Crawl: A Dark Stalker Romance Sample Chapters
First, I see the tawny glow of her upper arm. Her thick bicep twitches, then her fingers pinch at the fabric. The shirt flutters to the ground. There’s barely any room to move, but I shift my eye against the peephole, the inner surface of the plaster scraping my cheek. She crosses the room again and I get a glimpse of the tattoo on her back: two rib cages pressed together, the phalanges clutching each other like they’re afraid they’ll fall apart. But I’ve seen the piece in full: full skeletons embracing, teeth against teeth, dark eye sockets turned toward one another. As if the only promise we can rely on is our base instincts.
These old houses weren’t regulated during construction, and occupants expect things like holes in the plaster. Some of these homeowners don’t even know that they have wall cavities. Itching to see her again, my hands scratch the inner wall, and suddenly, it’s deathly still. I can imagine it already; another complaint about rats sent in a work order. Pesky little things. The foul scent of decaying palm trees fills the air, a dampness heavy on my shoulders, like a mouth breathing down on me.
Then the artificial moans shriek through the wall. The adult actress squeals, backed by creaking wooden furniture, and I instantly know the video Remedy is watching. It’s the same one every time: a man with bloodshot eyes towering over a woman with a rope around her neck while he takes her from behind. She always comes back to this one.
It’s only midday and she’s already going at it. My kind of woman.
I lean back against the outer wall, inching a hand into my pants, but I’m compressed between the two walls, and it’s hard to get a hand on my shaft. There’s a layer of fabric between the hard inner wall and my hand, but my forearm grinds against the plaster. I press my eye against that tiny hole, shifting in each direction to get another peek of her. Remedy Basset. What a name. Medicine. Treatment. A substitute for what’s needed. And my favorite little cure.
Blood fills my bulge, but it’s no use with a hole this small. I can’t see anything. I’m lucky if I catch a flash of her shoulder, and yet, I still prefer this vantage point. An associate back in Missoula had helped me hack her webcam so that I can see everything: every twist of her lips, every scrunched eyebrow, every pant that escapes her purple lips. But when it comes to my free time, before she goes to sleep, I prefer to spend it as close to her as possible. And that means being pressed between her wall cavities.
Her bare foot props up on the desk, her toenails nude and unpainted, but I can picture the webcam footage now: Remedy with her legs spread, a bobby pin falling out of her hair, hands clutching at her holes. Perhaps she’ll have clamps on her nipples, with the rubber guards removed this time, so that it’s metal teeth on skin. The clamp’s chain will dangle between her purple lips.
The computer chair squeaks with each thrust of her hips. My dirty girl doesn’t take her time; she knows what she wants. I stare at her twitching foot through the peephole and imagine us in that video: my ropes around her neck, watching as her face turns a beautiful shade of plum that complements her painted lips, mascara staining her cheeks, blood racing down her chest and hips, slashes from my knife marking her like a torn bag of cement, her velvet walls constricting around my shaft like she’s taking the life out of me.
And then, on the other side of the wall, a moan erupts from Remedy’s lips like a lamb who knows it’s about to be slaughtered, a sweet cry that lets the last notes hang in the air. With that image of her mouth twisting in release as she rips the clamps off of her nipples, I rub my length, my knuckles ramming into the wall. She gasps. Her computer chair creaks as she quickly stands up. A ruffle of commotion, like things being pushed around her bedroom. Perhaps she’s searching for a weapon to defend herself against a rather big rat. And that fear pushes me over the edge; my hot spurts of release soak my boxers.
After a few moments, she gives up, and this time I see the tips of her brown nipples, raw and red, as she crosses in front of the hole. I’m hard again. But she’s distracted; this is my chance to move. I inch between the inner and outer wall, not wanting to disturb her this time. After all, I enjoy watching Remedy and want to keep doing so. As an expert in my field, my job gives me access to houses all over Key West, and I’ve gotten to know her well over the past few months. I know the jasmine scent of her hair that lingers on her lumpy pillow. I’ve sniffed the sweet and tangy musk in her dirty panties. I know exactly the kinds of dirty videos she watches on repeat. And I know that her full name is Remedy Elise Basset and that she’s a personal assistant to the wealthy. I even know that she uses the password Bones1934 for practically everything.
The doorbell rings and I freeze in place. There’s never been a visitor before. Curious, I slide back to the peephole. There’s a loud clatter—she’s probably hiding those clamps—then an aerosol room spray puffs into the air. She flickers in front of the hole for a moment. Once she’s gone, I press my nose to the hole, using that single moment of solitude to take it in: the nauseatingly ripe stench of fruit punch, synthetically saccharine. It beats the hell out of plaster, rotting trees, and come.
Another body passes in front of the hole. Pale soft arms, the strap of something—probably a purse—hanging from a shoulder. She doesn’t live here, or she would have left her purse in the other bedroom. This is a good thing; I prefer my little cure by herself.
“You should have had me pick you up,” Remedy says. Her words are muffled by the wall, but I can still hear the coarseness of her voice. I can’t wait to hear that raspy gasp when she screams for me.
“You’re one to talk,” the friend laughs, her voice high like a runty little puppy.
“I took the self-defense classes; you didn’t. A serial killer is out there.”
I hold back a chuckle. Like a groin jab or pepper spray will stop a serial killer.
“Peter escorted me,” the friend says.
Remedy scoffs under her breath; even through the walls, I can hear the disdain in her voice. Whoever he is, she doesn’t trust Peter like her friend does.
“So you finally got the transfer?” Remedy asks, changing the subject.
“Starting on Monday at this old lady’s house on Duval.”
“But did you tell LPA what Winstone did?”
The friend hesitates. And if I know my little cure, the longer the seconds drag on, the antsier she gets. She likes tapping her fingers on her sides, flicking them open and close, to keep herself under control. Straining my fingers, I match her movements behind the wall. I’m a big man squeezed into a tight space, like stuffing a king-sized mattress into the back of a golf cart. I can’t get comfortable, and it’s hot as balls, but it’s worth it. With these motions, I try to get inside of her head. Is it sadness? Perhaps. Anxiety? Anger? Why does she keep it locked inside of her rib cage?
Whatever happened doesn’t have to do with Remedy. It’s her friend’s problem.
“I just want it to blow over,” the friend says.
A faint sigh escapes Remedy’s lips. The lock on her bedroom door crunches, and the blinds over her windows shift up, then down, like she’s checking to make sure her windows are locked. It’s a nervous habit, one she does often even when she’s alone, to make sure she knows exactly who can get in and who can get out.
“He backhanded you,” Remedy says, anger in her raspy voice. “Slapped you. Spanked your ass like you were a child.” She groans, and I imagine her throwing her hands up in the air, but in the hole, I only see the empty spot next to her desk. The two women must be sitting on her bed. “Someone has to do something.”
“But that doesn’t have to be me,” the friend says. “Or you.”
A slight pause passes between them. I shift my weight, angling myself toward the bed, but now, all I see is the wall.
“I’m not going to let it happen again,” Remedy says, a warning in her tone.
“This isn’t about your—”
A phone vibrates, rattling on a hard surface. The two of them scramble for the device, but it beeps and Remedy answers it.
“This is Remedy Basset,” she says. The taps of her feet are light on the hard floor as she paces the room. A bare shoulder passes in front of the hole, a lace-lined camisole sits on her frame. I rub my fingers along the inner plaster of the wall as if I can feel her smooth skin, and I imagine stroking the intricate black lace tattoo sprawling over her supple stomach. She turns around, pacing the other direction, and I suck in a breath.
“You mean Mr. Winstone at the Winstone Estate, correct?” Remedy asks the caller. She whispers to her friend, then clears her throat. “Absolutely. I’ll be ready. Thank you.”
As soon as the phone beeps again, the friend wails.
“What the hell, Remedy?” she asks. “This is bullshit.”
“It’s a job,” Remedy says, her tone matter-of-fact. “Since the Johnsons left, I’ve been out of work. You know how hard it is in the off-season.”
Another pause stretches between them. There must be some truth to that statement, even if it is convenient that the personal assistant agency assigned Remedy to the same job her friend recently left.
“But you took a job with him?” the friend asks. “You encouraged me to transfer, just so you could take my job? What’s up with that?”
“It’s luck,” Remedy says. “Bad, bad luck. But this way, he can’t hurt you or anyone else anymore.”
“So what, he’ll hurt you instead?”
“Dude, I’m going to hurt him too.”
A pause shifts between the two women. “Remmie,” the friend says.
“It’s fine. It’s a short assignment. Temporary until they find a better match.”
“Temp for a month, right? Then he’ll sign you for a year. That’s what he did with me.”
“Like you said. It’s fine at first. He left me alone, right? Like I was a meaningless staff member. But then he physically assaulted me. And you want to work for him? What if he does it to you too?”
“Then I’m going to get it on camera.”
“He’s got his surveillance under tight control.”
“I’ll install my own.”
“I’m telling you, he’ll know about it.”
“And if I have to, I’ll kill him.”
The friend gasps. My groin tenses with sudden pressure. She’s so damn hot. Maneuvering between the walls, inch by inch, I take my phone out of my pocket, careful not to make any sudden movements. I don’t want to stir the two women into a frenzy. My associate, the same one who hacked Remedy’s webcam, gave me an app to see her webcam on my phone at any time. I want to see her face. The thick, dark brows, her shiny black hair. Her eyes beaming down her nose as she looks at her friend. So sure of herself, like she knows she’s going to kill him.
Most people say that in bluster, confident until the knife is in their hand, then they can’t do anything. Not because of the guilt at the life they’re stealing, but at the fear of getting caught. But others? We can look each other in the eye and feel it. Murder is an action and death is the result. And Remedy?
Perhaps that’s why I haven’t killed her yet.
But when I click the app, it says: Webcam Offline. She must have closed her laptop when she finished that video. Damn it.
“I’m not going to let Winstone go unpunished,” Remedy says, her voice stern.
“He’s not your stepdad,” the friend squeals out, then gasps again, like she immediately regrets it. “Winstone is more like your stepbrother than your stepdad. And you said so yourself: Brody didn’t even bother you that much.”
This time, Remedy says nothing. I press my eye to the hole, but the desk is all I have. The nail polish stains. An empty water bottle. A peel of an orange.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” the friend stammers.
This time, Remedy walks past the peephole, and I catch a glimpse of her hand—black nail polish, always chipped, her fingers clutched around the other arm like she’s holding herself.
“I have to do this,” Remedy says. “Or I won’t forgive myself.”
“You don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“I’ve dealt with people like him before.”
“Brody was still your family. Winstone isn’t. He can really hurt you, Remmie.”
“I’m not going to let anyone get away with it again.”
There’s a boisterousness in those words that silences the both of them, an emphatic declaration that Remedy knows what she wants. The friend groans, but Remedy doesn’t offer anything to placate her. She’s not going to give up on this. I like that.
“You have to be careful,” the friend says.
“You’re doing this alone. That means he’s got more power over you.”
“At least he’s not getting us at the same time,” Remedy chuckles.
“That would almost be better. I could distract him while you take him on.”
The two women laugh, and finally, I zone out. The conversation wanders into monotony, droning about work, school, family, topics I care little about. I don’t understand the term ‘best friend,’ but with the way these two talk, I imagine this is what it is.
Eventually, the friend leaves, and Remedy sighs. She’s relieved, and I let out a breath too. The friend’s voice is like shredding eardrums on a cheese grater. The lock shudders in the front of the house, the bedroom door slams shut, and then the computer chair squeaks with Remedy’s weight. The keyboard clicks. She’s using her laptop, then. I check the phone app, switching to the mirrored screen. She flips through the usual social media pages, even searching for the Winstone Estate and Mr. Winstone himself.
She hovers over an old headline: Cassius Winstone, owner and CEO of The Winstone Company, reclusive developer of the Southeastern United States, discusses his new projects in Key West.
At least they got the ‘reclusive’ part right.
Her phone pings, and as she checks it, I switch to the webcam view, her hand resting on the keyboard, her eyes on her phone in her lap. She smiles, then gets up, walking out of the room. The plumbing shudders through the house like an old machine stumbling to wake up. She must be starting a shower. Usually, I prefer to wait until the residents are sleeping to leave, but this is my queue. I take long, careful side steps through the wall cavity. With the gradual, stroking movements of my chest and legs against the inner walls, it’s less likely that she’ll hear anything, especially with the shower running. Once I bend into the crawl space, I emerge from the floor hatch. I brush my hands over my clothes, wiping off the dust from inside the cavity, then exit out the back door. She never hears it.
I relax behind the wheel of my truck. The pale moon breaks up the bright blue sky, and I nod my head at the tourists on the sidewalk: drunk, comfortable, completely unaware. A few police officers roam beside them, more than usual especially during the day, but the civilians seem fearless. A gruesome murder like the Key West Killer’s victims won’t keep them from enjoying their afternoons out. They hold on to the belief that it’ll never happen to them.
A woman in a red lace leotard and a thin sweater skips in front of one of the spring breaker bars, bumpy winter goosebumps covering her thighs. My mind wanders to Remedy. The tattoos of lace on her chest, dipping between her legs, like she can never truly be bare again. The way she answered the phone call from her agency was amusing, so formal and polite, like she’s completely trustworthy, not a deviant who yanks off toothed clamps from her nipples to get off. No. To everyone else, she’s Remedy, the angel willing to take a job working for a man who had committed terrible crimes against her best friend. She’s doing it to protect her friend and the rest of the world from him.
Queue applause. This, my friends, is Remedy Basset.
Inside Mike’s Home Supply, the closest hardware store in the area, the cashier bows his head, shrinking behind his shoulders, like a dog that’s been kicked too many times, but he’s not as innocent as he looks. I click my teeth at him, making sure he knows I see him. The owner emerges from the back.
“What’re you doing back here already?” he asks. “You still working?”
“I was one batt of fiberglass short. You got any?”
“Twenty-three by ninety-three?”
That’s the one. I nod. “Same rate as yesterday?”
“I’ll send it upfront.”
I wander for a moment, always keeping myself in view of the cashier. I want to cut off his fingers, just to see his expression when he realizes that every suspicion he has about me is true. But if I kill him, then I won’t be able to see him squirm.
The owner drops the fiberglass batt onto the counter and I walk languidly up to the cashier.
“Cash again today?” the cashier asks.
I slap the correct amount on the counter, never leaving the cashier’s eye contact. He’s always wary when it comes to our interactions. Begging for a card to keep on file. Asking for my name, in case they need to contact me about a new shipment. ‘Cash’ is enough. I know my place and there isn’t any reason to waste time with meaningless interactions.
But my shaft twitches. I love knowing that he’s afraid of me. I tilt my head toward the register. He hasn’t liked me since I helped cover his ass for stealing from the store.
“Don’t worry, kid,” I say. “You’re stuck with me for a while. At least until I finish these projects.”
“Thought you said you were moving soon?” he asks.
Ah, he remembers then. “Eventually.”
In truth, I don’t give a shit about stealing. I first stole lunch meat from a grocery store when I was nine years old. But I enjoy having power over someone. If you have a person in a corner, then they have to do whatever you say. And Remedy likes it dirty. What will make her finally crawl to me, begging for the sweet release I can give her?
I wink at the cashier, then grab the fiberglass batt. “You take care now.”
Outside, the sea air brushes my cheeks, the salty, mildly fishy scent hovering in the cold humidity. I suck in a breath. I always enjoy the winter here. The high sixties to mid-seventies. A light, constant breeze. Clear skies. And enough of a population to keep me entertained. Tourists. Locals. The rich bastards who visited their third homes for the winter. They all have their place here. And usually, I keep myself in check, only killing one to three every season. But this time, the itch is growing like my hunger for Remedy. I’ll have to do it again soon. And that will be my fifth this year.
I decide to walk, leaving my truck on the street. I can have someone pick it up later. The occasional pedestrian passes and we exchange nods. The mayor has urged people to stay home after dark, but no one seems to think it can happen to them. And why would they? It’s not like they’ll pass a killer on the street. I like it that way. Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved button-up shirt, I look unimportant. The shock on their faces always amuses me when they realize how wrong they are.
I find my way to the estate, right off of Queen Street. Six bedrooms, four bathrooms, two offices. Navy blue shutters on a crisp white exterior. Enough palm trees surround the property to give it a natural barrier of privacy beyond the white fence. The Winstone Estate. My home.
A black cat slinks up to my side. Her fur is matted, twigs tangled in the strands, but she purrs at my ankles, not giving a damn. She gazes up at the estate with me.
“Do you have a home?” I ask. She purrs, and as I stroke her neck, I check for a collar, but her neck is bare. My mind shifts to Remedy’s dirty video, the rope around the adult actress’s neck.
The image of Remedy sprawled out on that squeaking computer chair fills my mind: those light brown nipples strapped into the clamps, her moan of release when she rips them off, the tiny beads of reddened skin.
I’m supposed to move soon. Get the hell out and keep law enforcement off of my back.
But what if I stay?
If I pin my crimes on Remedy, perhaps killing everyone she loves, to prove that she’s the one who did it all, it’ll be new. A way to pass the time. A bigger challenge than simply moving away.
The idea is enticing. I can’t kill her yet, then. But it’ll be worth it.
The cat purrs against my leg, white patches around her eyes and nose and mouth, like the reverse image of a skeleton. Bones. Remedy’s favorite password. Those boney tattoos on her back fill my mind. Tattoos are a way to control your body, to show ownership over the canvas you’re given. But she doesn’t own that skin anymore. I’ll cut her up, leaving my scars, and my knife won’t be as forgiving as the tattoo gun.
I gesture to the side of the house. “Let’s go home,” I say, and the black cat and I disappear.
“All finished up,” a male voice, like a smooth, aged scotch, startles me. I quickly dash up, but as I spin around to see him, I only catch a glimpse of him in my mirror: a button-up shirt, sunlight flashing across his face, casting ripples of shadows on his eyes, the sockets dark and cavernous.
“I thought you finished last Tuesday?” I shout, racing to the hallway. But he’s already gone.
The maintenance men are awful at actually notifying us like they promise. You’d think that living in a place like Key West with a high influx of tourists would guarantee adequate maintenance. But when it comes to the local dwellings, those of us that live year round in the older buildings, the opposite is true. Despite Mr. Winstone being an obsessive and wealthy real estate developer, he’s a cheap bastard with his long-term tenants. He gives us the absolute bare minimum, not caring whether we tenants have a life or need privacy. I hate that the maintenance men get keys from our ‘gracious’ landlord, but what can I do? Winstone controls practically everything in Key West, and the man barely leaves his house. Years ago, he fired the entire house staff for incompetence; he’s that kind of billionaire. He only works with one personal assistant, and now, that’s me.
Back when we were in high school, Jenna was the only person who immediately believed me when it came to my stepdad. I owe her this. And luckily for me, no one wants to work with Mr. Winstone.
I park my car on the street, then stare up at the house. It’s massive compared to its neighbors. The spiky edges of saw palmetto trees fan-like blades, splitting off the estate from civilization. Drooping skinny edges of the lilies hang down, like an omen, to warn onlookers that nothing nice lives here.
The plaque on the white fence establishes the historic significance of the building: The Winstone Estate, built in 1889. I roll my eyes, huffing out a breath. He thinks his home is old and refined. I open the white gate, taking the stairs up to the front porch. I make sure my hairpins are fixed in place, keeping the hair out of my eyes, then I adjust my blouse, making sure my cleavage is ample, everything set to attract his attention. Slipping the key from underneath the mat like the agency instructed me, I let myself inside.
Light streams in through the open windows on the first floor. Chills pebble over my skin. Winstone’s a recluse, not someone who lives with open windows, and yet the scent of the ocean, salty and sweet, lingers in the air. It’s brighter than I expected, and the openness makes my senses heighten. Everything is accessible, nothing is locked. Winstone must know about the Key West Killer. Why is he keeping everything open? Isn’t he afraid?
I run my fingers across the clean marble countertop. Though the home was built over a century ago, it’s been renovated every few years, as that is what Winstone does best. Rumor has it that he even did some renovations himself.
I scan the countertop for instructions like the agency directed, but it’s empty, so I explore. Three rooms and an office downstairs, three bedrooms and another office space upstairs. But every window in the common area downstairs is open. My insides burn, my fingers itching at my sides to close them, but it’s not my place. It’s Winstone’s. And if he suddenly prefers open windows, then I’ll let it be.
Except it seems strange. Jenna, my best friend, said that he kept his windows covered with newspaper and the blinds drawn. Why is everything so… open?
Maybe it’s better this way. Even if I can’t hear someone coming, there are more ways to get out.
In the kitchen, I check the stainless steel refrigerator. A mechanical device hisses above me, the camera lens following me as I walk. I open the doors to the fridge—fresh-squeezed orange juice, organic health-prepped meals, protein shakes—then turn, letting my eyes scan the ceiling carefully. Every few feet, there’s another small black camera in the shape of a half-sphere. My skin heats. Jenna mentioned that he likes to watch.
But at least I can use that as an excuse.
I pull out a small home security device I brought with me, setting it up with the Wi-Fi password the agency provided. Most of the assaults happened in his office, so I go to the downstairs office and place it on the fireplace mantle, in between a miniature globe and a set of old books.
“Remedy Basset,” a male voice calls, deep and reverberating, a fluidness to his tenor. My skin flames and immediately cools. My new boss. I bring my eyes to his.
He’s a full foot taller than me, with broad shoulders and a firm chest. Stubble on his face. But his skin is smooth and unblemished like he’s still too young to be a self-made billionaire developer. He can easily pass for his late thirties. Almost like Winstone has a son, an heir he doesn’t talk about. His black hair has a tapered fade on the sides, with a side-swept textured mess on the top, the kind of style where you can tell he knows how good he looks. Then I notice it—the touch of grey at his temples. Maybe he is older but looks good for his age.
His dark brown, almost black eyes, peer at me. A dark uneven circle blemishes the outside of one pupil, and a line crosses the outside of the other: freckles on the whites of his eyes. A vein tenses by his temple. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, his muscles veiny and thick. Calloused, tan hands.
The recluse gets out, then.
He steps forward. I stretch my fingers at my side, biting the inside of my lip. I bow my head curtly like I was trained at the agency, and extend my hand. He’s just a man. Just my new boss. It doesn’t matter if we’re alone. I can handle this.
He takes my grip, both of his hands swallowing mine, and I force my lips into a smile. But inside, I’m seething. He has the nerve to humiliate and bruise my best friend, and thinks he can shake my hand like I’m just another waiting victim?
Not this time.
“Cassius Winstone,” I say, matching his words.
“Call me ‘Cash.’”
I nod politely. “Cash.”
“What brings you to Key West?”
There’s a familiarity to his tone, a polished effortlessness that makes me swallow hard, but I push those thoughts away. He reminds me of my stepdad and stepbrother; he’s full of smug grins and even tones, like he can do nothing wrong.
Trying to hold in my anger, I purse my lips together. “I grew up here.”
I tilt my head. Why does he care? “Did you ask your last assistant these questions?”
“I didn’t have an interest in her like I have an interest in you.”
Everything inside of me is on fire, the sensation roiling in my gut. I don’t know how to take those words, so I level his gaze like I’m not afraid of him. Those dark eye freckles study me with laser-like precision. I press my chest forward, arching my back, trying to get his eyes to move to my chest, but he doesn’t flinch.
“Why Key West?” he asks.
“My mother found a good position teaching. And my stepdad did glass-bottom boat tours for a while.”
“So you never made it out?”
My fingers ball into fists. The prick.
“Why leave when I was lucky enough to find this position with LPA?” I ask, a hint of sarcasm in my voice. “We thank you for the low rent agreement you have with our agency. We’re indebted to you.”
“I’m keeping you chained to this rock, then.”
My teeth clench together. Why is he asking me these questions? Winstone ignored Jenna for months, but now, it’s like he’s hunting me.
“Look at me,” he orders, his voice full of iron.
My body tightens, but I instantly meet his gaze. His dark eyes burn, those brown freckles on the whites captivating me. Like blemishes that make him beautiful in his imperfections. A ball in one eye and a thin string in the other. Like bait and a fishing line. Two eyes that haunt me, waiting to drag me out.
I pat my hands against my sides. I have to keep myself under control. Revenge is best served cold, and this asshole is going to choke on my icicles.
I force my lips into a wide grin. “Mr. Winstone—”
“Cash,” I repeat. “I’m honestly very grateful for my position. Whatever you need, I’ll make it happen. And if I can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”
And I’m going to make you pay for what you did to Jenna.
“Good,” he says, his lips curved down into a sour expression, like he can read me somehow. I have to be better at this. Play along like I’m a good little assistant. Someone he can take advantage of. Just like Jenna.
But I can’t stop myself. I want him to know that I hate him. I want him to understand my rage.
“I simply ask that you don’t cross any boundaries with me,” I say plainly, my voice louder than before. I shrug, covering it up with pleasantries. “I want to be the best assistant you’ve ever had, but I can only do that if I trust you. And that means knowing the expectations both ways and respecting those boundaries. Right, Cash?”
A smirk spreads across his lips. He steps closer, his footstep creaking on the hardwood floor. My stomach stiffens, but I stand my ground.
“Right,” he says.
I glance around as he takes another step closer. “The agency mentioned that you don’t often leave your room,” I say, nerves fluttering into my tone. “Thank you for meeting me down here. It’s very nice of you.”
Another step forward. We’re only a few feet apart now. The scent of his sweat drifts underneath his piney cologne, and it’s like we’re lost in the woods. I close my eyes, trying to stop my head from spinning.
“What else did they tell you?” he asks.
He steps forward again, the distance between us disappearing. I clear my throat.
“They said that you don’t like associating with people often. That I may not be meeting you for a few months. That I’ll be getting most of my instructions through email and notes.” I lick my dry lips. He takes another step forward. My shoulders fill with weight. I raise my chin, forcing myself to be brave. “That I will do most of your in-person meetings for you.”
He gives a slight shake of his head. “They forgot the rest, then.”
I open my mouth to ask questions, but a black cat pounces out from the hallway, curling at my feet. I bend down to pet her; her rough fur catches on my skin. It seems like she’s only recently become a house cat.
My brows squish together. “The agency didn’t mention any pets.”
“That’ll be your first task. Bones needs a good diet.” He tosses his head to the side, and I realize that his cat’s name is Bones. Weird. Where did he get her name?
He hands me his black card. “I have only two rules,” he says. “Recently, I’ve taken to leaving the windows open. Do not close them. And if any of my doors are closed, do not enter. Otherwise, you may come and go as you please, even if I’m occupied. My space is your space.” He turns to the stairs, and I scrape the hair at the back of my head. My space is your space? It’s a lie to make me comfortable and let down my guard.
I lift my head. His palm rests on the volute handrail fitting, an expensive watch on his wrist, his face angled to the side, as if he can’t bother to address me directly.
“Button up your shirt,” he says down his nose. “You’re not going to control me that easily.”
I suck in a quiet breath, my fingers fumbling with the buttons on my shirt. The stairs creak as he ascends. Yeah, the cleavage was a cheap move, but he noticed. That means he feels something toward me, even if it’s only irritation.
I purse my lips, letting out a calming breath. Pet food. I can do that. As a personal assistant with the agency for the last few years, I’ve done a lot worse than ordering pet food.
I set up my laptop at the long, grey-washed wooden table to the side of the kitchen, then use his black card to order some expensive gourmet pet food that costs more than a week’s worth of my groceries. Bones circles at my feet, and I find a bag of dry food in the cupboards. I pour some into a dish, and as I lower it to the ground, the cat acknowledges me with brief eye contact before nibbling at the hard pebbles. How is Cassius Winstone a cat lover? Had I missed that in Jenna’s stories?
As I put the bag back in the cupboard, I grab one of the kitchen knives and imagine holding it to Winstone’s veiny neck, slicing across his stubbly skin until blood cascades down his white shirt like a red sunset over a white, sandy beach. Usually, I imagine my stepdad, but there’s something enchanting about picturing Cash right then. His angular, harsh jaw, his smooth lips, his dark, spotted eyes, bloodshot like his red-stained shirt.
Maybe it’s good that my stepdad left Key West. He’s still alive, and I’m not in jail.
But jail doesn’t scare me. If I can stop someone like my stepdad, it’s worth it.
Cash is another bad egg.
Still carrying the knife, I step up the stairs, careful not to let them creak. At the end of the hallway, his office door is open, and so are the two bedrooms and the bathroom across from them. But the room on the left is closed.
Which is precisely why I want to open it. Screw his rules.
I open the door as slowly as I can, holding my breath, but it stays silent. I let out a breath. Light from the hallway spills into the room. Wet concrete covers each space where there should be a window. Like he wants to keep something, or someone, inside.
What the hell?
His desk chair squeaks, the sound drifting down the hallway, and I jump, closing the door behind me. I bound down the stairs, no longer trying to keep my presence a secret. I have no idea what he’s doing with that room, but it seems like his compulsion with blinds and newspaper coverings on overdrive.
But why is it fresh if he’s ‘taken to leaving the windows open’?
My phone buzzes in my pocket, erasing those thoughts from my head. On the screen, a picture of my mom and me illuminates the screen. It’s from before she divorced my stepdad, and in it, I’m tattoo-less and have pink lips. I check my surroundings; the stairs are empty and the place is silent. I answer the call.
“Hey,” I say in a quiet voice.
“How’s your first day so far?” Mom asks.
“It’s only been an hour,” I wrinkle my nose. “You don’t have to worry like this anymore. I’m twenty-five. I’ll be fine.”
“I just know how you get sometimes, sweetie.”
My gut twists. This is how she acknowledges it, with these strange, subtle questions and statements, like it physically hurts her to directly address the fact that my stepdad abused me and she didn’t notice.
Which is why she doesn’t know the reason I wanted this job so badly.
“How is he?” she asks.
He’s an untrustworthy jerk with creepy eyes and a cocky attitude. Basically, he’s like every rich asshole in the Keys.
“He’s fine,” I say. And if it weren’t for what he did to Jenna, it would almost be true. “I’m ordering cat food right now.”
“He has a cat?”
“Yep. And the boss-hole wants the best for his little puss,” I say. Bones lifts her head and jumps into my lap. I scratch behind her ears and she purrs, nuzzling my stomach. I like her. It’s not her fault that she’s owned by a jerk.
“I met someone,” Mom says. My fingers stop in Bones’s fur, and I breathe through my nose, waiting for Mom to explain. “I was thinking we could get together soon, so you could meet him too. Maybe a double date.”
My head pulses. “Who?”
“He’s new to town. Why don’t you see if that boy from the police department wants to join us?”
I roll my eyes, screaming inside. What’s with Mom’s and Jenna’s obsession with him? That ‘boy’ is the picture of a good man, and that’s why I don’t trust him. A cop. A mama’s boy. A supposed protector. People in power always take advantage of everyone below them. I mean, everyone takes advantage of everyone, but especially people like them. People like my stepdad. Men with power over others.
Men like Cash.
I almost considered ‘that boy from the police department,’ after he promised to investigate my stepdad years ago, claiming it was why he wanted to become a cop: to bring people to justice. But it was a lie to cover up the guilt. Everyone knows he drugged and raped that girl from our high school.
Still, my mother and Jenna hold on to him like he’s the best thing to happen to Key West. They believe him.
“I’d rather not,” I say, a sourness in my words.
“Are you still seeing that professor, then?” she asks. “He’s nice.”
She only likes him because he’s a teacher too. “I broke up with him almost a year ago.”
“But I thought you two stayed friends?” she asks, a hopeful lilt to her voice. “I was hoping you’d get back together.”
I groan. Not him again. The ceiling creaks; Cash crosses from his upstairs office to another room. Honestly, Cash is an option too, but dealing with him outside of this estate makes my head hurt. The maintenance man from this morning fills my mind: a nameless, faceless stranger with rippled eyes. If I ask him out on the double date, that is the best option. Hell, I can even pay him for getting my mother off of my back for once. Maybe I can even screw him afterward. A one-night stand with no feelings attached means there’s a better chance that he’ll be willing to give me what I want.
How is it that I can fantasize about a faceless maintenance man screwing me while I’m tied to a chair, but when it comes to my boss, an actual fairly attractive, wealthy businessman, I can’t stand the thought of him touching me?
“I date around,” I say.
“Hooking up is not dating,” she says.
I laugh. “I’ll keep that in mind. Anyway, I got to go. Boss is coming,” I lie.
I hang up before she can say another word, my limbs heavy with exhaustion. She still believes there’s hope out there for me, and maybe there is, but I’m not going to search for it. Why waste my time on that when no one watches out for you anyway?
And besides, I have enough to deal with right now. Cash. Cassius Winstone. A man who can do horrible things without any fear of punishment. Jenna is the last person to deserve what he did, and I hate him for it. He may be more like my stepbrother in his assaults, but his mindset is exactly like my stepdad’s. My stepdad ran away, but Cash won’t be able to leave. Not with me around.
I flip open my laptop. A message comes through my agency email: instructions from Cash on delivering a proposal to the city council. So far, work is easy enough, but the hard part will be putting him in jail where he belongs. Jenna won’t be ruled by his presence anymore.
And if I have to kill him, I will.
Crawl: A Dark Stalker Romance coming in December 2021!