(Thornton Brothers Book Five)
CHAPTER ONE – JAKE
Another nightmare woke me. I sat up, the sheets strewn and twisted around my body, heart thudding, pulse racing and sweat covering my body. Untangling myself, I moved silently past my brother sleeping on the mattress on the floor and raced up the stairs that led to the roof. I tried not to give in to the panic and desperation I felt for fresh air. I tried to move like a person who wasn’t tortured by their dreams and craving escape. A person who wasn’t trapped by memories they’d rather forget. A person that wasn’t me.
I’d had trouble sleeping from the moment I arrived home. They warned me I would. The woman who had sat me down and talked to me about returning to civilian life had been blunt, but I’d laughed it off.
Because over there I was fine.
Over there I wasn’t tormented by what I’d done.
It was normal. My normal.
It was life.
And I missed that life. I missed the friends I’d made. The simplicity of following instructions. The adrenaline that pumped through my veins. But even over there the cracks were beginning to show. That’s why I came back. That’s why I hung up the uniform and returned to what other people called a normal life. Because if I hadn’t, I don’t know if even I would recognize the person I would’ve become.
It would have been too easy to lose myself to war.
I thought it would be easy coming home, that I would be able to slip back into my own life, my own routine. But I was just a boy when I left, a boy who returned as a warrior. A broken warrior. A warrior with a dark heart and a thirst for blood.
I was different. I wasn’t the same person I used to be, whoever that was. I’d lose my shit over the stupidest things. The incessant clicking of a pen. The thoughtlessness of a helpless shopper in the store who didn’t move their trolley to the side of the aisle. The flash of arrogance in my father’s eyes.
And I couldn’t sleep.
I would lay awake for hours, my body exhausted, my mind pleading for quiet, but nothing would happen. I’d toss and turn. I’d think about everything and nothing. I’d listen to the roar that sounded in my head like water pounding against rocks. But I wouldn’t fall asleep.
I tried drink. I tried drugs and pills and potions, but none of it worked. None of it stopped the nightmares.
I never remembered the specifics of the dream, only the feelings and emotions. Panic. Fear. Terror. Dread. The odd flash of a scene that I couldn’t quite place. And it was never things you’d expect my nightmare to be made of. There were no explosions, no bombs. No minefields or army trucks. No camouflage. No images of bodies covered in blood.
My nightmares were made of concrete walls with no windows. Of endless gravel roads and plumes of dust. Smiling faces that contorted into those twisted in pain. The sound of material flapping in the wind. The smell of sweat and piss.
Those were the images that made up my nightmares, but I could never tell you what happened in them. All I knew is that they scared the shit out of me.
On the roof of the building where my brothers and I lived, I could see the lights of the city. I could stretch and I could breathe. With my heart still pounding and my pulse still racing, I drew in ragged breaths, willing my panic to subside.
I never got used to the feeling.
My nightmares didn’t get easier. I never made it through an entire night without waking in panic. I felt on edge, as though I was waiting for something bad to happen. My chest was tight. My brain was scrambled.
I needed something to numb me, something to dull the electrifying pulses that flowed through my blood, but I’d drank everything there was to drink in my apartment. Beer. Whiskey. The remnants of a bottle of vodka. Even some sort of wine that made me shudder as it slipped down my throat.
But I needed more.
Tyler, my older brother, lived on the top floor of the building. It was his building, but he’d given me the second floor when I got back. At the moment it was nothing more than concrete floors, a kitchen counter and a fancy bathroom, but one day it would be more. When I got the motivation. I’d dove head-on into getting the bathroom sorted, but then things fell to the wayside. Gabe, my younger half-brother, was staying with me. We had two mattresses on the floor and a vast space of empty between us.
Carefully jogging down one flight of stairs, I knocked on Tyler’s door. He was a bit of an insomniac himself. Not because he was plagued with nightmares, but because the man never stopped. I knew Tyler would have something, a bottle of whiskey, maybe some rum, but I wasn’t sure if he’d give it to me. I’d told him I was better. I’d told him I was fine. It’s such a stupid word. Fine. As if anyone is ever fine.
There was no answer.
I knocked again. Earlier in the night, we’d all been at a club. I’d only had beer to drink in front of him, as I always did. He watched me with eagle eyes but I’d learned to hide in plain sight. I knew how to drink enough to dull my brain, but still walk in a straight line. I knew how to hide the lie that was my life. Tyler had left with his girlfriend, and I guess he’d decided to stay with her, but I’d stayed at the club. Not because I enjoyed it, but because I dreaded the thought of heading home and lying awake for hours only to fall asleep and be woken by nightmares.
So with Tyler gone, Gabe drunk and asleep in bed and most of the places I could get a drink closed, there was only one other way to lose myself.
So I ran through the city. It took me a little over an hour to get there and by the time I’d arrived most of the spectators had gone home. Only the die-hard fans remained. The ones too drunk to know any better.
“Jake, I haven’t got you scheduled to fight tonight.” Duncan checked the clipboard that was permanently attached to his hand, as though there was some way he might have forgotten a fight. He was dressed in his usual pinstriped suit that was two sizes too big for him. He organized all the fights and made most of the money. I nodded to the ring where two men were slugging it out, trading punch for punch, both of them too weary to offer any sort of defense.
“I want in.”
He looked at me suspiciously. He was harder to hide from. “We’re pretty much all done for the night.”
I pushed a strand of hair back from my face, trying not to shake. “I need this. Surely you’ve got someone willing to fight me?”
Duncan chuckled. “Well, there is one, but you’re not going to want to fight him.”
“I’m not exactly little myself.”
Duncan’s gaze fell over me as though noticing my height for the first time. He was one of the few people who wasn’t intimidated by my size or the darkness in my eyes. He recognized it.
“No.” His eyes flicked over me again. “But he probably weighs about twice as much.”
“I don’t care. I just need to fight.”
Duncan peered at me more closely and I bounced up and down on my feet as though to convince him I was ready, I was sane, I was sober. None of it was true.
Duncan just shrugged and wrote something down on his notepad. “It’s your funeral.” Then he turned and yelled, “Fergus! I have an idiot here who’s willing to fight you!”
And then Fergus appeared. Holy fuck. His arms rivaled the size of my legs. I swallowed a knot of nervous excitement. I don’t know why the prospect of getting the shit beaten out of me excited me like it did. No doubt there would be some psychological explanation for it, but all I knew was I needed to feel pain. I deserved to feel it.
“You still keen?” Duncan asked.
I pulled the shirt from my body and headed toward the ring where the last fighters were limping away.
Already the tightness in my chest had started to evolve into something else. Whatever it was that was trapped inside me started pacing the cage of my ribs, banging on my chest to be let out.
I needed to feel pain and I needed to inflict it.
Someone came and cleaned the blood off the floor. I stretched, rotating my neck, rolling my shoulders and trying to free up my tight muscles. The fucker that Duncan called Fergus entered the ring after stripping down to nothing but his shorts, and then the bell sounded.
There was no preamble with this fight. It was unscheduled and there was hardly anyone there to watch. I wouldn’t get any money for it, but that wasn’t why I fought.
I fought to feel pain and to create pain. I fought so I could relish the feeling of my fist sinking into someone’s flesh. I fought to have my teeth rattled and my bones broken.
I fought to forget.
By the time it was over, I knew that Fergus had won. He’d got in too many good hits. Warm blood dripped from a gash above my eye, an eye I could barely see out of. My ribs hurt like hell.
But I felt alive.
Blood pulsed through my veins like the crackle of electricity. My heart thudded, not with panic, not with fear, but with exhilaration. I bent over, resting my hands on my knees and breathing heavily as I swallowed the ache of my muscles.
Straightening, I held my hand out to Fergus. “Good fight.”
“Nice to finally have someone agree to fight me.” Fergus’s voice was surprisingly high, as though in defiance of his size.
“I’d be keen for a re-match.”
Fergus lifted his brows, an upside-down smile of surprise spreading across his face. “You’re on.” He twisted on his heel, a surprisingly dainty movement. “Duncan? Duncan?”
Duncan lifted his head from where he was counting the money spread over a table in the corner.
“Solider-boy wants another fight,” Fergus shouted to him.
Duncan walked over, his head shaking. “You look like shit, Jake. Might want to take a few days off.” He leaned close and sniffed the air. “You smell like a brewery too.”
I bounced up and down on the balls of my feet a few times, ignoring, or rather, relishing the painful jolts of my muscles. “What about tomorrow night?”
Fergus laughed. Duncan laughed. But I just stayed there, bouncing on the spot, feeling the spike of excitement and anticipation in my veins. Blood still dripped from the gash over my eye. Some of it must have gone into my eye as the world was tinted with red.
Duncan shook his head again, looking down at his clipboard. “Well, if you’re willing to put your body on the line, I’m willing to make money off you.” He scribbled something down on the piece of paper. “You guys are slotted to be the main fight tomorrow. Don’t make me regret it.”
I grinned. “Have I ever let you down?”
Duncan walked away, muttering under his breath in a language I didn’t understand.
“Hey, you.” A woman stepped into my path. She was carrying her shoes in her hands, too drunk to be able to stand on the high heels. Even in bare feet, she wobbled and stumbled. She had on possibly the shortest dress I’d ever seen. It was gold and clung to her curves like a second skin. I found myself licking my lips as I let my eyes roam over her.
“You want to show me a good time?” she purred.
I chuckled at her boldness but shook my head. “Thanks for the offer, but I think it best I be by myself tonight.” I moved to step past her, but she held a hand to my chest, blocking me.
“Oh,” she said, as she squeezed the muscle under her hand. “You look after yourself, don’t you, big boy?”
She obviously didn’t see the blood and bruises. “Big boy?” I questioned.
“Ah-huh.” She bit her bottom lip and tried to look up seductively, but only succeeded in looking intoxicated. “What do you say to me taking you for a test drive?”
Peeling her fingers away from where they dug into my chest, I shook my head. “Again, thanks for the offer, but I’m just going to head home.”
“Asshole,” she muttered under her breath.
I paused for a moment. For some reason her muttered insult got to me and I had visions of turning back to her, grabbing her by the shoulders, shoving her against the wall and showing her just what an asshole I could be. Instead, I took a deep breath and walked outside to be greeted by the sun starting to rise over the hills.
I’d tried to lose myself in some of the women who threw themselves at me. And throw themselves at me they did. Looking like I did and having been the places I had been, drove women insane. I didn’t even need to talk to them half of the time. I’d just sit at a bar, staring glumly into the bottom of the glass and they’d almost line up behind me, begging me for a chance to take away my pain.
At the start I’d let them try. I didn’t know their names, barely remembered what they looked like the following morning. Then one night, I fell asleep in a stranger’s bed instead of returning home. I’d woken in my usual state of panic and fear and bolted, desperate to find an escape pulsing through my veins thicker than blood. She had a kid. A kid who just stood in the hallway and watched me with such terror in their eyes, it led me to keep as far away from women as I could.
I was messed up enough without bringing someone else into the mix. They would have been nothing more than a way to scratch an itch. A way to pass the time. And as much as the urge struck me at times, that wasn’t what I wanted.
What I wanted was to get lost in a woman. A woman who made me ache with the pain of not touching her. One I would crawl over broken glass for. One I adored, not just tolerated. There was no appeal in settling for less. But I needed to sort my demons out rather than let them possess someone else.
With the thud of my feet hitting the pavement and the pain that jolted through me with each step, the roar in my head was quieter. I could breathe easier. I was more at peace. The sun was fully over the rise of the hills now and it drenched the world in a golden glow. It was almost beautiful enough for me to smile. Almost. But as soon as I got home and stopped pushing my body, the pain hit me and I doubled over, clutching at my ribs, grabbing for the edge of the couch before I fell over.
“What the fuck, Jake?” Gabe sat up in bed, his hair messed and pointing in all directions. A dried patch of drool sat at the corner of his mouth. “You alright?” He let out a long and low whistle as he looked me over.
I held up my hand as if to shield him from me. “I’m good.” I laughed and the movement caused me to grunt. “I’m more than good. I’m great.” I sounded demented.
Gabe dragged himself out of bed and helped lower me to the couch. “You’ve got to stop this. You can’t keep on doing this to yourself.”
Gabe knew about the fights. He just didn’t know about the drinking or the drugs or the nights when I’d wander the streets looking for anyone and everyone willing to knock their fists against mine.
I leaned back, letting my head flop against the couch, and allowed a grin to spread over my face. “I’m good. I feel alive.”
“It isn’t worth it, Jake. It isn’t worth the money. We’ll save enough to open a gym eventually. You don’t need to put yourself through this in order to get it.”
Something was digging into my back, and I winced as I twisted to remove it. It was one of Gabe’s shoes. “It’s not about the money, Gabe. I’ve told you that.”
My little brother didn’t understand. He didn’t have the same drive to feel pain like I did. His demons weren’t as bold, weren’t as dark. He didn’t look at someone and wonder how it would feel to have their throat between his hands.
“Well, what the fuck is it about?”
“I told you. It makes me feel alive.” I let out a sigh as though I’d been holding it for years.
“Well, you need to figure out a better way. I get the need to fight, to feel alive, but this is nothing but fucked up.”
Weariness had settled into my bones and I popped one eye back open to look at Gabe. “Maybe I like fucked up.”
Exasperated, Gabe ran a hand through his hair. “I’m legit worried about you. You’ve got to stop.”
I slid down the couch, bringing my legs up and stretching out to a sleeping position. Only now did sleep beckon me. And only now did I feel enough peace to answer its call. I yawned.
“I’m fighting again tonight.”
“Like fuck you are,” Gabe spat. He dragged his thumb across my forehead then shoved it in my face to show me the blood. He didn’t realize it meant nothing to me. Blood. Pain. To other people, they were things to fear. For me, they were familiar clothing that fitted my body perfectly.
CHAPTER TWO – JAKE
“You made it.” Duncan glanced up from his clipboard long enough to acknowledge my arrival.
“I told you I would.”
“You look like shit.”
“So no better than last night then?”
For a moment, a look of concern passed over his face and I was afraid he might stop me. I hadn’t had anything to drink yet, and my bones were crackling with anxiety. But my thirst for blood was stronger than my thirst for alcohol and I knew if I turned up smelling like I did the night before, there was no way Duncan would let me fight. I was the main card tonight. I had to put on a show.
“You sure about this?” Duncan slapped a piece of paper on my chest, holding it in place. “Sign this.”
I took it from under his hand. It was a waiver. The same waiver I’d already signed numerous times. “I’ve already signed one of these.”
“Do it again,” Duncan ordered, retrieving a pen from his front pocket and holding it out.
Grabbing the pen, I scrawled my name without even bothering to read it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t care what it said.
“I’m taking a risk letting you fight in this condition. You’ll only get half the usual amount.”
I nodded, my eyes darting behind him to the crowd that had gathered in the old shed where Duncan held the fights. People were waving money in the air, shouting and hollering at the fighters. I don’t know what they thought they were doing, whether they thought the fighters actually noticed them and would fight harder at the sight of money waving in the air, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the money. I was doing it for the pain. For the release. To forget. But still, the undeniable energy of the crowd hummed in my blood.
Duncan clapped me on the shoulder. “You start warming up and I’ll go get the tape.” He sort of shook his head as he spoke and then walked off.
Pushing into the corner, away from the rest of the fighters, I started bouncing on the balls of my feet and punching the air, trying not to wince at the pain that shot through my body with each movement.
“Jake.” I twirled around to find my older brother, Tyler, glaring at me. Gabe stood behind him. He must have told. I narrowed my eyes, letting my annoyance show.
“What are you doing here?” My voice came out as a growl.
“Stopping you before you get completely fucked up,” Gabe shot back.
I was annoyed Gabe had gone running to Tyler. Being the oldest brother meant Tyler had some sick sort of hero complex. He thought everyone was his responsibility, otherwise known as having a stick rammed firmly up his ass.
“You had to tell him?” I jerked my head in Tyler’s direction.
“I knew you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“Well, I’m not going to listen to him either, so you can both fuck off home.”
They didn’t fuck off. They stood there and argued with me. Neither of them had a clue how I felt, why I was fighting. They both just looked at me and expected to see the same kid who had signed up for the army all those years ago. They knew I had changed, but they still held out hope that I would eventually come back. Like the old Jake was still here.
They walked on eggshells around me now. Even Gabe. I’d caught him the odd time rephrasing the way he spoke, rearranging words, scared to say the wrong thing. They both looked at me like I was about to shatter, or suddenly transform into some sort of wild animal. Some sort of monster.
And they hadn’t even seen me at my worst. I’d managed to hide it from them just like I hid it from everyone else.
I was good at pretending.
Duncan walked over, interrupting the argument between us. “You ready?”
I held out my hands, waiting for him to start wrapping them and ignoring my brothers.
“He’s not fighting.” It was Tyler who made the statement. Arrogant thinks-he-knows-better-than-everyone-else Tyler.
“And you are?” Duncan just blinked.
Tyler tried to turn him against me, but Duncan wasn’t having a bar of it. He stood to lose too much money. He’d been waiting a while for someone to agree to fight Fergus in one of the main fights. I’d just never been fucked up enough before to agree to do it.
Tyler offered him money to stop the fight, but Duncan wasn’t swayed.
I shoved the guard into my mouth. “Just leave,” I said, barging past Tyler, pressing my shoulder into his and reminding him, that although he was older, I would waste him in a fight.
But Duncan put his hand across Tyler’s chest and proposed a solution. He obviously didn’t feel the waves of anger rolling off me. He wanted Tyler and Gabe to fight in my place.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted, almost pleading with him. I needed to fight, to feel the pain. I’d resisted the urge to drink all day. I needed this. “Just get out of my way and let me do this.”
“It might be worth considering, Jake. The way you’re looking at the moment, you’re not going to last. Fuck, the way you’re looking, you might not be back in the ring for a long time and I don’t want to lose you as a fighter.” He looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Do you really want this to be your last fight?”
“Fuck.” I knew I was done. I could see in Duncan’s eye there was no way he was going to let me fight now that he had a replacement. I started to unwind the tape. “Well, you heard the man. If you don’t want me to fight, that means you two have to.”
I didn’t even look at them before I walked off. I was too pissed. If they weren’t my brothers I would have threatened to take them into the ring instead of the Fergus fucker. But they were. And they thought they were helping. They thought they were protecting me from myself.
I flopped down onto the bench seat along the wall, letting the tape fall between my legs. The noise of the crowd increased as the two fighters in the ring pushed through the final seconds of their fight.
Letting my head knock back against the wall, I scanned the crowd. With my brothers here, I wasn’t able to get rottenly drunk. They thought I had it under control and I only ever drank beer around them, rather than the hard stuff, to keep up the illusion. With my brothers here, I wasn’t able to fight.
There was only one thing left.
I let my eyes rove around the women on display. I knew the type I was looking for. The type that wanted a good time and nothing more. The type that wasn’t my type.
But someone else caught my eye instead. Someone I’d already met. Someone that was my type. Even now, just watching her weave through the crowd, her incredibly small and tight body pushing through people who ignored her, my cock twitched a little.
Two months after arriving home, Tyler had dragged me along to a charity boxing match that Thornton Industries, the family business, was sponsoring. He even provided a date. His date’s sister.
I expected her to be something blonde and tall and stuck up, like most of the women Tyler dated. But instead, she was small and feisty, dark and bold. My attraction to her was so great, that I ignored her for the entire night. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I would have done, but I doubt it would have ended well. I knew from experience that when I was in a dark place, it was best to stay away from people unless they were willing to fight or fuck me. And with copious amounts of red wine under her belt, this girl had been willing to fuck me. At the end of our date, despite my rudeness, despite me barely acknowledging her all night, she had climbed onto my lap and pressed her mouth to mine.
All night her eyes had darted in a challenge that made my blood burn with need. Her cheeks were flushed pink. Her mouth was red and kissable. But the darkness was too great. The willpower it took to push her aside was almost more than I had. Almost. Every fiber in my being longed to take her, use her, lose myself in her, but I knew I would hate myself if I did. I was too scared of what I could have done to her.
She deserved better than the likes of me.
But desperate times called for desperate measures.
And that night, I was desperate. I was in need. I longed for something to take away the numbness.
I needed to feel.
I needed to be felt.
Maybe she was just what I was looking for.
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