Worth It (Forbidden Men, #6)

Worth It (Forbidden Men, #6) by Linda Kage



For the ladies at Wild Bananas.

Thank you so much for your stimulating visual inspirations, the peek into your bunker, and all the fun—though sometimes bloody—support!


This shank’s for you!



“Happy families are all alike;

each unhappy family

is unhappy in its own way.”

--Leo Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina





I loved the woods behind my house, from the fresh scent of pine to the crunch of twigs underfoot and especially those stray ribbons of sunlight that streamed through the tree limbs. But mostly, I cherished the absolute absence of human intervention. God, did I adore the quiet scuttle of squirrels pillaging through the foliage, birds chirping their daily chorus, and the flutter of the breeze through the hollows, like the breath of nature, whispering her secrets to me.

So I’d sought the woods with my e-reader almost every day this summer, escaping either my mother, my father, or both my brothers, pretty much my entire life in general. It was one big happy retreat.

I had no idea why I hadn’t come out here before this year. The quiet, relaxing solitude was addictive. And there was so much of it. My father owned a half-mile strip through the forest—or three hundred and twenty acres, as he would classify it. The only other property to butt against ours was the Parkers’, and their place was clear on the other side, so I had the entire three hundred and twenty acres all to mysel—

“Watch out!”

Startled out of my peaceful reverie, I whirled around, clutching my Kindle to my chest. But what...how...? Someone else was in my woods?

No!

Except there was no way to deny he was charging directly toward me as if the hounds of hell were after him.

Oh...crap.

He tried to stop and avoid a collision. I could tell by the way his arms flailed through the air as if he were grasping for invisible brakes, and by the widening of his eyes...right before he plowed into me with a jarring thud.

The breath snapped from my lungs. Momentum from his run propelled me backwards and him forward. There was a brief moment when we were both soaring through the air that our gazes met in the hazy, pollen-clogged afternoon. His enlarged brown eyes filled with horror. Mine, fear. That’s all we had time to do, share a single look—I didn’t even get in a good scream—before we landed, him on top, me crushed beneath with my back to the forest floor.

The fall didn’t knock me unconscious, which was disappointing since the pain was immediate, searing up my spine and exploding out all four limbs.

For a dazed moment, we lay together, a tangled knot of arms and legs. He crushed me to the earth with his warmth and the sharp incense of boy.

I’d never thought of what boys might smell like before. But he certainly didn’t exude snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. He was musky and fresh with a hint of apple.

And then his smell was taken away.

“Oh...shit.” He did an awkward crablike crawl to scramble off me, making me moan as his weight lifted and the release of pressure brought about more sensation, like that new throb of agony to my hip.

“Are you okay? Hey.” Hands gripped my shoulders and shook. When I did nothing, because the wind was still knocked from me, he said, “shit,” again. “Wake up. Please wake up. I’m sorry. I—shit...you have to be okay.”

Fingers skimmed over my face and into my hairline, boy fingers, containing the slight rasp of callouses against the softest part of my cheek.

Boy.

Boy.

Boy.

Why did I keep noticing the boy aspects of him?

And why couldn’t I tell if I was wiggling my toes or not?

And hey, why exactly was he running his fingers through my hair? The creeper.

I realized he wasn’t feeling me up but was rather searching for wounds about the same moment he found a goose egg on the back of my skull.

“Ouch!” Pain zapped through me, from the back of my head, down, until it shot out the ends of my feet. And yeah, I could definitely feel my toes now as they pulsed with an agonizing throb.

I grabbed his wrist and flashed my eyes open. The first thing I saw was the straight, tall branches overhead with the blue sky peeking through, checking on me as if making sure I was okay. I transferred my gaze until I focused on concerned brown eyes, the skin around them wrinkled into a sympathetic wince.

“Are you okay? Let me help you up.”

His warm, boy fingers wrapped around my elbow and more of them gently took hold of my shoulder. But when he tried to lift me into a sit, I sucked in a breath and curled away from him.

He immediately let go and shied back. “Sorry. Sorry.”

I rolled onto my side, cradling my ribs, and bent my knees up toward my chest. But...ouch, this did not feel good.

The boy hovered above me, his fear, concern, and indecision oozing with a pungent intensity. “Where does it hurt?”

I moaned, or maybe whimpered was a better word. “Everywhere.” Closing my eyes, I gnashed my teeth and concentrated on nothing but breathing until I could bear the ache. Then I blew out a breath and began to sit up on my own. He shifted toward me and extended an arm as if he wanted to assist, but then he paused, changing his mind.

“What can I do?” he asked, still with the anxious hovering.

“Nothing. I’m fine. It’s okay. I...” When I looked up, the words stalled on my tongue. Then they dissolved in shock as I realized I knew him. “You’re...” Well, maybe I didn’t know him, know him. But I definitely knew what he was. He was, “...a Parker.”

I wasn’t sure which Parker exactly. I’d seen him in school; he was a year ahead of me. But I didn’t know his first name. It had to be strange, though. They all had funky first names. Speed. Cobra. Mercedes. And there were a ton of them. Six or seven, or something like that. Their father had lined them up on our driveway and listed them off, right before yanking forward the only girl and claiming my brother Garrett had gotten her pregnant.

That had been months ago, back in the spring. After a brief, private conference with Bruce Parker—the Parkers’ dad—my father had dismissed them out of hand and sent the lot of them away, complaining throughout dinner that evening about how the dirty trash Parker family had upset his entire afternoon by daring to set their pathetic, second-hand-store shoes on his property.

The entire scene had caused a stir for weeks, really. Father grumbled about how he’d like to take the Parkers’ land from them and send them away permanently. Mother had fretted over possible rumors circulating of any of her sons having had any kind of dealings with a Parker. Max incessantly teased Garrett about his impending fatherhood. And an indignant Garrett disclaimed all accusations. But I hadn’t seen or heard from anyone in the Parker family since then.

Until now.

As my eyes grew big with shock, his narrowed in recognition.

“Bainbridge,” he hissed.

And just like that, we were enemies.

I recoiled while he shook his head, almost as if he were trying to deny our chance encounter. “What’re you doing out here?” he demanded.

“Excuse me?” I spit back indignantly. “This is my family ground; what’re you doing here?”

“I...” His eyes widened, filling with a jittery anxiety. Then he glanced around the trees as if seeking the most available form of escape. “Shit,” he muttered to himself.

Before he could explain himself, another voice boomed through the forest.

“Hey, Max!” Garrett’s shout made me and the Parker boy jump simultaneously as it came from not too far away. “You see him yet?”

“No. Nothing,” Max answered from the other side of us, the rustling of tree limbs revealing he was closer to us than Garrett was.

“Well, if you do, hold him for me. I’m going to beat the ever-loving shit out of the dead prick.”

I swerved my gaze from the direction of one brother’s voice toward the other’s, seeing neither of them through all the trees. When I returned my attention to the Parker boy frozen in front of me, his face had drained of color only to fill with fear and guilt.

I gasped, suddenly understanding. “What did you do?” I hissed, realizing he was the very dead prick my brothers were pursuing.

Shaking his head, he lifted his index finger and pressed it against his mouth, begging me to keep silent.

Like hell.

He was a Parker. The enemy. Not to mention he’d just tackled me to the ground and maimed me. I sucked in a lungful to scream for Max, but the Parker boy leapt at me and slapped his hand over my mouth.

“No,” he whispered harshly. “Please.”

I shrieked into his fingers and tried to pull away, but he lassoed my waist with his arm and banded me against him.

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