Home > Kiss Hard (Hard Play #4)

Kiss Hard (Hard Play #4)
Author: Nalini Singh

 

PROLOGUE

 

 

TEN YEARS AGO…

 

 

Catie stared out the rain-washed window.

The deluge was so heavy that it blurred the outside world, turned it into a scene from a Renaissance painting she’d seen in a textbook, all soft and out of focus, but one thing was clear: it was bad out. The increasingly violent winds had half bent the trees in the yard and water was starting to collect on the lower part of the driveway.

Her heart thudded, her muscles all tight. “Dad’s fine,” she muttered, reminding herself that the last time she’d freaked out about her father, Clive, he’d been having a great time gambling it up at a casino in Sydney, Australia. It just hadn’t occurred to him to tell his teenage daughter that he was leaving the country. He’d been too excited to “meet up with an old buddy and hit the blackjack table while his luck was running hot.”

Still, her hand clenched on the phone.

The weather was worse than awful—complete with a dangerous gale-force-wind warning from the national meteorological agency—and Clive had left for his trip yesterday morning. It was now past four in the afternoon, the storm turning the world dark at the edges.

Dad, she messaged, can you message back so I know you’re okay?

No response. Not then, and not for the two hours that followed. Not even to her multiple calls. She knew he wouldn’t mind. Her father never minded anything—mostly because he just ignored stuff he didn’t want to handle.

“Catie, dear.” Martha poked her head into Catie’s room. “Come on, it’s time for dinner.” Her face was warm with love, her brown skin aglow and her black hair in loose curls that held the shine of her favored leave-in conditioner. “I made spaghetti with meatballs.”

One of Catie’s favorites. Poor Martha. Having to pick up the pieces once again—and stuck with a silent Catie. She flushed, immediately ashamed of her stressed preoccupation. “I’m sorry, Martha. I should’ve helped.”

The near-to-fifty-year-old woman deserved all of Catie’s respect. Not only because Martha had been Catie’s caregiver since the day Catie was finally discharged from the rehabilitation center two years ago, but also because she was kind and had done everything in her power to help Catie on her path to independence.

At fourteen, Catie no longer needed Martha as she had back then, but since neither Catie’s big sister nor her mother were about to chance Catie ending up alone when Clive pulled a disappearing act, Martha stayed.

Truth was, Catie would miss her so much if she left.

“You can do the dishes.” Martha walked over to ruffle Catie’s messy hair, her dark eyes heavy with worry she tried to keep from her voice. “Trust me, you’ll definitely earn your dinner scrubbing the pot.”

Catie laughed, more to ease Martha’s mind than because she felt anything beyond the knot in her gut. And though she could barely taste the dish Martha had prepared with love in her heart, she cleaned her plate.

Her phone stayed silent throughout, and the knot… it grew and grew until she had no room in her stomach for anything but fear. Clive had taken off plenty of times, but he usually messaged her back within a few hours. She’d been very clear with him after the Sydney thing.

“I’m your kid,” she’d pointed out in a calm tone she’d practiced in her room—because Clive blanked if anyone got too emotional. “I need to know my dad is safe.”

Catie didn’t expect Clive to be like her friend Laveni’s dad—a jovial and warm presence who came to school meetings and drove her places and scowled at boys who wanted to hang out with her. Catie had Issie for that; her sister was the best and even more protective than Veni’s papa. But Catie did expect Clive not to scare her.

That was normal, wasn’t it? She loved Martha but knew that Martha had her own daughter and a grandchild on whom she doted; Catie tried not to ask for anything from her beyond what was in her duties. When it came to family, Catie only had Clive and Issie. Okay, she had the Dragon, aka Jacqueline, too, but her mother—who’d married and then divorced Clive within a few short years—didn’t really like to spend time with her children.

Ísa was the one to whom Catie went with her problems and questions. Ísa’s husband was pretty neat, and he treated Catie like family too. So yeah, she had him as well. That was four people. Plenty enough. But only one was her dad, and she didn’t know what she’d do if anything happened to him.

The knot was a rock by now, her throat all choked up.

Bedtime came without any reply from Clive, though Veni messaged her a pic of a cute boy she liked from school—he wore glasses, played chess rather than sports, and was almost as smart as Veni.

Catie answered her friend with a heart eyes emoji, then took a deep breath and began calling hospitals to check if Clive had been in an accident. She still had a kid’s voice, so the busy people who answered the phones were nice to her where they might not have been as welcoming to an adult.

“Oh, honey,” one nurse said. “Is there no trusted adult who can do this for you?”

Yes, she thought. Issie would help her in a heartbeat. So would Martha. But Martha should’ve been off-shift before dinner today. Catie had apologized for that and said it was okay if she wanted to clock out. At fourteen, it was no longer illegal for Catie to be left alone at home.

Scowling at the very idea, Martha had kissed her on the cheek and said, “Not on my watch, hon. You’re a child, not an adult. And Jacqueline pays me triple when I work overtime, so I’m doing just fine.”

Catie hadn’t argued, though she knew full well that Martha had been planning to have dinner with her daughter’s family. As for Catie’s big sister… Catie didn’t want Ísa to know how bad Clive had begun to act. She was scared her sister would try for custody out of worry for Catie. But though Catie loved Issie more than anyone else in the whole world, she couldn’t leave her dad.

Clive would be devastated by her defection. He wouldn’t eat properly, wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t make any good choices at all. Because though he was a bad father, he loved Catie in his own mixed-up way.

“No,” she said to the nurse who’d asked if anyone could help her. “My dad’s usually the one who’d handle things.” That was a full-on lie. Clive was the least responsible person she knew; the only reason their bills got paid was that Issie had set them up as direct automatic payments—it hadn’t always been that way, but then Clive had taken off with the bill money one time and the electricity company had almost cut them off. The money came from the dividend account Jacqueline had established for her children—an account Clive could never access.

Their mother was rich, but even rich women wouldn’t want to support their ex-husband. “I’m not supporting him,” the Dragon had said coolly the one time Catie brought up the topic. “I’m supporting my daughter. Leaving him penniless would affect you, and for all his faults, he’s a loving father.”

Loving but unreliable. Yet Jacqueline had given him custody of Catie. Which made Catie think that a big part of the reason Jacqueline didn’t mind footing the bills was because she saw it as a fair trade for not having to raise a child.

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