THE MAD LOVE DUET
Six wasn’t the hero I needed.
But he was the man I wanted.
And it was my selfish craving, the desire to own him, that would be our undoing.
No one tells you that love is a disease. An infection that tears your heart apart, leaving you half the person you were before. A malady that leaves open wounds. An invisible disorder tracing scars in the places you couldn’t see if you weren’t looking for them.
I was sick, but love didn’t heal me.
Instead, it festered in my marrow, and drove me to unforgivable mistakes.
Six was my first mistake, but he wouldn't be the last.
Six was always there, even when I didn’t want him.
But he couldn’t hold me together, and I couldn’t be his penance.
Loss is a phantom limb. No one can see it, but the ache torments you in the night, distracts you during the day, and leaves you fragmented. I’m half a heart, half a soul, and nothing could cure the pieces he’d left behind.
Losing him was safer than loving him. Because the love that kept us coming back again and again was nothing short of madness.
But then, isn't mad love the most honest?
CHAPTER ONE PREVIEW
October 31, 2000
I stumbled out of the bathroom into a room that spun in circles. It was like being on an amusement park ride, where you're stuck to the walls while your entire world spins around and around.
Someone bumped into me from behind, sending me into an awkward pirouette, twirling until I met the wall, hands on cold brick, my eyesight blurring the faces around me into a lazy watercolor painting.
I'd snorted something off the dirty bathroom counter, something I paid ten bucks for. Ten bucks. In hindsight, I had likely sniffed expired narcotics, cut with maybe a little cocaine. Probably some other garbage, too, since the dealer was new to me and surely suspected I wouldn't be a repeat customer anyway.
Still, my nose burned and my eyes watered just like they normally did, as my fingers clutched cinderblocks, the tips of my nails tearing a little as I dug in, holding on for balance. My head held a hundred voices, all telling me something different.
I’d only snorted the shit to silence the fucking voices, but now they were even louder. It’d backfired, and I was pissed.
Find something stronger.
Where am I?
The scab from the last cut is nearly gone.
How soon will this knock me flat?
My skin is crawling with bugs.
I can't feel my tongue.
Chase this with some shots.
I looked toward the bar, and mentally crossed out the last suggestion. Two of the bartenders who had booted me out previously were on shift. I couldn't see their faces, but I saw the neon pink mohawk on one and shiny shaved head belonging to the other as colors and faces blended together like a mixing of paints.
Two unfamiliar hands closed in on my shoulders, and I swore I felt every fine line of their fingerprints pressing into my skin. “Hey,” a male voice said, as hot breath hit my neck. I shook away from him, knocking into multiple people in the process as I squinted, trying to make sense of which direction to go.
I needed air. I laid my head on the concrete wall nearest me and turned my head to the exit. The familiar green fluorescent letters were fuzzy, but I moved to them as quickly as possible, feeling my heart boom in my chest, over and over, asking me to finally relieve it of everything I put it through.
My fingers found the door and pushed hard enough to knock someone who was on the other side out of the way. I could barely see outside in the dark, the light post having been broken months before and the parking lot devoid of any headlights.
This bar was my haunt, the place where I usually got my thrice-weekly drug refill. But with my dealer on some version of her maternity leave, she’d passed me off to another dealer.
As I stared around the parking lot, I thought about how I'd get home. I didn't have a car, and I knew even if I did, there was no way I could drive home, not with my eyes twisting and turning and my limbs going numb. My lips formed the word “fuck,” but the word couldn't come, bogged down by a thick tongue and immovable lips.
I was going to vomit.
I turned toward the building and opened my eyes just as the vomit purged from my throat, onto brick.
I don't know how long I leaned there, against the wall, pushing sweaty hair from my face as I opened my lips in a soundless groan repeatedly, until my stomach was a raisin. I laughed, but it was maniacal. I'd had some shitty experiences with coke in my life, but whatever I'd snorted had not been coke. But I'd be lying—not necessarily unlike me—if I said vomiting against a grimy bar wall was unusual behavior.
Spitting the last dregs of vomit, I backed away clumsily, my knee-high boots scuffing on concrete and broken glass before my back hit something warm, solid. My first thought was, “Shit,” as I lost balance and nearly fell into the upended contents of my stomach.
“Steady,” a distinctly male voice said, rumbling and warm. I smelled leather and spice, comforting scents.
I wanted to let go, I wanted to sink into the arms that cupped my own. Exhaustion sat on my eyelids like lead weights.
“Hmm,” was the only sound I made. My hands came up and pushed away the hair that hung in my face, scrubbing down my skin. Only when I opened my eyes did I finally take a step away from the stranger who held me still.
I stumbled to the side when I tried to turn to face him.
“Whoa,” the voice said. Hands gripped my upper arms again.
Instantly, my body went cold. I'd felt hands on me many times, and most of the time they were hands filled with vulgar intentions. I didn't let men touch me without an invitation. I ripped my arms free and opened my eyes, my face warming with anger. “Don't touch me!” I yelled.
His eyes were shockingly bright green, surrounded by deep shadows. Tired but alive, the eyes said. They were narrowed as they scrutinized me. But his lips said nothing.
I took in his dark hair, like he'd shaved his head for so long and was starting to grow it back in. I traced over the facial hair that climbed down the sides of his face to his jaw.
He was a man whose face you didn't forget, I knew that much.
Talk to him, the voice in my head encouraged.
Still glaring at him, I reached into my pocket for my cigarettes, strangely unsettled by his presence and his singular concentration on me. As I pulled the cigarettes from my pocket, my hands—slicked by sweat—dropped the box right into my vomit.
“Look what you made me do,” I said angrily, shooting him a look.
He again said nothing, just stared at me. I wished I had a car. I didn't like how he looked at me as though his eyes were digging into my skin. I tried to step away from him but fumbled again. When he steadied me this time, I wrenched my arm from his grasp.
Whatever I'd snorted had given me only a thirty-second high—whatever chems that were used to dilute that line of coke had been all bark but no bite. I felt the numbness in my arms, but my head was clearing, a light fog lifting. He stared at me still, as if he was waiting for something.
“What is your problem?” I asked, taking in my surroundings and realizing how very alone I was then. Before he could answer, someone exited the bar. I flipped my head to stare at them, seeing the man I'd bought the garbage snort from. “Whatever you gave me was crap,” I yelled, pissed at having spent my taxi fare on garbage blow.
“It was ten bucks,” he said, shrugging, as if it was my fault for thinking I could get something of quality for such a low price. He wasn't wrong. He eyed the man in front of me before turning and walking away.
“Do you want a cigarette?” the man in front of me asked, ignoring my question completely. He reached long fingers into the front pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a pack, offering it to me.
Warily, I looked at him. In my experience, people didn't do things to be nice. They always had an ulterior motive. I didn't trust him, but my fingers itched for tobacco.
He pulled out a cigarette, held it up in front of my face. Still, I eyed him cautiously. He stepped closer to me, putting himself less than a foot away and my skin prickled.
“Do you know that man?” he asked, with an incline of his head in the direction the dealer went.
I shook my head. “No. Why?”
“Why won't you take one?” he asked, holding it up higher so it was at my eye level and once again ignoring my question.
“Because I don't trust you.” Internally, I laughed at my hypocrisy.
“Because you don't know me?”
“What is this, twenty questions?” I asked. I licked my lips, practically tasting the tobacco he held like a bribe.
“You don't know him either. But you're refusing my free cigarette when you spent ten bucks on cheap crack from him.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I didn't snort crack.”
“You're a liar,” he said calmly. He put the cigarette between his lips and cupped his hand around it as he lit the end. He reached a hand toward my face. My eyes got big, round, but he flicked a finger over my nostril. He came away with white powder and held it up for me as if I didn't know what it was.
“I don't know what that is,” I lied again.
His lips moved almost imperceptibly. Just a hair of a lift, but it was enough to let me know that he knew I was lying, but he found it strangely amusing. He blew the bit of powder off his finger and glanced at me. “What's your name?”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Do you really think I'm going to answer that honestly?” It didn't surprise me that he was talking to me. What surprised me was that I talked to him. I didn't hold court with strange men outside of bars. I merely snorted their drugs off of dirty countertops inside of those bars.
It was his stupidly pleasant-to-look-at face that prevented me from bolting. That and the fact that my limbs were still too shaky to carry me too far away.
“You hungry?” he asked, pulling the cigarette from his mouth. He released the smoke, washing my face with it.
Fuck. The smoke made my fingers antsy. “No.” Why the hell was I still talking to him? Why was he being nice?
He angled his head to the pile of vomit. “You will be, and soon.” He tucked his pack of cigarettes back in his pocket and then pulled out his keys. “You can come or not, but I'm going to get something to eat.”
Go with him, the voice said.
I had no money after impulsively spending it on the blow, and my apartment was a solid two-mile walk—or more like stumble—away. Alone in the dark. Because of my own stupidity, my options were slim. Despite my misgivings, I opted for the ride and followed him to his car, a black, sleek-looking hunk of metal. “Are you planning on murdering me and chopping my body up into tiny pieces?” I asked when he held open the passenger door.
I slid into the seat and he leaned down, pulling the seatbelt to show me where it was. “No,” he answered, with a slight shake of his head. He stood back up and held the door's frame. “That's too much work.”
I leaned against the leather; it was surprisingly warm. Had he just arrived at the bar before I'd exited and vomited spectacularly all over the place? When he climbed in, he jabbed the key into the ignition and turned it with a quick flick of his wrist. He yanked off the black leather jacket he was wearing and tossed it on to the backseat, giving me a view of tan skin and black ink covering muscles that weren't from any kind of casual exercise. He wore a slim tee underneath that hugged his front, illuminating miles of muscle underneath fabric.
He wasn't unattractive, that was for damn sure. My eyes traced several days' growth of facial hair along the hard line of his jaw, up over wide mouth and thin lips.
His hand reached between us on the stick, navigating us out of the parking lot and onto the main road with the confidence of a man who controlled an old-school car with extreme finesse. I shouldn't have been impressed, but he seemed comfortable in his skin. He didn't pollute the air between us with small talk; he didn't look at me for reassurance.
I made rash decisions as if my life depended on them, and often found myself regretting those decisions. My regret for getting in the car with this guy was still up for debate. I had met many people in my walk on Earth so far, kept company with the evils who wore human skin and held my neck with hands intent on violence. I'd felt intent on my skin, like a burning brand of anger, pain. But when this man had held my arms, I'd felt a sense of comfort that was foreign and vague, but still intriguing. No harmful intentions.
Even the voices inside my head had stilled their onslaught.
“What's your name?” I asked, realizing it might be good to know the name of a man that had the opportunity to dump my body off a pier.
“Six,” he said, not glancing at me. He took a turn so smoothly that my body barely leaned in my seat.
“Like the number?”
“What do you think?” His voice was gruff, but his eyes stayed on the road, switching lanes and passing a handful of cars.
“Why?” I blurted.
From his profile, I saw his forehead furrow in confusion.
“Why Six? That's a stupid name.”
He turned to look at me, a flip of his head that gave me less than a second to see the look in his eyes, but I'd seen it. He was agitated, slightly, and for some reason, he didn't want me to know. He returned his focus back to the road, but I read body cues like other people read books. Someone else wouldn't have picked up on the slight tightening of his jaw, the way his arms seemed to stretch fractionally tighter in the sleeves of his cotton tee. “It's a nickname.”
“I figured as much. Unless your mom couldn't keep track of her kids and had to start numbering them.”
“I'm an only child,” he said, staring into the windshield, his voice smooth and deep.
“Well, I know it’s not how old you are.” I was fishing for his age.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“If I said I was underage?”
“I’d call you a liar. I met you outside of a bar.” He gave me a pointed look.
“Twenty-three. Your turn.”
“I think the correct word you’re looking for is older.”
“No, I meant what I said.” I grinned and asked, “What's your given name?”
His eyes came back to me, and he shook his head. “You haven't given me your name yet.”
“My real name? Or do you want a number? I'm partial to seven. Perhaps you can call me Seven.” His jaw clenched just a little, but he kept his eyes forward.
“Does Seven have meaning to you?”
Seven, the age I'd ruined my mother's life. I angled my body toward him. “Does Six have meaning to you?”
“Perhaps.” He switched gears as he approached the freeway. He flicked over me again. “Seven's an odd number.”
“I'm an odd person.”
“I can tell.” His lips betrayed the humor he found in our conversation.
“Call me Seven, then.”
“Seven is higher than six.”
“Not anymore.” He glanced over at me again. “That's what you get for buying cheap cocaine.” The last word dripped with sarcasm, and his raised eyebrow punctuated his point.
“What do you mean 'not anymore'? Are you high?”
“What if I was?”
“Then I'd be an idiot for getting in your car.”
“One would think the first question of your intelligence would be the moment you snorted ten bucks' worth of bathroom chemicals, not the moment that you climbed into the car of a man you barely know.”
I mean, he had a point. “That's fair.”
This man was interesting somehow, this Six. He didn't try to impress me or flatter me. He insulted me, to some degree, but I had to admit that I deserved at least some of it. The more he spoke, the more attractive he was to me.
“Where are we going?”
He turned to me. “To an incinerator, naturally.”
“Ah,” I said, holding up a finger. “No evidence. You're a smart serial killer.”
His lips lifted a bit more, carving a delicious crease along the side of his mouth. “That might be the oddest compliment I ever received.”
* * *
While we waited in his car for the food he'd ordered to be ready, Six handed me a box of wet wipes. I stared at it blankly.
“You might want to wash your hands before you eat,” he said.
I ripped open one of the packets and glanced at him meaningfully. “Are you saying that I'm gross?”
“I'm saying you might want to wash your hands. That bar likely had more STDs than booze.”
I rubbed the wipe over my fingers, wincing when the alcohol seeped into the various cuts across my knuckles. “Are you some kind of clean freak?” I asked, smacking the gum he'd offered to me while he ordered the food.
“No, but we're coming up on cold and flu season.”
I laughed, because it was genuinely hysterical to me. “You sound like a dad.” I finished wiping my palms and shoved the wipes I used into a small trash bag he kept in his car. I settled back against the seat. “You have no idea the kinds of things I expose myself to regularly.”
“You're right, I don't.” His dark eyebrows drew together in concentration as he looked at me. “But this way, you're less at risk than you were.” I opened my mouth to say something else, but he interrupted me, “Don't tell me you actually take pride in exposing yourself to all kinds of nefarious things.”
My flaws pushed against my skin, trying to make themselves more pronounced under his scrutiny. “I don't take pride in anything,” I told him in a moment of naked honesty, right before we were interrupted by a knock on the window from a server holding up Six's bag of food.
We ate sandwiches made with English muffins, eggs, and sausage out of greasy white paper bags in his car. The accompanying hash browns lay in my stomach like warm lead. It was probably the first real meal I'd had in several days. Wiping grease from my fingers on a brown napkin, I turned to Six, who was eating slower than I was, his eyes staring into nothing out of his windshield.
“Thanks for”—I looked at his car's clock—“breakfast?” I asked. I picked up my orange juice and sipped it loudly through the narrow straw.
“You're welcome,” he said in a low voice, unwrapping the last bit of grease-spotted paper that covered the remaining bit of his sandwich. “Are you going to tell me your name now?”
“It's Mira.” I set my orange juice in the cup holder and leaned back, sighing contentedly.
“Mira.” He rolled the word around his mouth. “Is that short for something?”
It was. “No. Just Mira.”
“Just Mira,” he echoed. He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully.
“So, Six,” I began, my finger playing with a loose thread on my sweatshirt. “Why are you being nice to me?”
His eyebrows pulled together as he looked over at me. “There has to be a reason?”
“There's always a reason,” I said. I flipped down the mirror visor and wiped away a smear of mascara under my eye. His silence after my question caused me to suddenly feel a twist of suspicion. “You were at the bar, I puked everywhere, and you offered me a ride and bought me food.”
He set his sandwich on his lap and brought his cup of coffee to his mouth. “I had just showed up to the bar, you'd puked everywhere, and I suspected you didn't have a car.”
He was right. After I'd had my license taken away, I'd sold my car—not to pay my fines, but to buy the cleanest white powder I'd been able to find. It took me four days to snort the value of my car up my nose.
I shrugged. “Cars are a bitch in San Francisco. But you could have put me in a cab if you felt some kind of misplaced obligation to see me out of there safely.”
“I thought you might want something to eat. You vomited everything in your stomach.” His eyes glided down my body, tracing my clothing. My breath hitched when I saw him swallow and look up at me with his eyelids low. “You're also not exactly dressed for the weather to wait with all the other club-goers who were looking for a cab—or in the right state of mind.”
I looked down, seeing my skin tight black leggings and a pink sweatshirt that had more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. I liked to think my clothing choices reflected the turmoil in my head. “Leather is warm,” I said, not thinking of my leggings but of his car instead. I lifted my finger to my mouth and licked off the salt from the hash brown. Glancing sideways, I caught him watching me, his eyes warm. His gaze didn't travel south of my mouth and I swallowed, feeling his stare like a touch on my lips.
I knew about favors. Six had taken me for food. In my experience, that meant there was a debt to be paid. I'd paid debts worth far less than this meal, to men much less attractive, which meant, in the smallest of ways, Six would be different. A debt I'd pay freely. Gladly.
The air in the car seemed to condense, warming from our breath and body heat. And maybe a little bit of the attraction simmering between us warmed the air. I closed my eyes, briefly imagining the slide of his lips over mine, the opening of his mouth, his grip on my face demanding. When I opened my eyes, he was all I could see.
Six stared at me for several tense seconds, probably noticing the lust in my gaze. I wanted him to. His lips parted, and I waited, waited for the lean in, for a heavy hand to grasp the back of my head. I felt my eyelids go heavy.
“Are you ready to go home?” he asked, not moving an inch toward me.
“Yes,” I said, thinking he intended to collect his debt in private. I felt attraction spear my center, and I crossed my legs to subdue the ache.
The only dialogue we exchanged were directions to my apartment. “Turn right. Get in the left lane. Turn left at the light. Go up the hill.” And by dialogue exchanged, I mean I said these things, and he followed the directions, wordlessly. He didn't turn on the music, so all I heard from him was his gentle breathing. Each exhale made my ribs tighten in anticipation.
When he pulled in front of the building where my third-floor apartment was, I didn't waste any time climbing out of the car. Six put the car in park and climbed out as well, following me all the way up.
I knew this dance well. I slid my key into the door and turned around to face him, taking in the sheer size of him, all his angles and edges. The leather jacket enveloped me in its scent. I placed one hand on his chest, felt the worn leather beneath my fingertips. Looking up at him, I waited for him to do the lean-in, waited for the feel of his lips on mine.
The voices in my head were suspended in quiet anticipation.
When he did nothing, my fingers traveled up to the lapels of his jacket. I let my thumb brush inside his jacket, pushing just enough on his tee to feel the hardness underneath.
I tilted my head to the side, felt my hair brush my bare shoulder as my Flashdance-esque sweatshirt slipped over the joint.
“What are you waiting for?” I asked, gripping the lapel a little tighter. I brought my other hand up to his chest and placed my palm right against his shirt. I stood up on my tiptoes, bringing my lips closer and closer to his.
It happened in less than a second: One large hand grabbed my wrists, halting my movements, pushing me back, arms above my head as he pinned me to my door. I heard the jangle of the keys in the doorknob behind me, clashing against each other.
I smiled knowingly. He was rough. That was okay with me.
He leaned in, and my eyes closed. My chin lifted. His breath feathered over my mouth as my stomach took a dive into my hips. I swallowed, then let my bottom lip fall away from my top, opening for him.
He didn't kiss me. His breath moved along my face until I felt it hot at my ear. “Get inside,” he said, his voice controlled. He freed my wrists, my arms falling to my sides like dead weight.
Before I had time to react, the door fell open with my weight on it. I opened my eyes in alarm, but felt his arm wrap around my waist to steady me. “Goodnight, Mira.” He held me a moment longer than I knew he'd wanted to, and then he left.
I stood on my doorstep for a moment longer as the sound of his steps pounded down the stairwell until all I heard was my own pulse roaring in my ears.
I turned to the paint kit my mom had bought me—some rudimentary colors and tools. “Get a hobby, one that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol,” she’d told me with that slight bite of disgust that often colored her words. I’d kept it tucked away, not using it on principle.
But the voices drew me to the supplies before my feet did. I picked up the paintbrush, looked at its tip for a moment, and then tossed it across the room on the floor. I spun the cap off the green tube of paint and smeared a glob on my finger, staring at it a moment before I plopped to the ground, in front of the square canvas that practically begged for color.
The voices chanted his name over and over and, since I was submissive to their power over me, I placed my finger on the center of the canvas and drew a number six, looping the top part around it so that it appeared more as a swirl than the number itself. I sat back, staring at the swirl as I rubbed my thumb against my finger, smearing the green a bit until I felt the lines of my fingerprints push through the green.
I pushed the canvas away and laid back on the floor, falling asleep within seconds.