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Ruthless King by Maya Hughes (1)

1

Emmett

The crystal vase exploded beside my head against the white wall. “You’re a fucking asshole! How could you do this to me?” Her voice split the air like a whip as remnants of champagne streaked the formerly pristine white furniture. At least it wasn’t red wine. “I should have known you’d do this.” She put a wobble in her voice to wring a little more pity out of me.

She should have known this was coming. My reputation preceded me with the puck bunnies that hung around the rink. They knew what they were getting into.

I’d long since immunized myself to the whole heartstrings game, especially when the person was only putting on a show. It was easier with people I knew were fake, less chance of getting invested, less chance of falling for them—and getting hurt.

“Why did you fly me across the country if you were going to break up with me?”

Because I’d hoped I wouldn’t. I’d hoped maybe this time I’d make it past three months, past this day.

My jaw ached like I was biting down on a bullet. I folded my arms over my chest. “I said I was sorry, and I already bought you a new ticket. The itinerary is in your inbox. Your flight leaves in two hours. There’s a car waiting for you downstairs. You can leave now.”

She picked up another vase.

“Do I need to start an itemized bill?” I lifted an eyebrow. “Leave.”

The glower in her gaze would have probably sent most men running from the room, but most hadn’t done this as many times as I had. She spun on her heels, her usually perfectly styled hair whipping around as she stormed out.

The door slammed shut behind her, and I promptly called down to the front desk to have the entry codes to the door changed. Having electronic locks was a hell of a lot easier than trying to get keys back or calling a locksmith every couple months. That had been a handy tip from veterans on the team and was another perk of breaking up with her at the apartment in Philly where I had the hotel staff to handle things.

Walking through the penthouse, my body vibrated. My hands itched as I ran them along my pants. Standing in front of my office door, I willed myself not to open it, not to do this…but I’d known from the beginning what would happen. Hell, I’d brought the box with me all the way from LA. If that wasn’t confirmation of my dedication to self-torture, I didn’t know what was.

The solid oak door creaked open. I stepped inside, the silence so loud I could hear my own pulse pounding. It was like a ritual in self-scarification every time I ended things with whomever I was dating. Who’d have thought someone could be so jaded at nearly twenty-four?

Growing up the way I had, I was surprised I hadn’t turned into a total basket case. Maybe I had. Sometimes it felt like I’d been brought up in one of those experiments where they raised a monkey without any physical contact. Indifference from those who were supposed to love you was a difficult wound to articulate. Says the pampered trust-fund kid.

There are some things money can’t buy, no matter how hard you try. I didn’t even have full access to my trust yet. One more year and a few months. Once I turned twenty-five, I’d take pleasure in never needing to worry about money again—not that I currently did, but I wouldn’t have to kowtow to my parents anymore. Our annual check-ins had morphed into actual contact over the past few months. Now there were phone calls—not many, but any was more than I’d ever had before. What sucked was the fact that I’d started to look forward to them.

The parents who’d ignored me for the first twenty-three years of my life had taken the mildest form of interest, and I was standing in line with my bowl held out in front of me, asking for more. Fucking pathetic.

Pouring the Macallan until the crystal tumbler almost overflowed, I sat at my desk and stared out the massive glass window overlooking the river. The lights of the city winked and twinkled as red taillights wove their way through the streets. Wide-open sky above it all made my penthouse an enviable location.

Taking a fortifying gulp that burned the whole way down, I stared at the closed drawer. I shouldn’t have brought with box with me. It was my own personal heart removal kit, perfect for those times I needed a reminder, for when I thought I could keep up the pretense and extend the little facade I was putting on with whomever was on my arm. Relaxing my fist, I wrenched open the drawer like there was a snake inside that might strike at any moment, wrap its body around me, and crack a few ribs before devouring me whole.

I knocked off the lid, the tattered and worn edges of the box a testament to the number of times I’d done this. Inside a dark wooden frame, her bright and smiling face stared back at me. My lips turned up. I could almost smell her sweet scent, like being inside a cinnamon roll. Grabbing for the edges of the anger that began to ebb away, I wrapped it back around myself, shielding me.

Remember.

My chest tightened. The burning from my throat shot down into a churning in my gut. I hesitated before reaching in and pulling everything out. I dropped it all on the desktop.

The frames and loose pictures spilled out over the highly shined surface. They fanned out all over the dark wood, ready and eager for my torture session to begin. One last thing sat at the back of the container: the seemingly innocuous, small velvet box. You’d think nothing so small and smooth and pretty could hold something so dangerous, but you’d be dead wrong.

Every time I touched it, it was like holding a burning piece of glass that sliced through me a little deeper every second it sat in my palm. It was a wound I kept touching because that was the only way I knew I was still alive, knew the pain hadn’t killed me. Some days it was the only way I kept going, the only way I avoided falling into someone’s trap like I’d fallen into hers. I dropped the box on the desk, and the soft thud didn’t do the time bomb inside any justice.

Flipping through the pictures, I stared into the caramel-colored eyes of the woman who’d stolen my heart almost seven years earlier and served it back to me filleted on a silver platter of lies, deception, and destruction. Even knowing all that, I couldn’t help but run my finger down the side of her face.

Her chestnut brown hair was pulled up in a bun on the top of her head, her legs draped across my lap in our old high school cafeteria. Declan, one of my teammates, one of the Kings, had taken it as I held on to her squirming hips while she tried to escape because she thought she looked terrible that day. She looked so beautiful it hurt. The memory was clear and sharp, slicing and leaving no jagged edges to stitch together.

I flipped to the next: a hike we’d done with her little sister, Alyson, in Wissahickon Valley Park. She stood at the top of the small ridge we’d climbed with her arm around her sister’s shoulders. When I’d seen her like that, I’d imagined her with our own little kid. What the hell kind of nineteen-year-old thinks about shit like that? An idiot, which was what I was when it came to her.

Our prom pictures with the two of us sitting in the back of the limo, after I’d surprised her with the dress. She hadn’t wanted to go, supposedly because she had to watch Alyson, but I knew part of it was because she wasn’t going to be able to get a dress like a lot of the other girls in school had searched high and low for. A side effect of going to a school that cost more than most colleges was no one—well, almost no one—batted an eyelash at dropping five or six figures on making a night perfect. I was no exception.

The bright blue dress hugged her curves and showed off everything she usually kept under wraps in either her school uniform or jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. Not that night, though. I flicked my finger against my forehead in the picture. Dumbass kid!

Like any good ritual, it wasn’t complete without me bleeding out on the floor. I popped open the velvet box. The bright and sparkling diamonds winked back at me. Even in the low light in my office, the stones shone like they were powered by their own internal light source.

I didn’t even remember how much I’d spent on the ring. It hadn’t mattered. They’d opened the jewelry store especially for me to find the perfect one, and imagining sliding it onto her finger was enough for me to set down my card and buy it, no questions asked. That was probably why I wasn’t getting my entire trust until I turned twenty-five. If I’d had it back when I was nineteen, the ring probably would have been about five times bigger.

She’d never even seen it.

At least I’d been saved that one small humiliation, but not much else.

Snapping the box shut, I finished the last drop of my drink and went in search of more. My heart was carved out of my chest, raw and agonizing and numb all at the same time. Was any of it real? Why does it still hurt after all this time?

She’d stood over me with my beating heart in her hand and let me walk away. She’d left me gasping for air, shouting at the sky, and craving her touch. Avery Davis had dismantled me and left me as a shell. Even knowing the pain she’d caused, every night I closed my eyes, it was her I dreamed about.

* * *

“You’re going to be around for our graduation, right?” Heath skated beside me and rested his hands on his hockey stick.

Sweat poured off me, making the light pads under my jersey cling to my skin. The freezing temperatures of the ice did nothing to counteract the workout we’d all put ourselves through. Obviously gluttons for punishment, we’d let Heath lead the charge.

“Yeah, I have the Rittenhouse Prep graduation, trying to get out of it though.” Alyson, Avery’s little sister, would be graduating. I hated that I still knew that. So much of mine and Avery’s time together was still ingrained in my brain, like her birthday being only a day before mine in July…the fact that she’d separate out the yellow and green Skittles from the rest of the bag…how it took her five minutes to eat a single Kit Kat because of the way she’d deconstruct the thing, eating it layer by layer before licking the chocolate off her fingers—if I couldn’t get to them first.

“Because of She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named?” Heath leaned back, bracing himself and clearing a path for my usual mad dash away from any and all mentions of Avery. Strands of his blond hair were plastered to his face.

I grimly nodded. “Something like that. But I can come to your graduation.”

I needed to stop letting the Avery situation keep me away from my friends. It would only get worse. Declan’s girlfriend, Makenna, was friends with Avery, which meant there was more of a chance of running into her. If our cold war kept up, they’d start excluding me, stop inviting me to things since I wasn’t around anyway, and before I knew it, I’d feel like an outsider with the guys.

Not happening.

“You don’t have to do that. Those things are boring as hell—we don’t want to force you to sit through that. We just wanted to know if you could be around for the party.” He grabbed one of the water bottles off the bench and squeezed water into his mouth. The rest of the guys were lying on center ice, barely able to move.

“I want to go. I want to be there, and let me know if you want to do a graduation party. I’ll take care of it.” I chugged some water when the light bulb hit. It slammed into me so fast, I whipped my head down and choked. The burning cough got a few winded laughs from the guys slowly getting up off the ice. “Maybe we could rent something over the summer. It’s the only time we all have off, and it would be a great way to celebrate.”

“Emmett, I didn’t tell you about this so you’d offer something up and foot the bill. This is not a money grab.” He took off his helmet and dumped it in the box, ruffling his hair.

“I know. In a few months when you get your first paychecks, it won’t matter. You can pay me back. I’m doing it because I haven’t been around much. Think of it as a graduation gift.” This could be a summer for the ages: killer beach house, ridiculously overstocked bar, hanging out like old times, all the funnel cake we could eat. It had always been Avery’s favorite—I shook my head. Stop it!

“Em—”

“It’s done. Let me know the dates and I’ll have it all taken care of.”

“Dude, calm down. We can do the summer house thing. That’s a great idea, but we’ll figure it out. We’ll pool our money and all go in together. Okay?” He pointed to the guys skating their way toward us.

“But—”

“No buts. We do it this way or we’ll steal your credit cards and shred them.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll chip in for my portion only.” I’d get all the details from them and pay for it before they could then refuse to let them pay me back. The money didn’t matter to me. It never had, except for what I could do with it. Helping people made me feel like I belonged, like they needed me for something. Taking care of things people needed with my money had become second nature.

“As long as you know you don’t have to.”

He let out a long-suffering sigh like I was asking for a kidney, not offering to bankroll a blowout summer to celebrate their achievement and the first time in years we’d all hung out for more than a few days.

“Of course.”