Devoured (CHAPTER SIX)

There's not much else to discuss after Lucas gives me his ultimatum, so once again I ask to be taken home. This time he chooses to grant my request. Lucas sends Kylie a text message and true to her word, she comes back to the fondue restaurant to drive me back. She chats nervously to me as she steers the Escalade through the stop-and-go traffic on West End. I'm hesitant to talk. She'll only turn around and snitch to Lucas. If I say anything to her, every word that comes out of my mouth will be filed into the mental folder he's keeping on me.

That's the last thing I need right now.

Releasing an exasperated moan, Kylie punches a button on the radio, cutting the rock song that's blasting through the SUV off in the middle of the guitar solo. "Would you just say something? Cuss me out and call me a vicious bitch if you want, but don't ignore me." I hear the flick of a lighter, smell the menthol scent of her cigarette. I exaggerate a cough, even though I grew up around smokers and had gone through my Marlboro stage in high school. "My ex-husband used to do that ignoring shit, and it sucks. Bad," Kylie tells me, sniffling.

Apparently, we have something in common because Preston used the same tactics on me but it's still not enough to change my resolve. I press the side of my face to the cold window, sliding my teeth together.

"You don't understand how Lucas gets when he wants something like he wants you," she continues once she realizes I've got no intention of talking to her.

So it's her job to go out and herd the submissive redhead in? Wonderful. Doesn't she understand that I'm not some object her brother can simply click his fingers for and have? That it's wrong for him to even make me an offer like the one he's just given me because he's dangling something that I hold dear over my head?

At last, Kylie turns the SUV onto the private drive to get to my grandmother's home. Instead of parking the Escalade halfway down the driveway, as she did at the beginning of this evening, she drops me off right at the door.

Before I get out, she grabs my wrist. I try to tug away but she tightens her grip. What was with their family and the unwelcome touching? She flips on the interior lights, and I turn halfway in the leather seat to look at her. Kylie's gorgeous – in an untraditional way – but right now her face looks 20 years older with the way her features are all bunched up in distress.

Maybe I shouldn't have ignored her.

Then I admonish myself for thinking that. This is the second time this evening I've felt bad for offending Kylie and if this time is anything like the first, she's about to punch me square in the vagina.

"Just hear me out," she says, her voice steely. The hardness doesn't reach her brown eyes. "There shouldn't even be a question of whether or not you'll do this. Luke can be a jerk – I'll be the first to admit that –  but he's offering you an ass load of money to spend 10 days with him. I don't know the specific terms of the deal he offered you for working for him, and God, I don't ever want to know, but it has to be worth all this." She releases my hand then gestures up at the house.

"I'm not a whore," I blurt out. "Nothing's worth feeling like that."

She scoffs, shaking her head from side to side. "You're only what you make yourself. And just so you know, if you were that, my brother wouldn't waste his time pursuing you. He's got more class than people give him credit for."

Her words bother me. My hand flutters up to my neck, my fingertips rubbing anxiously over the soft flesh. My thumb still stings from cutting it on her ring, but it's nothing compared to the sting in my throat. Reluctantly, she dips her head toward the door.

"You know how to get in touch with me if you've got questions, okay?"

I step out of the car, letting the crisp February air kiss my skin. I breathe in the scent of exhaust and chimney smoke – my grandmother must have started a fire. "Thanks for bringing me home, Kylie" I say, shutting the car door quietly behind me. I don't look back at her again, but I hear the Escalade backing away and the angry pulse of heavy metal that'll probably burst her ear drums before she reaches the main road.

I'm so not ready to go inside, so I rest my forehead to the wooden front door, letting a few tears fall. Gathering my thoughts.

What just happened? I almost feel like I've witnessed this entire night outside of my body. Almost like I'll awaken tomorrow morning to discover that I'm still in L.A. and it's time for me to get my ass to work before Tomas goes into convulsions.

But then I hear the strains of the television from inside the house – Gram's favorite reality show. I feel a gust of air hit the spot on my leg where I nicked myself with a razor a couple days ago. Sighing, I let myself into the cabin and lock the doors behind me.

"I'm home," I say enthusiastically, poking my head into the family room.

"You sound like you used to when you came home from a date in high school," Gram teases, grinning at me. She's in her recliner across the room. I'm trying my hardest to make myself look happy but if she were any closer or wearing her glasses, I'd be screwed. "Did you have a good time with Tori?"

I force a laugh. "Tori is the roommate, Gram – I went out with Kylie. Look, I'm pretty tired from getting up so early this morning so I'm going to head up to shower and read for a bit. Do you need anything before I go to bed?"

Clearing her throat, her smile fades away. "Seth spoke to me earlier."

"Oh," I manage to say. Did he say anything to her about what he and I talked about early today? It's just like Seth to change his mind about a confrontation and try to wheedle a confession out of Gram anyway.

"He wants the three of us to go house-hunting tomorrow," she says, and I mouth an inaudible "Oh." She takes a tremulous lungful of air, and stares down at her hands. "I've told him I'll go as long as I have you two with me."

"Always, Gram," I say. My feet automatically carry me to her, and I squat down to give her a long hug. Then, I kiss her cheek, being cautious not to look her in the eyes. I don't want her to see where I've been crying. "Night."

As I climb the stairs, it feels like I'm dragging a hundred pounds right along with me. I sit in the shower with my arms wrapped securely around my knees, allowing the hot water to serve as a diversion from thinking about and wanting Lucas. Even after everything that happened in the fondue restaurant and how confused he made me feel, just hearing his name in my head causes the pit of my belly to tighten.

I don't stop the water until I'm coughing, choking, from the steam. Then I simply remain where I'm resting, listening to the shrill ping of water dripping from the faucet and falling onto the porcelain.

I'm shivering by time I crawl into bed but my body is on fire.

And sleep – it doesn't come because that momentary distraction I sought when getting into the shower is gone. Now I'm breathless and aching for a man who sees me as nothing other than an object he can easily win.

I wake up to messages from Tori. My best friend is worried because I haven't called or texted and she's afraid I've fallen prey to Lucas's charms. Groaning at just how close her assumption is to being true, I compose a reassuring email letting her know that I'm okay. I say nothing about Lucas because even 2,000 miles away from me, she's got an insane ability of picking up on a concerning situation.

Once I'm happy with the message, I hit send. Almost immediately I receive a new message notification, this one from Kylie Martin. Her message is simple and only one line:

I'm so sorry for putting you through that.

K

It takes me twice as long to figure out what to say to her. Finally, I send her a short, but pleasant, message that reads: Don't sweat it, I'm fine. Please thank Lucas for dinner for me.

Then I change into a pair of skinny jeans and a dolman sweater. I grab my boots from the floor and walk barefooted downstairs. Gram is already eating breakfast and Seth's with her.

"Good . . . morning?" Considering my brother is here, I have to double-check the time on my cell phone. It's 15 minutes until 9am. I wasn't aware that Seth even knew there were hours between two in the morning and noon, but I guess he's proven me wrong. "You're up early."

"You don't look happy to see me," he pouts through giant bites of cereal. He's wearing a baseball cap and a faded Polo shirt, and I'm instantly reminded of the frat boys in college who wore tiny shorts and boat shoes year-round.

"Of course I am." I sit down in a chair at the middle of the table, flicking my eyes back and forth between Gram and my brother. I spend a good minute trying to come up with reasons why Seth is here. Then I remember what my grandmother said last night before I sulked up to my room, and I thunk myself in the forehead with my palm. "House-hunting?"

They nod in unison.

"You hung over, Si?" Seth asks mockingly as I scoot the chair I'm sitting in out so that I can put my shoes on. I cast a glare at him. He holds his hands up in front of him, defensively.

"I don't drink," I say darkly, jerking one of my leather riding boots onto my foot, then the other. I consider calling him out for the empty Jose Cuervo bottle I found in his center console, but then Gram gives us both pleading looks, and I squash the urge. There's no need to upset her just because I'm irritated with Seth.

Of course, my little brother is not at all the driving force behind my bad mood.

As much as I dislike admitting it, I'm still fuming and bothered by Lucas. He effortlessly managed to make me come undone during one meal together – I don't want to imagine what he's capable of doing to my head and heart and body in the course of ten days, like he's proposing.

It wouldn't be good for me.

If seeing Seth out of bed early was a surprise, my heart almost stops when he reveals that he's already taken the initiative to set up appointments at available places throughout the city. He insists we take his truck. He's cleaned it out since the last time I was in it a few days ago, but it smells damp and suspiciously like spiced rum and vomit.

Gram notices it, too, because she sniffs a few times but doesn't say anything.

As we drive to the first location, I try to steer the conversation we're having about Seth's school schedule – it's boring – away from my brother delving into what Gram does on Tuesdays. He catches my gaze in the rearview mirror, giving me an angry, questioning look after I change the subject yet again to the Tennessee Titans because he knows I'm not a football fan. "Stop it," I mouth at him. Today is going to be hard enough for Gram as it is, so I don't want him adding any more stress by bringing up Mom.

But sooner or later, before I return to California, I'll speak to her about it.

Alone.

The owner, a woman named Tiffany Bernard, who meets us at the first house has a megawatt smile that's locked into a wrinkle and emotion-free face. She extends her French-manicured hand to Gram the moment we exit the truck.

Mrs. Bernard gets five minutes into her pitch – and it's a good one because the house is amazing with hardwood floors, a great neighborhood, and is only one story – and then she asks about rental and ownership history.

Ashamed, Gram looks down at a dark spot of tile. "My home was recently foreclosed," she says in a shaky voice.

Mrs. Bernard's smile doesn't change, but I can tell that the pleasant atmosphere has shifted. She speeds through the rest of the showing, giving us barely enough time to look at each room. At the end of the tour, I thank her and ask for a copy of the rental agreement. Despite the owner's frosty attitude, Gram really seems to like the house and if I have to, I can place the rental contract under my name. The only thing I've ever bought using credit was a used '04 Mercury sedan that I paid off late last year.

Mrs. Bernard gives me her creepy Botox smile. "It's available on our website, dear," she says sweetly and I realize that it doesn't matter if we put the rental contract under the governor's name – this woman wants nothing to do with us.

Gram thanks her and says we'll be in touch. On the way to the truck, I lag behind to walk with Seth, hissing, "Did you find that house on a website?"

"Craigslist," he says in a gravelly house.

The next two rental properties are just as disastrous. One realtor completely overlooks Gram, reaching past her to shake my hand instead and finally looking at her like a nuisance when I point out that I'm not the one looking for a place to live. The final property is an overpriced townhouse that smells so strongly like animal urine, Seth steps in and right back out, shaking his head.

My brother and I pool our resources – well, I offer some money and I guess he donates some of my cash, too, considering he owes me – and take Gram to lunch at a fancy restaurant in Franklin,  one of the suburbs a half an hour outside of the city. Gram points out that the last time she came here was before our grandfather passed away two years ago, but she doesn't so much as smile. Throughout the entire meal, there's a heavy silence that bears down on all of us.

"John built that house for me as a gift for having" – she swallows, as if it hurts her to say the name that follows – "Rebecca. We had offers from country music stars and celebrities for that house because it was truly his best work, but it was our home. Our life."

"Gram . . ."

She forces a bright smile and nibbles on an oversized roll. "Now that he's gone, she's gone, I'm not sure at all if it even matters anymore."

But it does. It always will. And I feel miserable that she has to go through this. I feel like I should be doing everything I can to prevent her from having to suffer, just like she's done so much to protect me.

Upon our return to the cabin and after Seth leaves, Gram claims exhaustion again. My eyes follow her as she disappears upstairs and the door to her bedroom creaks closed. Almost as clear as day, I hear Kylie's comment to me from yesterday evening echoing in my head.

The deal . . . it has to be worth all this.

Before I can chicken out and change my mind, I fish the sheet of paper Lucas gave me from the bottom of my bag and walk outside. Pacing the driveway, I make the call.

I listen to his pretentious ringback tone – one of Your Toxic Sequel's dirtier songs – and I hope he doesn't answer.

Pray he refuses to acknowledge my call.

At least then I'll be able to say that I gave it my best shot.

But then the song abruptly stops playing and Lucas comes on the line. "You changed your mind," he says in a gentle voice.

"Ten days?" I ask.

"Yes."

"How soon do I start?"

He takes a long pause before he answers me, and I almost think that he's thought better of the whole offer and decided to take it off the table. I'm grinding my teeth together when he responds, "Kylie's leaving first thing in the morning, so it would probably be best if you come tomorrow. I'll have my attorney fix up the contract."

"So you don't try to fuck me on the house."

He chuckles, a ferociously sexy sound that caresses my body with heat. I pace faster. "Of course. Bad for business to do it any other way."

"Right," I hear myself say.

"Message Kylie your email address so I can send you training instructions tonight – I'm guitar shopping. At Gibson right now."

As if to prove his location to me or to taunt me because he remembers just how he was able to drive my body, my senses, to a breaking point with only his guitar and voice two years ago, he strums out the opening of – and I kid you not – a Britney Spears song.

It's the same song that had been playing when I changed the radio in his car the night I went home with him. He'd humored me for a minute or two, and then rolled his eyes, jabbing a button on the steering wheel to switch the station back to rock.

"You into pop?" he'd asked, giving me a sideways glance. When I nodded, he said, "Figures. Come on, I'll play you all the bubblegum shit you could ever dream of." And he had – my own private show as we sat on the granite countertops in his spacious kitchen. He only stopped playing every so often to pop a strawberry into my mouth or his or to trail his lips, his teeth, up my thighs.

And then later . . . well, shortly after he was through playing for me, I found myself in the backseat of a taxi, furious and crying like a fool.

"You're sending me training?" I finally ask, thrusting the memory of the near-sex experience with Lucas out of my head. When he stops strumming the guitar abruptly, murmuring to someone with him in the Gibson store, it makes keeping my thoughts in the here and now that much simpler. I begin to ask him if Kylie's job is really that intense to need specific instructions, but then I recall all the events and traveling that he's got to do over the next 10 days. And how our deal is contingent upon one major aspect:

Me being obedient, doing exactly as he says for the duration of the week and a half.

"I am," he confirms. There's a smile in his voice. "So you're mine?"

Fighting back fear and pride and something else that causes my heart to beat erratically, I shiver and say, "Yes, I'm yours."