How do you mark the anniversary of the day you were shot? Three times. Six years ago.
She got up and did the same damn thing she’d done the day before. For hours. Now that was a celebration.
Charlie Ravenel aimed the bow of her kayak dead center through the paparazzi blasts of lights off the water, her paddle lashing fast slices across the surface. Exertion. Sweat. And yes, the pain. Pure Zen in her veins. Alone again on the brackish Calibogue sound. Nirvana.
The moon lingered in the clear day sky above. A constant haunting companion. Two worlds aligned, warning her that one day hers would collide again in another bloody show.
Until then, stilling the pummel of her paddle for a moment, she closed her eyes. Coasting forward, pulling a deep breath in through her nostrils, swimming in the silence, her mind sought peace.
“Hey, blondie. We’ll give you a good tow!”
The loud shout dripped obnoxious, invading her mind and the moment.
Eyelids firing open, she clocked them. Three drunk young men leaving the island marina. Her destination and home. Their boat slowed in a bobbing prowl nearing her watercraft.
“No, thank you,” she said. “Y’all ain’t got anything I need.” Her smile? Kind. Her tone? Syrup. Her glare? Fuck off.
They didn’t retreat, sloshing even closer to her. She wanted to punch their dicks for ruining her quiet day on the water. Her daily church.
The youngest guy, red plastic cup in hand, swayed port side, wearing sunburned cheeks as flaming as the blood shot through his eyes. Staring pupils. Shoulders wobbling. “Damn bitch, what happened to your face?”
The insult sang praise to her ears.
Her gaze lifted higher. Quick calculations. How she’d take down each one of them.
“Why don’t you and the little shrimp in your pants jump in with me, and I’ll show you what a bitch I am?” The provocation crinkled a smile and the long scar across her right cheek, wearing it like a proud badge of, “Go to hell.”
The biggest guy threw his chin up. Amused. “Leave her alone, dude.” Smart.
Red cup dude with the logo T-shirt that might as well read, “Not sure of my cock or my masculinity” stumbled back on his feet when the wake rolled under them.
The third guy. A brunette at the center console steering the boat leered at her, brown eyes trickling a shiver down her spine. Yes. He’s one of them. Guilt in his eyes and a desire to do it again. To violate. To hurt. Women.
The clinch of her molars bit down in recognition. Her stare locked on him. Not frozen, it was fixated.
Memories shot through her mind. Blood in your mouth, trailing behind you. A girl desperately grabbing your hand. A baby’s soul-shredding scream.
Their boat swayed silent. His glare aimed at her. She didn’t move a muscle. No retreat or waste of another word. She had all the patience in the world to stay in this moment.
“Fuck you, bitch.” The youngest wordsmith tossed his drink over the side. The evil captain punched the throttle down, churning a hefty wake behind the boat.
She smiled. “Stand in line, assholes,” and tossed the invitation over her shoulder with a leisurely stroke home.
Throwing her orange kayak onto the storage rack at the marina’s dock, ignoring the day-trippers and locals gathered in the afternoon partying throng of bodies, a grin accompanied her five-mile run home. The rhythmic pounding of her shoes down sandy roads under a canopy of oaks draped with Spanish moss soothed her nerves.
Bounding through the back door of her home, silence and a cold glass of water from the fridge greeted her. She checked her phone on the kitchen island. A missed call lifted the smile on her face. Nestling earbuds in, she called her back, sounding off the second she answered.
“It’s a Saturday night in London for you, bitch. Shouldn’t your hot ass be on a date or getting laid?”
Charlie lived vicariously through her best friend, joking but missing her dearly. Juliette was shooting a movie in London, going to glamorous weekend parties and dinners, calling with the salacious Sunday morning details.
Meanwhile Charlie was alone and up to her eyeballs with renovations on her home in South Carolina, and perfectly content in her solitude.
This weekend ritual with her friend kept her sane and smiling. Most of the time.
“Could say the same for you, my sweet.” Juliette’s warm voice filled her ears and soul. “Let me guess. You’re alone in your rash guard, been on the water all day, and you have a book and shots of Tito’s for company tonight.”
“Yep. Hot pages and a cold drink. The perfect date.”
“A six-year long lonely date for you. And a lonely month for me. It’s about time for both of us to get laid.”
No, it wasn’t. Charlie shook her head. Alone she was safe, gazing out of the windows of her home at the dunes and the steel blue ocean outside.
“For now, my love.” Juliette read her silence on the other end. “Let’s just get you in a bikini.”
“You still coming to see me when you wrap?”
Charlie needed their Miami trip like a dose of heroin. Something to replace memories with euphoria.
“Yep. I have two bikinis, and now I’m on the hunt for a scandalous one piece. I want a red, plunging something. But everything so far makes my bum look like a pancake.”
Reaching for her usual afternoon snack, Charlie cut an orange into big slices.
“Bitch, please, you have the cutest ass on the planet, and ten million people have posted about it.”
“You’re one to talk with that kickass booty of yours. Did you do it?” Juliette asked. “Did you go shopping yet?”
A sweet section of the fruit slid over her lips as she talked with her mouth full. “I bought a bikini, like I promised.”
It had actually looked kind of pretty when she’d tried it on at the store last week. Until she saw her scars in the dressing room’s wrap-around mirrors under the cruel fluorescent lights. Pressing her suddenly sweaty forehead to the cool mirrors, she feared, you can’t do this.
The idea of exposing herself scared the shit out of her. She was fearless about everything… except revealing her body. The sight of it always provoked shocked stares and rude questions.
But she’d promised Juliette. She’d do anything for her. For any woman or girl. Take a bullet for one. But she didn’t give a shit for the attention of men. Didn’t want it anymore.
“You’ll be proud.” Charlie opened the French doors, stepping outside into the warm winter day. “It’s a crocheted string bikini.” She almost got embarrassed by the purchase. But she’d kept her word, going as sexy as she could find. “And the top lining comes out if I wanna get arrested.”
“Yes, bitch. Or laid,” Juliette blurted in her ears, reading Charlie’s mind. “I love you! We’re doing this. If not getting you properly fucked by a hot bloke, at least you’ll lure one over for me.”
“I have no followers, and you have forty million. I think it’s your gorgeous face luring them over.”
“Charlie.” Juliette’s tone shifted to serious. Charlie knew why. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I know it’s today. And I know what’s tomorrow. Six years ago. I’m just sending you my love.”
It was all Charlie could say, a familiar surge threatening to fall over her lashes. It wasn’t the kind of anniversary you celebrate. It was the kind that dropped you to your knees.
A ping pierced Charlie’s ears.
She walked back inside to her phone on the counter and tapped the screen. “Jeremy” glowed back at her. Shit.
“Hey chica, sorry. I gotta get this. Love you.”
“Love you. Cheers.” Juliette ended the call.
Charlie pressed “Accept” on her phone. “Your hair better be on fucking fire calling me on a Saturday,” she half joked.
In the year since she’d last worked for him, Jeremy had stayed in touch, calling to talk about fishing and football. Really, he was keeping tabs on her. But he never called on the weekend.
“She says to the man with a bald head.” Jeremy sounded amused, clicking his pen. “Did you get my package? It just arrived. Should be on your front steps. It takes bloody special delivery getting something to you since you hide from all civilization over there.”
“Ah, babycakes, you shouldn’t have. My birthday isn’t until November.”
She kept goading him but caught the urgency. Opening her front door, securing the bud in her ear, she bounded down the steps to the driveway. “Happy fucking birthday to me.” She snagged a box from the bottom step and took them, two at a time, running back inside.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Lorraine Morris sent this to me last July. She was in Madrid, showrunner for the first season of The Druid. One of her cast members found it in her trailer the day they wrapped shooting.”
Charlie ripped the box open. Shaking out a manilla folder, she flipped it open, finding photos. Two taken of an A-4 sized note penned on a piece of vellum paper. The handwriting read clear, but it looked like a printed font. The ink, blood red.
You. Will. Be. Mine.
“Huh. Somebody likes drama, even if they aren’t original,” she said, examining the image for any other information. “Unusual choice of paper. Architects or DIYers usually only use it. They put a little effort into it too. Who found it?”
“Kierra Williams. She was fifteen and it shook her up. Madrid police opened a case last summer but still have nothing. There’s been a cock-up. I spoke to her mother who’s been throwing fits about her daughter’s safety. Her mother said Kierra won’t say what, won’t give specifics, but the girl is adamant this is about more than a note. Now they’re beginning to shoot season two, and the studio has agreed to scale up cast security.”
Oh, hell no. Charlie knew exactly where he was going with this, waiting for the big ask.
“The studio manager swears his lot was secure,” Jeremy said, “but someone bloody got in and out without being seen. Or maybe they were on the inside all along. Which is worse? Some nutter sneaking onto set or a creepy sick fuck with easy access?”
“What do you think?” she asked. “Is it a prank or legit?”
“That’s why I’m ringing you, Charlie. Nobody has better instincts for this than you.”
He was right.
She could suss someone out in seconds. Rarely, if ever, was she wrong.
She’d been right about the grip in Belfast who stalked Juliette. He was in her sights in a week, caught in two. And the young woman on the catering truck who took pictures on set and sold them? Charlie caught her red-handed.
Jeremy had recruited her to work on the mega-hit show Fated four years earlier. She protected Juliette until the show wrapped a year ago. And she earned a reputation. Toward the cast, she was at ease, funny. Toward a threat to them, she was ruthless. Her military experience working with women and girls in bad situations and gathering intel didn’t hurt either.
Charlie looked at the pictures again, knew what she thought. What she sensed mattered more. Pictures weren’t enough but she trusted her instinct.
“You.” An othering of the stalking subject. He craved hunting an object. “Will.” Not a wish. A command. Sure of his power. “Be.” Cruel. Arrogant. Women existed for him. “Mine.” He needed to possess, entitled to have everything.
You. Will. Be. Mine.
The effort was amateur. It twisted Charlie’s gut. The threat to this girl was not.
“It’s not a fucking prank,” she said.
Beside the photos, the file held a sheet of paper. Charlie’s gaze studied the client profile with a headshot of Kierra Williams. She was the perfect ingénue to cast—a stunning Irish girl with full berry lips, long copper hair, porcelain skin and lush brown lashes rimming emerald eyes. She had an old-world beauty with a seductive look of emerging womanhood, sure to attract viewers and the attention of many… particularly perverted assholes. But no matter how old she looked, Kierra was sixteen now and still a child in many ways.
Charlie swallowed hard. Jeremy knew her past, knew her weakness. She could taste the manipulation.
“Rob’s your best bet for the job,” she said.
She wouldn’t go back. Not now. Six years of crawling her way out of pain. Her body was strong again. And her mind… she had control now. Almost. It was a peace she fucking paid for and was priceless.
“Don’t be stubborn, Ravenel. You were my ace in the hole protecting Juliette. And I need you again,” he said. “I can’t send Rob by himself.”
The truth winced her cheek, hating he was right. Yes, this girl would be unnerved with only men on her security detail. And yes, this girl was hiding something.
She studied Kierra’s picture again, inhaling a deep instinct to protect her—or any girl—from a man aiming to hurt her. But taking this assignment would challenge every breath of peace Charlie now drew.
Something compelled her to ask, “What’s the timeline?” Then she kicked herself for opening a crack of hope for Jeremy.
He hissed a not-so-silent, “Yes,” then said, “Pre-production is underway. Kierra, her mum, and team arrive in Madrid in one week. Shooting wraps in July. It’ll be five months, tops. Rob just arrived to sort his lodging. He can help you find something.”
She said nothing out loud.
“I know it’s short notice,” Jeremy added. “But Lorraine says they can’t rely on the locals, and Kierra’s parents say she’s not going back without real security.” He paused.
Again, Charlie waited him out.
“Oh, and,” he said, “I almost forgot to mention. Anders Nylund is cast for seasons two and three.”
Forgot, hell. She shook her head. Jeremy knew she was tight with Anders and his family. They’d all grown close working on Fated. That was where she’d met Rob too. Having both Rob and Anders on The Druid gave Jeremy a strong hand to play.
Truth was, friends were her only family now. And Madrid? Returning to Spain after all this time… it made her think of her mom.
“Let me sleep on it.” She finally spoke.
“All right.” Jeremy sighed. “We have a couple of days. Take your time.” His patience rang false with anxiety.
* * *
She showered after her drenching glide across the water. With her hair still damp, she curled up in her bed alone, trying to read. No go. Thoughts of Kierra kept taunting her. Yet another girl tormented by a man.
Finally, she slept, but with a gasp, she awoke to a scream, soaking wet in her own sweat.
Her fucking nightmares? As certain as the sunrise.
Tossing and turning for an hour until physical exhaustion forced her mind back to sleep, she woke again, this time to the soothing sound of a Tibetan chime, her phone’s alarm.
She stood at the bathroom sink, blessing her face with a splash of cool water. The sun wasn’t up but would appear on the horizon soon. She opened the doors to her balcony. A raw breeze frosted her naked skin. She never covered her body for meditation. Learning to sit. To wait. Any discomfort, part of her discipline. Her bare legs crossed, pressing against unforgiving wooden boards, finding their familiar pose.
A rhythmic breath released her haunted ego. Minutes she lost here to only this practice. When time returned along with her thoughts, compassion for Kierra filled her soul. And sick concern.
Torment was all she knew for the uncertain fate of the last girls she’d helped. Though she would do it all again, flipping her middle finger to her own life to protect them, it was a damning price she paid. Every morning, she prayed they were somewhere well and safe, but she would never know.
But you can protect this girl. This time can be different.
With a resolute exhale, her eyes opened.
Heading back inside, flipping over her phone on the nightstand, she chuckled. Two missed calls from Jeremy. One from Anders. One from Rob. Jeremy had enlisted them. They were doing a full court press.
She didn’t need to hear exactly what each would say—each with their own reasons why she should join the show.
She group-texted all three:
Relax fuckers. I’m coming