“Why do you hate me?” I whispered.
Tears blurred my vision, but I refused to let them fall.
“Hate you?” He wiped the tears with the back of his hand. “I have no feelings, Persephone. Not for you. Not at all. I am incapable of hating you. But I will also never, ever love you.”
The cobblestone sidewalk dug into my feet through my cheap shoes as I secured my bicycle to the bike rack.
Darkness washed the street in North End. Pub workers hurled fat, soggy trash bags into the jaws of industrial containers, chatting and laughing, ignoring the sheets of rain falling from the sky.
I said a silent prayer they’d stay on the street until I made it safely to my building. I hated coming home late but couldn’t say no to the babysitting gig I’d been offered after school hours. Collecting the hem of my wet dress, I hurried to my door. I pushed it open, pressing my back to it with a relieved sigh.
A hand shot to me in the dark, yanking my wrist and flinging me across the room. My back slammed against the stairway, and pain exploded from my tailbone to my neck.
“Mrs. Veitch. Fancy seeing you here.”
Even in the pitch black, I recognized Colin Byrne’s voice. It was smooth and low, a hint of mockery lilting his Southie accent.
“It’s Miss Penrose.” I rushed up to my feet, swatting strands of wet hair off my face and dusting my knees. I flipped the switch on. Yellow light pooled inside the hallway. Tom Kaminski—simply Kaminski to anyone who knew him—Byrne’s errand boy and muscle man, stood behind the lean, wrinkled loan shark with his burly arms crossed at his chest.
Byrne covered the distance between us, the strong scent of his cologne prickling my gag reflex.
“Penrose? Nah, that’s not the name on your driver’s license, Persy baby.”
“I asked for a divorce.” I took a step back from him, schooling my face.
“Well, I asked for a threesome with Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift. Looks like we both ain’t getting our wish, doll. The fact of the matter is, you’re married to Paxton Veitch, and Paxton Veitch owes me money. A shit-ton of it.”
“Exactly. Paxton owes you,” I said hotly, knowing I was entering a lost war. Byrne wouldn’t listen. He never did. “He was the one placing those bets. He was the one losing money at your joints. It’s his mess to fix, not mine.”
Colin lifted my left hand, rubbing at my naked wedding finger. The imprinted tan line where the ring used to be glared back at both of us, reminding me that my relationship with Pax wasn’t ancient history.
Not only was I still married to him but I also still honored my vows. I hadn’t dated anyone since Pax ran away. Hell, I still visited his grandma in the nursing home every week, bearing shortbread cookies and her favorite culinary magazines.
She was lonely, and it wasn’t her fault her grandson turned out to be a dick.
“Pax’s long gone now, and his pretty wife refuses to let me know where I can find him.” Byrne’s velvet voice pierced my thoughts while he played with my fingers.
“His wife doesn’t know where he is.” I tried to yank my hand away to no avail. “But she does know how to use pepper spray. Personal space here.”
I didn’t want Belle, who was upstairs, to hear the commotion in the hallway and come out of the apartment to investigate. She knew nothing about my situation, and I was pretty sure my savage sister would not hesitate to take out the Glock she owned and put a hole in each of these bastard’s heads if she walked into this scene.
I didn’t want to burden Belle with my problems. Not this particular problem, anyway. Not after everything she’d already done for me.
“Use your fine investigative skills to find out,” Byrne beamed. “After all, you managed to catch the lousiest husband in New England. You found him before, and you can do it again. Have a little faith.”
“We both know I haven’t the greenest clue where to start looking. His phone is dead, my emails are bouncing back, and his friends won’t talk to me. It’s not like I haven’t tried.” I used the hand Colin held to push his face away roughly.
He didn’t budge. Just wrapped his fingers tighter around mine.
“Then I’m afraid his debt is now yours. Whatever happened to in sickness and in health? For richer or poorer? How does the oath go?” Byrne snapped his fingers at Kaminski behind him.
Kaminski snorted, flashing a row of rotten teeth.
“Beats me, Boss. Never got hitched. Ain’t planning to, either.”
Byrne brought my hand to his mouth, pressing a cold kiss to the back of it, darting his tongue between my index and middle fingers, showing me what he wanted to do to the rest of my body. I swallowed a ball of puke and breathed through my nose. He was doing a great job of scaring the bejesus out of me, and he knew it. Byrne was a loan shark who was notorious for collecting his checks rain or shine, and my husband owed him over a hundred thousand dollars.
He rested my damp palm on his cheek, nuzzling against it.
“Sorry, Persephone. It’s nothing personal. I have a debt to collect, and if I don’t collect it soon, people are going to assume it’s okay to take money from me without paying me back. If you’re interested in reimbursing me through a different currency, I can stitch together a plan. I’m not an unreasonable man. But no matter how you look at it—you will pay your husband’s debt, and you better hurry, because the interest is stacking up nicely as the weeks tick by.”
“What are you insinuating?” My heart jackhammered its way through my rib cage, about to abandon ship and run out of the building without me.
This idea had never come up before in the months Byrne and Kaminski had been paying me weekly visits. I was a preschool teacher, for crying out loud. Where would I be able to find one hundred thousand dollars? Even my kidneys weren’t worth that much.
And yes, I was desperate enough to Google it.
“I’m saying if you can’t pay the outstanding balance, you’ll have to work for it.”
“Just spit it out, Byrne,” I hissed, every nerve in my body ready to reach for my purse, grab the pepper spray, and empty that bitch into both their eyes. As sleazy as he was, I doubted he would give up a hundred grand just to roll me between his sheets.
“Serving men who are less than hygienic and not much to look at.” Colin smiled apologetically. “You’re a good-looking gal, Veitch, even in those rags.” He tugged at the muddy, cheap dress I wore. “Six months working in my strip club doing double shifts every day, and we can call it even.”