His Brutal Game Sample Chapters
Red streaks of water raced down the metal basin. Dust muddied the edges of the drain like a riverbank after a storm. The first orders were completed. I turned off the faucet, then wiped my hands on my jeans. Fans circled overhead. I glanced at the incinerator, the carcass sealed inside. Everything was in its place.
The front doors slid open. A dagger of sunlight swung through the barn, casting long shadows from the rails separating each pen. My brother’s dress shoes scraped on the cement. He adjusted his cuffs, then checked his watch.
“Where were you last night?” Sawyer asked.
For our family business, the Feldman Farm, to grow like my brother wanted, we had three new hires to train. A cattle herd our size didn’t require the extra men, but that was not our sole business. Still, we trained the new hires around the cattle. If they could handle themselves around a cow protecting her calf and our tests of loyalty, then they were promoted to other positions, eventually moving to the Dairy Barn. We had never had a dairy cow on the farm before, but we still called it that for show. I swung around to the lifeless pen.
“Training the new hires,” I said.
A few seconds passed as he watched me clean up the corral. I shoveled the rest of the scraps from the ground into the wheelbarrow, to take to the incinerator. Made sure the camera was powered off. Dumped the trough in the basin, then rinsed it with a hose until the water ran clean. Waited for my brother to leave. The Dairy Barn wasn’t his office; it was mine. Though Sawyer was several years younger than me, he acted like turning thirty meant he owned the family business, as if our father would actually relinquish his crown to the Feldman Farm, an empire that did far more than farm livestock.
All Sawyer’s birthday meant was that it was time for the Trial to start, an event in our timeline that the two of us had been waiting for since we were children: the Feldman Trial.
“It’s disrespectful,” Sawyer said.
I pulled my lips back, baring my teeth. “You were the one who hired them.”
“You weren’t training. You were ranching,” he said, calling me out. ‘Ranching’ was part of our cover; it had to do with the other orders. “You’re obsessed.”
“Good,” I said. That was how it should be.
Sawyer wanted to own the business, to give our family the power to take over the country, and eventually expand internationally. He had worked in the Dairy Barn, but now he was used to dealing with the other side of the business. Networking. Making deals. I specialized in our actual services, knowing that the only way we could conquer the world was by making sure that every livestock order was completed to the buyer’s requests with exact precision.
Both of us were tall, with the same gray-blue eyes as our father, the same black hair. Where I had tan lines from working in the pastures and bulging muscles covered by a layer of fat, Sawyer was muscular and toned, and never without a tailored suit.
He gestured at the wheelbarrow.
“Those orders could have been completed this morning. Easily.”
“And now I’m ahead,” I answered.
He rubbed a hand across his face. “You’ve got to take every aspect of the business seriously. Not just that.”
“I do what I do best.”
“You use it to avoid everything.”
I clenched my fists. “Stop crying about your damned birthday.”
He chuckled to himself, dismissing my remark. Anger boiled inside of me. But now wasn’t the time. If I needed to take out my aggression, the Feldman Trial would start soon, and then we would be on the same playing field once again.
“Like I give a shit about that,” Sawyer said. “But that was one of our last chances to discuss the Trial without—”
The door to the barn opened again, light blasting inside.
“You missed one hell of a party last night, my boy,” a loud, gravelly voice called. Every muscle in my body tensed. Forrest, our father, came striding toward us, his gray hair styled, his presence dominating. He would understand my absence. You didn’t double the family business without making sacrifices like my father had. “Must have been an important order for you to stand us up like that,” he continued.
Us. Him, and Sawyer. He didn’t like my decision to work, then. I lifted my head and leveled his gaze. “Someone had to take care of it.”
“You’re right,” he said, matching my tone. “Though one of the ranchers could have handled it. But anyway,” he slapped his hands together, “I was looking forward to today more. Our Feldman Trial.” Sawyer and I waited, both of us nodding silently. “Now that you are both in your thirties, we can hold a brotherly competition, to see who reigns supreme when it comes to our business.” Sawyer opened his hand, waiting for the list, but our father shook his head. “Not yet, my boy. But we’ll see who can finish their orders first. Now, each list is tailored to your abilities. Sawyer, since you take part more in the financial side of things, your list will be significantly larger than your brother’s, but one that will leave you time to deal with your regular duties.”
Sawyer nodded, pleased with himself. He was always eager to prove himself to our father, to show that even if he was younger, he was better than both of us. I, on the other hand, didn’t care about that. I wanted to do my work. To experience the complete tranquility that came whenever a livestock order was finished.
“And you, my oldest,” Forrest said, acknowledging me. “You will have only three orders to complete. But these orders have been difficult for other rivalry businesses to complete. I admit that I’ve tried to do each one of these, but have come up short. So it’s up to you, my son. And I know you can do it.” A flame of rage crashed through me. He was always so proud to have raised us. “Your uncles and I did the same thing to see who would take over the Feldman Farm.”
Sawyer and I had heard echoes of these stories since we were children, and yet it was only in our adult years that we realized our father was the only one who repeated these stories.
“The lists will be delivered to each of you in a few days,” our father said. “About a week. But until then, you will continue your duties as is.”
Sawyer crossed his arms. “What about the Feldman Offering?”
“Ah,” Forrest grinned. He patted my back. “Wilder has had a difficult time finding someone for that, hasn’t he?”
I narrowed my eyes at Sawyer. He was bitter about what he had given up in the name of the family, while I had nothing that could see the same fate. All I had were the livestock orders. When you held nothing close to you, you couldn’t offer anything up.
“That’s all right, my boy,” Forrest said, slapping my back. “Sawyer and I found you the perfect match.”
I straightened my shoulders. “How?”
My father motioned toward the doors. “Once we finish for the day, we’ll show you.”
In the evening, we drove to Pierce, the nearest city, and went to my father’s favorite meeting place, a gentleman’s club called The Trap. Sawyer’s birthday celebrations had ended here the night before. The establishment never called to me. The women were attractive and they always had a bottle of local whiskey, but what I desired required more control.
The hostess greeted my father and brother with hugs, pressing her breasts into them, and as she went to do the same to me, I crossed my arms, and she winked instead She led us to the VIP section—a long set of couches in a railed off elevated area, with a view of the stage. A pole was in the middle with a dancer twirling around it.
My father ordered us a round of whiskey. I sat to the side, taking in our surroundings. Down on the audience level, there were exits on both sides of the stage, one that led to the back alley and the other to the smoking area. Another exit at the entrance of the club, where we had come in, and presumably another exit for the staff and dancers at the back of the building. Most of the seats were occupied with men grinning up at women wrapped in lingerie. Every customer and dancer had a hollowness in their eyes above their twisted smiles. That forced sense of enjoyment intrigued me. Why pretend?
My eyes sailed over each one, landing on a woman with yellow-blond hair, a stripe of black down the middle, her brown eyes dark as dirt. Chipped white nail polish. A deep purple lipstick on her plump lips. The frayed strap of her red dress. We locked eyes; that same emptiness filled her vision. How could she be at peace with such nothingness? When nothing in our lives mattered? It could end right there if I pulled out my gun.
Forrest knocked his arm into me and I broke eye contact with her. He handed me a highball filled with twice the whiskey of his and Sawyer’s. Always a heavy pour, to remind me that I needed to loosen up. The three of us clinked glasses.
“There’s a girl I’d like you to meet,” Forrest said. “She’s exactly what you wanted.” I waited. What exactly was that? “The physical profile fits well enough.”
My father glanced around, searching for someone. “She works here?” I asked.
“In a way.” A sly smile crossed his lips. “You wanted someone you’d never become attached to, yes?”
“That’s not the point of the Feldman Offering, but if there is anyone who can meet your demands, both as a placeholder wife and your duties to this family, it’s this woman. She’s a prostitute.”
“Sex worker,” Sawyer corrected.
For a second, Forrest narrowed his eyes at my brother, then straightened. “Yes. Sex worker. Nonetheless, she’s used to being paid to make people think she’s in love.”
A woman like that would never be able to show genuine affection. Every moment would always be transactional, and that appealed to me. It made sense. Neither of us would forget our place.
“And you’ve spoken to her about this?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not,” our father said. “But I have spoken to her—” he paused, grinning to himself, “—her guardian. You know I’m very convincing.” Darkness flashed behind his eyes. When Forrest didn’t get his way, he made sure everyone paid for it until he was given exactly what he wanted on a silver platter. Even if it came to a strange woman he wanted to marry me. “It’s been arranged. You’ll marry her in a week.”
A future with a woman, wasn’t something I often contemplated. Why bother? In the end, there was no use for her, besides our Feldman Offering, which kept the Feldmans prospering longer than any family in our line of work.
Our cow-calf operation was only a cover.
As long as I was able to control her—who she was, what she meant, what she stood for—then I would take that chance.
“Where’s my future wife?” I asked.
Forrest motioned to that woman with the yellow hair and the purple lips. Sweat beaded her forehead, gleaming under the stage lights. She was small but solid enough to put up a fight. A vacant smile formed on her lips as she bent toward a man, batting her eyelashes at him. Like she meant it. Like he meant the world to her.
She was perfect.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Her real name is Maisie Ross,” he said. “But here, she goes by Crystal.”
I batted my eyelashes at the bearded man I was sitting on, then straightened. Between him and the stage lights, it was like being cooked under a broiler. Bambi bounced up, pulling a shaved-headed man to his feet.
“You sure you don’t want company?” I asked Shaved Head. Bambi blinked her doe-eyes up at him.
“Hey!” Beard Boy said. “What about me?”
Bambi focused on Shaved Head. “Two girls are better than one,” she said.
“Maybe next time,” Shaved Head said, smiling down at her. “I want you all to myself tonight.”
“I’m not complaining,” she smirked.
I grabbed her arm. “Let me steal her away for a second,” I winked.
I linked elbows with Bambi and went to the bathroom quickly. Her client waited outside of the door. The graffiti I had marked in the big stall was still there: No One Loves You Like The Stage Does. I was surprised no one had scribbled over it. None of the new dancers liked us hanging out here, even though we had once been in their stilettos.
“You’re sure about this one?” I asked. Bambi had a bad habit of picking the men who liked to leave shiners, and though Green always urged me to let Bambi make her own decisions, I still liked checking in with her. Better to know that she was positive about what she was doing than to let her get swept away on a date that promised a big payout.
“He’s a softie,” she said, shoving my shoulder playfully. “I’ll hightail it out the first warning I get.”
She squeezed my hand, then scanned me. “You look perfect, as always,” she said.
That was easy for her to say. She woke up like a fawn in human flesh—innocent beauty wrapped with light brown hair and eyes. Me? I wasn’t that at all.
“The perfect roast beef, maybe,” I said.
She laughed. “Go get ‘em.”
The door swung shut behind her, and I sighed, inspecting myself in the mirror. Perfect? Hah! Liner and mascara puckered around my eyes. I smudged a finger underneath, removing as much of the bleeding makeup as I could, then reapplied my lipstick. Dabbed a paper towel on the sides of my face. No matter how high they kept the air conditioning, I always burned up. Even back when I was only wearing a bikini.
A man with gray hair angled himself against the wall, instantly locking eyes with me. Late fifties, early sixties maybe, but in shape. I recognized him—he had paid me for a date, maybe a month ago, and wanted me to strip. Green hadn’t been too happy with my inability to make him close on a better date. But the two of them had come to their own arrangement after that. Since then, the man had always been occupied. I never got to learn what they had discussed.
“Crystal,” he said.
I smiled. “Yes, baby?”
“What’s your real name?”
Clients often wanted a real name, as if that gave them some sort of power over you. “I already told you, hot stuff. It’s ‘Crystal.’” I said. I hadn’t used my real name in years anyway. “Baby, I can’t strip tonight. But there are plenty of other girls willing to get naked on the stage for you. Unless you want to play—”
“I want to talk.”
Green appeared in the hallway, stroking his lime tie. I flinched, then turned back to the Gray-Haired Man.
“You gotta pay more this time,” I said.
He shoved a hand into his pocket, removing a wad of cash. He handed me a few bills. It was twice the amount he had given me last time. And he just wanted to talk?
“Ten minutes of your time,” he said. “Don’t worry. I cleared it with your boss.”
I shoved the money in my clutch, then linked arms with him as we walked past Green, who stepped out of our way. I rubbed the scar on my hand.
“Ten minutes?” I repeated so that Green could hear me.
We took an unoccupied booth to the side of the room. A waitress came for our drink orders, and I helped myself to a long island on the Gray-Haired Man’s wallet. He stared at me, but without the lust I was used to. Like he was assessing me, trying to figure out what my ammo was. The waitress brought us our drinks, and I made a show of clinking our glasses together.
“I have an offer,” Gray-Haired Man said, taking his time with his words. “That cash?” He nodded at my clutch and I tucked it under my arm. “We own the Feldman Farms. Ever heard of it?”
It sounded familiar, but I rarely paid attention to that kind of stuff unless it had to do with a regular client.
“I can make this world go away,” he said, gesturing at the club. “Your boss? That man that’s been following you? He’ll never bother you again.”
I highly doubted that.
“So,” I tilted my head, “You’ll get rid of him?”
“You’d kill him?”
This time, Gray-Haired Man laughed, smacking the table.
“Oh, sweet girl, is that what you want?” he asked.
I blushed, my cheeks furiously red. “Of course not.”
He shrugged, pretending like it was actually an option. “Don’t worry. I’ve already arranged a deal with him. But I want to ask for your cooperation.” I wrinkled my nose. What did he want? He wrote a number on the napkin, then handed it to me.
I blinked. I don’t care what kind of farm he owned; Gray-Haired Man didn’t have that kind of money. I pushed the napkin back to him.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“What’s the catch?”
He finished the rest of his whiskey, then laced his fingers together. “Marry my son,” he said. “Screw him. Make him—” he paused, rubbing a hand over his chin, “—make him forget about his duties for a while. The boy needs it.”
“Marry your son?” I squeaked. Gray-Haired Man nodded. “Is he, like, weird or something?”
“I want him to be challenged by more things than work.”
Plenty of the farmers came down from Crown Creek, but none of them had that kind of cash. What kind of farming business did he own?
I’d better get everything I could.
“Add fifty percent,” I said.
He chuckled again, then crumpled the napkin in his hands, a sense of violence lingering in his eyes. I shifted back in my seat, cupping the edge of the cushion.
“It’s already been arranged. One million for your cooperation. Not a cent more,” he said.
My heart clenched. A million dollars was a lot of money.
But I couldn’t leave Bambi.
“Two of us,” I said. “My friend. Bambi. We can both—”
“My son can’t marry two women.”
“Do you have another son?” I seemed to remember him talking about two different kids when I stripped for him a while back.
He smiled. “My youngest is still broken up over his last,” he paused, “fling. The offer is for you, and you alone.” He pulled twenty-five hundred-dollar bills out of his pocket, then handed them to me in a firm handshake. “Take this as a show of good faith. A marriage. Sex. A million dollars. And you’d be free of this.”
Sex work was my life for the last few years. Bambi left with Green, and I followed her, afraid she would get hurt. Marrying Gray-Haired Man’s son? It didn’t seem that hard. And it wasn’t much different from my life already.
But it still wasn’t right to leave Bambi with Green. I’d find a way to make it work, to save her too.
I shook the man’s hand, taking the money. “Is your lucky son here?” I asked.
He pointed to a tall, barrel-chested man with black hair and the same pale blue eyes as him. The son glanced at me, then headed out through the exit to the side of the stage.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Let me take care of it,” Gray-Haired Man said. “Carry on as usual. We’ll come to retrieve you.”
I crossed my arms. Why hadn’t his son talked to me himself?
“He knows, right?” I asked. “That you’re asking—” I paused. That wasn’t the right word. ‘Forcing’ was more accurate, but less delicate. “That you’re arranging for me to marry him?”
“I didn’t tell him about my specific request. The money, he can know about. But not the sex.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Why was that a secret? I clasped my hands together, running my thumb over the stretched pink scar. As long as I got my money, I suppose it didn’t matter why he was keeping the sex part a secret.
“Can I talk to him?” I asked.
“Be my guest.”
I headed straight down the stairs to the stage, reaching for that same door as his son. A white button-up shirt and a lime tie crowded in front of me. He ran a hand over his head, then stroked his blond beard.
“Where are you going, babe?” Green asked.
I grabbed his arms, squeezing him. “Just a date.”
“That old man promised me a lot of money,” he said. “You’re my best girl. Don’t mess this up.”
My best girl used to mean something to me. But now, they were a curse. I slipped the wad of cash into his pocket.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m working hard.”
With that, Green stepped out of the way, letting me exit. Twenty-five hundred was no small amount of money, but if Gray-Haired Man had been telling the truth, I could lose a few bills to get Green off of my case.
Outside, spotlights hung off of the back of the building, lighting the wet asphalt. The smoking area was empty, gated around us. The man leaned against the wall, glaring out of the barred gate. Black hair. Groomed facial hair. Dull blue eyes. Dirt under his fingernails. His broad shoulders flexed, his burly muscles tensing under his shirt. Completely stiff. He glared at me. Apparently, I had interrupted his peace.
I sighed deeply, resting on the wall next to him. I always tried to find something in common with the men I entertained. Making fun of the music was an easy go-to.
“If I have to listen to another crappy top forty song, my eardrums might explode,” I said. The man ignored me. He didn’t even grunt. “Where are you from?” I tried.
He was silent.
He knew about the arranged marriage. He had to know who I was. We were about to spend a lifetime together.
“Don’t you want to get to know each other before we do this?” I asked.
“We?” he asked. Finally, he peered at me, tracing me from my eyes to my lips, down to my toes pooling out over the tops of my stilettos. Leather and mud and fur permeated the air. His family must have had a ranch, then, not just a farm. He towered over me, even in the heels, and though he was wearing a suit, his muscles were big, like a man that’s used to manual labor. Like he was built this way.
I straightened my shoulders. None of that made a difference. In the end, he was a client. I wasn’t afraid of him.
“I can smell you from across the club,” he said.
I froze, but only for a second. I sucked in a quiet breath. I had taken a shower that morning. I hadn’t even had a date yet.
“You get a headache from vanilla spray or something?” I asked.
He closed his eyes, then said, “Wear a floral perfume. It’ll hide your scent.”
I rolled my eyes. Sure. I had been asked to do weirder things by clients before; wearing some cheap jasmine perfume was the least of my worries.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Cry—” I stopped myself. If I was going to marry him, then I might as well tell him my real name. “Maisie. And you?”
“You didn’t ask my father for my name.”
I huffed through my nose. “I’m trying to make conversation.”
I narrowed my eyes. “So what? You only want to screw? Is that what you want out of an arranged marriage?”
He forced a chuckle. “You think I’m your ticket out.”
Or maybe I wanted the million dollars. “So?”
“Marry me, and everything will be set.” He shook his head, then went back to leaning on the wall. “You ran away from home because life was so damn rough. Is that it? You thought your mother and father would start caring about you if you sold your body. But then you found out no one gives a shit.”
My cheeks burned, my throat tight.
“Hate to break it to you. Marrying me won’t be the easy life you’re used to,” he said.
My fingernails dug into my palms. “My life has never been easy.” I opened my mouth to call him an ass, but he cut me off.
“You have a choice, Maisie.” He gestured at the corner of the building, toward the parking lot. “You can still say no.”
I gritted my teeth. “You would like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
My heart sank to my feet. “Your father made it clear that I don’t have a choice.”
“Then run away.”
He faced me, our eyes locking. The blue and gray in his eyes were like a swirling storm. I was transfixed by the hurricane. Rooted to the spot. Why was he like this?
“Why did you agree to an arranged marriage if you want nothing to do with me?” I asked.
He picked me apart, layer by layer. Then he removed his wallet and found several more bills. A thousand dollars. How was his family so loaded?
He handed them to me. “You must owe your boss,” he said.
I scowled. “I don’t need your pity.”
“Take the money and go,” he said. He waited for a few more seconds, but I stood still, staring at him evenly.
“If you don’t want to marry me, then you tell your father ‘no.’” I forced a grin. “You still have a choice.”
The corners of his lips twitched. I had called him out, and he knew it. He shoved the money back into his pocket.
“I agreed to a legal arrangement,” he said. “But I want nothing to do with you.”
I stepped closer, letting my hips sway, searching for the flicker in his gaze to see where his eyes fell. But he met me on an even playing field, never losing our eye contact. Like he was hunting for his kill. I slid my hand into his pocket, stroking a long finger across the fabric, his cock twitching against my touch. He wanted nothing to do with me? I brought my lips to his ear.
I stepped away quickly, walking toward the parking lot. I waved down a taxi and had the driver drop me off near the woods beside Pierce Park. After walking a few hundred yards into the brush and trees, I stopped in front of the Pierce Park Tunnel. A two-mile-long tunnel through Pierce Mountain, the only mountain for miles. Every step echoed between the walls. I took off my stilettos, carrying them by the straps, the wooden planks rough underneath my feet.
Pierce Park Tunnel used to be a popular spot for teenagers, but had lost its appeal more than a decade ago. A quarter-mile in, I pressed my hands to the brick wall. I found the edge of the safety alcove, a recessed cutout that had been built into the tunnel for maintenance workers when trains passed. My older sister never went here. She liked following the rules, even if it made everyone else, including me, look bad. I always did the opposite. She didn’t want to go in here, so I ran in, ready to take whatever came at me.
What would my older sister think about an arranged marriage or this asshole fiancé? She believed in love and fate, but me? I knew better. Marrying some rich farm boy might have been one of the best opportunities I could come across, and I intended to take advantage of it.
“You in here?” a woman’s voice called. Bambi. I switched on the light on my phone and waved from the inside.
“Stay out there,” I said. “I’ll come to you.”
I carried my shoes and met her at the tunnel’s entrance. She pulled out a small packet of baby wipes from her purse. I grabbed them and started cleaning my feet.
“Can’t walk in these heels,” I said. I stuffed the dirtied wipe in my purse.
“Perfect,” she said, satisfied with my clean feet. “Green will be pissed if he finds out we came down here again.”
“You mean, he’ll be pissed at me.” I wasn’t going to let Bambi take the blame for something I had done. She gave me a sad smile, her posture sinking. “You were only trying to find me. How’d the date go?”
She lifted her shoulders. “It was fine. He made me work for it though. Should have charged him overtime.” I stole a glimpse of her; she didn’t have any new bruises or redness. That was good. After she called Green, we headed toward the street to wait for him.
“Did you find anyone?” she asked.
I handed her the thousand I had pickpocketed from my future husband. After the way he had acted, stealing the money from him was so much more satisfying than accepting his ‘gift.’ Besides, he had offered it to me, and his father owed me anyway.
“Damn,” Bambi said. “Your all-star blowie?”
“This guy wants me to marry his son.”
“Seriously?” Bambi asked. Her jaw dropped. “Are you going to do it?”
“I think so. Why not, right?” At least I could pretend like it was my choice.
Green texted us both: Be there in five.
I wrinkled my nose at the text, but Bambi still had that lust in her eyes. She sighed, eager to see him. When I had first joined them, I had understood why she had fallen for Green. But now? I didn’t see it.
“How much are they offering?” Bambi asked.
Bambi laughed. “Come on. Stop messing with me.”
“Green took the other two grand his dad gave to me. And supposedly, they worked out their own arrangement. I mean, it seems legit.”
“Wow.” A car passed by, honking at us. Both of us automatically waved, batting our eyelashes. Once it passed, our shoulders drooped. It was hard to pretend all the time.
“Don’t let him get the upper hand,” she said. I tilted my head, and she added, “You need to find some sort of power over him. Before it’s too late.”
I furrowed my brows. “You mean like, find something to blackmail him with?”
“Call it a security deposit.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “We’ve got nothing to lose, right?” She smeared a plumping gloss on her lips, then zipped her clutch. I checked the bottom of my heels, making sure they were cleanish. “But they do. Your future husband’s family? They’ve got something they’re trying to hide. Otherwise, this arranged marriage wouldn’t be a thing. Use it to your advantage before they use you.”
Bambi had always been a bit clueless, even when we were still in high school, but when it came to certain things, she’d have these strokes of genius, like this.
“You can’t let that happen with this guy,” she said, her eyes begging. She was talking about Green, how he had gotten us to fall for him. Then cornered us.
I rolled my eyes, the guilt from leaving her rushing back. “Maybe I should call it off.”
She shoved my shoulder. “I will push you down the aisle if I have to.”
She was right. I needed to do this. “But what about you? And Green?”
She shrugged. “We’ll survive. We always do.”
“I’ll come back for you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she said, squeezing my hand. “Worry about yourself.”