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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded All or Nothing, you’re in for a real treat:
Disagreements are best settled in the ring—and below the belt…
In this corner is Jenna Wilinski, who’s inherited a rather seedy boxing gym from her estranged father. With it, she can realize her dream of launching an upscale matchmaking business…provided she can take on the very intimidating—and wickedly hot—boxer who stands in her way!
In the far corner is former pro boxer Mercer Rowley. He’s the only who can protect his “home”—even if it is a little run down—from his determined and feisty little opponent. But once the gloves come off, his hands just want to touch her everywhere…
This matchup is too close to call. But no matter which contender comes out on top, the other is sure to enjoy every minute of it….
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
After they finally, successfully separated, Mercer and Jenna had shared an awkward dance, negotiating the bathroom be- fore retiring to their rooms for the night.
Mercer didn’t think he’d gotten that worked up since tenth grade, and he entertained some rather unprofessional fanta- sies about his new roommate-slash-boss-slash-landlady before going to sleep. Still, that was safer than actually implement- ing any of his dick’s many inspired ideas about what to do with the woman.
He woke up confused about the exchange, but resolved to let it go. He’d never wasted much time overthinking a sexual encounter before, and this was the last situation that needed overthinking. She was too many things to him, without also adding “crush” to the list.
He had plenty to worry about already, Delante first and foremost. He’d come under Mercer’s tutelage the way Mer- cer had come under Monty’s—grudgingly, shoved by a des- perate mom at the end of her rope. That had been enough to get Mercer invested in the kid, but it took no time to realize Delante was special. A natural talent who thrived like a dying plant suddenly watered. Add the fact that the kid had a highly marketable projects-to-greatness urban underdog appeal, and
Mercer knew he had something major on his hands.
If he could just keep Delante’s head as focused as his punches, the guy could be signing a pro contract before the crowd had even filed out of the arena following next month’s tournament. It was good for Delante, no doubt. Great for the gym, too—a boost right when they needed one most. Noth- ing fostered new memberships like launching a big name, and the boxers who’d come out of the gym in the eighties were ancient history. MMA was the future. Rich was rising in the ranks, too, a respected semipro with a lot of managers’ eyes on him, but Delante was almost a decade younger, ripe for a long, enviable career.
They met early, and Mercer worked him into the ground, running and dodging commuters up and down the endless Porter Square Station stairs, until a T security guy told them to knock it off. They jogged the four miles through Cambridge and Boston back to Chinatown, greeted by an irksome sight when they finally reached the gym.
“Cool down and hit the showers,” Mercer said, knowing he had to end Delante’s torture earlier than he’d planned. Del- ante hauled his tired ass inside the building and Mercer stared up at the big plastic banner hung over the entryway, almost completely obscuring the gym’s sign.
Future home of Spark: Boston! it proclaimed in a bold, modern font. Your local branch of the Northeast’s most re- spected dating service for busy professionals. Your perfect match is just a heartbeat away! Below were web and email addresses.
Mercer read it three times, frown growing deeper with each pass. The businesses were cohabitating, sure. But it wrenched his guts, because the facts were plain. He had a single sea- son to turn the gym around—the blink of an eye—and if the neighborhood knew the details, they’d no doubt be rooting for him to fail. For all he knew, Jenna was rooting for the same, all the better for her new venture’s image. All the better that she get busy hiding the gym’s very existence.
How easily Mercer had let himself forget what side she stood on the second they’d been tangled on the couch.
He jogged up the steps and into the foyer. The office was lit but locked, and he could see Jenna’s half-finished lunch on the desk. He ran up to the apartment, but she wasn’t there, either. Must have gone out on an errand.
He headed back to the gym, ditching his shoes and think- ing he’d better find somebody down there to spar and work off some of his angst. Angst that felt distinctly like misplaced lust. Felt like way too many things. Feelings. Blergh.
And feelings promptly punched him in the face as he near- literally ran into Jenna heading up the steps.
“Hey,” she said, her smile polite but nervous. Nervous be- cause of the sign or because of them getting to second base on the couch, Mercer couldn’t pinpoint.
“I was just looking for you,” she said. “I was just looking for you.”
He nodded. “We gotta talk about that sign.”
“I know. I’m sorry—that’s why I was trying to find you. The franchise people came to take a tour of the space. I didn’t know they’d put that up so soon. Or, you know…quite so prominently. I didn’t see it until after the men with the lad- der had gone.”
Mercer sighed, irritation lifting a little. One less emotion. Good. But there were still plenty underneath, all charged with that physical tension from the night before. Except down here…
Down here, Mercer could keep his priorities straight. “That sign’s going to cause a stir with the guys. I haven’t
told anybody the deal yet. But we’ve been needing new equipment for years, and suddenly there’s the money to open an entirely new franchise? You’re not going to make any friends that way.”
She crossed her arms, and God help him, that defiant little gesture had his anger morphing to lust in a heartbeat.
“I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to run a business.” “Two businesses.”
She was kind or smart enough not to add, For now. “I
haven’t forgotten that.”
He glanced at her feet. “Take your shoes off. These mats have enough holes in them already.”
She yanked off her heels. “I know it looks bad. That’s why I apologized. But this place is your territory. Spark is mine.” “I can’t have a bunch of keyed-up fighters questioning the future of this place so soon.” It hurt too much to even know the score himself. “Not with an important tournament com-
“I get it, and I’m sorry. Like I said, I didn’t ask them to put the sign where they did. Maybe we could find a ladder and move it up, so it doesn’t look so…”
“Yeah.” She sighed, sounding exhausted. “We’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah, we will. What’s up with you, anyway? You look beat.”
Another loaded breath. “It’s fine. It was just stressful, showing the managers around, not knowing what they’d make of the place. It was approved last month on paper, but who knows what improvements the franchise overseer will de- mand to get it up to Spark standards. Or how much it’ll cost. But they said they like the neighborhood—I hadn’t been sure they would.”
“And the neighbors?” he asked, jerking his head to mean the gym.
She smiled, a tight, apologetic gesture. “I won’t pretend they were giddy about it.”
“No, I’m sure they weren’t.” Suddenly exhausted himself, Mercer cast his gaze around, searching for a change of topic. A distraction from both the conf lict and the attraction that had him so screwed up in the head.
“There’s something I was meaning to show you, next time you were down here.”
He led her to the back wall. It was plastered with old box- ing posters. Photos of the greats, newspaper and magazine stories about local fighters hung behind Lucite. He tapped an item in the middle and she came close to peer at it. It was a yellowed article from her hometown paper, with a picture of Jenna at age twelve or so, in a bathing cap and suit, holding up a medal for her team’s showing in a county swim meet. He watched her face, her blue eyes widening only to then narrow, lips pursed in a tight line.
“He put that right up there, with all the stories about his favorite fighters,” Mercer offered.
“Yeah. That’s sweet.” She was forcing a pleasant response, but Mercer couldn’t even guess what emotion she was aim- ing for.
He pressed on anyway, compelled as always to defend her dad. “He was really proud of you. Never shut up about you.” “Great. Thanks for showing me that. It’s very touching.” She was so lousy at faking enthusiasm, she almost sounded sarcastic. Mercer felt suddenly diminished, reduced to a sweaty, weary heap of aching muscles. Maybe it had just
been the wine for her, all along.
“Well. I’ll let you get back to your work.” She nodded. “You too.”
“I’ll get one of the guys to help me with the sign. Hoist it up a couple feet so it’s clear our two ventures are just cohabitating. And I’ll get busy letting everyone know you’re taking over the office and all that, for the dating thing.”
“Thanks. Tell them they’re free to ask me about it. If any- one’s confused or concerned.”
He smiled grimly. “I’ll be first in line.”
Her gaze jumped to the article he’d shown her.
“He was a good guy,” Mercer said. “I’d prove it to you, if you gave me half a chance.”
She chewed on a reply but swallowed it, unspoken. “See you around the apartment.”
“Yeah. Sounds good.”
Jenna began to walk away, taking Mercer’s energy with her. Then she turned, and a little glimmer of her sweet self broke through the crust. “If you like frittata, I can make enough for two tonight.”
He warmed at the offer, so tempted to toss a teasing re- mark back and remind her what happened the last time they’d shared a meal. “I’m not sure what that is. But if it’s food, then yeah, that’d be real nice.”
“I’m leading a session at seven, but make it eight-fifteen and it’s a date, Miss Matchmaker.”
Finally, she smiled. And just like that, he was screwed. Two seconds’ flirting and he wanted her again, worse than ever.
Shit. He better schedule himself a sadistic workout for the late afternoon. Better haul his body up those steps too tired to chew, let alone to muster the energy to mess around. Because near-high-school dropout or not, Mercer was smart enough to know that if Jenna couldn’t manage to keep them strictly platonic tonight…he didn’t stand a chance in hell.
When Mercer entered the apartment just after eight, Jenna stood a little straighter behind the counter, chopping peppers, steeling herself.
“Hey yourself, roommate.”
He looked dead tired. Maybe just the by-product of a long, physical workday, or maybe he felt as beat-down as she did, following the unfortunate misunderstanding with the sign. On top of that, she’d spent almost the entire day in the office, and no less than twenty gym members had interrupted to express their condolences, most of them then regaling her with legend- ary tales of her larger-than-life father. Thoughtful gestures, though each one she smiled through had only reminded her how close he’d been to these strangers, to everyone but her. She felt as tired as Mercer looked.
After disappearing into his room with his gym bag, Mercer came to loiter on the opposite side of the counter. He eyed the bowl of egg mixture. “What’s this called again?”
“Frittata. Not quite an omelet, not quite a quiche.”
“I’m not entirely sure what a quiche is. So, how was your day?”
“Long. Spent most of it getting pummeled with all the stuff the franchise overseers are going to be sweeping through to do in the next couple months.”
“Nothing like a good pummeling. What sort of stuff?” “They’re sending a bunch of people tomorrow, a design
team to drop off the upholstery swatches and paint chips I’m allowed to choose from when I decorate my office. And some last-minute inspection stuff, technicalities before the space gets official approval.”
“You need me to clean the gym’s clutter out of there?” “Not immediately, but soon.” Jenna turned back to the cut-
ting board. “How was your day, aside from that unpleasant surprise? Thanks for moving the sign, by the way.”
“No problem. And my day was long.” “How were your stairs?”
“Also long.” He leaned his forearms on the counter, watching her busy hands. “But whatever keeps the kid too beat to worry about bullshit back home, or worse. Girls.”
“Right. No greater threat to you mercenary types than we ladies.”
As Jenna sliced mushrooms, she mustered the courage to say, “Speaking of the danger of women… The dangers of sex and romance, that is.”
“I’m issuing us a mutual restraining order tonight.”
He laughed, and though he was clearly confused, it was nice to see him really smiling again. “Pardon?”
“I think we should stay separated by at least four feet at all times. For our own good.” Though even as she said it, she felt heat blooming in her body, felt her resolve turning soft and lazy.
Mercer seemed to consider the proposal, standing up straight and measuring the counter with his gaze. He took a step back. “About like that?”
“Yes. It just seems safer. Well, maybe safe’s not the word— less complicated.”
“So, that means you still like me, even when you’re not drunk?” A different smile, one Jenna enjoyed far too much. “I was not drunk. And don’t flirt with me. That’s off-limits
as well. I don’t know what exactly’s going on with us, attraction- wise. But no need to make it worse. No passing by each other in small spaces, no suggestive remarks…”
“No assaulting me with the sink sprayer?”
“Sadly, no. None of that stuff.” She sighed, knowing that f lirting their way around this topic wasn’t going to do a lick of good. “I don’t…I don’t trust myself around you, and we’re the last two people who need to get confused about who we are to each other.”
“You feel confused about last night? I thought it was pretty straightforward.”
She made an exasperated noise. “I’m trying to be serious for a second. That’s yet another reason to be careful around each other until you move out. I don’t work the way I suspect you do, with sex. It’s very…complicated.”
“Doesn’t have to be.”
She shot him a stern look, then went back to chopping. “I’m a pretty stereotypical woman when it comes to sex. It changes everything, emotionally, whether I want it to or not. You seem like a stereotypical man about it. If we did it— which we won’t—”
“—you’d probably feel the same way about me the next day.”
“And as a stereotypical woman you’d find that infuriating.” “Likely. Hence the restraining order.”
Mercer crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “You’re right. You’d definitely feel different about me the next day. I’m even better at sex than I am at kissing.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Sorry. I’ll quit it.” He paused a moment before going on. “And I’m with you, incidentally. I think us messing around is a lousy idea, too. It’s just fun winding you up.”
Though she forced herself to nod and say, “I’m glad we’re on the same page,” Jenna felt a pang to hear Mercer agree. She knew in her head that made no sense, but a tiny, illogi- cal part of her couldn’t help but think, How can it be terrible, when it feels so wonderful?
They ate on the couch, the empty cushion between them taunting. So far, yet so close. Jenna found a news special on TV covering a very bloody civil war. If that couldn’t kill the restlessness warming her body, nothing would. Sadly, she caught herself glancing Mercer’s way every minute or two, remembering everything that had happened on that end of the couch, twenty-four hours earlier. Clearly, her attraction was more potent than violent overseas unrest.
Mercer had gone quiet, and stayed that way through the meal. He was rattled, and from what, she couldn’t be sure. By her fessing up to the fact that there was no such thing as strings-free sex to her? Surely that would give a man like Mercer much-needed pause. Or perhaps from the simple fact that his entire life had been turned upside down in the past four days. By her. Also a distinct possibility, and an ugly one. Guilt soured Jenna’s stomach.
When dinner was done Mercer took her plate, and Jenna honored their restraining order and let him do the dishes alone. Though she did steal a couple glances at his shoulders as he worked, those swells of muscle highlighted by the kitchen’s overhead bulbs. Oops.
She changed into lounge pants and a T-shirt and cardigan and got cozy on her end of the couch. There was a pre-grand- opening client recruitment party to organize for mid-September, and now was the perfect time to fill her head with lists. Get her mind off the man sharing her home.
When Mercer finished cleaning the kitchen, he eyed her for a moment before announcing, “I’m gonna head downstairs for a little while.”
“If I don’t see you before I go to bed, good night.”
He nodded, filled a water bottle from the sink and left, dead bolt snapping behind him. Jenna released a held breath.
She should have gone to bed at ten. By eleven, surely. Yet when quarter to midnight rolled around, she was still watching TV, barely taking in the program. She wasn’t preoccupied by party to-dos, either. Her list was exactly one item long. Hire assistant. No, it was still Mercer, keeping her distracted, her feelings for him pacing low in her belly, a restless, reckless awareness.
But at twelve-thirty, curiosity became concern. Mercer’s “little while” was now pushing three hours, and the gym was long closed for the night.
She grabbed her keys, slid into f lip-f lops and went down to the first f loor. The office was dark, but the stairs to the gym were lit.
She heard Mercer before she saw him, the thump of his fist and the hiss of his sharp breaths. The space felt huge in the darkness, its smell mysterious, heady and foreign as a jungle.
Only the lights illuminating the row of heavy bags along one wall were switched on. Mercer was dressed in shorts, barefoot and shirtless, gloves on his hands. The bulbs cast him in harsh, dramatic shadows, his shoulders shining with sweat. The bag was suspended from the ceiling by a thick chain, and it jangled with every kick and punch, every knee and elbow he whacked it with. He danced from foot to foot, lost in his own world, in his imaginary battle.
Jenna’s legs went wobbly, heat pooling in traitorous places. This man didn’t waste any of the physical gifts humans were born with, every muscle honed and disciplined and punished, day after day, until he made violence look like art. That this workout was likely inspired by the angst she’d roused in him dampened her pleasure.
After another minute’s assault, Mercer paused to grab a bottle of water from the mat beside him. Jenna approached.
When he set the bottle down, she caught his eye and he started. “Jesus, don’t sneak up on me when I’m wearing these.” He held up his gloved hands.
“Sorry. What are you doing?” “What’s it look like?”
“If I had to guess, you’re working off how annoyed you must be at me.”
He blinked, looking more startled than when he’d spot- ted her.
“We can talk about it, if you want. But maybe this is how you prefer to—”
“I’m not angry at you.” He looked troubled. “I’m definitely not down here wailing on something because I wish I could wail on you.”
“No, I didn’t think that.”
“I’m trying to wear myself out.” “Oh. Okay.”
Three times he opened his mouth, poised to say something, only to close it again.
He shook his head. “It’ll sound like flirting and you’ll chew me out again, so forget it.”
He huffed a breath through his nose. “I’m down here wearing myself out, so the second I put my head on the pillow I’ll be unconscious. ’Cause if I don’t, my brain’s gonna be full of thoughts that probably violate some mental restraining order you didn’t tell me about.”
Jenna’s turn to start. For a split second her mind supplied a vision of such a thing, of Mercer succumbing to fantasies about whatever inappropriate things he felt she was denying them. She shoved the image away. His body was dangerous and distracting enough, here in reality. No good could come of hypothesizing about the few bits of him she’d yet to lay her eyes—or hands—on.
With a huff, Mercer sat cross-legged on the mat. He ripped the Velcro straps from his wrists and tugged off his gloves. His hands were wrapped in white tape, and he ran them over his head, blowing out a heavy breath.
Jenna sat a few paces away, hugging her knees. “Maybe I should just move out now,” Mercer said. “To where?”
“I dunno. Sublet somewhere, cash in a favor and crash on somebody’s couch till I find a place I can afford. It was nice of you to let me stay, but that was before we knew we’re…”
“Allergic to each other?” It earned her a grudging smile. “I know you think this is simple for me,” he said. “Like I
think sex is as incidental as a movie we might watch together. I wish it was. But you’re my mentor’s daughter. And the woman who turned up here prepared to end my life as I know it.”
Unsure what to say to that, she kept her mouth shut.
“I dunno what the hell to make of you, Jenna. My body has plans for yours—plans I can usually take or leave, because sex doesn’t come first for me, believe it or not. My responsi- bilities do, and you’re the worst possible woman I could let myself get distracted by.”
“I’m sure.” She was spacey, lost in what he’d said about his body having plans for hers. She felt strangely honored to be singled out, maybe targeted, curious beyond belief.
“What I joked with you about in the kitchen was bullshit. This isn’t simple to me at all.”
Not sure how to process what he was telling her, she looked to his legs, to the red smear streaked along one shin. “You’re bleeding.”
He glanced down. “Oh, right. I’ve got no feeling left there anymore. No decent kickboxer does.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You’re the strangest man I’ve ever met. Why don’t you come upstairs and get cleaned up?”
A monstrous sigh. “Yeah, fine. I can barely move now, so my work here’s probably done.”
Jenna stood and offered him a hand. He clasped it in his wrapped one and she helped haul him to his feet. The cotton tape felt exotic against her palm, his hand big and scarred and fascinating as always. Allergic indeed.
She was ready to take her hand back, but he held it in his grip, his eyes on hers. “Why’d you come down here, anyway?”
“To see if you were okay.”
“I really seemed like that much of a mess?” She nodded.
“Better work on my game face.”
He dropped his gaze and her hand, then wandered to grab his water bottle and shirt, slipped flip-flops on his feet. She tried and failed to keep her eyes off his bare chest and stomach and arms, that body looking as reckless as the urges it inspired in her. But they were in firm agreement on one fact—hooking up was a terrible idea. It nearly disappointed her. If Mercer had kept that door open on his end, she just might have let herself be yanked inside.
He hit the lights and locked up, and they trudged up the two f lights and down the hall to the apartment.
She shut the door behind them and it felt as if something ought to be said. An apology tendered, or even a joke to lighten the heavy atmosphere.
“That’s a really nerdy sweater,” Mercer said.
She laughed, relieved by his levity but pretending offense. She looked down at her argyle cardigan. “It’s librarian chic.” Neither spoke for a moment, though she knew he was strug- gling for the next quip, same as her. Words came, but not ones
“I don’t want you to move out. I mean, I don’t want you to feel like you have to move out sooner than we’d discussed.”
“It might make everything simpler.”
“It might. But I’m already turning your life upside down by even being here. You’re acting a lot more civil about us coexisting than most people would, knowing what could hap- pen come January. If letting you live here makes the transi- tion easier, it’s the least I can do.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
She sighed, staring at their feet, if only to keep her eyes off the more arousing bits of Mercer. Even with her gaze preoccupied, his scent was all around her, heady and exciting, as thrilling as a physical touch.
“This is going to be complicated, no matter what we do,” he murmured. “No matter if I stay or go, or whatever rules we invent to keep from sexually assaulting each other, or how hard we try to rationalize everything.”
“So it can’t actually get much worse.” “Not that I can foresee,” she said. “Right.”
She sensed it as he stood a little straighter, and she raised her chin to scan his face. He still looked beat, but there was a glimmer of resolution. He’d made peace with their situation.
“I’m gonna kiss you now.” She started. “Excuse me?”
“Things between us can’t get any worse, so I’m gonna go ahead and make a move on you. Only way I’ll be able to get any sleep tonight.”
“Don’t do that.” Do it. Do it.
He put his wrapped hand to her jaw, leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. He kept it slow to start, giving Jenna a chance to protest, a chance to cling to her charade of propriety.
No way in hell.
She kissed him back, tasting salt on his lips—the f lavor of a man who’d spent the past few hours trying to beat the de- sire out of his body. Desire for her. His tongue brushed hers and she grabbed his arm, thrilling anew at its hardness, its size. He kissed her until soft moans hummed from his throat, until he’d backed her against the door and her palms had slid south, from his chest to his stomach to his hips. Next and final stop—Bad Decisionville.
He broke away, taking a step back. The look in his eyes was wild and his tongue traced the corner of his lips. He began unwinding the tape from his hands, exciting as a striptease. Jenna held her breath until he spoke.
“I’m gonna take a shower. That gives you ten minutes to change your mind about where this is heading. If you come to your senses, shut your bedroom door. If you’re as stupid as me, leave it open, and we’ll find out what the hell else is supposed to happen between us.”
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The space between the truth and lies is blurred leaving me torn, lost and confused. And while the monsters that live in my head try to beat me — the two men that I love try to save me.
This is my story of friendship, love, heartache, and the grueling journey that is mental illness.
WARNING: Due to possible triggering descriptions of self-harm and some sexual situations this book is not recommended for anyone under the age of 17 years old.
5-star praise for Therapy:
“…a beautiful journey between the dark and light…an insiders look at the world of mental illness, love, relationships, and life…”
“…Heart-wrenching at times, but so worth it… ”
an excerpt from
by Kathryn Perez
“Depression is a sneaky, evil bitch. She creeps in when you least expect it and snakes her way throughout the corridors of your mind while feeding on the light of your soul. She shows up during your most difficult times, only making them harder to shoulder. Sometimes, I wish depression was a living, breathing, tangible being, so I could wrap my hands around her throat and squueze ’till all that’s left in her pools of darkness is nothingness, rendering her powerless to ever hurt me again.
“The small words hurt the most.”
Gripping my journal, I flip through the pages of my written pain. Putting pen to paper is comforting to me; my journal is the only place I can really be myself, the only place I can release my demons and voice my fears. Trying to forget summer break, I push away the thoughts of Brian and the other guys that used me for sex these past couple of months. The heartache they caused is nothing compared to the pain I’ll face today.
Senior year. My last year of hell on earth is upon me. This morning I have to step inside the hallways of my own personal nightmare. The fear I feel is almost tangible. Writing will help ease it, but I know it won’t be enough. I place my hand over my lower stomach and run my fingers across my scars. I focus on the blank page before me and start to write.
Trapped within these walls
Laughter filling the halls
Not much longer
It will soon end
Can’t let them know
Circling all around
Block it out
Push it down
Keep building these defenses
Brick by brick
My emotions bound
Seeing a stranger
When I look in the mirror
Lost and alone
My soul pleading
Desperate to find a home
I sit in my car, staring at the front steps of Jenson High School as dread washes over me. The drive here was nothing but minutes filled with anxiety.
Only one more year. I can do this. Just one more year and I’ll be free of this hell on earth forever.
The past three years were nearly unbearable, and I can’t imagine this year will be any different. I grab my backpack and push my car door open. The parking lot’s filled with people milling around, chattering about senior year, eyeballing each other’s outfits, and sizing each other up. One clique bleeds into another clique, and so on. Keeping a low profile is important to me, so I’ve chosen to wear a plain pair of skinny jeans and a simple white T-shirt; I don’t belong to any of the cliques.
Because I’m invisible.
I barely exist.
A loud engine rumbles as a huge truck pulls up in the parking spot beside mine, startling me. I look over to see that it’s none other than Jace Collins, superstar athlete and megapopular boyfriend to my worst enemy. His door opens and he jumps out, throwing his backpack over his broad shoulder. He might be with the biggest bitch in school, but God, the guy is like a huge magnetic force made up of sexual tension and dimples. By the time I realize I’m staring, it’s too late; he’s noticed me ogling him. A small grin stretches across his face and I blush, snapping my eyes away. I turn and start walking toward the school when I hear her.
“Oh look, it’s Jenson High’s school slut. How lovely!” Elizabeth shouts, loud enough to draw attention my way.
I clench my backpack strap, keeping my gaze forward. I can feel her eyes gunning a hole through the back of my head. This is the only time of day when I’m visible. When I’m in the cross-hairs of Elizabeth Brant’s clique of mean girls, I’m a huge blaring bull’s-eye. Engaging with her is pointless. She never gives in or lets up. Now, everyone within earshot stares and laughs at me. Taking in a deep breath, I try blocking it all out. I can hear her spitting more venom my way as she gets closer, and her sidekick Hailey joins in the taunts.
“How was your summer, Jessssssica? How many guys did you add to your list, huh?”
Their laughter fills the air around me, and then I hear him. Jace. He’s been stepping in for the past couple of years to shut them up when they talk shit to me. The first time he did it, I was stunned. Why would he care what they said to me?
I’m no one.
I barely exist.
“Okay, enough of that bullshit. It’s the first day of school. Do you both have to be such assholes?”
I don’t turn around or acknowledge his act of kindness. I’m thankful, but I can never tell him that. If she saw me talking to him, it would be a disaster. I don’t know why, but every time I make eye contact with him I get butterflies in my stomach. Of course, he’s never flirted with me like so many of the other guys do. I know why they do it, and so does everyone else, but Jace has never treated me like a slut or piece of trash. He’s as close to a gentleman as a teenage guy can be.
Last year, when we were paired together in chemistry class, Elizabeth was pissed off. She pinned me down with her stare for the entire hour, but Jace ignored her and rolled his eyes. When class was over, he got up and gave me a small smile before walking away. It was the one time that I hadn’t felt like a nobody. For that one hour I’d felt present and not so closed down. It was easier to breathe—it felt like what I assumed school should feel like.
Jace remains a mystery to me. I have no idea why he treats me like a normal girl, but every time he does, my heart beats a little stronger and a little faster. I hope one day I have the opportunity to thank him. Until then, I’ll keep my gratitude safely tucked away.
“Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.”
I close my eyes as the blood runs down my stomach, the pain oozing out with it. This is what I want, what I need. Otherwise I’m numb, feeling nothing. The pain and depression stays suppressed until I can release it. It gives me a high and a rush that I crave every morning before I go to school. I know when I walk through those doors each day that I have to flip a switch inside and turn it all off just to make it through. My mom drinks coffee with a shot of liquor to start her day.
I cut myself.
I shove my notebook in my book bag and mentally prepare for day two of dodging Elizabeth Brant and her posse of mean girls. Some days, I wish I could just meet them all somewhere and let them beat the hell out of me; they could spit all of their poison my way and be done with it. If I knew it would make them stop, I’d do it in a minute. My senior year of high school has barely begun, yet I’m already counting down the days ‘til it ends. For the past three years, school has imprisoned me.
I just want it to be over.
Every day I pray that they’ll forget about me, and I’ll really become invisible. But they never do. I do everything I can to keep attention away from myself in order to avoid their radar. It’s always futile—Elizabeth is merciless. I’ve never understood how a girl who is so beautiful on the outside can be so ugly and evil on the inside. How all of her admirers can’t see her for what she really is will forever be a mystery to me. But I know better than anyone how easy it can be to fool people and hide your darkest secrets inside.
Because I do it every day.
I head into first period English and sit at the back of the classroom like I always do. I shuffle through my book bag and get my notebook out just as I hear them. Their banter is unmistakable.
“Oh my God, Hailey, did you see him this weekend? Jace was on fire in the game, although he always is. I rewarded him afterward, of course. Then he was really on fire.”
The bitch posse giggles as Elizabeth goes on about her boyfriend and the school’s quarterback, Jace Collins. They’re the “it couple” around the school. Jace is Mr. Popular and, of course, Elizabeth is Ms. Popular. What he sees in her, I have no idea. Well, aside from her long, luxurious blond hair, flawless bronzed skin, perfect body, and crystal clear blue eyes. But she radiates bitch, regardless of her appearance.
Elizabeth glances back at me as she takes her seat. “So, Jessica, how much slutting around did you do this weekend?”
I dart my eyes down toward my notebook, refusing to reply to her taunts. Trying to stick up for myself only makes it worse. My long jet-black hair falls down around my face, creating a curtain of defense, and I doodle aimlessly on my notebook, ignoring all of her comments.
Something hits my arm and falls onto my desk, then again, and again. I look up and Elizabeth is laughing as Hailey, her partner in crime, balls up another tiny piece of paper. I roll my eyes at them and look back down at my notebook, swiping the pieces of paper onto the floor.
Brian Wheeler turns, looking at me with an assholish smirk on his face, and waggles his eyebrows up and down suggestively. My stomach rolls along with my eyes as I look away from him. Brian is yet another example of a relationship gone bad. The fact that I’ve slept with him makes me want to puke.
Elizabeth turns around, mumbling something about what a skank I am just as Jace walks in and sits down beside her. Hailey flicks another balled-up piece of paper at me and he scrunches up his eyebrows, glaring at her. She grins back at him and shrugs her shoulders innocently.
“Hailey, don’t be such a bitch,” he says in an obviously irritated tone.
Thank you, Jace.
You’re a mystery to me, Jace.
Why do you care, Jace?
Jace, Jace, Jace.
“Jace Collins, don’t talk to my best friend like that! Hailey is only warding off the infestation of STDs sitting behind us,” Elizabeth hisses.
He looks back at me and mouths the word sorry. I don’t reply; no expression, no all-knowing look, nothing.
He’s the epitome of male perfection with his sandy, dark blond hair and light blue eyes. He’s toned and muscular, but not in a bulky way, and he’s tall with wide shoulders. Not only is he the star of the football team, but also the baseball and male swim teams too. He’s an athlete and pretty much has a clear-cut future with an athletic scholarship to a major university of his choosing.
The only reason I think he’s ever nice to me is because I’m on the girls’ swim team. I steer clear of all team sports, for the most part, and I’m definitely a loner. I’ve been competitively swimming for four years now, and it’s the only thing that I really enjoy besides writing. School is a means to an end for me, and I can’t wait for it to be over. This place is like a sick form of karmic punishment for something I must’ve done in a former life.
After English class, we all file out. I walk slowly, allowing Elizabeth to exit first. Hopefully she’ll forget that I’m behind her. I make my way to my locker only to find notes reading WHORE, along with other expletives in big bold letters, taped to it. I rip the papers off quickly just before Elizabeth walks by, shouldering me hard into the cold metal lockers.
“Oh, excuse me, Jessica. I didn’t see you there,” Elizabeth jeers. “You should wear a slut warning sign that lets the rest of us know you’re there!” she laughs as her followers surround me.
I look to the floor, hugging my books to my chest and shut it all out. This is how I deal with her, with all of them. I lock down, shut it out, and wait for it to be over. She flicks a strand of my hair from my face, and I flinch.
“We all know you slept with Harrison this weekend. You know that Hailey has been seeing him for quite a while. Did you really think you could keep that from us? Huh?” she demands, inching forward. “You better keep your skanky ass away from him. Do you understand me, Jessica?” She’s so close that her words spray flecks of spit onto my face. “He doesn’t want you! None of them want you, bitch!” She slaps her hand on my locker mere inches from the side of my face, and whispers quietly as she leans in closer to my ear.
“Don’t you ever just think about ending it all and sparing us the repulsion of looking at you every day? You’d be doing everyone here a service.” She glares at me with hatred burning in her pools of ice-cold blue. My eyes quickly dart back and forth, looking for an out. I feel hot, too hot, and my skin is clammy.
Then I hear his voice.
“Liz, leave her the hell alone already!” he scolds, gesturing for her to make her way to second period. “Remember what I said, skank,” she exclaims as she struts off down the hallway.
I look up to see that Jace is still standing here looking at me, his hands shoved into his jean pockets. I feel vulnerable and embarrassed. Why is he causing this awkward, silent moment to happen? I look away nervously and turn back to my locker, opening it quickly with shaky hands.
“Hey, I’m sorry about Liz and her tribe of bitches,” he says as I rustle through my locker, stalling so I don’t have to turn around and make eye contact with him. My hands are trembling, and I’m trying to regain some form of composure after the face-off with Elizabeth.
Just breathe, Jessica.
“Don’t let her rattle you so much. I didn’t hear what she was saying, but I promise you her bark is far more scary than her bite.”
He has no idea what his girlfriend is really like on the inside.
“Are you ready for swim this year? I hope we kick ass like we did last year,” he says, and I wonder why he’s trying to carry on a casual conversation with me. The bell rings.
I spin around and look at him with my mask of fake confidence. “Thanks, Jace. And yeah, I’m ready for swim team. I really have to get to class, though,” I mutter. His mouth turns up into a grin and he walks away in the opposite direction.
What was that all about?
Why do you care, Jace? Why?
If Elizabeth sees him carrying on a full-blown conversation with me, she’ll go apeshit. I’m like the plague around here, and the star quarterback talking to me is definitely not a good idea.
The day moves at an arduous pace, but I continue to avoid Elizabeth. I’m not sure what’s worse—this place and the way I seem to be the butt of everyone’s jokes or home where I’m invisible to everyone.
I go to my car and drive home, blasting Seether out of my speakers. I wonder what kind of day Mom is having. She’ll either be drunk, or be Martha Stewart; it’s a fifty-fifty chance.
I stopped caring a long time ago. When she’s not drunk, she tries too hard—it’s smothering. She overcompensates for her lack of parenting on the days she’s drunk as shit. I pull into the driveway and see her sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, and holding a glass of wine. There are kids outside playing next door where new neighbors are moving in. Their ball is in my way as I try to park, so I maneuver around it the best I can. A little girl smiles and waves at me as she retrieves the purple ball. I look up as I get out of my car and see Mom smile and wave sloppily at me.
Drunk day today…
“Hi, Mom,” I say hurriedly as I walk past her.
“Hi, sweetie. How wassss your day?” she slurs.
“Great, Mom. It was great!” I say, lying straight through my teeth. Telling her the truth is pointless.
I go inside to my room and slam the door behind me. After locking it, I reach over and pull out my hidden box of razors, alcohol swabs, ointment, and bandages. I flip my iPod docking station on and fall down onto my bed. Hinder plays as I pull up my shirt. Unbuttoning my jeans, I pull them down just barely enough to expose the fresh cut from this morning. I have to be really careful not to let the cuts get infected, so I clean and bandage them daily. It’s a normal routine for me.
I know I’ll have to put on a happy face when my dad gets home. He doesn’t really pay me any attention, but I always feel like he has me under a microscope, looking for any imperfection or mistake. I do my best to avoid him like everyone else in my life. The weekend is the only time I socialize, and that usually involves a guy. Sneaking out every night on the weekends is the norm for me. I’m usually cruising the back roads with whatever guy I’m seeing at the time, which changes often. I’m always too clingy, so they always run scared after they get what they want from me. Sex is my way of connecting, another way to feel something. I guess sex equals love for me since I have no idea what love really feels like. It’s my version of love and it fills a void, so I continue the vicious cycle of sleeping with every guy I go out with. The fact that guys have never noticed my scars really should tell me that they don’t care at all. I know it’s usually dark and they aren’t that visible, but to this day not one guy has noticed. If they have, they’ve never said anything.
After cleaning up my cut, I place a bandage on it and button my pants back up. Placing the box of items back in my nightstand, I pull out my journal and decide to write. I rarely understand why I feel the way I feel every day. Writing is my only true form of expression free from the fear of judgment. I can pour all of my feelings, fears, and frustrations into the pages of my journal and know that they’re all safe from the bullies that make my daily life a living hell. My secrets must stay hidden, just like my pain.
Pulling the cap off of the pen with my teeth, I chew on it anxiously as I write.
You only know the mask I wear
Who am I?
Do I even know?
Black…White… No gray
I either love or I hate
When I want to hold on, I claw instead
No sense of purpose
Eyes that are dead
Regret and rejection I swallow down
I just want someone to love me
Emotional pain creeps all around
When someone hurts me, it hurts forever
Be. Me. For. A. Day.
Let me walk beside you
Let me look over
See the me you see
Then you can walk beside me
See the you that I see
I’ll keep filling the hole in my soul with IOUs
While you keep filling it with I Hate Yous
I shut my journal and text Harrison. We had a good time this past weekend, no matter what Elizabeth had to say about it. Having someone makes me feel happy, even if it’s always short-lived.
Me: Hey, I had fun last weekend. You want to hang out this weekend?
He texts right back, and I instantly feel better. Happier even.
Harrison: Hey, babe. Yeah, I had a blast with you. You really know how to show a guy a good time! I’m not sure about this weekend. Jace and the guys invited me out. It’s just some sort of guys’ night out thing, but I’ll catch you some other time. 😉
My smile fades along with my happiness, and I instantly feel rejected. I want him to want to be with me, not the guys. Why does this always happen? Why do I need them so badly? Why do I want them so badly?
It’s always the same. Every guy I date, I feel consumed by some sort of freakish need. I know it’s not normal, but I can’t make it stop. In the end it either pushes them away, or causes me to go off on an emotionally charged rant toward them. I regret it every time, but the cycle is on repeat nevertheless. I usually talk with them online because they don’t speak to me at school. No one really does—I’m bad for everyone’s reputation. Elizabeth makes sure of that. One day last year, Brian sat with me at lunch and Elizabeth and her group made him sorry he ever did.
My phone buzzes and I see that I have fifteen notifications on Instagram. That’s weird. I never get much action on any of the social media sites. I have no real friends to speak of. I tap the icon and open the app. I touch the little notification bubble and fifteen comments or likes pop up. It’s a picture of me. Shock freezes the blood in my veins as I scroll down. SlutPics123 posted a picture of me hanging myself. A quote bubble above my head says DEAD SLUT HANGING.
They follow me everywhere I go; I can’t escape them! I know Elizabeth and Hailey did this, but this is a new low. Their weapons aren’t illegal, yet they cut me deeper than a blade ever could. Hiding behind electronic shields, they use their words like swords. I wonder what’s worse—the invisible scars they leave or the visible scars I inflict upon myself?
“I have no one. I need someone.”
Another week of school has inched by and I’ve done my best to ignore the picture they put up on Instagram and the ridicule that’s followed it. Being silent may seem weak, but staying silent takes more strength than they’ll ever know.
I’m hoping Harrison will be able to see me this weekend. I’ve tucked a note in his locker, letting him know I’ll be home waiting for his call if he decides he wants to hang out.
He doesn’t really talk to me much at school, which I guess I understand. It would only cause him unwanted drama. Elizabeth and her minions have everyone at school convinced that I’m an infestation of STDs.
Mom is Martha Stewart today, which means a cooked meal for dinner. She’s humming and prattling around in the kitchen like we’re the Cleaver family. Dad will be home soon. He’s having a business partner over for dinner, which also means Mom will be on her best behavior. I’ll stay huddled up in my room for as long as possible until I‘m forced to smile and interact with everyone.
My brother is the star of the family and can do no wrong in Dad’s eyes. Jeff always gets the attention from Dad that I crave. I had hoped that when he left for the University of Texas Dad would finally begin to see me, but that didn’t happen.
I hear my phone buzzing and grab it, hoping it’s Harrison. I swipe the screen, revealing his sexy, tan face.
Harrison: Hey, you wanna hook up tonight after all?
Me: Sure! Where and what time?
Harrison: Meet me down at the parking spot by the water tower at 9 p.m. C you there.
I’m instantly excited, and start rummaging through my closet to find something hot to wear for him. I grab a black miniskirt, red halter top, and my laciest underwear. He never has condoms, so I’ll have to stop and get some at the 7-Eleven on my way there. It’s a given that we’ll have sex. I know it sounds horrible, but I don’t feel bad about it. Guys want it, and if you don’t give it to them, they don’t want you. I want him to want me, so sex is necessary.
I just want to be wanted.
After a painstakingly boring meal with Mom, Dad, and his business partner, I change and head out. I tell my parents I’ll be back by curfew, but they won’t notice if I’m late.
I go to the 7-Eleven and buy a pack of condoms. A few get shoved in my purse and I toss the rest in my glove compartment. I check my makeup in the mirror and run my fingers through my long dark hair. I stare into my hazel eyes and wonder what other people see when they look at me.
Do they only see a slut?
A weird girl?
Are they really even looking at all?
I shake the thoughts away and save them for a later time when I can write them in my journal.
I put my little Honda into drive and head out to the town water tower. It’s always been a popular parking place for the local teens. As I get closer, I notice a couple of different cars and wonder why there are people out here so early; it’s usually later before anyone starts showing up. I pull in farther and park.
I scan the area and see a couple glowing cigarettes, but can’t make out who the people are smoking them. My heart rate kicks up; I hope they aren’t I Hate Jessica club members.
Me: Harrison, where are you? I’m here.
About five minutes pass by, but I hear nothing back from him. I decide to wait a little longer, because I really want to see him. I jump when I hear a knock at my window, and turn to see Elizabeth staring back at me with a smug grin on her face. My heart jams into my throat, and my breathing speeds up into high gear. At least when she corners me at school there’s usually an out. It’s a crowded, public place with adults around to prevent any serious situations. But this? This is very different. I have no idea why she’s here, how she knew I was here, or what she wants with me.
She beats on my window as her friends circle around my car. I quickly start my engine and throw the gear in reverse. I need to get the hell out of here. Just as I start backing up, Harrison pulls in right behind me, blocking my exit. I’m now completely boxed in. Maybe this is best, like I’ve always wanted. She can do whatever she wants to me and be done with it.
I really don’t care anymore.
“Get out of the damn car, whore!”
I turn and glance toward the front of my car just as Hailey pours a beer all over the hood. Harrison walks up puts his arm around Hailey affectionately, and my stomach clenches in anguish.
How could he do this? Did he trick me so that I’d come out here and they could torture me? Why would he be so cruel? I’ve always done everything he’s asked of me. I’ve always tried to make him happy. How could he do this to me? Tears start to well up in my eyes, but I quickly get myself under control, not wanting them to see me break. I reach over and open my door, step out, and am instantly shoved back against the cold metal of my car.
“I told you earlier this week that Harrison was Hailey’s. You just wouldn’t listen, would you, skank? Hailey saw your texts to him. Did you really think he was going to keep seeing you? He’s not going to lose the captain of the cheerleading squad for the captain of the blow job team,” Elizabeth hisses sarcastically.
Everyone laughs as I stand there. Just before I open my mouth to antagonize her, Bentley comes up behind her and wraps his arms around her, kissing her neck. Has she broken up with Jace, or is she being the whore that she always claims me to be? Bravery finds its way to my tongue, and I do the stupidest thing I could ever do.
I poke the snake when it’s ready to strike.
“Where’s Jace, Elizabeth? Does he know you’re out here screwing around on him with Bentley? Maybe I’ll let him know and he can be my next fuck. I bet I can show him things he never dreamed of when he was with you.” I smirk and cross my arms over my chest. Adrenaline courses through my veins as I await her response.
Her eyes grow wide and she gasps as everyone starts laughing and heckling her over my comment. “Bentley and I are just friends, you stupid bitch. Mind your own damn business. Who the fuck do you think you are anyway?” She slaps me with all her strength and heat creeps across my face. Grabbing me by the shoulders, she slams me into the car even harder.
“All of a sudden you’ve got some newfound courage tonight, huh? You’re going to regret ever saying that shit to me. And if you insinuate that I was doing anything other than hanging with friends to Jace, tonight will feel like a walk in the park compared to what will happen to you next.”
She grabs me by my arm and yanks me away from the car.
“Hailey, get your ass over here and help me. This shit is all your damn fault anyway. Your boyfriend’s the one that can’t keep his dick in his pants!”
I look into her evil eyes defiantly, practically begging her to beat the hell out of me.
Don’t do it, Jessica. Don’t make it worse.
“Go fuck yourself, Elizabeth,” I reply in a raspy, nervy voice. I make it worse.
I feel like I’m moving in slow motion as I let her manhandle me, not trying to defend myself at all. I don’t care, so I just let her and Hailey do whatever they want.
Maybe Harrison will feel sorry for me and want me afterward.
I squeeze my eyes shut at the pathetic thoughts rolling through my equally pathetic mind. Their laughter ebbs away slowly as I slip into my locked-down world of numbness. I open my eyes, and despite my efforts to block it all out, my stomach twists in anticipation of what will happen next. Harrison glances up at me, his eyes full of mockery and disgust.
“Act like a whore, Jessica, and you’ll keep getting treated like one,” he spouts.
How I thought he liked me, I don’t know. Hailey and Elizabeth are dragging me along while everyone else hoots and hollers. I look back at Harrison with hatred in my eyes, in my heart.
“I hate you, Harrison!”
He laughs and grabs his crotch. “You sure weren’t hating on this last weekend, baby,” he mocks. Joe Fitzer, another guy from the football team, pats Harrison on the shoulder and laughs. “Hey, Jessica, I’m single. Maybe you can show me the same TLC you showed my homeboy Harrison.” Joe winks at me as he takes a draw from his beer.
Hailey grips my arm tighter, hearing the guys’ words. “Shut the hell up, you horny bastards! No one cares how you let this skank-ass tramp blow you or how you want to get into her STD-infested panties!”
Elizabeth spins me around, grabs my wrists in her left hand, then rears up and slaps me on the left side of my face again. The only fight I put up is the one to gulp down the sobs trying to escape my throat.
“How’s that, whore? You like that?” Hailey hisses. “Think about that next time you want to fuck someone else’s man!”
She spits in my face, and they shove me to the ground. I can feel the sand and rocks dig into the flesh of my bare knees. My neck cranes, and I grimace at the pain before my head is jerked back violently by Elizabeth yanking me by my hair.
“Apologize, you slut! Tell Hailey you’re sorry for screwing around with her man!”
The thought of me owing her an apology is such a joke. What about him? He chose to be with me over her.
“Do it, bitch!” Elizabeth screams as she tightens her grip and pulls my hair harder. Hairs are ripping out of my scalp, but I don’t answer. I won’t give her what she wants. Not yet, at least. Then she reaches down and rips my earring from my left ear, throwing it to the ground in her rage. I let out a small cry at the pain as warm blood from my earlobe trickles down my neck. Things are no longer comical—not that I ever thought they were—and I know they’re far from finished with me.
I glance up and see the lights of several phones all pointed in my direction. They’re videoing all of this like I’m some freak show type of entertainment.
“Get your phone, Hailey. Take some pictures of this bitch getting what she deserves.”
Closing my eyes, I try to keep myself under control before looking back up at them. The unspoken challenge in their eyes taunts me; it begs for me to antagonize them further. I shouldn’t, but I do. I say words that mean nothing to me anyway.
“I’m sorry for making your man come more times in a few weekends than you ever will in his lifetime!” I shout smugly.
I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. My impulsivity won over. All I want to do is hurt her; humiliate her in front of everyone, even if it means putting my promiscuous ways on display.
I hold back the tears that want to come, realizing just how humiliating all of this is for me.
Hailey kicks me in the chest, forcing me backward onto the dirty ground. She holds her phone out, taking pictures of me as I try to gain my bearings. I hear my heart pulsate in my ears, and anxiety rushes through me. My instincts say to get up, but I don’t. Any bravery I had is long gone, but, to tell the truth, I don’t think it was ever really there.
For once, I wish I were invisible. I don’t want this. I know that now. I thought if they could have their way with me that they’d somehow lose interest, but looking up at them I can plainly see that this is only adding fuel to their fire.
Elizabeth reaches down, digging her nails into my arm and screaming wildly at me as she struggles to pull me back up. “Get the hell up, you whore, and fight back! You’re making this way too easy. Where’s the fun in that?” She laughs, looking back at the small group crowded around us.
Grabbing another handful of my hair, she lifts her right hand up and backhands me again with all the force she can garner. I fall to the ground, bracing myself with my hands. My face is inches from the dirt and rocks, and before I can push myself back up her knee digs in between my shoulder blades, pinning me down. My face collides with hundreds of little jagged edges, and the metallic taste of blood fills my mouth.
Giving up, I don’t struggle under her or try to get away. I completely detach from all the pain, all the degradation, and lie there in defeat. For the moment, the humiliation and shame I should feel is absent, but I know it will come. It always does. Searing blows to my ribs on both sides rock my body and I realize they’re kicking me. After long minutes of pain my body goes still, and I hear the rocks crunching beneath their feet.
“Next time you think about fucking someone’s man, remember tonight, whore! We’ll happily kick your narrow ass again any day!” Elizabeth shouts as car doors slam shut. The sounds of wheels kicking up dirt and gravel as they rev their engines and speed out onto the dark blacktop road fill the air. The grit slides beneath my nails as I dig my fingers into the dirt. With shaky arms, I struggle to push myself up, but my body rejects my efforts. I cough and the pain that seizes me is too much to bear. Allowing my body to drop back down heavily, I close my eyes. The dim light from the moon disappears slowly, bleeding into blackness behind my eyes.
My eyelids begin to flutter open when I hear a soft male voice. I hear words, but my brain can’t register their meaning. I can focus only on the pain shooting through my entire body and the taste of blood in my mouth. Gentle hands roll me over, warm arms envelop me, and soft fingers brush the hair from my face. I breathe in intense warmth and the smell of peppermint. My eyes can’t focus, but even in this foggy state the immense pressure of his gaze upon me is undeniable. My body wants, but fails to respond to the embrace.
“Hey, open your eyes. Look at me, Jessica. I’m going to help you, okay? It’s me, Jace,” I hear him whisper as my mind starts to resurface from the depths of darkness. He pulls me up, supporting me when my knees buckle. “Come on, it’s okay. I can carry you.”
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by Alexandra Swann, Joyce Swann
In this heart pounding sequel to The Planner, Homeland Security is using the National Defense Authorization Act to incarcerate tens of thousands of Americans in secret government prisons where they are never heard from again.
When Father Nathan O’Brien is arrested for refusing to preach the messages mandated by the Religious Unity Agency, Michael Linton and Jeff Conners call attention to abuses of government power by setting up The Wall, a website which publishes the names of all those who have vanished. Soon, the entire country is talking about the problems of indefinite detention, but before long, the Electronic Communications’ Agency dubs The Wall the greatest act of terrorism in U.S. history and arrests Michael and Jeff as domestic terrorists.
With Michael and Jeff gone, Michael’s wife Kris and her brother Keith know that the time has come for them to stand up for the Constitution and fight for the laws of our country.
Joyce and Alexandra Swann are mother and daughter. Joyce homeschooled her ten children from the first grade through master’s degrees. She is a well-known author and speaker on the subject of homeschooling. For nearly a decade she was a popular columnist for Practical Homeschooling Magazine. She now blogs regularly on parenting, homeschooling, and Christian lifestyle issues.
Joyce and Alexandra have co-authored three other novels, The Fourth Kingdom and The Twelfth Juror, both of which were published in 2010, and The Force, published in 2013. Joyce’s personal story of her experiences raising and educating her family is chronicled in Looking Backward: My Twenty-Five Years as a Homeschooling Mother, published in February of 2011. Her novel, The Warrior, which tells the story of one woman’s ten-year prayer vigil for a man she has never met, was released in May of 2012. She is also the author of two children’s books, Tales of Pig Isle and The McAloons, which began as stories that she told to entertain her grandchildren.
Alexandra is author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master’s Degree at Age Sixteen and Writing for Today. She has been self-employed for over fifteen years and was the 2011 Chairwoman of the Board of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She writes a regular blog, Paying for Protection, about the consequences of over-regulation and over-reaching government. Her novel The Planner which is the prequel to The Chosen, was published in June of 2012. For more on the Swanns, visit their website at frontier2000.net.