Excerpt from The Toil and Trouble Trilogy, Book Three

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But when I open the door, Josh is inside. He’s got the gas stove in the kitchen on, and he’s boiling water. I really don’t remember inviting him to dinner.

“Liv,”he says. “I’m making spaghetti.”He’s got this stupid puppy dog grin on his face, and he wraps his arms around me.

I’m too tired to fight him, but I don’t hug him back. “I really don’t like it when you call me that.”

His face falls, like I’ve hurt his feelings or something, and he goes back to the stove.

“I don’t need you to cook for me.”I sit down at the table in the kitchen.

He tosses some dry pasta in the pot. “It’s a crazy thing, boss. Sometimes people do things for other people just because they’re trying to be nice, not to highlight their weaknesses.”

“I don’t need you to be nice.”He makes everything so hard. “After what happened today with Mario and Luke, the last place you should be is in my apartment.”

He stirs the spaghetti. “How much of that did you hear?”

“Enough,”I say. “You shouldn’t have tried to defend me to Mario. You made it painfully obvious.”

He turns to me. “It’s just some of our guys, you know. When you were with Brice, I used to talk about you a lot. I didn’t exactly make it a secret that I wanted you. They know that. They’re gonna think things.”

I bite my lip hard. “Don’t say his name, please.”

He sighs, going back to stirring. “Maybe you’d rather I didn’t say anything at all, huh? You want me to be your mute boy toy?”

“That’d be swell,”I mutter. I get up and go out of the kitchen into the living room. The dead person who used to live in my apartment liked paisley. We had to get rid of the big couch that was in here. She was on it, ripped and bloody. The couch was ruined. I still have a paisley love seat and recliner, though. I sink into the recliner. I wish Josh weren’t here. I only want quiet. Sleep.

“I’m not going to shut up, Liv. You can forget about that,”he calls after me. “And I’ve been thinking. It would probably be better if everyone knew anyway.”

I shoot out of the recliner and stalk into the kitchen. “No. It would not be better. If I’m screwing you, then it makes me someone that no one can respect. You heard what Mario said about me. I can’t be an object of desire.”

He leans against the kitchen counter, eyebrows raised. “You already are.”

“No one would want me,”I say. “I work hard to seem aloof.”

He smirks. “Yeah, you’re a puzzle, all right. Doesn’t make me desire you less, you know. It kind of just fuels the fire.”

“Yes, but you’re… different.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this compound is full of men with a serious case of blue balls. You’re a girl. They want you. And you also happen to be young and attractive. Your tough act only makes it easier for them. They don’t think they’d hurt you.”

I cross my arms. “If that’s true, it doesn’t matter if they know about us or not. And besides, what about you? You look whipped and weak if they know about us. No one will respect you either.”

He sets another pot on the stove. “Maybe. Or maybe I’m a heroic stud. Doesn’t matter. It would be safer for you if you were… taken.”

My jaw drops. “You did not just say that.”

He picks up a jar of tomato sauce. Once upon a time, I would have made my own–from actual ripe tomatoes. But we don’t have fresh produce anymore. The stuff in the markets has rotted. We’ve experimented with trying to grow our own. There’s an attempt at a garden on the roof. Thus far, it hasn’t grown anything. “The guys were right, you know. What they were saying about you is tame.”

“It’s all only talk. And I can handle myself.”

He pours the sauce into the other pot. “No, you can’t.”

That really pisses me off. I’m next to him in half a second, my gun out of my holster, its barrel between his ribs. “I sleep with this gun. It’s always loaded.”

He twists, pushing the gun aside. Somehow, I’m in his arms again. “We’ll play with the gun later, okay?”His fingers trace soft circles on my waist in a way he knows completely undoes me. I gasp. I should pull away from him, but it feels so nice.

Then he moves quickly, too quickly for me to anticipate. We’re on the floor. He’s on top of me. He grasps my wrists and holds them above my head. I lose my grip on the gun, and it skitters across the floor. His weight settles on me, pinning me down. “No, you can’t,”he says again, his voice softer.

I struggle, but it’s true that Josh is stronger than me. That no matter what, most men will always be stronger than me. It’s a lesson my cousin Vincent taught me, and I’ve come dangerously close to forgetting it. I flail helplessly for a few seconds, terror and fury rushing through my body.

He lets go of me.

I am humiliated. I want to kill him. I pick my gun up again, shaking. I almost want to shoot him right here, as he’s stirring the damned pasta. But he’s made his point. And I don’t want Josh dead. He makes me crazy, but he is Josh. He looks out for me, and I do… I don’t hate him. Not completely. I get to my feet. I don’t say anything. I simply go back out to the living room and sit in the recliner again.

I’m afraid.

He stands in the opening to the kitchen. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t say anything for a minute. When I do speak, my voice shakes. “You tricked me. I trust you. I wouldn’t trust someone else.”

“I know,”he says. “But it still scares the hell out of me.”

It scares him ?

He comes into the living room and sits down on the loveseat. “I could shut them all up if we were open about it. I could tell them not to say things about you, not to think about you, because you’re mine.”

I feel sick. “I don’t belong to you.”

He winces. “You know what I meant. They would know that they had to go through me if they were even thinking about trying something.”

I laugh wildly. “You want to go piss outside my door and mark your territory while you’re at it?”

He closes his eyes and leans his head against the back of the couch.

“I am not your property, Josh. You don’t get to own me or tell me what to do. Getting in my pants does not afford you that privilege.”My voice is rising, and there’s a hysterical edge to it.

“You know that isn’t what I’m saying.”He studies his hands. “The thing with Turrito, it’s stirring everyone up. Everyone’s talking about it, and some of the men are saying things. Like they know why he did it. Like they don’t blame him.”

I struggle to breathe evenly, to calm down. “Get out of my apartment.”

“No,”he says. “Definitely not tonight. I’m not leaving you alone.”

I stand up. “What? It wasn’t enough for you earlier? You want another piece of me? I don’t think so.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ll sleep on the couch.”He’s disgusted. He goes back into the kitchen. But he keeps talking, even if he’s not looking at me. “I know you don’t like it when I talk about your precious Brice, but being with that guy did not help you one bit. He depended on you to take care of everything. You had to lock him up when he turned. You had to be faithful to him when he was half a man, at best. The whole thing was completely lopsided. And I don’t think you have any idea how to even be in a relationship.”

“You and I do not have a relationship.”

“We sure as hell don’t. Because you won’t let me in. You and your damned pride. You have to do everything yourself. Newsflash, Olivia, you’re not God. You’re only a girl, and you can’t do everything.”

I streak into the kitchen after him, yanking a knife out of a stand on the counter. I take him by the shoulders, turn him, and shove him against the counter, the knife at his throat. “I am not only a girl,”I rasp. “I am Olivia Calabrese. I control zerks with my mind. I can take care of myself, and you’re not giving me credit.”

He swallows, and his adam’s apple bobs, scraping against the knife. “You’re batshit crazy, Liv.”

“You love it,”I counter.

He licks his lips. “What are you going to do?”

I kiss him.

He responds, his mouth eager against mine. He knocks the knife out of my hand and turns me, slamming me up against the counter instead. Our lips still locked, he lifts me so that I’m sitting on it, and he presses close to me, between my legs. His body is searing heat, deliciously forbidden. I surrender to him.

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