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Coming Home by Lydia Michaels (1)

Chapter 1

Sham Sacrifice

An offer of material, which is made at no risk

The burst of pollen hit Scout’s nose, like a feather laced with pepper. No, she couldn’t sneeze. If she sneezed, she’d get glassy-eyed and look as if she were crying when she certainly had not been crying. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t cried for days. After what was likely the most trying five days of her life, Scout made a vow to never cry again. Tears were useless and, frankly, a big pain in her girly ass.

As she shifted to the shade out of the warm May sun, her pale pink dress shirt was a light cover to her skin. Her heavy gray wool slacks, however, were not. Coming directly from work and living out of a small bag for the past week hadn’t left her much choice in the wardrobe department. Pavement smacked beneath her Nikes along the busy Folsom sidewalks with each determined stride.

For five long days, Scout contemplated her predicament. She’d always aimed to be something more than homeless, but tolerated her circumstances all the same. Now, however, things had changed. There was no way she was going back to where she’d started.

Her memory was an endless revolving door of strife, covered in a bleary haze, smothering the prettier things in this world. Scout never had pretty things. Well, that wasn’t true. Lucian gave her many pretty things. He also gave her away.

The pain hadn’t subsided. It was very real and seething angrily inside of her. Scout simply made a decision to channel that anger into something worthwhile. And that was what today was all about, something worthwhile.

She was worthwhile. So worthwhile, it was possible to put aside the hurt and the sting of his betrayal to do something for herself.

For twenty-three years she had struggled to survive. At age four she was diving in dumpsters for the smallest scrap of salvageable food. At age seven she’d been scavenging while other girls her age played house and learned their ABC’s. Scout never played house, because she didn’t know the first thing about living in a home. And she never learned her ABC’s, because her mother, the only person Scout ever had to look up to, didn’t know how to teach her.

Pearl wasn’t a typical mother either. She never baked cookies, sang lullabies or kissed scraped knees. Rather, she cooked crack, mumbled ramblings of a stoned soul and gave her body to men who funded her next high. Scout was likely seven by the time she realized if you gave certain things to men, they’d give you almost anything in return; yet she never wanted to go down that same degrading road.

Scout wanted to be somebody. Her needs were more basic. She wanted four walls and a roof to call home. She wanted a key for her own front door. She wanted a job, and she wanted money for food and heat, and clothing thick enough to keep her warm even in the coldest blizzard.

Now she was halfway there. She had a job working at Clemons Market. It wasn’t a spectacular place to work, but she liked it. The people treated her nice. And her boss, even though he sometimes gave her the creeps, was tolerable.

Her last boss expected much, much more. He expected her heart. The son of a bitch got it too. Scout was still dealing with that emotional fallout.

Lucian Patras was likely a name she’d always know. He was a person quite difficult to forget. She tried. Lord knew she tried, but he was inside her, like a tattoo inked deep into her flesh. She couldn’t wash him away no matter how much she wanted to.

Scout finally admitted that he’d used her, and with that shameful admission came some much-needed clarity. She could use him too.

She required a plan. Lucian had taught her many things. He taught her how to make love. He taught her how to socialize with aristocrats. He taught her how to play chess. And he taught her that she was more than a lost cause. However, he also taught her what it feels like to be truly fucked over.

She learned the agony of a broken heart, the torment of betrayal, and the misery of knowing the one person she wanted was the one she could never have. Her intimate relationship with Lucian was over.

One didn’t have to be literate to read between the lines. She was given a chance to see behind the scenes as to how men of wealth play the game. She might not know how to count very well or be able to read heavy books, but Scout was not a stupid person. And she was a survivor.

Business was business, and so long as she kept the intimacy at bay, she could do what she needed to do. Scout’s abbreviated taste of high society left nothing but a bitter taste in her mouth, and it was time to change the game.

Rounding the corner, Scout brushed her moist palms down the coarse wool covering her thighs. She could do this. She’d thought long and hard about what she wanted and nothing, not even the infamous Lucian Patras, would get in her way.

The revolving door of Patras Industries reflected the bright rays of sun peeking through the high-rise buildings across the street. Scout’s sneakers moved silently over the polished marble of the lobby floors, and her thumb pressed with purpose into the smooth button of the elevator.

After keying in the floor, she waited, her empty belly doing a row of summersaults having nothing to do with the rise of the lift, and everything to do with coming face-to-face with her past and finally having the balls to go after her future.

Cheeks puffed as she forced out a shaky breath, her clammy palms brushed over her blouse. “Your terms, Scout. Don’t take any shit,” she whispered as the elevator eased to a stop.

The door chimed softly as it opened, and she stepped onto smooth burgundy carpet. She looked nothing like she had the last time she was there. Her polished Mary Janes were humbled down to rubber-soled, serviceable shoes. Absent was the lace that once adorned her legs. This was not a mission of seduction, but an exercise in influence.

Same as before, she arrived at the reception desk with a deep hunger burning in her belly, but this hunger was something much more potent than any form of lust. This was a hunger for well-deserved recompense. No need to pretty herself up to get what she came for, what she deserved.

It might’ve taken her five days to figure out, but she finally understood. She held all the power. She was no longer an outsider. She’d been on the other side of the looking glass and realized she very well could stand on her own two feet. It was only a matter of declaring her intentions and not backing down. It was time to do for her.

“May I help you?” Seth, Lucian’s personal assistant greeted. He clearly didn’t recognize her, and why would he? She’d only met Seth once, several months ago. She’d been dressed to the nines and ready to seduce his boss. Without makeup she looked like a child. Her hair was pulled into a no-nonsense ponytail, and her Clemons uniform was anything but flattering. She’d also dropped well over ten pounds, which on a small frame like hers was not a welcome loss.

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Patras.”

His eyes narrowed with rejection before he voiced his reply. “You need an appointment to meet with Mr. Patras.”

“I’m sure I do not.” Insecurities rattled her confidence, but she kept her chin up and remained polite. She had every right to be there. Convincing herself of such was step one. “Please tell him Evelyn Keats is here to speak with him.”

Seth’s eyes bulged. “Ms. Keats, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you. Let me tell Mr. Patras you’re here.”

That’s right!

He pressed a button on the intercom, and a tight shiver pinched her heart at the sound of Lucian’s voice. “Yes?”

“Mr. Patras, Ms. Keats is here—”

It shouldn’t have been possible to get from his desk to the door in such a short span of time, but the door to Lucian’s office whipped open and his muscular frame filled the doorway, stress marring his expression and exhaustion weighing in his eyes.

Lips parted in obvious surprise, he stilled. “Evelyn.” His voice was a mere rasp of the self-assured baritone he usually spoke with.

She nodded. “I came to talk—”

“Come into my office.”

Her lips twitched as he cut off her request. She wouldn’t let him obtain the upper hand. This was her show. She was there for a reason, and she couldn’t let her heart distract her. That foolish organ had caused enough problems.

Aiming for poise, she nodded and carefully stepped past him. The office door shut with a sharp snick. Her mind replayed the first time they’d met. Lucian had stood like a giant, a thin veneer of control, masked in immeasurable power, seething behind her then, and he reminded her of the same giant now. Her sneakered feet quickly stepped away.

When he faced her, she saw he was still speechless, his eyes scanning her from head to toe. “I need to talk to you,” she said quickly.

“Where have you been?” he asked, his gaze filled with bewilderment as it traveled back and forth from her feet to her face.

“That’s not your concern.”

“Evelyn.” He leveled her with a look that said he wasn’t in the mood for games. Neither was she.

There was no way she’d tell him she’d actually returned to sleeping on the streets, using her bag as a pillow, a playground for shelter, and a McDonald’s for facilities. He’d see it as a weakness, and she couldn’t stomach his pity. Her pitiful circumstances were only temporary and tonight she’d be in a bed once more, so long as she stuck to her plan and didn’t let him intimidate or bully her.

Steeling herself, she met his gaze. “Lucian, I came to talk about other issues, not where I’m living.”

“You haven’t been at the shelter.”

She pursed her lips. “No doubt you had your minions checking every crevice of the city for me. I’m a lot more resourceful than you give me credit for.”

His brow softened as though her words wounded him. “Did you expect me not to look for you? I told you I’d find you.”

“I expected nothing less. Luckily, your search can stop now that I’ve come to you.”

He stepped forward and she moved back. “Don’t.” Her hand shot out in warning. Regrettably, her request didn’t come out as confident as she would’ve liked.

The hand reaching for her stilled and detoured to fork through his hair, tension clear on his face. He looked ragged, but still devastatingly handsome. The shadow on his tanned jaw should have looked sloppy, but only added another layer of sexy to his distinguished presence. His blue dress shirt had a white collar. Paired with the paisley red tie and black suit vest, he looked quite the tycoon.

“How long are you planning on keeping your distance, Evelyn? You’re killing me. I’ve been going crazy since you ran off. I can’t continue like this.”

“And whose fault is that, Lucian?” she snapped, instantly regretting the show of emotion. Keep it together, Keats.

“I can’t fix it if you refuse to let me—”

“There is no fixing it, Lucian! You used me and betrayed me.”

“Bullshit!” he snapped. “I love you.” His feet swiftly carried him across the office, incidentally boxing her into a corner. “I fucking love you, Evelyn. He had me at his mercy. He set the conditions.”

He, being Parker, her once-dear friend turned Judas. Scout’s understanding of their agreement was still foggy. Lucian had apparently been looking for her during a blizzard last winter and ran into Parker. After begging Parker to tell him where she was hiding, Lucian agreed to give her away for a month, with Parker driving some kind of bargain. Nope, still didn’t compute. They were both guilty.

“And you agreed to his terms,” she hissed. Fury at the injustice she’d been the victim of bloomed inside her, fresh and scorching. “I’m not here to talk about that. I don’t care about your pitiful excuses. What’s done is done. Either we discuss what I came here to discuss or I leave.”

His gaze searched her face, likely hunting for some validation that she wasn’t bluffing. Eyes that read opponents and colleagues with ease homed in on every visible strength and weakness she allowed him to see. Her jaw locked in determination.

“Go ahead and try to push me, Lucian. I’ll be out that door so fast your head will spin.”

He stepped back. Good. “What did you want to talk about?”

She glanced at the leather chair across from his desk. “May we sit?”

His dark eyes followed her gaze and he waved his hand in theatrical invitation. Irritation was evident in the set of his mouth and narrowed stare. Probably because Lucian was a man who didn’t easily relinquish control. “By all means.”

She sidestepped him, careful not to get too close and he slowly returned to the seat behind his desk, his assessing gaze never leaving her. Her slight form sunk into the smooth leather chair. Her shoulders ached with the effort to remain stiff as she settled deeper into the soft seat. Exhaustion beat at her, threatening her resolve not to appear weak in front of him but indignation and bruised pride stiffened her spine.

“What did you want to discuss?” he asked again.

This was it. Her entire life had been about survival, and now she wanted to survive in a more desirable way. She didn’t need a billionaire to do that. She did, however, need a foundation to find her footing. Lucian could provide that foundation. While he may look at a woman like her and see someone vulnerable and in need of coddling, he was wrong. She didn’t need someone to hold her hand. She simply needed a push, and then she’d manage on her own.

Taking a breath of courage, she said, “I want a loan.”

His brow arched, telling her he hadn’t expected such a request. “You’re aware there’s an account with over two hundred thousand dollars in your name? What could you possibly need that your bank account won’t cover?”

That money had never been hers. Her dignity forbade her to touch it. Above all, Scout was practical. Lucian had more money than Midas and could afford to loan her what she was after. However, she was wise enough to know loans came with penalties and interest. Those were necessary stipulations to protect her pride. Unfortunately, Lucian’s pride would likely face off with hers, and they were both incredibly stubborn.

“I don’t want that money. I won’t touch money earned on my back. I’m talking about an actual loan with interest and penalties and—”

He winced, then rolled his eyes. “Watch it, Evelyn. Tell me what you need. I’ll give it to you. There’s no need for this formal bullshit.”

“I need my dignity back,” she said succinctly, causing him to come up short. The “bullshit” that made this an official business deal was the only way she’d be able to stomach his help. It was just business. Taking those penalties away made it a favor, and she was done depending on favors from him.

“I see. And how much does one’s dignity cost?”

“I’d like thirty-five thousand dollars.”

His jaw ticked. “For?”

She met his challenging stare and tightened her lips. That was her business.

He sighed. “Evelyn, when an establishment finances another’s endeavors, they’re foolish not to question the investment.”

“A second ago you were prepared to offer me anything I wanted. I don’t see why my intentions should suddenly be an issue. This is just you being nosy. I’m not falling for it. Thirty-five thousand dollars is nothing to you. It’s a new beginning for someone like me. Give me the satisfaction of at least believing you know I am capable of taking care of myself. I’m practical and I’m not stupid. Trust me to have a plan and I’ll trust you to treat me fairly, like you would any other person asking you to invest in their future.”

Those intimidating onyx eyes narrowed. “You’re not any other person. Look at it as legal extortion. I have what you want. I’ll trade you thirty-five thousand dollars for a bit of information.”

Anger bloomed inside of her. Extortion indeed. She would not let him run her life. “I’ll just go to a bank then,” she bluffed.

“With what? You have no social security number, no identification, no birth certificate.”

The molars in the back of her mouth clicked together. “I know you have those things. You’re trying to manipulate me and, by doing so, only losing more of my respect.”

He’d looked into getting her legal documents months ago. For him to be able to place a bank account in her name, he’d have needed to obtain some form of identification for her. Likely, he’d been holding it, too cowardly to hand over the documents before the big trade with Parker. If she had an ID, she could’ve fled a lot faster. That was Lucian, always the thinker and planner.

“I do,” he agreed shamelessly.

“It wouldn’t take long for me to go to a federal building and report them stolen. The numbers are on record, Lucian. Hard part’s over. All you’re doing is wasting my time. To be honest, your pettiness reeks of desperation.”

His desk drawer slid open and snapped shut. Papers fluttered to the surface of his desk. He glared at her. “There.”

Scout gazed at the documents. A neatly printed card with blue scroll trim filled her vision. Evelyn Scottlynn Keats. Nine digits formed her social security number below the neatly typed name. She was real!

Emotion had her chin trembling. So long she’d waited for such validation of her existence. So many obstacles could be overcome with those simple pieces of paper.

With unsteady fingers, she reached for the documents and stilled when Lucian’s firm hand caught her wrist. Her gaze jerked to his.

The respect she held for him was in shreds, but giving her these documents that were rightfully hers mended a bit of the damage. She was gambling with his affections, asking for these things. If he didn’t give them to her, he would annihilate any remaining faith she had in his goodness. She hated him for what he’d done, but deep down believed there was good behind the man. If he was so desperate to help her, it would have to be on her terms.

Don’t deny me, Lucian. Please. She waited him out.

“I’ll help you. But our other issues are far from concluded. Eventually we need to talk about what happened.”

She glared at him and shook off his hold. “I’ll ask that you keep your hands to yourself.”

“And I’ll ask that you drop the haughty performance you’ve been affecting since you got here.”

Fingers snatching up the papers, Scout quickly removed her body from within his reach. Her brow tightened and her voice was dangerously close to cracking with emotion. “It’s not an act. These are my papers and I deserve them. You have no right to keep them from me.”

“And what of my money? Do you deserve that as well?”

“All I asked for was a loan. You can afford it. Either you help me or I go somewhere else.”

“With what credit, Ms. Keats? No bank will sign over that amount of money without a cosigner.”

He was likely right. He was also being mean and spiteful on purpose. Two could play that game. “I could always find another wealthy man willing to help me. After all, it was you who taught me everything is for sale.”

He growled. “Watch yourself, Ms. Keats. I’m in no frame of mind to be pushed.”

“Lucian,” she took a deep breath. “I’m not forfeiting my morals for money. Even you can’t afford them. You either agree to my terms and help me with a loan, or I’ll figure out another way.”

“Another way for what?” he snapped.

She wouldn’t give him more information than necessary. She needed to do this for herself and if he knew her plan, he’d try to take over. Lucian was a leader—a very successful one—but she was sick and tired of following the tide. She needed to prove she could do this on her own. “For my future. I have nothing! I want to invest in me, since no one else gives a shit and I need thirty-five thousand dollars to do that.”

He stilled, his eyes narrowing, and she saw him weighing her words. Again he reached into his drawer, only this time he removed a heavy blue ledger. Long fingers flipped it open and reached for a pen. His hand swiftly moved over the check, the ballpoint scratching across the dense paper. The tear along each tiny perforation mesmerized her with its slow intent, but at last the slip fell free. He dropped the check in front of her with flourish. “There you go.”

Scout stared at the check. The numbers read $35,000.00, but she couldn’t read the script. She had trouble with anything that wasn’t printed in capital letters.

Eyeing him suspiciously, she blinked as he arched a brow. “Take it. It’s yours.”

Her fingers hesitantly reached for the check. Once closing over the thick paper, she pulled her hands back to her lap. “I’ll . . . I’ll pay you back.”

“I don’t care about the money, Evelyn.”

“Well, I do. I’ll pay you back. Every cent. I’ll make payments whenever possible. Once I’ve paid off the principal, we’ll figure out what I owe in interest.”

He rolled his eyes. “All right, but here are my conditions.”

Her mouth opened. She shook her head, trying to scramble up the right words. “But you already gave it to me.”

“I gave you a voucher. A check of that amount has to be cleared through me. What you have is trash unless I approve it when the bank calls.”

“Fine,” she gritted. “What are your terms?”

“Your payments will be made in person. I also require an address of where you’re staying. These are simple requests, and any bank would demand a hell of a lot more from you. Be grateful that’s all I’m stipulating at the moment.”

Her jaw locked against what she wanted to say. He was trying to intimidate her. It wasn’t happening. “Fine.” He’d have to wait on the address.

“Good.”

Several beats passed where neither of them said a word. She glared challengingly back at him, refusing to be bulldozed or bullied. She read Lucian’s intentions in his eyes just as he likely read hers. She stood.

“I should be going.”

All the intensity left Lucian’s face. He shot to his feet. “Can I offer you a ride?”

She laughed. “Do I look stupid?” His expression was wounded. She sighed. “Lucian, I have no doubt the second I walk through that door you’ll be on the phone with Dugan or some other underling, insisting they follow me. Can we skip the stalking for a change? I’ve been through hell and back over the past month. I think I’m entitled to my privacy.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I worry.”

She shook her head. “How would you feel if someone followed you everywhere?”

“People follow me every day. I’m in the tabloids. I’m on the news. There aren’t many places I can hide, Evelyn. You know that.”

“And I know you hate it, so how could you intrude on my privacy in the same manner?”

“Because it’s not the same. You’re on your own and I’m only trying to keep an eye out.” He suddenly frowned. “Why are you dressed like that?”

She glanced down at her Clemons uniform. Her hand quickly snapped off her name tag, and his eyes narrowed.

“You got a job,” he guessed.

“I told you I plan to pay you back. I need money to do that.”

“Where are you working? I would’ve given you your old job back.”

“I don’t want any ties, beyond this loan, to you or your companies.”

His head slowly drew back, and she saw how her words wounded him. “Did what we have mean so little to you?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“Perhaps you should ask yourself that question.” She picked up her bag and folded the check, slipping it safely inside the zippered pocket. “I have to go. Please don’t have anyone follow me.”

She turned and he called her name. “Evelyn.”

Her resolve was waning and she had to get out of there. It was so hard seeing him and not touching him. Her heart wanted to run to him, feel his arms around her as she cried about the injustice done to her, but he was the culprit behind all of her heartache.

All she needed to do was think of how he’d betrayed her, and the pain was enough to drop her to her knees, cutting off all urge to step closer.

“Will you continue to pay for Pearl to stay at the rehab?”

His eyes narrowed. “The fact that you can even ask that shows how little you think of me.”

What did he expect? He’d completely shocked her when he’d let her go and broken his promise to always protect her. She shrugged.

“Yes, I will continue to pay for your mother.”

“Thank you.”

He shook his head. “I’m glad to do it.”

She remained facing the door, not wanting to look at him anymore. He stepped close but didn’t touch her. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“So am I.” Quickly opening the door, she fled. Her finger pounded into the elevator button as if she were tapping out Morse code.

SOS. SOS. SOS!

Not until the doors of the elevator closed behind her did she turn and exhale. She did it.

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