Echo:A Dark Billionaire Romance

By: A Zavarelli

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and nodded. Norma-Jean was all I had left now. Talk about depressing. “You know I will.”

He released me with a sigh and gestured to the back porch. “Why don’t you go do your thing, get some fresh air for a bit. These guys won’t be here too much longer.”

I gave him a watery smile and retreated on wobbly legs to the door. Escaping the acrid stench of cigarette smoke and sympathetic glances would do me some good.

As I stole onto the deck, the summer air clung to my skin, pungent with the aroma of Lilacs in full bloom. Two rickety lawn chairs and a small table were all that adorned this space. But if I had a favorite place in the whole world, this would be it.

This was my thinking spot. Where I’d spent countless hours questioning and evaluating my life and all the people in it. It was my safe haven, my sanctuary. I didn’t have anything else like it, and I was fiercely protective of it.

So when I caught someone else sitting in my chair, playing with my Rubik’s cube, I came to a dead halt. I didn’t recognize him, but I assumed he was one of Brayden’s friends. He had to be if he was here tonight.

Why he was touching my cube, or sitting in my chair, I didn’t know. But it irritated me. Didn’t he realize this was the only good thing I had in my life?

His masculine fingers moved the pieces of the cube around with a precision and grace that disarmed me. After having that cube for six years, I’d still never figured it out. I lingered awkwardly in place, one foot still paused mid-stride as I debated my next move. His concentration was so focused on the game, I doubted he knew I existed at all. I was half-tempted to tell him to go inside, but that would be rude. And I was never rude.

I was the good girl. The glue that held the family together. The peacemaker. The one who kept her thoughts to herself and never stepped out of line. That was my role, and I’d accepted it long ago. But for just one night, I wished I could be someone else. Someone who spoke her mind and didn’t care if she hurt someone’s feelings.

Could I do that to a complete stranger?

I stole a glance at the man’s profile, trying to make out his features in the shadows. He wore nice clothing. The kind of blue jeans and soft grey tee shirt that were artfully faded to look casual. They weren’t fooling me, though. I may have lived in a trailer park, but even I knew what those clothes really smelled like. Money.

None of Brayden’s friends had money. But this guy did. It was clear he didn’t belong in a Podunk township south of Chicago. And yet he was perfectly at ease, touching my things and taking no notice of me as I lingered just a few feet away. He adjusted the last remaining pieces of the game and set it on the table. But before he pulled away, he performed an odd ritual of aligning it to the blunt edges.

And then his eyes shot up to mine.

I drew in a sharp breath. Because now that I could see them, they were seriously blue and seriously intense. And he was looking at me like I was a shiny new toy.

Nobody had ever looked at me that way. I swallowed the gallon of sand lodged in my throat as I gestured to the cube.

“How did you do that?”

A slow smile crept across his face as he rose up to his full height, cocking his head to the side.

“It’s Brighton, right?”

“Um, yeah.” I gave an awkward shrug.

“I know your brother,” he said. “And it’s all just a matter of knowing how to play the game, Brighton.”

His eyes raked over me, and nerves I never knew existed flared to life. I had to tell myself to remember to breathe when he took a step closer. Something predatory lingered in that gaze. Something that told me I should leave, right now.

“Do you know how?” he asked.

“I don’t…” I stuttered over the words, trying to find something intelligible to say. My default setting was awkward and shy, and my experience with men was limited. But the way this one looked at me made me feel like a woman. Like a woman whose world he wanted to set on fire.

“I could teach you,” he offered. “In fact, I think it would be quite entertaining.”

The ominous undertones in those words made me shiver, but I didn’t retreat. I couldn’t explain it. I’d never done anything dangerous in my life. This man screamed danger, and yet he had some kind of gravitational pull that drew me closer. I’d never felt anything like it before.

It was electric.

And it was also wrong on so many levels. I was sixteen, and he was clearly… not. This was a man. A man with a jaw that hadn’t seen a razor in at least a few days. Real stubble adorned those hard lines, not the peach fuzz I was used to seeing. And yet he didn’t seem to factor that in as he took another step closer.

His mouth was inches from mine now, his breath so close it skated across my skin. I got this crazy notion he was going to kiss me. My stomach dipped, and disappointment washed over me when he reached past me instead.

He plucked one of the lilac blooms that had grown over the porch railing, cradling it in his palm. Petals fell from the bloom and drifted to the ground, only to be carried away a moment later by the breeze. An odd coldness came over his features as he crushed the bloom in his hand and discarded it over the railing.

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