The Bridal Candidate 2 Sample

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Prologue


The darkness was overwhelming. It permeated the rancid air, clung to every inch of the grimy walls of the tiny concrete cell, and enveloped Lincoln Ware as he lay on a dirty mattress set upon an even dirtier floor. Like a yawning mass of nothingness, the darkness taunted and laughed at him, reminding him that there was no escape from its shadowy clutches.

Perhaps dying was better, Lincoln thought as he dragged the thin, musty blanket to his chin and curled himself up in a tight ball to ward off the cold. In death there was no feeling.

No feeling pain.

No feeling hopeless.

No feeling forgotten.

Sometimes he wondered why he hadn’t given in to the darkness yet, as did his captors. Any sane man would’ve given in by now; given them what they wanted just so he could be free again. But Lincoln wouldn’t.

Aiko. Her name floated through the darkness reminding him of why he refused to surrender. Like an invisible light, her name infected his mind with renewed vigor and fortified him against the shadows. The years since he’d last seen her should’ve erased his memory of her face. Yet they hadn’t. His memory of her was still fresh as if he’d seen her just the previous day; coffee dark skin, liquid brown eyes, that jagged scar that run down her left cheek.

Aiko. She was the reason he refused to give in, give up or die. She was his invisible cell-mate, keeping him company in his solitary confinement. Sometimes, it felt like she wasn’t just in his head; that she was actually there. And he found himself talking with her, laughing with her. Even though he’d lost hope that he’d ever see her again in this lifetime, she remained his second conscience, reminding him of what he – what they stood for.

Strength. Honor. Loyalty.

Clang. Lincoln sat up at the sudden sound, immediately recognizing it as that of the metal door at the end of the hallway. His deduction was confirmed when a streak of light emerged beneath his door breaking his cell’s pitch black monotony. He tensed and held his breath, waiting to hear what sound would emerge afterwards. When he heard the shuffling of feet and the squeaky wheels of a cart being pushed along the hallway, he sighed in relief. The cart was good. It meant food.

The cart paused a few feet from Lincoln’s cell, then moved again. Paused then moved again. Paused then moved again. Three prisoners down, fourteen to go, Lincoln counted. This cell block was so quiet and in permanent darkness that if it wasn’t for the food-cart and the day trips to the work-farm, he wouldn’t even know that he had other cellmates – cellmates he wasn’t allowed to talk to.

He’d learnt that the hard way.

Lincoln scrambled towards his door when he heard the cart stop at Prisoner Eight’s cell, and cupped his palm beneath the hatch. A few seconds later the cart squeaked its way to his door. There was no alert; just the metallic flap covering the hatch being pushed inwards then a bowl dropping. Even though Lincoln caught the full plastic bowl deftly in his cupped palms some of its contents sloshed onto his hands. Fortunately, the food was never hot enough to leave burns. On his first few days here, he’d been stupid enough to believe that if your bowl dropped to the floor you could ask more. He was wrong.

He’d learnt that the hard way.

Bowl in hand, Lincoln crawled back to his sleeping pad by the wall. When he tipped the bowl to his mouth he wasn’t surprised to find that it was the usual fare; a watery cornmeal porridge that tasted like it was made from sewer water and ass. Anyone else would’ve thrown it away. But Lincoln was a soldier. He knew the value of food – any food. He gurgled the porridge down like it was a gourmet soup made by a five-star chef. Some of the liquid spilled onto his ragged beard, but he let it stay. In this world there was no use for finesse or table manners.

When he was done eating, he crawled back to the door, and pushed the bowl through the hatch. It landed with a thump on the other side of the door. Moments later, the food-cart wheeled past his door again, stopping only to collect his bowl before it exited the block. With the food-cart gone, the block and all its prisoners were once more plunged into darkness. By no means was the meal filling, but it was enough to allow Lincoln to go to sleep without abject hunger nipping at his insides.

He was beginning to drift off when he heard another clang. The door was being opened again. Lincoln hurriedly sat up again, this time real fear coursing through him because he knew that this time it couldn’t be food. It had to be pain. The sound of heavy, booted footsteps followed soon after the opening of the main door. All the muscles in Lincoln’s body tensed as he waited to see where the footsteps would stop, prayed that the pain was headed to someone else’s cell.

Prisoner One, Prisoner Two, Prisoner Three. Lincoln’s heart started to thump harder as the heavy footsteps kept coming. Prisoner Four, Prisoner Five. He started praying. Not my cell. Not my cell. Prisoner Six, Prisoner Seven. Please stop at Prisoner Eight, he prayed.

They didn’t stop moving. Not until they got to Prisoner Nine’s cell. Lincoln’s cell.

When he heard the jingle of keys outside his cell, Lincoln’s lungs tightened until it felt as if every breath of air had been sucked out of them. He forced himself to breathe and stand up. He may be afraid of what was coming next but he would never allow them to see it. Maybe he’d break tomorrow, maybe he’d break next week. But today wasn’t going to be that day.

The metallic door flew open sending blinding light spilling into the room. Lincoln had to blink several times before his gaze was clear enough that he could see the two guards standing at the doorway. Like almost every other guard in this cesspit, they were short, slightly built and sallow-skinned. They both had slit thin eyes, military buzz-cuts and wore bulgy brown uniforms.

Seoljeong,” one of the guards barked as he stomped into the room. Lincoln had since learnt that the word meant ‘turn’, so he did. His learning the language had been deliberate. In fact his captors had encouraged it, allowing a tutor to come to his cell twice a week for the last five years. Lincoln still didn’t know why they wanted him to learn their language. Maybe it was to make sure he understood them every time they insulted him or tortured the answers to their questions out of him.

The guard snatched Lincoln’s arm and twisted it behind him until a shaft of pain seared through his back and shoulder. Lincoln grunted through clenched teeth and bent forward to ease the piercing ache. The guard laughed contemptuously before enthusiastically twisting Lincoln’s other arm too so he could handcuff him completely. Once done with the handcuffing, the guard threw a black hood over Lincoln’s head plunging him once more into darkness.

He didn’t know why they bothered with the hood. He knew every inch of this prison like it was part of his body. He’d studied it, memorized it, analyzed it, even almost escaped it once – so really, what was the point of the hood?

“Move,” the guard barked in Korean as he shoved Lincoln in the general direction of the door. “Taejwa Ryang wants to see you.”

Lincoln’s insides tightened at the mention of the name. Taejwa Ryang was what they called the mad man who run this particular horror show. The mention of the general’s name was enough to make any man break into a cold sweat. A session with Ryang could be anything from tutoring him in English to having the heels of your feet set on fire just for his amusement.

With effort Lincoln brushed his fear to the side, took a breath and limped out of his cell at the guards’ behest. They led him across the hallway, up a set of stairs, through another hallway which he knew hosted another set of cells then out of the building and into the rain. The heavy splashing downpour soaked into the hood over his face and his clothes as did the cold. Yet he felt none of it. His thoughts were too pre-occupied with the fear of what was to come.

Warmth greeted him when they entered another building, but even that warmth wasn’t enough to dispel the icy tentacles of fear scratching at Lincoln’s insides. The fear only increased in magnitude as they walked down the long hallway then stopped. One of guards knocked on the door.

“Enter.” A voice filtered from the other side of the door.

As soon as the door opened warm air laced with a hint of cinnamon inundated Lincoln’s senses. One of the guards shoved him into the room then the black hood was whipped off his face. Bright light immediately jabbed his eyes, and he had to blink several times before his eyes adjusted enough for him to take in his surroundings.

There was nothing remarkable about this office. Its beige walls were unornamented except for the massive picture of the nation’s leader. The concrete floors was uncarpeted and the shabby, wooden and brown leather furniture seemed to have been chosen for its ability to disappear into the bland walls.

The man seated behind the only desk in the room was just as nondescript. Ryang was slight of frame and could’ve been any age between forty and eighty. His midnight black hair was parted at the side and combed back neatly while beady eyes hid behind practical wire-rimmed spectacles. A brown cigar danced on his thin lips, its ashes somehow managing not to stain his white double-breasted shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple. He looked like someone’s harmless accountant.

Anyone who knew him knew better. The only accounting Ryang did was keeping a running tally of the prisoners he had broken for his country. And harmless? Hah.

The moment Ryang saw Lincoln he smiled.

“Ah, you are finally here,” he said slowly in English, like someone who was trying to make sure they were using the right words. Tapping his cigar against the ash-tray, he gave Lincoln a once-over then clucked his tongue in false sympathy. “You do not look correct.”

Lincoln’s brow scrunched up as he tried to figure out what the man meant. When it hit him, he corrected, “No, I don’t look well.”

“Ah, yes. That is what I meant. Thank you,” Ryang gave him a congenial smile. “You don’t look well, my American teacher.”

Lincoln’s heartbeat froze at the mention of his nationality. For the last five years, he’d been claiming to be a Liberian businessman. They’d doubted the businessman part, but they’d always believed that he was Liberian – or at least that’s what he’d thought. How had they found out?

“No?” Lincoln gave Ryang his best mock-shock look. “And here I was thinking I’d worn my best suit to this party.”

“I like that, Franklin,” Ryang mentioning the name Lincoln had declared as his when they’d tortured him. “How you have managed to keep your funny in these difficult times.” He laughed as he waggled his finger at Lincoln. “It has give me many laughs these years since we’ve been together.”

“That’s all I’m here for. To give you laughs.” Lincoln shrugged. The action immediately sent a stab of pain through his back and handcuffed arms but he kept his face expressionless, loath to show Ryang any weakness.

“Funny Franklin.” Ryang gave Lincoln an affable condescending smile, but there was little humor in his beady, cold eyes as he stood up. Taking a long pull of his cigar, he rounded his desk. “Unfortunately our funny times together has come to an end.”

Lincoln immediately tensed because that only meant one thing. They were finally going to kill him. It took every inch of effort in him to keep the fear from his voice as he said, “Oh?”

His tension only increased as the general approached him. The man’s eyes were dark and lethal in his calm face as he came to a stop directly in front of Lincoln. Though shorter than Lincoln by a couple of inches, Ryang had the kind of aura that could make even a giant tremble.

“Yes, oh!” Ryang sighed as if he was genuinely remorsefully. “It seems that your friends have finally remembered you.”

Friends? What the hell was this psychopath talking about. Lincoln said calmly, “Is that so?”

“It is so.” Ryang circled Lincoln like a hungry shark. “Today you go home.”

If this were his first day here, Lincoln would’ve been excited. But Ryang had teased and tortured him with that promise so many times that it’d ceased to have any effect on him. He uttered a bored, “Hurray!”

“Tch. Tch. Tch.” Ryang clucked his tongue as he came to a stand in front of Lincoln. Searching Lincoln’s face with his observant eyes, he noted, “You don’t believe?”

Lincoln merely stared at him.

“Disappointing.” Ryang shook his head as he took another long pull of his cigar. “But you will see.” He stared at Lincoln for a long moment. Lincoln returned that stare with a glare of his own. His eyes as ice-cold as the smile that tilted his thin lips, Ryang said, “Before you go I must give you gift.”

Then without warning, he removed the cigar from his mouth and stuck the butt into Lincoln’s forehead. Lincoln hissed as immediate pain seared through his face and he bent his head in pain.

Ryang forcefully pushed up Lincoln’s face until they were eye-to-eye. His gaze gleaming with malicious triumph, he said, “Goodbye, my friend. Do not forget me for I will not forget you.” He patted Lincoln’s cheek. “Perhaps I will come and see you in this your America.”

He flicked his wrist and the hood was one more thrown over Lincoln’s face plunging him in darkness.

“His friends are outside the gates,” Ryang said in Korean, obviously for the benefit of his guards. “Make sure to remind them of our generosity before you hand him over.”

Moments later the guards shoved Lincoln out of the office. Even as they led him once more through the hall, he still didn’t believe that he was actually going home. Ryang had lied about that so many times that it was a waste of time to get excited. Once outside, Lincoln closed his eyes and braced himself, ready for a shot to the back of his head as they usually did with prisoners they were done with.

But the shot never came.

Instead, the guards circled the building and walked him towards the parking lot. Surprise bloomed inside Lincoln when he felt asphalt bite into the soles of his feet. That surprise was joined by tentative hope when he heard the growl of a vehicle coming alive and the clang of metallic doors being opened. But it was only when the guards forcefully hauled up him into the back of what he assumed was the prison van that hope really began to swell inside him.

Could it really be happening?

Was he really going home?

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Chapter 1


MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA

2 WEEKS LATER

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Damián opened his eyes to find his fiancée watching him with a soft smile on her face. He’d never tire of that smile. Every time he saw it, his breath caught and his pulse stuttered in its path. Every inch of her was beautiful. Her eyes were dark brown pools that he could lose himself in, her lips so lush they begged to be kissed, her body a playground he never wanted to exit. Even the scar that ran along her left cheek was beautiful – just because it was part of her. He couldn’t deny the chord of possessive pleasure that throbbed through him at seeing her here in his home… in his bed.

“That was amazing,” Aiko said as she rubbed her palm over his heart.

“It was.” He returned with a smile, tucking a stray strand of her hair behind her ear.

Yes! Their slow lovemaking just moments ago had been amazing. Not that he was surprised. Sex between them had always been amazing. Aiko knew every inch of him; what turned him on, what didn’t, how to please him, how to make him beg for mercy. And he loved her even more for it.

Who would’ve believed it? He. Damián Colter. In love? Shocking! Hell, five months ago, he would’ve been the first one in line betting against such a ridiculous thing happening. Yet it had happened, and he was beyond grateful that it had. Aiko was everything he’d ever wished for in a partner.

Loving. Loyal. Passionate. Nurturing. Everything!

He still couldn’t believe his luck. When he’d walked into Heart Connections five months ago, he didn’t expect to find the perfect woman, just someone who could take his daughter off his hands. To have found a woman like Aiko – a woman who’d taught him that falling in love wasn’t weakness, a woman who’d taught him what fatherhood really was and improved his relationship with his daughter in the process… Well, it was beyond amazing.

He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arm more securely around her waist. Now that he had so much love and happiness in his life, he had no intention of ever letting it go. She seemed just as eager to keep him close to her because she cuddled even closer to him. The tender moment was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.

“You guys need to hurry up,” Zoe, Damián’s twelve-year-old daughter, called out. “We’re going to be late for school.”

“Come out. We’re late,” Seraphina, Aiko’s four-year-old, added to the clamor.

“We’re coming,” Aiko called out, lifting off Damián to sit up.

“Good,” Zoe yelled out. “Hurry up.”

“Dear God, such a ruckus just to get to school?” Damián muttered as he threw an arm over his eyes. “I miss the good old days when kids hated school.”

Her voice laced with suppressed amused, Aiko poked him in the ribs. “They’re just excited because it’s Sports Day.”

“I know.” He made a face. “But didn’t the school say that the program starts at eleven? Besides, it’s not like there’ll be any decent sports there. Golf and polo! Who organizes a sports day that is made exclusively of golf and polo.”

“You’re the one who took them to Lowell School,” Aiko said. “What did you expect?”

“Umm. I don’t know. How about sports that aren’t so lazy and require the kids to move their bodies? Track. Soccer. Tennis. Hockey. Football,” he suggested. “These people are making our kids fat.”

“You can put that in the suggestion box,” Aiko said, as she sat up in bed. She patted his chest. “Now come on let’s go shower before our daughters come and carry us in there themselves.”

“I don’t want to.” He sighed, but he rose from the bed and padded ahead of her into the bathroom. He headed straight to the shower stall, and once inside turned the faucet. A cascade of warm water instantly covered his body. By the time Aiko entered the stall the water had warmed up considerably.

“Eish,” she hissed the moment the water hit her skin. “Too hot.”

Damián’s gaze trailed down her body, taking in her coffee-toned skin now gleaming with droplets of water, her heavy breasts, her small waist and those thick thighs that cupped heaven. His cock rose at the sexy sight as did the temperature in the shower. Smirking, he pulled her closer. “No, you’re too hot.”

“No.” She shook her head and pushed at his chest. The knowing glint in her eyes said that she’d figured out what he wanted. “We’re already late.”

“I promise I’ll be real quick,” he cajoled as he circled his arms around her waist. God, it felt good to have her so close. To have her fleshy breasts against his chest, her thighs pressed to his, her soft tummy teasing his quickly burgeoning rod. He wanted more.

“Uh-uh,” she refused, even as desire flickered in her brown eyes. Dragging her even closer to him, Damian bent his head and nuzzled his nose into her neck, taking in a deep gulp of her womanly scent. Aiko giggled. “Stop it.”

“How am I supposed to stop when you’re looking so gorgeous?” He lifted his face from her neck only for his gaze to slide straight to her breasts. Aching to set his mouth on their pointed tips, he bit his bottom lip. “A little taste?”

Aiko hesitated for a long moment, and Damián began to think that she might actually refuse. Fortunately, she cupped her hand over the back of his neck and drew him downwards. “Just a little taste.”

That was all he needed. Moving them away from the stream of water, he lowered his head and captured one pouty nipple between his lips. Her sharp intake of breath mingled with the rush of water as her arms encircled his shoulder. He pulled that nipple deeper into his mouth, loving the way she quivered and whimpered with his actions. His lips tilted in a slight smile, he turned his attention to the other breast.

“Damián,” she gasped when he scraped his teeth gently across that hardened peak. Her hands slid through his hair, behind his neck, his shoulders, on whatever skin she could find. Her touch taunted him, teased him, heated him until all he could think of was quenching their mutual lust.

But apparently Aiko didn’t feel the same because she pushed at his forehead with her palm. “Baby, that’s enough. We need to shower.”

No, it wasn’t enough. Not even close. Even so Damián released her nipple with a pop before straightening to his full height. He found her watching him with eyes hooded with obvious desire, and it only heightened his own lust. She turned away from him grabbed a bottle of shower gel from the wall-mounted shelf.

“Let me help you with that.” He reached for the gel, but she held it away from him.

Her eyebrows hiked, she warned, “No funny business.”

“No funny business,” he promised, even as his whole body screamed in protest. With obvious reluctance, she handed him the bottle. He squeezed a healthy dollop of the creamy liquid onto his hands. The delicious fragrance filled the steamy stall as he lathered his hands, taunting his already heightened senses. Then he reached for Aiko.

Determined to keep it as innocent as he’d promised, he ran his hands over her neck, upper chest and arms in quick business-like strokes massaging the soap into her silky smooth skin. He intended to do the same thing when it came to her breasts, but the moment he cupped her flesh his good intentions flew out of the window. He couldn’t help lingering there, caressing her in the guise of cleaning, massaging, flicking the pad of his thumbs over the pouty tips….

“Damián.” Her low moan of his name and the way her eyes drifted shut only made him want to tease her more. And when she edged closer to him, pressing that soft belly against his cock… well, who could blame him for taking a few more liberties.

He lowered his head to cover her mouth with his. She met him eagerly, allowing him to slide his tongue between her lips. Her lips were silk, the touch of her tongue against his fire, and her grip on his upper arms a wondrous pleasure. He drank in her taste, reveled in it, then came back for more.

It took everything in him to pull away from that kiss. His breath just as rough as hers, he urged, “Turn.”

And she did. Once her back was to his chest, he poured more soap into his palm, lathered his hands, then set them back on her breasts. With her facing away from him, it was so much easier to touch, caress and love her the way he wanted to. Working her breasts with his hands, he lay a trail of kisses from her temple to the jagged scar on her left cheek. Her body tensed and she flinched away slightly as if to turn that cheek away.

“Don’t,” he reprimanded, pressing his fingers to her chin and turning her face back to him before gently kissing the scar again. To her it was a flaw, but to him it was a badge of honor – a symbol of all the hardships that she’d undergone and triumphed over. He loved it just as much as he loved her.

Eager to ease the tension from her body and drag her back into desire, he ran his hands over her arms and back to her breasts. In a few seconds, he had her melting back against him. Her head tipped back to rest against his shoulder as the rest of her body relaxed into his. He inhaled sharply when she ground her ass against his cock. His already engorged member rose to full mast then. Lowering one hand to her hips, he pulled her into him until he could fit himself between the voluptuous cheeks.

Ah! That feeling. To have her surrounding him so snugly, massaging the length of his shaft so deliciously – it was almost as good as being inside her. And when she wound her hips a bit, fitting him even better in that crease, he almost wept.

Growling low in his throat, he pushed his hips into hers for a few pumps. Moving slightly so that they were once more in the path of water, he quickly rinsed away the suds on the front of her body before sweeping his hand down her torso to her mound. The moment he cupped her pussy, her breathing became even shallower, more irregular. Breathless was good, but he wanted her broken. So he slid one finger between the soft, warm folds of her pussy and found her wet and ready from him.

“Oh – my – Damián,” she whimpered and leaned forward as if trying to get away from his touch. He held her firmly plastered to his body with one arm around her torso while his other hand delved deeper into her sex.

“Oh.” She jerked when he found her apex, sucked in a deep breath when he flicked his finger over it and cried out when he ran his finger in a slow circle around it. Her cries spurred him on, urged him to drive her even further down the path of no return. He dragged his fingers down that slicked valley to her entrance, pressed in and was rewarded with an easy yielding of her muscles as she opened up to him.

“Aaah.” She writhed and ground her ass against his steel-hard cock as he pushed one finger into her then a second one. It was hard to concentrate on pleasuring her when she was dancing so sexily on his cock. It was hard not to crowd her against the wall and fuck her when her soft inner walls were squeezing so tightly around his fingers, but he managed it. His breathing as heavy as hers, he worked his fingers in and out of her. As if determined to test his self-control, she reached behind her to wrap her hand around his steel-hard shaft.

“Fuck,” he moaned as pleasure skittered sharply through every nerve in his body to settle at that point where her fingers met his rod and he swelled. Satin fingers brushed his swollen length, traced the veins, dragged across the swollen length… It was a wonder he didn’t come right then and there. His attempts to break her temporarily halted, he tucked his face into her shoulder and let her torture him.

And torture she did. Her grip was firm as she held him captive, and her hand was warm as she squeezed his length as if to feel his thickness then slowly began pumping. Every well-practiced stroke eased him through pleasure after pleasure and brought him closer to that sharp edge.

“Damn,” he muttered even as his own fingers resumed their teasing. He moved his lubricated fingers in and out of her in time to the stroke of her hand on him. He flicked her clit when she ran her fingers over his cock head. He traced small circles on the nub when she spread his pre-cum over his length. And when he couldn’t handle the teasing any more, he walked her slowly but determinedly towards the glass wall.

Perceptive to his every want and need, she instinctively plastered her palms to the wall and bent over. There were no preliminaries to his possession, he simply set his hands on her waist then took her. A strangled cry echoed in the steamy stall – he didn’t know whether it was hers or his – as finally he thrust his cock into her.

Her walls rippled around his thickness, sucking him deep into her warm depths. Lost in sensation, he withdrew until he could see the glands of his knob at the edge of her lips before thrusting back in with one long, slow stroke.

“Yes.” Their mutual groans undulated in the small space as he jammed himself to the hilt. Being inside her was indescribable, beyond any pleasure he’d ever felt. His nerves seemed almost alive as they pleaded for more of that pleasure.

His breathing heavier and his grip on her waist tighter, he pulled out then pumped back in. Pulled out, then pumped back in. In. Out. In. Out. Primal lust and passion driving him, he kept up the steady rhythm, dragging them both inexorably towards satisfaction.

“Ah. Ah. Ah.” Aiko’s small cries in time to his thrust were like gasoline to his fire. Her throwing back her ass to meet his powerful thrusts stoked the fire until it felt as if he was being burnt alive.

Christ, if something – anything didn’t happen soon, Damián was going to explode into a million little pieces. His hands squeezing and caressing her thick hips, he picked up the pace – thrust harder and faster. Her moans became louder and more desperate as did his grunts. Finally he felt her pussy clamp down around his cock and pull him deeper into her to a chorus of her cries.

It was only after her orgasm crashed her that he released the reins over himself. Setting one palm beside her head on the glass wall, he speared deeper into her. His thrusts became shorter, faster, more desperate. Every cell in his body focused on that almost painful feeling zigzagging through him as he speared in and out of her. In. Out. In. Out. Shorter. Faster…

“Fuck.” His orgasm washed over him like a large wave drowning him in pleasure. With one final and deep push, he erupted within her. He collapsed against her, pressing her to the glass and fastening his mouth to her shoulder as the last of his release pulsed through him.

It took a moment before he could breath properly, or think clearly. It was only when common sense returned that he realized that he had to be crushing her.

“Sorry” he murmured, tracing kisses along the contours of her shoulder as he pulled away from her.

“It’s okay.” She tried to straighten to her full height, but her legs buckled beneath her. He caught her before she could slip to the ground.

“You okay?” he asked genuine worry rocketing through him. Had he been too vigorous?

“Better than okay,” Aiko reassured him as she turned in his arms to face him with a blinding smile. The smile turned into a mock-scowl as she added, “But if the kids come at us, I’m telling on you.”

“You’d really snitch on me?”

“Yup!”

“Mm. Mm. Mm.” He shook his head even as he lowered his lips down to hers. “With wives like you…”

Their lips melded into a deep, sensual kiss that pulled at his heart-strings and stirred at the embers of desire still dancing within him. His cock jerked against her tummy.

“No.” She slapped the back of her hand on his tummy and gave him a narrow-eyed glared.

Laughing, he eased away from her and grabbed the soap. This time when he set his hands to her body it was to actually get her clean. Completely pliant, she let him do all the work. Once they were both clean, he carried her out of the shower.

He set her on her feet outside the stall before grabbing a towel and patting her dry. “All dry.”

“Thank you.” Aiko lifted up for a brief kiss before leading the way out of the bathroom. “Now come on. They’ve probably already started the car.”

They’d just walked into their bedroom when her phone rang. Aiko hurried to pick it while Damián sauntered over to their vanity to grab a bottle of lotion.

“Femi, hi,” Aiko said into the phone. “I promise I’ll pass by the house in the evening. And yes, I’ll bring the-“

Damián was more focused on moisturizing his body than on the conversation between his fiancée and her sister. That changed when Aiko gasped, “Femi, what’s going on?”

He turned away from the mirror to find her listening to her sister, her eyes shadowed with worry. Even though he didn’t know what was going on, immediate concern streaked through him. With two long strides he was by Aiko’s side.

“No, tell me now,” Aiko insisted, her voice rising with her anxiety. “Is it Dad?” She was silent for a moment, listening to Femi, then her eyes widened with obvious shock. When she spoke, her voice was strangled. “What about Lincoln?”

The mention of that name was enough to awaken all of Damián’s alarms. Whatever Femi said next must’ve been extremely shocking because Aiko’s eyes widened and the cell-phone slipped out of her hold to fall to the carpeted floor with a loud thump. She looked like she was about to faint.

Damián immediately slung his arm around her waist to keep her from thudding to the ground. “Aiko, what’s wrong?”

She turned her face to him, her eyes still wide with shock, opened her mouth yet no words came.

“Baby, talk to me,” he urged. He could hear Femi calling out to Aiko from the fallen phone but he ignored it and instead focused on drawing his fiancée towards their bed. The mattress sagged under their weight as they both sat down. Keeping his arm around her, he repeated, “What’s wrong?”

She just stared at him as if frozen with shock.

“Aiko,” Femi’s voice echoed from the phone.

Perhaps she’d be able to explain what was going on. Damián leaned forward to pick up the phone then pressed it to his ear.”Femi, it’s Damián.”

“Is Aiko okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Damián nodded even as he glanced at Aiko, who was now watching him. He reached for her hand and found her fingers as cold as ice. To Femi, he said, “What’s this about Lincoln?”

“He’s at our house.” Femi’s words sent immediate shock racing through Damián and his heart jumped to his throat. No way. There was no way Lincoln was alive.

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Chapter 2


He’s at our house. Femi’s words were like a fist to Damián’s gut. His stomach muscles clenched in shock and his lungs deflated, the breath leaving his body with a whoosh, as he met Aiko’s eyes. Lincoln was alive? How was that even possible? No wonder Aiko was so stunned.

It took a while and no small amount of effort for Damián to speak into the phone. “Are you sure it’s him?”

“That’s who he says he is.” Femi paused for a moment then said, “Believe me, I’m just as shocked as you are. Lewis was going to work this morning when he found him standing in front of our gate. We thought he was lost at first, but then he asked for Aiko by name and I thought I should call you. Is Aiko okay?”

Damián started, “Yea-”

“Let – let me talk to her,” Aiko, who seemed to have recovered her voice, cut into the conversation. He handed her the phone but kept holding her hand. She said to Femi, “Are you sure it’s him?”

Damián assumed that Femi repeated the same story because after a moment of listening Aiko stood up, saying, “Okay, give me a couple of minutes and I’ll be there. Thanks.”

As soon as Aiko ended the call, Damián rose to his feet too. “You’re going to the house?”

“I have to.” She rushed towards the settee to pick up her handbag. “It’s probably just a prank but I have to confirm it.”

If this was a prank, then the person behind it was downright evil.

“Are you okay driving the girls to school yourself?” Aiko didn’t even wait for him to answer her question. Slinging the bag across her shoulder, she hurried on, “I’ll drop by school later after-”

“Easy, sweetheart. Slow down,” he cut into her words as he strode towards her. Feigning calm he didn’t feel, he rubbed his palms over her bare arms. “Let’s talk about this for a minute.”

“No. I can’t. No time.” She shrugged away his hands. “I have to go. I have to see if it’s Lincoln.”

“Okay,” he said. “But you’ll need to dress first.”

“Wha-” She glanced down to her still towel-wrapped body. “Oh. Okay. You’re right. I should wear something more appropriate.”

“Dress up, then we’ll head over to the house. The girls can-”

“No, you can’t come with me,” she interrupted. Her eyes flashed with something resembling anxiety as she added, “If it’s really Lincoln, I can’t – we can’t. He doesn’t know…” She let the sentence hang.

“He doesn’t know about me,” Damián finished for her slowly.

Lincoln not knowing about Damián was just one complication out of the many that would arise if indeed he was back. If it really was Lincoln, did it mean that Aiko would leave Damián? Was she still in love-

No. No. Stop getting ahead of yourself. Damián pulled himself back to the situation at hand. His gaze following his obviously frazzled fiancée as she headed towards the walk-in closet he acknowledged, “You’re right! It’s probably better if you go alone. But promise me something.”

Aiko stopped at the door to face him. “What?”

Damián closed the distance between them and set his hands on her bare shoulders. “That you’ll let me know how it goes. And if anything – absolutely anything – goes wrong you’ll call me.”

She nodded. “I will.”

* * * * *

IN SOME HAZY corner of her mind, Aiko was aware of everything she was doing; dressing, bidding Damián and the kids goodbye, getting into her BMW, heading to her childhood home. Yet only one phrase kept bouncing in her head. He’s alive.

Lincoln was alive.

Her heart lurched at the thought, its beat becoming louder the closer to the house she got until it felt like the organ was now residing in her throat. It was strange how one could experience fear and excitement at the same time. How hope and skepticism could co-exist in one person.

A part of her was already jumping and dancing in delight, lighting up at the thought of seeing him once again. The other part of her was still coiled in denial. It couldn’t be true. There was no way Lincoln was alive. She’d been at his funeral and wept with everyone else. Granted there’d been no body, but she’d seen Lincoln’s ashes in that blue urn before they’d spread them at False River. She’d watched her fellow soldiers fire three volleys for him then hand his folded flag to his mother, Brenda and his brother. He couldn’t be alive.

This had to be a dream – no, it had to be a nightmare. Because only nightmares could be this cruel, taunting her with hopes that were impossible to fulfill. Already, part of her was preparing itself for disappointment and sadness, preparing to mourn Lincoln again because he couldn’t be alive.

Aiko released a long breath which sounded suspiciously like a strangled sob, as she turned down the road that led to her childhood home. Hardly a minute later, she parked her car in front of the two-story colonial brownstone. For a long moment she sat in her car staring at the house, wondering if it was even wise for her to go in. Maybe she could just rev up her engine and high-tail it out of here. It would certainly save her the disappointment of going in and finding out that the ‘Lincoln’ in there was nothing more than a cruel imposter.

But what if it was him?

No. No. It couldn’t be. She just needed to walk in there, confirm it, send the imposter away, then walk back out. There was no Lincoln. Sucking in a steadying breath, she exited her car.

Her heels crunched into the gravel driveway as she made her way to the front door. As usual the door was unlocked. The moment she pushed it inwards the sound of the TV met her. Her pulse throbbing so hard she could hear it in her ears, she strode to the living room expecting to find the imposter there. However, the only people there were her father, Samuel, who was watching a cartoon, and Samuel’s nurse, Howard, who was ironing clothes on the dining table.

“Donna?” Samuel lit up the moment Aiko walked into the room. “You’re back.”

“Yes, I am.” Aiko forced a smile as she crossed the room. Acknowledging Howard with a wave, she bent to give her father a hug.

People said that of the three Vaughn daughters, she was the one who looked most like their late mother, Donna. There was obviously some truth to their assertion because ever since Samuel’s Alzheimer had shoved him into a world where reality and the past blurred he frequently mixed up Aiko with his wife.

“You said you’d only be ten minutes.” Samuel turned his wrist to check out his imaginary watch before wagging his finger at her. “It’s been almost an hour.”

“I’m sorry. Gloria kept me at her stall,” Aiko played along. “You know how chatty she can get.”

“That Gloria.” Samuel shook his head and clucked his tongue against his teeth before turning back to his cartoon. Aiko stared at him for a moment, a sad smile playing on her lips. For that moment all thoughts of Lincoln were pushed back and only thoughts of the grim reality of her father’s condition prevailed.

Considering his condition a few months ago, his being able to conduct a long, coherent conversation like this one was a miracle. That miracle was all because of Damián. Not only had Damián cleared the debts that the Vaughn’s owed to the bank allowing them to keep the home Samuel and Donna had built, he’d also taken over Samuel’s medical care. Pulling strings Aiko didn’t even know could be pulled, he’d somehow enrolled Samuel into an Alzheimer’s clinical trial meant to slow down loss of memory and improve his quality of living. So far it seemed the drug was doing its job – but time would tell. Still, Aiko was beyond grateful to Damián. If she hadn’t met him…

Immediately thoughts of Lincoln intruded back in.

Aiko turned to her father’s nurse. “Howard, Femi said there was someone here to see me.”

“Oh, you mean that shaggy-” Howard rushed to correct himself “- um – that guy who came in the morning?” When Aiko nodded, he said, “I saw him in the backyard when I went to get your Dad’s clothes. He might still be there.”

“Okay, thanks.” She bent to kiss her father’s leathery cheek before exiting the living room and the house. Once outside, she circled the house. The moment she emerged in the backyard she saw him. He was seated on the wrought-iron bench a distance from the clothes-lines with his back to the house and his face tilted up as if he was inhaling the sun.

From the back there was nothing that said he was Lincoln. Lincoln was one of the most athletic, meticulous men she knew; clothes ironed precisely, hair trimmed in a neat buzz-cut and body fine-tuned into a muscular work of art. This man was painfully thin; Even the black t-shirt he was wearing couldn’t hide how bony his arms were as they poked from the sleeves. His hair was a scraggly salt and pepper affair that looked like the badly done dreadlocks of an aging man.

Definitely not Lincoln, she decided even as she took a step forward. The sound of her footsteps shifting the grass must’ve drawn his attention because he turned his head swiftly to face her. The first thing she noted was his full beard, almost as untidy and peppered with gray hairs as the hair on his head. But then her eyes met his –

And she knew! She knew those eyes.

“Linc.” Her hands flew to her mouth just as Lincoln stood up to face her. The impact of seeing him was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Her world seemingly tilted on its axis and her stomach lurched. A weird buzzing noise started in her ears as all the neurons in her brain scrambled around trying to reconcile what she’d believed to be true for the last five years with the truth that was standing before her now. It shouldn’t have been possible. Yet it was. Lincoln was supposed to be dead. Yet he wasn’t.

His eyes lighting up with undeniable happiness, he started to limp towards her, and even without meaning to she started towards him. Then she was in his arms and he was in hers. In that moment her world righted itself as complete certainty flooded her. It was him.

It didn’t matter that his body was all skin and jutting bones as she pressed her body to his. It didn’t matter that the sharp scent of soap bit into her nostrils the moment she buried her head in the crook of his shoulders rather than the soothing cologne she was used to. It didn’t matter that he was bone and skin rather than the muscular man she’d loved. It didn’t matter that the hand he used to tilt her face upwards so that he could press a his lips to hers was missing two fingers.

It was Lincoln, and he was back.

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