Devoured (CHAPTER ONE)
My gaze snaps up from the mail I'm holding in my hands to meet Tori's dark eyes. She's ten feet away me, sitting behind the Formica countertops in the kitchen. My cool, confident roommate – who I met four years ago when she rescued me from a wasted frat boy – fidgets anxiously with the rim of a supersized shot glass that boasts some raunchy slogan. She knows my brother well enough to realize something is going on. It must be important because Seth wouldn't stop avoiding me for anything else. He's owed me two grand since July, six months ago, and the last time I actually spoke to him was Labor Day.
Even when Seth had backed out of visiting me for Christmas break, he'd done so via email.
God . . . this can't be good.
"Did he say what he wants?" I croak. I press my body up against the steel door behind me, the long row of deadbolts poking into my back. Crisp envelopes crumble between my fingertips, but I'm powerless to stop myself from obliterating the stack of bills and postcards from Tori's parents. I'm too worried about why Seth has called me.
Tori shrugs her bare, shimmery shoulders, squints down at the splash of clear liquid in her glass, and then downs the shot in one swift flick of her wrist. There's no bottle in sight, but I know she's drinking peppermint schnapps. Her telltale bottle of a chaser (chocolate syrup) sits next to her phone. Plus, schnapps is her usual Friday night pre-gamer. Sometimes – when my boss has an off week that inevitably rubs off on me – I let Tori talk me into drinking a little. I'm in no mood to even consider touching the stuff right now, though.
There's already a migraine building in that frustrating spot between my eyes.
"He just said call him . . ." she says. But as her voice trails off, I know she's thinking the same thing I am.
What the hell has my mom done this time?
Because last time I received a frantic call from Seth, a year and a half ago, Mom had made a suicide attempt which she later told me she fabricated for attention. I ball my hands into fist, vividly recalling how she laughed at me for being naive and stupid enough to come running.
"Always so quick to please," she'd said in her thick accent. Then she took a long drag of a cigarette that she probably had to do unmentionable things for.
Forcing thoughts of my mother out of my mind for the time being, I give Tori a fake smile. "You going out tonight?"
The answer is obvious. It is Friday night, and even though only her upper body is visible, I can tell she's dressed to kill. Immaculate hair and make-up, check. Strapless red dress that's probably no longer than my top, check. Her mile high, "screw-me" shoes, double check.
"Vanguard with Ben, Stacy, and Micah." Her jet black, perfectly arched eyebrows knit together as she parts her lips to say something else. I shake my head stubbornly, and she snaps her mouth shut. We both know that her inviting me is pointless. Tonight, no amount of sweet-talking will convince me to leave the apartment. There's a good chance that whatever Seth is about to tell me will ruin my night and the rest of my year, too.
I swallow hard, over and over again, in my best attempt to get rid of the burn in the back of my mouth.
"That's it," Tori snaps. She reaches across the counter to grab her phone. "I'm calling to cance – " But I lunge forward and pluck the cellphone out of her hand. I drop the balled-up – and now practically fused together – pile of mail beside her empty glass.
"Please, just . . . don't. You look way too hot to spend your night with me. I-I swear I'll be fine." She doesn't seem convinced because she purses her full lips into a thin, scarlet line. I slide her phone into her hands and curl her fingers around it. I move my face into an even brighter smile and tell her in the most chipper voice I can muster to have a good time.
She's talking, protesting me, but I can barely hear her exact words. I'm already walking down the narrow hallway to my bedroom, my own phone clutched in a death grip.
Seth picks up on the second ring, as I'm shutting my bedroom door behind myself. On those rare occasions that we speak, he always lets my call go to voicemail and then responds to me five or six hours later.
This is definitely not good.
"Thank God," he hisses before I can get a syllable out. "Where've you been, Si? And why the hell didn't I have this number?"
Less than ten seconds into our conversation and Seth's arguing with me. I slam my oversized bag onto my bed. My wallet along with a bunch of tampons and makeup spill out onto the lavender cotton sheets and some fall on the carpeted floor. I'll clean it up later. "I work. And I've tried to call you from this number several times. You just didn't answer." I don't sound angry, which is how I feel, but like I'm explaining myself to my brother. Like I'm the one who should be sorry for him ignoring me.
I hate myself for sounding like that.
"Sienna, it's Gran," he says.
And this – this is when I literally freeze in place, standing between my bed and desk. I must look like one of those tragic, serious statues in the cemeteries back home. My heart feels as if it's stopped. The first thing I'd assumed when Tori told me Seth was trying to reach me was that my mom had somehow gotten herself in trouble again. I hadn't even thought of my grandmother because she's so strong and resilient and wonderful.
She's also 79 years old.
I try to say something, anything, but there's a lump the size of a lint-flavored golf ball clogging the back of my throat. I'm choking and wheezing when Seth finally exhales an exasperated sigh and snaps, "She's fine, Si. Well, physically fine."
Then, he tells me what's going on. He says words like foreclosure and eviction notice. New owner – some douchebag musician from California. Court on Monday. And then he tells me that I need to be there for her, for him.
"I have to work," I whisper. I can't imagine what Tomas will say if I ask for time off for anything besides a funeral or the certain impending demise of an immediate family member. He might fire me. Or worse, he might give me a horrible reference and I'll never get another wardrobe job for the rest of my life.
"No, you've got to be here."
"Seth, I can't just . . ." But I'm already sitting in front of my laptop with my online bank statement pulled up on one tab and a discount ticket website on another. I'm already entering in my debit card information for an early Monday morning flight, biting down so hard on my lower lip I taste blood. I'm broke. Half of what's in my account – half of my total savings – will have to go to Tori for my share of the bills.
And before I hang up with my little brother, I'm already shoving my belongings inside of the beaten Coach suitcase my grandparents gave me five years ago as an eighteenth birthday present.
It's mind-numbingly cold in Nashville – 33 degrees to be precise – and snowing lightly when I scoot into Seth's messy Dodge pick-up truck on Monday afternoon. From the way I'm sweating, though, you would think it were the middle of August and that I'd arrived in Nashville dressed in head to toe wool. The flutter sleeve top I so carefully selected because it makes me look professional clings to my skin and the tops of my thigh high tights sag to just above my knees.
The sudden spike in perspiration is my own fault – I spent the entire four hour flight from California fretting over how I'd convince Gram to come back to L.A. with me. And the more I thought about it, the more doubtful I became. My granddad had built her that cabin and land as a gift after my mother was born in the early seventies. There's no way in hell Gram's giving it up without a fight, even though from what Seth has said, the house is already gone.
"What'd your boss say?" my brother asks as he turns onto the interstate. He slams on the brakes to avoid hitting another car. The Dodge skids on the slippery road, jostling us around, but Seth manages to get the truck under control halfway into my frantic gasp.
Seth doesn't so much as flinch. He squints straight ahead, the same way our dad does when he drives in crappy weather, and rubs the tips of his thumbs on either side of the steering wheel – another Dad trait. With his dark blonde hair, brown eyes, and year-round tan that puts my easily-burnt skin to shame, Seth even looks like Dad now.
"You going to answer me or just sit there with your mouth wide open?"
Digging my hands into the hem of the dark tweed pencil skirt I'm wearing, I shrug. "I worked through Christmas and New Year, so he didn't have much of a problem. Besides, I'm just an assistant." I don't add that I had to beg Tomas for the time off and that he'd pointedly said I better take care of my family drama and have my ass back in L.A. before the end of the month – two and a half weeks.
"Echo Falls is ranked first in females aged 18 to 34. There are people willing to trade their own offspring for a chance to work on this series. That being said, replacing you with a new wardrobe person who covets his career won't be too hard a feat," Tomas had said, punching something into the iPad he carried around everywhere. He never even spared me a glance so when he shoved a newly inventoried wardrobe rack against a brick slab wall, he didn't see me startle. "Don't force me to find that person, Jensen."
"I'll wrap it up in two weeks, Tomas," I'd promised.
Telling Seth any of that is simply a waste of oxygen. He would either not get why I can't neglect my job whenever I please or simply not care. Knowing my brother, it would be the second.
"Got anything I can wipe my face with?" I ask. Thinking about my job has me sweating even worse than before.
I find a package of wet wipes in between a half-empty 30-count box of condoms and a completely empty bottle of Jose Cuervo. Before I can stop myself, I whirl on him and blurt, "I hope you're not stupid enough to drink and drive. You're only nineteen and you – "
"Don't start, Si, okay? Today isn't a good day for your bitching. "
Sinking my teeth down on the inside of my jaw, I turn my attention to the bumper stickers on the tiny little Escort in front of us. Honk If You Hate People Too. How fitting.
It's only an eight mile drive from the airport to the courthouse, but the trip ends up taking forty-five minutes thanks to the traffic and the snow. Seth and I spend nearly every minute of it in silence – just as we usually do when we're around each other. As I dab at my face with wipes and smooth my long, red hair back into a low ponytail, I mentally kick myself for being dumbass enough to lend him money. He's not mentioned it, and I doubt he will. Seth's smart enough to realize that I'll never bring up the money he owes me because I'd rather gouge myself in the eye than get into a confrontation with him.
There's a reason why I rarely come to town and baby brother is just the smallest part of it.
By time Seth and I arrive at the courthouse and find the correct courtroom, the hearing is coming to an end. We sit on opposite ends of one of the wooden benches at the back of the room – him with his arms crossed tightly over his chest and me leaning forward, listening attentively.
From what I manage to piece together, this is the second hearing. The new purchaser, whom I've decided to refer to as Asshat and his lawyers are both here, and they're seeking a formal eviction. My grandmother and her attorney Mr. Nielson (the same one she's had since before I can remember) are across from them on the left side of the room. I find myself glaring death rays at Asshat's back, even though I know I shouldn't really be angry at him.
Just like I shouldn't be checking him out.
His back is turned to me, so there's a depressing limit to what I'm able to ogle, but I know that he's built. And with a backside like his, the rest of him is bound to be just as gorgeous. Dressed in an impeccable black business suit that molds a little too perfectly to every inch of his body, he's got dark, tousled hair that brushes his neck and long fingers. He taps them rapidly in some type of rhythm on the mahogany table that's in front of him. I'm tall, but this guy towers over me by a good six inches – he's easily 6'3" or 6'4". And his ass . . . ugh, I bet the last thousand dollars in my account (and would even overdraw it a few hundred bucks) that the attorney beside him would be staring at it too if she could get away with it. Or if she could stop beaming up at him with her chest poked out for longer than five seconds.
Hot-faced and utterly reluctant, I drag my gaze back to Gram's side of the courtroom. If Seth catches me staring at Asshat, he'll never let me live it down. Knowing him, he'll probably accuse me of conspiring with the enemy.
I frown, because I know that's exactly what Seth would say.
"Mr. Nielson, your client has ten days before the court issues a possession order," the judge is telling my grandmother's lawyer. "After that, the sheriff will carry out the eviction within a week." When my grandmother's shoulders sag and she grips Nielson's shoulder for support so hard her knuckles turn white, it takes every ounce of my willpower not to bolt out of my seat. I hate this. I hate my mother for this, because at the heart of things, it really is all her fault.
I was right when I assumed she'd done something stupid. Mom's the reason my grandmother is losing her home.
And then, the hearing is over. Gram's bright blue eyes widen in stunned surprise as she makes her way to the back of the room toward me and Seth, but then her face softens. She gives me a sad smile that's full of defeat. I've only seen her look at me like this once before. There's a sour taste in my mouth when I realize it was in this exact courthouse. Before Gram has a chance to utter a single word, I pull her to me and bury my face into her puff of gray hair, inhaling the familiar scent of vanilla.
"Did you drive?" I ask. She nods into my shoulder, so I say, "I'll take you back home then." I loosen my grip around her, glaring over my shoulder at Asshat. Now, his back is no longer turned to me. Instead, I have a side view that's just as nauseatingly sexy as the back.
He's speaking to his female attorney, and they're both laughing. She's got her hand on his arm and her boobs are still jutted out. If we were anywhere else I'd discreetly snort aloud at how ridiculous she looks. He's probably thanking her. And she's more than likely suggesting they celebrate the easy win against an old woman and her equally ancient lawyer over drinks and then a quick screw at her place. I'm about to draw away from Gram and leave the courtroom when the man turns his face, lifts his eyes. Our gazes connect. Hazel and blue.
Predator and prey.
He squints at me.
My chest seizes up. I was right, the full package is devastatingly handsome. And when I decided to nickname him "Asshat," I was being much too lenient.
I pray my grandmother doesn't feel the change in my heartbeat, the sudden hitch in the way that I'm breathing. This exchange between Asshat and me isn't one of those love-at-first site moments – no, it's nothing like that. This is one of those moments where fate has roundhouse kicked me in the face yet again. Why is he here in Nashville? In the same courtroom as me?
God, please don't let him remember me.
For a moment, I'm sure he has no clue who I am, that he'll go back to chatting it up with Boobs McBeal. By now there would've been tens, hundreds, of other girls. I'm nothing to him. I'm the weirdo, I tell myself.
But then, a slow, animalistic smile of realization stretches across Lucas Wolfe's face.
It makes me feel like he'll devour me whole at any second.
It's also the exact same grin he gave me two years ago, right after I refused to let him cuff me to his bed, and just before he literally told me to get the fuck out of his house.