Eliza Jackson’s Prologue

Cinderhart Academy’s barn roof appears up ahead through the trees, and I let out a small sigh. Today’s outride was so relaxing, I don’t want it to end. 
But good things never last, do they? 
My mouth thins at the sour thought, and I lean forward to stroke Moxie’s mane as we start descending, our path taking a gentle curve through the paper birch trees that forest this region. 
These outrides won’t last either. Nim Winters has been keeping Knox and his friends busy the past few weeks, but that’s bound to change. And when it does, Knox will be hogging Moxie like he used to. 
Selfish prick. 
I huff out a hard breath as tension worms its way back into my shoulder blades. What’s the point of a relaxing ride if I’ve undone all its benefits before I dismount? 
My mouth twists. 
Knox. Mason. Nim. 
I know hating her is irrational. She’s never actually done anything to me. But it’s not about her. Never has been. 
Before she arrived, living on the same campus as Mason and Knox was bearable. I ignored them, they ignored me. We arrived here as freshmen, and this will be our last year together. 
One more year, and I’d be free. I’d never have to look at Knox’s smug face and instantly think of Amy. Of how he’d make her laugh. How much she loved him. 
He’s rubbing it in my face with Nim, making a show of just how little Amy meant to him. It makes sense–that’s why he never looked guilty after she disappeared. Because she meant nothing to him. I don’t know what he was using her for, but I knew he didn’t love her nearly as much as she did him. 
I tried to warn her. 
She wouldn’t listen. Amy was fucking smitten with that prick. And I was too distracted to notice. Mason was my world back then. It was all so easy…so picture perfect. Amy was the glue that held it all together. When she disappeared, everything fell apart. 
My life fell apart. 
Nim Winters reminds me of what I lost. Of what I had. 
I don’t know what I hate about her more. The fact that she looks even better with shorter hair, or that she came to forgive me the other day. 
Forgive me?! 
Did Knox train her how to be smug? And now I hear she’s actually a Hart or some shit? That her name’s been changed? 
What a fucking joke. 
It’s all a joke. 
This academy, the students, this fucking town. I loved Cinderhart with every fiber of my being…but it’s turned against me. 
What the hell I was fighting for? Why in the fuck did I try so hard to be perfect when all it took was- 
Twigs snap behind me. I spin around in my saddle, drawing Moxie up with a sharp tug on the reins. The mare flicks her head, annoyed with my aggressive cues, but the animal knows who’s in charge…and it’s not her. 
My heart gives an uneasy pulse inside my chest as I scan the forest, but see nothing. It was probably just a squirrel or something. 
I spur Moxie with a kick in the guts, the horse dancing forward as she snorts. 
“Yeah, I’m not a good mood either anymore,” I mutter to her. 
We’re a few hundred yards away from the barn when someone lunges out from behind a tree and grabs Moxie’s bridle, bringing us to a halt. Between my gasp and Moxie’s surprised whinny, I don’t know who’s more surprised, me or the horse. My heart leaps into my throat as I stare down at the tall, broad-shouldered boy who seized us. 
“Morning, Miss Jackson,” he says. 
No, not a boy. He’s a year or two older than me, maybe a little more. It’s hard to tell with the baseball cap rammed so low on his head. 
“Let go of my horse!” I tug on Moxie’s reins, but he’s holding her in just the right place, rendering my cues useless. Either this guy got lucky, or he knows something about horses. 
“Last I checked, Moxie belongs to the Academy,” he says, grinning at me from around a matchstick. 
A matchstick? Where the hell did this hick come from? 
“Who are you? What are you doing out here?” 
His smile inches up. “Why, I’m looking for you, Miss Jackson.” 
The way he says my name makes my skin crawl. He plucks the matchstick from his lips, tossing it over his shoulder before running that same hand over Moxie’s flank. I move my knee back, keeping away from his touch, but there’s only so far I can go before risking an unexpected dismount. 
He tips his head back, a pair of unsettlingly vibrant green eyes peering up at me. He’s handsome, in a rugged way. Not the way I prefer. I like my men clean shaven and beautiful. This oaf looks like his preferred method of wooing a girl is dragging her back to his cave…by her hair. 
“You’re prettier than they said you’d be,” he says. 
Fuck. This. 
I kick at the guy’s grinning face, but he steps back so quickly that my leg soars through the air without making contact. 
Balance gone, I tip over to the side. Clawing at the saddle and the reins doesn’t help–I have too much momentum. 
The guy could have caught me. I’d have punched and kicked and struggled, but he could have caught me. Instead, he lets me fall to the ground, my ass thumping onto the frozen soil so hard that my teeth clack together and the breath whooshes out of my lungs. 
Moxie whinnies, side stepping, and I almost land under one of her hooves. But thank god for all the years I’ve played volleyball, because I find enough strength to shove myself up onto my feet before the horse can trample me. 
I’m not fast enough to outrun Mr. Grin though. I make it to the first tree before he grabs my hair and slams me into the trunk. 
I barely have time for a gasp of pain before he flings me around and presses me against the rough bark. His hand is still in my hair, and instead of defending myself, I have my fingers locked around his wrist like a fucking idiot. 
When I punch him, he grunts. And then he grabs both my wrists and locks them between my breasts before inching in. 
He’s too close for me to kick. I could try and headbutt him, but as if he’s reading my mind he decides to lean back again, studying me. 
I scream. 
Just for the hell of it. I know we’re too far away from the barns for someone to hear me. 
“Strong lungs,” he muses, giving me a more considering once-over. “They said you were feisty.” 
They. 
“Who sent you?” I mutter, doing my level best not to let my lips tremble in anger because I already know who he’s going to name.

“The Serpents.” His black eyebrows quirk up, another smile stretching his mouth. “They send their regards, by the way.” 
I struggle, knowing it’s useless. I swear at him, knowing he won’t care. 
And he watches with this strangely fascinated glint in his eye, like he couldn’t believe this game was going to be so much fun. 
Moxie, the peanut-brained whore, is chewing on a shrub nearby. And the only reason she could be so calm after this ogre giving her such a fright, means…

“You work at the Academy,” I say slowly, struggling not to look into the man’s eyes. They’re hypnotic, but I can’t decide if it’s because of their intensity, or the fact that he has me pinned to a tree in the middle of the woods, no one around to stop him from–
From what, Eliza? 
My insides go cold. 
“Clever one, aren’t you?” The side of his mouth crooks up. “But not very observant.” 
My mind scrambles, but I can’t for the life of me remember if I’ve ever seen this man before. “What is your name?” 
“Oh, darling, you won’t know it,” he says, and his grin seems to suggest he’s okay with that. 
“So I’ll just call you oaf, then?” 
He tsks me, dark lashes framing his eyes as he narrows them to slits. “They said you like calling people names. That’s not a very nice thing to do, is it, Miss Jackson?” 
“I’ve seen your face. I don’t need your name to report you to–” 
“It’s Max. Max Alexander.” 
I lick my lips, drawing Max’s eyes. I don’t like the way his gaze feels when it touches my mouth. “Alexander? Are you from out of town?” 
Max throws back his head and laughs. If I still had any doubts that we’re well and truly alone, that I’m well and truly fucked then that rich belly laugh would have set me straight. 
“I might as well be,” he says, when his twinkling green eyes touches mine again. He drops his gaze to my mouth, and I can’t stop myself licking my lips again. When he looks up, there’s a heat in those emerald irises that makes me squeeze my thighs together in foreboding. “My folks used to live in Outbye. Do you even know where that is?” 
My stomach sinks. Outbye is Cinderhart’s industrial area, a place crammed with warehouses and factories and homeless people. 
“When you say, ‘lived’ in Outbye, you mean on the street, right?” I sniff, lifting my chin. It’s past time this oaf got what he deserved. When I get back to the campus, I’ll go straight to Dean Rigby’s office and file a complaint. Then I’ll have him call up the Sheriff and–
Max laughs again. That same glimmer is in his eyes, like he’s having the time of his fucking life. He squeezes my wrists together in one big, rough hand, and trails the knuckle of his other down my cheek. 
“I’m afraid I don’t have much time with you today, Miss Jackson, so I’ll have to be off. But it’s been an absolute pleasure making your acquaintance.” 
“You filthy excuse for a human being,” I spit out, despite the fact that Max smells freshly scrubbed and doesn’t even have dirt under his fingernails. “Do you think you’re just going to walk away? I hope you saved whatever pittance of a wage they were paying you for mucking out the stables, because when I get back to–“
“So you do remember me,” Max says, his smile widening to reveal a row of glossy white teeth. 
This man has me completely befuddled. He claims he’s from the poorest part of town, but his English is excellent, he smells better than most of the guys in my Accounting class, and when he smiles…
“Oh, I remember you, Max Alexander,” I growl out. “I remember every clogged pore and–“
He cuts me off with a growl of his own, and then slams into me, driving every last molecule of air from my lungs when his lips crush against mine. 
For a second, I just stand there, letting him kiss me. I’m too shocked to stop him. 
I don’t want to stop him. 
But then reason pounds into my mind and I tear my mouth away from his, gasping for breath. 
He grabs my chin, wrenching my head back to face him. My knees are suddenly shaking, a warmth spreading down through my belly. 
Oh God, is he going to kiss me again? My lips part as a breath shivers out between them. 
“I’ve been sent to teach you some manners, Miss Jackson,” Max says. “Lesson one. Don’t be rude.” His mouth crooks ups on one side. “Not unless you’re willing to pay the price.”
“Price?” I clear my throat, wishing I hadn’t just heard myself squeak like a frightened mouse. “You want money?” 
And dear God, that’s when Max grinds himself against me, and I can feel the ridge of his dick press into me. “No, Miss Jackson. I’ve already been paid for my services. The price you’ll pay, however, is much steeper.” 
He releases my hands and steps back, whipping his baseball cap off his head. Thick black hair flops over his forehead before he shoves it under his cap again.
Unbidden, my eyes move down his body, to the thick ridge straining against his pants.  
Max grabs his cock through the fabric, giving himself a squeeze as I watch. I shudder, my eyes fluttering in panic as I lock gazes with him. 
“Down, boy,” he murmurs. “We’re not going anywhere near Miss Jackson’s cunt today.” Then he tilts his head to the side, giving me a curious smile. “If she behaves herself.” 
I push away from the tree, trying to ignore how my legs shake. 
“Go on,” Max says, when I hesitate. “Get on your horse and ride that pretty ass back to the Academy. Quick, before I change my mind.” 
I yelp out in surprise when he lunges at me and catches hold of my wrist. But thank God, he doesn’t pull me close, or press me back up against the tree. He just steps up behind me, and whispers in my ear. 
“One last thing, Miss Jackson.” 
I close my eyes, gulping down the lump in my throat when his lips tickle the outside of my ear. “The Serpents…they gave me a list of the things you did. Bad things. Things you’ll have to pay for, one way or the other.” 
A finger trails down my spine, ghostly shivers chasing it. 
“Do you believe people can change, Miss Jackson?” 
I roll my lips together, my lungs hitching. 
“I hope so,” Max murmurs. “Truly, I do. Else, what’s left for someone like you?” His lips brush my ear–this time in a soft kiss. “For someone like me?”  
I don’t think I’ve ever mounted a horse as fast as I do right then. If I wouldn’t have been risking breaking Moxie’s legs, I’d have spurred her into a fucking gallop. 
My hands white-knuckled on the reins, I force myself not to look back until I’ve reached the barn. And only then do I exhale. 
The stable hands give me double takes when I ride into the barn and stay on top of Moxie. One of them hesitantly approaches until I throw a sharp look in the direction of the nearby mounting block. If my legs hadn’t been shaking so badly, I wouldn’t have needed their help to dismount. Normally, I’d snap at them. Call them idiots, or peasants. 
But as soon as my mouth opens, I hear Max’s voice in my ear. 
Do you believe people can change, Miss Jackson? 
One stable hand lets out a nervous laugh when I thank him and ask him to give Moxie a brush down for me. All of them stare at me in shock as I leave.
I stand at the threshold of the barn, staring into the woods from the direction I rode in, my heart pounding in my chest. 
I don’t see him, but that doesn’t mean he’s not there. 
Watching. 
Waiting. 
I swallow hard, and look at the path leading back to the campus. Then I turn to scan the interior of the barn. 
There are no students around. 
I could ask one of the stable hands to walk me back to the campus, but I don’t dare coming off as weak to anyone. I’ve never felt this alone before, not even the day I realized Amy was never coming back.
Huh. I guess I’m not all alone. Max is out there, somewhere. 
I bite the inside of my lip as I make myself walk down the path. I had plans to seek out Nim today, to ask her who the fuck she thinks she is, going around spreading rumours about being a Hart. I may even have had a plan to douse her with a carefully placed bucket of black paint. 
Now I’m wondering if Max would somehow find out. What if the Serpents have him on speed dial? Even out here, with this place’s shitty reception, they could get a message through to the stranger from Outbye. 
No, not a stranger, Eliza. 
You’ve probably seen him a hundred times. You just never bothered to look.
 
I glance over my shoulder, my arms wrapped around myself like I’m cold. 
Guess it’s time I got off my high horse. It might even be time to accept that I can’t change the past. My life will never be the same after Nim Winters arrived in Cinderhart, but maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe I can learn to live with it.

Because what’s the alternative? My body is a wreck after that brief encounter with Max. I can’t tell if I’m terrified, exhilarated, or downright horny. I haven’t had time for anything but revenge since Amy disappeared.

What would it feel like to take a break from that non-stop toxicity? Is it even possible?

All I know is that I can’t risk another meeting with Max Alexander.

Something tells me the next time I see him, I’m going to regret it.

Maybe people can change. 
Even someone like me.

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