Cassie scared him. Now I know that they were going to have a baby until she terminated it. I had long suspected that the relationship between her and Lucian was a romantic one; his words have now confirmed it. What I don’t understand is all the secrecy which seems to shroud anything concerning her. Sam and Lucian’s aunt acts just as shuttered as he does when any mention of Cassie arises. I would think her dead if not for being told she doesn’t live here anymore. I’m beginning to grow impatient for the rest of her story. I’m certain now more than ever that the key to unlocking Lucian’s nightmares is to understand what happened with her. The fear that I’ve given my love to someone who can never fully accept or return it is beginning to consume me.

When I feel an elbow in my side, followed by an amused chuckle, I jerk out of the trance I had apparently fallen in. “Girl, you’ve got it bad, don’t you?” My face heats when I realize I’ve been staring at Lucian, even though I wasn’t really seeing him. He raises a brow in question, to which I give a weak smile of reassurance in answer. I’m sure what I was thinking must be written all over my face, so I’m more than happy for Debra, and hopefully Lucian, to assume I was just ogling him.

“Mmm, yeah,” I say, playing along, “sorry about that.” Lucian doesn’t look like he’s buying it but lets it go without comment.

As Debra stands, saying something about needing to get going, Lucian walks to the coffee table in front of us and sits down. “Debra, do you have some extra time? I have some news for Lia that I would like you to hear, as well.” Debra relaxes back in her seat looking just as curious as I feel. When he leans forward to take one of my hands, I become nervous. What’s left in my life to upset me? It’s unlikely he’d want Debra for a witness just to break up with me.

Suddenly, I grip his hand in fear as a thought occurs to me. “Oh, my God, has something happened to Rose?” He looks nonplussed for a moment before squeezing my hand in return.

“No, baby. I’m sorry you thought that. Rose is fine and driving Max out of his mind probably as we speak.” The deep breath he takes doesn’t do anything to dispel my anxiety.

I want to clap when Debra says, “Well, come on, son. Your girl’s about to have a heart attack if you haven’t noticed.”

“All right, I didn’t mean to cause any panic. I just didn’t know how to begin, so here goes. Detective Michaels called Max this morning…”

“They caught him,” I whisper hopefully. Please let him be behind bars now where he has always belonged.

He hesitates and my spirits plummet thinking he’s still out there. Still waiting to catch me unaware again. “Lia, he’s dead.” I hear Debra hiss beside me, but I can’t seem to process his words. Who is he talking about? It can’t be my stepfather. I asked God to punish him for years, but it never happened, and I can’t comprehend that it would now.

“No…not him…never him,” I say in a daze. I can’t get my hopes up, because I’ll never be free of him. Hasn’t he assured me of that repeatedly? Lucian comes closer until my legs are wedged between his. He takes my face between his big hands, forcing me to look at him. “He’s never letting me go,” I say to him as Debra chokes on what sounds like a sob beside us.

“Baby, listen to me. Jim Dawson is dead. They found him earlier this morning in the French Broad River. He’s gone…for good.”

I give Lucian a dejected look as I say, “He knows how to swim. He was on his high school swim team so he would never have drowned.” I know my words must sound crazy to him. Most people would assume that my refusal to accept that my stepfather is dead stems from not wanting to lose him. It’s not that at all…I just can’t let myself believe it because I’ll break completely apart when we find out he is alive, well, and coming after me. It’s been literally beat into me over and over all my life to never wish for anything. There may be a fine line between love and hate, but the line between dreams and nightmares is even thinner, almost transparent at times.

When his lips suddenly lock on mine, all thoughts are driven from my head. The daze of a few moments ago is gone, and I feel nothing but him. His familiar smell and taste surround me as I lose myself to the stroke of his tongue. When he refuses to deepen the kiss, I raise my hands and dig them into his hair, trying to pull him closer. When Debra drawls, “Whew, have mercy,” it’s like a bucket of cold water over my head.

I was seconds away from crawling into Lucian’s lap and wrapping myself around him. Just one touch from him and I’d completely forgotten her presence and…his words. “He’s really dead?” I gasp out, finally allowing it to penetrate the protective shell I had been in. The reason for Lucian’s sudden kiss is clear to me now. He was attempting to break down my walls and get me to really hear him.

“He is,” Lucian agrees gently, rubbing my arms.

“Do the police know what happened?” Debra asks as she begins to visibly relax.

Once again, Lucian hesitates before saying, “It was a gunshot wound. He was probably dumped in the river after the fact.” My hands start to shake as everything sinks in. “He’s gone, baby…he is really gone,” Lucian adds before pulling me into his arms.

Lucian and I both startle as Debra jumps from the couch and starts throwing her arms in the air. “Hell, yes! Ding dong, the devil is dead!” Then she does something that looks suspiciously like an attempt at moonwalking mixed with some sort of break dancing. I know both of our mouths are hanging open as she continues to act as if she just won the lottery. “Hey, I’m happy as a pig in shit! If that makes me a bad person, then so fucking be it. My baby girl is finally free.”

Unbelievably, as Debra celebrates, I cry…and I mean ugly cry. I know Lucian and Debra must think I’ve gone insane. How can I possibly be crying right now? The odd thing is that my tears have nothing to do with sadness and everything to do with a twisted kind of loss. Like someone suffering from a type of reverse Stockholm syndrome, I don’t know how to react now that the evil which has defined me for years is gone.

For as long as I can remember, my life has been about survival. First with my mother, then with the monster she brought into our lives, and finally trying to make it on my own. Who am I now that I’m no longer that girl? Can I even adjust to being a person with the normal hopes and fears of a woman my age? With him gone, I comprehend that I’ve been his puppet on a string even when I thought I had won my freedom the day I left home. I was only ever as free as he allowed me to be. His very existence still controlled every aspect of my world.

Tags: Sydney Landon Lucian & Lia Billionaire Romance