. Knowing that he's Ally's father.

As well as her uncle.

Bile rises in my throat and I swallow against it with unyielding resolve.

“Sela,” Beck says slowly but with total command, still keeping my arm firmly in his grasp so I don't try to run again. “Tell me what happened.”

My head swivels to the right and I look at Caroline. She has one arm crossed under her breast, the other raised so her fist is pressed up against her mouth in a thinking man's pose. But those eyes…same as Beck's…are totally filled with fear and worry for me.

I look back to Beck and take a deep breath. “He attacked me—”

“Uh-uh,” Beck says with a shake of his head. “Start from the beginning. I assume he contacted you?”

My legs almost give out from underneath me as I realize from that simple question that Beck never once even assumed I initiated contact with JT. He never once considered that I went to JT's place with the intention of murder. He implicitly trusts me and I didn't think it was possible for me to love him more.

I nod. “Left me a voice mail. I listened to it when I got out of class. Said that he had an idea he wanted to run by me that would give both of you want you wanted.”

“And you called him back?” Beck asks, his voice with a tinge of ice as he starts to understand the stupid path I put myself onto.

“Yeah,” I whisper, my face dropping to look at my feet. “I wanted to hear what he had to say. Hoped I could help make sure things worked out.”

“Then what?”

“He asked me to come to his house,” I say in a voice so soft I can barely hear it myself. It's a voice of guilt and shame that I would even consider going to that man's house alone.

Beck hears those emotions loud and clear, cursing in disgust. “Goddamn, Sela. You couldn't have been that stupid to go to JT's by yourself. Not after what he did to you.”

My head snaps up and my gaze slices to Caroline. I assume Beck must have told her, because he wouldn't have outed me like that. Caroline's head tilts and she gives me a sympathetic smile of sisterhood.

Welcome to the We've Been Raped Club.

Beck's hands come back to my shoulders, and his grip is not gentle or reassuring. His blue eyes no longer swirling with fear but rather looking like pale ice. “I cannot believe you'd fucking do something that stupid.”

The real and normal Sela Halstead would have pulled away from Beck and lit into him for calling me that, but I can't. I was so ridiculously stupid.

Caroline takes a step forward and in a censuring voice says, “Beck.”

Her message is obvious. Back the fuck off me with the recrimination because I'm fragile right now. But I can't say as I blame him. I totally deserve it. I mean,
What the fuck was I thinking?

“I'm sorry,” I proclaim, my eyes sincerely begging him for his forgiveness.

Beck releases me, pushes the fingers of both hands through his hair, and clasps them at the back of his head, looking down at me as if he doesn't quite know what to do. He's angry and he's worried, and I can't even begin to imagine how he feels about me at this moment.

Caroline steps toward me, her hand coming back to my shoulder in a reassuring squeeze. “Tell us what happened.”

I watch as Beck's hands drop from his head and he turns his back on me. He takes two paces and comes up against his desk, palms down onto the edge, where he leans over and bows his head to hear my story.

He doesn't want to look at me, so I turn to face Caroline. Her face so open and ready to understand and accept whatever I tell her. But there's no way I can tell her everything that happened at JT's house.

“Sweet Caroline was a lovely piece that I just couldn't resist, and she put up a much bigger fight than you ever did, which made it all the better for me.”

My head swivels to see Beck still hunched over his desk, head hanging low as he listens.

Back to Caroline, who inclines her head and levels me with that look that says,
You and me, sister…we've been through the same hell. I've got you right now.

God, she's got no fucking clue that we truly have been through the same hell.

Raped by the same man.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes briefly, remembering that moment just after JT told me what he did to Caroline. He'd had the cast on his arm pressing down on my throat and my body was starved for oxygen. He was laying his body on top of me and I was filled with torn panic wondering if he'd rape me again or merely strangle me to death.

Regardless of his plans for me, my arms began to flail from near hysteria and an inherent need to live.

—

JT looks down at me, eyes leering not with sexual lust but with a crazed hatred. Saliva slips over his bottom lip and hangs in a long string until I feel its slimy touch on my chin. I have worse things to worry about right at this moment, but feeling his fluid on me disgusts me so much I involuntarily try to lift my shoulder to wipe the spittle off me.

My chest heaves, trying to suck in oxygen, but nothing's getting in. Everything around me seems to dim, my periphery going fuzzy and then darkening to gray. I feel so unbelievably weak.

One arm jerks, not intentionally, but sort of haphazardly slaps at JT's face. He laughs at me as it flops uselessly to the side where it hangs over the edge of the desk. My other arm also jerks and slowly starts to lower, coming down to rest softly just above my head. JT continues to stare at me, eyes practically rolling around in deranged glee as he watches me suffocate.

A lazy sense of acceptance swarms me, and I realize I don't hurt anymore. I can't even feel the crush of his cast on my throat, and about the only sensory perception I have is the hard, flat desk underneath me. The back of my head seemingly cradled by the wood, as if it were gently rocking me to sleep. A cold, thin object under my forearm as it lays uselessly above my head.

Wait…what is that?

With herculean effort, my brain tells my arm to move…to turn slightly…grasp for whatever that is, but it doesn't seem to want to cooperate and I realize my brain must be dying.

But then…something is in my hand.

And I know immediately what it is.

An image of Beck flashes before me, lying in bed beside me…smiling…hair all mussy and his eyes warm and loving.

My arm flies off the desk, up and swinging outward, only to come back in a giant arc, where I plunge the end of a letter opener into the bottom side of JT's neck and immediately pull it back in a completely reactionary manner as I'm horrified I just stabbed someone. A spurt of blood hits my neck and I see JT's eyes go from maniacal to shocked in a nanosecond, then they become enraged. I don't think or hesitate, fear driving my actions. I swing the letter opener again, and it hits higher on his neck but still goes deeply.

JT pushes up off me a bit, opens his mouth to say something, and a pool of blood spills out onto my chest. The letter opener is on the same side as his casted arm, so he uses the opposite hand to try to grasp it, but he can't seem to find it. It doesn't matter though, because the first wound is bubbling and spurting blood with every dying heartbeat. His eyes become glazed as I watch him start to fade before my eyes.

His hand tries to grab the letter opener again, but the effort is pitiful and he misses by a mile. Through the haze of pain and death on his face, JT's eyes plead with me to help him, but all I can do is stare in helpless fascination.

I suddenly realize I'm breathing again and have an immediate return of strength and determination fueled by nothing more than pure adrenaline. I bring both my hands up to his chest and shove him off of me. JT makes a gurgling sound as he starts to drown in his own blood, falls to the side, and drops to the floor out of my line of sight.

I immediately scramble and roll to the opposite side, lowering my feet to the floor and keeping the desk in between us. I'm fairly sure he's incapacitated, but I'm not taking any chances. My head sweeps left and right and I finally see my gun lying at the base of a set of bookshelves. I run to it, coughing and wheezing, my throat on fire.

With sure hands, I grab the Walther PPK and swing it immediately back toward the desk, imagining the worst and JT crawling over the top of it toward me.

But I don't see anything.

Carefully, I sidestep my way toward the desk, trying hard not to cough and hack but not succeeding. If he's alive, he'll hear me coming a mile away as my sore throat rebels and demands I ease the pain and scratchiness with repeated barks of hoarse air.

With the gun ready to fire, I hold it out before me with a sure grip, round the side of the desk, and point it down toward the ground.

JT lies there on his back, eyes open but not seeing anything, the letter opener sticking crudely out of his neck and a pool of blood starting to form under him where it's starting to well and push its way past the object that made the hole in the first place.

JT's dead.

My rapist is dead and I feel like my life has just been ruined.

Fuck, I hate hearing these details. She was almost robotic in her retelling, as if she was reciting merely from a bad memory she tucked deep away so as to protect herself, and it was too painful to bear repeating.

“All these months, I wanted him dead,” Sela whispers in a voice laced with pain and regret. “But now that he is…I don't want that. What the hell have I done?”

I can't stand it. I'm pissed she put herself in that position, but the depth of her anguish is making my hair stand on end. JT deserved her retaliation, but she's not seeing that right now.

Right now she needs validation that her soul hasn't been tainted. That she was merely ensuring her own life would continue and defending against someone else's attempt to take it.

Pushing away from the desk, I turn to see Sela staring at me with tears pouring down her face and eyes so burned out by grief that they're streaked with redness. I can't fucking stand it, and in two strides, I have her in my arms and lifted from the floor. As I cradle her gently, I tell Caroline, “I'm going to get her cleaned up.”

“Beck,” Caroline says cautiously. “Wait…it was self-defense. We need to call the police. It's bad enough she left the scene, but you cannot go cleaning up evidence off her.”

I turn from my sister, noting Sela's head lying heavy on my shoulder as tiny hiccups echo periodically. Caroline rushes to the office door, puts a hand on the knob, and holds up the other. “Just wait a second…”

“Open the fucking door, Caroline,” I growl at her. “Yes, it was self-defense, but how does Sela prove it? Once they find out that JT raped Sela, there's a damn good chance they'll see that as nothing but a motive for murder. In fact, it will seem more likely since she went there with a gun in her purse.”

“But she did nothing wrong,” Caroline implores me, even as she twists the knob and opens the door for me. She knows I'll just do it myself. I slide past her, being careful with Sela's body in my arms.

“I know she didn't do anything wrong, but do you think the justice system will see that? The police and DA want convictions, not a messy death with no evidence to support self-defense. I'm not willing to take that chance.”

“She has bruises.”

“That they'll say were caused by JT merely defending himself,” I say bitterly. “Again, not willing to take the chance they won't see it our way.”

“There will be physical evidence at his house connecting her,” Caroline says as she follows me down the hall to our bedroom. “Prints or some shit like that. That's always how they get the suspect. With forensics.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” I say as I head straight into the master bath. I hear Caroline close the door behind us, and I have to assume Ally is still happily occupied in front of the TV. Fuck if I want her to see Sela covered in blood. “But I plan to rectify that situation as soon as I get Sela taken care of.”

“Beck,” Caroline snaps at me in irritation. “Don't put her in that shower until we talk about this. This is Sela's decision, not yours.”

“You're right,” I say softly, and lower Sela to the tiled floor. Her feet touch solidly, but I keep my arm around her waist, because she looks like a delicate breeze would blow her away. One hand goes to her cheek and I get her attention by tilting her face up so she looks at me.

“Sela,” I tell her with a mixture of authority and empathy. “I don't think it's a good idea to go to the police. You'd never be on their radar. They have no clue about your history with JT. I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure they don't find that he's dead.”

“But she looks less guilty if she goes to them now,” Caroline points outs.

Sela's eyes never leave mine. She never considers Caroline's words, but I feel the need to clarify. “Baby…if they come after you, you still have the truth of what occurred. That will always be there.”

Caroline makes a frustrated noise but turns away from us, almost as if she's giving us privacy. She knows she's said her piece and she also knows that even though Sela has the truth of what happened on her side, the mere fact she didn't report it right away will be held against her.

But I can't risk it.

Sela has more motive for murder than anyone on this planet. She'll be a district attorney's wet dream as a murder suspect. Hell, until just weeks ago, Sela
was
planning to murder JT. Too many things could go wrong.

“The letter opener's in my car,” Sela murmurs. “I wanted to get rid of it but didn't know what to do.”

“I'll handle that,” I tell her, my thumb stroking her cheek. I'm going to handle so much more than that, but she doesn't need the details.

“Then I'll do what you think's best,” she says softly, her shoulders sagging as if she can't handle one more burden.

I lean in, give her a soft kiss on her lips. Chaste. Reassuring.

She can count on me.

“Take your clothes off,” I instruct Sela as I stride over to the huge walk-in shower and turn the water on. She complies immediately and without any regard for Caroline, who now stands in the doorway, watching us both with a nervous bite to her lip.

I gather up the clothing…the gray hoodie that I have no clue where it came from, blood-soaked T-shirt that leaves her skin rusty brown when she peels it off from the sheer volume that leaked through and dried. Sela disrobes like a robot, eyes almost dead. I take each piece of clothing from her, balling them up tightly, and when she's completely naked, I put my free hand on her lower back and gently urge her into the shower. She complies with no hesitation, stepping under the hot spray, and I try not to notice the immediate swirl of blood around the tile flooring as the water hits the remnants of JT that are left on her body.

Turning to Caroline, I lean in and whisper, “When she's done, you get her dressed and into bed. Then you pour every bit of bleach I have in this condo down that drain, you hear me?”

Caroline's eyes widen in fright, and because she was so adamantly against this, I think she'll complain. Instead, she just nods her head, and I know that our course has been set, she's on board with me and Sela. She may not agree with the way I'm handling things, but she'll help to protect the secret we're slowly creating, one lie at a time.

I walk out of the bathroom, acutely aware of Caroline following me. When I hit the hallway, she murmurs so Ally can't hear us. “What are you going to do?”

“I'm going to JT's house and I'm wiping that place down so there's no trace of Sela. Then I'm going to make sure these clothes and the letter opener never are found.”

“I'm scared, Beck,” Caroline says in a quavering voice, and I immediately feel crushing guilt that she's been dragged into this.

“It'll be okay,” I reassure her, pulling her into me for a tight hug. She clings to me desperately and I press my lips to the top of her head. “I promise it will be okay.”

But right now, I feel an impending doom over us all.

—

The letter opener and bloody clothes can wait. Potential prints and DNA cannot.

I went down to Sela's car, using the extra key fob I kept secured with my Audi's key to gain entrance. She wasn't stupid…having apparently grabbed paper towels from JT's house to wrap the murder weapon in. This told me she had presence of mind after it was all said and done. It also told me she ventured into other parts of the house that would have to be cleaned up.

But it was late Monday afternoon, heading into early evening, and to my knowledge, JT wouldn't have any visitors. I should be able to slip in, wipe everything down as best I could, and leave without anyone being the wiser.

I briefly thought of disposing of the body, and while I haven't completely ruled it out, I'm not sure that's a good use of my time. More important, getting rid of bloody clothes and a small letter opener won't be hard. Disposing of a full-grown male body is another matter, and it only increases my chances of getting caught. I need a quick in and out, and hope to God I'm able to leave nothing but a cold body with no evidence that will point Sela's way.

I drive to Sausalito, my brain on overdrive trying to mentally walk through everything I'll need to do to clean his place up. Before I left, I had Sela go over everything in a bit more detail with me as she was drying off from the shower. Caroline was in the laundry room, in search of Clorox that I was pretty sure I had.

According to Sela, who seemed more in control of her emotions but spoke in a detached sort of way, everything happened in the den. I was sure I had her exact path and every potential item she could have touched. She confirmed she also went into the kitchen and grabbed paper towels to wrap the letter opener in so she wouldn't get any blood in her car, as well as snagged a gray hoodie sweatshirt of JT's from the coatrack in the foyer. It wouldn't take me long to wipe shit down, but I was not looking forward to the bloody scene.

Sela said there was a lot of blood.

I can't imagine how much is left behind, because it seemed she had all of it on her body.

The thought makes me shudder, but I'm resolved.

I can do this to protect Sela, and that's all that matters.

In fact, maybe wiping down the place isn't going to be good enough. Maybe I do need to suck it up and package JT's body in one of his expensive silk woven rugs, lug it to my trunk, drive him deep into Mount Tamalpais State Park, and leave him for the animals to pick apart.

I could do that.

For Sela.

The miles melt away under my heavy thoughts and before I know it, I'm crawling down JT's street. It's fairly dark and only illuminated by high-end landscape lighting of the houses that sit secluded by privacy plantings. The lots aren't big, but the neighborhood is well established and the bushes and other plants give each home a protected, enclosed feeling.

This bodes well for me.

It should help me get in and out without being seen.

The road takes a meandering turn east, where it starts running parallel to Richardson Bay, and as I come out of the curve, I immediately see the pulsing flare of blue lights. Before I can even see JT's house in the distance, I know those are the lights of police cars.

I know they're at his house because they've been alerted to a murder that's occurred.

It means I'm too late.

I slow down as I observe three police cruisers sitting in front of JT's house about three hundred yards in the distance. A few neighbors stand out in the street, their bodies nothing more than black shadows against the lights of the Sausalito Police Department.

“Fuck,” I mutter as I turn right into the nearest driveway, my heart thundering madly in my chest with newfound anxiety.

JT's been found and now the shit's going to hit the fan. I've officially lost all control over the situation.

I glance down to the console clock and I figure I'll be getting a phone call before too long. Perhaps even a visit from the police.

Of course, they'll contact his parents first, but I'll be next as a close family friend and business partner. It will probably be a visit. They're going to come see me because I'm one of the people who knows him the best, and I'm also going to be an automatic person of interest because I stand to get an entire multimillion-dollar company free and clear with his death.

I slam the Audi in reverse, and with my pulse pounding so hard I'm afraid I'll stroke out, I force myself to calmly ease off the brakes and coast slowly out of the driveway. I turn back and head the same way I came in, my eyes flicking constantly to my rearview mirror to see if anyone notices me turning away.

Will they recognize my car?

I'm too far away for anyone to see my license plate, but probably not too far to identify the car's color, make, and model. If just one cop happens to see me, notes my maneuver, and thinks it's suspicious in any way, they'll match the car up to me.

Then I'm fucked…because there's no sane reason I should be out for a drive on my partner's street, see police cars, and turn around. An innocent partner would speed up to the scene of the crime and demand to know what's going on.

But I don't do that. I continue to drive away, terrified a cruiser will start after me, but ultimately making it away safe and hopefully without notice.

I head back to The Millennium, my mind now racing with all the things I need to do to get ready to face the shitstorm that's coming.

“I made you some tea,” Caroline says from the doorway of my bedroom. I sit up in the bed, brace my back against the pillows and headboard. I'd been lying here staring at the ceiling as the sky darkened, waiting for Beck to get back. Caroline hasn't said much to me since he left, and I watched her with a weird detachment as she cleaned out the shower and poured almost a full bottle of bleach down the drain. I think neither of us said anything because it seemed just terribly poor form to discuss disposing of murder evidence.

Caroline was washing a part of my sins away.

Beck was currently off wiping up the rest of them.

It was self-defense,
I remind myself.

Murder,
my guilty conscience says back.

My fingers involuntarily rub against the splotches of purple that rest at the base of my throat, compliments of JT's cast pressing down on me. I swallow and make myself take note of the slight pain that occurs as I do so.

I do this to remind myself that JT was choking me to death. I had no choice but to swing that letter opener. I hadn't planned it, but perhaps by the grace of God I found the strength to protect myself.

A repulsive half snicker, half sob explodes from my mouth and I immediately slap my hand over it. My eyes well up with tears even as a laugh bubbles up and tries to push its way out. So ironic that I killed him with a letter opener, since I had imagined using that exact implement when I visited his office to meet Karla for lunch all those months ago.

Caroline walks into the room, rounds the bed, and comes to my side, which sits closest to the window-wall. She looks at me without judgment for JT's murder and doesn't seem affronted that I'm trying hard not to laugh. She smells faintly of Clorox so she has no room to judge.

“What's so funny?” she asks carefully as she sets down the cup of tea on the night table beside me before sitting down on the edge of the bed near my hip.

I reach over for the tea, using the simple action to distract my rampant thoughts and get my bearings. I pick up the cup, bring it to my mouth, and blow on it before I take a tentative sip. It's hot and I don't even mind the slight scalding to my tongue and roof of my mouth, which also helps to distract me.

Peeking over the edge of the cup at Caroline, I say, “I once visited JT's office. He wasn't there but I looked inside and envisioned killing him in there with his own letter opener. It was a pipe dream then. It's just funny to me that little fantasy of mine came true.”

Caroline smiles at me with understanding. “Nothing wrong with a little inappropriate laughter. Or those types of fantasies.”

I smile back at her as best I can, but it's thin and without any genuine force behind it. She sees that. She knows it.

“It was more than fantasy,” I tell her with brutal honesty. Caroline just helped clean up evidence of my crime so she needs to know the full truth of what I did. That my original intention was not a silly dream but an actual plan to kill the man who destroyed my innocence.

Tears well up in my eyes again and I blink hard against them, taking another sip of my tea to ward them off.

It was self-defense,
I tell myself.

Murder,
my subconscious sneers at me.

Caroline turns slightly from me while I get myself under control and stares out the window, which overlooks the Financial District. She looks just like Beck. Same eyes, nose, and perfectly shaped smile.

Same moral character.

Although she wanted me to go to the police, she never hesitated to jump on board with Beck to help protect me by trying to erase my crime. The image of Caroline bent over with yellow rubber gloves on, scrubbing down the shower and then pouring bleach down the drain, ensured she became complicit in my crime.

That will be forever burned in my brain.

She's just helped me try to get away with murder, and she did so because she loves Beck and Beck loves me. It's overwhelming to me that I feel extraordinarily close to this woman that I hardly know at all.

“I'm sorry about what JT did to you,” Caroline says softly as she turns to face me.

I'm almost relieved by her statement and avoidance of the subject of blood and bleach, but it's still a sobering moment as I realize that I can't say those words back to her.

I don't think she should know what JT told me in those last moments before I killed him. I can't think of any good reason why I should visit that pain upon her, and I'm sorry…closure just isn't a good enough reason. She's better off not knowing who her rapist was than to know it was her half brother.

So while I can't divulge the horror of that knowledge to her, I can reach out and accept her offer of sisterhood that we now share.

“I'm sorry you went through the same thing,” I murmur.

“Beck was my rock,” she says as she leans a little closer to me, her blue eyes focused intently on mine. “I wouldn't have survived if it wasn't for him. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for him.”

Her message is clear.

“Including helping him cover up the fact I murdered someone,” I whisper the obvious.

She shakes her head. “Including helping him protect what's his. And JT got what he deserved. It was either kill or be killed, Sela, and you did what you had to do to survive. It's not the first time in your life you've endured something horrible, and it probably won't be the last.”

I stare at her, my eyes threatening to fill with tears again, but I command them to stay at bay. It's time to move past what I did.

“We should have gone to the police,” I say with a sigh, still struggling with my biggest doubt. It would have been risky, and yes, there was a good chance they wouldn't have believed me. But by staying silent, I ensured that Beck and Caroline just became my partners in crime, and I never wanted them at risk.

Caroline shrugs and stands up from the bed. She turns to me, slipping her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. Looking down at me, she says, “What's done is done. Beck's handling it now and we need to trust in what he's doing.”

I nod in agreement but hating every minute we wait for him to return from what could be either a fool's or a hero's mission.

“Why don't you come into the kitchen,” Caroline says. “I made some tuna fish salad. I'll fix you a sandwich.”

My stomach rumbles, and it hits me I haven't eaten since breakfast. While you would think the fact I murdered someone in a grisly fashion not five hours ago would suppress my appetite, I find myself strangely famished.

I nod and roll off the bed. Grabbing a pair of jeans from the dresser, I slip them on and follow Caroline down the hall.

“Is Ally okay?” I ask hesitantly. When I came into the condo, she was too consumed with TV to do much more than give me a sideways glance and mumble, “Hey, Sela,” before turning her eyes back to the flat screen. Luckily, the hoodie I stole from JT covered the blood, so even if she had paid more attention to me, it's unlikely she would have seen anything to traumatize her.

“She's fine,” Caroline assures me in an undertone. “She's a smart kid and senses something, but she's also happily watching her favorite show. I fed her while you were in the shower and she'll probably fall asleep on the couch before too long.”

I glance at the couch as we walk into the living room, and Ally is lying there with a soft chenille blanket, normally kept in the hall closet, tucked around her. Her eyes are drowsy looking as she stares at
Sofia the First.
I want to go over to her, stroke her soft hair and act as if nothing's wrong. I want to joke with her, see her dimples and bask in the joy of a little girl just hanging out at her Uncle Beck's for the night.

But I don't because I'm afraid I might crumble from just her sweet ordinary child ways, which would be too much goodness for me to comprehend right now. Ally
is
the one good thing that came out of all this family's horror.

So I walk past her and follow Caroline to the kitchen, but just as we cross in front of the foyer, I hear the key slipping into the dead bolt of the door and I pause to see Beck walking in.

My heart slams to almost a complete halt, my chest constricting and the breath going stale in my lungs. He looks scared and stressed, and while there's probably a million different possibilities that could cause that, my first thought is that JT isn't dead.

Caroline stops in midstep, but rather than freeze to inaction, she turns to grab my elbow and pulls me three steps into the foyer so we are almost toe-to-toe with Beck as he closes the door and engages the lock.

“What's wrong?” she whispers so Ally doesn't hear us.

Beck's tired eyes pass over Caroline briefly, but then slide to me where they shimmer with frustration. “The police are at JT's house. They've found him.”

“But how—” I start to say, because how in the fuck was he found so fast?

Beck ignores me, turning to Caroline. “Get Ally and get out of here now. I expect the police will come to pay me a visit. Could be tomorrow, could be in five minutes, so get out of here now.”

“But—” Caroline says in astonishment.

“Get the fuck out of here now,” Beck whispers harshly but still so low that Ally is oblivious to us. “I want you far away from here when they show up. I don't want you becoming a potential witness to anything associated with JT.”

“What's that mean?” I ask, stepping into him and putting a hand on his chest.

His gaze comes back to me. “By virtue of my long relationship with him, I'm going to be a potential suspect. They're going to come and talk to me. I don't want Caroline involved.”

I spin toward her and give a quick jerk of my head toward the living room. “He's right. Get Ally and get going.”

Caroline's no fool. She doesn't spare us even a second more before turning away and hurrying into the living room. I hear her say, “Come on, honey. Let's get your shoes on and head home. It's getting late.”

“I don't suppose I could talk you into packing a bag and heading to your dad's?” Beck says softly, and I turn back to look at him with raised eyebrows. He doesn't look apologetic over his suggestion. “We'll say you went there right after school to spend a few days with him. Your dad would cover.”

I shake my head almost violently and practically growl at him. “Don't even fucking think about trying to shield me from this, Beck. If they come, then I'll be here by your side, and if they even think you had anything to do with this, I'm telling them every goddamn thing that happened.”

I expect him to argue.

I expect him to be angry at me, because I know he's in full-blown protective mode.

I expect—at the very least—for him to look annoyed at me, because after the mess I've created, he deserves to at least look a bit put out.

Instead, he snatches me to him so roughly my head snaps, but then I'm engulfed in his arms, which wrap around me tight. He squeezes me hard and his voice is desperate. “We'll get through this. I swear we will.”

I nod against him, not because I believe what he's saying, but because he needs to believe that I trust in him right now.

The sad truth, however, is that I think that both of us are getting ready to fall down the rabbit hole and there's not going to be any way out for us.

The knock on the door comes sooner than I expected, and only a little over an hour since Caroline and Ally left. I've been lying on the couch spooning with Sela, waiting for the other shoe to drop when they show up. The TV's been on, but neither one of us is absorbing. My hand is idly stroking her hip, wanting nothing more than to carry her into bed and for us to pretend none of this happened.

That means I could strip her down, eat her out, fuck her hard. All of the stuff that's been so damn good and that I've taken completely for granted.

But instead, Sela gives a quavering sigh when she hears the confident knock and we both push up and off the couch. Our eyes meet briefly and we both take a deep breath.

“Just do as we discussed earlier and it will be okay,” I whisper.

She nods, her face pale but her gaze determined.

I turn away from her, square my shoulders, and head toward the foyer. I hear the creak of leather as Sela lies back down on the couch, presenting the picture of lazy Monday evening happiness of just vegging out in front of the TV and streaming some mindless comedy we found on Netflix.

I present the same, and it was done intentionally. I'd put on a pair of sweatpants, a ratty T-shirt, and my hair was flattened on one side from resting against the pillow on the couch. I hoped to look like a guy who wasn't just a few hours ago getting ready to wipe down a murder scene and potentially sink a body deep into Richardson Bay.

Putting my eye to the peephole, I need to determine who would be sent to my house.

Uniformed cops or plainclothes.

I see a white, middle-aged man and a black woman probably in her late twenties. Both in dress pants and shirts without jackets, the man sporting a loosely knotted tie. Both are clearly detectives; I know this not because I can see their badges, but by the somber yet superior looks on their faces. Still, I school my features and try not to look overly surprised when I open the door.

Had they been uniformed cops, my eyes would be wide with concern.

But I think the best tactic at this point is to feign ignorance because for all I know, they could be Amway salesmen.

I look at them expectantly as I swing the door open, but add a tinge of annoyance to my voice. “Can I help you?”

The male cop, who has dark receding hair and a slight belly, pulls a badge I now see firmly clasped to his belt and holds it up to me. “Mr. North…I'm Detective Paul DeLatemer with the Sausalito PD.”

My gaze lands hard on the badge he holds up and then I pinch my eyebrows inward. A pained expression takes over my face. I go on the offense and blurt out, “Something's happened to JT, hasn't it?”

This throws the cop off, as I'd hoped, and he turns to look at his partner, who shoots him a look of wary surprise before she turns to me. She also holds up a badge and says, “I'm Detective Amber Denning and yes…something's happened. May we come in?”

I appear stunned for a moment, and then remember my manners, my voice sounding high pitched as I step back and wave them hurriedly in the door. “Yes, I'm sorry…please come in.”

They step into the foyer and I close the door behind them.

“Sela,” I call out, letting a touch of fear coat my words as I turn toward the living room. She pops up from the couch, as we'd discussed, and looks confused for a moment to see the detectives standing there. It's an amazing piece of acting if I do say so myself.

Her throat is covered by a lightweight turtleneck she put on, because if we were going through with this whole charade of denial to the police, then they couldn't see the bruises on her throat. Sure, they could have been from a fall or even a sex choking game that got out of hand, but it was best for there not to be any notice or questions about it. Doesn't mean I didn't take pictures with my cellphone though, which I downloaded into an encrypted file on my computer. Just in case we needed the proof later.

Sela's worried gaze flies to mine and I croak, “They're here about JT.”

“Oh no,” she whispers, hand flying to her mouth to cover it.

She looks so worried for the man who raped her, I almost burst into a spontaneous round of applause. I hold my hand out to her, and she scurries toward me in a move of solidarity and support. My arm goes around her waist and we both turn to face the detective with worried expectation.

Both of them look at us in empathy for the impending bad news they're going to deliver, but I don't have a doubt in the world they're scrutinizing every word out of our mouth and every bit of body language we're conveying.

“Can we sit down?” Detective Denning says. Her voice is crisp and forged with authority. She may be young, but I can tell she's a professional when it comes to awkward situations.

“Of course,” I say as I gesture to the dining room table.

Denning takes the end chair, which I find to be a subtle indication that she's the partner in charge, despite being the younger of the two and a minority as a black female. DeLatemer takes the seat to her right, on the far side of the table, while Sela and I sit to her left.

I scrub my hands over my face, back through my hair, and then huff out a sigh filled with regret and fear as I pin a direct look at Detective Denning. “How bad is he?”

“Excuse me?” she responds.

“JT,” I say with a touch of frustration. “How bad did they beat him up this time?”

I don't need any heightened sense of awareness to know I've shocked the cops sitting at my dining room table, and I can tell that the direction of their early investigation may have just gotten a little more interesting at this tidbit. Sela and I had a quick but unanimous decision on how we were going to handle the cops when they showed up.

We could either wait for the bad news to be delivered and hope our manufactured reactions of grief for a dearly departed friend and business colleague would be genuine enough to fool them, or we could go on the offensive and lace enough truth into the story that it would throw the scent off of us.

“Mr. North,” Detective DeLatemer says from across the table in a gentle voice. My eyes slide over to him and I stare at him with a look of dread because I can hear it in his tone that he's getting ready to drop a bomb on two poor unsuspecting people. “Your partner, Jonathon Townsend…I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but he's dead.”

Sela lets out a gasp of horror and her hand comes to my shoulder to grip me in comfort. I make a choking sound and slump down in my chair where I mutter, “No…they wouldn't have killed him…”

My voice trails off…my eyes lower to the dark teak wood and I clasp my hands together tightly. I can feel the heavy stares of both detectives as they take in my reaction.

Perfectly on cue, Sela's fingers dig into my shoulder and she says, “It's not your fault, Beck.”

“I'm sorry,” Detective Denning says, her voice still firm and in control, but there is an edge of confusion that gives me heart she's buying our hasty act. “But what's not your fault?”

My eyes snap up to hers and I try to mix in some shades of self-loathing when I tell her the parts of the story I believe to be pertinent. “JT got into some gambling trouble. Owed four million dollars to someone in Vegas. They want to collect and they paid him a visit on Sunday. Beat him up pretty badly. He called me from the hospital—”

“Which hospital?” DeLatemer interrupts me as he pulls a small pad of paper from the breast pocket of his dress shirt along with a pen. He clicks it once and starts scribbling.

“Marin General in Greenbrae,” I supply helpfully.

“And he was beaten up?” Denning asks.

I nod effusively. “Yeah…bad. He didn't tell me what happened at first. Just wanted me to take him home, but then he eventually told me about owing the money.”

“Who did he owe the money to?” DeLatemer asks as he looks up from his writing.

I shrug. “He didn't say. Just that he owed the money for a gambling debt and that they threatened to kill him if he didn't pay up.”

“They give him a deadline?”

I nod at DeLatemer. “Three days, I think he said.”

“And you weren't worried about that?” Detective Denning asks, and I turn my gaze to her. Her expression is cool, perhaps even a bit doubtful.

“Of course I was worried about it,” I snap at her, maybe with too much force, because Sela's fingers dig down into my muscles in warning.

I blow out a frustrated breath, mutter a “sorry,” and then look to Detective DeLatemer with what I hope are bleak and guilt-filled eyes. “He asked me for the money and I didn't give it to him. If they killed him, then it's my fault for not bailing him out, right?”

The detective hunches over and writes more notes. I wait for another question, but nothing comes. I turn to look at Sela, and although my back is now to Denning, I still make sure to look at Sela with the same angst and guilt I just gave to the cops. “If I'd just given him the money…”

“Don't,” Sela says urgently. “You can't think like that.”

More silence while DeLatemer scribbles. I keep my mouth shut because I don't want to overdo it. Sela's hand falls from my shoulder and she grabs my hand. I smile at her and she squeezes me reflexively. We appear to be broken.

I think.

“I find it interesting you haven't even asked what happened to your partner,” Detective Denning asks, and I turn in my chair slightly to look at her.

I go for a hesitant but confused look. “What do you mean?”

Her brown, almond-shaped eyes could be considered soft looking. But now they hold reserved belief mixed with focused curiosity. “I mean I think most people would be curious as to how he was killed. I mean…it was one of the first things his parents asked when we went to see them.”

I curse internally for the oversight, but before I can defend my completely manufactured actions, Sela says, “What does it matter to Beck how JT died? Why would he even want those gory details when he's clearly blaming himself for it even happening in the first place?”

I want to turn to Sela and kiss her, but instead I let my shoulders sag with the weight of my guilt, and I don't even bother to answer Detective Denning's question. I let her think that I've got enough troubling my soul without needing to compound it.

She startles me though when she stands from the table, pushing the heavy end chair away with the backs of her legs. DeLatemer jots down one more thing and then stands up, cutting a curt smile down at me. Sela and I also stand up, on edge and waiting to see what happens next.

“Mr. North…I'd like you to come down to the station and give a formal statement,” Detective Denning tells me.

My mind races, and while I thought this was a small possibility from the start, I'm suddenly torn as to what to do. The stress of our charade is heavy, but we've maintained what I believe to be an easily believable story. But they'll want to dig more and they'll want alibis.

That's not in doubt.

“Actually,” I say with an apologetic smile but command in my voice—the voice of a man with an advanced degree who runs a multimillion-dollar company. “I'd be more than happy to come and give you a formal statement. But not tonight, and you'll have to arrange it with my attorney.”

“And why do you feel like you need an attorney?” Detective DeLatemer asks, and I'm surprised by the challenge in his voice. I thought of him as the good cop in this duo.

“I don't,” I reply smoothly without losing eye contact with him. “But right now, you've told me my childhood friend and business partner is dead. The only place I'm going to be tonight is at his parents' house, offering them comfort and taking it back from them. It's what family and friends do in times such as these.”

“But you want your attorney there?” DeLatemer presses, and while I refuse to take my eyes off him and look at Denning, I can feel her smirking.

I flash a grimace at him and make no secret of my disgust. “Detective DeLatemer…I get you want to solve JT's murder, and there's nothing more I want to do than help you achieve that goal. But whether I talk to you tonight or tomorrow, with or without an attorney, it's not going to change the fact that I have more important things to do tonight. I'm sure you understand.”