Page 46 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

The night was black but slowly the details of my surroundings began to register. The grass was wet on my feet. Cool against the warm air. Then he yanked me forward. Ignorant as I was, I still knew where we were going. The same place he’d always led me. A hundred times maybe, and I went every time. Like the stupid, drunk girl I was, I followed.

Laughter. Everyone was laughing, celebrating. People I knew. I frowned, wondering why they were all here.

The pressure of his grip on my arm increased enough to be painful, and the familiar fear coiled in my gut. It was coming.

The vicious sneer, an expression painted on by his smug satisfaction, his hatred. He hated me. He had to, to do this to me. I’d plead, but he’d pin me down. The same gravel in his voice as he gritted out his plan for me.

Except when I met his eyes they were different. No longer the dark round irises that haunted me. Confused, I searched his features until they solidified and recognition dawned. Max. The face, this body pressing down on me now, belonged to Max.

My heart lurched seconds before the familiar pain. No matter how hard I fought, he’d always find his way in the darkness, taking what he wanted.

Powerless, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. Gasping for air, grasping for reality, I said his name. A questioning plea. Then, realizing I had a voice, even over the noise and the blur of laughter around us, I screamed. I screamed for help.

I shot up in the bed still screaming until I realized I was home, in our bedroom. Air rushed in and out of my lungs, feeding the lightheadedness. My skin crawled, tingling with sweat and imagined trails of another man’s hands on me.

I started when Blake barreled through the door. He was shirtless, dressed in his pajama pants. He circled the bed and slowed, sitting on the edge of the bed. My breathing was ragged and uneven. After a minute he spoke, barely a whisper.

“Can I hold you, baby?”

Eyes wide, I held his gaze. I couldn’t speak, still too much in the dream. Could I let him? Did I want him to? I couldn’t make sense of anything until he reached for me tentatively.

I caught his hands between us, keeping them at a safe distance. The sudden contact shot remembered pain through me. Still, against every instinct, I held them, something in me not wanting to let go. I clenched my jaw down, swallowing hard over the dry knot in my throat. Tears welled, but something inside me fought the reflex to fight. My rational mind reminded me that he was no enemy, that I needed him. Like holding onto an electric fence, I simply waited out the panic and pain.

“Erica…sweetheart. Breathe. It’s just me, okay?”

I breathed through it until my body relaxed enough to let me speak. I found my voice again, now hoarse. “I had a dream. I... I’m not sure what happened.”

“A the others?”

I nodded quickly. He’d known about the dream and how it crept up on me sometimes, as much as I wished it would disappear forever.

“Kind of, but it was Max. He was Max, somehow.”

I recalled his face, the dream version merging with the face my conscious mind knew. Then a rush of visions from the party fluttered through my brain. Marie, Michael, and a blur of people. Then Max, his arrogant smile as he hovered over my powerless body. Bile rose in my throat. I let go of Blake and wrapped my arms around myself, as if that could protect me from what my mind was showing me now.

“Blake, what happened?” I rushed, my eyes now wide with alarm. “I can’t remember, but I know something happened. Just tell me.”

The grief in Blake’s eyes as he worked his jaw confirmed it. “He didn’t hurt you, baby.”

Reaching up to touch me, he fisted his hand and lowered it before he could make contact. His complexion was pale save a dark bruise on his cheek that I hadn’t noticed before. The muscles in his arms flexed as if he was restraining himself from touching me more. Then I noticed his hand, a thick white bandage wrapped around it.

“You’re hurt.”

He shook his head, his jaw tight. “He’s hurt worse.”

I covered my mouth. A new wave of nausea hit me as I tried to string the words together to ask him. I didn’t want to know, but I had to. I held Blake’s gaze, searching, wishing I didn’t need to ask. If I didn’t want to hear it, he didn’t want to tell me.

The tears poured from my eyes as my body shook. I could only piece together a few details from the night, but somehow I knew something terrible had happened. And heaven help me, it had happened at Max’s hand.

“I need to know what he did,” I whispered.

He closed his eyes a moment as if to collect his anger. “I walked in on Max…touching you. He didn’t—he didn’t have sex with you.”

My eyes clenched shut, forcing more tears out. “Oh God.”

“You were drugged. It was obvious. You could barely move. You’ve been sleeping for a couple days.”

“Why would he do this? Why?” The words came out in a sob as I struggled to understand why he’d want to hurt me, to put me through the kind of torture that I’d barely survived before.

“He’ll never do anything like it again.”

“How can you know that?”

His eyes became serious and still in the brief silence. “I rearranged his fucking face, Erica, that’s why. We’re both lucky I didn’t kill him because I had every intention of it. Took three of them to pull me off of him.” He flexed his hand, grimacing.

“Everyone saw. I can’t imagine what they must think.”

He reached for my hand, pulling it away from my face. I licked my dry lips and took a steadying breath. The contact didn’t hurt the way it had a moment ago. Something had rearranged in my mind as the dream separated from reality.

“They don’t think anything. They know what he did. My mom’s been worried sick. Marie’s been calling off the hook. Alli, Christ, I’ve had to turn her away a few times. I haven’t had anyone by so you could rest. I knew you’d need some time. No one thinks any less of you. I can guarantee they think a hell of a lot less of him.”

“He called me a whore.” I winced at the words as they resurfaced in my memory. “Said I’d fucked my way to the top. He wants to ruin us, Blake.”

“He’s the one who’s ruined.”

I flashed him a questioning look.

“I’ve never seen Michael so devastated in my life. I don’t know what will happen between them, but this is one fuck up that even Michael might not be able to look past. He pulled me off Max, but I’ll never forget the way he looked at him. He didn’t even go to him, to help him. He just walked away.”