WHEN I’M GONE

PROLOGUE

Reese

“Come here, girl!” My stepfather’s voice bellowed through- out the house.

Instantly, my gut twisted. The sick knot that came from being near him and knowing what he would do to me was a constant companion.

I stood up slowly from my bed and put the book I was reading—or trying to read—down carefully. My mother wasn’t home from work yet. She was supposed to be home by now. I shouldn’t have come back from the library so early. A man and his young daughter had come up to me while I was look- ing through the children’s picture books. He’d started talking to me and asking me my name. He’d wanted to know if I was getting a book for my little sister.

The embarrassment that came with that question reminded me of my stupidity, as always.

“Girl!” my stepfather roared.

He was angry now. My eyes stung with unshed tears. If he would only just beat me like he used to. Back when I was younger and I brought home poor grades in school. If he would just call me names and tell me how worthless I was . . . but he wouldn’t. Once I had wished more than anything that he would stop hitting me. I hated the belt, and the welts he left on my legs and bottom made it hard to sit down.

Then one day, he had stopped. And I had instantly wished he’d go back to hitting me. The bite from the belt was better than this. Anything was better than this. Even death.

I opened my bedroom door and took a deep breath, re- minding myself that I could survive whatever he did. I was saving my money from the housecleaning jobs I had, and I would be leaving here soon. My mother would be glad I was gone. She hated me. She had hated me for years.

I was a burden on her.

I tugged my shirt down and tucked it into the shorts I was wearing. Then I pulled the shorts down so they covered more of my legs. It was pointless, really. I had long legs that were hard to cover up. There were never any shorts at the thrift store long enough.

It was only an hour before my mother got home. He wouldn’t do anything that she could walk in on. Even if she did, I wondered if she would accuse me and say it was my fault. She had already blamed me for the way my body had changed four years ago. My breasts had grown too large, and she had said I needed to stop eating because my ass was fat. I had tried not eating, but it hadn’t helped my bottom.

My stomach had flattened out, and it had only made my chest look larger. She’d hated that. So I had started eat- ing again, but my stomach pudge never returned. One night, when I had walked into the living room in a pair of cutoff sweatpants and a T-shirt to get some milk before I went to bed, she had slapped me and told me I looked like a whore. More than once, she had called me a stupid whore who had nothing but her looks to get her anywhere in life.

Now I stepped into the living room to see Marco, my step- father, sitting in his recliner with his eyes trained on the tele- vision and a beer in his hand. He had come home from work early.

His gaze swung to me and slowly trailed up my body, mak- ing me shiver with disgust. What I wouldn’t give to be smart and flat-chested. If my legs were short and fat, then my life would be perfect. My face wasn’t what attracted Marco. It was average enough. I hated my body. I hated it so much.

Nausea crept up, and my heart raced as I fought back the tears. He loved it when I cried. It made him worse. I wouldn’t cry. Not in front of him.

“Come sit in my lap,” he ordered.

I couldn’t do it. I had been able to avoid him for weeks by staying away from the house as much as possible. The horror of having his hands up my shirt or in my pants again was too much. I’d rather he killed me. Anything but this.

When I didn’t move, his face twisted into an evil sneer. “Get your stupid slutty ass over here, and sit on my goddamn lap!”

I closed my eyes, because the tears were coming. I had to stop them. If he’d just hit me again, I’d take it. I just couldn’t stand him touching me. I hated the sounds he made and the things he said. It was a never-ending nightmare.

Every second I stayed back was a second closer to my mother getting home. When she was here, he called me names, but he never touched me. She might wish I didn’t exist, but she was my only salvation from this.

“Go ahead and cry, I like it,” he said, sneering.

His chair creaked, and then I heard the footrest slam down. I snapped my eyes open to see him standing up. Not good. If I ran, I wouldn’t make it past him. The only other option was the backyard, but his pit bull was out there. It had bitten me three years ago, and I had needed stitches, but he hadn’t let me go to the doctor. He’d told me wrap it up; he wasn’t putting his dog down over my stupid ass.

I had an ugly scar on my hip from the dog’s teeth.
I’d never gone into the backyard again.
But watching him walk toward me, I wondered if being

eaten by his dog wasn’t better than this. It was a means to an end: death. Which didn’t sound so bad.

Just before he reached me, I decided that whatever his dog would do to me was better than this. So I ran.

He cackled with laughter behind me, but I didn’t let it slow me down. He didn’t think I’d go out the back door. How wrong he was. I would face the dogs of hell to get away from him.

But the door was bolted. I needed the key to unbolt it. No. No.

His hands grabbed my waist and pulled me back to feel his hardness pressing against me. The sour taste of vomit burned the back of my throat as I jerked away from him. “No!” I yelled.

His hands moved around and grabbed my breasts and squeezed painfully. “Stupid whore. This is all you’re good for. Couldn’t graduate from high school because you were too damn stupid. But this body is meant to make men happy. Ac- cept that, bitch.”

The tears ran down my face. I hadn’t been able to stop them. He knew the words to hurt me. “No!” I cried out again, but this time the pain was there in my voice. It cracked.

“Fight me, Reese. I like it when you fight me,” he hissed in my ear.

How could my mother stay married to this man? Was my father worse than this? She’d never married him. She never told me about him. I didn’t even know his name. But no one could be worse than this awful man.

I couldn’t do this again. I was done being scared. Either he would beat me until he killed me, or he would kick me out. I had feared both for so long. My mother had told me once that all men would do in this world was think about sex when they looked at me. I would be used by men my whole life. She was always telling me to leave.

Today I was ready. I only had eight hundred and fifty-five dollars saved up, but I could get a bus ticket to the other side of the country and get a job. If I got out of this house alive, that’s what I was doing.

Marco’s hands slipped down the front of my shorts, and I bucked against him, screaming. I didn’t want his hand there. “Let me go!” I yelled, loudly enough for the neighbors to hear.

He pulled his hand out and jerked me around by my arm so hard it popped. Then he slammed me against the door. His hand punched my face with a loud crack. My vision blurred, and I felt my knees go weak. “Shut up, bitch, and take it.”

His hands grabbed my shirt and jerked it up, then tugged my bra down. I sobbed, because I couldn’t stop the horror. It was coming, and I couldn’t stop him.

“Get away from my husband, you whore, and leave my house! I don’t want to ever see your face again!” My mother’s voice stopped Marco, and he moved his hands off my breasts. I jerked my shirt back down.

My face was burning from the punch, and I tasted blood on my lip as the stinging cut under my tongue began to swell. “Out, you stupid, good-for-nothing whore!” my mother screamed.

That moment changed everything.

CHAPTER 1

Mase

Two years later

Fucking hell. What was that noise? I peeled my eyes open as sleep slowly faded from my brain and I registered what had woken me up.

A vacuum? And . . . singing? What the fuck?

I rubbed my eyes and groaned in frustration as the noise got louder. I was sure now that it was a vacuum. And it sounded like a really bad version of Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead.”

My phone said it was only eight. I had been asleep for two hours. After thirty hours straight with no sleep, I was being awakened by bad singing and a motherfucking vacuum?

As she sang the first two lines of the chorus, I winced. She was getting louder as she sang. And it was seriously off key. That was a good song she was butchering. Didn’t the woman know that you didn’t come into people’s houses at eight in the fucking morning and sing at the top of your lungs?

I was never going to get back to sleep with this racket. Nannette must have hired an idiot to clean her fucking house. But then, knowing Nannette, she was pissed because I was here and there was nothing she could do about it. She had probably paid the woman to screech outside my bedroom door. Nannette didn’t own the house; our dad, Kiro, did. He’d told us that while Nannette was back in Paris, I could stay at the house and spend some time with our other sister, Harlow, who lived in Rosemary Beach with her husband, Grant, and their new baby.

This must have been the bitch’s way of getting back at me for staying at her place.

Now she was singing the chorus over and over again at the top of her lungs. God, it was like waking to a nightmare. This woman so needed to shut up. I had to get some sleep before I went to visit Harlow and her family. She was so excited about me coming all the way from Texas. But this idiot was messing up my sleep very effectively.

I threw back the covers and stood up and had headed for the door before I realized I was naked. My head was pounding from lack of sleep, and I was getting angrier as I searched the room for the damn jeans I had taken off when I’d gotten here. My vision was blurry, and the dark curtains were closed. Fuck it. I reached for the sheet and wrapped it around my waist and went for the door.

I swung it open just as she started singing the opening lines to another song. Dammit. Not another song. This time, she was murdering “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line.

I blinked and rubbed my eyes against the light, my vision still blurry. Shit, did the woman not see me standing here?

After a few seconds, I finally was able to open my eyes in a squint to see a round little ass wiggling as she bent over. My eyes slowly opened wide as I took in the longest damn legs I’d ever seen. And holy fucking hell, her ass. Was that a freckle under her left butt cheek?

She stood up, and her tiny waist only made her ass look better. She continued to shake her bottom as she sang off key. I winced as she hit a very high note. Damn, the girl couldn’t sing.

Then she turned, and I hardly had a moment to appreciate the front view before she screamed and dropped the vacuum cleaner as she pulled her earbuds out of her ears. Big, round baby-blue eyes stared at me in horror as she opened and closed her mouth a few times as if she was trying to speak.

I took the moment of silence to check out her full pink lips and the perfect shape of her face. Her hair was pulled up in a bun, but it was the color of midnight. I wondered how long it was.

“I’m sorry,” she managed to squeak out, and my eyes went back to hers. She was really something. There was an exotic quality about her. It was like God had picked all the best pieces and put them together to create her.

“I’m not,” I replied. Not anymore. Who the hell needs sleep? Oh, yeah. I do.

“I didn’t know, uh . . . I thought the place was still empty. I mean, I didn’t know someone was staying here. There wasn’t a car outside, and I rang the doorbell, but no one answered, so I used the code and came on in.” She wasn’t Southern. Maybe Midwestern. I just knew she wasn’t from around here. She lacked the twang of the local accent. There was a softness to her voice.

“I flew in. Had a car drop me here,” I said.

She nodded and then looked back down at her feet. “I’ll be quiet. I can come back up and do this area later. I’ll just go downstairs and start there today.”

I nodded. “Thanks.”

Her cheeks flushed as she let her gaze drop to my bare chest. Then she turned and hurried away, leaving the vacuum behind in her escape. I watched, enjoying the way her bottom bounced. Damn, I hoped she cleaned several times a week. Next time, I wouldn’t be exhausted. Next time, I’d find out her name.

Once she was out of sight, I stepped back into the room and closed the door. A grin tugged at my lips when I thought about her face when she’d realized I was only wearing a sheet. How did Nan have a housecleaner who looked like that? The girl was gorgeous.

I lay back down and closed my eyes. The image of that freckle sitting right there under the plumpness came to mind. I really wanted to lick that freckle. Cutest fucking freckle I’d ever seen.

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