in Fake Fiancée by Ilsa Madden-Mills Coming This February!
A warm summer night.
Music on the radio.
A young girl driving a red Mustang convertible.
It sounded perfect—only the evening was humid as hell, the radio was stuck on a stupid gospel station, and the car, well, it was stolen.
Chewing on my nails, I debated on pulling off to the side of the road and putting the top down, but this wasn’t a pleasure ride. Obviously. I had to get out of Snowden, North Carolina before I lost my nerve to run away.
An image of my father loomed. He’d pop a blood vessel when he discovered I’d not only stolen his car but also most of the money from his wallet. I pictured his barrel chest and the way his thick fingers clenched when he was angry. He’d be grabbing his Bible and snapping his belt up. If he found me, he’d--
I shook myself, focusing on Atlanta, Georgia. I had family there on my mom’s side, people my father refused to talk to. I’d be safe . . .
For the hundredth time, I checked the rearview mirror and saw nothing but black highway, pine trees, and mountains. No one was following me, and I hadn’t met a car in half an hour. I could almost imagine I was the only person alive in the world.
I fiddled with the radio station just as a raccoon dashed in front of me, and I swerved.
The tires locked and the car went into a tailspin. I froze up, helpless as I was pressed against the seat of my Tilt-A-Whirl. A thud. Screeching metal. The car ground to a halt against a guardrail that lined a narrow bridge.
I ran shaking hands over my face and the rest of my body. I was injury free except for my chest aching from the seatbelt catching me. No airbag had gone off and the engine was still running. Thank God. Maybe if I made it to Knoxville, I could ditch the car and buy a bus ticket to--
Everything went to hell.
The car lurched forward with a groan that sent chills up my spine as the guardrail gave in to the weight of the front end. My world tipped and then froze again. I could see the murky lake below rippling in the moonlight. I recoiled in my seat, willing the car to not move another inch.
It didn’t work.
The Mustang slipped down the rocky side, nose-dived off the edge, and slammed into the water below. I screamed the entire way down, my hands like a vise around the steering wheel.
This wasn’t happening.
I clawed at the seatbelt and unlatched it, but when I went to open the door, it refused. Water pressure blocked my way out.
Dosomethingdosomethingdosomethingdosomething . . .
The smell of algae surrounded me as water seeped in from the floorboard. It crept up my legs, my chest, my chin. I scrambled away from the cold but there was no escape. I took one last gulp of air as the vehicle sank below the surface, water gushing in through the soft top. Light as a feather, the car drifted down several feet and settled on the bottom of the lake.
I watched my blond hair float around my face.
I looked around at the watery darkness.
The car should be pressurized.
I could get out now, right?
God, I didn’t know.
I was only seventeen.
I didn’t know anything about anything!
I tugged at the door handle again. Nothing.
I tried to roll down the window, but the electric wasn’t working.
Break the windows!
I positioned my legs on the glass and shoved.
I was never getting out.
My chest burned.
My nails scrabbled at the vinyl top of the vehicle. Searching for a tear. Anything.
I closed my eyes and wished myself out of the car. I even wished myself back home in that shabby house on the side of the mountain.
Bubbles came out of my mouth.
IwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodieIwasgoingtodie . . .
Then I heard it—a tap, then a scratching sound. My eyes flew open.
The top of the Mustang moved. A small hole appeared and then grew bigger.
My heart surged.
Someone was there.
Someone was tearing into the car with a knife.
Everything went black.
Consciousness came slowly, dragging me along in bits and pieces.
Something warm touched my lips, and I coughed as pain rippled through my throat and chest. Hands turned me on my side and water gushed out.
I struggled to suck in precious air as my eyes cracked open.
Where was I?
Who had saved me?
I was lying on a shore with sand, cattails, and wild grasses. Mountain evergreens lined the perimeter.
But that wasn’t what got my attention.
A young man—or angel—huddled over me. I blinked, zeroing in on him. Even wet he was handsome with a jaw that was wonderfully chiseled, lips that were lush, and broad shoulders that looked as if they could hold the weight of the world. Water lingered on his way-too-long-to-be-real black lashes. Even in my state of shock, I recognized he was flawless.
Heavy breathing escaped his lips, and I gingerly touched my own. He’d kissed me.
It’s called mouth-to-mouth, you hillbilly.
“I thought you were dead,” he said as if he could barely believe I wasn’t. He rubbed his face briskly, pushing wet hair out of his face. “Was anyone else in the car?”
“What?” I croaked. My brain hadn’t caught up yet.
He stumbled as he stood and weaved on his feet. “Wait here. I’ll try to get them—”
“N-no,” I whispered, reaching a hand out to stop him. My voice was ragged. “Just me.”
He came back and collapsed down next to me, eyes searching my face in the darkness. “You hurt?”
I shook my head. I didn’t think so. If I was alive, I was okay. Images of the wreck flashed in my mind. Being trapped. The dark water. A shudder racked my body, and I made a guttural noise in the back of my throat I’d never heard before.
He gathered me in his arms, his hand palming my scalp. “I’ve got you. You’re safe. Shhh.” His neck smelled male and spicy, and my fingers dug into his shoulders to pull him closer. We stayed that way for a while, and after my shivering stilled, I eased back and glanced up to the bridge, noticing there weren’t any other cars.
Where had he come from on this dark and lonely night?
He’d braved the water to cut me out, and the average person wouldn’t—couldn’t—have done that. If he hadn’t been here in this exact spot when I’d gone over, I’d be dead and swimming with the fishes.
No one crosses our path without a reason. I believed this.
“You sure you’re okay?” He pushed hair out of my face, his voice incredibly gentle.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
We locked eyes, and a spark zinged from my head to my toes. One, two, three moments passed, and something—I couldn’t tell you what—fell gently into place. In the space between my near death and waking up, is it crazy to say I recognized him even though I didn’t know him? How is that even possible?
A siren wailed in the distance, pulling me back, and I visibly flinched as fear swallowed me again. The cavalry was on its way—police or an ambulance. Either way it all led back to my father and his rules. And I wasn’t going back. Ever.
Rolling out of his arms, I stumbled to my feet, grasped a nearby pine tree to steady myself, and scoured the dark forest beyond the lake. There was a town a few miles from here; maybe a phone. I grimaced as pain shot through my leg, and I touched it, finding a three-inch gash on my inner thigh. Blood dripped. It wasn’t a main artery, but I’d need to get something on it. It would probably leave a scar—another one to add to the list.
I whipped off my T-shirt, thankful I wore a bra as well as a camisole. Pulling on the neck, I ripped the Snowden High School Lions shirt into two pieces, my strength a heck of a lot stronger than I’d anticipated, probably from the high that came from nearly biting the dust. I dabbed the gash with one of the pieces then used a clean corner of it to wipe the tears from my face. The other piece I tied around my leg.
“That looks bad,” he said softly, coming closer to me with his eyebrows drawn in tightly. For the first time I noticed he was practically naked, wearing tight black briefs and nothing else. He must have ripped his clothes off to dive in. A Viking of a man, he stood well over six feet tall, his body perfectly sculpted with well-defined muscles.
Up close, I watched a droplet of water drift down his chest to his six-pack abs. I sighed. God had been using his A game when he’d created my hero.
Part of me was . . . excited. I’d never seen an almost naked guy.
I tore my gaze away from him and looked around at the picturesque shoreline and how the moonlight shimmered on the lake. Maybe I was dead and this was heaven?
The sirens inched closer, the high-pitched sound crawling up my spine.
I took a step backward, further into the woods, my foot crunching on the sound of pine needles and fallen leaves.
“Don’t run, please,” he said, raising his hands up hesitantly. He studied my face. “I know you’re scared, but I won’t let anyone hurt you. I promise.”
How did he know I was running?
Because you look like you just stole something, stupid.
I chewed on my bottom lip, contemplating what to tell him. Not the truth—that was for certain. “You didn’t see me here,” I went with, my voice still scratchy. “You never pulled me out of that car.”
“Why?” His brow knitted again. “People will be worried about you.”
“Please—just don’t tell them.” Desperation rang in my tone as I tried to convey to him everything I didn’t have time to explain.
“Wait,” he said, his warm hand brushing against mine, but then he let it fall to his side, a confused expression on his face as if he didn’t know what to make of me.
I was confused as well. And scared. Yet in the middle of those tumultuous emotions, I was drawn to him. My body hummed with an acute awareness of our proximity, and my heart thumped so loudly that I pressed my hands to my chest. I was sure he could hear it.
What was this thing between us? Adrenaline? Lust? Destiny? I didn’t know.
But I did know he sent a buzz straight to my heart.
I wished the moon had been bright enough to see the color of his eyes.
I wished I knew his name.
I wished . . . I wished fate would bring us together again, some other time, some other place.
But not today.
With one last lingering look at his face, I turned and ran into the woods.
They say nothing compares to your first kiss,
But our first kiss was orchestrated for an audience.
Our second kiss . . . that one was REAL.
He cradled my face like he was terrified he’d f*ck it up.
He stared into my eyes until the air buzzed.
Soft and slow, full of sighs and little laughs,
He inhaled me like I was the finest Belgian chocolate,
And he’d never get another piece.
A nip of his teeth, his hand at my waist . . .
And I was lost.
I forgot he was paying me to be his fake fiancée.
I forgot we weren’t REAL.
Our kiss was pure magic, and before you laugh and say those kinds of kisses don’t exist,
Then you’ve never touched lips with Max Kent, the hottest quarterback in college history.
Three months . . .
Two hearts . . .
One fake engagement . . .
She's addicted to dystopian books and all things fantasy, including unicorns and sword-wielding females. Other fascinations include frothy coffee beverages, dark chocolate, Instagram, Ian Somerhalder (seriously hot), astronomy (she's a Gemini), and tattoos.
She has a degree in English and a Master's in Education.
When she's not pecking away on her computer, she shops for cool magnets and paints old furniture.
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